Big Thief on New Album: 'I've Excavated More Into My Own Heart and Chest'
"That's the thing we're guarding first and foremost," says Adrianne Lenker on an early spring day. She's at the top of Topanga Canyon in California, taking a bit of rare downtime for herself. In just a few weeks, her band Big Thief will resume what's seemingly become an endless road trip that started just four years ago in Brooklyn, where they took any and every gig, playing hundreds per year, while trying to maintain some sense of balance. And that thing she and the band are guarding is their creative spark; it's seemingly under attack these days. "How do you maintain your sensitivity and your openness to people? How do you keep intact with the tender part of yourself? That's the part your creativity flows through," she says.
Big Thief release their third album, U.F.O.F., on Friday (May 3). They've risen quickly -- something you saw often during the indie-rock boom of the 2000s, but not so much these days. Their music often oscillates between dirgey guitar-driven arrangements and quiet, ultra-vulnerable, hushed vocals from Lenker — a balance of intimacy and warmth, sadness and a bit of hope all woven together at once. It's not flashy or over-produced -- in fact, it's just the opposite. The word 'raw' comes to mind, sure, but it's more than that — and fans are becoming obsessed, so much so that the band is set to headline 1,000-plus seat clubs and theaters this fall.
Big Thief signed to Saddle Creek and released their debut Masterpiece in 2016, promptly following that up with Capacity in 2017, which garnered critical acclaim and wound up high on numerous end of year lists (only Kendrick Lamar and SZA placed higher on NPR's top 50; Newsweek ranked it No. 1). Now, after several labels pursuing the group, the band has found a new home with 4AD alongside indie powerhouses such as the National, the Breeders and Grimes.
The seeds of Big Thief were planted way before Masterpiece. Lenker had been playing and writing music most of her life, and even flirted with trying to become a pop star when she was in her teens (her dad was her manager, but it didn't go anywhere). Eventually she moved to New York in 2012 and met Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek; the two struck up a creative partnership and began writing and touring as a duo. They expanded into a four piece and formed Big Thief in 2015 — nowadays, Lenker is the primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, with Meek also playing guitar. The band is rounded out by Max Oleartchik on bass and James Krivchenia on drums.
"It's this combination of being very focused on the same thing, which is just expanding our songs and our friendships and the craft, first and foremost," Lenker says of the band's rise. "The recognition and all that stuff is just a bonus. When we first started out, booking tours and burning CDs — it felt fulfilling in itself. But our friendships, most of all -- we've had to have a crash course in relationships. Being on the road together and having to talk through everything and work through everything, develop intricate languages to communicate everything."
For U.F.O.F., the band spent a month demoing last February and a month recording at Bear Creek studios in Washington State last June, which is a lot of time for them -- Masterpiece was done in 12 days, and Capacity in a month.
"Adrianne has always brought in the bones of the songs, pretty fleshed out," Meek says. "For this record, we wanted to provide a polarity between this experience sonically. We wanted to have this vocal sound and a lot of the rhythm sections, super lucid. And dry too. Just feeling like the human element was really close to the heart."
That sonic experience this time seems to explore much more rootsy arrangements; acoustic guitars are more present, bringing Lenker's voice more up front. Standouts in this vein include "Cattails," "Century," and "Orange," the latter an exercise in Lenker's provocative imagery that features twisting limbs, fragile flesh and a narrator who's "crying little rivers in her forearm."
"This one expands more into the raw, human body experience of it all," Lenker says. "And into the observer as well. The inward and the outward. I got even higher perspective — I can see more of the landscape, but simultaneously, I've excavated more into my own heart and chest."
4AD head of A&R Ed Horrox was captivated after seeing Big Thief's live show. "[They're] basically a world class band in an era when those kind of talents are thin on the ground," he says. "There is a very honest, sincere spirituality about them. Music lovers become serious converts when there's a level of trust and belief in an artist's talent. Big Thief's album release timeline and quality control reveals them to be a band to believe in."
Horrox says the label is focused on blowing the band up worldwide, beyond their already established fanbases in the U.S. and U.K. But at the same time, they don't want to get in the way of their creative streak. "It's in [their] nature to remain prolific. It is natural rather than strategic — [and] it is at the core of conversations about how we work with them."
Nowadays, the band has all moved on from Brooklyn. Meek lives in Los Angeles; Krivchenia lives in New Mexico and Oleartchik spends most of his time in Tel Aviv. Lenker is a bit nomadic and just sets up shop wherever until the band hits the road again.
Ask them about their popularity and they seem to be still in a bit of shock -- or super humble about it. Lenker says she's never really considered why people latch on to them so dearly.
"I know so many songwriters who do write straight from their heart and don't care that they find broader recognition," she says. "It's really interesting. There's music out there that's not so vulnerable and it reaches a lot of people. There's no formula for knowing exactly."