“I think about Texas every day,” Wimberley native Buck Meek told me on the phone a couple weeks ago. “Easy for you to say,” I replied. Meek was calling from his home in Topanga Canyon, California; I was sitting on my front porch in Austin, cursing the late-September heat. We’d been discussing Two Hands, the album his band Big Thief will be releasing tomorrow; in it, Meek provides backup vocals and lead guitar.
Two Hands is the Brooklyn quartet’s second LP of the year, what Meek and his bandmates are calling a “spiritual twin” to early May’s ethereal U.F.O.F. But unlike that album and others preceding it (2016’s Masterpiece and 2017’s Capacity), Two Hands brought Meek back home to Texas. To record it, the band made the trek down to Sonic Ranch, a studio built into a hacienda on a pecan orchard 40 miles east of El Paso. They’re not the only national act to make the trek down to the border to record: Conor Oberst, TV on the Radio, and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs have all recorded at the storied ranch.
One afternoon, Meek and I discussed his Lone Star State upbringing, Texas musical influences, and how the Chihuahuan Desert shaped the band’s sound.
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Texas Monthly: To introduce you to our readers, tell me about home in Texas.
Buck Meek: I was born in Houston. When I was ten or eleven my folks moved us out to Wimberley to raise us closer to nature and in a smaller community. I grew up a five-minute walk from Jacob’s Well. I was in the well every day. I started playing guitar when I was six years old, so by the time I got to Wimberley I had completely fallen in love with the guitar. The year we arrived they had cut the arts programs from the public school to build this big football field, so my folks started this program called Arts From the Heart, which was an after-school free arts program for kids. Wimberley is this incredible community of musicians and artists, so they had a real wealth of teachers. I took the songwriting class, and they would bring in people like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Slim Richey. I think Butch Hancock taught a class at one point, and Jill Jones taught yodeling. Mike Bond taught mandolin there for a little bit. All these incredible Texas musicians. That was super inspiring for me.
Every Friday at Charlie’s catfish restaurant they had a bluegrass band led by Mike Bond, and I was always there with Sarah Jarosz back when she was a kid. Slim Richey took me under his wing. Django Porter did too. This great guitar player named Brandon Gist took got me to play rhythm guitar for his blues band in Wimberley. It was just an amazing time growing up there.
TM: So how does a band put together two brand new albums in a single year?
BM: Adrienne [Lenker, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter] had a collection of 45 or 50 songs that she had written during the touring cycles of Masterpiece and Capacity. Last February we rented a cabin in Topanga Canyon, above Los Angeles, and set up an eight track for a month. We wrote arrangements and recorded very lo-fi demos of all of the songs. From the demos these two very distinct feelings emerged; the two records showed themselves. There was this one polarity that had this celestial, unearthly, alien, out-of-body feeling, and that was U.F.O.F.. The other collection felt very human and had a vulnerable, cathartic, living feeling, which became Two Hands. We decided to split these songs into two records to honor them as individuals. We wanted to record them back to back in one summer because they felt almost like siblings. We recorded U.F.O.F. in a studio in Washington state in the crisp rainforest of the Redwoods. Then we recorded Two Hands at Sonic Ranch, in the desert outside of El Paso, right on the border fence, in the heat.
TM: What made y’all decide to take the songs to El Paso?
BM: Well for one, the songs were begging for a place like that, somewhere that was just stripped, somewhere that was hot. The life down there in the desert is so dense and so resilient and small, but so colorful on the subtlest level. Everything just fought for its life there. I think we felt the songs themselves could benefit from that intensity. Then just being right there on the border fence. The song “Shoulders,” for example, investigates that fear that lies beneath the division between culture and politics, the fear that fuels so much hatred and division in our world. I think that subconsciously we were drawn to that place because it felt charged in that way that seemed to empower the song.
But mostly the studio is so incredible. It’s on this 3,000-acre pecan orchard. The studio itself is built out of this hacienda at the center of the ranch with this big central courtyard. All these cats have found refuge there from the desert, and birds come up from Mexico. There are six incredible recording studios built out of this hacienda filled with all this art. Tony, who owns Sonic Ranch, is this wild rogue who inherited this property from his grandfather. He’s so connected to the desert out there and he has all these secret places. He’ll take the band on field trips, going 150 miles per hour down I-10 taking you over the border to Mexico to go to some restaurant in the middle of nowhere that has the chandelier from Casablanca. Or some pawn shop where Billy Gibbons goes to get his guitars. He has all these little secret spots that he taps you into there. There are abuelas cooking breakfast and lunch and dinner for the bands. It’s kind of this communal space because there’s six studios. There’s often six bands recording at the same time and everyone meets for these communal meals.
TM: I’m impressed by how collaboratively Big Thief works on their music. Can you tell me more about your songwriting and recording process as a band?
BM: Well, Adrienne generally writes the core of the song. She’ll write the lyrics and the melody with her acoustic guitar generally, and then she’ll bring it to us and then we’ll unearth the arrangement. We usually just play the song on loop until the parts kind of emerge, with the core ethos being that those parts of the song are almost already written. The art of the song itself, the emotion or the meaning of the song, all the parts that will serve that are already there. We’ll experiment and let these things come to be through playing together in a room until things feel right. It’s very informed by the lyrics themselves. If there is a lyric reflecting on trauma, or a more intense and darker thing, one of us may enforce that with an instrumental part that has darkness and an intensity. But then another one of us may counteract that with something more ambient or peaceful, intensified through context. But it’s often informed by the narrative.
TM: Since the songs on Two Hands were fleshed out in West Texas, do you think there is a particularly Texan sound that’s made its stamp on the album?
BM: Inherently yes. I mean, that place is so powerful. It has an impact on anyone who enters that space. Just being out in the desert like that for a month, especially being a creative head space and being openhearted. I think it definitely had an effect on our spirit while recording, which is imprinted on these tapes. I’ve had a lot of musical influences beyond Texas, but then to return to that home and to be in that environment I think really awakened the Texas sound in me for the record.
TM: You’ve lived away from Texas for a while, and a lot of your music has been written and recorded in other parts of the country. Do you have a desire, creatively or personally, to return to a more distinct Texas sound? Do you ever think of coming back?
BM: You know, I miss Texas every day. Honestly, it drives me crazy how much I miss it. I feel the most at home, I feel the most in my own skin, on the Blanco River in Wimberley in the buffalo grass with those cypress trees. I could spend the rest of my life there. So content. I think about it every day. But at the same time, as you know, I’ve also had this longing to deepen my musical understanding through perspectives beyond that. At first, when I finished high school, I almost immediately left Texas to go to Berklee and to study music. And then I was of course drawn to New York City, and I spent seven years in Brooklyn making rock and roll music underground and in basements around the city. And then we built Big Thief and I’ve been blessed to tour around the world.
But honestly, one of the central feelings that I get from that is the more I travel and the more time I spend away from Texas the more my Texan nature and identity fortifies almost in contrast. I think I’m a seventh generation on one side and six on the other. My family’s been in Texas for a long time and they all still are, so I’m constantly returning there for holidays to be with my family and my friends. I’m still very connected to it on an active level. But honestly, the more I travel, the more Texan I feel. I do feel this magnetism to return there at some point. I would love to have a piece of property somewhere deep in the Hill Country, like on the Frio. For now, I’ve surrendered to this abstract relationship with Texas from a distance.
But with my solo project, with the records I’ve made under my own name, Buck Meek, I’m able to really honor my own identity. And then all of my experiences beyond Texas around the world are like kind of the X-factor. At this point in my life I’m really committed and inspired by that alchemy, observing and putting in the time to see how my identity as a Texan, which I think is my core is alchemized by all these other identities that I’ve picked up along the way. And these other spirits I picked up along the way. So long story short, I just made another solo record. You’re the first person I’ve told. I hope to put that out next year sometime in 2020. But it is certainly I think on a core level it’s very, very Western but also unpredictable.
TM: That was a fantastic answer.
BM: Oh good. I hope I didn’t ramble. I guess it’s also in my Texas nature to ramble on a bit.
TM: No it’s great! I’m back in Texas now, but I moved away and lived in New York and California for a while. But that whole time I always knew that I would be back in Texas eventually. All roads lead me back to it. I can never be away for too long. It has a pull, especially the Hill Country and the West.
BM: Did you feel that when when you left and you saw that from the outside, and you had that perspective looking into Texas that you saw subtlety in the beauty and power of Texas that you hadn’t noticed while you were there?
BM: I think everyone has that experience with wherever they’re from…that’s just the language we develop and how we understand the world through the environment we were born in.
EM: That’s very true. This may be a sillier question but favorite Texas musicians, favorite Texas bands, favorite Texas albums?
BM: I mean, it’s always in flux. But at the moment, well, Daniel Johnston has been on my mind a lot, of course.
EM: Of course.
BM: For the last couple of years Terry Allen has been knocking my socks off. Everything he’s ever made, back to Lubbock (On Everything), Juarez, all his later records. Paradise of Bachelors label has been releasing some old material that was never released. A lot of spoken word stuff that has been totally blowing my mind. And I’ve been tapping more into his visual art as well, which is incredible. I know he’s living in New Mexico now. He’s someone who I relate to in that regard. He was born in Lubbock and I think is essentially a Texan in his identity, but he also was living in New York City as a fine artist and went to art school in L.A. and now lives in New Mexico. He’s pulled from a lot of different realms, but often is wrapped back into the thread of Texas somehow. I relate to that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.