Big Thief: Inside Their New Album, 'U.F.O.F.' - Rolling Stone
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Big Thief Want to Transcend All This

With their third album in three years, indie-rock searchers reach toward the supernatural and sublime

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MIchael Buishas

“I love performing,” Adrianne Lenker says, “but unfortunately, the bigger you get, the more mitote.”

Mitote (pronounced “mih-toe-tay”) is a word that Lenker and her bandmates in Big Thief have been using a lot lately. They found it in a 1997 book of spiritual philosophy called The Four Agreements, by Mexican author Don Miguel Ruiz, where it represents “the stuff that surrounds our human experience,” Lenker explains. “Everything that has to do with projection or constructs or ideas or concepts about the other.”

“A lot of the time,” drummer James Krivchenia adds, “I feel like it’s a stand-in for ‘bullshit.'”

For Lenker and her band, it seems, the perks of being a fast-rising rock band — well-attended shows across the country, with endless green-room meals and a team to take care of lodging logistics — come with an added layer of disconnect from reality. “There’s so much mitote surrounding everything,” Lenker says. “The airport is so much mitote — you have to go through so much mitote just to fly somewhere. Even just wading through pools of ideas that people have formed about who you are. It’s a lot when you’re sensitive. And most artists are.”

Over the span of just three years, Lenker, Krivchenia, guitarist Buck Meek and bassist Max Oleartchick have fostered a rabid following, due to their knack for merging the frighteningly naked intensity of Lenker’s songwriting with indelible indie-folk arrangements. Their tireless work ethic has helped, too: After debuting to rave reviews with Masterpiece in 2016, the band followed up with an even bigger-reaching statement, Capacity, the very next year. In 2018, Lenker paused just long enough to release a stark, ruminative solo album, abysskiss. This spring, Big Thief are speeding ahead again with their third album, U.F.O.F. Out May 3rd as their first release for indie mainstay 4AD, it’s an exercise in radical groundedness and pointed self-definition. Over 12 songs set to the band’s trademark spectral indie-folk, the band creates a warm, insular world on its own terms.

Lenker pauses when asked if the new album is a reaction to the feelings of mitote she’s been musing about. “I don’t think we’ve hit a point yet where we’ve had to make our rebellion record,”  she says. “But in a way, all the music I make is dealing with that and pushing away from that. I do think this album is doing that, in the sense that we’re disregarding all of it. All the ideas. All the constructs. All the expectations that anybody might have. We’re just not thinking about them.”

What that means for U.F.O.F., mainly, is a total lack of any obvious singles with hooks as melodic and sweeping as early Big Thief breakthroughs like 2016’s “Paul” and “Masterpiece” or 2017’s “Shark Smile.” To hammer home that point, the group’s choice for a lead single this time was the title track, an eccentric acoustic number on which Lenker mumble-whispers obscure imagery about her “UFO friend.”

In contrast with Lenker’s usual propensity for writing about the natural world, the band become particularly interested in the supernatural and extraterrestrials — what Lenker calls “the cosmic, celestial realm” — during the writing and recording process of their latest record. “That’s a big part of us,” she says. “We really pay attention to that kind of magic: what we’re made of, where we come from and what’s beyond. As we’ve deepened our relationships as friends and bandmates, there’s been more room to explore. So it felt important in this record to have a bridge between the earthly, raw, physical forms — the sounds of us playing in a room — with this whole other celestial realm.”

The closest to anything immediately accessible on U.F.O.F. comes in the form of several gorgeously rendered, off-kilter folk numbers like “Cattails” and “Orange,” songs whose melodies sound and feel hundreds of years old. Lenker began writing the former song the night before they recorded it in the studio. “It was like a wash of wind passing through the room,” she says. The next day, she performed “Cattails” on her 12-string guitar with only Krivchenia accompanying her on drums. The third take, which ended up on the album, was the first time Lenker could even remember all the song’s nursery-rhyme lyrics. By the time they finished that take, the band’s engineer Dom Monks was crying.

Big Thief recorded U.F.O.F. at a cabin in Washington state. It was the first time the foursome felt like they had the luxury of devoting a decent chunk of time towards the recording sessions, which felt like a much-needed break after several years of relentless touring. They ended up with an immaculately produced, finely-crafted collection, a proper headphones record full of sonic intricacies, subtle accompaniment and richly-recorded instrumentation. “With each record, I feel like our sound has gotten more articulate,” Lenker says.

As for her songwriting, Lenker is often an intentionally opaque lyricist. Her songs convey a profound intimacy and frequently hint at pain and trauma, despite not always bringing the specifics to the surface. Standouts like “Mythological Beauty” and “From” (the latter of which first appeared on abysskiss) rely on a writerly reveal/conceal tension to draw out their narratives. The same is true in conversation, where Lenker prefers to let her music speak for itself.

“It is a bit intense, having already written songs, to then also have to talk about them,” she says, after patiently sitting through 40 minutes of questions asking her to do exactly that. “You say what you want to say, and reveal to the extent that you want to reveal, in the song. It’s the best possible way you can say it. So then to try to fumble around talking about it feels like you’re diminishing something.”

The more Lenker thinks about her own songwriting, the more she realizes just how much the last several years have left her yearning for a creative recharge. “I’ve been really craving a period of input and learning,” she says. “I really want to get into other forms of art, visual art, because I think it would be cool to have another language with which to excavate things.” Several members of Lenker’s family paint, and lately she’s been drawn to less-narrative forms of expression: carving spoons, pottery, drawing. In the past year, she says, she’s hardly even been able to listen to music with lyrics, instead leaning almost exclusively on instrumental avant garde artists like Pauline Oliveros and Sarah Davachi.

Rejecting lyrics-based music, delving into the visual arts, craving some time off: It’s all part of Lenker and Big Thief’s larger creative project of rejecting the mitote surrounding the band as they get more successful. “There’s this anxiety where once you get to a certain level, you’ve got to keep producing and grinding or else you’ll lose momentum,” Lenker says. “I would like to bypass that.”

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