Known for his work with the band Big Thief, Buck Meek’s solo work takes on a different sound grounded in his Texas roots. He writes character-driven songs that let listeners and Meek himself get to know his multifaceted characters from various perspectives. His self-titled album comes after four solo EPs, Live from a Volcano (2013), A-Sides (2014), B-Sides (2014), and Heart Was Beat (2015). I was able to catch up with him shortly after his self-titled solo album’s release while he prepped for a show up in Boston.
You’re a founding member of the Brooklyn based band, Big Thief, and have been enjoying a lot of success with that project recently. What was the moment that inspired you to shift gears, and focus on writing your first solo album, “Buck Meek”?
It’s been a long time, it’s been a long process. I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid and when I first moved to New York City in 2012, I was writing a lot. I met Adrienne [Lenker] of Big Thief in 2012. We initially started a duo where we were playing both of our material together – combining our songs. We made two records with that duo. Around 2014 or so, we decided to split our projects up because Adrienne was going in a different direction, a little heavier,] so we built more of a rock and roll band around her songs and I separated my project. I continued writing and recording on my own but Big Thief started moving forward really fast and we started touring so much that I put more of my daily energy into Big Thief for a few years. About a year ago, once Big Thief had a momentum – after we put out a couple of records and we could slow down a little bit from touring like 250 shows a year or whatever – I was able to take more time for my solo project.
Was there anything from your childhood and/or life experiences in Texas that influenced the songs, and specifically the sounds, on this album?
Definitely. I was born in Houston, Texas and I was in Houston until I was 11 years old, then I moved to Wimberley which is in the Hill Country. Growing up in Houston, I heard a lot of blues music, a lot of old blues musicians. My grandfather was friends with Lightnin’ Hopkins, so I grew up listening to Lightnin.’ There’s a big blues club there called The Big Easy and then when I moved to Wimberley- which is south of Austin, that’s an area with a lot of great outlaw country songwriters and legendary swing players like Bob Wills band & His Texas Playboys, Butch Hancock and The Flatlanders, and 151. That definitely had an impact on me.
From my understanding you recently performed at South by Southwest. How did it feel to perform and showcase your new album in your home state?
It was wonderful. I was so happy to come back to Texas because like I said, I grew up there and was influenced by so many Texas artists and just by the environment itself. I left when I was 17 years old and I lived in Boston for seven years – went to music school, was studying jazz and experimental music and then I moved to New York and played in basements and rock and roll bands for 6-7 years. Now I feel like I’m kind of mixing all of that together subconsciously so it was really exciting to come back to Texas after leaving to feel that new sound in my home.
I came across the following quote while reading your recent interview with Noise Pollution: “Touring around the world constantly with Big Thief, I think one of the biggest influences in my writing is the people I would meet in passing on tour. Gas station attendants, all sorts of people.” Can you give me an example of a particular encounter that found its way into a song?
Adrienne and I on our first duo tour, we had this busted old Chevy van, we broke down like a radiator hose first on Mother’s Day on a Sunday in Vermont – like way up in the mountains. We got towed to Burlington and dropped off at this mechanic’s shop and we had a gig that night somewhere outside of Burlington. We figured we’d have to cancel that show and as we were sitting in the van, we were just gonna sleep in truck – in the backyard of the mechanic’s, this lady knocks on our window and it’s the wife of the mechanic. She knocks on our window and asks us if we need help and convinces her husband to put his pants on and fix our truck. As he’s fixing the truck, she comes out with cookies and she had these beautiful knit hats that she gave us and then he insisted on fixing it for free – he wouldn’t take our money. Angels, of sorts, ended up rescuing us. Joe the Mechanic, and his wife.
From my understanding, most of your characters are loosely based on close friends and chance encounters. You mention the name Maybelle multiple times – is there a real life Maybelle that inspired this character?
I’m still getting to know her. I feel like one of the reasons I leave so much to be known about them is because I still don’t know. There are several songs that mention different characters like Maybelle and Sue from different points in their life and different contexts, from different people’s perspectives. For me, it’s almost a process of getting to know them, exploring and trying to solve the puzzle myself, so I don’t have an answer. I don’t really know her yet. But that’s what excites me in the writing process.
Being in Brooklyn feels very alive. It’s like playing to a living audience.
Are there any characters from Brooklyn that have made their way onto tracks on your album?
Actually Joe, one of the mechanics, one of the main influences for the character of Joe was this mechanic named Gus at ZP Auto in Bushwick. When Adrienne and I first bought that first Chevy van, it was pretty busted and we took it to Gus. We tried to bring it to a mechanic – we went to seven or eight different places in Brooklyn and none of them would work on our van because they didn’t have the tools to work on an older vehicle. We finally found Gus, this old school Italian mechanic. We pulled up and he just stuck his hand in the exhaust pipe and let it get covered in grease and stuck it to his nose and took a big whiff of the exhaust like grime on his hand and told us “Ah this truck’s good, you’re gonna be fine.” He kind of refused to work on it but somehow his optimism about our vehicle seemed to keep it together for a couple of years with routine maintenance, but nothing too serious.
He passed away on a motorcycle in the Catskills a couple of years ago, and as soon as that happened everything started to fall apart— almost as if his belief in that truck was keeping it together.
What do you enjoy most about performing for a Brooklyn crowd?
Oh wow, I spent seven years in Brooklyn musical community, so to be in a room full of musicians that I’ve developed with is really inspiring. On top of that, you have this rotating cast of such an eclectic group of people living in New York City, in a small little world. Being in Brooklyn feels very alive. It’s like playing to a living audience.
Listen to Buck Meek’s debut album, Buck Meek, and catch him at Northside Festival this Friday, June 8th at Rough Trade.