It’s a sunny afternoon in Ithaca, New York, and Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek is seated at an outdoor picnic table when he excuses himself from the Zoom call he’s on with Eugene Weekly. Meek is in Ithaca with his band for the first show supporting its sprawling double album — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You — released this year. The tour comes to Eugene Thursday, May 5, at McDonald Theatre.
Meek needs a moment because Big Thief lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Adrienne Lenker — to whom Meek was briefly married — has brought him a gift. Lenker just rolled up with a blue box covered in velvet, Meek says. It’s a chess set, it turns out. Lenker picked it up for Meek at a nearby secondhand shop, and it’s a familial exchange to witness between two musicians who, along with Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Max Oleartchik, seem bonded by blood.
With traditional American styles like folk, bluegrass and hillbilly country music as well as the rough and experimental edge of indie rock in the band’s DNA, New Warm Mountain is Big Thief’s boldest statement yet. There’s squealing fiddle and wandering mouth harp on songs like “Spud Infinity,” as Lenker hollers homespun psychedelia like, “Your elbows, they’re on their own, wandering like a rolling stone, rubbing up against the edges of experience.” And on the circularly rhythmic acoustic-leaning “Little Things,” Lenker sums up loneliness well with the line, “New York City is a crowded place, I still lose sight of every other face.”
Elsewhere, the voices of Big Thief join together in high holy harmony with “Certainty,” and taking a turn on lead guitar, Lenker’s solo on the thoroughly modern “Simulation Swarm” is oblique angles, sparking harmonics and electrified energy.
Over the course of 20 tracks, the bandmates grapple with their own potential on their fifth studio record, while minding the gap between Grammy-nominated critical darling and stadium-level mainstream success. The friendship that brought the band together helps maintain that balance, Meek says.
“We built a band around friendship,” and trusted that music would come from that, he explains. Meek calls Big Thief his chosen family. “We always put our communication first,” which only makes the band stronger, he says.
As expansive as New Warm Mountain is, it could have been longer, Meek continues. “We came into the project thinking it might be a quintuplet album.” With Big Thief there’s always new material — so much so, songs are sometimes forgotten. Meek calls that a blessing, ephemeral and fertile, but also a wild thing to be a part of.
“There’s so many songs there’s not enough time to record all of them or play all of them. At this point, we have over a hundred songs in our live repertoire. There’s never enough time,” he says.
That creates a constant feeling of nostalgia within the quartet for their own music — a feeling of both letting go and trying to chase their own tail, Meek continues. “That’s a big part of what makes us a band, but there’s a sense of loss that’s part of it.” ν
Big Thief performs with Tucker Zimmerman 8 pm Thursday, May 5 at McDonald Theatre; $33-$55, all ages general admission, 21+ reserved balcony.