Music Heals: Peter Buck on His New Project Arthur Buck, Addiction, and Recovery

Interviews, Music Heals, Local Music
Owen Murphy
photo by Matthew B. Thompson

As a founding member of R.E.M., songwriter and guitarist in numerous bands including Filthy Friends, The Baseball Project and more, Peter Buck is also one of the most prolific artists of his generation, both as a producer and songwriter, having steward artists like The Jayhawks, Eyelids, and more in the recording studio.

Now with his latest musical adventure with longtime pal Joseph Arthur, calling themselves Arthur Buck, Buck finds himself pursuing a muse that both looks back and ahead simultaneously. He was kind enough to make his way to KEXP in Seattle to share insight about the new album (out June 15 on New West Records) and discusses his experiences with addiction and recovery for KEXP's Music Heals series.

KEXP: Tell me about working with Joseph Arthur. What do you think makes him a great artist and an artist that kind of turns you on musically?

Peter Buck: Joe's kind of like an action painter. He creates really in the moment, which I tend to want to do myself. As a songwriter, I think our strengths complement each other because he's very... you know, if he writes the song has 13 verses and one chorus, that's the song. I'm kind of focused on form and structure in a way. I want an intro, I want a bridge, I want an outro, double chorus here, a guitar riff. So kind of combining us together really kind of put a focus on the material.

So how has that changed [your process]? You're recording with a band now. How is it different or is it?

It's not really that different. The only thing that's different is that we did the record to sequence drums. Joe's a really good drum programmer and so it was actually kind of funky stuff, but then drums were put on over on top of it or alongside. Now that we are playing as a band – we've been rehearsing for the last week – we have new songs that... you know, the show and the next record are gonna be more band-oriented but that doesn't mean we are going to abandon the drum feel or some of the sequence stuff.

Is there a sound or songs or a feel on the record that you want to spotlight as being something unique and new and exciting from your perspective?

The song "American Century" is not... if it had just been me and my solo record, it would have been four or five people in the room playing really loud with me shouting over the top and it would have been kind of on the more chaotic punky or side of rock and roll. But putting it together – and we recorded it in two minutes sitting by a pool in Mexico. Joe had the drum machine up I put the electric guitar down. We have a studio that is the size of a briefcase. The drum loops and the sequenced stuff puts it in a whole different world. That kind of world where you start thinking about Prince or some the David Bowie records.

So you say it puts you in a different world in terms of the type of music you can make?

Yeah, it's just different. There tends to be more space when you're using a drum machine, I don't know why that is. If I had recorded it, then it would have been a pretty noisy chaotic mess. Maybe the same structure, but there'll be more of that kind of band interplay. As it stands, all the music is me and Joe. And I believe he put drums on top of it.

You've produced a number of records, [Joseph Arthur] produced this one, correct?

I don't know if it was produced. It was done and he did a lot of the stuff recording it. It was mixed by Chad Blake and a lot of what Chad does as a mixer I would think of his production. He'll loop things to make parts longer, he'll edit parts out, he'll have instruments drop out in a place that I might not have had him drop out. It's like having another collaborator, it was really great.

So how does that work? You've put your heart and soul into something. I'm assuming. and he's saying 'I like this' or 'I don't like this.' Is there a tension there? A good creative tension?

When I was younger I wouldn't have allowed anyone to do it. But I believe in collaboration and his mixes are collaborative. We give him something and he turns it into something similar but different.

You'll be playing in Seattle in September. What will the shows be like?

Well, we've been rehearsing. It's Scott McCaughey on bass, Linda Pitmon on drums, Gregg Foreman on keyboards, Joe and I on guitar. It'll be a bit more band-oriented, but I think we're gonna be using drum loops. We're not going to be playing to a drum track, but we'll have some sequenced stuff going on – which I've never done onstage. But it sounds good. It's been really fun. We've just been rehearsing.

All originals?

I like doing other people's songs. My guess is we'll probably do one or two, but no decisions have been made.

No thoughts as to what you'd like to cover?

I mean, I like a million different songs and you know it just depends if someone starts playing it that day.

So I told you earlier we're doing a special on addiction and recovery and destigmatization. Generally, overall, my understanding is you're sober. And I don't know I say these things and I'm kind of uncomfortable having a conversation, but it's important I think for our community to have the conversation and to destigmatize these things. Where are you at? How do you feel now being sober? What's life like?

I hate that word "sober." Sober as a judge. I decided that I was in a place in my life where I needed to focus on the things that were really important and any substance wasn't important to me. I think the things you think you can handle when you're younger change. I'm not 25 anymore. I kind of looked around and decided. "Well, what is important in my life?" And alcohol and drugs or whatever weren't on the list. It's family, friends, music. That's it. That's all I really do. And that's all I really want to do.

If someone who had an issue with addiction asked you for advice, what would you say to them?

Generally, if you're thinking you have a problem, you probably have a problem. And listen to your friends. Your friends will tell you. You may not want to hear it. I think that's pretty much everyone's inclination is to not listen. But pay attention to yourself and think about if your life is becoming more difficult because of what you're doing.

Who was there for you with the strongest advice or push and what did they say to you?

I made a decision and I have a lot of great friends. I just... I decide what I want to do and then I do it. And that was a decision and it wasn't the main decision maybe I'd made in even the last years. It was just a decision.

How did your life change?

I'm thinking about a lot of different stuff and it's not just alcohol or whatever. I reached a stage in my life where I wanted to try to focus more on positive things and things that have real meaning to me. I'm at the age where I don't know how many years I have left. I mean, people my age drop dead all the time. I want my last years to be meaningful. I want to do music that's really important. I want to keep my friends and family close. Knowing that you never know what you've got coming in the future.

Is there a song that you've written since you've been...

...focused. I like to think of myself as focused.

Thank you. Is there a song that you've written that you think you couldn't have written previously that you're really proud of?

No, not really. I mean, I'm a songwriter. I could do it blackout drunk. But it's better not to be, I would guess. I would say that the Arthur Buck record, a lot of that is Joe as a lyricist coming to terms with certain things in life. It's a very kind of searching, positive record. I think that both of us have been through things in our life where you kind of realize, "A lot of people might think that we've gone down a dead end, but this an excuse to start over or a chance to be a different person or more the person you'd like to be near the end of your life."

So you'd say there's hope?

I do believe in hope. Everyone talks about denial, but it used to be called hope. Hope's a good thing. That's kind of where I'm aiming and it's not natural to me to be... I'm kind of a cynic. I mean, Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, I've seen it all. But I tend to think that people are more good than bad. I tend to think that life doesn't have to fall apart, that you don't have to be disappointed in life, and you don't have to be on your deathbed and look back and wish that you'd done something different. That you can make those changes, whatever they are, and it doesn't have to do really with alcohol or drugs or anything. I don't want to see the end and think, "Gosh, I wish I had..." I mean, no one ever says, "I wish I drank a whole lot more and watched more television." They want to spend more time with their family, or "I wish I'd made that record." Since R.E.M. ended, I think I've made like 10 records where I've written the songs, co-produced, and that's an ongoing thing. This is what I do. It's nice to have something in your life that is of importance outside of relationships and stuff.

What fuels you to make music?

Unfortunately, I tend to think that you're only as good as your last song. It's great that I have records that have touched people and that's a wonderful thing. And I made a living at it and that there's history that I'm really proud of, but if I don't make a great record this year then I don't make a great record this year. So I'm really working towards that.

Why does music matter to you?

Music mattered to me before I knew what music really even was. It's just something that's been in my life and it's been a force for real positivity. I have no idea what would've happened if I hadn't done this. Maybe life wouldn't be so hopeful. Every now and again I'll be writing something and I'll just think, "Gah, who cares really?" But it's what I do. It's what I've been doing since I was 14 and it's just way too late to kind of stop. Maybe I'm too dumb to stop, but I'm not going to.

Is there an R.E.M. guitar riff that you still think is really interesting or spectacular that you really love?

If I think back at all, I generally think of say the first record, Murmur, because that was kind of my dream. You want to make a record. The fact that we made Murmur... and it's a cool record. It doesn't sound like anything else that came out that year and it's a pretty full-fledged, real album. I look back at that and think, "That was pretty good for a bunch of guys that were in their really early 20s."

What do you think made you guys so good? Four people coming together and make something unique, I mean significantly unique and special.

Peter Buck: I think [with] all bands, the attempt is to merge all these different influences and then come up with something of yourself. And I like to think we did that but I think of all the bands that I love and it's the same thing. I really believe in collaborating. I did three solo records and I was in charge. Wrote the lyrics, sang 'em, you know. And it was cool, I'm glad I did it. But I much prefer working with people that will bring in ideas [and] teach me something. It's a way for me to learn things.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), Crisis Clinic (1-866-789-1511), or the Washington Recovery Helpline (a program of the Crisis Clinic) . You can find additional resources here. You are not alone.

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