Buck 65: Every Available Color

By: Dennis Cook

Buck 65
Calling a musician “original” has largely lost its value in 2011. It’s overused and wrongly applied so much that we think someone’s meat dress is something new in a post-Warhol age. However, there are exceptions that come along for which the term truly applies. There are no antecedents or clear ancestral lines for Tom Waits, Woody Guthrie, Laurie Anderson or Gil Scott-Heron – they are originals – and so is Halifax, Canada’s Buck 65. For almost two decades Richard Terfry has been releasing distinctive, genre blasting audio missives, sometimes adhering to the alternative hip-hop world he first emerged from (and still incorporates to varying degrees) but adding more & more complexity and accomplished musicality that stretches into classical and avant-garde spaces, threaded together by gutter poetry, highfaluting stanzas and an understanding of how the drum always circles humanity around the bonfire.

Terfry is the rare musician that can name-check Moliere or Goddard and not come off as a douche; so sincere is his love for the arts that his enthusiasms ring with sincerity and passionate obsession. He stirs up all these seemingly disparate elements into music that’s earthy, cinematic, romantic, quietly startling and ultimately worthy of the kind of intense affection he showers on his own inspirations.

Buck 65’s latest album is also his very best – mature, swerving, unique. 20 Odd Years (released February 1 on Warner Music Canada) is by turns funny and philosophical, a work full of well-picked collaborations and more quicksilver musical settings than anything in Terfry’s past. Buck 65 is in the midst of a U.S. tour that resumes on August 9th in Albuquerque, NM (see tour dates here), and we got him to chat with us about where his craft has taken him and what it means to be an iconoclast in homogenized times.

Sage Francis
JamBase: There’s not really a genre that fits you. Like many, I was first introduced to your work through underground hip-hop but you long ago transcended even that broad category. Where do you feel you fit in now?

Buck 65: I kind of feel I don’t – anywhere – to be honest with you. For as long as I can remember, I’ve sought a community. I remember back in ’92, at the latest, I joined the Universal Zulu Nation, Africa Bambaataa’s thing, just to belong to something, somewhere. I was living out in the middle of the nowhere, so I wasn’t interacting with anyone, but it was nice to get their packages in the mail. I feel the person I’m closest to is personally and musically is a guy like Sage Francis, who I started out championing and he’s left me in the dust. But even with he and I there are some vast differences, especially in our M.O. So, I really don’t know [where I fit in], but it seems my core beliefs and motivations when I’m making a song seem to be very different from other people. The thing that always surprises me is how it’s perceived as strange by people.

JamBase: That may come from the cultivated laziness of many listeners and critics. I’m speaking in generalities but ones based in sad, hard facts. People are used to the instant pleasure hit and your music doesn’t play to that. There’s a also a great deal of sly humor to what you do, but it’s easy to miss if you don’t pay attention.

Buck 65: I’ll think of a song and often it will start as a topic or theme I want to write about. Then, I’ll go to work on filling it out with music and I’ll stop to ask, “What is the appropriate musical accompaniment for what I’m doing here?” To illustrate the point, about five years ago my sister had a baby and I went out to see her the day she was born. I saw this little person, my niece, just minutes after she was born, and it was this deeply moving thing for me. That night, I wrote about it and I liked what I wrote so I thought, “This is gonna become a song. But what is the right musical compliment for this? Is it heavy, distorted guitars or disco beats or…” When you look at it that way, these decisions just don’t make any sense because the sentiment was tender and pretty…

…but your mind saw non-obvious things to do with those feelings. You were just listening for the groove this thing called out for.

new album
Exactly! So often with something like that what seems logical might be acoustic guitars and strings, but then someone will accuse me of trying to be a folk musician. No, I’m not! I’d never say, “I’m gonna write a folk song,” and then write a song about my sister’s baby. For me, everything is on-limits musically speaking because I need to be able to paint with every available color. I just want to serve the songs as best I can, and I’ve never limited myself. I can’t understand that way of thinking, though I get how it can be confusing for people.

Yes but that touches on that laziness principle. Most musicians that end up being more that a pop blip or moment in time tend to be complex like that. Even The Beatles exhibited this kind of complexity despite how widely they were adored. It’s hard to believe one band produced the variety of The White Album. They get a pass for being that diverse, but there’s been less allowance for that same diversity in modern artists.

What I’m learning is people’s expectations are no joke and can’t really be messed with. And expectations are at the core of why I never broke into not even the mainstream but the underground establishment. I never became part of that at all, and what I’ve noticed is what the audience I have seem to like about the music I make is mostly the lyrics. Their expectation is rooted in that. I rarely have any discussion about the music side of things.

Years ago, I was making music and spending time with DJ Signify, and it used to bother him so bad that nobody talked about or even seemed to notice that in addition to being a rapper I was my own DJ and made my own beats. He’d say, “How can people not notice that? How can that not be an essential part of the way you’re perceived?”

I agree, but too many people take the shallow view and your soundbite is you’re the word guy. I was very struck by the music on 20 Odd Years, which is really alive, really vibrant and really different from track-to-track. One of my litmus tests to whether I’ll like or love an album is whether I have a different favorite cut each time I listen. Love only comes when that happens, and I keep having that experience with 20 Odd Years, which has a sure foothold in a lot of different settings, and I think the music more than the lyrics is the crucial reason why.

Gord Downie by Josh Miller
I think so, too. I was really anxious to make this record. If you look at the three that precede it, if you don’t count the Dirtbike records I put on the internet, I didn’t produce any of them myself. The Bike For Three! record, Situation (2007) and Secret House Against The World (2005) were all collaborations with other people, beat makers and whatnot. So, 20 Odd Years was my first time since Talkin’ Honky Blues (2003) where it was me steering the ship all the way into the port.

However, you opened the door to some really interesting (and effective) guests. Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie works really well with you on “Whispers of the Waves.” I’ve always had the sense he was a big weirdo and it’s great when he lets that hang out.

I wouldn’t necessarily label him as a weirdo but he’s as pure an artist as anyone I know. There are no walls up around that guy at all; he just pulls them down and goes by feel. He’s a very strongly artistically moved guy, and you see that particularly onstage, like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to see, a guy who’s just somewhere else. It’s really exciting to me. Where he and anyone else who’s on the record came from is the thing I was most concerned with – even obsessed with – while making this record – melody. The more time I spent thinking about melody, the more I realized the most important place for that is vocal melody. We always hum the vocal melody of a song. People don’t wander down the street whistling the guitar solo.

So, when I first decided I wanted this to be a vocally melodic record, I thought I about trying my hand at singing but mostly I can’t do it. I felt I handled the Leonard Cohen cover [“Who By Fire”] fairly well, but beyond that I felt I was really stretching it. I thought about using Auto-Tune and just stretching it and handling things myself, but no, though there are vestiges of that where we take it over the top. Don’t make it sound like you’re trying to hide something. Beyond that, I knew I couldn’t handle it and would need a singer for each song. And I don’t exactly know why, but when I started writing the music for “Whispers of the Waves” – and just to lay all my cards on the table, when I started that I’d been listening to a lot of Ali Farka Toure records and getting into African guitar – and quickly it became in waltz time with this African guitar but I couldn’t shake this thought I was hearing Gord Downie’s voice on it. I wondered if he’d take me up on it, and since he’d taken me out as an opener on tour a few times, maybe this wasn’t so farfetched to approach him. And he said yes right away, and that’s how it worked with all the collaborators on [20 Odd Years], most of whom are acquaintances if not really good friends; people I could turn to that I knew could help me out. I’d just seek out the person who had the quality of voice I was looking for, but I didn’t set out to make a collaborations album. I just really wanted to get into melody and knew I couldn’t handle it alone.

Jenn Grant
Knowing your limitations is a virtue that only emerges more clearly the longer you ply your craft. You find ways to adapt to your limitations.

That becomes blindingly clear to me when I go back and listen to my early stuff, seeing where I’d play to that strength and where I failed on that front from time to time. I’m not one of those people that will let pride get in my way. I can work out parts and chords on any given instrument but I don’t have enough of an ego to say, “I need to be playing EVERY instrument on this album!” There are much better guitar players than me, better piano players than me, and I want the songs to sound as good as they can, so it only makes sense to get someone who’s a really good player or singer.

I like the preponderance of female voices on this album. The combination of female and male voices in a single song is almost always interesting, and sadly, things are still largely segregated in music.

I like that combo, too, which probably comes from being a huge fan of Gainsbourg. He’s been a humongous influence on me for a long time. So, often my first thought as a piece of music was coming together [on new album] was, “Is this a male or female voice?” and then I’d narrow it down further. The music for “Paper Airplane” came together and it was so gentle and pretty that I heard a woman’s voice on it right away. I didn’t even need to think about that one; it seemed the only way to go.

The tone of your voice with you and Jenn Grant is really nice. There’s a quality you produce together that’s different than what you each do separately.

You’re not the first person to say that, which I think is great and nice and interesting. I like it, too, and I think everyone involved has been excited enough that we’re encouraged to go on. We just finished two more [songs], and since we’ve finished those two she’s said she wants us to make a whole record together. I really like working with her a lot. She’s such a great singer. It’s amazing what she’s capable of. A few weekends ago I was back in Halifax, the city where I’m from, putting the finishing touches on these new songs. The original vision for this 20 Odd Years project was five EPs and an album at some point after, but the album got pushed forward. But I’m still gonna see these five EPs through, and Volume Four is what I’m finishing now. It will be out really soon and Volume Five hopefully in September. So, I was out there in the studio where I do a lot of recording, and a recent addition to our studio setup is this Melodyne software. There are a couple different forms of it but the one we got is primarily for vocals, and it allows you to analyze and work with them in a really intense way. Basically, it will show you a line graph or chart thing that will separate the vocals out into individual notes and place them where they belong. If you kinda miss the mark a little bit, this program lets you nudge them into place, say you sang something a little sharp or flat. And it was just dead zero on the money with every note with Jenn Grant. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t think she’s capable of singing a bad note. It’s just freaky! It was just weird to look at the computer screen. It was really impressive. She’s got a freaky level of talent.

Was there any trepidation about tackling a work as well-known and beloved as Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”? Even though he’s still alive, he’s a piece of mythology at this point. There’s a sense with Leonard that you’re witnessing somebody further along the evolutionary path.

Buck 65
Before I started working on this record, I was entertaining the idea of including a cover. So, I made a list of the songs I was considering covering and the next thing I knew there were hundreds on the list. I had no idea of how I would narrow it down to one. So, I’d present the idea to audiences and just play the first 15 seconds of about five songs and ask them to tell me which one they liked best. Later in the show I’d present another group of songs, and I did that all over the world to let people decide. It was interesting that there were two clear front runners, and that was one of them. I let the people who like my music decide for me, and then I just went for it and tried not to get bogged down in thinking about it too much. God knows, I’ve fallen into that trap before where Leonard Cohen almost made me want to quit.

He’s daunting. It’s like a guitarist trying to play with Clapton or something.

I wrote Leonard Cohen a letter once telling him how he ruined my life. It was an angry letter, a backhanded sort of fan letter, and I’m pretty sure he got it! There’s something I guess you’d call perfection that I’m striving towards, and I don’t feel I’ve come anywhere close to it yet. The closest I’ve come to it is in some of his songs. That guy can do some things with words, and his knack for melody is no joke. It’s simple but there’s a reason why it is.

So are a lot of the Dylan songs that people admire. What Cohen does is fantastic but the rudiments on a page aren’t anything to write home about.

The line on Leonard Cohen you always hear is “greatest writer ever but not much of a singer or guitar player.” If the melodies aren’t much then how come “Hallelujah” is the most covered song ever? All the greatest singers in the world cover that song, and when you look it through that lens the melody is unbelievable.

The challenge of adhering to that level of simplicity isn’t revered much. Seeing the beauty in simplicity is amazing. A chair doesn’t have to be complex to work beautifully.

Tin snips, by J. Wiss & Sons Co. $1.85
By Walker Evans
One of my favorite things is a series of photographs Walker Evans did a long time ago called “The Beauty of the Common Tools,” and it would be a photograph of a simple pair of scissors, then a comb and then a glove. It’s just so beautiful, and I’ve just been more often inspired by such things. Finding beauty that other people can’t even see has always been more interesting to me than grandeur.

I mentioned humor earlier and wanted to touch on that again. There aren’t a lot of musicians that make me laugh aloud when I’m by myself, and you’ve consistently done that since I first started listening to you in the early nineties. Is humor something you consciously think about or does this comedic view of the universe just come out naturally?

It’s something I haven’t been able to resist. I can’t explain it. It’s a part of my personality that comes through without having to think about it. I remember having a conversation with Robert Christgau a number of years ago after a show in New York where I asked him, “What’s your take on this? Should I avoid the laughs? People seem to gravitate towards them in the live show and songs when things are played for laughs, and I don’t want people to miss what when I’m doing the pretty stuff. I don’t want it to distract from that.” He was very encouraging and said, “Don’t you dare lose that side of things.”

My biggest, least well kept secret to my inspiration is my interest in Dadaism and the different offshoots of surrealism that have cropped up over the years. One of the keys to all that, particularly Dadaism, is the absurd. I’ve always had a thing for the absurd, for starters, but there’s also something really funny to me about stating the obvious.

For example, when I sat down to write “Zombie Delight,” I didn’t think, “I’m going to write a funny song,” I just thought, “What’s everything I know about zombies from pop culture.” So, I made a list. Not everyone gets this approach but I do. Years ago, I wrote a Christmas song like that. One place where stating the obvious can be really fun – just a gift of culture writ large – is how there’s something really funny about rhymes. If you state the obvious and try to make it rhyme it’s going to be funny.

It’s primal, maybe derived from how we first learn language through nursery rhymes and the like. That giggle you usually only have as a kid can be accessed through rhymes.

I remember the day distinctly – I’d had this job for years working at a newsstand during the time I made Vertex, Square and Overboard – where I was writing lyrics to a song on Square and I rhymed “income group” with “nincompoop” and started laughing hysterically. It’s just three words strung together in a line but it resulted in something very funny to me.

Neither of those phrases come up in music a lot.

That I can’t explain…I have this kind of a job now here in Canada. I have a radio show that I do, and when we get feedback about once a week, and the comment I always get is something about the way my mind works, the way I observe things, and how it’s my strength as a host. I hear that all the time but I don’t get it. Who would be conscious of that?

That’s like a Zen riddle: How do you see your own mind?

You can’t see that and it’s the only thing you know and there’s nothing you can compare it to – you can’t try on someone else’s mind for size.

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