Buck 65's new album 20 Odd Years comes out on February 1st and features a series of all-new songs and collaborations with Gord Downie, Jenn Grant, Nick Thorburn (of Islands and Unicorns fame) and others. (You can pre-order it here.) Buck/Rich Terfry was in town filming a video for the song "Zombie Delight" at the Bloomfield Centre and when I met with him, he was doing interviews on a makeshift newsroom set, wearing a suit and tie, the floor around him smeared with blood.
So I was wondering where this song came from. Are you a fan of zombies?
When I was really young, I had this serious phase when I was really into horror movies. It went on the wane for awhile, and then when I met my wife, she had this zombie thing. I seem to remember one of the first things she ever said to me was that she had a whole plan worked out for the zombie apocalypse. I was impressed by that. Then when we started dating and I began watching more of the underground zombie movies - the low-budget stuff, the foreign stuff.
In terms of the song - just before Halloween in Toronto, there was a zombie walk, so all these people gathered dressed as zombies, and the place where they gather is right outside my house. I think part of what motivated me was seeing that and being highly amused by that, and thinking I'll make a song and they'll use it as their theme song next year.
Also, this is another case - more common for me these days - where the music was done first. I didn't have any concept for it - I just had this piece of music, and I sat on it for a long time trying to figure out what it would be about. There was an urgency to it. It felt like there was a panic - what is it? Maybe I'm alerting people or warning people about something. Threat - warning - something - zombies! It was a funny thought.
Once in awhile, it's fun to do a song that's kind of a novelty. It's not the most serious thing I've ever written. Usually my primary motivation is to write the most beautiful thing that I can possibly write. This is a clear exception. It's like yeah, I'm taking a break from the thing I'm going to agonize over, to bleed for, and just do something fun and simple and fast.
It's something that eats at me a little bit at times, through the years, when I dabble in this particular area, when I do something with a novelty factor, those are the ones people gravitate towards. People shout them out and request them when I play live, stuff like that. So that's something I wrestle with. I also realize I have a sense of humour that people like sometimes. If I have a silly thought that pops into my head, sometimes you just gotta do it - there seems to be an appetite for it.
Well, it's probably not fun for you to be serious all the time, either.
Well, the sillier and lighter songs are the most fun to do live. It can be heavy, it can be serious. There's a lot of my stuff that is that way. On a Friday night in a room packed with people, you need to break up the heaviness once in awhile. It makes that much more of an impact, if people aren't hit over the head by that. It's important to have a few of those in your back pocket.
What's another song of yours would fall in this category? I assume, like, "Kennedy Killed the Hat"....
Yep, that's one. The one I still have people requesting the most is "The Centaur" which I made a million years ago. High novelty factor. "Food" is just a list of food, people like that one. "Hot Lunch" is just bragging about looking good. More recently, people have latched onto one called "The Niceness" that's all about being nice and bringing some absurdity into it - like bragging about being nice. I thought what's the most ridiculous thing to boast about? Being nice seemed to work. A lot of those silly ones are fixtures in the set a lot of nights, yeah.
Going back to the album - you wrote a lot of the music beforehand. I read somewhere that you said you wrote with a specific person's voice in mind. With this album, were you able to get everyone you wanted in your mind's eye?
No. Close, but not quite. One thing that I have been working on really hard and chasing and chasing but I refuse to give up is tracking down Roland Gift from the Fine Young Cannibals. I have spoken to him a couple of times, he knows this is something I'm hell-bent on doing, he's expressed seemingly cautious interest. It's time for him to come back. My view is that he has one of the best and most unique voices from the last 30 years. I know a lot of people would love to hear him again.
I also approached K'naan but just as things were starting with all the World Cup stuff, I sent him some music for him and he was really into it. But then his world got completely taken over. He's been working hard and I still don't think he's taken a break, really. It's still something we'd like to make happen.
There were a lot of people I had in mind specifically - early on, the seeds of the album were coming together in the studio with Charles Austin and I, and my friend Graham - they're kind of my core guys - and with one song, we could hear Gord Downie's voice on this one piece of music right away. We were like do you think we can get him? He's been pretty supportive of me, he's taken me on tour a couple of times. Maybe. We were hesitant to get our hopes up. But we sent it to him and he was like "I'm in, I've got ideas" right away.
Most often if I'm working on something, and I'm thinking - "I need a great singer, guitarist, pianist, whatever" - I usually have a friend who is talented that I know and trust and feel good around. Usually that's my primary motivation. It's not like "Hmm, who's a name I can get on this thing?"
In regards to Jenn Grant - her voice sounds so different on all the songs. Since you've chosen to include three collaborations with her, I was wondering what about her is appealing for you.
The first thing I would say about Jenn Grant is that she's one of the best singers in the world right now. Her raw talent is unbelievable. I'm very lucky that she's a friend that I can go to. I'm interested in her as a creative person, her whole approach. Even though she's got great chops and everything, I think everyone gets the feeling that there's something innate with her. Like she's been singing since she was a little kid. I got it the first time I ever saw her play - that not all of what I was hearing was written and labored over - there was something natural that just oozes out. She's also an inspiring person to talk to and hang out with - she's got a pretty unique mind and a unique sense of humor. She makes me feel good. I have a hard time with people in general - I'm pretty shy - so often it's hard for me to feel really relaxed around others. But I do with her.
When we did the Leonard Cohen cover, the only way I knew we'd get away with it is by being as faithful as possible. I said that to Jenn - "We have to do this by the book." My God, when you turn her loose to sing parts and harmonies and stuff.....She did her part before I did mine, and figured out the harmonies and everything, with no base to work off of. Her raw musical ability is awesome.
I liked the idea of challenging her and a few others - getting them outside their comfort zone. She rose to the occasion and handled it really quickly and easily. She approaches things on a real gut level. She doesn't overthink. I like to challenge myself in those ways, and I like to challenge friends in those ways too. She's my ringer, basically.
Most artists, when faced with a 20-year mark, would lean towards doing a greatest hits package. I know you've done something like that before....(2004's This Right Here Is Buck 65.)
Sort of. That wasn't my idea - it's something the label at the time put me up to.
Right. So now, I imagine you've been going back and listening to all the old songs you've got - I was wondering how that process informed the way you wrote the new songs?
I did consciously choose to go back and look through all the old stuff. I found the first or second song I ever recorded, and the first song I ever did in a studio, and with the others I did it chronologically. And I heard some things that were exciting to me, and others that were embarrassing to me. With some songs, I came away saying "Uh, no, not gonna try that again." And then there were others where I was like, "I was really onto something in '96, maybe it's time to get back to that place. Why'd I ever stop doing that?"
What's an example of something that you found embarrassing?
There's moments on the first album I put out on Murder Records, Game Tight that are okay, I kind of like them. There's some things on that that give me the willies a bit. And then there was the Chin Music EP, which came out on Waye Mason's old label No Records, I pretty much can't listen to it at all. It sounds like the work of a very insecure person. There's just nothing worse. But yeah, in '96 I was like, here's I'm finding a voice that sounds like my own. I was still kinda cocky, but dabbling in the absurd, and to me that's an irresistible combination - cocky but absurd at the same time. At that time, I did that song about Kiss - cocky and absurd, like "No one's as into Kiss as I am!"'
Just like bragging about being nice.
Yep. And I found a sharp distinct difference between my bedroom recordings, and the stuff I did in the studio. In the past couple of years, I did these three Dirtbike recordings, I was like "I need to make more music like this. I need to get back to when I was living above Black Market at Blowers and Grafton. I need to get back to what I felt like then." And the result was Dirtbike.
I also noticed (with the new album) that my vocal recordings were suffering in the studio, as opposed to when I recorded at home. I thought "I'm not getting the right level of comfort. There's no comparison. My performance was always better at home than when I was in a studio." So I said for the new stuff, I had to record my vocals on my own. I told the guys, we'll buy a good mic, do everything else in studio, but I have to do the vocals at home where I can be completely alone and get a performance I'm happy with. In the past, there was a pressure, an embarrassment about it, an unwillingness to open myself up in front of others. I wanted to be alone. I just wanted to get a take and finish it. There was always a lack of commitment, a stiffness, or just not a gutsy performance. I knew I couldn't keep doing that.