The roadside ancestry of Brooklyn’s Big Thief

Friday 14th, September 2018 / 08:00
By Sarah Bauer

VANCOUVER – Big Thief sounds like family. It’s in singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics, recounted in memories from childhood. It ripples through raw, intrepid arrangements on their critically enormous albums (released less than a year apart on Saddle Creek Records), Masterpiece and Capacity. Family noises also occupy the Big Thief tour bus, where Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bass player Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia have spent the bulk of their days since 2016, crammed like kids in the backseat on the never-ending road of independent record promotion, miles away from their home in Brooklyn (where none currently have a permanent address). In conversation with Krivchenia from a Norwegian airport where he’s moments away from boarding for a show in Portugal, the focus turns to cooperation strategies for close quarters.

Lesson one: living out of a suitcase for months on end with the same three individuals will inevitably force you to address your baggage. “You can’t hide anything from the people you’re travelling with,” Krivchenia says.

Lesson two: it’s not all about you. With constant, cross-continent touring, some shows are bound to feel less amazing than others. Krivchenia recognizes that a “bad” performance for him is, “probably great for a lot of people and even for the people in the band.” Take comfort in the joy of others.

Lesson three: establishing trust isn’t easy, but it pays off. “We would not be able to tour together if we didn’t have that line of communication,” says Krivchenia. “We’ve had ups and downs and we’ve put a ton of work into really being able to talk to each other about how we’re feeling and what’s bothering us.”

Lesson four: embrace your shared values. Music tastes may differ, but what all four members hold in highest regard is “the rawness of a real thing that’s happening on stage,” Krivchenia says. “We’re so cautious and afraid of anything becoming an act.”

What makes a family is the journey toward unification against the odds. Lenker, with her voice that could double as a winter blanket, keeping all within range warm and rested, is the inherent narrator for this travelling band. Like Saskatchewan-based Andy Shauf, Lenker connects character names to sensibilities that are bang-on familiar yet unconventionally observed. On Capacity, Oleartchik, Meek and Krivchenia seem to lean in close to her as though around a campfire, moving with the flickering light of Lenker’s words.

Capacity is a chapter in permanence and union for the Big Thief family, evidenced on songs like “Coma” and “Mary”, which are explosive despite sounding gentle, with sections that bloom like flowers in a dust storm, fighting to the last petal. From the chilling arc on “Mythological Beauty” to the dizzying monologue on “Black Diamonds”, there is a sense of expedient precision, as though Capacity holds exactly the number of songs it needs to for Big Thief at this moment in their accelerated trajectory, at a time for the band where relentless travelling means they’ve “had to get a a lot more honest about what books [they’ll] actually read and what shirts [they’ll] actually wear,” as Krivchenia says. “We share some stuff like that now, and we pass around each others’ books and clothes.”

Lesson five: take what you need and share in the rest. It’s gonna be alright.

Big Thief performs at the Imperial (Vancouver) on September 20.