A Deep Dive Into Music Theory and Lyric Writing with Luke Temple and Buck Meek

Geek out with the Big Thief guitarist and the artist behind Art Feynman.

Luke Temple is a founding member of Here We Go Magic and currently performs solo under the name Art Feynman; Buck Meek is the guitarist for Big Thief, and a solo artist as well. To celebrate the release of the new Art Feynman album Half Price at 3:30, the friends hopped on the phone to catch up on their songwriting processes, and their quarantine wildlife sightings.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Luke Temple: How are you doing?

Buck Meek: I’m doing good. I’m sitting in my cabin in Topanga, and I just saw the craziest birds… They were black and yellow like a bumblebee.

Luke: Wow.

Buck: There’s just been this incredible influx of birds during this quarantine, I think because it’s so mellow up here with the lockdown. I’ve seen so many hawks, and there’s these little green parakeets all over the place.

Luke: Yeah. I’ve been staying with my girlfriend Abby at her place in San Francisco, and she has a little garden in the backyard, and we had a couple of occasions where raccoons have just kind of walked up to us. And she had that at the park, too, in Golden Gate Park — I think they’re a little confused. There’s sometimes just nobody around, and I think they’re trying to test the waters or something, and then someone’s there, and they’re like, well, I don’t even know what to think now.

Buck: Yeah. I saw a whole pack of coyotes just in downtown Topanga, like at the gas station. I’ve never seen them in town before. Just in the middle of the day!

Luke: Wow. Well, it’s like the silver lining in all this stuff, I guess.

Buck: Yeah, for sure. It was a couple hundred yards out, but I saw a great white shark breach out of the water a couple weeks ago. Even the ocean is taking a breath right now with the lack of traffic.

Luke: Did you stay in the water?

Buck: Luckily I was not in the water. I would’ve certainly exited the water, but I was sitting on the beach, so it was OK.

Luke: Have you been surfing?

Buck: Yeah, I’ve been surfing a lot. A couple weeks ago, there was this luminescent algae they call the red tide, and it fell on a full moon, so there was pretty much a week of super bright moonlight during the bioluminescent tide. I was out there every night around midnight, which was really mind blowing. It’s like this neon blue. It really looked like Harry Potter cast a spell.

Luke: I think there’s luminescent stuff where I live, but they’re like orange colored.

Buck: Oh, wow. I was wondering if they’re different colors, regionally. 

Luke: Since March, you’ve been back in Topanga? Or what have you been doing?

Buck: Well, I was on tour in Europe when this whole thing came down. We were in Italy. We played Bologna in Northern Italy right when it started to emerge in the news, and then our next show was in Milan, and we ended up canceling and heading west towards France to escape the virus. And then we had another two weeks of touring. We went north, and the virus was chasing us, like a monster. We’d play a show, and then the next day the venue would close. It was just like one day behind us, and then finally caught up with us in Copenhagen, and we canceled our tour. 

Then, I’m seeing a beautiful woman who lives outside of Amsterdam, so I went to visit her. She’s a scientist. She’s been working at this organization there doing sonic research, researching whale sounds and noise pollution in the ocean. But she’s worked in space a bunch as well, working at CERN and the European Space Station. I went to visit her for a couple weeks, and then ended up flying home when they set the travel ban on the country, because I was afraid I would be completely locked out of the States indefinitely. So I flew home in mid-March, I suppose, and I’ve just been here since.

Luke: I saw somewhere that [Big Thief] are gonna go Upstate New York or, or to LA, to start working on a new record or something?

Buck: Yeah, we were going to tour all through the spring, summer, and fall, but since everything’s canceled until 2021, we decided to start recording our next album in July, with Sam Owens at his space in the Catskill Mountains.

Luke: Cool. Is everybody in their respective spot? Like, is Max [Oleartchik] back in Israel?

Buck: Yeah, Max has been in Israel since our tour was canceled, and Adrianne [Lenker]’s been holed up in the Berkshire Mountains with her sister, and James [Krivchenia] has been in Los Angeles. He’s living in Altadena, other side of the mountain there.

Luke: Are you guys seeing each other?

Buck: James and I have hung a couple times, yeah. We’re gonna go camping this weekend up in the Eastern Sierras. But I’ve been spending most of my time pretty solo.

Luke: Yeah. How is that feeling?

Buck: Honestly, it’s been a huge blessing, I think. I was really starving for some solitude, because I’ve been on the road for the last six years straight, it seems, without much of a break. I’ve been really grateful to have all this time, to be honest. I really love living. It’s given me the opportunity to come into touch with nature up here, and I’ve just been working on my broken car. 

I’ve been practicing guitar for the first time since music school, really. It’s been such a blessing to have the opportunity to really dig into the guitar again, because for the last 10 years or whatever, it’s just been mostly performative. My relationship to the guitar has mostly been in reaction to who I’ve been playing with, or the next show I have to play, or session. With all this open space, it’s been really vulnerable, but also really exciting to have to just face the mirror with my guitar again.

Luke: Yeah. I’ve never actually practiced. I always had the determination that I’m going to do that, and sort of start from scratch, but I never really had the… 

Buck: It’s such an abstract thing. It’s just such a blank canvas, and you can go in any direction. I’ve had so many phases in my life where I took the guitar very seriously and practiced, especially when I was a kid, but it often just led me to a dead end for whatever reason, mostly because in any case it didn’t feel musical or have some kind of an inherent adrenaline, or the energy that you would drive from playing with another person or just creating new music from nothing. And so, I’ve tried to re-approach practicing, and this time integrate some kind of creativity with it, so I’d have more of a reason to practice.

Luke: Yeah. I guess I’ve been playing more piano, and in a way, I’m uncovering certain chordal voicings and harmony that is harder to access on guitar. I feel like guitar demands a certain kind of practice and facility to really get all it has to offer out of it. It goes in every different direction with a guitar, so it can just be insanity. But I’ve been playing a lot more keys and I’m advancing my harmonic language that way, which has been very nice. In fact that I’m not really called to play guitar much these days.

Buck: Yeah. What’s your process for uncovering that, those new harmonic landscapes on the piano? Are you just following your intuition?

Luke: Well, it’s just really simple, because piano is so linear. It’s like, oh, of course, I can look and I can see that’s a second, and it’s a ninth also up there. Things are right next to each other, and you can see them in one line. The piano demystifies things, in a way. You’re just like, these are just groups of notes, and if you want this kind of tension, you can just add this note. Piano smooths out tones to where nothing felt dissonant in a way that a guitar can truly sound dissonant. I think it’s very forgiving. For me, I hear everything very musically, even the tightest clusters and the craziest dissonance — like a flat five played in a certain way on a guitar is extremely dissonant, or playing a major seventh of the major seven in the bass, or something, on a guitar is very intense sounding. But on the piano, it’s very regimented, and it just takes it to this whole other new place. I feel like it’s a nice tool to get accustomed to these different kinds of tonal variations. Then going back to guitar, I feel like I can relate it to the other instruments and be like, oh, I understand why that sounds like that. You know what I mean?

Buck: Ah, yeah. The overtone series on the piano is so rich. Just a single note, I feel like, has such a lucid overtone landscape.

Luke: Yeah, and… What do they call it? Well-tempered piano — there’s a certain sacrifice for a certain tunefulness. If you were playing a piece in the key of C, you would tune the entire piano to C, so you couldn’t really deviate from that key setter, but in key, it’s like this ultimate tunefulness. Guitar is like, you’re making just tiny little compromises up and down the neck to make the thing sound in key, but it never has the kind of tunefulness that a piano has when a piano has just been tuned or something.

Buck: Yeah, true. For me, often, I guess I try to embrace that with the guitar by using a whammy bar, just shaking the notes to try to pull perfect tempered tuning out of it in every key. Or pitch-shifting vibrato on the amp or whatever, can just dig into that imperfection. 

Do you often write on the piano?

Luke: I have been, but I’ve been getting more into ensemble writing, meaning multi-tracking a lot of different voices and letting it turn into one thing — like voices meaning bass, guitar, keys, percussion, whatever — and writing that way, rather than writing a song on the guitar or the piano whole and then going into recording it. More and more I feel like I’m just becoming a recording artist, and so the recording is part of writing.

Buck: Yeah, I’ve wondered that about your writing, because I’ve listened to all the Art Feynman stuff, and I was wondering if your writing process was unfolded through improvisation and layers, like putting one thing down and then reacting to that.

Luke: Yeah. Something will happen where I’ll improvise, and then maybe I’ll usually play my rudimentary style piano or whatever. And then maybe if I put a bass part in, it subverts the original piano part and makes it sound like a chord progression when actually the keyboard part was just in one key. But then I’ll put a bass down and be like, oh, this could actually go in this direction. It could go from a C vibe to an A minor vibe. So, I mess around with those things, and then sometimes, after all is said and done, after I’ve used all the different elements to outline the center, then I’ll learn it again on the guitar or the piano with all those voices in there. Then maybe I’ll be like, oh, there’s actually a song here. So, now maybe that’s a bridge, or blah, blah, blah. And then it kind of comes together.

Sometimes, it’s like, I just want to work on a linear one-key vibe. I have different little conceptual things that keep me interested. Lately, I’ve been interested in just using only triads — no sixths, no nines, no sevenths; just triad chords as pure as possible. Or more dealing with sonics of how it’s recorded, and having… Because each instrument has overtones, too. So, you play an open D on a guitar, a triad, and you play that on the piano, they sound different. So, one instrument will bring out another aspect of that chord. I don’t know the specifics of that — is it the circle of fifths, the overtone series?

Buck: Yeah, I believe so.

Luke: Yeah. I’ve always had this feeling that I need to subvert everything I do harmonically somehow to give it that little angle. Maybe it’s that growing up, my first love of music was the Beatles, or Stevie Wonder, where there’s always that strange note in there somewhere, always that thing that turns it on its head. And now sometimes I put extra amount of pressure on myself. I’ll listen to certain music, like noise, or even Velvet Underground, and realize that there’s actually nothing to subvert it harmonically at all, it’s just the simplest thing, and that can be so powerful. And also, what’s powerful about it is how it was recorded, the vibe everyone was in, the energy that’s given to it, all those things. There’s so many different moving parts.

And so, just eliminating a certain amount of difficulty at the beginning sometimes can be good. Does that make sense?

Buck: Yeah. I think just trying to come into touch with what’s really beneath it all, the core of the reason you’re playing music in the first place, which is just the genuine human need to create something beautiful without the self-consciousness of all this intellectual inspiration.

I’ve been focusing a lot on country music these last few months in quarantine, and just writing little concepts, which I relate to everything you’re saying here. It’s just digging deep into the history of country music from the ’60s and ’70s, where some of these songs are really just three or four chords, mostly just triad stuff, and even solo instruments are played mostly triadically. Of course, there’s little moments where there’s an off gap of the tension, or they’ll move up to the fourth or something for a second, but it always comes back to the triad as a home center. The focus is just so much more on the purity and the emotion, and the rhythmic integrity, too. It provides so much.

Luke: Yeah. There’s a reason that the one-four-five progression has existed for so long. There’s a reason that it’s ever-renewable.

Buck: Yeah, I think there’s natural structure, just that basic tension and release. It’s the emotional curve that we experience conflict throughout our day on varying wavelengths, I think. It’s that process of rest into some sense of tension, and then a deeper tension and then a release, of course. It’s arc of the human experience in the first place, the animal experience, I suppose.

Luke: Yeah. It’s interesting to think about how these progressions evolve. I was listening to some Pygmy music, like the hocketing stuff, a month ago, and I was just thinking, this music comes out of forest. It sounds like the forest, if the forest could make music. The scales they’re using, it’s like an oral tradition that people learned from their parents. It’s something that they just do with each other and learn. It’s not like a system that can be taught in a way other than just doing it. But it’s just naturally evolved from the land. And African music tends to be this really one-key… It’s like if you stand in the desert and look in every direction all around you, it just feels like that. The one-four-five, is that a Scotch-Irish thing? Is that where it came from originally?

Buck: I’m not sure. I don’t know the history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more universal than that, even. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was developed simultaneously in every continent, in Africa and the European continent at different times without communication. I’m not sure, though.

Luke: Yeah, I wonder. It’s circular, but there’s also right angles in that chord progression, you know what I mean? It takes hard turns. It’s almost like a triangle. If you listen to music from Mali, or even forest music, there’s a sense of it… On one hand, it’s going in a straight line, but it also could just be a huge, wide circle or something, and the one-four-five, it’s hard. It’s almost like there’s an adaptation to rapid change or something. I wonder visually where that music originated. I feel like our visual surroundings create our music sensibility, especially over long periods of time.

Buck: Yeah, absolutely. And then, if the one-four-five is a triangle, you could additionally overlay all these smaller triangles within it, as jazz musicians did, for instance, in the bebop era — they were superimposing so many chords on top of that basic structure, which maybe that was a result of their visual environment, or even the sonic environment of living in such a dense city. With so many angles, putting all these two-five-ones, and all these additional chords on top of the root.

Luke: Yeah. The two-five-one is sort of like you’re starting with a question. Coming from a culture that is so rooted in the beginning with the tonic, the root, as the beginning place for the narrative, if you start on the two, you’re starting with tension or something. But I wonder if that is something that is innate in the nervous system, or if that’s just because of our conditioning. Like, this arbitrarily is the tonic, right here.

Buck: Yeah — is that tonic an objective truth, or is it more of an illusion in our emotional experience?

Luke: That’s what I’m wondering.

Buck: I’ve been listening to a lot of mbira music from Zimbabwe, and that music — it really does not have a beginning, or a tonic. I guess if you analyzed it with Western theory, you can say it has a 12-bar circular form, but there’s generally three or four or more mbiras playing simultaneously, and each one will come in at a completely different place. Like, the designated historical part will enter on what we would call the eighth, or the third sixteenth in the second bar or something, and then the third mbira will come in in some other random place, and they’re all playing in circles. And then of course, there’s all these voices on top of that, and all these rhythmic instruments, and really, no one’s playing a certain tonic. It’s as if they’re just turning on the radio in a random space.

Luke: You know Otto Hauser, the drummer?

Buck: Yeah.

Luke: He was studying with an African mbira player — [Otto] was like, “What time signature is here?” And the guy said, “You don’t think of it like that.” They think of it apparently as just sixteenth notes, and you’re free within that space to just do whatever you want. You’re just thinking about each beat as the center, so you’re free to create any center you want.

After I heard that, I was watching a masterclass that Dizzy Gillespie was giving to some compositional students or something somewhere — you can find it on YouTube. And there is one in jazz, for sure, and there’s time signatures and stuff formally still rooted in Western music. But the way he was explaining to them, like someone taking a solo, he was like, “Don’t think of the chord, don’t think of the time signature. Think of [Luke sings a beat].” He was saying the same thing, which I thought was really interesting.

And so, after I heard that from Otto, I started experimenting, just training myself to hear it, depending on whether you’re calling them eighth notes or sixteenth notes or whatever. Just listening to it in that way. It’s almost like a trick to be able to play in crazy time signatures, where the way you start counting is completely messed up, but if you just start thinking of it in that way, then you’re kind of free, you know?

Buck: Yeah. I think that any musical structure — whether it be a one, four, five progression, or a sixteenth note, or any music — I think it can be valuable in pushing it in a direction of letting that structure go entirely, just putting you in a zone or some sense of instinctual reaction. I think it’s a bit intimidating to just react to nothing, of course — to react to a blank space is much more intimidating than reacting to some kind of structure or predetermined number system or whatever. Of course, the hope is that you can rise above that into some sense of instinctual, more adrenaline-based freedom above that.

Luke: I have a question for you, in terms of your lyric writing. You’re really good at creating these little floating islands of metaphor. There’s a sense in your songs that I know what you’re talking about, but I also don’t need to know what you’re talking about. I can just let it flow through me. Some songwriters have an ability to use poetic metaphor in an almost non-sequitur kind of way, that takes you off the hook of having… they impregnate you with meaning in the moment, rather than having to be like, What is he talking about over the course of this whole thing? That’s not to presume that that’s what you’re doing, but I’m just curious if you sit down with a certain sentiment or a specific story you want to tell. How do you begin writing your songs, lyrically speaking?

Buck: Well, I think there’s a couple questions in there. But yeah, thank you. I think my approach to metaphor is often to just try to unearth the most specific personal expression of an emotion I’m feeling in the most private space I can access, which — just the process of using words to express emotion is so abstract, and I feel so lucky to even be able to have the opportunity to in the first place. But the space is so vast, and so my process is to try to just be as honest with myself as possible, to unearth that description of whatever the emotion is, the feeling, or whatever the character is that I’m reflecting upon, or whatever the experience is that I’m trying to reflect into words, to try to just really honor my own private truth with that, without putting any fear into that being translated into some kind of universal language or understanding. Not underestimating the capacity for whoever may hear that to translate into their own experience, in their own language.

I feel the same way about your writing. I find that your writing is so generous in that way because it feels so incredibly personal and private that there’s an ambiguity to that, at least in my perception of it, because it’s not so obvious. It gives me the space to interpret it to my own experience, while also pushing me lightly in a certain direction.

Luke: Yeah, right. It’s like a little gentle push and then setting you adrift to something wider. That’s the feeling you want, I think, in songwriting.

Buck: Yeah. It’s like a compass, but it’s not a GPS point. It’s just like, here’s a compass and a torch — that way. As far as my general process of songwriting, it’s so abstract. When I first started songwriting as a kid, I would sit down with maybe… Well, at first it was just pure agony because I was desperately in love with my high school crush or something and was trying to win her heart. But when I started really taking songwriting seriously, I would sit down with some kind of predetermined narrative or character, and try to unearth the song from there. 

The more I write, the more I’ve learned to just trust the open space, and I’ll just try to sit down and clear my mind completely of any story or thought. I write with my guitar, so I’ll just play the guitar, just mumble and start to just try to find a melody that’s pretty, or a word, or even just mumble nonsense until some kind of marble feels good on my tongue. And then just let that breathe for a bit and try to follow it down the rabbit hole until it forms into something that I find beautiful. And then take a step back and observe it, see what it is, try to read it and understand it. And then from there, I’ll develop more of a process to build it into something more conceptual. But yeah, at least at the beginning of my writing process, just make a total open space for my instinct, because I think instinct is so valuable in the creative process. At least at first, not judge myself too much at all.

Luke: I do the same thing where I’ll just mumble phonetic sounds at the beginning, and I’ll record them, and then I’ll try to make words around whatever syllable sounds the best rhythmically. I love rhythm and words, so I’ve always been like, find the best way to marry the words through them. Every single time, there’s actually just a feeling in my nervous system, the way it feels, it’s always the absolute best when it’s the mumble. And every single time, there’s an element of sacrificing some of that. So, actually, no one has ever heard my best stuff. I feel like I’m too scared… Cocteau Twins, I think, do that actually. [Elizabeth Fraser] just makes up words phonetically, or there’s that feel to it, and actually has the nerve to do it. They bury her vocals in a way you can’t really tell what she’s saying.

But I’m always like, it’s my duty to offer this story, but now lately, I’ve been like, let’s just make a mumble record. Not even make a point of it. But there’s something about the way it rolls off, the way your tongue, your palate is just responding in that moment. It’s just the perfect word, but it’s not words.

Buck: Yeah. Man, I hope you make that record, because I think that so many artists that we love probably have some version of that process, where at the beginning of their writing process, it’s more abstract and the lines are blurry, whether it’s mumbling or not. We’ve heard so little of that because we all feel this pressure to pile it into something that’s digestible or fits into sight. I would love to hear that.

Luke: I feel that even taking a step farther back, I feel like that vocals in general, I always feel a lot more, I guess for lack of a better word, ambient music, non-verbal music, when you hear that, there’s a lot of drawing. I like music that almost exists as nice lighting in a space. It’s not asking anything of me. It’s just creating an ambience, and I’m really pursuing music in that way. I’m slowly piecing together a little ambient record, but I find that it’s actually very difficult for me, and my ego] is so trapped, so caught up in having to write those songs, or trying to show what I can do in that way, that I realize that actually becoming an ambient musician or whatever, or instrumentalist, for me, actually takes some internal work for me to calm myself down and put some trust in just tone and sound and simplicity in that kind of music that I love, that I’ve been listening to in that way, like Jon Hassel.

 It’s just about these little dialogues between instruments in the simplest way, and it’s just very specific about the way instruments are talking to each other, and there’s no narrative, but it allows for my own… what I see in that space and that music as an artist, I just know there’s no narrative that I have to compete with. So, my mind just wanders in this really beautiful way. But I’m just looking, like, I’ve never made music that’s assertive in that way, rather than trying to teach something. It’s so conceptual, the second there are words in there, you go somewhere, it asks something of you in some way. 

Buck: Yeah, so generous. I’ve been waking up every morning to a handful of ambient records. I used to wake up to songs every morning with my alarm clock — I would wake up to a Neil Young song, and it’s incredible the difference in my experience waking up to non-verbal music instead of just getting pushed immediately into the narrative at the beginning of my day. I’ll find myself just laying in bed for 45 minutes or something, just moving out of the dream state with this ambient music as kind of a tapestry, a guide to waking into thought. The process is so much more gentle, and I can just feel my thoughts slowly bubbling up and forming into a conceptual thought, instead of just getting immediately pushed into a human experience.

Luke: Yeah. Absolutely.

Buck: Thank you so much for reaching out, Luke. I’m really touched that you asked me to do this. 

Luke: Let’s stay in touch, yeah?

Buck: Yeah, definitely. Let’s play some piano and guitar sometime.

(Photo Credit: left, Aubrey Trinnaman)

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Luke Temple is a songwriter and member of Here We Go Magic. You can follow him on Twitter here.