Interview: Big Thief on their “undefinable blob of energy”

Big ThiefBig Thief are in good spirits. The band have already completed the continental leg of their 2017 tour – taking them through cities in France, Germany, Holland, and beyond. Now settled (for a short time at least) in Bristol, their UK dates lie ahead of them.

“It’s been really good,” frontwoman Adrianne Lenker begins. “Some of these places we played for the first time. We didn’t know what to expect, but people came, there were people!” Bandmate and guitarist Buck Mead chips in that some gigs had “full houses, which was a miracle.”

A miracle to some perhaps, but a predictable turnout to others. The Saddle Creek band began their career proper last year with the release of debut album Masterpiece, which instantly gained them acknowledgement from either side of the Atlantic. The furore also drew support from international artists – one of whom, M Ward, took the band to the UK last year and in doing so gave his British audiences the chance to witness Big Thief as a live band for the first time.

Just as important to the band, however, is their tight-knit community of peers in New York, from which one project, Mega Bog, will support tonight.

“It’s cool because I’ve seen a few different incarnations of Mega Bog, but tonight it’s just [frontwoman] Erin [Birgy] and [bassist] Zach [Burba]. I haven’t heard what they’ve been cooking up yet.”

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As soon as Big Thief begin to talk about the artists they collaborate with and work alongside, it’s obvious they don’t leave these decisions to ‘the people above’. Buck tell us that “whenever possible” they tour with friends, “especially when we’re headlining. Last year we were doing a lot of support shows, which we had less control over, but now that we’re headlining [we get to make more decisions]. We’re really excited to spend more time with our friends on the road.”

This is just one of the aspects that make Big Thief such an exciting prospect, both live and on record. It should be par for the course that bandmates get along with one another and enjoy working in their industry, but it’s not until you speak to musicians such as Adrianne, Buck, bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia that you realise it’s not often the case – at least, not to their level of commitment.

“We have friends that are our favourite musicians, as well,” explains Max. “We want to tour with them. It’s really important to us.”

Adrianne agrees: “That’s honestly the main reason we want to headline. I love supporting but it’s really cool to bring friends on the road. They’ve been inspirational and it was a draw to the music that we connected.”

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Life on the road is something the four-piece are well acquainted with: all members have other projects, and Big Thief have toured the US countless times before. Inevitably this focus of time on the live arena has allowed the songs to develop, but so too has a line-up change since the recording of Masterpiece: “I didn’t put drums on the album so that was a big change,” says drummer James. “Their vibe [has] changed. It’s weird when I hear the album because some of the tempos have changed – some are slower, some are faster, [and] some of the parts have a different energy.”

“They’ve evolved,” agrees Max, while Buck elaborates: “I think that it was really organic as a demand for the living situation. We recorded the album after only one short tour with a different drummer. We went on a 20 show tour that we booked ourselves, and then we recorded the album, so those songs were still babies. Since then we’ve done all of these support tours where we had to open in a big venue full of people who’d never heard of us before, who were all talking, and we had to command their attention out of nowhere. I think that informed the songs to a certain degree, where we had to play them faster or louder. It’s more of an energetic thing.”

“It was something that we weren’t aware of,” Adrianne intercedes. “It feels like the audience changes the songs in a way. Other people’s relationships to the music, changes the music.”

Cue another aspect of Big Thief which makes them exciting: they’re inclusive to the point of considering their fans and listeners part of their project. While many artists are insular in an attempt to fight against misinterpretations of lyrics or feelings, Big Thief allows their audiences to effect the way they view their work.

“[The songs have] changed involuntarily, through other people’s perception,” Adrianne continues. “They’re an undefinable blob of energy. If no one had paid much attention to them, they probably would have dwindled and died by now. People inject new energy and new life into them, and it keeps them alive.”

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Of the tracks that people don’t inject life into, Buck admits “a lot have gone. There’s probably different reasons. One reason was because there was a disconnect on some subconscious level that I can’t even describe. For instance the song “Animals” from the record, we haven’t been playing that live much. It changes tempos a lot and it’s kind of frenetic. Maybe on a subconscious level, the audience doesn’t feel at home in that situation. it’s harder to hold onto. We’re receiving that energy and there’s a disconnect there because of it.”

Although they admit they have “very strong opinion”, everything about Big Thief is a communal process, right down to drummer James choosing each set list, and ensuring it’s different every night. Few musicians are that varied (or skilled enough to remember their songs without practice). And it all comes together to make, as Adrianne puts it, “this furry animal that will take care of you and feed you, and make sure you have a good life. We’re a family. If we give it some light food and water it will live and flourish, and it often comforts us when we’re down, and it often annoys us when we’re overtired and we have to take care of this thing! Sometimes it acts out… We don’t know what it’s going to grow into. We’re all nurturing it.”

Buck agrees: “Whether we like it or not, [Big Thief] is an animal.”

Big Thief have been recording and plan to release their second album soon.

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