Richard Buckner's songs are the sorts of things I can recite. To me, at least, they're poetry in the best sense, building slow-burning ruminations on hurt and hope with perfectly defined details and moments of emotional sting that glance the mind like a hard blow misadjusts the body. "Ed's Song" from 1997's Devotion & Doubt defines emotional ambivalence and instability with a handful of careful words, while "Invitation" does the same for blessed persistence, using a perfect sequence of elliptical ideas to stand up to life: "I need the dance to slow, closing up/ And going out"; "You see, the walls are gone some times/ There's no other way/ Is looking down, still moving on?"; and the pinnacle, "I've been thrown before, I guess/ Put the bones to use!"
It's a bit shocking, then, when Buckner says flatly during a phone call, "Everything's kind of dried up for me." It sort of stings, like one of Buckner's best laconic laments. How could he? Why would he? What will we do when he's not framing feelings with three minutes of steel and spit? As he said from his new home in upstate New York, it's all just part of a bigger picture.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The arrangement that opens "Invitation" is interesting in that it has this drone cutting beneath these chords. How did that come together?
RICHARD BUCKNER: I'm trying to remember. [Long pause.] Ahh [Laughs.] I remember I was living in Austin, and I was working on demos in my house. I went into the studio and had people replay my parts. I had somebody else play the piano part on it because I didn't want to play it. I can't remember what it sounds like now
It opens with the piano chords, and then there's the little organ drone when the acoustic guitar cuts in.
Oh, yeah, yeah. When I hire guys to play parts, I'll have my melody lines that I've worked up, and I'll tell them to play my melodies—or their versions or with their finesse. I don't have any of that. I don't play piano in public. Sometimes I let the guys who really play guitar to play the lines instead, because I kind of feel like the Bonanza theme, you know? I came in with the basic melodies, and I told them to play it with a little style. When I work on demos at home, I try to have layering ideas worked out. If I end up going to the studio to redo stuff, I base it on what my build-up pads and arrangements were. I haven't heard the song in a while, but I think that is what was going on.
One of the things that interests me about the arrangement is how it relates to your live show of the last few years: You know, using pedals and loops to build something that sustains, then clipping it off to get the song moving. Does the live process affect the studio mentality for you?
I think so. The whole thing about me doing more loops and stuff is, it's a way for me to feel more comfortable onstage. In my perfect world, I'd be able to get onstage and do a show and not be aware that I was on a stage. Just be able to perform and get into the songs and play my instruments and let myself go. When there is any kind of interaction with the audience or when I hear stuff, it startles me and shocks me out of my little zone. I can't get back into it. That's when the loops started happening more and more. I was trying to avoid situations where somebody would yell or say something, or I'd hear somebody laugh or hear some cell phone go off. Sometimes, I'll be doing something, and someone will whistle or yell, and it scares me. It shocks me, and I'll almost fall out of my chair sometimes. It's startling, and I don't like it.
I've been trying to avoid ... not interaction with people, but just trying to avoid having things come up during the show that aren't part of what I'm doing onstage because it scares me. The loops started more because of that, and they're still happening because of that. Like I said, my dream is to get up there and do my whole show and not have anything happen that will snap me out of my little zone.
I did a film score last year, and a lot of the things that ended up on the film score started out from touring as much as I used to with the loops. If I'm on tour for a few months, the loops start reappearing even though I redo them every night from scratch. After a couple of months, they start reappearing on a regular basis in regular spots. They turn into ideas or something that might end up as a subconscious idea when you're doing a real recording. The stuff that happens during the loops kind of slipped into the stuff that happened when I was more conscious in the studio. One process affected the other in a weird way, which is good because I love the line on the subconscious. I think it's more trustable. It's great that stuff sneaks in and you get some surprise, something that you couldn't have even tried to think of.
I wasn't doing quite as much looping back then when I recorded that song, but I was doing quite a bit of home recording. I think the same kind of mental state happens in your little room. I was renting a bedroom in East Austin for a couple of months, and it was so small that when I slept I had to take all of the equipment off the bed. When I was working, I had to put everything on the bed so I could actually work in the corner. [Laughs.] It was a little tiny space, but I would stay in there when I wasn't touring. A lot of ideas got worked out in there, and I was in a nice state of mind in a weird kind of way.
Does the space you're in affect your work?
Oh, yeah. I get my best work done if I'm able to isolate myself and get my own discipline going. I'm working a day job now, so my whole thing is kind of interrupted. But until a couple of months ago, I was on my usual schedule—just touring and coming back and living off that touring money while I was at home recording. So, when I'm at home, I just get up kind of early and drink a bunch of coffee or do whatever it takes to get me going. I'd work all day and look up and it's almost nighttime. If I have a space to work in, I just completely take advantage of it.
I moved to this place here in upstate New York almost a year ago now, and it's in this small town in upstate. It used to be an old grange hall. It's one big room and all of my stuff is out on the floor or on the walls. So I was able to get a lot of—until I started working again—I was able to spread out and get a lot of work done. If I have the opportunity, I just immerse myself and leave the house as little as possible. It's a pleasure to get deep inside a work-mind, when you're not really dealing with the outside world at all and when it gets to the point where going outside can be a startling event. You look forward to getting all your supplies, like you're a pioneer living in the Wild West and going back to your camp. It's like going back to the fort and locking the door and getting some work done again.
Will the day job be a temporary thing?
I don't think so. Everything's kind of dried up for me. My label [Merge] doesn't want to put out a record until 2009 or later, and my booking agent doesn't want to book me too much until I get another record out. So I'm going to learn a new trade and start a new life and make a record whenever it happens. I can't really depend on music anymore as a way of making a living. These shows, like the one in Raleigh, where booked around a couple of shows that got booked in Florida a couple of months ago. It's a last hurrah, doing a few more shows before I stop doing this for a while. I might be a teacher, or I might be a welder. [Laughs.] It just depends on who offers me a job and enough to pay my bills, you know? I'm in a weird stage of my life where I'm going to switch gears, jump from one hamster wheel to the other.
What do you want to teach?
Oh, I don't know. I'm not qualified to teach anything. New York State has a teacher's program where you can get your master's while you're teaching. I'm thinking about doing that. Going back to school and being a student, I couldn't really afford to do that right now. I'm going to do that or maybe learn some other trade and do the trade job while I'm going back to school and getting my masters or something. This has all been presented to me in the last six months or so, so I'm kind of figuring out what to do with the last 30 years of my life. It's interesting: I've always wondered, "Well, this whole music thing has been a scam, anyway. I've been lucky that I've been able to tour and record as long as I have." I figured that one of these days it would start closing up. It's no surprise in a way, but it's like a whole new world.
You just used the phrase "closing up," which is in the song itself. What you're saying sort of reflects the perseverance aspect of the track.
Lemme get the lyrics out real quick. Hold on a second here. It was on Meadow, wasn't it? I have all of my CD booklets out because I'm practicing for this tour, and I want to relearn my old songs. As I'm making the setlist out, I keep the lyrics out because a lot of em go away after a while. Lemme turn a light on here. [Long pause.] There it is. [Long pause.] Oh, yeah! "Looking around, the walls are gone "
My second favorite set of lines in any of your songs is here: "I've been thrown before, I guess/ Put the bones to use!" Another reflection of what you're saying now, it seems.
Yeah, yeah! At the time I wrote that, I was in a similar situation. Not with making music, but I wasn't living anywhere. Austin, Texas, kind of offered itself up to me, and I felt like I was flying through the air completely lost in doubt, and I looked down and a bunch of people were looking up at me and waving and smiling and motioning me down and so I landed. [Laughs.] That's the way I think of Austin now. But I had to get the fuck out of there after a while because they're all crazy there. They were very welcoming.
It happens all of the time. This isn't a new situation. Every three or four years, I get really super-lost, and I don't know what to do. I end up starting some new faction of my existence over again. Whether it's moving or just work or whether it's the way I approach personal relationships or the way I treat myself as far as drinking or doing drugs or controlling myself. Every three or four years, it's like a lot of us do. I don't know if it's aging, but basically I just get bored with myself. I think that song came out of a similar period with different circumstances. "I've been thrown before..."
It happens all of the time. You keep reconfiguring yourself. Thomas Jefferson said to have a healthy country you need a revolution every 25 years, so you have to trust that guy. [Editor's note: "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion."] You have to put the bones to use. You have to do something with yourself, or else you'll be a fucking freak. It's just a matter of, "What is that thing?" Ultimately, I think it doesn't matter. All that matters is that you keep some illumination in front of you to keep your eyes bright so you can keep questioning things and not get in some sort of rut. When you're running around in circles for years and you find yourself just a boring piece of bland, flavorless thing doing the same thing over and over again: Forced situations kind of help you redefine what you're doing and make you think of what you're doing and how you're doing it.
I was on a major label for a few years, and I got off and that was a big change. I ended up making records that I would have made for them. I'm glad that I've been allowed to get into a rut. It's just kind of startling because you find yourself scrambling. It can be really comfortable. You get into a routine, and routines are fine. You're surviving, but there's the shock of waking up somewhere you don't expect to wake up with half your shit missing. You're forced to recreate your surroundings. It's startling, but it's also very healthy. I think more people should allow themselves to do that. "The walls are gone" isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Aside from the practical concerns, what has it meant to you to have your gear stolen?
I've had gear stolen for years, but I was being metaphorical about maybe waking up in the gutter after being drunk or something. Like just having your options taken away from you and you being forced to redefine yourself based on something you had no control over. Like, moving: There was a period of years where I just had my stuff in a couple of storage spaces all over the country. I had one in North Dakota and one in Bakersfield for some reason because they were locations that fit with various touring routes. Then collecting that stuff and having to move somewhere with it, you find yourself with all of this crap you really don't need. "Why do I have all of this stuff? This is ridiculous." These boxes of things and memories and pictures of people I don't know or care about or records of things people told me I should keep. "Oh, here's press from my first record I was told to keep. Why do I have this?"
Actually, a few months ago, it felt really, really good. After I moved here, I didn't realize how much crap I had. I had boxes and boxes and boxes of journals. This place I moved into has a wood-burning stove. So I had this great week where I burned all my journals, like 20 years worth of journals. It's great, though, because when I use journals, I use most of them and stop before the end. I hate getting to the end of a journal and not having anything to write in, so I get a new one. So now I have 30 or 40 journals with two-thirds of the pages ripped out and burned, so now I have almost 20 or 30 partial journals I can start over with now. I don't have to buy journals for years.
That felt really good, just burning all of my old writing. Going through there and reading all that stuff, it's so embarrassing what you wrote as a young man or you're going through some writing process where you wanted to be. You're like, "I would need to die in a car wreck if someone actually sees this." [Laughs.] I was trying to do some writing for a book of short stories and I started to write, and I realized I wasn't a writer. I have thousands of stories in my head from the traveling I've been doing and all the stuff I've witnessed and thought about over the years. I went through and read what I had written about, and I thought, "This is ridiculous. I have to get rid of this. It's just confusing me." So I had to burn everything. It cleaned the palette. I may have over-cleaned, but I think ultimately in a year I'll be able to start over again and start writing. It will be really good for me to not have that old personal detritus. I'll be able to not think about it again. I have no options. It's all burned now.
I was recently talking to another songwriter friend, and his band is taking a few months off. He had a nasty break-up with his girlfriend, so he moved back to New York and is working in coffee shops after touring with some success for the last few years. You seem to look at that sort of thing as a chance for reinvention?
I've had a strange life. It keeps happening to me. When I was a kid, my family moved all the time. I used to know the number and order of the towns—something like mid-20 by the time I got to high school. A couple of times a year sometimes. It got me used to it in a way, and I can't really seem to slip out of that. Even though you may long for some sort of situation that keeps you happy for a while, you can't really control what you do.
I could have just as easily not have made a record. I was a street musician for so long. I wasn't shooting for that, but I met a few people who allowed me to do a record. I never really worked for shit like that. It just feels like you're surviving from situation to situation, you know? It's great to be a musician and be touring when people come to your shows and buy your records, but sometimes people need to be awakened that it may not be a huge option.
Where does it all begin, anyway? It begins with you not being a musician and working some weird temp job and coming home with scraps of paper in your pocket with song ideas. A few years later, you're allowed to take time off and do songwriting as a full-time profession. Going back to that job really isn't good or bad. It puts you in a different space.
Richard Buckner plays The Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.