Track By Track: Arthur Buck
Arthur Buck, the new project and self-titled album featuring Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck, is a product of serendipity, pure and simple.
The two have known each other for a few decades. Arthur opened a number of gigs back in Buck’s R.E.M. days, and Buck subsequently joined Arthur onstage on occasion. However, they had never contemplated initiating any formal collaborative project until they crossed paths in Todos Santos, Mexico.
“I just went to Mexico to go get my Dobro,” Arthur explains, “and Peter happened to be there at Todos Santos, which is where he and [his wife] Chloe, have done this music festival for like five, six years. I’ve participated in it, I think, every year but one. I left my Dobro down there a year earlier and it was a real nice one. I was in California, and tickets to Todos Santos weren’t that much, so I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna roll to Mexico and grab my Dobro and hang out for like a week.’ I didn’t even know Peter was gonna be down there, but I have another friend in New York who was like, ‘Oh, Peter and Chloe are headed down there.’”
“I invited him to come swimming,” Buck recalls, “He showed up and said, ‘You know, man, I’m living way out in the country and there’s weird noises and bugs and stuff.’ So he joined us. The original theory was that I was going to play acoustic guitar on his solo record. We worked on a few things and then songs started popping up. I’d play a chord sequence and he’d like it, and I’d play another chord sequence and it’d be part of a melody. At that point, I had no idea what was going to be done with it. There was no planning whatsoever.”
“We had like five songs,” Arthur adds. “Then, I had an art exhibit in LA, and Peter and Chloe were driving back from Todos Santos to Portland, [Ore.]. So they stopped in LA and we did a show. I followed them to Portland, we recorded and I took it home to finish in Brooklyn.
“Tchad Blake mixed it and he’s really good with things that are quirky. It didn’t fit squarely into any one thing. There are lots of drum-machine beats and beat-oriented stuff and, yet, it’s sort of an indie-rock-and- roll type of vibe and sort of funky too. It blends into lots of different places, and that’s where Tchad thrives and excels.”
The pair will support the record with a series of tour dates in September.
I AM THE MOMENT
Buck: We were doing a show in Los Angeles and I showed up while Joe was out having dinner or something. He left his Dobro and it was capoed on the fifth fret. I never use capos, I just play what I play, but I didn’t want to change his guitar settings, so I just started playing this thing, capoed on the fifth fret. I had a structure—a little bit of a melody, the bridge, an intro and all that stuff. I played it for him when he came back and he said, “I’ve got this thing in my notebook, ‘I Am the Moment.’” I added the “waiting for you” part and we went back and forth. He wrote all the words and I helped a little bit with the melody. We did that for about half an hour and I said, “Well, OK, this show starts in about an hour, so let’s write all these words down and play it tonight.” He said, “Tonight?” But we did, and we actually played it twice because it was fun and we took it someplace different.
ARE YOU ELECTRIFIED?
Buck: The title is obviously a little tip of the hat to Are You Experienced? But it’s more about some life-changing things that Joe and, maybe to a degree, I have been going through. It was originally a bit on the psychedelic side and then it got funkier as we went on, adding the drum machines and the bass and, eventually, live drums. A lot of the stuff Joe did to finish the record were things I might not have imagined going on, and it was a surprise to hear it.
Arthur: This was one of the first songs we wrote together. I remember enjoying the fact that I could just concentrate on singing, concentrate on the melody and the lyrics. I feel that writing—when it’s done well—is like engaging in a process that’s akin to dreaming when you’re awake because you’re accessing the subconscious. That’s how I engaged in this writing with Peter since I could easily bypass my mind. He’s such a melodic player that his guitar playing suggests this melodic content. So it was just letting go, opening up, singing and being open to the first thing you want to sing—committing to that and letting go.
Arthur: There were three phases to the initial process of getting this record made. The first one was in Mexico, the second one was in LA and then the third one was in Portland. By the time Peter was leaving LA, we decided to meet up in a few days in Portland, and write a couple more songs, and go into the studio there and record Peter’s rhythm guitar. So then, I could take it home to Brooklyn and work on it. “Forever Waiting” is one of those first five songs from Mexico. We were writing songs that would just be fun to sing and that one voice could carry. Then, we went out and played this little festival during the day in front of about 20-30 people, and we played in a little bar, on another day, in front of about 10-20 people.
IF YOU WAKE UP IN TIME
Arthur: That’s one of the ones that, when Tchad was mixing, he was like, “Man, I really like the way this one is going, but I don’t know if you guys are gonna like it.” It’s a good example of what Tchad brings. He makes arrangements out of the instruments and excludes things and includes things so I feel like, in some ways, he invented the way that this song sounds.
He’s a producer and mixer, but he puts a pretty strong stamp on things. He arranges things and just has a very bold approach, a strong signature. I always feel real confident when he’s mixing something. He takes chances and he does things that aren’t expected or safe yet, everything sounds really good. So it gives you confidence.
Buck: At one point, before we had “American Century,” it was nine songs and I felt that we needed to add something. About 10-12 years ago, I decided I was going to teach myself how to play piano. I played for like three hours a day and I scored a play by recording piano stuff. Then, through life changes, I moved out of that house, and I don’t think I’ve touched a keyboard again. But I did happen to have mp3s of this music floating around. It was about 15 minutes of piano-based stuff. I sent it to Joe as an mp3 and said, “Your assignment is to write lyrics and sing this tonight and send it back to me tomorrow.” What he came up with was great and Tchad apparently liked it because he stretched it out a little bit.
Buck: “American Century” was written at Christmastime and recorded sitting by the pool at 10 at night. Joe programmed the drums and I put down some electric guitars in the backyard. That one is probably the most-produced track and I don’t know if it’s because of the way we recorded it or that it was worked on later—or maybe it’s the one that Tchad really felt the strongest about.
Tchad mixed the record, and he’s a great mixer. Some of the stuff he does goes a little past mixing kind of into production. And certainly with “American Century”—the dropouts, the extended bits, the endings— all those were things that he sculpted out of the original track.
“American Century” is an essay from 1941 explaining why America has the moral, financial and military might to shape the world in its form. I read it in high school and it sounded like bullshit to me. And then, in the last 15 years, there was an essay called, “Farewell, the American Century” by a different person that pretty much described how we reneged on the potential that we had, and you can’t help but look around and see that.
I had the riffs and chords and I wrote a bunch of words. The chorus was “Farewell American Century” but my verses were directly political and less interesting. Joe took the basic idea and switched it around to make it have more of a spiritual feel—that a lot of what’s very wrong in America isn’t all coming from the top, that there are things in the middle of the country that are rotten too. But I don’t think he wanted to it to be a real negative statement. Joe wanted to make a forward-thinking record, maybe sharing some of the positive vibes that he’s going through.
Buck: “Forever Falling” was the first song we finished. Originally, I’d been playing on some of Joe’s things for his solo album. He had set up his little recording thing and I was just coming up with riffs. Then I started strumming without really thinking and Joe goes, “Ooh, what’s that?” I told him that I didn’t know. I was sort of playing and strumming. At the moment, the music and the lyrics fell together really quickly. We had a demo done in like 10-15 minutes.
After we did two shows in Mexico and one in Los Angeles, Joe said to me: “You know, I was going somewhere else with my solo record but this feels like a real record all the way through, and it should be treated as such.” So, I booked a day in the studio in Portland and he came to visit. We worked with a lot of programmed drum stuff originally, and then I put down all my guitars—a lot of acoustic and some electric stuff, thinking, “Maybe this is a demo” and then he took it home.
BEFORE YOUR LOVE IS GONE
Buck: “Before Your Love Is Gone” doesn’t feel like the rest of the record to me, and I don’t know why. I think it’s partly the tempo and the measured-ness of it. It’s not particularly funky. It’s not super dynamic. It just kind of had a sad feeling when we were working on it.
WIDE AWAKE IN NOVEMBER
Arthur: “Wide Awake in November” was one of the ones we wrote in Portland, so it was one of the last two. On the initial demo, I had it as track two. It was my favorite song on the record. Then, when Tchad was mixing it, he was like, “Hey, there’s no bass in ‘Wide Awake in November.’ Did you mean that?” And I had no idea. I thought, “I don’t know. I kind of like it like that. ‘When Doves Cry’ doesn’t have any bass.” And he was like, “No, man, put a bass on it.” And so I was like, “Fuck, OK.” So I put a bass on it and sent it to him, and I still really liked the way it sounded without bass, but then he sent it back and it was leaning heavy on the bass, so I got used to it like that. It’s one of my favorites and it’s one of my friend’s favorites, and he was mad at me for putting it on track 10, all the way in the back of the record. But the record’s strong throughout, so hopefully people get to it.
CAN’T MAKE IT WITHOUT YOU
Arthur: That was the magical moment for me in the studio in Portland because Peter was doing all that feedback E-Bow stuff that reminds me of “E-Bow the Letter” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi. That’s one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, so when I heard him do that in the studio, it brought me back to that. It’s wild when somebody’s feedback has a signature because feedback is feedback.
It’s really difficult to articulate magical moments in music without reducing them. But that was definitely one of them: when I realized his feedback had a signature. I was just like, “Wow.” I feel like this project has a thing where two people came together and made something that has this chemistry, an element that these two energies are bringing to it.
This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.