HIT MAN Richard Buckner (Pt. 2)

In
which our hero battles burglars, gear glitches, an overbearing constabulary,
and, er, cock-blocking film producers. Continued from Part One

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Despite working well with Dream Boy film director James Bolton,
any possibility of a soundtrack release and subsequent tour were, as Buckner
colorfully put it in his self-penned publicity sheet, “cock-blocked by
producers pointing lawyer-shaped guns at my loins.” Unable to match war chests,
but still in control of the publishing rights, Buckner’s soundtrack now sits in
a drawer “fermenting like beer,” he says. (You can hear a bit of the
soundtrack, including a duet with Patty Griffin, at YouTube.)

 

“Like the old saying goes, ‘nobody in the entertainment
industry is happy until somebody gets screwed in the end.’ That was really the
cherry on the sundae – ‘Great work! Anyway, we’re not going to use it.’ What am
I going to do? I’m just a dumb musician.”

 

More likely cursed is the case, as this bit of foreboding
soon made clear: Just as Buckner put the finishing touches on Dream Boy, his aging, beat-up equipment
began failing. Then, when his girlfriend landed a job on a sheep farm outside Kingston, New York, near
where she grew up, the couple ditched their sketchy Brooklyn
neighborhood for, unbeknownst to them, an even sketchier one. They moved into a
one-room former grange hall a few miles from Kingston, a space whose acoustics had the
musician dreaming of roaring Leslie speakers and raucous percussion pounding.
It was there Buckner began work on what he called his “grand idea,” a concept comprising
a package of music and lyrics along with short stories (or novellas; that part
is still a work in progress).

 

The neighborhood, though, soon overshadowed the recording
advantages. They found themselves living in a rural community freak scene highlighted
by domestic disputes, neighbor conflicts and screaming yahoos driving ATVS with
rifles in the back. The last straw came early one Saturday morning when Kingston detectives
knocked on the door to find out if the new residents knew anything about the
car with a dead body inside left burning on the nearby quarry road the day
before.

 

“‘That’s a popular road for dumping bodies,’” Buckner recalls
one of the detectives saying. Incredulous, he wondered, “‘I moved from Bed-Stuy
where there are chopped-up bodies in my subway stop to Mayberry RFD and this is a mob hit? Really?’”

 

In short order, Buckner and his girlfriend found another
space in Kingston.
But four months later he was told local law enforcement were trying to reach
him at the old place, so he voluntarily went down to police headquarters. He
assumed it was for one of the regular domestic disputes among his ex-grange
hall neighbors, since his alibi the day the car and its passenger were dumped
– he was driving a forklift at his day job – was legitimate. But, in a creepy,
this-is-a-small-town twist, he’d
heard through co-workers that the body was discovered sans head, and when he mentioned this at the interview, the law gave
him and his beat-up truck a long look (through a camera lens, too). That particular
detail had been left out of the local news rag.

 

Buckner, the weirdo outsider newcomer musician from New York, realized he
was now being interrogated about a murder. “At first I was just, ‘oh, that’s
weird,’ but as I was driving home I was like, ‘wait a minute, is this one of
those weird things that could get really weird?’ I’m kind of dumb in those situations — I’m a little too friendly or I
talk too much. Did I say the wrong thing? Is it like Camus’ The Stranger, am I not reacting right
and the cops are suspicious?”

 

Two years without a peep on the subject have passed, and Buckner
assumes he’s no longer a person of interest. But in the meantime he had plenty else
to fret. First, the Roland 2480 on which he’d recorded Impasse and the film score broke down, taking the grange hall songs
and sounds with it. After a few months spent regrouping, Buckner started
recording again. This time the Roland waited until the final mixes to devour
his songs. A few weeks later, thieves broke into his home and stole his computer,
and along with it the few remaining recorded tidbits and song notes.

 

“That’s when I called for the exorcism squad,” he says. “There
was something beyond my grasp going on.”

 

What made all these setbacks exponentially worse was that
without new material in hand there was little point in touring. And in these
free-loading downloading times, that’s where hardscrabble musicians like
Buckner eke out recording money. (He calls himself a “money soldier, not a
money keeper”). Buckner concedes he wanted to throw in the towel at a couple
junctures, but knew he’d only be screwing himself in the long run. Music wasn’t
just his hobby and a platform for emotional release; it was his way out of “driving
the forklift or holding ‘Stop’ signs for the road crew.”

 

But those day jobs provided thematic inspiration for Our Blood. Prior to the soundtrack’s legal clusterfuck,
Buckner had been day gig-free for 10 years (his late-‘90s MCA Records contract,
brief as it was, and publishing rights to a 2004 Volkswagen ad didn’t hurt).
But with the soundtrack in limbo and nothing new to take on the road, Buckner had
to rejoin the “real world.” Working regular hours after a decade spent in the
5pm-load-in-to-2am-bar-close “underbelly” was a cold shower-reminder how lucky he
was – fucked-up Rolands and robberies notwithstanding — to have an artistic
outlet at all.

 

“I was working with these people who were absolutely stuck,” he says, “really hopeless
scenarios, or at least tragic in my eyes. People who are in places they
couldn’t get out of – not only jobs, but things that happened in their lives,
relationships, the outside world, debt, all this stuff heaped on them and
there’s never a moment where they can step out that’s comfortable and say,
‘okay, I need to change things up.’ So I have a real appreciation for that.”

 

Still, though it’s dangerous to generalize, it’s safe to say
that Buckner probably makes a better artist than forklift operator. His loquacious
patter blunts his brooding musical persona and resembles that of a cultural
polymath (albeit a highly cynical one). He hops topic-to-topic easily, from lefty
linguist Noam Chomsky and jazz arranger Gil Evans to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and the 1992
nonverbal film Baraka.

 

As it turned out, they all played their role in Our Blood. The theme that emerges out of
Baraka, for instance, inspired
Buckner to look at his own life in a similar light. Using time-lapse
photography from around the globe, the filmmakers show that patterns in nature
and mankind are united by their beautiful and destructive forces. As Buckner sees it, it’s a design flaw that extends into
the relationship realm and the heart of every human, like it or not.

 

 “You see how similar
everything is, from traffic signals to blood vessels to mountain ranges to
heart rates – it’s all one thing,” he says of Baraka. “I’m not a spiritual, crystal-flipping kind of guy, I’m not
like that at all, but it makes beautiful sense when you can see it in that
context. So the idea of Our Blood came from thinking about that, looking at the outside world with these jobs,
finding the thread in these songs, as well as other things that happened over
these years to family or friends. So I knew what the title had to be — except
for one point when I thought I’d call it, Don’t
Buy This Piece of Crap, I’m a Loser
. But I thought I’d put a more positive
spin on the title.”

 

In the end, Buckner knew he had no other choice but to
finish – again. He’s not the first musician to talk about not looking back at a
project when it’s done, but after the fourth time through Our Blood, he might not have seen anything recognizable anyway.
“What I had in front of me is like that over-painted piece of furniture you
bought at a garage sale – you could tell there was an original piece of something, but it’d been painted over or
wallpapered over so many times you can barely tell what it is any more.”

 

Still, if Buckner insists his goal after any record is to
come away with a “new way of thinking about things,” the trials of Our Blood must have fulfilled that
requirement. But when he adds that, generally speaking, he wants “some mystery
involved so I’m not befuddled or burned out,” well, you imagine he’s also had
quite enough of that for now, thank you very much.

 

Buckner’s new album Our Blood is out this week on Merge Records.

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