As Peter Buck explains it, his collaboration with singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur came naturally. "We kind of got the idea after we did it. It was impromptu," says the former R.E.M. guitarist. "Joe was in Mexico and we were just hanging out and playing guitars."
Arthur had hoped Buck would contribute to his planned acoustic album when the two had a chance meeting in Todos Santos, Mexico, a beachside town that Buck frequents, and where he previously held an annual music festival. Arthur had ventured there to pick up a Dobro guitar he'd forgotten on a previous visit. "I was learning the songs and then we just kind of spontaneously wrote a couple of things," Buck recalls. "And we just thought, 'We're here. We don't have anything to do. Let's just do this' and we basically wrote the whole album in three days."
Arthur Buck, the self-titled album that resulted from those impromptu writing sessions, will be released on June 15 on New West Records. In September, it will be supported by a tour in which the duo will be backed by a full band, including Buck's longtime collaborator/sideman Scott McCaughey, known for his work with R.E.M., Filthy Friends, the Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows, on bass; Linda Pitmon of Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, the Baseball Project and Filthy Friends, on drums; and Gregg Foreman, who's played with Cat Power, Pharmacy and Delta 72, on keyboards. The band spent three days last week rehearsing material from the album at Buck's home in Portland, and he and Arthur wrote another six or seven new songs not on the record.
"Remember back in the new wave days when you'd go see a band, they'd usually be English, and they'd have an 11-song record and they'd play all songs and they'd repeat the single for an encore?" Buck asks. "I hated that. They were all good bands, but I think it's important when you go see a band, and it's your first experience with a band, it's great to give them a lot of stuff, so it isn't like, 'We're just this record.' We're something else, so we should have a fair amount of new stuff. Maybe we'll learn a cover version or two, so you're not just hearing the album."
Buck asked Arthur if he wanted to do a solo section within the band's set. "I said, 'I don't think so. I think we should come out like a new band,'" Arthur says. "We should come out swinging."
The duo developed out of a mutual admiration society of sorts. Arthur was an R.E.M. fan and Buck was turned on to Arthur by noted producer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett in the late '90s. "I don't even think I had his first record," Buck says. "I just saw this guy that T-Bone mentioned was playing so I went and saw him and it was a really great show. I think he was the first guy I ever saw doing the loops to make a track on stage thing," he recalls. "Now you can't go to a Holiday Inn without seeing it, but in 1996, or whenever that was, I'd never see that before."
Eventually, Arthur served as an opening act for R.E.M. on a 2004 tour. In 2006, Buck's R.E.M. bandmate Michael Stipe covered Arthur's "In the Sun" on an EP to benefit Gulf Coast hurricane relief in the wake of Katrina that featured contributions from Arthur, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Justin Timberlake and will.i.am. Buck occasionally backed Arthur during live performances, mostly playing bass. And in 2014, Buck and his former R.E.M. bandmate Mike Mills backed Arthur on a performance of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" on the Late Show With David Letterman, to promote Arthur's Reed tribute album, Lou.
During the Arthur Buck sessions the pair took their collaborative efforts to a new place. "It's real interesting," says Arthur, who is primarily known for his solo work, but also recorded the 2010 album As I Call You Down in the trio Fistful of Mercy with Dhani Harrison and Ben Harper. "Obviously it's different with everybody, particularly with someone like Peter," says Arthur. "He's magical. It's hard to say what I want to say without it sounding like I'm blowing smoke, but I really believe he's a genius kind of guy. The songwriting was kind of effortless."
Recording the album began initially with Arthur laying down some programmed drum beats for Buck to add acoustic and electric rhythm guitar over. "I really programmed the drum beats to make a more interesting click track for him," Arthur says. "I don't think we knew the programming would stick." Though Buck has primarily recorded with full bands, he's also experimented with drum machines, most notably on R.E.M.'s 1998 album Up, the band's first album following the departure of Bill Berry. "Joe's a really good drum programmer," Buck says. "That's a skill in and within itself. I'm not good at it. I can use a drum machine that has presets. That's easy, but Joe programs loops and beats and can make them really funky and lively, which I cannot do."
Arthur says that current hip-hop acts had an influence on that aspect of the album. "I got into distance running before we made this record," he says. "I'd listen to Gang Starr a lot, Kendrick [Lamar], JAY-Z's new album. That's where a lot of the electronic elements on this album are coming from."
The album primarily focuses on Arthur's search for spiritual enlightenment, exploring themes similar to what George Harrison wrote about. "He'd sometimes ask me to throw in a word or a phrase, but the lyrical focus is Joe's," Buck says. "Like a lot of us, at certain points in our life, he's been through a lot of stuff, and he's thinking a lot, but wanted it to be an optimistic record."
"I think the whole alternative thing," Buck continues, "a lot of it was real kind of alienating and negative. At a certain point, I just got real fucking sick of a 24-year-old singing about how much he hates the world. Every 24-year-old should hate the world, but I don't necessarily want to hear it again. I heard that when I was 14. I was pleased that Joe was coming up with a record that's not a downer."
While most of the album focuses on personal relationships, such as the album's opening track, "I Am the Moment," and "Forever Waiting" (premiering above), "American Century" takes a broader view. Buck says it was partially inspired by an article or a speech from the '50s by an industrialist who proclaimed, "This is the American century." More recently, Buck read an article titled "Farewell to the American Century." He adds that while it could be debated whether the 20th century was indeed the American century, "We're totally walking away from it now, for a number of reasons." In the song, Arthur sings about "social media diplomacy, leaving Puerto Rico out in the dark" and taxing the middle class to "give to the rich." Though Buck notes, "Joe made it a real spiritual thing, as opposed to a political thing." It ends with Arthur and female backing vocalist, Morgan James, trading lines on the refrain, "Where's the revolution?"
For Arthur, this project is a bit of a rebirth. "I view this thing as like a brand new exciting band," he says. "I honestly feel like I hit some kind of reset button in my life and this is my first album."
Arthur Buck on Tour:
Fri/Sep-07 - Seattle WA - The Crocodile
Sat/Sep-08 - Portland OR - Doug Fir Lounge
Mon/Sep-10 - San Francisco CA - The Independent
Tue/Sep-11 - Los Angeles CA - Teragram Ballroom
Thu/Sep-13 - Athens GA - 40 Watt Club
Sun/Sep-16 - Nashville TN - The Basement East
Tue/Sep-18 - Philadelphia PA - World Café Live
Wed/Sep-19 - Boston MA - Brighton Music Hall
Thu/Sep-20 - Brooklyn NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg
Fri/Sep-21 - Washington DC - Rock & Roll Hotel
Sun/Sep-23 - Chicago IL - Lincoln Hall
Mon/Sep-24 - Minneapolis MN - 7th Street Entry