Big Thief: The Dynamic Indie Quartet Can’t Be Satisfied With One ‘Masterpiece’
Big Thief have to be the least-arrogant-sounding band to ever title their first album Masterpiece. The folk-inflected indie-rock quartet’s opening statement is a triumph of the small — the little moments, the fleeting sensations, the stuff that eventually adds up to life at the end of it all. It’s expert in its songcraft but imminently approachable in its personality. The title ends up being something close to accurate, but that feels almost entirely incidental.
If the Brooklyn-based band’s debut was a defining statement, though, they’ve already begun to fight the sophomore slump. In fact, Big Thief finished recording their second LP before the May 27 release of Masterpiece. “The first record — [while] all the songs are still really relevant, I don’t know [that] I still feel them very strongly,” says lead singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker. “I started writing Masterpiece maybe, like, three years ago, and then, once we had recorded, I had already accumulated a whole batch of other songs over the time it took… I love recording songs close to when they’re written.”
The idea of recording your second album prior to your first one even coming out, simply because the songs were already there, is emblematic of Big Thief’s casual proficiency. The best songs on Masterpiece, like the tempo-switching bedroom grunge of “Interstate” or the dreamy bar-band balladry of the title track, have such a gentle looseness to them that it takes a handful of listens to find the devil in the details — the subtle shifts in dynamics, the evocative but ephemeral lyrical snapshots, the armor-piercing harmonies within the vocals and the guitars.
And for their second album, Lenker says the band feels even more assured in their process. “When we made Masterpiece we had only been together for a year, and we were babies in playing together — [the band’s] just opening,” she says. “This record feels a little more constant. The first one had a lot of solos and ups and downs, and this one’s more like driving.”
Driving is important for the foursome, who formed in Brooklyn but are “always on the road,” and who come from all over the place — Lenker from Minnesota, guitarist and primary creative partner Buck Meek from Texas, drummer James Krivchenia from Chicago and Minnesota, and bassist Max Oleartchik from Israel — before meeting in New York. The group’s disparate geographical roots may explain why they sound less like a “Brooklyn band” than just about any other outfit currently operating out of the Big Apple’s most-populous borough — their songs are too spacious, too patient, too unencumbered. Masterpiece evokes images of fireflies and tire swings, not bodegas and subways.
“I think living in New York created this necessity for creating internal space,” Lenker says of the discrepancy. “It’s a lot of work to keep your mind and your body and your psychic world calm in the midst of living in NYC. So in that way I think the songs are partly born from that.”
In any event, Big Thief did get out of the city for the recording of both Masterpiece and its as-yet-untitled, unscheduled follow-up. The former was put together over 12 days at a makeshift studio in Essex, Vermont, and the latter was laid down in upstate New York, where the group worked at the state-of-the-art Outlier studio and spent a month recording. “We had a whole beautiful studio for a month on a farm with no distractions in the winter,” Lenker recalls. “It was too cold to hang outside.”
That isn’t to say that Big Thief’s next album is going to eschew the August-nights aesthetic of Masterpiece for something that sounds like it was recorded in the frozen tundra — Lenker actually says their upcoming effort could be “a great summer album.” Rather, it’s just a matter of mentality for the group’s songwriter. “I think it’s from being from Minnesota,” Lenker says. “Everything freezes over and this certain kind of silence exists when everything’s hibernating and frozen, and it creates this space where I’ve always felt I can write… with Masterpiece we were constantly jumping in the lake. We recorded in July so we could go outside and run around in the grass, play soccer — whereas this second record, it was more intense. There was no swimming.”
That last part is a bigger deal than it may sound. “Swimming is definitely an important part of our band,” Lenker explains. “We swim every chance we can get. It’s hard to do in New York, but we’re constantly gone, so we make a point to stop at any swimming hole. We, like, research where swimming holes are. There’s nothing like jumping in the river when you’ve been in a van for eight hours.”
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to frontwoman Adrianne Lenker as “Lecker.”