Big Thief's big year

Joel Oliphint
Big Thief

If you’re headed to the Big Thief show at the Athenaeum Theatre on Monday night, you have drummer James Krivchenia’s grandmother to thank.

Krivchenia has a handful of cousins living in Columbus, and a lot of his father’s family grew up in Marietta, in Southeast Ohio. Earlier this year, Krivchenia spent about a week with his grandmother, and when he introduced her to the music of Big Thief, the band gained a new fan.

“I was showing my granny Big Thief, and she's like, 'Wow, this is amazing! I want to come see it!'” said Krivchenia by phone in early October from his new hometown of Altadena, California. “I was looking at our tour schedule, and I was like, ‘You know what? I'm going to talk to our booking agent and get us a Columbus show.’”

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Krivchenia’s history with Big Thief goes back to the band’s first album, the aptly named Masterpiece (2016), but not as a drummer. He worked as an engineer on the record, and right away the band made an impression on him. “Once you record a band, you either go, ‘Wow, they're really deep musicians and their recordings are just scratching the surface,’ or you're like, ‘Oh, they're full of it, and they're kind of tricking people.' You get a deeper understanding of who you’re working with,” Krivchenia said. “My first impression was like, ‘What people are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg.’ [Adrianne Lenker] was writing songs in the van on the way to the session, and you just saw the drive and the raw talent and the spirit, like, ‘Wow, this person really cares about their craft.’”

When previous drummer Jason Burger departed Big Thief, Krivchenia took over behind the kit alongside singer/guitarist Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek and bassist Max Oleartchik. The buzz around the quartet grew with 2017’s excellent Capacity, and this year fans were treated to two new albums from the folk-inflected indie-rock act. First came U.F.O.F. in February, and then last month Two Hands arrived.

While the two new albums were recorded just days apart, the band took completely different approaches. For U.F.O.F., Big Thief traveled to Bear Creek Studios outside of Seattle, where the bandmates tinkered and layered until they emerged with a dozen intimate songs, all richly produced and nuanced enough to gift listeners with new discoveries on repeated spins.

After recording wrapped up, Krivchenia remembers listening to the final mixes with some friends from Seattle. “We were still kind of reeling from the emotional-ness of the U.F.O.F. experience,” he said. “We had ended that by sequencing the record the last night. … Everyone was really drunk, and we're just like, ‘I don't even know what we just did.’ It was like 5 in the morning, and it was this weird, suspended experience. We were looking for closure, and we were just like, ‘Whoa, what the hell is that one? And we're about to do another one?’”

Five days later the band headed to Tornillo, Texas, to make Two Hands at Sonic Ranch, but for this album, Big Thief recorded each song live as a band — an approach Krivchenia found challenging not because of the potential pressure cooker of playing through full takes without screw-ups, but rather because the band knew the songs backwards and forwards. The album takes had to feel fresh and authentic, not rote or overly rehearsed.

“It's actually much harder, I think, to record stuff you know really well because you have all of this built-in expectation, and you have all these moments of remembering how it felt when the song really worked, and you're constantly comparing against that,” he said.

It’s especially important on a song like “Not,” an extended rocker on Two Hands that builds as it goes, Lenker’s vocals growing increasingly feral before culminating in a feedback-drenched guitar solo that caps perhaps the best six minutes of recorded music released in 2019.

“The take that we ended up using of [‘Not’] was the first real take. I really like it, because not only does the song build, but you can tell we kind of sink into it about halfway through the singing part, maybe in the second verse or the second chorus. All of a sudden it's like, ‘OK. Now they're in it,’” he said. “That's something I love about Dylan recordings and a lot of early Neil Young recordings with Crazy Horse. You hear them slowly find it, like a minute in, and that sound of a band finding it is really cool.”

After already recording an entire album, Krivchenia recalled fatigue while making Two Hands, but for the most part he thought it worked in the band’s favor. “The fact that we were exhausted, I think that was all playing into the record,” he said. “The reason we did Two Hands second is because we were like, ‘OK, this isn't the record that needs the creative juice of four hours of overdubs in the middle of the night. It needs the road-weary tour energy — the kind of tired where you stop thinking.”

After releasing four stellar records in three years, the quartet has also developed a healthy chemistry and an understood band ethic that makes things easier now than when Big Thief was just getting started, despite the strong personalities involved.

“We're all extremely opinionated. There's no one who's like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ [But] we've gotten pretty good at communicating. We have a weekly band meeting, and at first the band meetings used to drag on for three hours. We'd be talking about the deep, philosophical merits of what a particular TV show is or isn't,” he said. “[Now], if someone doesn't want to put the song in the TV show, then we won't put it in the TV show. … We try not to say yes or no out of fear.”

Athenaeum Theatre

7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11

32 N. Fourth St., Downtown


Big Thief