Big Thief: ‘Sideways’ songs and hard work leave them poised for the next level

Not even the divorce of two members or a pandemic could derail the band’s progress

Late into the recording of their new album, American indie band Big Thief packed up their gear and drove south to Tucson, Arizona. Their destination was a studio belonging to a musician friend that overlooked a railway line. Every half hour or so a locomotive chugged past. The walls rumbled, the floorboards shuddered. Big Thief stayed calm and played on.

“A big train would shake the house,” recalls guitarist Buck Meek, who formed Big Thief seven years ago with his then girlfriend, Adrianne Lenker. “That made its way – literally and also just energetically – on to the recordings.”

There have been plenty of rumblings in the story of Big Thief. Within the lifespan of the group, Meek and Lenker have fallen in love, married and then divorced. Their new album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, was recorded as Lenker grieved for the ending of her relationship with Australian musician Indigo Sparke. And it followed her hospitalisation for exhaustion after the lockdown brought an end to years of constant touring.

Every so often an underground rock band breaks through and recreates the zeitgeist in their image

Through it all, Big Thief have steamed ever forward. “There’s a sense of wanting to respect the vulnerability that Adrianne’s putting into the music. And wanting to nourish and support it,” says James Krivchenia, Big Thief drummer and producer of the new LP. “There’s definitely this feeling of sacredness around it: ‘This is special.’ It’s not ordinary to be interacting with something this powerful.”

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Every so often an underground rock band breaks through and recreates the zeitgeist in their image. REM did it in the early 1990s; Bon Iver and The National in the decades that followed. These are the alternative icons in whose footsteps Big Thief look set to follow.

With songs that blend a dusky American gothic sensibility with a gorgeous experimental wonkiness, in the space of a few years they have gone from playing 450-capacity Whelan’s in Dublin to selling out Vicar Street up the road (they’re back in late February for a date at the National Stadium). And with Dragon New Warm Mountain there is every indication that they are set to once again progress to the next level, commercially and in terms of critical acclaim. It could be their For Emma, Forever Ago or Boxer.

“We’ve been careful to never compromise our work for growth,” says Meek from his home in Topanga Canyon, California. “We’ve put the heart first. And we’ve kind of trained our audiences to not have any expectations.”

Extravagant praise

The speed of their ascent can be measured in the often extravagant praise they have attracted. Three years ago, their third record, 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, characterised their output as “strange and chilling”.

The magazine quoted Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who hailed Lenker’s songs as “so sideways it subverts the form”. The sentiments were echoed by Carly Rae Jepsen, every hipster’s favourite pop star. “The lyrics spoke to me like a journal entry would,” she said of Lenker. “She’s brilliantly confessional.”

A work ethic verging on punishing has helped spread the word. Since the release in 2016 of their debut album, Masterpiece, and all the way up to March 2020, Big Thief were on the road almost constantly (the individual members also released a number of solo records). And when things came to a halt it was with an audible shudder.

That night there was the Trump travel ban. It was like, 'Oh my God – this is crazy. Are we going to be in Copenhagen for a year?'

Midway through a European tour, they were about to go on stage in Copenhagen when the Danish government announced a Covid lockdown. Meek, Lenker and company shuffled outside and put on a short impromptu performance for fans. Lenker wore a bright orange hoodie with her face almost entirely obscured. Krivchenia sat on the floor. Afterwards, they went straight to the airport.

“We knew it was going to be our last show. We were playing two sets,” says Krivchenia. “Between the first and the second, Jess, our tour manager, walks in and is like, ‘Show’s been cancelled. The prime minister’s just gone on TV. There’s no gatherings. Everyone is crying outside. It’s really sad.’ And there was this like, ‘Oh’. It had been ramping up. But when the curtain fell it was pretty sudden. That night there was the Trump travel ban. It was like, ‘Oh my God – this is crazy. Are we going to be in Copenhagen for a year?’ ”

Crippling migraines

Back in the US, Lenker briefly fell apart physically and emotionally. The unravelling of her relationship with Sparke didn’t help. Her ex is a ghost swirling through Dragon New Warm Mountain, as made clear on songs such as Little Things, where she intones, “Turn in your direction/ Feeling like I need attention”.

In those early weeks, Lenker developed shingles and came down with crippling migraines. It got so bad a friend drove her to hospital in Brooklyn. A few weeks later, she rented a cabin in the pine woods of western Massachusetts and tried to leave behind the outside world.

“Everyone in the band needed those months of sitting alone and being like, ‘What have I been doing in the past five years?’ ” says Krivchenia. “Personally, and as a band, it felt good to have some indefinite time with nothing on the books. A lot of musicians I know felt similarly in terms of like, ‘There’s a pretty huge silver lining to the lockdown’.”

But they eventually regrouped and, on Dragon New Warm Mountain, produced a collection that draws on their contrasting backgrounds. Meek is from Wimberley, a small town near Austin. Lenker largely grew up in suburban Minneapolis, her parents having moved there after leaving a Christian sect that had controlled every aspect of their lives. She and Meek began Big Thief in Brooklyn. They’d met once already in Boston, where both attended Berklee College of Music. However, it was in New York that something catalysed between them. She waited tables; he worked as a bicycle courier. The rest of their time was spent playing or writing songs.

That's what makes Big Thief a band. The willingness for all of us to go through life together – through all the challenges

“It’s amazing to look back at it,” says Meek. “And to remember how fast things changed. We were all working day jobs. And it took on a life of its own.”

They married in 2015, by which time Big Thief were 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 group took off, the young couple were required to spend every waking moment together. In the end it rang a death knell for the relationship, and they divorced in 2018. It came down to the music or their marriage. They chose the music.

“That’s what makes Big Thief a band. The willingness for all of us to go through life together – through all the challenges,” says Meek. “And to see each other through those things. And we’ve all got gone through so many chapters of our lives together, throughout the process of the last eight years. And somehow we’ve been able to remain honest with each other and open enough to work through that.”

Joe Rogan controversy

They’ve drawn inspiration from all over. Lenker is a fan of Elliot Smith and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. As a teenager she had dreams of “becoming a pop star” (her father was briefly her manager). Meek grew up steeped in the American old timey tradition – a world of steel-pedals and banjos.

One of their biggest influences is Neil Young, who has been in the headlines after accusing Spotify of allowing podcaster Joe Rogan to promote an anti-vax agenda and then boycotting the platform (triggering a slide in its share price).

“I think there’s some Spotify drama and whatnot, And that’s partly what I love about him. And I’m inspired by him,” says Krivchenia when asked about Young in the context of the Spotify controversy. “He makes records as an older person. He’s not trying to make his back-to-greatness record. It’s like, ‘A record about Monsanto. Because that’s what I’m thinking about’. There’s a bunch of crappy stuff. And a bunch of gold. And it’s all kind of mixed in because it’s what he wants to do. And he doesn’t care it’s not hip.”

If there's a lot of Sonic Youth in their DNA, there is also a little of Stillwater, the fictional and massively cornball 1970s Americana band from the movie Almost Famous

Young is an example of sticking by your principles no matter the personal cost, it could be argued. “Totally, and it’s good. And it’s like there’s a consistency to it that you can kind of trust,” says the drummer. “He’s been doing it for a while. Whether [Young’s departure from Spotify] makes sense to people or doesn’t, he’s still been doing it.”

Big Thief are upfront about not wanting to be perceived as hip or voguish and will certainly never be mistaken for The Strokes. Their songs can be big-hearted, occasionally cheesy. If there’s a lot of Sonic Youth in their DNA, there is also a little of Stillwater, the fictional and massively cornball 1970s Americana band from the movie Almost Famous.

One of the most delightful tracks on the new LP, the pugnaciously whimsical Spud Infinity, features, for instance, a harmonica that twangs extravagantly. It’s absurd. Which is the point. “The coolest thing,” says Meek “is just to be real.”

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is released on February 11th. Big Thief play National Stadium Dublin February 26th