Adrianne Lenker has her feet on the ground, but she may as well be up in the clouds. “They have really intense energy,” she remarks on the birds currently surrounding her at a Los Angeles cafe as they eye her food. “You can’t really blame them.” Lenker doesn’t have a home these days, and on the rare occasion that she’s not in transit, she stays with friends or family — but downtime has been increasingly harder to come by.
Since debuting in 2016, Big Thief haven’t slowed down one bit. Lenker and bandmates Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia spent the bulk of last year touring behind their sophomore album Capacity; in the interim, Lenker and Meek each released full-length solo records and toured behind them too. Somewhere in that timeline, the band managed to carve a month out of last summer to retreat to Bear Creek Recording Studio, just north of Seattle. The result was U.F.O.F., their third album as a group and first since signing with 4AD.
U.F.O.F. is a record that exists across many altitudes, emerging from beneath the earth’s surface and rising with the persistence of stray glowing embers. From the curdled awakening of “Contact” to the guttural depth of “Betsy,” it’s Big Thief’s most challenging body of work to date, as well as their most enchanting; the band doubles down on the subtle oddities that punctuated their previous work, pushing deeper into a psychedelic daydream where luna moths cry lime green tears and lovers give each other gills.
Where Capacity reckoned with the families we’re born into, U.F.O.F. is indebted to the families we create for ourselves. Lenker says that the album is “about making friends with the unknown,” and at its most gleaming, U.F.O.F. sounds like four friends believing in each other — a testament to the synergy that she, Meek, Oleartchik and Krivchenia have built upon since Big Thief’s formation in 2015. “I hear everyone’s voices, as individuals, coming out,” Lenker says of the record. “The closer we get to being a unit, the more I can hear each person articulated.”
During a phone conversation, Lenker detailed the writing process behind the album, the house where it came to fruition, and the “magic box” that appears on each of its songs.
U.F.O.F. is landing just seven months after your solo album, abysskiss. Did the writing sessions for the two overlap at all?
I just wrote fluidly throughout the course of two years. I didn’t really make the distinction which songs were for which project.
“From” and “Terminal Paradise” appear on both, but they take on different contexts on each album.
“Terminal Paradise” had a completely different landscape with the full band playing it. It fit both projects so well. It’s a song about death and a song about life, because death is such a huge part of life. It was important to put it in both lights — to look at the softer, more melancholic side of it, and also to intensify it with the full band. I didn’t think too hard about it, to be honest. It just felt right.
Why did you choose to record in Washington?
We looked at a bunch of studios, and Bear Creek seemed really good. It reminded me of my great-grandmother’s house. It was in the woods, and there’s something magical about those woods in Washington state. It’s damp and twinkly.
How did you break from the routine of recording?
We played a lot of soccer. It was really good to do something as a team outside of playing music — also, to play against each other, but in a friendly way. It’s really good to sweat.
This is the first Big Thief album with the entire band on the cover.
We had old family photos for our first two records, so we figured we’d put a new family photo on this one.
Lyrically, this album seems to deal a lot with placement.
It’s a result of being in so many places — an extension of what's happening in life. Most of these songs were written on the road, and I’ve been on the road permanently for the last three years. I wouldn’t be able to write if I couldn’t write on the road. It’s out of necessity because I don’t have a home — I’m constantly traveling. Songwriting is really important to me as a practice, and in order to maintain that practice I’ve had to learn how to adapt while being around other people. It's more challenging to write on the road, though, than in a private space or a familiar place.
“Cattails” feels like it has a special momentum to it.
I'd just finished writing it, and I asked James to play it with me;. By the time we were done rehearsing it, it had already been recorded. Our engineer Dom Monks was really good at moving around whatever was happening and capturing it. Rather than interrupting the flow in order to capture something, he'd sneak mics up. We didn’t have to perform it, because by the time we were done, Dom had captured it.
"Century" was the only other song written specifically at Bear Creek. How did that song come about?
I was just sitting around, on the grass, on my ass. I had a guitar, started strumming, and words just started flowing out. Before I knew it, I had a whole song. I guess I was pretty inspired by that place.
What made Bear Creek so special?
You'd drive down this dirt road and you’d be in the woods. You couldn’t see any roads from the house. There was a giant field in the back, and a barn. It was all dark wood paneling — seventies-style cabinetry and everything. Different parts of it were built in different times. There were lamps everywhere, shag carpeting upstairs, and a giant live room with all these different glowing lights. My sister and cousin came and cooked for a good part of it. It was very homey. I was staying in a little room that was separate from the studio, and there was a treehouse that a few people stayed in too. And there was a hot tub.
Is this the first record that was recorded entirely in one place?
Masterpiece was made in twelve days in one house, but this was definitely our first full-blast studio album. Usually Andrew wears all the hats at once, but for this one we had an engineer too.
It sounds like there was more space to get more experimental with the production on this album.
James has this thing called a Magic Box that was pretty mysterious — I don’t even know how to describe it. It had all these knobs, and he was running it through every track.
“Strange” is very psychedelic and whimsical.
I’d had the chord progression hanging around for a couple of years. I finally buckled down to write the song while I was out in Texas, staying in our old RV that’s parked on our friend’s land. Aaron makes all of our electric guitars, and Tiffany is a teacher and an artist. They’re a really inspiring family and really good friends. I don’t know how they find time to work their day jobs, take care of their son, and do their own craft and art. I was sitting with them in their workshop and I decided, I’m gonna figure out how to write this song, because I don’t know what energy it’s calling for.
I had different books that I took little pieces out of, scattered them all over the floor, and put the words together. From that, I made a new poem that was completely different. I took that and adapted it to the song. I brought it to the band, and it just worked. We found a sort of shuffle-y feel, but it’s a strange shuffle. Usually, when I write songs, they come out in one go, and I don’t have to work as hard at constructing them, but this one was constructed in a different way. I like the dimension that it adds to the album.
What does this record give back to you?
When we were first listening in the studio, I was feeling a lot of emotion. I started feeling like I was too close to fully experience it. I think I’ll learn more about what it gives back to me over the next couple of years, because that’s generally what happens. But when I listen to it right now, I feel really proud, and my heart swells. I feel close to my bandmates and the songs, and excited to bring them out to the world. They’re all that I dreamed they could be. I feel grateful. Each album feels closer where we’re trying to go. I can’t be sure we’ll ever get there, but we’re closer each time.
U.F.O.F. is out May 3 via 4AD.