Most of the world’s best bands would be exhilarated to release one album-of-the-year a year.
But then again, Big Thief aren’t most bands, and the hyper-prolific stretch that led to recording May’s “U.F.O.F.” back-to-back with “Two Hands” (out Oct. 11) came about so organically that its members come off surprisingly nonchalant about the hot streak.
“I guess it’s felt like a natural flow,” says Adrianne Lenker. The band’s lead singer and emotional center, she’s always writing. And when sessions in Topanga Canyon last year resulted in around 50 demos, Lenker knew Big Thief — comprising herself, drummer James Krivchenia, bassist Max Oleartchik, and guitarist Buck Meek, all Berklee grads who converged after graduation — had enough to fill two records.
What’s more, the songs “kind of separated themselves,” she recalls, making it easy to decide against one double-album.
Instead, Big Thief describe “U.F.O.F.” and “Two Hands” as twins: one “celestial,” the other earth (or “mud,” as Lenker says it was called mid-process). The secret to birthing them was hidden in two near-diametrically opposed environments.
To record the former, they absconded to the woods of Washington State for three weeks, surrounded by great pine trees and lush ferns.
With wet air in their lungs and the smell of home-cooked meals by Lenker’s relatives wafting over from nearby, Big Thief found themselves reaching into the cosmic realm, letting their indie-folk arrangements get spacier, more surreal. Recording “U.F.O.F.” was an intimate experience, and it hinged on a quiet comfort the band felt with the blooming wilderness outside their cabin.
“Two Hands” had to be different. After just a week’s rest, they flew to El Paso, setting up at a desert studio 30 miles west of the city. New to this parched landscape, Big Thief felt the songs they’d brought boil away in the 105-degree heat, leaving only dessicated bones behind.
“There’s tons of life there,” says Lenker. “But [plants] have to be tough to grow there, to push through the soil.”
It wasn’t an easy transition. Krivchenia recalls that it took a few days to adjust, mentally and musically.
“We would try different things, like getting really loud amplifiers or being in different rooms,” he says. “And we’d just listen and say, ‘This sounds so dumb,’ and [our engineer] would say, ‘I know. . .’ But we eventually had this moment of refocusing.”
Standing close to one another, stripping away most of their equipment, the album finally clicked into place. “When we were internally balancing ourselves, it was more exciting than trying to get these bombastic, raw sounds,” Krivchenia adds. “[We found] these closer, tighter sounds, that were even scarier because they were so exposed.”
And as Lenker had hoped, the harsh conditions forced them to dig further into their material.
Playing live with few overdubs, Big Thief emerged with some of their most elemental music to date. On songs like “The Toy” and “Cut My Hair” — longtime live staples — Lenker’s ethereal voice sounds especially lonely. Around her, the rest of Big Thief take turns using instruments to heighten the impact of her elliptical lyrics about inherited trauma and looming disaster.
“It’s like looking in a mirror that magnifies your whole face,” Lenker says of the album’s bare-bones quality. “You see all these flaws, and it’s a little harder to look at, but ultimately it’s very meaningful.”
Krivchenia helped to mix “Two Hands.” He moved fast, even hastily, to make the songs sound as abraded as they felt playing them. “All of it had to be exposed and not softened by the mix,” he explains. “We wanted edges poking out.”
On the raggedly electrifying “Not,” as Lenker uses negation to illuminate the world around her (“It’s not the open weaving/ Nor the furnace glow/ Nor the blood of you bleeding/ As you try to let go”), drums crash and guitars snarl into a three-minute solo.
“With that one, we played like our hair was on fire,” recalls Lenker. They’d performed “Not” live before, but getting the track right in the studio was so important that Big Thief later re-recorded it at LA’s Sound City.
“We found something between the four of us,” she says, calling the song their key to unlocking the rest of the record. “It was like we were riding in the wind. I don’t even remember at a certain point. We went somewhere.”