The folk-rockers have weathered divorce and trauma to become one of the US’s best bands on their latest, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.
Photo: Big Thief performing in Dorset, England, in 2018. Photograph: Roger Garfield/Alamy
14 January 2022 | Marissa R Moss | The Guardian
It is early afternoon in downtown Nashville, and the party is already going strong. Bachelorettes in pink cowboy hats are flowing, mask-free, in and out of the honky-tonks. The members of Big Thief, though – Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia – are sitting outside the Ryman Auditorium like dots of oil floating atop the water.
No one seems to notice that one of the US’s best bands is scattered around a patio table a few hours before their show tonight, just yards above the 24/7 bacchanal.
“There’s a pigeon-keeper up there,” says the band’s frontperson Lenker, leaning forward in her chair in a horse-print shirt, jeans and a bandanna, her gaze fixed on a small skyscraper. She points, and the rest of the band follows her finger to a group of birds on top of a building, furiously in motion. “They’re flying in circles, so there has to be a cage up there. They only do that when there is someone conducting them.”
There is no conductor in Big Thief, nor do they move in circles – but they do stay in formation. Since the release of their debut album Masterpiece in 2016, they have been one of the most prolific working bands as a collective and individually, flying free of music industry best practices (two competing and equally brilliant albums, UFOF and Two Hands, were released in 2019), Instagrammable perfection, or any sort of pomp and circumstance, with Lenker’s intricate and vulnerable lyrics leading the way in songs that traverse indie rock and folk.
When they take to the Ryman stage later, they will do so without big displays or sets, raw and unfiltered in front of a closed stage curtain. They have two Grammy nominations and have graduated to big venues, but would rather talk about the marvel of human consciousness than accolades, discussing the process of creating art as if they’re astronomers not just content to find the next star, but eager to unveil a whole unseen universe.
Everything that makes Big Thief work could be the undoing of any other band. For one, Lenker and Meek are divorced – they met and started the group together in New York in 2015, and were married young. Bassist Oleartchik lives a world away in Israel, and each band member has a vibrant set of solo interests that overlaps rather than competes with Big Thief itself.
During the pandemic alone, Lenker released two solo albums, Songs and Instrumentals, guitarist Meek had one, Two Saviors, Oleartchik worked on his jazz material and Krivchenia released an ambient album and sat in on drums for numerous projects, including Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version). “The alchemy of all those things is what makes Big Thief Big Thief in the first place,” says Meek, who wears all black and smiles as if he’s known you for ever. “So we’ve all honoured that, and each other, I think.”
Their new 20-song album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You comes, in title, from that interconnecting continuum: it’s taken from a line in Anything, from Lenker’s album Songs, further narrowing the distance between what is hers and theirs, as if that even matters. They got here by engaging in a non-stop battle against the ego. “We don’t let ourselves be the cliche of the rock star,” Oleartchik says. “It can feel like that – you’re on stage, people are screaming – but that’s where you can get lost in yourself.”
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You doesn’t try to fit neatly into a box that further defines the Big Thief sound, whatever that may be, or grasp at bigger rock stardom. Sometimes, its songs beautifully meander without a chorus (Certainty), or the music melds perfectly with the feel of the lyrics, though not specifically the meaning. T
here are mentions of potato knishes and elbows (Spud Infinity) and microwaves (Dried Roses) that would have made John Prine chuckle, and lines that kick you in the gut with their brilliant simplicity: “I wanna live for ever till I die,” Lenker sings to a country romp.
“Maybe I’m delusional, but I don’t think we’ve ever made anything because someone else expected us to. If anything, it’s the opposite,” Meek says, turning to Lenker, who is rubbing a bottle of water against her forehead to help cure a headache. “You write the songs because it’s a form of survival. You’re my favourite songwriter on Earth, and we’re definitely my favourite band on Earth. We are the vessel for music that doesn’t exist that I want to hear.” This comes across as enthusiastic joy, not ego, and the music sounds like he feels it, too.
“You are my favourite songwriter!” Lenker responds – this love-in is more heartfelt and less corny than it might read. But Lenker had a lot of excavating to do to find this happiness, and when the pandemic hit, everything rushed to the surface once the crowds grew quiet.
“I had gone through marriage and divorce,” Lenker says in a separate Zoom call later, alone in a hotel room with her dog. “We had to try to transform our relationship, to let it die and be reborn, all while being on the road in proximity to each other. And holding space for other people through our art, writing about it and singing about it together on stage. He’s like family now, which I think is a testament to the love that we do [still] share.”
Big Thief were in the middle of a European tour when the pandemic hit in March 2020; they had been on the road incessantly for three years, and Lenker had started a new relationship, with the musician Indigo Sparke, which came to an end early in quarantine. “My heart,” she says, “was broken into smithereens.”
All of a sudden, it seemed like her body started to “purge everything out”. Her sister and solo album co-producer Phil Weinrobe both had to remind her to eat on a daily basis, and she came down with shingles and multiday migraines, ending up in hospital in Brooklyn before retreating to her sister’s cabin in western Massachusetts.
She worried something might really be wrong medically, until it became clear that it was the grind she had been engaging in since she was a little girl, and the trauma that came with it. “I realised it wasn’t about this thing with this person,” Lenker says, “it was about old trauma manifesting in current life.”
She doesn’t say specifically what that trauma was (though she has spoken elsewhere about how difficult her childhood was), but the breakdown of the two romantic relationships “triggered this whole thing inside of myself, and I was living in a state of self-abandonment. I’m not going to perpetuate that cycle but in order to do that I really need to not be violent to myself. And that’s not something that just happens overnight.”
Lenker was born in Indianapolis, raised in a cultlike Christian sect that her parents eventually distanced themselves from, and she started writing music before she was 10; her first album, Stages of the Sun, came in 2006 and shows the origins of her penchant to incorporate country or folk textures into her work, even though others around her seemed to think she was more destined for pop stardom. Lenker, clearly, was uninterested in that.
After attending Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship and moving to New York, Lenker met Meek in 2015, who was playing in, as he puts it, “a crazy ragtime swing band”. Meek, from Texas and appropriately well-schooled on singer-songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, made a perfect busking partner for Lenker in the early days. Oleartchik was a jazz player and son of Alon Oleartchik, a popular Israeli musician and member of 70s breakthrough rock band Kaveret, while Krivchenia, born in Minnesota, was established on the punk scene. Once the foursome formed Big Thief, everyone committed fully to the collective.
Krivchenia, who produced Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, presented the concept to the band one morning over a continental breakfast at a hotel in Copenhagen before the pandemic, typed up and printed in the hotel business centre.
The idea was that they would go as a group to four locations – upstate New York, Topanga Canyon in California, the Arizona desert and Colorado mountains – with four different studios and four different engineers, each with a sonic goal in mind.
“Before he finished we were all like: oh my God, yes,” Oleartchik says. Krivchenia really believed in the concept, but he also didn’t want to upset the power balance in the band – or the lack of one, really. “There’s a communal thing with this band where all opinions are very important,” he says. “I just wanted to check my ego to make sure I wasn’t positioning myself in any sort of role.” Mostly, he wanted the band to help create some time, some freedom from a ticking clock.
“It’s like sex,” Lenker says of recording, laughing lightly. “If you feel pressure to make love well and you only have an hour to prove yourself, forget about it!”
Lenker’s songs are a grounding force of Big Thief, never meant to lead definitively one way or the other, though extremely revealing at the same time. “Her writing is more complex than, ‘it’s her nature album or it’s her breakup album’,” Krivchenia says. “She wants to leave space for people to add their own meaning,” Oleartchik adds. Her bandmates talk about her songwriting so she doesn’t have to; she doesn’t enjoy deconstructing her own work in that way. She’d rather stay vulnerable with the songs, so she can stay vulnerable on stage.
Sometimes Lenker will be chatty during a set. Other times, she will say nothing at all. “Sometimes,” Krivchenia says, “Adrianne rambles for five minutes and we are like: let’s do a song, we’re getting cold back here!” She is so resistant to cultivating a performance or persona over an authentic shared experience that she gets emotionally worn down and can “feel like a flat piece of cardboard” after a night or two of touring.
“A huge part of our craft is trying to come into this radical acceptance of what is happening, and our imperfections and idiosyncrasies,” Lenker says – Big Thief’s music voices a constant yearning to heal, and her own process is ever-evolving. Recently, she shaved her head to confront her insecurities about her face and beauty. “I’m still on that journey, and it may be a lifelong one … We have quirks, and we ride with them. Hopefully people in the room can feel a wave of inspiration to embrace exactly how they are in the present moment, happy or odd or chaotic. I think we need more of that in the world.”
Meek remembers something that Krivchenia told him at a show in New Orleans a few nights earlier as they gathered in a huddle. “You said: ‘Remember to keep saying yes,’” he says. “So that whole night I kept reminding myself that: just keep saying yes because it’s so easy to say no. Even if you play the wrong note. Just go: ‘Yes! I played the wrong note! Yes!’”
“It’s like an improv skit,” Krivchenia says, “Saying no fucking kills the skit.”
“And, suddenly,” Lenker cuts in, “you’re creating something.”
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is released on 11 February on 4AD.