Sam Evian and James Krivchenia (Big Thief) Aren’t Gonna Do Shit Just to Get Bigger

The songwriters talk working together on the forthcoming Big Thief album, and more.

James Krivchenia is the drummer of Big Thief as well as the producer of the band’s just-announced album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. (He also records solo music and is a member of Mega Bog.) Sam Evian is a solo artist who recently released his third full-length, Time To Melt, and he’s also the co-owner and engineer of Flying Cloud Recordings, the upstate New York studio where Big Thief recorded part of Dragon. Here, the two chat about the rituals they had while recording together, as well as how to capture magic in the studio.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Sam Evian: How are you?

James Krivchenia: I’m good, just at home working on shit. But I’m feeling good. How are you?

Sam: I’m nursing a slight hangover. We just played Bowery last night.

James: Right, you started tour. That’s awesome. How many shows have you done?

Sam: We did three and then played this one. So we had a chance to get warm and played in Vermont for a really chill Burlington crowd. Now we’re in New York for a couple days. I’m reconnecting with a former self or something.

James: We went out for a month, a month ago. You’re thinking it’s going to be cathartic and nice to play, and it is that. And then you remember all this stuff about tour, too. I forgot about soundcheck and just the routine of it all.

Sam: All these actions that became mechanical back in the before times… Even the idea of talking to a crowd or addressing a large group of people or even the antiquated encore concept. It’s all kind of absurd, but it’s also beautiful.

James: The first couple shows I was so focused on just reconnecting with the band and playing live. And you’re just reconnecting with the actual live music like, Oh shit, we’re playing together and there’s monitors. And it took a week for me to be like, Oh yeah, there’s also a crowd.

Sam: Did you guys play any new stuff?

James: Yeah, a bunch. We rehearsed for a month before going out. We were trying to rehearse stuff from the new record as much as possible while still being kind of easy on ourselves, and just we’ll just play what feels good. And then it hits some point where you’re like, I wish you could record this now. We’re sounding good.

Sam: It’s a trip, because the songs that you recorded this last year on your new record and the songs that I have on my new record, we didn’t get a chance to test them.

James: It’s often like that with Big Thief, where the majority of it isn’t road tested, but there’s always three or four that you know are good, you have some sort of arrangement. And that arrangement has some sort of live energy to it because you worked it up live. But yeah, it was really weird to try and bring some of them to life. An interesting thing to talk about is the recorded version versus live, and finding that place of letting go of a dope arrangement that totally works on a record but isn’t doing it for us on a stage with the room that’s big and it’s the intimacy is gone. I often feel the need to like project a little more.

Sam: It’s almost like you have to become a caricature of yourself. So the more subtle moments on records, you have to pick and choose which ones you can actually make work and which ones you just have to just be at peace with it existing on the record. On this little tour, I was just like, I’m just going to put together a band that feels like there’s good chemistry, and then I’m not going to obsess over getting parts covered. Hopefully it’ll serve the song and hopefully the song will have its own live existence. Because on my record in particular it was a definite wormhole of just me doing a bunch of things alone.

James: Yeah those things in songs where you’re just like, surely someone’s going to have to play that live, but there’s only four of us. It’s weird finding that point of, “We don’t really need that thing.” But it’s on the record. People can listen to it there.

Sam: I always came away from Deerhoof’s sets feeling they were such masters at that because their records are full of synths and doodles and craziness and wild arrangements. And then you go see them and everything is just covered with guitars and they don’t try to add synthesizers. They’re just like, “No, this is the guitar part now.” I always admired them for that. 

So tell me what you’re working on now when you’re home.

James: Right now I’m deep in the midst of a Mega Bog mix.  I’m in the mixing brain space. There’s a record that just came out a couple months ago and then there’s a new, new one that we’re working on. That’s almost done, which is awesome.

Sam: I love the record that just came out so much. I feel like Erin is just in a flow. What was it like working on that record? Where did you guys do it?

James: I love Erin [Birgy]’s music so much and I love Erin. I sort of co-produce it with Erin, and I’m much more the production part of it — logistical, making sure things sound good. I’m taking a backseat to Erin’s ideas and sounds because that’s her shit. But yeah, we recorded Life, and Another, the one that just came out on the West Coast up at the Unknown, Phil Elverum’s old studio.

Sam: Is that on the island there?

James: It’s in Anacortes. Right across from Friday Harbor. It’s an old church, and it’s sort of this weird mix of haphazard in a DIY way where there’s just stuff everywhere. But the stuff that’s everywhere is all really cool. We recorded basics there and, and then did a bunch of over dubbing at this place called Way Out, which is outside of Seattle and then kind of that was the first wave and then sat with it for a while and then redid some stuff here and in LA. I feel like I’m always kind of getting better at doing the Mega Bog thing and always sort of trying to… There’s weird production choices that can be sometimes counterintuitive to me, which I love.

Sam: I think a producer’s job above all is just to make sure the record gets made. It sounds like that’s the role that you’ve jumped into, which is kind of amazing. Because when I got to work with you and be with you throughout Dragon, with Big Thief you’re operating in a different capacity. You got more creative zingers in and you took risks and a lot of times they really paid off. But it was cool to see you working in different lanes.

James: Someone told me a long time ago that 90% of production is just getting the record done, and that has stuck in my mind.

Sam: Are we allowed to talk about the Big Thief record? Because that was this months-long endeavor of organized chaos. First of all, you’re in the band so there’s a level of complexity just with that. But you’re responsible for organizing and keeping your mind on 60 or 70 of Adrianne’s songs — I don’t know how many she gave you, actually. You had to spend time with each and every one of them and decide, OK, what session is this song going to be on? And how can I group this? And it was this organizational masterpiece, but somehow you made a framework within all of that to have moments of chaos and exploration and playing patty-cake by the river and all this crazy fun stuff. And your band is really successful now. 

A lot of bands make big mistakes at this point in their career where they’re like, “OK, let’s work with Nigel Godrich” — no shade on Nigel Godrich or whatever. But they’re like, “We need to hire a big time producer so we can take over the world and be the biggest, most capitalist successful rock & roll band in history.” Do you feel pressure like that from the industry? How do you keep your creative force intact to do the brave shit that you’re doing?

James: Well, thank you. That’s some nice stuff you said. I feel like we’re pretty lucky where we’ve kind of always just done it. We’ve kind of always had that instinct. We did the first couple records with Andrew Sarlo, and after that we signed with 4AD and it was great. Doors are open, there’s people who can get you on the phone with the producer or engineer of your dreams or whatever. You feel that temptation of, “Well, great, I’m an engineering and production nerd. Let’s just hit up all the people I’m obsessed with.” 

We did talk to some people but kind of immediately, we were all just sort of like, “I think we’re not done with working with Sarlo.” We’ve made two and they’ve all ended with the feeling of great, we already know we can do this better the next time. We can already feel each other getting better. We know within the band, a huge part of why it’s so amazing to us — beyond the fact that Adrianne’s an awesome songwriter and a great performer — is there’s this growing continuity where we feel each other leveling up, and it’s not just a bunch of random folks who get together. Every time we get together, we’re like, “Holy shit, I think we’re better. This sounds better.” So, we kind of wanted to have that spirit a bit with keeping Andrew for the next couple records. We’ve laid so much groundwork with communication that it feels crazy to just start over with some random person. And we’ve been given the opportunity because what we’ve done seems to work. 

A lot of that is the managers we chose. We carefully chose them because we’re like, “Look, we need you to insulate us from the BS.” And being upfront with him about how we’re fine with getting more popular, but that absolutely isn’t a motive. So if we want to do something that’s not going to be popular we need to know that that’s going to be fine with you. We’re not going to just do shit just to get bigger.

Sam: Yeah.

James: We’re doing this because it feels important to us and we’re going to do the best job we can. And if that means no budget, then we’ll find a way to make it happen. If that means we have a huge budget then great, let’s do it in a way that’s interesting to us. So with this new record it was… You know, you’re a part of it. You engineered the first session. A big impetus for wanting to work with you was, we [were] thinking of engineers as different sessions, different stuff. Obviously, there’s sonic stuff of why I wanted to work with you, and wanted to work with any of the engineers — I’m interested in the sounds. But as I was putting together a list of people, I was like, I feel like Sam’s got this house now, it’s in a beautiful place, and most importantly, it’s someone I know the whole band can trust and feel comfortable around. We’re sensitive people and if there’s a weird vibe, it starts to just feel like, Wait, why are we doing this? And because I’m in the band, like you were saying, there’s a weird little juggling thing going on where I’m not just over your shoulder. Because of that, I want to work with people who feel empowered to make creative decisions that I know I’m going to vibe with at some level. But that I also know, I wanted your sauce.

Sam: Yeah.

James: I didn’t want just a guy in a cabin’s sauce. I’m confident, OK, whatever Sam is doing in there, I will at least have some reaction to, because you’ll be going for something. You’ll be wanting to make it sound good to you and that’s like a great starting point.

Sam: I have so many fantastic memories from that session; I think that session was really productive and I’m really proud of what we captured. When I think about how that workflow worked out, I think it just is a testament to trusting your collaborators, once you choose to work with someone. Because when you really put trust into a session, and love, you empower people to feel good about themselves and make good decisions and make decisions that are based out of creativity and not out of fear. I think a lot of bands get caught up in these situations where they let their insecurities make the worst out of a situation. Whether it’s getting the perfect snare drum sound or whatever. We tracked every day for, like, a month. I mean, we took a couple days off to cook food and go into the woods. But there were some really special little nuggets in there.

James: Totally.

Sam: So for the purpose of this interview, I’ll state that our recording situation was one room, everybody sharing a room, bleed, no headphones, eight-track tape machine. And that, I know you went to four other sessions and each one was wildly different. But I think in general, I think whether you’re working on Pro Tools or not, I think you take that mindset with you just that we’re making music together in this space mindset.

James: Definitely. And I feel like that’s the best and quickest mirror to work with. I mean if something felt really amazing with four people, while you’re playing it in the room, it should sound good in the control. It’s so fast to work that way too. And it’s OK to spend half a day … I don’t think we started recording until five days in because…

Sam: We tinkered for a while.

James: Yeah. Adrianne was moving further from me and then closer to me. And then it’s like, “OK, we need some amps to monitor stuff. You’re playing too loud, you’re playing too quiet.” You’re negotiating this thing where it can feel like you’re wasting time, if you’re looking at it as if you’re on the clock, but it’s like, no, once this is set up, it only takes three minutes to record a song.

Sam: You know my ethos, but that’s exactly why I did that. I wanted to get away from the day rate. Any city you go to, it’s going to be five or six hundred a day. That’s just not conducive to doing what we did, which is just giving yourselves headroom to sort things out and have a weird time and make weird shit for a while.

James: Totally. It’s never a waste of time. If it doesn’t work, which it didn’t work many times, that’s you figuring it out.

Sam: I should mention also that we’re both nerds and we love gear. But our session together was completed with such a minimal amount of gear. I don’t have a lot of gear. Honestly you don’t need that much. That session is a great testament to that. You can make music with an iPhone.

James: I’m curious to talk to you about this because I feel like you probably made a lot of your recent record by yourself.

Sam: Yeah. That was a rabbit hole record for me.

James: And with overdubbing, I mean conceptually, it’s really fucking weird. And it’s even weirder when you’re just on your own doing it. The more and more I do it, the more I’m like it kind of has to fit right away. There is an instinct to be like, cool, we got a bunch of cool stuff, I can play around with that a bit, maybe that’ll work.

Sam: It’s funny. I was talking to someone about this recently and I think my process with overdubbing by myself is trying to make it sound like a band, which is what I was doing on this last thing. If I don’t feel like a kid when it’s happening and if I don’t feel a little manic and dancing around like an absolute dweeb, then I’m like, this is done.

James: That’s really cool you say that. Because I have a similar thing, which I try and impart on people when they’re doing an overdub. It’s like, this should be really exciting. Even though it’s just a tambo, this performance is important. It kills me when I see someone punching the clock on a tambo take because it’s like, dude pretend you’re in the room with this band.

Sam: You should be giving yourself the night sweats.

James: Totally. You feel it in the music when people take these little overdubs as if they’re nothing. You’re going to really hear this thing, it has to be more exciting than just in time.

Sam: Actually so the first chunk of my record was Pro Tools but I started getting conscious of the fact that I was using the spacebar too much during over overdubs, starting and stopping. It’s so fast, the time in which you’d go from feeling good to feeling like you’re over-scrutinizing a part or something. So then I just moved to the tape machine for the second half of the record, and I didn’t do any punches. I’m just like, alright, I’m just going to commit to this rhythm guitar part. There’s spaces for both workflows obviously and I love working in Pro Tools. I love capturing audio, however you capture it.

James: There’s a logic to a full performance that can get really lost when you’re just in the weeds and just trying to get something right or something in Pro Tools. It happens so naturally when you’re actually playing that you don’t think about it. But if you can physically do it as a full thing, you’re going to get more excited when you hit the three-minute mark at the last chorus. And I feel like we can sense that stuff even if we can’t name it at all. Humans are so sensitive to performance. You feel it when it’s this cobbled together thing. Some people are amazing at cobbling shit together and they make a whole art form out of that, which is awesome.

Sam: There’s a sweet spot where it’s like, yes, it is fun to have infinite opportunities to play around in the space of three minutes. I think it’s really palpable on vocals. No shade on people who edit a lot of their vocals, but I think I can tell when it’s a highly edited vocal performance and when it’s more of a pass with a couple little edits or something.

James: Totally. And I’ve done some crazy ass comps in my life. But in Big Thief a lot when we do comp, usually it’s just a full take. When we do comp, we’ll just take the whole section of everyone because it’s a full-band take anyway. We’re like, “Can we take, like, the first half of take two and the second half of take three?” And even in that, the first half of take two is better.

Sam: Yeah, and it’s good to honor mistakes. I was always so impressed with Adrianne just doing her vocals live. And even to the point where if she tried to overdub a vocal, it just didn’t feel good. It’s really unique, I don’t work with people who do that very often.

James: I love that about the band. If you work with people who want to do it that way you should 100% do it that way. Because you know immediately if what you’re working on is the take and is worth working on, because you’re already like, oh my God this vocal is incredible, yes I would listen to this. You don’t get so micro, people make mistakes in the take and it just so obviously doesn’t matter because there’s an amazing vocal performance happening. People don’t care about mistakes that much.

Sam: I wanted to talk to you about rituals. Not only do you guys have running rituals, but you develop new ones in the spaces that you inhabit. For instance, the creek that runs around our studio — you guys took to doing three plunges every morning. It couldn’t be two plunges, it had to be three. And I just love how you guys are able to keep it so fun all the time and be each other’s hype men.

James: You’re just trying to make the bus or your friend’s house or the Airbnb feel not so weird. So it’s just kind of these naturally forming things where you’re just trying to ground yourself a bit with just the consistency of the people around you. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the band that ritual is very important. I’m not necessarily as inclined to it and in being in this band, I’ve become way more sensitive to it. We developed stuff at your place. Like the soccer even became a ritual.

Sam: Actually, you were a madman out there. There was great chemistry on that field.

James: A lot of injuries too. And then it sort of petered out after a couple weeks, because Buck went down. And then you went down.

Sam: Buck and I are scrappy. We don’t have any soccer skill, but we got a lot of heart.

James: My god, just watching it from afar — just, like, two people who don’t know anything about soccer running full speed at each other, trying to kick the ball hard as possible,but just kicking each other.

Sam: That cracked me up.

James: I’m mixing right now and I feel like I need a bit of ritual because you can work as long or as little as you want. No one’s clocking you in.

Sam: It’s so important, especially when you’re just mixing by yourself. I did so much of that this past year, because of COVID and all that. I just walk or I hike. I’ve been going up in the woods and just finding mushrooms to eat. Even if you can just get out for 10 minutes and get air in your ear bones and feel some white noise out there, feel some leaves rustling, remember that you’re a sensitive human and you can see and feel things outside of the glowing rectangle.

James: Totally.

Sam: Then I also did something kind of dangerous, which is I bought a motorcycle. I’ve just been going on rides in between mixes, down my road. I didn’t anticipate this, but my favorite part of it is all the smells. Because every 20 feet, you’re going past a different patch of forest or field or bunch of sheep or something and you’re just smelling everything. It’s just this crazy reset for your whole system. And I’ve been micro dosing. Do you ever flex with that?

James: I’ve had micro doses, but I’ve never done it consistently, or daily.

Sam: I’ve been doing it to work. Honestly it’s just like an extra cup of coffee or something, that’s kind of what it feels like. It just gives you just a little zing. When you’re just doing the work by yourself, sometimes it’s hard to be completely psyched to open up Pro Tools every morning.

James: Totally.

Sam: Do you ever get burnout?

James: Oh my god, yeah. I have my own little coping strategies. When you’re mixing you have to be fucking in it. It’s pretty important to know when you’re not in it. And when I’m not I’ll just do one of the many mindless parts of the process. Maybe my ears are tired or something, so I’m just going to fucking do all the fades. I’m going to go fix that bass timing. I’m just going to go through all the sessions and just clean and just do shit.

Sam: Housekeeping. And then you can feel productive and then next time you open it up, maybe you’ll be in a better space.

James: It’s also good to just stop sometimes and just be like, I don’t have it. It’s fatiguing. And it’s ephemeral and there are moments where I feel like I’m really in the genius zone. Or where it’s like, Oh my god, for some reason my perspective shift has made me hear all these problems that I was having trouble solving. And then when I have that I’m just opening all the sessions and just like I’m really hearing well right now.

Sam: It makes me think of a great little ritual that we developed when we were mixing the chunk of the record that you did with me, you gave me a bell, remember the bell?

James: The mix bell.

Sam: This is a testament to trust in the workspace because we only had like four days to mix. So you just gave me this bell and you said, “Sam, mix this song, and when you’re done, ring the bell and we’ll come listen to it.” I would mix, I would spend a couple hours mixing the tune. I’d ring the bell, you guys would appear from the various parts of the property and we’d listen to it together and you’d have like three notes and address them and we’d move on. That was such a healthy mixing environment.

James: It’s really important to not have more than one cook in the kitchen for mixing. Mixing by committee sounds like shit. A mix should have an opinion. And when it’s a good mix, it’s way more than the sum of its parts. If you turn up that guitar that you want to hear more, it might ruin the mix, you know what I mean? I’m really sensitive to, as someone who’s mixed stuff, it’s like, yeah, when people are just in the room and you’re thinking all right, hey there’s this pressure, because you’re like, I got to make Adrianne’s vocal sound good because she’s right there. She’s like, “That line’s really important, that should pop out.”

Sam: But that was such a fun little mix experience that I think that was a great production choice of yours. The bell method works.

James: Yeah. And it also saves everyone else’s ears because everyone’s perspective is important. And if we’re listening to something coming into place for two hours, our perspective is lost. Our whole value at that point is you’ve gotten it as best you can and now you don’t have perspective on it. Do you ever feel totally satisfied with mixes that you do?

Sam: No, never.

James: That’s good to hear. It’s never even close to perfect at all for me.

Sam: It’s an imperfect craft. I mean, I liked your take. I like the way you said it’s an opinion because that makes me feel really good about mixing. Thinking of it in that light, I think it was a great approach and a great space. It’s like troubleshooting right? It’s a maze and it is easy to get lost in it. And I think accepting that you’re capable of not being perfect is a huge part of it.

(Photo Credit: left, Josh Goleman; right, Buck Meek)

Sam Evian is a New York-based singer-songwriter, and the co-owner and engineer of Flying Cloud Recordings. His latest album, Plunge, is out now. 

(Photo Credit: Josh Goleman)