A Conversation with Luck and Buck Meek
by Elle Hussey
In support of his new album, Buck Meek, Buck Meek played Rough Trade Records last week as a part of the Northside Festival (NYC’s own mini-SXSW) with Potted Plant, Katie Von Schleicher and Sam Evian. We walked down to East River State Park between soundcheck and the show and watched pickup soccer games as we chatted about his new self-titled release, his writing process, Luck, and his secret surf-punk band Pencil. Read and listen to the interview below.
Luck: So this new album, it's your first solo release in three years?
Buck: Yeah, since..I guess so!
Luck: So what was the writing process like?
Buck: Well I've been, I'd say half the songs I wrote over the course of the last three years. on tour and for the moments in between tour. Just, you know, whenever I could find a quiet moment. I'm generally a really slow writer. The first seed may come really quickly and then it'll take me like a couple months to finish the song. Or often as I get to know someone I'll write...the just the song will unfold. Whether I'm getting to know someone or getting to know myself, it'll unfold slowly generally. But last year a group of my friends did a songwriting project where we had to write a song every day for a week, and then a song every week for a year. and it was a really incredible group of people.
Luck: And you stuck with it?
Buck: Yeah well I didn't make it the whole year but I made it the whole week and then I made it like four months, five months. and then Big Thief was so busy that I...I really have no excuse but I was on tour with Big Thief so...every day of the month. I dropped the ball but nonetheless it was really good for me because it forced me to let go of my self-judgement and just learn how to rely on my instincts more. And actually, like half the songs from this album came from that. Or at least half; a seed of them came and then I edited them really quickly after.
Luck: So do you have like an ideal writing environment? Like “this is where I feel most comfortable”?
Buck: Yeah. Probably the river. To be honest, it's probably the river in Texas. The Blanco River in Wimberly is my ideal writing environment.
Luck: What about recording? Do you have a space you always go or?
Buck: Well this record - I always record in different studios - this record was made in three different studios. Rivington 66, which is in the Lower East Side of New York; and then Figure 8 which is in Brooklyn; and the Leafy Lounge which is in Manhattan. And they're all really beautiful studios, but I think ideally I would like to work in a studio in the woods. I've never made a solo record out in the woods but Big Thief made a record at this studio called Outlier Music, which is up in upstate New York, and we're gonna record at this place called Sonic Ranch outside of El Paso this summer which is on 300,000 acres of pecan orchards - like on the Mexican border. I have yet to record there but I think it's gonna be my favorite studio on earth...like right on the Rio Grande.
Luck: That's so cool. You can pick pecans while you're out there...make some pecan pie. Where do you find yourself the most inspired?
Buck: Hmm..most inspired..I find myself most inspired in nature, with my friends generally. Like, swimming with my friends or walking through the woods.
Luck: What were your influences for this album? Was there anything you were constantly listening to?
Buck: Hmm...yeah, I would say Michael Hurley and Dan Reeder. I discovered Dan Reeder about halfway through writing this record. He was a big influence. And I read a ton of David Foster Wallace during the writing process - I read Infinite Jest and a bunch of his short stories. My friends -- honestly, I think my friends, again, are my biggest inspiration -- and in every way, like, my friends in New York City like Twain and Adrianne Lenker, of course, of Big Thief and my friend Mikey Buishas who has a band called Really Big Pinecone - they’re incredible. And Sam Evian, who I'm playing with tonight, and Wilder Maker and Renata Zeiguer and Ian Davis of the band Relatives - Ian and Katie have a band called Relatives. My community here and then also my community from Texas. The Kerrville Folk Festival's been a big inspiration for me and often when I'm writing I have those people in mind. As an audience...as a projected audience almost, or a muse of sorts.
Luck: Are there albums that you find yourself always coming back to?
Buck: Trying to think of one that I come back to after my whole life, since my childhood. In the last few years albums that I've come back to a lot are...John Prine's Souvenirs and let's see, Neil Young's Zuma. But again I mostly listen...to my friends more than anything. Like, all those records I just listed are the records I listen to every day.
Luck: That's so awesome. So, I've noticed that there's an ongoing theme in your albums of, like, specific names and characters - are those fictional? Are they people in your life, or is it different every time?
Buck: They're based on true events. Some of them are combinations of various people in my life...that I've combined into an archetype of sorts. People that are close to me, and people that I may have met in passing. And then some of them are literally based on people in my life.
Luck: Do they know?
Buck: Yeah, some of them do.
Luck: How did they take that? Do they like it?
Buck: Well, for instance - I've never told anyone this - but my song "Best Friend" on the record... it's from the perspective of one of my best friend's dog. I won't name him, but his dog ran away. Actually I'll tell you the whole story. We can go back a little bit. I first met my friend in Texas, we were pedi-cabbing a Dallas Cowboys game. We pedi-cabbed in Austin together and we went up to pedi-cab [the] game and we were staying at this hotel and he got a call from his grandmother that his dog had run away. We were kind of acquaintances and buds at this point, but that night he got the news that his dog ran away and he grieved really deeply with me. We shared a hotel room, and like that was the moment we really became friends. He grew up in Arkansas and his dog was with his grandmother in Northern Arkansas where he lived, and he had come into Texas to work and his dog ran away, probably looking for him. So that song is definitely inspired by that dog, and also what kind of led me to imagine the kind of impossible story of a dog running away to go back to nature.
Luck: Yeah, to go back to their natural habitat. Did your friend love the tribute to his dog?
Buck: Oh yeah, that was your question. I think that he...I don't think he loved it, no. I think it makes him feel really sad. Or at least it makes him feel like really bittersweet.
Luck: Another song on the album, Flight 9525, I was actually living in Barcelona when that happened. So I like remember all that happening and it being on the news and everything. So what drew you to that story?
Luck: Dark turn, dark turn...
Buck: I didn't have any direct relationships with anyone on that plane or anything like that. But it was a time in my life where I was really coming to understand that humans often, of course, lash out from their own pain. You know, like, when we hurt someone just because we're hurting ourselves and...like, it was a time my life when in terms of that with my own relationships - coming to a point of acceptance and empathy with the people in my life and the people outside of my life - that hurt each other. you know? Of course that is an extremely tragic example that has no...there's no way out of that one - but in so many cases it's preventable with care. And I've learned a lot about how to respond when people, when anyone, acts out of aggression towards me. It’s my intention, at least...to receive it with love and try to diffuse it. I guess that song was kind of part of my process of understanding that.
Luck: Yeah, that makes sense. I feel like a lot of times in tragedy we learn more about ourselves, and how we react around other people. On a lighter note - let's talk about Texas. We established we both grew up there so how has that influenced your writing and your sound?
Buck: Well, I'm sure in so many ways beyond my understanding I think we're a product of our environment to a certain degree. But consciously I grew up -- like my dad took me to see a lot of music growing up and we’re in Houston -- so I grew up listening to tons of blues as a kid at the Big Easy, D’Anton’s Seafood...like, seeing Lightning Hopkins’s cousin play.
Luck: My dad plays in a blues band in Paris, TX.
Buck: Yeah, that music is just in the air down there. My first job was...when I was 15 I worked at a mexican restaurant in Wimberly, TX called Juan Enrique’s washing dishes and the bartender, this dude Brandon....was an incredible blues guitar player and he kinda took me under his wing. He was the first person to, you know, take me and really teach me how to play the blues in the shed behind his house. He taught me how to drink beer. He hired me for my first show in Wimberly. So that was a big influence for sure. And then, the Kerrville Folk Festival. I started going to Kerrville when I was 15. Have you ever been out there?
Luck: I haven’t.
Buck: Ah, it’s incredible. It’s this beautiful ranch three hours west of Austin and this festival’s been happening since 1972. It’s a gathering for songwriters. It’s called a folk festival but I really see it as a songwriting festival. There’s a stage and they have shows on the weekend but the campground is what I go for. It’s just this incredible collection of people from all over the state and some from all over the country that come just sit around the fire and sing their songs and catch up with each other through their songs every year. You know, some people have been going for like 50 years. They really just feel like a family, and I started going out there...before I’d ever written a song, and I think that was by far the biggest influence on me as a songwriter.
Luck:That’s cool. Did you feel a big change when you came to New York?
Buck: Yeah, definitely.
Luck: Everybody does, right?
Buck: Yeah well, first I went to Boston. I went to school in Boston to study music.
Luck: At Berklee?
Buck: Yeah I went to Berklee cause after Brandon I met this dude Django Porter in Texas who was ironically incredible at Manouche jazz which is the politically correct term. And he took me under his wing as a Manouche jazz pompe rhythm player. And I kinda went to Berklee as an extension of that, to pursue jazz. And I got there and, like, wasn’t interested in modern jazz as much - kinda sidetracked into songwriting and playing rock n roll and that brought me to New York. And New York just like blew my mind. ‘Cause coming from a place like Texas where there’s so many great songwriters...most of my heroes down there are more in an older tradition. And then coming here and seeing all these younger kids writing songs with no traditional structure and just really like breaking the rules -- breaking every rule musically -- and that was really exciting for me. I think that’s been a really big part of my writing process evolving: taking that root from Texas and then bending it and like molding it to, you know, some unknown place.
Luck: So do you stay here most often?
Buck: Well, I lived here for six years, and three years ago I started touring full time with Big Thief. First with my duo with Adrianne which became Big Thief, and then the last year both with Big Thief and my solo project. So, I haven’t had an apartment for three years. My stuff’s been in a storage unit since like 2015, 2016.
Luck: There’s no stopping that in the foreseeable future, huh?
Buck: No, we’re only gonna get busier. I kinda, I spend my time off between New York and Austin mostly. Or Wimberly. I go home.
Luck: Yeah, that’s good. So what was it like for you coming to Luck? You’ve been twice right?
Buck: Yeah, the first year with Big Thief and then the second with my solo project. You know, it really did feel like home because...
Luck: It’s right there.
Buck: It’s the land I grew up in. It’s like 30 minutes from the house I grew up in. And Krause Springs - have you ever been out there?
Buck: Krause springs is my favorite swimming hole in the world. So we actually swam there the day before and I felt very comfortable there. And it’s such a beautiful festival. I felt at home like in the environment and also as a songwriter there, you know? It’s such a killer bill.
Luck: We love to hear that. It’s what we want for everybody.
Buck: Yeah it’s one of my favorites, Luck Reunion and Pickathon.
Luck: Yeah, Pickathon is great too.
Buck: Those are my two favorites. Well, so far.
Luck: That’s awesome.
Buck: Very different, but...
Luck: Yeah, for sure. So, Luck is often perceived as an Americana festival, though we don’t necessarily describe ourselves as such -- and I’m sure you have experience being associated with that genre as well. So what does “Americana” mean to you?
Buck: Well, I have a pretty tough time with genre tags to be honest.
Luck: Yeah, that was my next question.
Buck: Yeah I don’t like anything.
Luck: How do you feel being genre-associated shapes music for better or for worse?
Buck: Well, I see that it’s necessary. I think...I guess it’s necessary. For marketing and for...promotion. But I feel like its really destructive in people’s perception of music, though. Like, it’s really volatile. Especially when music journalists rely on it to...you know, for their own writing. Yeah, one of my favorite quotes is an old Louis Armstrong quote. Something like: “All music is folk music unless it’s horse music.” Yeah I try to live by that one.
Luck: Yeah, that’s kind of our outlook, as well... like everything is Americana. You know? Like anything that’s an American story is Americana.
Buck: Exactly. Anything that came out of America is American music I guess.
Buck: But also America is like an imaginary place.
Luck: It’s all just uh, just a mystery.
Buck: I mean I feel...here, I’ll be more specific. I disagree with general genre tags. I’m okay with really specific intelligent genre tags. Like, for instance, Texas is a much smaller region in America of course and and there is a distinction I hear in Texas songwriters coming from that place. Like, if they’re writing about Texas and they really come from that place, I’m okay. I’m okay with myself being called...having Texas in the tag somewhere because I really am influenced by my life there. But America is such a huge place and there’s so many different kinds of people here. It’s too general.
Luck: Yeah, I definitely agree. What’s the last thing you read/saw/listened to, whether that’s art or a podcast or music, that moved you?
Buck: Hmm whoa. The last thing? The last song I listened to in the car on the way here was Connie Converse’s “Playboy of the Western World”. That always moves me. I go back to that record a lot. And the last podcast I listened to, yesterday, was “Cocaine and Rhinestones”
Luck: Ohh yeah.
Buck: The Ernest Tubb story really, that moved me.
Luck: So obviously you’re gonna get the Adrianne question a lot - but what is the process for you with her and how do you tell the difference between what’s for Big Thief and what’s for you?
Buck: Well at this point, to go back, we met each other in 2012. And we started collaborating as a duo, mixing our material. And she would play lead guitar for me, for my songs... and vice versa, and we sang harmony on everything, and we toured like that for a couple years. And then we started hearing, like, a real distinction in our writing styles so we separated our projects. So technically Big Thief is her writing project and Buck Meek is mine. That’s really it, and at this point she doesn’t play in my band. So that’s the distinction - is that they’re my songs and I think they’re very different.
Luck: Yeah, they are.
Buck: And she does, she collaborates with me as much as she can but she’s got a lot on her plate. And so from this record she sings on one song and she usually sits in. If she’s in the audience she’ll jump up on stage for a few songs. But we realized that there’s certain little compromises we were making. Which it wasn’t a negative thing, it was just we felt like we both wanted to fully empower our writing and build a band around our writing style that was completely appropriate for it - you know? And, like, for instance, my songs are a little more - to use a genre tag - Texas outlaw country...whatever you wanna call it.
Luck: Right, with the steel and...
Buck: Right. And like having pedal steel and having a telecaster in the band is more appropriate even though I break those rules a lot too, I think. But for her, she just needed...she just needed, like, a rock-n-roll band - not like a pure...yeah. But the lines get blurred all the time. It’s very often that I’ll write a song that feels like it could fit in Big Thief or vice versa. And I’m sure over time we’ll have so many bands together. We have a band called Pencil, actually. Our little surf punk band.
Luck: Oh, that’s awesome.
Buck: For the songs that don’t make sense.
Luck: Have you released anything?
Buck: There’s two records on bandcamp. Pencil Number 1 and Pencil Number 2.
Buck: Nobody knows. Very few people have heard it.
Luck: I was like, wait, should I know about this already?
Buck: No nobody knows about it. But check it out - it’s really fun.
Luck: Yeah, for sure. Well awesome, that’s all I’ve got unless you have anything you wanna add.
Buck: I think that’s it. Those were great questions.
Luck: Thank you!