Best of 2019: Chris Simpson (Mineral) Was Amazed by Big Thief’s Two Hands

“I think they’re probably the most interesting band to come about this decade.”

I had to pick Two Hands by Big Thief. I think they’re probably the most interesting band to come about this decade. I was a little late to the party — I’d hear a songs here or there, and I’d always like it and be like, “Who is this?” And when I was told [it was] Big Thief, I’d be like, “Oh, I have to check them out.” But I never did until recently, when I heard Adrianne Lenker’s 2018 solo record abysskiss. I was floored by some of the songs on it. I saw that a few of the songs were on the record they put out earlier this year, U.F.O.F., so I listened to that a little bit. I didn’t quite connect with it as a whole, but I was just kind of dropping in to check out some songs that I was interested in. 

Then the day the new record was released, I saw something about it online and went and listened to the whole thing. It really resonated with me — I felt completely connected to it, and just kind of amazed by it. I love how sparse and dry it is, and how it feels like a band playing together live. Not to say that there weren’t elements of that on their other records, but I feel like what’s different with this one is just how raw and bare bones it is. You hear very few overdubs, or doubling of vocals, all the things everyone does to make recorded versions of their songs sound stronger. It just sounds really raw and vulnerable. That’s my wheelhouse, as far as what really resonates with me when I listen to music. I’ve heard them say in interviews that “Not” is the spine of the record, and that definitely feels true. “The Toy,” though, is one of the first songs I was floored by. When I first listened, I was really, really taken with that one.  

I’ve gone back and have been taking in the rest of their catalog, which is a really fun way to discover music. I’m always excited if I find some record from the past that I really love, because I’ll go look and see, “Oh, this artist has, like, 20 records! I’m so excited about this adventure I get to go on discovering this body of work!” To me, Big Thief is doing something that is rare in the single-driven streaming market we’re in, which is making records that hang together and operate as records.

Beyond that, the evolution that has occurred in such a short amount of time with [Lenker] as a songwriter and the band as a unit is pretty astonishing to me. You don’t get that as much these days, particularly coming from the indie music world. I feel like our market is sort of driven right now by solo artists — there’s a lot of people just using their own names and working autonomously, and a lot of times making records on their own, or with some people coming in and putting together bands to go play the material live. I feel like it’s so rare to see a band that’s just really a band. You can feel every personality and the chemistry that is created by them, and when you get to see that evolve over time as the band puts together a body of work and grows together, it’s a really cool, unique thing. That’s what I grew up loving. I think in the early days of independent music, that’s what you had a lot more of. 

It’s hard to keep a band together — I know from experience. It’s hard to make that commitment. There’s always someone who’s like, “Well, I wanna do my own thing too.” Big Thief seems to be able to exist in all worlds at once. It doesn’t keep Buck Meek from making a solo record, or [Lenker] from making a solo record if she wants to document it because she’s writing too quickly between records. There’s this sort of commitment and wholeness they have as a band that I feel like is sort of lacking. That kind of collaboration is rare. A lot of people collaborate, but they collaborate on a record, and then on the next record they go on and collaborate with other people. It’s really cool to see a group of people continue to work together and build a relationship and sustain it — to get to see the sort of magic that can happen as people grow together.

I hope [Two Hands means] that being open and vulnerable and honest and expressive and communicative is something that is happening culturally. I don’t know if that’s true, but personally, I’m at this point in my life where I’m in a real period of transformation in a lot of senses. A lot of people don’t like to use this phrase, but I kind of love the idea of settling into the second half of my life, being 45. I don’t want to relive the past, I want to just be in the moment. I want to be present and I want to be connected to the people around me. I feel like Big Thief, and really this record, exemplify that in a beautiful way.

As told to Annie Fell.

(Photo Credit: left, Peter Beste)

Chris Simpson is the singer-guitarist of Mineral and a solo performer under the name Mountain Time (formerly Zookeeper). After a four-year run and two albums, Mineral broke up in 1997, with Chris moving onto the Gloria Record. In 2014, Mineral reunited for a tour and has since hit the road again, in addition to releasing a retrospective book compiled by writer Mischa Pearlman called One Day When We Are Young: Mineral At 25. It includes a 10” of the group’s first new songs in 20 years.

(Photo Credit: Peter Beste)