Big Thief Double Down On Their Power To Enchant

The indie-folk stalwarts discuss their epic new album and what it takes to make good, goofy tracks.

by Luis Minvielle

Photo by Alexa Viscius

Brooklyn-based indie darlings Big Thief are a shining example of “success” in contemporary music. The gentle-folk and rough-edged rock band found themselves on countless year-end best-of lists in 2019 following the release of their two equally celebrated studio albums that year; its members have collaborated with Taylor Swift, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and the National’s Dessner twins; and their mystically-gifted singer, Adrianne Lenker, has even been profiled in cultured literary journals — in long-form, acutely reported stories. 

But success is not given — it is earned. Big Thief’s impressive run thrives on the power of their enthralling, unearthly songs. Sometimes jagged, often pastoral, yet always unpredictable and intricately delivered, calling their music just “indie folk” or “indie rock” is an imperfect bid at defining who or what Big Thief is. Part of that mystery is rooted in the words and melodies of Lenker, who sings as if she were revealing, in a stretched-out hushed tone, an arcane truth about Mother Earth. She seems incapable of missing her mark, and the band follows her lead, enraptured by her spell. Big Thief, consisting of Lenker, Buck Meek (guitars), James Krivchenia (drums), and Max Oleartchik (bass), have released five studio records in the last six years, each time to unquestioned critical acclaim. For their part, their solo output makes up for at least half a dozen of ambient, singer-songwriter, and Americana LPs. Big Thief’s most undecipherable aspect might not be their life-binding songs — it might be how they manage to churn out so many of them. 

This realization struck Krivchenia in 2019, the year Big Thief released U.F.O.F. and Two Hands — the first a weird, puzzling take on tender-hearted indie folk and psych, the latter a bittersweet folk-rock joint, spearheaded by the haunting single “Not.” While on tour, with two new studio LPs still shipping out of the pressing plants, Krivchenia noticed his bandmates were still writing and sketching new songs. “Adrianne had like fifty songs going on,” says Krivchenia on a call with RANGE. “And we needed to record as many as possible to preserve the moment as an archive.”

Krivchenia, who engineered the band’s 2016 debut, Masterpiece, and has played drums with the band since their sophomore album Capacity (2017), is a sought-for collaborator. In 2021, when Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and The National’s Aaron Dessner’s supergroup Big Red Machine recorded their second LP, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, they cast Krivchenia to provide drums for six of the album’s tracks. One of those features vocals by Taylor Swift, who invited Krivchenia to contribute the rhythmic section for three songs off Red (Taylor’s Version), the re-recording of her 2012 album.

This collaborative spirit laid the groundwork for Big Thief’s next steps. To deal with all the (still unrecorded) songs that were piling up by the minute, Krivchenia dreamt up a plan for the band’s fifth LP: Big Thief would work in four different studios, with four separate engineers, to get on tape all their new compositions. “There was a shared deep feeling that said: ‘We need to record these songs while they’re still fresh,’” reckons Krivchenia.

The plan got green-lit and spawned Big Thief’s latest effort, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, an 80-minute double album that bears no wasted moment. After the band completed the 20-track LP in 2021, Krivchenia didn’t listen to the album for eight months. “Then, the other night, I overheard Adrianne listen to it, from start to finish,” he says, delighted at the scene. “She was listening to it from a boombox in the kitchen — and it was very nice to experience it that way,” Krivchenia recalls. 

Just before the band crossed the Atlantic to get on with the first shows of their UK tour, we caught up with Krivchenia to discuss producing his own band, wondering what to do with Lenker’s unwavering creativity, and what becomes of a folk band that uses a drum machine.

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is your longest record yet. Eighty minutes of new music. Why make a double album?

The core of it comes from the number of songs floating around beforehand. Adrianne had all these songs — like 50 songs or something. And we thought: “We need to record these while they’re still fresh.” The record is a response to that. When we went that way, we were like: “How do you even record 50 songs?” It’s hard to record them in only one session [laughs]. It won’t happen that way. We almost had to trick ourselves into thinking each session was a different album to wrap our heads around each sound!

Adrianne has mentioned some kind of magic engagement Big Thief have going on. What’s that?

Yes. In music, when you’re really in it, you just know it. It’s not good per se or anything like that, but there’s a feeling of presence that can happen in music. Everyone’s looking for that spark or presence. It makes you feel you’re a part of something much bigger than just hitting your drum kit. You get caught in a current — it’s so ephemeral, it doesn’t always happen at all.

That energy is a “lightning in a bottle” kind of thing when you’re in the studio. We’re slowly getting better at it and better at performing and being more comfortable in the studio, and better at recognizing when it’s happening.

Tell me about producing Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. Was it about capturing something magical? How does it compare to producing a band that’s not Big Thief?

Yeah, the production side is so interesting because I think what different bands need from producers is so different. My philosophy on production is trying to find those that the band requires and accept that’s the main thing I’ll do. Even if you think you’re good at a bunch of other stuff, like, “I’m like a good engineer, and I have all these ideas for the rhythm section.” But the band requires someone who can organize everyone else, which is not easy!

There’s this natural thing where everyone produces when we’re together in the studio. Everyone is engaged: it’s a collaborative thing. A big part of producing the album was getting the structure in place and saying: “This person would be good for this, and this person would be good for that.”

You work very hard and take your music very seriously. But do you get the feeling you’re taking yourselves, Big Thief, less seriously than before?

Yeah, I get that feeling. The more we do it, the more we realize we don’t need to clench so hard to get what we’re going for. We like a sound, a laid-back, loose sound that is extremely hard to fake. You have to feel laid back and loosen up to get it. It has to sound like the feeling that’s happening. There’s a gut instinct to be like: “The music has to be this meaty, serious, epic stuff.” And then we’re more confident where we’re like: “Ah, the goofy stuff is excellent too!”

You included a drum machine in your song “Wake Me Up to Drive,” and it doesn’t sound like a folk song at all. So where are you? What’s Big Thief right now?

Yeah. I don’t know. I have no idea where, but it’s a good place for sure. We’re just trying to dig into that feeling of openness and not trying to pinpoint down where we’re at. We keep our curiosity about everything about music and the world. It’s like a forever sort of thing that you never actually get to, of course, but that’s kind of where we’re at now — trying to stay curious.

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