a long talk

The Miracle of Big Thief

Contemplating infinity, cross-country trips, and a towering double album with rock’s critical darlings.

Max Olearchik, Buck Meek, Adrianne Lenker, and James Krivchenia. Photo: Alexa Viscius
Max Olearchik, Buck Meek, Adrianne Lenker, and James Krivchenia. Photo: Alexa Viscius

Something peculiar happens whenever Big Thief comes together to play music. It’s a unique synergy even the critically acclaimed quartet has a hard time explaining. “It’s, in some ways, very mysterious,” says bassist Max Oleartchik. The closest thing to an answer might lie in singer Adrianne Lenker’s opening line from “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You,” the title track off the band’s enchanting new double album: “It’s a little bit magic.”

The four members of Big Thief — Oleartchik, Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, and drummer James Krivchenia — are each magicians in their own right. But they’re able to channel those powers best as a group, coaxing sounds out of their instruments as if they’re all guided by the same unseen forces. They proved as much in 2019, when they released two career-defining albums in U.F.O.F., a delicate, stirring record made outside Seattle, and Two Hands, a more rugged outing recorded in a Texas border town. The creativity continued to flow afterward, and the members channeled it into their solo work: Lenker’s pandemic-born songs and instrumentals, Meek’s country rambler Two Saviors, Krivchenia’s ASMR–flecked A New Found Relaxation, and Oleartchik’s jazz performances.

Dragon, which was culled together from four separate recording sessions across the country with four different engineers, stands as Big Thief’s crowning achievement. In upstate New York, they made bare-bones folk with singer-songwriter Sam Evian; in California’s Topanga Canyon, complex and knotty rock soundscapes with the indie mastermind Shawn Everett; in the Colorado mountains, ethereal acoustic songs with U.F.O.F. and Two Hands engineer Dom Monks; and in Tucson, barn-raising country with Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken. The group also welcomed outside musicians into the fold: Mat Davidson of Twain sat in on the Arizona session on fiddle, longtime Carole King flutist Richard Hardy contributed to “No Reason” after the band met him in Telluride, and Lenker’s brother Noah added jaw harp on “Spud Infinity.”

Despite additional guests, Big Thief have never sounded more in touch with each other than they do on Dragon. You can hear it across all 20 songs, from the exhilarating “Little Things,” which moves like a living organism — drums pounding like a heartbeat, guitar chords coursing like blood — to the raucous “Red Moon,” overflowing with joy via yelps, whistles, and fiddle solos. Even “Spud Infinity,” which contemplates self-acceptance alongside garlic bread and potato knishes, does so without compromising playfulness or poignance. Part of that may have to do with Krivchenia taking the production reins for the first time (the cross-country approach was his idea), or with the band having more space to focus on recording during the early days of the pandemic. Or, perhaps, it’s those seemingly supernatural forces that connect each of them through their music.

The day before the release of Dragon, the four members crowded onto a couch in a Connecticut home for a video call to talk about the album’s recording process and to try and explain what happens when they write songs as a unit. “That’s the miraculous part of this group: I can’t really imagine anyone else being in the band,” Lenker says. “How did we meet and how did this happen? None of us can articulate what we’re looking for, but we all know when it’s there.”

With U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, Adrianne has said it would’ve been “too dense” to release them as one album. What was different about Dragon that made it right for 20 songs all at once?

Adrianne Lenker: I think that we were building it for that, in a way. We had four sessions, and each of those could have just been making an album in itself. So at each new session, we completely forgot about the other ones. We weren’t thinking of trying to match the sounds or trying to make continuity at all. I think it created these variations between the sonic qualities and even our energy that, to me, just makes for a much more interesting [album]. We constructed what felt more like a playlist rather than everything being one vibe.

James Krivchenia: And I feel like what’s different from Two Hands and U.F.O.F. is, going into each of those sessions, we were thinking, We’re going to make an album. And then we’re going to make another album. Whereas this, we were like, We’re going to record a bunch. And we had a vague intention it was all going to be one record. No matter what happens, we’re going to accept it as one thing for this time of where we’re at as a band and as people. I mean, we might have bombed out at three of the sessions and just one of them was the record. And if that was the case, then that was the album.

Buck Meek: To me, it’s an artifact of us becoming more comfortable with ourselves and letting go. In the past, it felt like we always went in with much more limited time and a very clear intention to create something with a vision. Whereas this one just felt like we were being ourselves and putting our friendships first.

How did you decide what the four locations were going to be? Was it location first or engineer first?

JK: It was mostly engineer first. And it was also a little lucky we were able to work with the engineers we really wanted to work with. The locations were somewhat pandemic-constricted. The original plan was extremely bombastic and probably a massive waste of money. We were like, “We’ll do a castle in Italy. And then maybe some caves …”

BM: I found this cave where this mad scientist built this organ. It’s like a full-size church organ that’s triggering hammers that strike stalactites or stalagmites as its bells. I was going to try to get us in that cave. And then we were going to record in Iceland. And Hawaii.

JK: [Laughs] We were going to sequence the album in Hawaii.

BM: We were going to go so into debt.

AL: It’s funny that we still think we had to simplify it because of COVID. We probably would’ve simplified had this been planned anyway.

JK: We’re really sensitive to the environment that we record in, but it doesn’t have to be a perfect studio. It just has to be vibey. So that leaves room for a lot of places in the world. Setting ourselves up to react to things was the underlying key, I think, beneath all that. If we go to these different places with different people, we’re going to play differently.

Did you get a chance to explore these areas at all in between sessions?

Max Oleartchik: We make sure to go out because otherwise we get the fever. Not COVID, just fever of recording. We know how and when it comes, so we make sure we go out to nature.

BM: One nice thing about recording in four different places is that there’s these inherent transitions in the travel between places and there’s so many surprises in between that I think probably feed back into the album.

AL: I found my dog on the drive from upstate New York. Remember I wanted to get a dog?

MO: Yeah.

AL: I was on Petfinder and I found this one little dog named Hatchie. I filled out the whole form for adoption, and right as I was going to press it, Buck was like, “Hey Annie, want to talk for a sec?” And he’s like, “I just want to ask, and it’s totally okay if you want to, but is this the best time for you to get a dog? You’re building your trailer …” — because I was living out of a trailer, and I didn’t really have a place yet. But I was so bent on it. And when he said that to me, I was like, “What are you talking about? You don’t know! I can handle it!” And then I just started crying. I was like, [crying] “You’re right! It’s not time to get a dog.” And he said, “When it’s the right time, it’ll happen.” A few weeks later, my trailer was ready to go and I was driving across the country with it. Somewhere in New Mexico, in a little village, I was staying with some friends and we were driving and came upon this big, fenced-in yard. And there were like 15 dogs behind the fence. So we just pulled over to say hello to the dogs. Then eventually, this guy sauntered out and he was like, “Take whatever you want.” They were accidental and he had way too many dogs. So I just picked Oso up and then I drove the rest of the way to Topanga. I was like, If I call them and tell them, they’ll get worried about me having a dog. But if I just show up, they’re going to fall in love. And they did. As soon as I pulled up, everyone was like, “We love him.”

“I think we’re also getting more comfortable with ourselves as we experience life,” says Lenker Photo: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images

I love that so much. Some of my favorite songs on the album, and the ones that jumped out at me the most at first, were the more country-leaning ones. Those came together in Arizona, right?

JK: Most of them. “Blue Lightning” actually came from the first session with Sam, I believe. But yeah, we were trying to save them for Tucson, even though we kept cracking them open throughout the sessions.

That’s something that I feel like has always been under the surface of Big Thief but never really came all the way up. What brought it out?

JK: I think it’s a matter of confidence and comfortability. We play that kind of music with each other, and Adrianne writes those kinds of songs. It was more like a perspective shift of, This is a Big Thief song. And I definitely felt that on “Spud Infinity.” A long time ago, Adrianne wrote that. I think before U.F.O.F. and Two Hands came about.

AL: That was the first one named “Dragon,” actually.

JK: I remember you sent it to me and you were like, “This is a funny little song I wrote.” And I was like, “This is so good.” And you’re like, “It’s just a little joke, no worries. It’s just a fun one.” I was like, “I’m laughing and crying. That means it’s good.”

BM: I grew up playing country music. And then when I first met Adrianne, in 2012, you were singing all these John Prine songs like “Mexican Home.” That’s kind of how we first started bonding over music, just playing Townes Van Zandt and John Prine and Iris DeMent on our stoop.

AL: I feel like the difference now is that we’re giving ourselves permission to explore and play and be silly and laugh at ourselves. I think we’re also getting more comfortable with ourselves as we experience life. And we’re also getting more comfortable being ourselves in the context of being with each other. I think of our very first album — which James wasn’t even on, he was engineering it — Masterpiece. That was the least ourselves, maybe. But still ourselves. But then Capacity, I felt like we were way more expressive of our own [individuality]. I remember that’s when Max started playing more melodic baselines. Then U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, I was like, Wow, I can really hear each person coming out way more.

BM: It’s always been us. We’re always trying to bare our souls as much as we can. It’s just that as we grow older and have life experience, with love and loss, we are able to relinquish more and inhabit our own skin.

AL: Have you ever had those realizations as you get older, like, Why did I ever think I couldn’t wear that? And then suddenly you give yourself permission to wear that thing that you would never have worn in middle school. I feel we’re like, Why did we ever think we couldn’t do this in music? In a lot of ways, this record feels like our first record. It feels like the beginning. This is the key that unlocks the room that I really want to be in. And now that we’re in this room, I can actually start working with the materials that I want to work with.

This album is also using electronics and synthetic sounds in a way the band hasn’t before. How did you decide that was something that could be part of Big Thief?

JK: It’s almost like there’s these parallel streams that are going. Obviously, we’re more comfortable floating in the stream that we naturally play in, or what you think you’re good at. But you are always looking at the other ones like, That looks fun. Man, I kind of want to make something like that … but we’re comfortable here. And we’re still just scratching the surface. A lot of that more electronic stuff, we tried and couldn’t fully inhabit it yet. And so we cut it, as a valuable experiment of like, Ooh, we’re onto something. It doesn’t quite sound like us yet. There’s some crazy electronic songs that got left on the cutting-room floor.

MO: I feel like the upside of doing that is that you keep exploring. The spirit is, Where next? What next? Who next? We just want to keep reaching out to what is unknown. And I feel like that curiosity is at the center of what we’re doing. To keep the wonder.

You’re talking about trying these things and they don’t quite get there, or eventually you reach a moment when it clicks. How do you know when something is right?

JK: On Two Hands, we recorded at Sonic Ranch, and we finished the record and sat with it. The song “Not,” it was like, “Is this the take of this, really?” And we finally just rerecorded it. Because we were like, “I think we can do it better.” It wasn’t bad at all, the take that was there, but sure enough, we did it again and did it better. And that’s totally abstract, our own personal radar thing, but it flexed that muscle of, we know what we want. And we do know when it’s not quite there, even if other people will like it.

AL: We’re a band that values exploration above product. I feel like we find the value in the work. Just building our internal muscles is more valuable to us than the end result. And I feel like that’s a really special thing because it allows for a lot of freedom. It just has to feel good to us. If no one else likes it, that’s fine. Like, we can’t control it beyond that. And if everyone likes it and we don’t feel it, then we’re going to keep going until we like it.

MO: To me, that’s one of the greatest things that we have. We’re sitting in the studio and there’s this vibe about our band. I don’t like a certain note I did, and I pull it back and everyone’s looking at it. We do this to each other. I say, “Yeah, it’s right there, 1:36.” And then you can see that everyone’s about to just love this thing that you don’t love. To me, that is like a giant kiss on the soul. To experience these things where you’re like, “I don’t like that.” And then your friend says, “Oh, you mean that note that makes me want to call my mom? You want to delete that?”

As musicians who all have your own solo careers, how do you know when an idea is a Big Thief thing versus something for yourself?

AL: More often than not, I feel like the songs lend themselves naturally. There’s songs that I have done by myself that I feel are in their best form when it’s just an intimate thing. And then there’s songs that I’ll show to the band and immediately everyone starts, wheels turning, maybe tweaking a word, or having thoughts on a line of the song, or changing a chord. I can always tell based on that momentum.

MO: If one of us wants to do something, we’re all behind it. We have ego with each other because we’re human, I suppose. Allegedly. But also, there is a place between us, in the music, that’s completely selfless.

AL: Originally, I had a bunch of songs written that were all part of the next Big Thief album. And when COVID hit, I was like, “I want to record right now. I want to record in this little cabin.” I was planning on recording a lot of Big Thief songs.

JK: I had 48 hours of soul searching, and I was like, Why am I? And then jealousy. You eventually get to the point — which, you kind of know you’re going to get there eventually, but you actually have to feel it — where it’s like, Adrianne should record whatever the fuck she wants. It’s so much more free to be like, “Do what you feel. And you being fulfilled will feed this project.” And I feel that way with everyone’s projects they do outside of the band.

AL: Funny enough, I felt full permission. I actually wanted to record “Simulation Swarm” solo. I did. I felt everyone be like, “Go for it, do whatever. It’s so beautiful.” And I didn’t end up being happy with the version, and what ended up happening was all these new songs came out. It’s like, when you let go, stuff falls where it’s supposed to.

I know “Certainty” was a co-write between Adrianne and Buck. I saw your set at Pitchfork Fest and watching that one live, there was this clear affection across the stage that was really impactful. How did the two of you get back to that point?

AL: You mean after being married and divorced and then going through a separation and a reformation?

Yeah, I know you’ve talked about learning how to become friends again.

BM: Partly through the music, I think. The music served as a conduit to that, through that evolution.

AL: I think it’s just a testament to our bond and the love that we have. That it’s not bound to a form. It’s a very deep friendship that maybe is beyond this lifetime. Maybe we’ve collaborated in many forms throughout lives. Playing together, I often was struck by the thought that perhaps we chose the path of the music and this band over the path of being romantic partners. There were a few years where it was really, really challenging to know how to navigate both of our sensitivities and feelings. And everyone in the band felt it. It’s bewildering to me, like, How did we do this?

JK: I feel like, if we were just traveling around the country on business and working together, you guys probably would’ve just said, “Fuck it. Let’s get different jobs for a little bit.” But there’s something about music that is so healing.

BM: Yeah, totally.

JK: And you can feel it even in the smallest ways when you’re arguing with someone, or you just have tension, or you just don’t like someone, but you’re playing music with them. If you guys can let go in the music, you find a whole ’nother layer of empathy there. There’s just a foundation of much deeper, actual human-to-human connection beyond labels and categories. I feel like it’s a fast track for healing anything.

AL: And from the beginning, we connected really deeply, musically.

BM: That was there first.

AL: And I do think that the music healed us. We were even writing songs on tour about the process of breaking up and singing them together. Like “Two Hands” and “Replaced.” And then Buck made a record with a few songs on it that I would hear sometimes and I’d just be crying. But it was a heart-opening feeling because songs helped us to actually get to feel the emotions we needed to feel and process what we needed to process with love.

BM: They memorialize experiences and help you externalize them from your chest and hold them in your hand and let them fly away. And I think that’s been there for all of us in the band. I have a friendship with Adrianne, and a friendship with James, and a friendship with Max. And I have a friendship with Max and Adrianne and a friendship with Adrianne and James, and with James and Max. And each of those constellations has a deeply complex system of emotions, and triggers, and experiences, and joys, and subtlety. And it’s been a really long story, reconciling with all of that.

AL: Because we’ve gone through breakups, all of us in a way. Me and Max had some breakups, me and James had some breakups.

MO: Exactly. As many things.

AL: We’ve all had to shed skins and go through letting go of things and then decide to keep going as a group.

BM: We think it’s for the music, and it also in the long run might actually just be for ourselves and for each other. But the music is the thing that’s at the forefront of this sacrifice for each other.

AL: Are we here for the music or is the music here for us?

MO: But the music — I think we can call it “music” — is this connection. And then all the other connections happen. Actually, maybe it’s not music. Maybe it’s something else, but then we have guitars and stuff.

AL: My instinct is that the music is actually here for us, because the music is the closest thing that we can get to a bridge between the tangible, seeable realm and the intangible that is beyond explanation. And it’s way, way clearer than talking about it, to just play music. So we can, and anyone in the room with us, the audience, can all experience together, what it’s like to get a little closer to all the things that we can’t describe.

Listening to the album front to back, “Change” begins with this question, “Would you live forever, never die?” And then we end on “Blue Lightning,” which has twisted that a bit into, “I want to live forever till I die.” And I kind of hear the middle as this journey to get there.

BM: I never put that together.

AL: I never put that together either.

JK: It’s funny because “Blue Lightning” also was recorded and written before “Change.” And was an ad lib.

AL: It is not opposites, though. Because, “Would you live forever, never die? / While everything around passes” — it’s accepting the transition, and the change, and potentially the infinite, too. Change and death is maybe just a doorway into another journey. And then “Blue Lightning” saying, “I want to live forever till I die,” I think is more speaking to the spirit of each day, how each day could be forever. Each moment could echo infinitely. You know that feeling, if you’ve ever fallen in love, where it’s like, “I want to be with you forever”? There was a period of time where I would say that’s kind of low vibration. We’re going to die, it’s going to end, everything is temporary. But then recently, I’ve come into this new gentleness surrounding that sentiment, like, “It’s okay, sweetheart. That’s what you’re feeling. You want to be forever in love.”

BM: Right now.

AL: Right now? You can be with someone forever right now. Like, you can dance forever right now.

On “Spud Infinity,” you say “When I say infinity, I mean now.” Like that.

AL: Yeah!

JK: Her ideas all make their way in there, one way or another. [All laugh]

MO: We’re waiting for the mapping of all this on Reddit. Because we didn’t know. We didn’t see those.

AL: I wonder how many little ties there are. Because we did the sequencing so stream of consciousness. Just what felt right. I wonder, if we really mapped out everything, how it would be if you looked at it as a narrative from start to end.

Maybe that was just what jumped out to me because I heard the whole album as this very life-affirming thing about living in the now, but that’s also something that’s been a theme of my life at the moment.

JK: Music’s pretty good at making what you’re thinking pop out, be it good or bad.

MO: There’s something about music. [All laugh]

AL: That idea of infinity is mind boggling to me. I know that, scientifically, you can see the patterns and go, this is probably infinite. [But] what human being can fathom eternity? The only thing you can wrap your mind around, maybe, is now. There’s moments where, and they happen less than I want them to. I hope that as I grow into life, that they’ll happen more. Moments when I truly come into the present, where the beginning point and the end point vanish from my thoughts. So then it becomes infinite, like the present. [That] is the closest to fathoming infinity that I can imagine, is being very, very present. That feels like the longest life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ is located in Luray Caverns in Luray, Virginia. It was created by Leland W. Sprinkle, a former Pentagon scientist, in 1954. Oso walked in on the band recording “Time Escaping” during the Topanga Canyon session. Lenker telling him, “It’s music!” stayed in the bridge of the song. Lenker also has a song called “dragon eyes” on her 2020 album songs. The world’s largest residential recording studio in Tornillo, Texas. Big Thief wanted the environment of Two Hands to contrast that of U.F.O.F. in Washington. Lenker and Meek met in 2015 and married shortly after. They divorced in 2018. Lenker told GQ she walked to the courthouse arm in arm with Meek before their divorce.
The Miracle of Big Thief