Richard Buckner is an American singer/songwriter (though he’s not much fond of the term!) who has been ploughing a beautiful, lonesome furrow on the fringes of the “alt-country” scene (another term he’s not keen on) for nearly two decades, delivering nine albums of intense, often dark, yet hugely melodic music. His latest, Our Blood, was released this year on Merge, and may just be his best yet, a poetic collection of sparse songs dealing with life and the passing of time.
Buckner was in London on the 7th of November for a wonderful concert in the gorgeous surroundings of St Pancras Old Church. Aided by a tight backing band, Italians Sacri Cuori, Buckner stood tall and strong, his elegant, fragile voice bolstered by the pristine acoustics as he ran through highlights from Our Blood such as “Traitor”, “Escape” and “Collusion, interspersed with older gems like “Amanda Barker” and “Loaded at the Wrong Door”. He even made time to perform an excerpt from his gorgeous score for little-known film Dream Boy and peppered the set with amusing one-liners.
If the venue was perfect, Richard Buckner was a match for it, his aching poetry boosted by his unique, buzzing acoustic guitar style. Before the concert, The Liminal caught up with Buckner to discuss Our Blood’s troubled genesis, the album’s theme, performing live, opening for Townes Van Zandt and his forthright political opinions.
This is the second date of your current European tour, how did the first night, in Winchester go?
I always get first night jitters, but I’d had a couple of rehearsals with the band, Sacri Cuori and it’s been so easy with them, so I wasn’t as nervous as usual. They know the songs, they’re really good guys, so it’s been rather easy. It wasn’t like here, it was in the back room of a pub, so we’re going to be changing the sound dramatically from night to night!
Of course. What made you decide to perform in a church?
Chris from the label was looking at other venues, which were all sold out, and we just found this place and added it to the schedule. This is what I like about being on tour, I love mixing it up, playing in clubs, art galleries, places like this. Though I can’t believe I’m getting to perform in a beautiful church like this one!
I would expect, however, that the acoustics present a bit of a challenge…
Yeah, but these guys (indicates Sacri Cuori sitting nearby) really know how to work that sound, and I think I’m going to play with the reverb myself as well.
You’re something of a cult figure as a singer/songwriter over here, do you that Our Blood, which may be your best album yet, and this tour, could bring you more attention and to a wider audience?
I’m not sure… I’m not a fan of songwriters, to be honest, really. I like mainly instrumental or written things. I don’t know how Our Blood would hit someone because I’m on the other side of the mirror, in a way. Personally, I don’t want to hear the record again. It took me so long to put out, and it really screws with me to hear it. I can’t listen to my records for usually five years or so after they’re released. It’s a weird mental state you get into! (laughs). By the time a record comes out, you’re too used to it, but I’m just happy Our Blood came out and I’m really happy that people are taking the patience to listen to it. In my mind, it’s a record that needs a bit of patience, things don’t really pop out all over the place. I appreciate records like that where I don’t hear it all right away. So, if that’s the case, then I think it’s a success and I don’t care what the numbers are.
Well, I’m a noise fan, so I love records that you have to be a bit patient with!
I’m a noise fan too! The minimal stuff, like drone, y’know, Vibracathedral Orchestra and all that.
As has been documented, there’s been quite a gap between Meadow and Our Blood. Has that hiatus allowed you to road-test the material and fine tune the new songs?
Actually it’s the exact opposite. Usually, what I’ve done is that I’ve had the song ideas, I collect them at a certain point, make some songs, take them on the road, then record them. This album was the first where I wrote the songs whilst I was making it. It just happened because, after my last album was finished, I immediately went to work on a film score, so I’d kind of changed my method of writing, I was coming in through the side door, rather than the front door, if you want to see it that way. So, when I finished the film score, and came to this, I was approaching music from a more instrumental side, as I’d done on the film score. Also, I wanted to leave the writing til last because I was doing a lot of my non-music writing separately and for me I thought it would be good to keep the words as a very separate thing from the music for as long as I could, to try and be as disciplined as I could with my non-music writing.
So, it just turned out that I was constructing the music and melodies as I was recording the album, not knowing if they would become the record or not. As I was writing, I was filtering the words, and trying to fit them onto the songs, and since it was a definite period of time, I was trying to make sure that some of the images weren’t overlapping and that the storyline I had in my head from song to song fell into a certain place, that the emotions of the melodies fell in with the words, and in the way the songs fit together in a certain order before it was even finished.
I’ve never done a record in this way, and not sure I want to again, but I think it’s healthy to change your method, it keeps you from going on autopilot with certain habits you don’t know you have.
Coming back to the upcoming concert, do you approach live performances differently to how you go into the studio?
I’ve changed over the years, live, and it’s not as easy as it used to be for me. I used to be young and brave and be able to just step up there and do anything. And now, I’m a lot more vulnerable onstage, and I get scared about sound and stuff. Also, I’m just coming out of this period, which lasted the last five years or so, where I went from being someone who was just standing up on stage singing songs, speaking a little between songs, to someone who was sitting down, using loops, and making an hour-and-a-half one long set with no breaks between songs, just shutting myself down from the audience, to go, not so much “into the zone” but to the basement of the zone! And I’m just coming out of that now, I’m standing up again, I’m actually saying things while I’m onstage. It was a period I went through, and I can’t even really say why it happened, but I think I just became a little worn down, socially. A lot of artist friends that I have, and I only just realised this in the last six to nine months as I was coming out of this cloud, had entered the cloud at the same time, about five or six years ago, and are also only just coming out. And I don’t really know why it happened at the same time. I mean, we know what’s been happening in the outside world, in the US and elsewhere, and I wonder if some subconscious collective wet blanket has been dropped on a bunch of creative people (laughs).
Is that reflected somewhat in the almost fragile or frail feel of your lyrics and songs?
I think that a lot of my artist friends and me, we’re all around the same age, between mid-thirties and late-forties, and it’s a period where people around you start dying or disappearing. A time when people start wearing out, be it mentally or physically, and I think it’s been happening a lot in my world, and other people’s worlds. I’ve been very aware, I think, not so much of the actual act of that, but maybe of the idea of that.
I think of the songs on Our Blood as going in a certain order, with a certain story going through, a thread, and to me it’s about waking up and thinking “Ok, here I am.” And the songs sort of follow on from that “Oh, man where have I been?” moment and realising that life is just gonna keep going. La la la life (laughs).
Do you find audiences very receptive to new material or do you get a lot of calls from people to play songs they’re familiar with?
I’m definitely sensitive to that. My first is that I want to play the new record from start to finish because I’m still discovering the songs. I did that for one tour. I was opening for Sebadoh, and we only had 45 minutes, so we did the whole record, we’re just an opening act. Who cares? But for this tour, I was sensitive to the fact that some records didn’t really have a strong distribution in Europe. So I was looking for songs that could break up the set. We’re doing most of the record, about seven songs, but we’re breaking them up with older songs that also maybe help the new songs flow into each other in a different way. So I’ve shaped the set in that way.
Our Blood is your 9th album, which makes you something of a veteran! Can you tell me how you got into music, your history?
Arts weren’t really encouraged in my house as a child, and we moved around so often, about two or three times a year, that I never had the chance to be in a music programme or really spend time doing that, even though I was obviously headed in that direction from an early age. So I didn’t start playing guitar until I was at college but the thing is, when I was 17, a friend of mine bought one of those early Fostex 4-track recorders and it blew my mind, and I wouldn’t even be a musician today if it wasn’t for those things, because it wasn’t about writing songs, it was about making noise and realising these happy accidents happen. It’s more about recording and sound to me. Writing songs is a way for me to make music but I just love being in my studio and just making noise and making sounds happen, and hoping some happy accident happens and I’ll discover some new use for my one cheap Casio in some way I hadn’t thought of.
When I went to college, I studied creative writing. I love writing, so when I was in college I started putting the writing and the interesting sounds together. I knew nothing about songwriting, and didn’t really care about it. I guess it was kind of punk, not like wanting to be like Townes Van Zandt or something…
Yet you get compared to him quite a lot, which is no bad compliment in my book…
No, he’s one of the few songwriters that I think not only wrote interesting songs, but also some of those seventies records had beautiful strings on them, and I think he made very interesting choices with his songs, and has a very interesting catalogue. I actually got to do one show with him, when I first started out, at an old speakeasy from prohibition days. It was quiet and dark, and it was amazing. It was interesting because it was the first time my parents, who weren’t really into music, saw me play, and not only did they come and see me play these whatever songs, but they also saw Townes Van Zandt. And I think it ruined them! (laughs).
Our Blood had a very difficult genesis. I read something about a headless body in a car? Can you take me through all the difficulties you had in making the album?
Yeah, I’ll try to cut it down. I did a film score after my first “real” record, so I thought I do a strange tour that would mix old songs with bits of the film score. But like with a lot of films, it didn’t really hit the theatres and kind of disappeared…
Dream Boy, right? I’ve got it, it’s beautiful. And your music is perfect for it.
I still haven’t seen it (laughs). I’m so glad. I read the script about 5 years before I made the score, it took [writer/director James Bolton] a long time to get the funding, but I’m glad he did and I’m glad a story like that’s been told, especially in America, given the kind of society we’re in…
I was so excited about working on this script that I did all the music before it was even filmed. I got a lot ideas from just reading the script, thinking about the situations and the way I kind of feel about these kind of things anyway (writer’s note: Dream Boy deals with a romance between two teenage boys in rural America in the seventies). I sent [Bolton] the music so whilst he was making the film he was listening to the music, which is a good experience because that way I didn’t have to re-do anything.
So I finished the film score, and moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York to bring tension levels down, and I had a bunch of material left over from the film score. My idea was to have these instrumentals with these written short stories and have some new songs, and kind of go back and forth like that on the record. But when I moved upstate, I don’t know if it was cat hair or dirt in the machinery, but the machine broke down and I lost all the extra film score material that I hadn’t turned in.
I thought “no big deal” and got the machine fixed and went to writing the songs. But it took me a couple of years to write the songs because I was also working day jobs because I wasn’t touring. And when I did get the songs together, the machine broke down again!
About this time, the cops knocked on my door, saying “where were you yesterday because there was a murder”. Luckily I had a day job – the one time I’ll say I was glad I had a day job! They took my information, made sure I was where I was and told me that this road near my house was a popular road for dumping bodies! Meanwhile, one of the newspapers said that a body had been found in a burning car, and when I went to work the next day, one of the truckers I worked with said “Did you know they can’t find the head?” (laughs). So I had this kind of privy information to this.
Anyway, I got my machine fixed and went back to work on the record. Four months later my landlord calls me at work and said the cops were looking for me. They said I might be a witness to something, so took me down to the station, into the basement and started talking about the body from a few months back. I said “Oh, that headless body?” and they go “Headless huh? What do you know about that?”. This is how stuff like Paradise Lost happen! They talked to me for a few hours, good cop/bad cop, took my photo, took a photo of me and my truck, called my employer, xeroxed my management log and I haven’t heard back, and it was 4 years ago, so I guess I’m cleared… But when I got out I called my music attorney and said “I know this isn’t your field, but am I in trouble?” (laughs). So I was questioned about a murder, but I haven’t heard back…
So that ends, and I figure I have to finish this record. I hired some guys to do some overdubs: pedal steel and percussion, recorded it… And the machine had another problem. I couldn’t believe this was happening! I got it fixed and was able to keep most of the data, but by the time I got it back, I’d decided I wanted to change keys and tempos and how I approached the songs, so I ended up not using a lot of the overdubs. By then I was at a point where I had an over-familiar piece of furniture for a record, so I told a friend to take the record into a studio and just mix it so I could see the album in a new light. He brought it back and of course I had decisions I needed to make on it.
So I recorded it a fourth time, using some of the old stuff and recording some new stuff, and decided that if I set a mastering date I wouldn’t be able to tinker with it. And I found a guy, two blocks from where I live in this small town, named Malcolm Burn, and he was able to remix it in a week. And I decided that this record was going to get done, and be this moment in time, even if I hated it, otherwise I’d never do another record again. It was starting to pollute the other areas of my life: I had started to not write fiction, or draw, or read, or think. And lo and behold, about a month after I’d finished the record, these things started to come back. I think it had started to become a burden. Sorry for the long-weighted story (laughs), but it was something of a journey!
Do you think those travails coloured the slightly dark atmosphere on the album?
I think the performances certainly reflect that, because I was freaked out!
Your voice is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard it, but it does sound fragile…
Oh thank you. A friend of mine lent me this very old, expensive microphone. It was the star of the album for me. But I was super freaked out, not only by all the stuff that was happening in the world, but because I couldn’t finish the record. The pressure was building. I would call my record label and say “Hey, the record’s done!” and then have to call back and say “You’re not going to believe this, the machine broke again”. I felt like a liar, you know, or a scam. So, I think performance-wise that was probably coming out.
It’s also a musically very stripped-down album. Was that a conscious decision?
I gave myself a handicap. I decided I wouldn’t use any standard six-string guitar strumming. I had a bunch of tenor guitars strung upside down, and I wanted to use those because when you layer two or three oddly-strung guitars playing the same chord, the octaves within the chord interact in a different way and you have these different final chord reactions. Because I knew that those accidental harmonics would challenge what I was doing vocally and with the melodies. And these ghost harmonics spring up from octaves hitting each other in a way they don’t do normally, and you hear melodies that aren’t really there.
Do you aim for all your albums to have a set theme? I know Impasse (2003) was a sort of poem set to music…
No, it just happens sometimes. Before Impasse, I made an album called The Hill which definitely had a thread, and I was going through a marriage break-up and there were certain things that just seemed the feed into each other along the way. Impasse was similar to Our Blood, it was the last album I made at home, and after it I’d said I’d never make an album at home. Lo and behold – Our Blood caused me as many problems. Impasse is the first record that I can feel comfortable playing the songs from. So they’re kind of similar records to me, in a way.
Reading a lot of interviews with you, I note a certain political side to what you do. You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re part Native American, and Dream Boy was a gay-themed film, and you’ve commented on the state of America in this interview. Do you think a political stance is important to your music?
I don’t think it has appeared in the music. I’m a believer in human rights. It’s not about Native American rights, or gay rights, or whatever, it’s about human rights. It’s completely appalling to me -and I’m going to get upset (laughs)- the things that are going on in this world that people don’t see. You know, denying someone a basic human right. It’s appalling to me that we don’t see [gay rights] the same way that we viewed the civil rights movement in the sixties or the women’s rights struggle in the first half of the twentieth century. I can’t believe what I see in the world…
Your guitar sound has a very “buzzing” quality, and you mentioned drone earlier on. How did you develop that sound?
You know what? I love cheap instruments! My favourite guitars in the world are Harmonies. And they chug and they buzz and they sound like the cracks they have. The guitar I’m playing tonight, that’s the nicest guitar I’ve ever used, it’s the kind of guitar lawyers buy (laughs). I didn’t have an acoustic for the tour, my usual one has broken down, and this is a very fancy guitar. But it still has a buzz. The sounds on Impasse and Our Blood are reflective of that. Please don’t give me a clear-sounding guitar. I’ll never own a Strat! (laughs)
To finish up, how do you think you have evolved as a singer and musician over the years, and with the difficult genesis Our Blood had?
I never set out to write songs with verse/chorus/verse. I wasn’t against that, it was just uninteresting to me. Even in college, when I was turning in my writing to my professors, I was very deconstructive. I wanted to record my experience how it came out of my head, right there. I wanted it to be like life is: the momentary things that happen. They’re just moments. Things happen and only later do we think “That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard of – and it just happened to me”. I’ve always wanted to keep that kind of spirit, in music. Where things pop up where you weren’t expecting them to pop up. I strive for those kind of surprises, and I don’t want to come out of a record not learning something during the process. For me, the happy outcome of a project is having enough room to be deconstructive about it where you come away feeling “I’ve changed a little bit and I feel like I hit a new plateau in the way I approach creativity”. Because the approach is where the real satisfaction comes from.