Late in recording their new album, American indie band Big Thief packed up their gear and headed south to Tucson, Arizona. Their destination was a studio owned by a musician friend that overlooked a train track. About every half hour a locomotive passed. The walls rumbled, the floorboards quivered. Big Thief kept calm and played.
“A big train would rock the house,” recalls guitarist Buck Meek, who formed Big Thief seven years ago with then-girlfriend Adrianne Lenker. “It made its way – literally and also just energetically – onto the recordings.”
There have been a lot of rumbles in the history of Big Thief. During the band’s lifetime, Meek and Lenker fell in love, married and then divorced. Their new album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, was recorded as Lenker mourned the end of his relationship with Australian musician Indigo Sparke. And that followed his hospitalization for exhaustion after the lockdown ended years of constant touring.
From time to time, an underground rock band breaks through and recreates the spirit of the times in its own image.
Through it all, Big Thief has always moved forward. “There’s a feeling of wanting to respect the vulnerability that Adrianne puts into the music. And wanting to nurture that and support it,” says James Krivchenia, Big Thief drummer and producer of the new LP. “There’s definitely that feeling of sacred around him: ‘It’s special.’ It’s not ordinary to interact with something so powerful.
From time to time, an underground rock band breaks through and recreates the spirit of the times in its own image. REM did this in the early 1990s; Bon Iver and The National in the decades that followed. These are the alternate icons Big Thief seems ready to follow in the footsteps of.
With songs that blend dark American gothic sensibilities with gorgeous experimental madness, in the space of a few years they’ve gone from 450-seat Whelan’s in Dublin to selling out Vicar Street on the road (they’re back in late February for a meet at the National Stadium). And with Dragon New Warm Mountain, everything indicates that they are ready to take it to the next level again, commercially and in terms of critical acclaim. It could be their For Emma, Forever Ago or Boxer.
“We were careful never to compromise our work for growth,” says Meek from his home in Topanga Canyon, California. “We put the heart first. And we kind of trained our audience not to have expectations.
The rapidity of their rise is measured by the often extravagant praise they have received. Three years ago, their third album, UFOF, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Rolling Stone described it as “spellbinding” and “transcendent”. In 2020, The New Yorker, in a lengthy profile of Lenker, called their production “strange and chilling”.
The magazine quoted Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who praised Lenker’s songs as “so lateral they subvert the form”. The sentiments were echoed by Carly Rae Jepsen, every hipster’s favorite pop star. “The lyrics spoke to me like a journal entry would,” she said of Lenker. “She’s brilliantly confessional.”
A work ethic bordering on punishment helped get the message across. From the 2016 release of their debut album, Masterpiece, and through March 2020, Big Thief had been on the road almost constantly (the individual members have also released a number of solo records). And when things stopped, it was with an audible chill.
That night there was Trump’s travel ban. It was like, ‘Oh my God – this is crazy. Are we going to be in Copenhagen for a year?
Halfway through a European tour, they were about to hit the stage in Copenhagen when the Danish government announced a Covid lockdown. Meek, Lenker and company moved outside and put on a short impromptu performance for the fans. Lenker wore a bright orange hoodie with his face almost entirely covered. Krivchenia was sitting on the ground. Then they went straight to the airport.
“We knew it would be our last show. We were playing two sets,” says Krivchenia. “Between the first and the second, Jess, our tour manager, comes in and says, ‘The show has been cancelled. The Prime Minister just came on TV. There are no gatherings. Everyone is crying outside. It’s truly sad.’ And there was this kind of, ‘Oh.’ It had sped up. But when the curtain came down, it was pretty sudden. That night, there was Trump’s travel ban. It was like , ‘Oh my God – this is crazy. Are we going to be in Copenhagen for a year?’
Back in the United States, Lenker briefly broke down physically and emotionally. The end of his relationship with Sparke did not help. Her ex is a ghost swirling through Dragon New Warm Mountain, as songs such as Little Things make clear, where she sings “Turn in your direction/Feeling like I need attention.”
During those first weeks, Lenker developed shingles and suffered crippling migraines. It got so bad that a friend drove her to a hospital in Brooklyn. A few weeks later, she rented a cabin in the pine forests of western Massachusetts and attempted to leave the outside world behind.
“Everyone in the band needed to spend months sitting alone and thinking, ‘What have I been doing for the last five years?’ “Krivchenia said. “Personally, and as a group, it feels good to have indefinite time with nothing in the books. Many musicians I know have felt the same way in terms of “There’s a pretty big silver lining in the lock”.
But they eventually banded together and, on Dragon New Warm Mountain, produced a collection that draws inspiration from their contrasting backgrounds. Meek is from Wimberley, a small town near Austin. Lenker grew up largely in suburban Minneapolis, her parents having moved there after leaving a Christian sect that controlled all aspects of their lives. She and Meek started Big Thief in Brooklyn. They had met once before in Boston, where they both attended Berklee College of Music. However, it was in New York that something catalyzed between them. She served tables; he worked as a bicycle courier. The rest of their time was spent performing or writing songs.
That’s what makes Big Thief a band. The will for all of us to go through life together – through all the challenges
“It’s amazing to look back,” Meek said. “And to remember how quickly things changed. We were all day jobs. And it took on a life of its own.
They tied the knot in 2015, by which time Big Thief was recording Masterpiece with bassist Max Oleartchik (Krivchenia engineered the project and later joined full-time as drummer). Lenker was 24, Meek 28. And as the band took off, the young couple had to spend every waking moment together. Ultimately, this spelled the end of the relationship and they divorced in 2018. It came down to music or their marriage. They chose the music.
“That’s what makes Big Thief a band. The will for all of us to go through life together – through all the challenges,” says Meek. “And to see yourself through these things. And we’ve all been through so many chapters of our lives together, through the process of the past eight years. And somehow we were able to stay honest with each other and open enough to get through that.
Joe Rogan controversy
They drew inspiration from everywhere. Lenker is a fan of Elliot Smith and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. As a teenager, she dreamed of “becoming a pop star” (her father was briefly her manager). Meek grew up in the old American tradition – a world of steel pedals and banjos.
One of their biggest influences is Neil Young, who made headlines after accusing Spotify of allowing podcaster Joe Rogan to promote an anti-vax program and then boycotting the platform (triggering a stock drop of his action).
“I think there are Spotify dramas and so on, and that’s part of what I love about him. And I’m inspired by him,” Krivchenia says when asked about Young in the context of the Spotify controversy. “He’s making records as an old person. He’s not trying to make his record comeback to greatness. It’s like, ‘A record on Monsanto. Because that’s what I think”. There’s a bunch of shitty stuff. And a bunch of gold. And it’s all kind of mixed up because that’s what he wants to do. And he doesn’t care if it doesn’t not plugged in.
While there’s a lot of Sonic Youth in their DNA, there’s also a bit of Stillwater, the fictional, massively cornball American 1970s band from the movie Almost Famous.
Young is an example of living up to your principles, no matter the personal cost one might bear. “Totally, and that’s good. And it’s like there’s a consistency you can trust,” says the drummer. “He’s been doing it for a while. Whether [Young’s departure from Spotify] makes sense to people or not, it still does.
Big Thief is outspoken about not wanting to be perceived as hip or trendy and will certainly never be confused with The Strokes. Their songs can be generous, sometimes corny. While there’s a lot of Sonic Youth in their DNA, there’s also a bit of Stillwater, the fictional, massively cornball American 1970s band from the movie Almost Famous.
One of the most delightful tracks on the new LP, the whimsically pugnacious Spud Infinity features, for example, a wildly slapping harmonica. It’s absurd. What’s the point. “The coolest thing,” Meek says, “is just being real.”
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is released on February 11. Big Thief play at the National Stadium in Dublin on February 26