- 05 Nov 19
Hot Press had the chance to catch up with Big Thief on the group’s sister albums, relying on instinct, and transcendent performances.
It’s only been three years since Big Thief burst on to the indie scene with their debut record Masterpiece. If you’ve been keeping up, that's a bit hard to believe. They’re a group still in their infancy, yet they’ve accomplished more than most bands could ever dream of. Their 2017 album Capacity topped numerous album of the year lists, and this year they delivered fans two masterful albums in the span of six months. The first of which, U.F.O.F., was an atmospheric affair recorded in the seclusion of rural Washington state. The second record, only a week out from release, is contrastingly stripped back and was tracked in the desert heat of El Paso, Texas. We were honored to get the inside scoop from the band's timekeeper, James Krivchenia.
Could you tell us a bit about how the environments you recorded your two 2019 records shaped the music?
Yeah. We chose those environments really deliberately. We didn’t know what we were going to get out of either of them but we knew we wanted a contrast because we wanted each record to feel like its own thing. And it definitely worked too. It almost worked too well. I think by the time Two Hands rolled around everyone was pretty fried. You know, we’re in a super hot and dry climate. The environment had a barebones feeling to it. The approach was much more like ‘Alright, let’s play this. Let's play it real. Let's play it truthfully. Let's not overthink it.’
Did that drastic contrast from the previous record make Two Hands feel unique?
Definitely. We had just come off of the three weeks of doing U.F.O.F. So, by that point, we were all really comfortable with Dom, our engineer, and Andrew, who was producing. We were comfy, simultaneously really deep into it and talking our own hermit languages. You know, really goofy but also silent and intense. We were also really tired from just coming off of touring. It was a kind of tiredness we wanted for this record. We got to a place where we stopped overtrying and just asked, ‘What really is the song?’
A lot of the songs on Two Hands can be traced back to quite a long time ago in live performance videos. What’s it like finally being able to release them to fans?
It feels good, especially because I’m so happy with the takes that are there. I hear them and I’m just like ‘Wow. That’s it.’ The hard part of recording songs that have been with you for a while is that you have all these experiences with them and you remember the feeling of when it’s incredible and you're like, ‘Oh man. So that's the bar.’ I remember with a song like ‘Shoulders,’ feeling that good sometimes, and I feel like we really got it there. I listen to all the songs and I’m like, ‘That is a killer take.’ For example, a song like ‘Not.’ We had been playing for a while and recorded it at Sonic Ranch. After a couple of weeks, the whole band was like, ‘That's not it.’ It was the only one we weren’t stone-cold about, so that was a song we went back in and re-did. We just had to get it to the level of everything else.
You’re a band that seems to swing and never miss. That goes back to setting a high-bar for yourselves?
Exactly, and sometimes you have to let go of that a little bit. You have to stop clenching and trying so hard. That’s part of the challenge. We understand that, but we’re all particular editors. We can be pretty brutal with our own music. We’ve cut and left so many songs behind. We all have our own gut feelings and we know to trust them. We know not to over-intellectualize or talk ourselves into liking a song or take. In the end, you actually have to listen back and say, ‘Wow. Fucking chills. That's the one.’ That's sort of our internal rule. Same with our approach to mixing. When it came to this record it was like once the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck you’re done. If people are having an emotional response then tap it and stop.
One of the most special aspects of Big Thief is live performance. It’s transcendent and spiritual. Could you articulate the feeling of the group dynamic?
There’s a real deep closeness. We’ve become such good friends over the years. I think that's part of what’s feeding into that vibe and a lot of what people are reacting to beyond just, ‘Oh the songs are really good.’ It’s an intentionally deep friendship. That’s also why we position ourselves the way we do with my kit up close and our guitarist Buck facing us. Everyone want’s to be close and see each other and feel like they can interact. Now, it's become so obvious to me what everyone's thinking all the time on stage. Whether it's feeling good or disconnected, I can just take one look at anyone and be like, ‘Oh, that's weird, Max has something on his mind.’ Or like, ‘Buck is so totally in it! Awesome!’ That comes from time and really putting in the effort on our friendships. It comes from the hours and hours of talking about our feelings and family. All that stuff.
What kind of headspace are you and the band in as you prepare to embark on this North American and European tour?
I think we’re probably all in really different headspaces. I just moved out of where I was living in New Mexico to Los Angeles yesterday. So, I’m in that headspace right now of just unpacking and getting settled. It’s a transitional time. I think everyone’s in their own headspace trying to cram in their personal lives before we go away touring again.
We haven’t toured a crazy amount this year, so I think everyone's ready. We’re not tired or pooped out. As a band, I’d say we’re hungry for it.
Your drumming style is super unique. I think about a track like, ‘U.F.O.F.’ with its groove that's so subtly complex. Any players you're taking cues from?
There’s a handful of people over the years that have been a big influence. So much so that I try to listen to almost all of the stuff they have. One of them being Tony Allen who was Fela Kuti’s drummer for about ten years. His stuff, when you start to dig into it, is super complex but some of it's really simple. Regardless, it always has this feel and flow to it. I don’t like songs that force too much. I like a groove that stays in your body. Also, in terms of style, I love Levon Helm, the drummer of The Band. Just incredible. Period.
Thanks so much for chatting and best of luck on tour!
Of course. All the best, and try to catch us on the road if you can.