Photo: Chris Sikich

Interview: Buck Meek – “Writing these songs was a process of understanding my own capacity for resiliency and transcendence above loss”

Buck Meek is no stranger to isolation. Following seven years in New York City, he moved to a cabin in Topanga Canyon, California, located north of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica mountains. This wasn’t as a result of the current pandemic; it came after the intense 2018 sessions bore Big Thief’s critically acclaimed albums U.F.O.F and Two Hands and the following tours that included multiple rounds of North America and Europe.

Meek saw the move to California as a new chapter in his life and, naturally, new music came along, too. “The songs we’re just a process of coming into a new skin,” Meek told me via our phone conversion, where we discussed his second solo record Two Saviors, out this week on Keeled Scales. The album was recorded back in July 2019 with initial plans for release in July 2020, but was pushed back due to Covid-19.

Below is the rest of my conversation with Meek, where talk about the recording process of Two Saviors, select songs from the album, and surfing in California.

It sounds like a lot of these songs are about pain and healing, and I wanted to know if you could speak more to that, the themes underlying this album.

Writing these songs was a process of understanding my own capacity for resiliency and transcendence above loss, and kind of writing my own guide through that process and trying to use that energy to create something new, which is something we all do I think in our lives. Human history is just like this history of loss and life, and I was writing most of these songs from that place, trying to integrate the losses of my life and challenges into something young and innocent and beautiful.

You worked with Big Thief’s regular producer Andrew Sarlo again for this album. It seems like he had some very specific conditions in terms of recording Two Saviors, in that he wanted to limit the recording process to a week. Was there any particular reason behind those time restraints?

I think its central philosophy was trying to limit us as much as possible, to elucidate our instincts. To put us in a place where we were forced to react to each other in a moment, in a flash, without preconceived ideas or without any time to fall into any patterns of minutia or perfectionism. To try to just uncover the songs in the most natural way. I think he trusted the songs, and he trusted the players — he trusted my band members and their innate abilities and their ears and their sense of attention — enough to put us in a very, almost volatile, space where we just had very little time, where we had to fly by the seat of our pants and to see what would come from that in the most living way.

How did you feel about that constraint? Did you feel any pressure to knock things out? Or were you just going with it and just having a good time?

On the contrary, I felt an immense relief from that limitation because it just took so much weight off of us. The inherent human instinct is to perfect, especially with the vulnerability of the creative process; recording your own voice or your instrument onto tape with the understanding that those will be heard and reflected back to you — it’s a really vulnerable process. When you have the option and the capability to spread out and to attempt to perfect something or achieve this concept of perfection or this construct of something that’s fully realized, in my experience, you just go further and further and further from the core of what it is you’re trying to say or play. So, I felt a huge relief in that there wasn’t for that at all, there was just time to have coffee and to play the song.

Sarlo structured it so we would wake up and we would do almost like a set of the songs. We’d play the song once through each, maybe twice at the most if we messed up, but we would basically play a set of music in the morning and then we would take like a seven-hour siesta, and then we’d come back after dinner and we’d record another set of music.

So, things were moving so fast we never had a time to even reflect on how we’d play a song. That lack of self-reflection was so much easier than any recording session that I’ve ever been a part of. I left the session feeling more energized than when I started, which in most cases, in my experience, recording can be deeply exhausting on a spiritual level. It’s so powerful in that way, too — it could be very cathartic to make a record and to self-reflect to that degree and it can also be a very valuable process — but this one felt so easy.

That does sound like a pretty interesting process. I can imagine if you’re doing a set and then taking a break and then going through it all at night, I can see how those days would kind of fly by. What was it like hearing all of the takes once you got wrapped up with that week of recording and got to hear everything? What were your initial thoughts?

It was really joyful. It felt like hearing the recordings for the first time, almost as if we hadn’t played them, as if we were almost listening to something outside of our own bodies. I think because so much of our time was spent together as friends, we could laugh and share stories and spend time together as human beings really, and the recording almost happened amidst that as a secondary. I think that’s the very thing that was captured, and that’s what we heard back at the end of the week. This very joyful and, I suppose, kind of genuine expression of our love for each other and for the songs themselves.

One of the highlights of the records is “Pareidolia”, and, actually, I’d never heard of this word before, ‘pareidolia’. I found that to be a really interesting, and beautiful word. Where did you hear that word, and why did that particularly stick with you?

Well, I was actually playing that game. I was laying on the grass, playing that game where you name the clouds and I asked my friend “what is the name of this game?” because I realized I didn’t have a name for that game. It’s just something that I had always done, that we’ve all done. My friend didn’t know the name of the game so I went home and looked through the dictionary to try to find some word to put to that, and that was the best thing I could come up with.

I’m just fascinated by that phenomenon in the human psyche, to put symbol to form and to stimulus and draw these connections. It just got me thinking about the roots of religion and spirituality and mythology and the whole deal. It’s all tied to that same instinct, I think.

Yeah, absolutely, there is always an instinct for us as humans to try to find meaning and try to connect things. I feel like that’s even more urgent this year than ever in terms of the pandemic and politics. There are so many things going on right now, and that urgency has never been more palatable to drive more meaning.

In the single “Second Sight”, you’re kind of referencing yourself working for free, the other people in the song are charging for something, and I found that to be a really interesting contrast. It sounds like it’s going back to some of the things we already talked about — deriving meaning and not necessarily there being an economic value to something.

I suppose it was just another exercise in trying to understand the dichotomy between the elements of exchange versus charity, which is such a wide spectrum. It’s so relative at the same time because exchange can come in so many currencies. It just raises the question in my mind — is charity even a currency in itself? In contributing to the human consciousness or contributing to the collective, it’s also something that you benefit from in return, or at least people who follow you will benefit in return. I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants, I still don’t even understand what the song means: it was really like a question I was asking myself when writing it. But I do believe the world we live in is built by that labor of love. Every moment of our lives creating something and contributing to the whole is what led up to the structure we are able to exist in now.

There are a couple of shorter songs like “Ham On White” and “Pocket Knife”. They stuck out to me just in their brevity and the emotional breadth that you were able to capture. “Ham On White”, the lyrics, in particular, I just found really specific yet very fascinating. 

That line is just an exercise in pure drama, just melodramatic humor almost. It’s just a joke more or less. With “Ham On White”, I was just trying to express the humor in — I have a friend who is very protective with her snacks, she will hide a bag of potato chips in a drawer and if she catches anybody snagging she truly gets upset. I just find that to be so funny.

“Pocket Knife” was written just in a flash of emotion and a sense of morality. It was an exercise in trying to capture the physical environment that was providing the context for an emotional experience I was going through in hopes that that will provide the space for a listener to inhabit that emotion. I suppose I’m often driven by the potential for a physical environment to be illuminated through a song and actually provide elements — the sound, the light, the time of day, the weather, and smell — an environment in which – when done with a certain amount of direction and a gentle push – can kind of provide context for an emotional experience for a listener to inhabit fully. So that song was really like a literal documentation of my physical environment and my emotional experience in that particular moment. And it couldn’t be any longer, that was enough.

I know this has been a year unlike any other in our lifetimes — what else have you been doing since quarantine to keep yourself busy?

For the first time in many years, I’ve had the opportunity to really practice the guitar. Really since I was in music school because I’ve been touring so constantly and making records and playing in bands and creating new music on a guitar, but I haven’t really had the time to dig into and practice and develop a daily ritual with a guitar. I’ve been diving as deep as I can into country guitar, understanding how to mimic the pedal steel and playing the old-timers like Roy Nichols and Chet Atkins and trying to dig into that. I’ve also been surfing every day, living just 10 minutes from Topanga Point, and just spending a lot of time in the ocean.

That’s awesome. Have you always known how to surf, or is it something that’s come up more recently?

The first time I surfed was in college. I went up to Maine and surfed in a freezing rain storm with my buddy Kyle, and just got completely pummeled. I surfed again in New Zealand a few years ago on tour and it completely blew my mind. It was one of the reasons why I moved to California, so I could develop a practice with the ocean. I’m still very new in the greater scheme. I’ll be learning for the rest of my life. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s become very important to me. 

I grew up near the Jersey Shore so the ocean was always something very important to me. I hopped around over the years and honestly one of the reasons why I wanted to move to the Northwest, I did miss the water. I was in Colorado for many years before making the move out here. I used to be a big swimmer, I can’t say I am these days, but just being around water and being around everything that’s so green, it’s such a beautiful change of pace and I realized how much I actually missed it.

Right on, have you spent much time in the ocean up there?

I’ve thought about getting a wetsuit and starting to swim more often. It seems like that would be the best way to go about it.

Oh yeah. There are so many beautiful rivers up there too. The mountains, the Cascades.

Are you optimistic about 2021 and the months ahead?

As challenging as this year has been for everyone, I do believe it’s probably positive and beneficial for everyone to slow down and self-reflect. Part of the reason it’s so hard is because it’s terrifying to really sit with yourself and to be isolated and to let your real priorities boil to the surface. I think humankind will find a new strength through that process. I’m also really excited to hear the music and see the work that’s been made over the months, because I know some people have just been left with nothing else than their work and finding a sense of purpose and through whatever their work is. I’m sure there will be some sense of evolution once all of this is done.

Have there been any 2020 records that have captured your attention?

My friend twain put out a record called Days of Effort and Ease that he made in isolation at the beginning of quarantine at his apartment. He played all of the instruments himself and I think many of the songs were written in that time. That record is really deep. He’s one of my heroes of songwriting, this is such a beautiful record. Also, Duff Thompson’s new record Haywire has been really waking me up. I just listen to Michael Hurley most constantly, all of the time, all of his old records.

After this record comes out, do you have any plans now for in terms of live streams? I know live music and touring are still gonna be a ways away. Anything more immediately to get this record out there?

I think I am going to go to New York City to meet my band and record a live concert that will be streamed. We’re just planning that now.

Do you miss New York at all?

Yeah, I miss New York every day. I miss the intimacy which is, so many people, so many strangers. It really does feel like the center of the world. Yeah, I miss that friction, but I think it’s healthy for me to be in the mountains right now. Things are more balanced here even though I long for New York. Just being there gives you a sense of human purpose.

Buck Meek’s new album Two Saviors arrives this Friday, January 15, via Keeled Scales. You can find him on Facebook, Bandcamp, Twitter and Instagram.