November 18, 2011KR BlogBlog

An Interview with Richard Buckner

I first heard Richard Buckner in 1997 and I’ve since heard maybe two other musicians make music so thick and synapse-sticking. Because it was the first of his albums I heard, I still have a massive soft spot for Devotion + Doubt, and I could gladly talk at length about the genius of that album (to say nothing of its follow-up, Since). But, since this is a literary site, I should take a second to talk about The Hill, Buckner’s 2000 release, in which selections from Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology were set to music (which is the undersell of all time: the album is 18 songs but all one track, and the songs flip-flop from instrumental to song-with-lyrics, every other one, and the common comment among the few literary folk I ever heard talk about was that Buckner had made something like an audio Winesburg, OH, which, who knows: he made a damn near perfect album is the thing).

In the last decade, Buckner’s continued to record and release charged, compelling, thick music, and I just realized I’ve now used ‘thick’ twice in describing his work, and what I mean is this: listen to a good pop/guitar-driven song. Rock is fine as well. Listen close. At some point, the netting of the song—sonically, in terms of attention, whatever—spreads wide and lets you through, lets you drift for a moment. In the best cases, this sonic dynamism is great: one is given a breather before a bigger musical punch is packed. Buckner’s stuff, however, is made of more densely woven music, and there’s no release: when he stops singing for a moment and lets music guide any song for a moment, the listener cannot slip through or away like he can listening to other music. It’s hard to explain, hard to get used to. It’s much, much easier to just listen to the man’s work (here’s his Merge Records page; buy everything, then find copies of D+D and Since; if nothing else, watch this).

Buckner’s latest album, Our Blood, is, like all his albums from the last decade, a Merge release, and let me finish with this: you’re unlikely to see as passionate a live show as those Buckner puts on. Passionate seems a nearly disposable adjective, but Buckner’s music and how he presents it resurrects it. I met him long, long ago at a concert—he’s usually easy to find, certainly easy to recognize—and we talked about writing. I caught up with him over email recently and asked him more about writing and the results are as follows. Seriously: I know this is a literary site, but buy Richard Buckner’s music—it’ll make everything in your life better.

What books have you read lately that’ve knocked you on your ass? What are you reading at present?

Right now I’m finishing Richard Wright’s Native Son.  Before that I read my friend Willy Vlautin’s recommendation, Pick-Up by Charles Willeford.  After that I revisited all of Salinger’s work chronologically.  Next up is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The prologues alone to Native Son and Invisible Man are both great.

How significantly does what you read affect the music you make? I imagine this might be an impossible one, given The Hill and the soundtrack you wrote for a movie (what movie, by the by? Did it ever come out? Is the music you made available anywhere?), but I’d be really fascinated to hear what you were reading when you made any of your albums.

The only effect that reading has on music-making for me is subconscious (along with other things that help set the tone for creating something).  Sometimes if I’m having trouble getting energy together to work on something, I’ll read and it’ll take me somewhere and I’ll come back sort of rejuvenated and ready to work.

The score I did was for a film called Dream Boy.  It hit a few theaters then retired on Netflix.  I was supposed to release the score but legalities are waiting in ambush.  So for now, two years of work sits in a desk drawer with no hope for parole.

For Devotion & Doubt and Since, I was listening to everything from Slint to Ralph Stanley. I was doing more writing than reading then.

Do you write fiction or poetry? We’ve talked Ray Carver before, and I know you like his work in both genres, so I figure you must write both as well (not sure of the logic on that, but there it is). Do you want to get your written work published? Is that at all a goal, ever? Or does that seem like a bad move (I’m thinking of Jeff Tweedy’s book of poetry as a possible example)?

I write fiction and poetry.  My last record Our Blood was originally supposed to include some shorter short stories represented by instrumentals in between the sung songs, but my laptop went missing when my house was robbed and I lost a lot and had to just bear down on the songs.  I’m working more on fiction now.  I’d like to publish something in the near future, but I need to set aside enough time to just focus on it and not worry about a tour coming up or some other project that takes up too much space and energy.

This might be impossible, but here goes: does writing end up hitting you harder through story or through the music of the language? Here’s the thing: your songs just devastate because of how elusive the actual narratives remain—you hint your stories into life, I’d argue. Maybe this Q’s got as much to do with your own writing as with what you read. I guess I’m just interested in how words work for you—both as you use them and as you receive them. Is it more sound or more narrative? Is that a false distinction?

The ‘music’ or puzzle of words and language have always been my motivation, especially in writing songs.  When I write for songs, I go back and forth between the lyric/stanza form and the prose form and sculpt the sentences until they work for me in both.  It helps keep new puzzle pieces and form-ideas coming.

I’d say that the words are built around sound while allowing opportunities for image-narratives to attach themselves to the mood of the melodies.

This also might be impossible: do you see much of a difference between music and literature? It even occurs to me to ask because of The Hill—it seems less like a book you set to music as something you read and read and dug into in order to find the music in it—like someone digging a well.

I keep music and literature in different places.  I like spoken-word recordings read by the authors.  I also like mostly instrumental music.  I’m not a big songwriter follower. If I have two stereos set up in one room, sometimes I get both going at once with, for example, an e.e. cummings recording from the 1950’s on one and then maybe something like Glenn Branca on the other.  The timing between the two is never the same, so the individual mood of each changes with every listen.  It’s a fun thing to do instead of leaving the house.