Big Thief’s Endless Journey

It is roughly 95 degrees in Brooklyn on a Thursday in July, and Big Thief have been squeezed into their Ford cargo van for over three hours. The band has just finished the second half of a long drive from a tour stop in Chicago, where they headlined an outdoor show in Millennium Park. Yet they decide we should have lunch on the garden patio of the small Park Slope bistro Albero rather than inside, though none of the other patrons are risking it. Lead singer and co-songwriter Adrianne Lenker, clad in a sleeveless shirt and wide, flat-brimmed Carhartt hat, makes sure everyone is sufficiently hydrated by filling and refilling everyone’s glass from the table’s corked carafe.

There is a short window of time to eat before Big Thief are set to play another very summery gig, opening for a stacked bill of talent from their label, Saddle Creek, in Prospect Park, just a half-mile away. (Conor Oberst’s soundcheck is scheduled as we speak.) Their manager has separately stressed to all of us the importance of the band arriving on time, as if tardiness due to distraction is a not-infrequent issue for them.

Once I start talking to the band, it’s easy to see why he might be concerned. Consisting of Lenker, guitarist/vocalist Buck Meek, drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Max Oleartchik, Big Thief are a group of people that radiate modesty, inquisitiveness, and self-control. They are calm and gentle enough to make any less-resilient, neurotic person outright nervous. They also like to talk: about anything from the genesis of one of their emotionally trenchant songs to precepts of Buddhist belief to botany. As we order salads and pasta, our conversation about the perils of touring and the Brooklyn DIY scene that nurtured them pools out into a lengthy, intensely hypothetical discussion, which ends up in the group debating what music would be like in a tensionless world, or even whether it would exist at all. No one seems to be watching the clock.

The four have been living together in the van parked in front of the restaurant for months straight, and they will spend the rest of the year on the road too, probably without being able to upgrade to a bus. (“We don’t talk about buses in the van,” Krivchenia jokes.) The band is in the first stage of promoting of their sophomore album Capacity, a collection of folk-tinged rock songs about romance, trauma, childhood wonder, and wanderlust that is a huge step forward for their artistry.

Big Thief is a perfect example of the self-made independent rock band in our current age: committed to an all-consuming, tour-based lifestyle, steeped in a deep myriad of grass-roots connections to indie-rock acts of all makes and profiles, and leading a very different life than many bands of their stature did even less than five years ago. There is rarely cordoned-off time for the band to take refuge in some luxurious or remote locale to write because they are always adding new shows. Only one member of the band has a permanent residence outside of the van (Oleartchik still holds down a lease in Brooklyn with his partner). And still, though Capacity only came out in June, the band was playing brand-new material on the weekend of its release, at an intimate Northside Festival show in the Park Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“I really do feel like there are three different art forms happening all at once: recording, playing live and performing, and writing,” Lenker explains. “And I feel like they run on their own tracks, at once. We can be working on performing the songs on Capacity, developing a relationship with them live, and with our audience through those songs. That could take us two years to bring to life. But meanwhile, we’re writing and recording completely different songs. But it’s not like, ‘Shit, we have to tour Capacity, and our creative space is elsewhere.’”

By Lenker’s account, there were only very subtle changes in process between the two albums, but the music demonstrates a clear progression. 2016’s Masterpiece hemmed to clearer folk-rock instincts. There were less dynamics and more tattered guitar solos. On Capacity, the melodies are even more indelible, the lyrical scenes just a bit more devastating and claustrophobic, and the arrangements more delicately shaped. The album is peppered with gestures from an assorted, all-American mix of stylistic reference points: There are songs that come across like sludgy versions of Carter Family ballads (the title track) and warped takes on early-20th century parlor music (“Mary”).

Currently though, Big Thief are already entering into Phase 3: working out a compendium of new material, and finding new, ingenuous ways to write together as their schedule increasingly brims over with obligations and big opportunities—a world tour that will take them to Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, and tracking songs with longtime hero Jeff Tweedy at The Loft in Chicago, as well as opening for Wilco on a smattering of summer dates. Lenker says the group now writes in “basically any nook of time when there is some level of stillness or some level of quiet, and were not completely deflated or exhausted. It’s just fitted around everything right now. The good thing is that when the time comes, we’re desperate enough.” Often, she says, the band will “work on new songs without instruments, with just our minds–just like singing our parts” while on tour.

Despite their overstuffed, increasingly non-private lives, the members of the band are nothing but upbeat about the routine, as well as the path that has brought them to where they are now. They recall few truly trying times during their formative days in New York. Each of them sketch formulas for the ways in which optimism and perseverance can amount to positive results, an attitude that is fairly uncommon for artists who eked out space for themselves in a city in which cost of living and competition for space (both at home and on bills) is so dire.

“There was definitely a sharpness to [the NYC scene],” Buck Meek admits serenely, “but just because everyone was just trying to realize their own visions.”

It does seem, by anyone’s metric, that Big Thief got really lucky, as in any Brooklyn success story, but especially with finding each other. By Lenker’s account, she met Meek on her first day in New York in a bodega. Quickly, the two started playing together as an acoustic duo, and found a welcoming network in Brooklyn. There were loose prior connections, too: Though they didn’t know each other at the time, Lenker, Meek, and Krivchenia all attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“Adrianne and I were making music for fun for about a year in a warehouse she was living in and on the stoop of my apartment in Bed Stuy, playing wherever it would take us,” Meek explains, recalling their early days in New York as a folk duo, playing anything from sparsely-attended backroom shows in Manhattan’s multi-stage Rockwood Music Hall complex to “Bushwick house shows.”

Big Thief’s first important booster, Krivchenia explains, was one of their heroes, Here We Go Magic’s Luke Temple. Temple is a prolific singer-songwriter, even outside of his best-known work with that band in the early 2010s. Like Big Thief until fairly recently, he’s a testament to the success and storied reputation indie-rock artists can maintain without high levels of media support, bolstered by the admiration of bands and fans in their general scene. His clever baroque-pop instincts and muted, propulsive arrangements have a lot in common with Big Thief’s own musical lexicon. Here We Go Magic’s drummer heard Lenker and Meek, as an acoustic duo, at a show in New York. Separately, the band’s booking agent had separately seen them in his hometown and expressed an interest in working with them. Temple eventually agreed to let the band support Here We Go Magic on a tour.

“I really value connections like that,” Lenker explains. “Not just something blowing up on the internet and going viral, and all this hype created. To me, it’s a slow build of handshakes and hugs and moments of awkwardness, all experienced together with hands so that every person who comes into contact with the music–creating an actual relationship that’s not based on an image, or idea, or intangible thing.”

Meek finishes her sentence. “Yeah–feelings, instinct, love and time. I can trace back the moments of connection that led us to where we are. That can go in any direction. [They] all came from live shows.”

Lenker does admit that the proverbial “scene” in New York City feels like it’s growing more troubled by the week. Venues are constantly folding, including the late Manhattan Inn, a cozy Brooklyn venue with a big white piano where Big Thief got its start as a duo. There, Lenker and Meek shared bills with friends’ bands; we discuss two of them, Star Rover and Wilder Maker. “That was the crew right there,” Meek said. “I used to be there almost every night.”

“I have this fantasy that, like: what if us and all of our friends were only doing gigs that we want?” Oleartchik cuts in. He gestures to the waitress who has just left. “No one is serving salad if they don’t want to. How would that effect the bands or music, if everything is okay–if there’s no angst or stress?”

On tour, there are several other unofficial group regimens other than the kind of theoretical conversations they slip into over lunch. There’s a series of Big Thief-patented exercises that the band tries to do together in the mornings, as well as a mysterious ritual of affirmation that they meet 20 minutes before showtime. (“At the very least, we try to find five minutes just to hold each other,” Lenker says). For long van rides, there’s a constant playlist of albums. When a break from music was needed on “hour nine” of a drive a couple of nights ago, Meek explains, Lenker requested interviews by some of their heroes: Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, about 10 years before his death.

“This interviewer, she was pretty like, blunt and I would say even a bit rude, in her style. One of the things she brought up to [Leonard Cohen] was ‘Do you struggle with depression?’” Lenker explains. “He said ‘Well, honestly, I feel like it’s a bit of a confession but yeah,’ and she said ‘Well do you ever fear that the music will suffer if you lose your own suffering?’ He said he doesn’t believe that.”

“He said, ‘The music is the triumph over suffering,’” Krivchenia added.

“When you’re really in that state of clinical depression, you wouldn’t really be able to move sometimes,” Lenker said. “I’ve been in those states before. To even express something about what you’re going through would be impossible. So the idea that you’re actually singing about it in some form is like a triumph. Often my favorite music is from artists who are in touch with the witnessing or observing part of themselves, that aren’t necessarily just reactive….coming from this very universal perspective of the objective witness.”

One could assume as much from listening to Lenker’s own lyrics. Her writing feels poetically disciplined and astute beyond her 26 years, sketching picturesque details and implying pathos without narrowing the focus, or spelling out the moral of the storym too restrictively. The real-life roots of her unusual perspective have been reported, especially in a revelatory Pitchfork piece from earlier this year: She was born into a religious cult in Indiana, moved around the country erratically, and subsequently groomed to be a teen pop star by her songwriter father. Despite the resulting trauma, the sloppy moves, and some forced teenage recording sessions, Lenker’s love of music persisted. She found a way to write songs that was cathartic and manageable for her, and it’s changed as she’s come into her own as a live performer.

“I try to write in a way that allows for fluidity, because I can anticipate playing them all the time,” Lenker tells me. “As we play [songs], our relationship to them changes and deepens as it becomes not just ours but the audience. Certain songs will mean something to me at one point and then something totally different now that a whole bunch of people are sharing them.”

As soon as we’re deep into the park, out of the van and loaded in, the band scatters, as if following a natural pattern. Lenker and Krivchenia pile into a small dressing room in the depths of the bandshell to change, swatting the flies out first. Buck smokes and makes a phone call; Max puts his shirt somewhere, finds a Mountain Dew and disappears into the park. In the background, Francis Quinlan, the lead singer of Hop Along, is screaming an immodest “Cheeeeeck, check” behind Liz Taylor shades.

Krivchenia, after changing into a flowing floral shirt, strides around in front of the stage, stretching his van legs. He heaps a paper plate with a healthy mound of kale from the craft services table, looking unsure whether he really needs anything else. He’s debating the set list, which he chooses for the band every night. Tonight will be a “power set,” he explains—just the hits—which is actually fairly atypical for the band these days. Lenker recalls a recent Madison show in which they played every song they know, all 36 of them. It’s clear that Big Thief still have the freedom of a band who is in the midst of a breakthrough: playing different shows in very different settings, from headliner gigs in smaller cities to more auxiliary appearances like this one, opening for Oberst before many New Yorkers have left the office.

At soundcheck, I try to place the small fragment of melody that every member of the band is separately testing their mic with. “There is a gate halfway down my garden wall / and in the night I lock it, bolts and all…but, day or night, it is never locked for you,” Meek croons in his drawling tenor voice that evokes a ‘40s country singer. The melody could be a Big Thief chorus, or some centuries-old Irish ballad, but it’s actually from a song by Connie Converse, a ‘50s precursor to the eventual beatnik-folk singer-songwriters in New York City who was rediscovered in the late 2000s. In a sense, Converse’s story is much like Lenker’s or Meek’s: that of a young person who came to New York City to seek her fortune after college, and wrote and performed intimate, folk-inspired songs for her artistic friends at small events. It’s hard not to hear Big Thief as part of an over-half-a-century-long tradition of New-York-reared Americana music.

The mic check transitions into a tongue-twister exercise for the band: the patter-song refrain in Capacity’s “Mary,” one of the band’s knottiest and most singular songs. Mat Davidson of the Virginia folk-rock band Twain, the band’s friend and sometimes-keyboard player, joins them onstage; he also plays piano on the recording, which Lenker says was finished in just one take. The band rattles off the wordy, unwieldy chorus in perfect harmony. It’s a band-wide concentration exercise in song. In it, hints of tragic narrative (“The needle stopped the kicking / The clothespins on the floor / And my heart is playing hide and seek / Wait and count to four”) are pitted against whimsical, sepia-toned phraseology (“Push your gin, Jacob / With the tired wiry brandy look / Here you go around Mary in your famous story book.”)

“Mary,” by the band’s own account, is also one of the two or three songs of theirs that seems to spur the most fervent fan reaction. In fact, our lunch had begun with a young fan, on the verge of tears, sitting down at our table to tell us that the single had helped him through an emotionally devastated time in June, soundtracking lonely drives in Arizona.

“I still get nervous when people are nervous,” Lenker says. “I feel just as nervous–when people are scared to feel so strongly, and be vulnerable about their feelings. But I feel just as intensely; the songs are intense.”

Eventually, the band vacates the stage to meet for their private pre-show rite. From the audience, I watch doors open and a group of teenagers rush into the amphitheater and plaster themselves against the front of the stage and face front, as if the action could begin at any moment. The band emerges again from a mess of distortion and feedback under IKEA and Oris ads, and launches into a laid-back version of “Shark Smile,” perhaps Capacity’s most straightforward rock song. Meek squiggles like a jellyfish on his opening solo, a Jagger-esque extension of a move one might make to get some extra feedback out of the amp. There’s not a lot of stage business, and definitely no banter. The live-wire feeling of the performance comes largely from Lenker’s throaty vocal delivery which freely moves outside of the emphasis of the recordings with a controlled volatility. The show’s most idiosyncratic moment is a mid-set break devoted entirely to her feedback-drenched guitar, which sounds like she’s playing along with a Crazy Horse record in her head.

This modest, restrained thirty-minute stint in their favorite park doesn’t feel like a huge rockstar moment for Big Thief. By now, they can presumably do this particular group of songs in their sleep, but watching them carry out the ritual with so much polish and restraint has its own mystic appeal. The crucial moment in the performance is “Paul,” the Masterpiece standout that, by Meek and Krivchenia’s account, inspires the most vehement group singalongs. The tune hangs its hat on Lenker’s opening, jazzy melodic arpeggio, and, as Big Thief songs often do, a pithy central lyric to set the tone and anchor the story: “Oh the last time I saw Paul / I was horrible and almost let him in.” It clinches the set. The audience in the park is filled out by this point, hanging on the words as much as the overdriven energy of the band from their folding chairs and blankets. The diehards up-front nod, sway, and raise their arms.


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