CURSED BLOOD Richard Buckner (Pt. 1)

All the
singer-songwriter wanted to do was record an album. He didn’t realize he would
soon be stepping into… the Twilight Zone.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Musicians often refer to their records as children, and lament
how arduous bringing them into the world can sometimes be. But if that makes
some of the difficult ones breeches and others cesareans, Richard Buckner’s
latest comes straight out of Rosemary’s
Baby
territory.

 

The road Buckner traveled to release Our Blood (Merge), his eighth full-length, was traumatic and, from
all appearances, under a wicked hex. Through the making of a now-in-legal-limbo
soundtrack, two LP-destroying home-studio malfunctions, a stolen laptop (with the
remaining Our Blood files on it) and,
among other bizarre sidelights, a Law
& Order
-meets-Kafka episode involving a headless corpse, only Buckner’s
dogged belief in his muse kept him from folding his hand in the five freaky years
after 2006’s Meadow.

 

 “I’d call Merge – ‘Hey,
you guys ready? The record’s almost done,’ then I’d call them back — ‘you’re
not going to believe this…,'” Buckner says before loosing a rich, cathartic
laugh. “I actually wrote them an email: 
‘Look, I don’t know how big your company is now with your Grammy-orbiting
budget, but I need you to send your exorcism squad up here to upstate New York and
do something about my life.'”

 

The problems were legion, but the results don’t reflect it.
The nine songs on Our Blood have all
the comforting contradictions of a Buckner record: The percussive strums and
plucked lattice-work; keyboards casting shadows or candle-flames; raging E-bow howls,
steel-guitar laments and embracing vibes; impressionist imagery gathered into
stark truths; and, of course, that voice,
the husky whispered slur or
yearning bellow smearing one stanza into the next, twinning implication
and empathy with every phrase.

 

With the exception of Buddy Cage’s pedal steel on three
tracks and some brief maracas-shaking from Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, the
rest of Our Blood – or this partially
resuscitated but mostly redone fourth version, anyway – features just Buckner. What
full-band diversity a la Meadow or
1998’s brilliant Since this final version
may lack, it makes up for in the intimacy and directness that so suits the songs’
insinuations and confessions.

 

Despite a fractious history and dark themes, Our Blood is a much warmer document than
Buckner’s last do-it-alone record, 2002’s dense and wintry Impasse. That album had its own fucked-up legacy. What was
eventually released was recorded in a basement during a Vancouver winter white-out
and amidst the implosion of Buckner’s second marriage — and only after an
earlier version was scrapped (along with all his savings) after flown-in
musicians were hired to put the expensive studio-made music to expensive analog
tape.

 

After finally finishing Impasse,
Buckner vowed never to go that solo route again. But when Our Blood sessions began vanishing into the digital ether and the
criminal underworld, “lo and behold, your bank account says you will,” he says
with a rueful chuckle. Once again, he had to overcome by enduring. But at a
still-youthful-looking 46, Buckner knows his own process well enough to realize
it typically includes fate-provided hurdles – and if it doesn’t, he’ll manufacture
some to avoid being on autopilot. That might include anything from rearranging
everything in his home studio to playing only an upside-down strung tenor
guitar or a four-string cuatro.

 

“The handicaps work on getting my wheel out of the ditch –
you know, you write a song, strum the guitar, here’s my Eagles easy-play chord
book-chords, my usual Bonanza-style
surf-guitar playing,” he says. “I feel most comfortable when I don’t know
what’s going on and I don’t understand it. That’s when the good accidents
happen.”

 

His creative impasse with Impasse, for instance, resulted in 2000’s The Hill. After dumping his first sessions, he stumbled on a
cassette in his glove compartment. On it were some sketches based on Edgar Lee
Masters’ Spoon River Anthology  that he’d recorded years earlier while
staying in a Death Valley hotel accompanied by only that book, a four-track and
a guitar.

 

 “It served as a creative
distraction to get myself back on track; kind of a re-boot,” he says.

 

As for all the post-Meadow weirdness, that actually began on a high note.  Buckner forsook the studio timeout he usually
takes to re-juice his songwriting batteries to begin enthusiastically penning
music for Dream Boy, a film based on Jim
Grimsley’s novel and directed by James Bolton (The Graffiti Artist). He was so jazzed about the project that he finished
most of the score before filming even began, based just on the script and his
own vision. Buckner would typically improvise off of two minutes of pre-planned
melody, creating what he calls “sound smears.” The soundtrack took a
year-and-a-half to complete, and it was often these that Bolton
used in the film.

 

“It enabled me to go back into the studio not tired of the
way I usually do things,” Buckner says, “but actually like a beginner again – thinking
about music, being stricter with melodies and tempos and themes, stuff like
that. I don’t know if I want to say it made me a better musician or home-studio
person, it just made me think about things differently. And that’s something
that I always want to have happen.”

 

What he most certainly did not want to happen was what
occurred afterward.

 

To be
continued.

 

Tomorrow,
in part two of the interview, Buckner talks about equipment failure, and
equipment theft; about being interrogated by the police regardling a headless torso
and a presumed mob hit; and about getting “cock-blocked by producers pointing
lawyer-shaped guns at my loins.” Don’t worry, dear readers; things eventually
get better for our hero.

 

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