INTERVIEW : 2018-08-29 Peter Buck and Joseph Arthur: “The only way you get good is to try something new and fail at it” (by Stephen Kelly)

The duo discuss songwriting, experimentation and collaboration

We grab the rare chance of an interview with Peter Buck as he talks alongside his collaborator Joseph Arthur about their alt-rock collaborative album as Arthur Buck, and why learning from others is the key to flexibility as a player.

For most of us, music is a medium of collaboration - whether it’s a relationship with other musicians we play with, a producer we record with or even an audience we play for, much of the music we hear is the result of a collective effort.

Reaching beyond our own creative limitations with the help of others can be inspiring, challenging and, at its best, a way to create something that would never have been possible otherwise. Arthur Buck, a two-piece comprised of former REM guitarist Peter Buck and singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, is a shining example of this mindset.

Friends for many years, a chance encounter between the pair in Mexico last year led to a three-day writing session and a string of impromptu gigs, with the fruit of this unforeseen partnership arriving in the shape of their vibrant, self-titled debut.

Peter Buck, of course, knows a thing or two about collaboration. Since the amicable break-up of REM in 2011, Buck has been working almost continuously, recording and performing under his own name as well as with established bands like The Minus 5 and Tuatara, while somehow finding time to form new groups (Filthy Friends, The No Ones) and rack up session work with the likes of First Aid Kit and Robyn Hitchcock. Arthur himself is no slouch either, having formed not one but two supergroups in the guise of RNDM and Fistful Of Mercy.

We caught up with the pair to talk about their new endeavour, and about what it means to be a truly collaborative musician...

Arthur Buck started out as a happy accident, with the album being written over just a few days. Was that spontaneity helpful for the songwriting process?

Peter: “I think so. We were both in Mexico, Joe came and visited me and just kind of never left. We started playing together like we do normally and for some reason instead of just playing we wrote songs. So it wasn’t really planned, I didn’t have anything prepared. These songs started coming really quickly.”

Joseph: “That’s the process we found. There was an energy to working with Peter that I couldn’t duplicate by myself. He’s obviously a very gifted songwriter, and one of the most melodic guitar players I’ve ever played with, really. There’s something very effortless about writing with him because he is so melodic, there are beautiful elements that come out easily when you sing over what he’s playing. It seems somewhat simple on some level but there’s something about it... I’ve never had an easier time writing songs.”

Peter, you’ve said in the past that when it comes to writing you prefer to get stuck into something without too much preamble...

Peter: “Well, yes, that’s the ideal process. I mean, sometimes you have to just keep revising and reworking but I tend to feel like the ones that come really quickly and spontaneously have something. There are just so many ways to write songs that sometimes you just pound your head against the wall until it’s finished. And sometimes you just give up.”

Are there benefits to writing as a two-piece, as opposed to a larger group of people?

Joseph: “I guess it would be, on some level, like dating! It just depends on who you’re dating, you know? It could be terrible or it could be great. When you have trust in a partner that you’re writing with, that’s powerful because you’re not second guessing each other.”

Peter: “It’s always easier to write one-on-one than with a group, in a group you’ve obviously got more opinions. With REM it worked very well because we all had roles that we played and a deep understanding of what each other could do, but sometimes you get somewhere, like in a studio, and it just bogs down because everyone has to throw in their two cents’ worth. But working with one other person allows me to learn stuff , to have that person push it in a direction that I might not have foreseen.”

Musical partnerships often have an, ‘I’ll wash - you dry’ approach - is there much crossover in your playing styles?

Peter: “Not really. It was a matter of me throwing some chord changes and melodies and occasionally a word or two, and Joe just taking it right on a run. Our guitar styles are fairly different. I’m kind of a formalist as far as songwriting and guitar parts - I write parts out, I tend to have a bridge, an intro, an outro. The idea of somewhere two-thirds of the way through the song you’re getting new information melodically and lyrically, I think that’s really helpful. I was the chord guy, putting in the riff s. That’s my job. I’m a way better rhythm guitar player than I am a soloist. All the soloing stuff is Joe.”

Joseph: “Yeah, I get to be the soloist, so that’s kind of fun!”

Peter: “When we work together we have more in the way of a formal structure. I trained myself to write songs by looking at music books, whether it’s The Beatles or Burt Bacharach, I tend to be that way, and Joe tends to be the kind of guy, he writes 13 verses and one chorus. Both ways are valid ways to do it.”

You’ve said that you wanted to make a positive, forward-looking record - is it more of a challenge to write upbeat songs?

Joseph: “Yeah, it doesn’t sound particularly cool to write a happy song, it’s much cooler to have, like, a dark pose. We live in such complicated, wild times, I want to be uplifted because this world is dark enough, it’s beating us down. I don’t want to listen to something too dark right now.”

Peter: “Musically, it is hard to write death-metal when you’re sitting out in really nice sun... not that I’ve written a whole lot of that stuff! Part of it is also just the way it came together, it was without preconceptions, that tends to make it feel buoyant. It wasn’t a process of anxiety and struggle.”

What guitars were you playing on this record? Was the Rickenbacker 360 still your guitar of choice, Peter?

Peter: “Yeah, I love the Rickenbacker and the one I’ve been using since 1980 or ’81 is still my favourite guitar. But, you know, this record that we did, I played acoustic guitar on almost everything. I used a 1961 [Gibson] J200 that I’ve had since the mid-80s.”

Joseph: “I think it’s mainly a Tele and Les Paul for me, although in the rehearsals I was using an SG, I’ve been into the idea of using an SG for this band.”

Did you use those for the solos?

Joseph: “Yeah, and there’s this one pedal of Peter’s that I’ve been using and it’s the best fuzz pedal I’ve ever dealt with, it’s meant to sound exactly like The White Album [a Jext Telez White Pedal]. That’s what you want every time you solo anyway, if you can get a lead sound like that, you’re done.”

Some artists are reluctant to share unfinished material, but you performed these songs live right away - does that ‘test drive’ influence the finished song when the time comes to record?

Peter: “Yeah, definitely. I wish every record I do, I could play all the songs in public because, you know, you work in your basement or wherever you’re rehearsing and then the minute you get on stage you realise, ‘Yeah, something needs to be done in the middle of that song,’ or ‘That bridge isn’t as good as I think it is.’”

Joseph: “The songs live in the moment. The benefits of fleshing the stuff out live and getting feedback from the audience, you can really tell what’s working and what’s not working.”

Peter, your solo output has a rough and ready vibe that might surprise listeners who know you primarily from your work with REM - what attracted you to that sound?

Peter: “I think one of the things that made REM a strong band was that all four of us were pulling in different directions at different times. I was always the guy who would prefer to rehearse a bit and then keep the first or second take.

I think that the first few times you play [a take], you discover something that you’ll never get again

“I think that the first few times you play, you discover something that you’ll never get again. I did one record with [Nirvana bassist] Krist Novoselic on it, and I didn’t even tell him the chords - I just said, ‘I’m gonna play chords, y’all just kinda go for whatever you wanna do,’ and it was a chaotic mess in a way that I really like. That’s what I’m looking for, I want it to sound like some element of decay has crept into it.”

Do you use the same gear for all your different projects? There’s quite a contrast between your solo work and Arthur Buck’s polished sound...

Peter: “Well, my solo records are basically cut live: live lead vocal, two guitars, bass, drums. On my personal stuff , we’re all in a room so there’s a lot of leakage but that’s kind of the way I like to record. I tend to use the same equipment, I bring the same guitars. With my solo records, I was standing looking at the drummer eight feet away, shouting into a microphone, so you can hear cymbals on my vocals. But those records aren’t really designed to be played on the radio, they’re just designed to be played on a vinyl record in your house.”

Joseph, you started out as a bassist - does that past experience have much impact on how you approach rhythm in your songs?

Joseph: “It must do. I’m definitely rhythm-oriented, and I play the drums on this record, too. I listen to music when I exercise mainly, so I want it to move me and push me. In terms of how that works with guitar, I like that thing James Brown said about how every instrument is a percussion instrument. Keith Richards, too. Keith Richards is the greatest example of it for rock ‘n’ roll - that guy’s basically a drummer on guitar.”

You both put great stock in the process of collaboration - what do you learn from working with so many different artists?

Joseph: “Oh man, that could fill a couple of books! With Ben [Harper], there’s a whole history of his family’s folk music shop and the different kinds of guitars he plays, so I feel in a weird way you tap into folk music history. With Dhani [Harrison] it’s like, are you joking? You tap into the motherlode!”

The only way you get good is to try something new and fail at it, and then figure out why

Peter: “I tend to learn something from everyone. If I don’t feel like I’m learning anything then it’s miserable, I want to be challenged and pick up something new. I’ll always listen to other players and figure out what they’re doing.

“I just did a session with Barrett Martin who was in The Screaming Trees - I was overdubbing stuff but one of the songs had this great chord change that I was pulling apart, and I said, ‘This guy that plays rhythm guitar, does he play flamenco music?’ And Barrett said, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’ and I said, ‘Cos this is a flamenco chord change.’ It was really interesting, it was a voice that I would have never used and I’ve been playing it ever since.”

You clearly haven’t lost your love of music, so what advice would you give to younger musicians who want to maintain that sort of passion?

Peter: “I read this interview with Stevie Winwood when I was young, one of the things he said was always make sure there are better players than you in the band you’re in, because that way you’re always learning something. I still think about that. The only way you get good is to try something new and fail at it, and then figure out why it wasn’t as good as it should have been. The more you do that, the more you’re really adaptable.”


2018-08-25 - Summer Strummer Jam, Bowery Ballroom, New York

On Stage :

A Joe Strummer Birthday Tribute, with Jesse Malin, Uni, Mercy Union, DJ Justin Dean Thomas and special guests :
HR (Bad Brains), Tommy Stinson (Bash & Pop/The Replacements/Guns N Roses), Binky Griptite (The Dap-Kings), Kris Gruen, Matty Carlock, Nufolk Rebel Alliance (Pedro Erazo of Gogol Bordello & Leo Minimum Tek of Outernational), Cait O'Riordan (The Pogues), Willie Nile, Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate/The Baseball Project), Jared Hart (Mercy Union), Kemp Muhl & Nico (Uni), Joe Hurley, Don DiLego, Frank Iero (My Chemical Romance), Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie), Suzi Gardner (L7), Felice Rosser (Faith), Acacia (The Advertisers), Drew Stone (Antidote), Matty Hoboken

Setlist :

Complete setlist of this event available on setlist.fm

Groovy Times (Clash cover)

Recording :

Sadly, there's no audio recording of this event.
If I am wrong, thank you to inform me by email.

Poster :

Une publication partagée par Hadley Potts (@hadleypotts) le

Photo by @lithophyte


INTERVIEW : 2018-08-21 Hecho en Mexico (by Adam Perlmutter)

Near the end of 2017, the guitarist, singer-songwriter, and visual artist Joseph Arthur faced a dilemma: He needed to retrieve a Dobro he’d left in Todos Santos, Mexico, where he had played a festival. When he investigated shipping this large parcel to the United States, he realized it would be prohibitively expensive.

It would be much more cost-effective, Arthur discovered, to take a round-trip flight to Mexico and retrieve the guitar himself. He figured he could stay for cheap in Todos Santos and spend a relaxing week writing new songs. When Arthur texted a friend about his travel plans, she suggested he meet up with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who had a second home in the area. Having opened for the seminal indie-rock band in the early 2000s, Arthur agreed this was a good idea, and reached out to Buck, who suggested they do a show together there.

As Arthur sat on Buck’s porch, playing him some of his songs in preparation for the gig, the two musicians discovered they had an easy chemistry. Before performing in the town’s square, they wound up writing a collection of songs together, which they ultimately brought back to the States to record.

These tracks became the duo’s new album, Arthur Buck. Against a backdrop of Buck’s chimey strumming and melodic riffing, Arthur sings and adds his idiosyncratic lead-guitar flourishes. He also handles drum programming on the album, blending beats with a traditional drum set to create a compelling, hip-hop-informed sonic landscape.

When PG caught up with Buck and Arthur, they described how their duo instantly jelled in Mexico, how they turned this meeting into a recording project, and, naturally, what gear they used—including the storied Rickenbacker 360 Buck has used on almost every R.E.M. album.

Arthur Buck came about serendipitously?

Joseph Arthur: We had long talked about working together but never did, and I didn’t necessarily think that we even would this time, but I was like, “Well, it’s great that Peter is down there in Mexico and wants to hang out and play a show.” To me, that in and of itself was super cool.

At the time, I was working on a solo album and got to thinking how cool it would be to get Peter to play some guitar on it. So I showed him one of the songs. We jammed on it for five minutes and then he said, “Well, check this one out.” Peter writes songs that are fully arranged with the bridge, verse, chorus, but without the melody or vocal line on top yet. I just started making shit up to that, singing top-line stuff. We just started busting out jams, dude. It was easy and fun as hell—totally spontaneous. It sounds hokey when people say, “It was like magic,” but it really was magical.

Peter Buck: It was so great to sit down and play guitar and swap song ideas with Joseph. He’s a much better fingerpicker than I am. I’m a good rhythm guitar player, and I’m more interested in things like, how do you arrange a song so that you’re not just strumming chords? When a lot of people write a song, they strum the chords all the way through. Then you have to figure out how to put little bits together: Here’s the place we can do a solo, etc. I tend to write arpeggios, maybe for the verse, block chords for the chorus, and single notes here and there. With me doing that, it left Joseph free to fool around and do whatever he wanted to.

Arthur: Yeah, it was just synchronicity. The next thing we knew, we had five songs. And we still have this acoustic EP we recorded in Mexico, because I’d brought my laptop and recording stuff with the intention of working on my solo shit. I brought it to the porch and we recorded a five-song EP that’s really good, actually. It’s got similar songs to the record, but with different lyrics.

We ended up playing a little festival show in the city center. Peter was like, “Ah, this stuff always makes me nervous.” I just thought it was so funny that he felt that way. Even though we’ve been doing this a while, I just felt this energy like we’re a new band all of a sudden. It was just fun. Then we played another bar gig. I brought up an art show I had coming up in L.A. and asked Peter to play with me. At the soundcheck at the show, he was jamming on what became “I Am the Moment.” When I started singing “I am the moment,” he started singing “waiting for you.” I fucked around with some lyrics and we ended up playing the song that night. The whole crowd was singing along. It was kind of like a movie, you know?

Peter, you mentioned how some musicians strum continuously throughout their songs. Are your right-hand patterns or textures as important as the chords themselves?

Buck: Yes. To a certain degree, I’m picking melodies out even if I’m using the chord structures. They become melodic if you’re arpeggiating or doing a two-note thing or linking things together by moving the chords in the left hand. I tend to build a lot more melody into the rhythm guitar than a lot of people do.

Where do you think that comes from—just experimenting or by emulating certain players?

Buck: When I started learning to play guitar, I was 14 and the ’60s were over. I had grown up listening to the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Motown—all that stuff. It seemed that everything I liked was about guitar riffs. I didn’t really become a big fan of Hendrix until later, and I didn’t really know much about Led Zeppelin. I wasn’t really listening for great lead guitar players. I was listening to song arrangements.

I knew so little about guitar I didn’t realize that [Byrds guitarist] Roger McGuinn was fingerpicking. I figured he gets all those ringing tones, so he must just be going really fast. So I worked out a flatpick style that’s fairly complicated and not a lot of people can do it. It’s just that I would say, “Well, that’s how he does it.” As I got older, I realized he was picking with his thumb and three fingers. But that’s why I tend to like to write the original guitar parts very melodic and if I do, it’s involved. It immediately sounds like a song if you have all those elements.

If you were a kid playing guitar now, do you think your style would be different because of easy access to information about how certain players approach the instrument?

Buck: Yeah. I go on the internet sometimes at 3 o’clock in the morning and look things up. I was learning some song that had a little riff and I didn’t have the record around. I just went online and typed in “how do you play the riff” for that song on YouTube and it popped up. The guy wasn’t a great guitar player or anything, but I just watched where he put his fingers for about two seconds. I went, “Okay, I got that.”

I’m kind of friends with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and we were talking about this. He said, “Oh, that’s how I learned how to play banjo. I just went on the internet and did all these tutorials.” He’s obviously a world-class musician, so he actually got really good at it. I’ll go online and learn a particular scale or something. I like learning by ear and figuring things out myself.

Describe how your impromptu songwriting became an album project.

Arthur: We went up to Portland and wrote two more songs, one of which was “Wide Awake in November.” “Are You Electrified?” might have been the other one. Then we went into Type Foundry Studio. I programmed a bunch of beats and Peter played all the rhythm guitar stuff, the arrangements. Then I took all that back home to Brooklyn and fleshed it out—worked on my vocals, worked on the lyrics, and other stuff. It was just such a cool process.

Is that how your album-making process normally works?

Arthur: No, this is uncommon, man. I mean, my solo albums take years. I work fast, but I’ll get a whole bunch of songs and some of them are kick-ass, others aren’t so kick-ass. I’ll put everything on the shelf, get depressed for six months, then come back and have all these new ideas and new songs. Then I’ll take the best from the old batch and put it with the best of the new batch. Then I’ll get depressed again and another eight months will pass by. Then I’ll come back to it again. I’ll go through that laundry-wringing process eight times and then five years later, I’ll have a kick-ass solo album.

I think you always need to collaborate. Even if you’re a solo artist, you need to collaborate with yourself through time—because there’s different versions of yourself that you’re collaborating with. But that takes time. Whereas with me and Peter, it’s a full-on collaborative effort, songwriting-wise. I could never write the songs we’re writing on my own. It’s because he’s bringing his whole thing and there’s a chemistry involved with it.

Peter, what was making this record like for you?

Buck: For me, it was super simple, because Joe was doing the drum programming into his Ableton setup. We basically recorded the songs in one day with just the beats, Joe singing along, and me putting down my guitars. I wasn’t certain we were even making a record. I was thinking it may be a demo, but at the end of six or eight hours, we had the record pretty much done—all my guitars were finished, at least. We added one more song, “American Century,” later. By that point, we had nine finished tracks, which Joe adored.

The guitar sounds—both acoustic and electric—are killer. What instruments did you play?

Arthur: I like playing Strats but didn’t have any in the studio—I left those in Los Angeles, so I used this Tele that I love, which is disappointing, because I never wanted to be a Tele guy. But it’s this kick-ass Masterbuilt Tele that’s relic’d, so it looks like it’s been played by Jeff Beck since 1962. I used a Les Paul, too.

Buck: The acoustic guitar I played was a Gibson SJ-200—I think it’s a ’61 or ’62—that I’ve had for 30-something years. The electric guitar was the ’81 Rickenbacker 360 that I’ve used on pretty much every record I’ve ever made.

Joseph, how did you get that warm lead tone on “The Wanderer?”

Arthur: That’s my Tele through Kevin Henretta’s multi-effects box into a Vox. Sometimes I’ll put on fucked-up sounds just for fun. And when I sent [engineer] Tchad Blake the rough mixes, I accidentally printed all my effects on the stems. Tchad loves dealing with problems and wild shit like that, and he definitely made it sound better than I had it. But yeah, I love the way that solo came out. It’s funny because when Peter and I were first writing “The Wanderer”—which is my favorite song on the record, by the way—that was the only song I actually played guitar on. I would just sing, and then I would pick up my Dobro and play like, a Dobro solo over the top of that.

Though you produced the album, Joseph, Tchad Blake mixed it. Tell us more about his sonic imprint on Arthur Buck.

Arthur: Tchad knows how to accentuate the spirit of an album like nobody’s business. He knows how to make it sound cool. One of the things I love about Arthur Buck is that it could be considered indie-rock in a way, but it has this funky, hip-hop feel to it, a dance kind of energy to it, based on those beats. I really like that. I wanted to keep it like that, because I felt this was our lane of originality on some level, too.

At the same time, it sounds like there are real drums.

Arthur: I was gonna keep it all electronic drums, but as I started listening to Tchad’s mixes, I called him and said, “Hey, man. I got a question for you. Do you think the programming is a bit stiff? Or do you think it’s cool?” I wanted him to say, “No, it’s perfect just like it is!” But what he said was, “In a perfect world I would have real drums to play with, too.” I was like, “Dude, you are killing me right now.”

So I booked a studio with a really good drum room—this studio called KIZMIT in Brooklyn—and spent two nights putting real drums on every song. And this was like the 12th hour of mixing. I sent him all the live drums. When he mixed “The Wanderer,” he was like, “Dude, this one drum take makes the whole drum session worth it.” You can hear much more of the real drums on it—the toms—and it sounds more like Tom Waits, when at first it was sort of straight hip-hop.

Where did the hip-hop inspiration come from?

Arthur: It’s the music I’m usually most excited about. I’m all up on Pusha T’s new album [Daytona] right now. And I just wonder, is Arthur Buck as good as that?

Peter, what was it like for you to record without a drummer?

Buck: I’m used to playing with a live drummer, as I’ve done since I was 17. In every band I’ve ever been in, the drummer follows me or I lock in directly with the drummer and we are the rhythm section. Playing with programmed drums was way different. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and speed it up or slow it down. We rehearsed a month ago with a keyboard player, bass player, and drummer. I was definitely approaching the songs differently than when we made the record because I had different jobs to do. We’ll be using some loops and things like that at different points, which gives me more latitude to move around.

So what’s next?

Arthur: What’s great is that we’ve got six or seven killer new songs, dude. It’s just exciting when it’s kind of—I don’t want to say effortless, because there’s effort involved—but the magical element feels effortless. It’s like, “Man this is just a fun band.”