Michael Di Iorio coaxes celestial secrets from Buck Meek of Big Thief, as their new album U.F.O.F. (Unidentified Flying Object Friend) lands in new space for the band.
Since their debut album in 2016, Big Thief have known no such thing as rest. After Masterpiece came Capacity the year after, all the while the band was travelling from city to city, touring their music across the U.S.
Being in such close quarters with other people for that long leads to one of two things: you either hate each other’s guts afterwards, or you connect with each other on such an intimate level that you release one of your most fluid and immersive albums to date. Fortunately for Big Thief it was the latter.
The band’s latest record dropped only this May, and has already received critical acclaim across the board. Although the premise of the album may seem extraterrestrial in nature, the themes are definitely not alien. If anything, each song plays to the human experience in sharper ways than before.
I spoke with Buck Meek, guitarist and back-up vocalist for the band, on how U.F.O.F. came to be, and the unknown territory that was traversed to get to this point.
Check out ‘UFOF’ by Big Thief:
What was the inspiration behind naming the album U.F.O.F.?
BM: Well, to be honest, a lot of these songs are about aliens. I showed (lead singer) Adrianne the movie Contact a couple years ago and it totally blew her mind, so she just instantly started writing all these songs about aliens.
There was a lyrical foundation that seemed really celestial, and so we just decided to go all the way with it. We’ve recognised in the past that Big Thief has had this kind of polarity between something really earthy and guttural and visceral, and then this kind of more celestial space, so with this record we kind of wanted to just focus and surrender to that celestial side of things and really embrace it and explore it sonically with all the guitars and layers of abstract sound beneath the songs.
I really think you can hear that kind of ‘celestial’ sound in songs like ‘U.F.O.F.’ and ‘Jenni’. How do you feel the band has evolved since your last album Capacity (2017) and its sound?
BM: The biggest evolution has been with our communication with each other as friends really. We’ve been travelling together for so long now, we’ve reconciled with so much of the discrepancies that come up with travelling with any group of people. Any idiosyncrasy that would come up has been fully embraced and just really communicated.
We’ve got to the point of really trusting each other and I think that translates into the music. The music is really just a result of our friendship, and it feels more fluid now and safer than ever.
I think that Big Thief has taught me a lot about being in a band. It’s really the first big band that I’ve ever been in, touring this much, and it’s taught me this doctrine of honesty and vulnerability, really just being open and honest about every little vulnerability with each other as friends and as travel companions, and I’ve seen how that intention has translated into the music in ways that I couldn’t have even imagined. Our music is much deeper.
“It’s an incentive for me to create knowing that someone might benefit in some way from
something I have created”
When writing songs for a new album where do you draw your inspiration?
BM: There’s so many ways to go about the creative process, and I’ve played all kinds of games with myself to write, but the one that really stands the test of time is just trying to express what’s stuck inside your chest that is yet to come to form in words.
And in doing so, healing yourself in the process right?
BM: Yes, exactly. Healing or reflecting or trying to memorialise a feeling even. Even if you have a really positive emotion, memorialising it through music can be a way to really keep that feeling and really revisit it and be able to share it with others too.
And of course if there’s a feeling that’s painful – I haven’t found anything that’s more healing than memorialising that pain through music, and coming to understand it through music. To me that’s the most healing process.
And in memorialising pain, you allow people to listen to these songs and heal themselves and connect with the message just by listening.
BM: Yeah, and they can integrate the messages to their own stories. That’s another big incentive for me, because I feel that I benefit from the music of others in my own healing processes and reflections of the human experience.
I recognise that a lot of the songs that I write are in some cases very abstract, and maybe they have these threads of narrative or threads of definition, but often there’s a certain ambiguity at least in the balance there that allows me to project my own experience onto it and wrap it in my own story.
It’s an incentive for me to create knowing that someone might benefit in some way from something I have created.
What would be your favourite song from your new album and why?
BM: After recording I think ‘Terminal Paradise’ is my favourite track on this record. I just feel like it’s the most lucid and the most direct and rich sonic experience we’ve ever provided. I think it really honours the organic nature of our band and also this more ethereal space.
Check out ‘Cattails’ by Big Thief:
That has to be one of my favourites as well. What excites you the most about this new era of Big Thief music?
BM: I think what excites me the most is just seeing everyone in the band really come into their own identity. We’re at this threshold of really blossoming into our own creative personalities individually, i’ve seen (bassist) Max just evolve so much as a musician and a bass player, and (drummer) James and Adrienne and myself as well.
It’s been a really long story of unearthing our own instincts through this music, and the music of Big Thief has been the currency with which we’re coming to understand our own individual creative identities.
Our identities have even been shaped by the music of Big Thief if that makes sense. Nonetheless I feel like we’re all coming into this real confident with our creative identities, and to see the alchemy of that, I feel like we’re at the beginning of this sense of freedom.
Whereas before, it felt like shedding layers. I’m sure we will be eternally shedding layers and discovering new things, but nonetheless I do feel this lucid sense of confidence that I’m really excited to experience and to explore together on the road.
It feels like we have this mutual connection and sense of trust and fluidity but also this strength together that can really only come from playing music for thousands of hours together, and it’s a really beautiful place to start a new song from, or a new take.
Every time we put ourselves in a room to make music together it’s really like our first chance again, it’s like being a baby again, but it feels like we always have this history to draw from after years of playing music together and that’s exciting.
“Power can be fragile, but as long as it’s deep, honest, and truly vulnerable, then that’s
the real strength”
It’s really cool that you guys are still able to learn things from each other after all this time, which is what ultimately makes the music better due to the connection you have with everyone.
BM: I’m really grateful that everyone in Big Thief is really committed to change. To shedding old skin and never resting on our laurels, creative laurels or any laurels of comfort or systems that are reliable. I think we’re all really committed to just developing a sense of instinct and creating something new but with confidence. I’m really grateful for that.
And what is your definition of power?
BM: I think my definition of power in any sense, physical or otherwise, is just the complete absence of fear. I think that, for instance, a true leader who is truly powerful with grace and with good, is one who is fearless.
In the musical sense, I think that if you can create from the place of fearlessness and complete nudity, then the reality is, if you can accept the vulnerability of being naked and fearless, to me that is the greatest power.
I think it’s the most relatable and cathartic experience for everybody, becoming in touch with oneself. Power can be fragile, but as long as it’s deep, honest, and truly vulnerable, then that’s the real strength.
U.F.O.F. by Big Thief is out now through 4AD.