James Krivchenia of Big Thief on His New Solo Album “Blood Karaoke”
Photography by Erin Birgy Web Exclusive
In order to be on that stage transcending, artists first have to do a lot of mundane shit: filling up gas, sending emails, hauling gear, and maybe grabbing some takeaway Chipotle. And well, a lot waiting. Indeed, being on the road is like managing this fragile logistical puzzle that can shatter at any given moment. Especially now at the back-end of a pandemic, things tend to get especially volatile, as James Krivchenia — best known as producer and drummer of Big Thief — can surely attest.
“We’re trying to keep the bubble of our touring crew pretty tight and not do stuff inside that’s extra, like dinners or anything like that,” Krivchenia explains, having just arrived in Brooklyn amidst Big Thief’s latest spring U.S. tour. “We just wear a mask inside the venue. Most of us already got COVID, so on that front, we probably won’t get it immediately again. But not everyone in our crew has had COVID, so logistically speaking, it completely sucks. A bunch of my friends have just been canceling tours. If just one person gets it, it’s such a bummer, because you get stranded In Europe or something. You’re like ‘Fuck, I’m losing a bunch of money, I’m stuck in Sweden, and I have COVID!?’ I don’t think people realize how rough it is.”
Big Thief is now one of the most acclaimed bands on the planet: the days of sleeping on floors and playing on empty stomachs seem to be a thing of the past. Achieving the pinnacle of your success as a touring band during two years of isolation, however, is nevertheless a strange experience in its own right. Krivchenia’s brain is high-wired to be on the road for long stretches, triggering the lofty hypothesis: how do those preoccupations translate in a more inverse, physically passive state?
On Blood Karaoke-his fourth experimental solo album after You’re Useless, I Love You (2016), no comment(2018), and A New Found Relaxation (2020)-the notion of constant travel is expressed lawlessly within the binaries of computer music. The album that came to be is a supreme Frankenstein monster of samples lifted from countless YouTube videos Krivchenia started binging right before the pandemic started. At the time, he didn’t even realize he was making a record; the stress-free gung-ho thrill of “what’s next?” upstaged whatever semblance of result he had in mind.
“And that’s kind of how a lot of my music starts,” Krivchenia shrugs. “I’m finding some process that’s doing something interesting with sound. And I’m kind of like ‘Ooh, that’s cool!’ and I’ll just be doing that for a while. And figure ‘Maybe this will fit in somehow, or combined with something else,’ but not really knowing in what way. I was just letting my natural interest go a little bit. And for this project, it was about exploring a handful of YouTube generators. These generators show videos with less than a hundred plays-and offer all sorts of different parameters to them. I was just watching them for a while, and it was so weird. Then I started sampling them, basically spending an hour sampling interesting sounds. I didn’t realize it was gonna be a record until I started messing with those samples and building out these longer tracks and pieces of music.”
Listening to Blood Karaoke, it sounds almost like the premise of Independence Day, but with a twist: alien lifeforms are using our own satellites against us; not for power, not for evil, but to create a musical symphony of weird random happenings for the sake of dicking around. The many ad hoc sonic transitions on the album are frequently hilarious: “Sub Creational Reality” starts with a cheesy EDM track that seems tailor-made for a Fyre Festival promo campaign. Without so much of a flinch, it seamlessly breaks into a Boards of Canada-ish experimental vignette. “Calendrical Rot” serves up post-apocalyptic wasteland of chopped-up metal riffs, static hiss, and cinematic drones, only to burst our collective bubbles with a brief Bruce Hornsby-esque piano flourish. Heck, Krivchenia might even have a future in Berghain if he can churn out tracks like “God In Every Way” and “Styles of Imprisonment”-here he jumps from ’90s rave flirtations to claustrophobic IDM with the gleeful abandon of SOPHIE or Arca.
It definitely highlights a different side of Krivchenia’s talent as a producer compared to the more organic recording methods he harnesses with Big Thief and as a coveted session player. But above all, you can almost picture him chortling out his drink through his nose several times making these wacky compositions out of obscure sources.
Krivchenia insists boredom was never a factor in making Blood Karaoke. “I genuinely found it fascinating. You feel a bunch of emotions at once after watching these videos for a while. I think it was an extreme experience of this general feeling of how big the world is when you’re watching these moments. Like kids talking in different languages doing a videogame walkthrough someplace in the world, though you have no idea where exactly. You get this sense of, ‘God, there is so much,’ it’s weird to tap into this experience that’s happening; it’s humbling and heartfelt in a way, because you feel like, ‘Wow, I’m really small, there are so many different people on Earth.’ There’s something entertaining about it. I was kind of hooked and I felt that’s a feeling that would be cool to somehow translate into music.”
Or “finding the poetry contained within the chaos” as the press release for Blood Karaoke puts it eloquently. But did Krivchenia indeed find the poetry, or did he find only, well… chaos? “I think I did,” he chuckles. “ Blood Karaoke was kind of a weird record to make, because I was building it out of these a bunch of little points throughout the whole piece. I would just build a 30 second thing and then I find a cool transition to attach that to something else. I was slowly connecting things. It got bigger and bigger and more connected as it went on. I didn’t actually listen to the whole thing, because it wasn’t possible until towards the very end. Once I had this big chunk of music and figured out how to edit it down, it was very cool, because it became like this big reveal.”
The process of absorbing a ton of imagery and sound became like a shamanistic exercise in itself, a crude statue to be chiseled down to a logical arrangement. Making Blood Karaoke provided Krivchenia new insight in his own selective memory and listening instincts. Though most of the visuals dissolved once he sampled the video, their makeup did sometimes influence whether he found certain sounds interesting enough to salvage. “As time goes on you start to forget more and more,” he admits. “And maybe that’s just me forgetting stuff, but it does become less and less associative. And when you’re able to dive back into it, you have this new perspective that’s partly shedding your old perspective. But now I don’t remember [the videos] at all. There’s like hundreds and hundreds of samples, some accompanying some really weird videos. One I still remember was this recital filmed on a phone. The sound of the phone made it-well you couldn’t see a thing but the sound was incredible! As it was happening I wondered whether it was the phone that made it sound so weird. I remember stumbling on that and thinking wow, this is so cool, especially because it was this weird disembodied kind of performance.”
Self-deprecatingly confessing himself to be a “terrible archivist and labeller,” Krivchenia restlessly started sifting through all the sounds he had accumulated, leaning fully on his own intuition to guide the direction of the tracks. He concludes it’s actually not that different from the “spirit takes” he enjoys doing with Big Thief and other band-based projects. Working with plugins and digital interfaces already takes a sometimes taxing sequence of cerebral actions that dumb down the original eureka-phase, so to counter that, Krivchenia wanted a lot of sounds to maintain some of their original glow.
“One of the most powerful things a computer can do is edit,” he notes. “With live music that’s usually applied in a very detrimental way, perfecting shit and fixing stuff that doesn’t need to be fixed. And being way too micro about everything and just being way too heavy-handed with that tool. But I think it can be used in interesting ways. On this record I’m working with someone else on right now, we are trying to bring together the best of both worlds, though not even consciously. We basically do spirit takes: go crazy, play from your heart, do like three passes over this song. Then me and the artist will sculpt it in this really edited way-even in sort of a choppy way sometimes. It’s kind of a cool combo, because it has the spirit of the person actually playing, and the person listening to the music isn’t in the back of their head at all. And they’re not worried about making mistakes because they know they’re gonna fuck around with this anyway. We’d have done different takes to capture those wild reactive moments into an interesting performance.”
In both the physical space and the digital vacuum, Krivchenia seems eager to continue following that spark, and if Blood Karaoke proved one thing, the accumulation of mundane things can potentially coalesce into something both risky and fun. From the comforts of his musical chair no less, it satiated an immersion into worlds that previously felt remote, in all its wide-ranging chaotic splendor. Worlds Krivchenia may only be able to understand to a certain extent before being roadbound again. But worlds worth exploring nevertheless.
“Yeah, you always need to trust in effort and ambition,” he says. “But then on the other side you just need to also trust that it’s not gonna live up to that, which I think is good. A lot of you are going to come out in that process of pushing for something rather than leaning back. That’s how people have always done things with recording music. I mean, I read stories by Neil Young saying he was trying to make songs that sound like Chuck Berry. Obviously they didn’t, but something else came out of it and it comes from this weird mentality of just going for it. And if you’re really going for it and putting yourself in it, it’s going to naturally seep out of the music anyway.”
( Blood Karaoke is out now via Reading Group.)
Originally published at https://www.undertheradarmag.com on June 3, 2022.