Big Thief's James Krivchenia on new LP Capacity

We speak to Big Thief's James Krivchenia about life on the road and their latest album, Capacity, ahead of their upcoming support slots with Conor Oberst

Feature by Chris Ogden | 09 Aug 2017

Big Thief have grown accustomed to being on the road. When we speak with James Krivchenia, drummer of the indie-folk quartet from Brooklyn, New York, the band are taking a pit stop in the middle of a long drive in the middle of a long tour.

For the bulk of the past few weeks Big Thief have been playing across the Midwest and the Canadian Prairies, as the band spend their summer attending festivals and squeezing tour dates in between. On the day we talk, they’re set to play in Omaha, Nebraska, home of their record label Saddle Creek, and will hang out with everyone associated with the label that night. Over the coming weeks the band are supporting big hitters like Belle and Sebastian and Wilco, sure to discover new fans along the way.

“The shows have been great,” Krivchenia says when we ask what he’s enjoying about the tour so far. “A lot of places have just had a really good energy in the crowd and people are really stoked to see us. It’s revitalising to show up to a place when we’ll be really tired from a drive and people are genuinely pumped and want something to happen.”

The band’s travels aren't limited to North America either. Big Thief played a short UK tour earlier this year, and are back this month for a string of dates which will be followed by further touring in the States, before they return to Europe again for a round of headline shows in October and November. It must be a pretty draining experience? “This is kind of just like the norm now,” Krivchenia replies, laughing. “We’ve been touring pretty non-stop for a couple of years now so we’re getting pretty good at it at this point!”

The building interest in Big Thief comes on the back of their latest record Capacity, their gentle yet captivating second LP which was recorded at Outlier Inn in upstate New York in the depths of winter. With Krivchenia born in Minnesota and the group’s lead songwriter Adrianne Lenker also growing up in the North Star State, the studio’s location in Woodridge was a familiar environment to the band – cold and snowy with nothing to do outside – yet a stark comparison to New York City where the four now live. “There was this really intense focus on working on the record and there wasn’t anything to do around town or anything besides go[ing] for walks and stuff,” Krivchenia explains. “We were definitely very focused.”

The getaway gave Capacity a more concentrated yet relaxed recording process than its predecessor, Big Thief’s debut record Masterpiece, released just last year. The band had a general idea of how they wanted Capacity to sound, but they didn’t work on the record prior to arriving in the studio. On the first day at Outlier Inn, Lenker brought her bandmates songs she had in mind as potentials for the record, as many as 22 or 23, which they eventually whittled down. Each day the band recorded a few of these, planning the arrangement before putting the song to tape. Lenker may have even written a few songs on Capacity at the studio, although Krivchenia can’t remember if any of these ended up on the record. 

“[Lenker]’s friggin' cray-… She’s a prolific writer,” Krivchenia says, checking his enthusiasm. “She’s always writing and so there’s so much material she has. She just sends the songs over text and we talk about it and then when we show up we actually flesh out the idea.”

Given the quiet intensity of the songs on Capacity, we can’t help but imagine that the band playing them together for the first time in the studio must have affected the atmosphere substantially. For some of them, it must have been quite an emotional experience. “Yeah, it was cool,” Krivchenia replies. “It was nice to not have the baggage of comparing something to what it feels like live or how good it can be live, because that can often happen in the studio. [When you] get a song that really feels good live and people connect to, and then you try to do that in the studio, oftentimes it doesn’t really translate the same way because it’s just a different process. It’s cool to not have anything to compare to, just trying to make it as good as it can be in that moment.”

Capacity is far more than just 'good'; it's an elegant and affecting record which has been met by much critical acclaim. Starting with the lingering acoustic ballad Pretty Things, which Lenker plays alone with unsettling rumbles in the background, Capacity quickly brings the rest of Big Thief in for Shark Smile’s harrowing highway blues and the clanging celebration of the title track. Krivchenia praises the hands-on work of producer Andrew Sarlo for aiding the flow of the record, as he encouraged the band to start recording or keep working on certain tracks, preventing them from getting bogged down by one song for too long with so many to record.

Krivchenia says that there were already songs that he saw as contenders for Capacity before the band started to record, but there were others that surprised him as they came together, like the album’s soothing guitar closer Black Diamonds. The track was very different at the demo stage – written by Lenker on piano and one of the songs recorded at Outlier Inn. However, after sitting on it for a week the band thought it could be better, worried they were adhering too closely to the demo. They subsequently rented a night of studio time in NYC to tinker with it and the song has now become one of his favourites on the record.

“My personal comparison is always just like, ‘Is the band version better, or does it do something different than the solo version?’” Krivchenia explains. “If it’s not really better, and if it’s not really doing anything different, then I’d rather just hear Adrianne play it solo because that’s usually pretty powerful.”

The best case for the power of Big Thief as a quartet is Capacity’s centrepiece Mythological Beauty, a hypnotic and raw song which Krivchenia says was an obvious contender for the record from the off. With Krivchenia’s soft, crisp drums setting the pace for Max Oleartchik’s propulsive bass groove, Buck Meek’s swelling guitar work only makes Lenker’s gentle picking and tender reflections on parenthood and mortality more touching.

“I thought a lot about that one,” Krivchenia confirms. “It wasn’t a groove that necessarily presented itself to me super clearly in the beginning, when I was just listening to Adrianne playing it on guitar. In my head I was like, ‘Ah man, it can’t be like half-time…’ I wanted to keep the drivingness of it. That beat came from me trying to just be really simple and honour some of the original groove that was in Adrianne’s fingers [on] the guitar.”

The first chance people in the UK will have to see Big Thief since Capacity’s release will be when they support Conor Oberst at his London, Liverpool and Glasgow shows this month. Krivchenia listened to the indie-folk idol as a teenager – his favourite Bright Eyes record was 2000’s frenetic Fevers and Mirrors – and he expresses his admiration for how Oberst is continuing to evolve alongside other artists. “We [aren’t] really thinking about Conor at all when we’re making our music now but we definitely have a lot of respect for his conjuring,” he says respectfully. “He’s a master conjurer – a teenage conjurer. He taps into something, for sure.”

Krivchenia had never been to Europe before Big Thief started touring, so all the cities the band visit are new discoveries to him. He’s most enjoyed playing Glasgow where the shows have been great, but is keen on visiting more cities now the band are travelling to Europe so much, starting with their headlining tour. 

“I want to go to Wales more because my grandma is from Wales,” he says, enthusiastically. “We drove through Wales playing a festival [on] our first tour; it was just amazingly beautiful and there were castles like every half an hour! I don’t think we’re going to hit any of it in October/November but I really want to do an Eastern European tour and see a lot of those cities and travel around there. It seems like we’re going to be going back [to Europe] at least a couple of times a year so I’m stoked about that.”

We've already been momentarily interrupted as Krivchenia climbed in the car, with he and Lenker doing interviews at the same time, but it seems our time is up. “They’re kind of ready to go,” he says, trailing off. So we leave Big Thief to get back on the road, with four more hours to go before Omaha. We imagine that with Capacity there'll be many more places yet to come.

Capacity is out now
Big Thief play Doune the Rabbit Hole, Cardross Estate, Stirlingshire, 18-20 Aug. They also support Conor Oberst at the O2 ABC, Glasgow, 22 Aug