by Leah Dunlevy (@leahdunlevy)
Big Thief released their highly anticipated new album U.F.O.F. on May 3rd. The album, the band’s best record to date, beautifully documents life’s impermanence through moments and memories that, although belonging to members of the band, invoke a visceral nostalgia among listeners. U.F.O.F. is a testament to the musical development of Big Thief; the sheer intimacy and shared experiences between its members are reflected in the complex — yet delicately symbiotic — composition of the newest album.
Big Thief rose to prominence in the indie rock world after the release of their 2016 debut album, Masterpiece. Since then, the band (currently comprised of guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, drummer James Krivchenia, and vocalist Adrianne Lenker) has been touring nonstop for the last three years.
I spoke with Oleartchik about his personal music history, life on the road, and the creation of their newest album.
Oleartchik’s Deeply Personal Relationship with Music— And How It Led Him To Buck Meek
I spoke with Oleartchik at the end of a five month break— the first the band has taken since beginning to tour in 2016. He sounds relaxed, but also indelibly excited to be back with the band as they begin their next tour for U.F.O.F.
He takes me back to the beginning of of his profoundly familial relationship with music. Oleartchik’s grandfather served as a national composer in Poland, later joining the Russian Army as the lead conductor of the Red Army's orchestra in order to escape anti-semitism. On tour with the army band, his grandfather fell in love with a young woman in the audience. “He had to leave in a week to the next village so he taught her how to play the saxophone,” Oleartchik says. “And that's my grandma.”
This love of music was passed down to Oleartchik’s father, an immigrant to what was, at the time, the newly created Israel. Trained on classical music, his father then discovered Jimi Hendrix’s quintessential album Live at the Fillmore East. After completing his service with Israel’s army band, Oleartchik’s father ventured in rock and roll, eventually forming a band himself. The band became popular “in a time when people needed unification,” says Oleartchik. “They had this beautiful way of making healing and loving music through no nonsense and humor and also a lot of sadness.” His father’s music career eventually landed the family back in Israel where Oleartchik and his sister were raised.
It was here that Oleartchik developed his love of music, playing in various ensembles and becoming the third generation to play in an army band (in Israel, it is mandatory to join the army for two years at age 18). But he grew up with diverse musical influences all located in a music library in the family’s living room, housing everything from Disney musicals to music from Afghanistan. His parents taught him to see the beauty in a diversity of music, not just within specific genres, he says.
His dedication to music brought him to a five week jazz program held at the Berklee College of Music when he was 16, where he met Meek. The two became fast friends and immediately, they had a certain “closeness,” he explains. The two cried as they said goodbye, but of course, their story didn’t end there: Ten years later, Oleartchik, living in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, was just beginning to pursue a music career when just four months in, he ran into Lenker and Meek on the street.
They began to practice together and immediately connected musically, says Oleartchik. Lenker then wanted to make a rock band— and just two months later, they were on tour, during which time they lived out of a van, Meek tasked with sending hundreds of emails to set up performances.
Continuity Through Fragmentation: Creating U.F.O.F. While On the Road
During their breakout tour following the release of Masterpiece in 2016, the band became close—an intimacy unique to living and working together that only grew during the next three years. “People living in such close proximity, it's like getting married times ten,” Oleartchik says. “It's really intense.”
As with marriage, that intense proximity wasn’t without frustration, however. “You are sensitive to how the third tooth from the right hits the apple, and it's 11:00 A.M. You hear that sound near you and you don't like it.” Oleartchik laughs. “And then you have like four hundred and twelve more shows to go.”
At a certain point, the band had two options, Oleartchik explains. They could get upset, at which point everything would basically just fall apart, or they could channel that energy to grow closer, and “just give up and surrender to each other.” That process of surrender is something that Big Thief is always going through, Oleartchik says.
The profound intimacy of the band is apparent throughout their newest album, U.F.O.F. Incessantly touring, the only constant for the band is precisely that of change. Everything is fragmented he says, even the most fundamental things, like water and air, are different each day. Despite that fragmentation, there were no hard cuts when they decided to make the album, he explains. Instead that fragmentation became a record that “was pouring slowly into our lives,” he says.
In terms of putting it all together, although songs usually start with Lenker’s songwriting, the final composition is truly a team effort: “It just forms organically— it's clear what the song feels like to all of us so then it just comes out like that with sounds from each other's instruments.” And the band’s newest album is a testament to the musical chemistry of Big Thief’s members. Its tracks have a delicate symbiosis: When new vocals or instrumentation enter a song, they fill a space that you didn’t even know was there, yet that new element never detracts from the soft fullness of Lenker’s vocals.
Big Thief’s newest album is from the “celestial realm,” as Oleartchik describes it. However, that development of something so otherworldly, was molded by their very human experiences on tour: “One thing we learned is if we have an idea about something, next thing it's just completely flipped. Reality is flickering. So I think we're always learning to not have a specific idea [but] go for it and also be completely open for everything to be liquefied at any given moment. It was just always happening physically on the road.”
The constant movement and change that comes with being on tour is something that only the other members of the band can truly relate to. The band has fostered a closeness that is evident throughout the album, an intimacy that only comes with a deeply shared understanding of the trials and triumphs (and everything in between) of the past three years.
And the impermanence of life on the road encapsulated in the album sort of serves as a literal, spatial parallel to the constant passage of time that we are all experiencing. Listeners of the album are impelled to be cognizant of time’s impermanence, but Big Thief isn’t resisting temporal finitude. Instead, the album serves as an ode to what is fleeting, exploring and appreciating the mystical cyclicality of existence: Life, death, and many little moments in between, are beautifully captured by Big Thief.
Sometimes, Lenker gives you enough context to understand the emotions she is revealing; other times, you are left with only a visceral memory, a snapshot in time. In “Open Desert,” Lenker sings: “She has one green, one eye blue/ I can see her smiling through/ The white light of the living room.” Big Thief’s dreamy lyrics, capturing memories belonging to members of the band, somehow evoke a certain nostalgia in the listener from the chaos and blissful unawareness of childhood to the unimposing beauty of the Midwest. Their newest album also features new auditory elements, such as a strained scream in “Jodi” or ambient noise on the track “U.F.O.F” which serve to further develop the scene while maintaining simple, yet profoundly illuminating, lyrics and refrains.
For Oleartchik, the album is dynamic and constantly changing, even after it’s release. “I really do think [the tracks] each have character and it's almost like a capture of that day: where we ate taco, that was the day that someone got stung by poison ivy, and that was the day we recorded “Contact”. It’s just tied in with all these emotions with that day,” he says.
Ultimately, the album is a beautiful series of Big Thief’s moments and memories, snapshots that the listener feels so lucky to embrace, even for just a second.