If you go to enough concerts in Portland, you likely have a story of Peter Buck making an unannounced cameo onstage, playing guitar or bass with a friend or band that he’s tight with. He did that last Saturday when Eyelids, the psych-pop group whose last two albums he helped co-producer, played their album release show at Mississippi Studios. And just two nights ago, he hopped up onstage with Brothers of a Feather, the acoustic side project of Black Crowes co-founders Chris and Rich Robinson, to join them in a rendition of R.E.M.’s “7 Chinese Bros.”
Guest spots like those are typical of how Buck has conducted his musical life since R.E.M. went dormant in 2011. Like his ex-bandmates in that venerated alt rock group, he hasn’t felt the need to force himself or his art on the world. Buck stays busy, but with no real agenda.
If he wants to make a solo album—and, to date, he’s made three of them for Mississippi Records—he’ll do it. Or he’ll play bass in his longtime friend Scott McCaughey’s group the Baseball Project. Or join forces with Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker in a band called Filthy Friends. He goes where the wind, and his whims, take him.
The latest album to feature Buck’s name, Beat Poetry For Survivalists, a collaboration with Luke Haines, the former leader of the Auteurs, follows that same thread. As the story goes, Buck bought a painting Haines made of the late Lou Reed, and sharing a mutual appreciation for one another’s work, decided to make an album together. The only goal, says Buck when I spoke to him on the phone this week, was “to mirror what our world was like right now: weird, chaotic, and fucked up.”
Mission accomplished. The album is an unkempt psychedelic mood piece, by turns ragged and furious, and groggy and melancholy. Haines’ sprechgesang vocals and his appropriately Kerouac-like lyrics about Bigfoot, ugly dudes, and Andy Warhol are pushed to the front, but it’s Buck’s swirling, steaming guitars and production acumen that give these songs their splashy vibrance and energy.
I caught up with Buck in the morning following his appearance at the Doug Fir to talk about how Beat Poetry came to be, having an out-of-body experience recording an unheard Tim Buckley song, and what his former band may have lost in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.
PORTLAND MERCURY: I just saw the video of you playing with Chris and Rich Robinson last night. How was the show?
Peter Buck: It’s amazing. I’m used to the days of doing a show and then, a week later, you’d see a review of it. I got a call this morning about that video and it was like... really? That was 10 hours after I got off stage. I’ve known those guys since they were like, 15 and 17. They used to send me demo tapes. It’s nice to see them. We’re all older and have grey-ish hair.
Is the story of how you and Luke Haines started working together as simple as the press release says? That you bought a painting from him and decided you should do something together?
I’ve been a fan of Luke’s work for years, but I’ve never met the guy. I was reading some online thing and it said he had these paintings for same. So I just emailed him and gave him my credit card number, and I think he suggested we make a record. I just started sending him [music]. I’d go to Scott McCaughey’s basement and put down drum machine tracks, a couple of guitars. Maybe Scott would put down bass and keyboards. We’d send it off and a week later, he’d send it back. So that was it. We never met until the record was mastered.
That is crazy.
Yeah, you know, I love the whole band thing of getting in a room and everyone playing together. But there are a few good things about the modern world with computers and stuff. I mean, we just worked in each other’s basements. It was a free record to make. It didn’t cost anything.
It’s interesting because I have read other interviews of yours where you were decrying the introduction of technology like ProTools into the making of R.E.M. albums. It sounds like you’re embracing at least some element of the digital recording world.
I mean, I’ve used ProTools for years. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just when the process becomes more trying than the actual creating of the music. I think most people have problems making decisions. I don’t. If we do a great take and there’s a kick drum that’s half a beat off, then I just move it. I don’t have a problem with that. My solo records I recorded analog and mixed analog and mastered analog, but that was just me being contrary. I listen to my records and they don’t sound any worse than records that people spend $1 million on. It has nothing to do with technology.
When this project started, did you and Luke confer about what you wanted the record to sound like or was he pretty open to you sending him whatever and letting him play around with it?
There was a general discussion about how horrible the world is, but it didn’t really encompass technology or the sounds we were going for. I was just write things I thought might be up his alley... without knowing the guy, but just having heard his records. As time went on, I just expanded into whatever weird, fucked up shit I was into that day. He was never thrown by anything. There’s even a couple of songs that have no real definable structure like, you can’t tell what the chorus is or whatever. He came up and structured them. It was an experiment for all of us involved and it was super fun.
The genesis of this album, and even you playing last night at the Doug Fir, feels very aligned with how you’ve conducted your musical world in the years since R.E.M. split. Nothing feels deliberate.
Everything I do, I’m completely focused on. I don’t really look at them as projects. It’s like, “This is what I’m doing to today. This is what my life is about.” I don’t really have any interest in building a career. I feel that the more time you spend worrying about that stuff—putting together tours and designing t-shirts and doing a thousand interviews or whatever—gets in the way of writing songs and playing them. I just try to work with people that I find inspiring. I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s really nice to work with people that will give me a new idea. I’ve been doing this since I was 14. I don’t know any different.
I wanted to also ask about the new Eyelids album, which you co-produced. What did it mean for you to be working with someone like Larry Beckett, who was a collaborator with Tim Buckley during his peak?
I listened to some Tim stuff in the mid-’70s, when I was probably a little out of high school. And I can say I understood all of it, but I really respected it. As time has gone on, the stuff that was kind of difficult now feels kind of not difficult. Having Larry there... he’s a poet. He really had a picture in his head, lyrically, of where things were going. The Eyelids guys... they don’t really need a producer, but they like having me there to keep the overview in mind. My job is like, “Okay, that was a great take, but the cymbals are clashing with the vocals” or “The guitars sound too similar. Let’s change the tone.” But overall, I’m looking at the way the record is going to sound and reminding them that what we’re trying to is capture magic not show how precise players we can be. That’s been the way with every band I’ve ever been in. Go back to any record you love, whether that’s the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Al Green. Those weird little mistakes and personal things that happened are there. The more you start polishing this stuff, the more it disappears.
Is that typical of how you handle producing records? Do you keep a more hands off approach, or do you get in there and dig into the arrangements and songwriting?
I don’t really consider myself a record producer. I do like working with people I like working with. I do like having someone with a good ear when I’m making my records to say, “That was a good take but it could be faster or slower.” Generally, my job is to keep things moving, keep everyone up, offer suggestions when they need them. I don’t really need to be telling them what to do. Every now and again I’ll suggest something, but really it’s kind of like bookkeeping. Keeping everything in line, making sure everything gets done.
When I talked to Chris Slusarenko [Eyelids guitarist and vocalist] about making The Accidental Falls, he said that you had some kind of out-of-body type experience when you were recording the bass part for “Found at the Scene of a Rendezvous That Failed,” a song that Tim Buckley wrote the music for.
Yeah, you know... I’m not a person who believes in ghosts or spirits or anything, but it’s a heavy responsibility to play song that hasn’t been played since 1965 by this legendary guy and his psychic brother, Larry, and to do it justice. I just happened to play bass because there wasn’t anyone really around. I didn’t know the song. I just said, “Tell me what the chords are in order.” We played it one-and-a-half times. We only stopped halfway through because it sounded weird. I was trying to hold on for dear life to get all the way through the song without really knowing where it was going and feeling like I was doing duty to this spectral song presence. I can’t say that I saw his ghost or anything. But I definitely felt something unlike anything I’ve felt while playing. It was intense.
I walked out and everybody said, “Yeah, you know, we should do that again. We could do better.” And I went, “You’re fucking crazy! That was magic! You don’t change magic!” It was a momentous experience and I felt like you don’t want to go back and try to recapture that. It’s just not possible.
Looking at the calendar, I see that you have another Filthy Friends show coming up in May. Are things ramping up for another album?
Corin and I write all the time. When she’s not on tour with Sleater-Kinney and I’m in town, she comes to my house once a week and we sit in the living room and go through what we’ve got. Maybe I’ll introduce something new or she’ll bring in something new and we’ll edit and all that. The show is a good excuse to get the band together to rehearse and ideally work out three or four of these brand new things and just get ready. Maybe in the fall we’ll do it again and record next year. I don’t know. It’s hard to put a schedule on anything because, of everyone, I’m the one who’s most up in the air. I don’t know where I’m going to be tomorrow.
To that point, when you’re writing, do you mess around and then finally hit an idea that you think, “This would be great for this project” or do you write with a specific artist or band that you’re a part of in mind?
You can do either. When I was working with Luke, I realized about three-quarters of the way through that we needed a couple more uptempo things. So I set myself to write something a little faster and a little noisier. But essentially I just play guitar every day and if something shows up, I notate it or remember it. Then, it’s like, “Oh Corin would like that.” Sometimes it’s a matter of “What have I written this week?” when someone’s coming over. It’s an ongoing process. I never know where I’m going with it until I get there.
Do you have any interest in making another solo record?
I don’t know. I think that was a product of the place I was in mentally. I think my fear was, once R.E.M. ended that I was going to do anything I can. I’ll be the bass player in Scott’s band, which is great, but it’s not enough work for me. I just thought I have to be very... I hate the word “proactive,” but I have to be proactive if I’m going to write a bunch of songs, including the lyrics, which I hadn’t really done much of. And singing, which I really can’t do. At one point, I thought, “I’m going to make a record a year until I die.” But after three, I felt, “I proved my point. I’ve done it.”
Before I let you go... I’m not sure how much you can talk about this, but last month, it was confirmed that, among all the master tapes and material that got destroyed at the Universal Studios fire in 2008, there was some R.E.M. material. Do you know specifically what you guys lost?
First of all, you can never trust the record companies to tell you the truth. They’re all trying to dodge lawsuits. All I’ll say is that I know we’ve done a really god job maintaining our master tapes and catalog so I’m not 100% certain what was out there. I’m sure there were thing but I don’t think there’s anything that’s irreplaceable. Like, apparently Beck lost a whole album. I’m not really sure what we lost but it’s probably mixes. Although, I could be horribly shocked and find out that the masters got burned because we have been doing those reissue programs. We are doing our own little investigation and we’ll see where we end up on that.