Interview: Buck 65
Published on July 27th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Earlier this year, Canadian MC/turntablist Buck 65 drew a line under two decades’ worth of dazzlingly inventive music-making by releasing 20 Odd Years, an album as inspired and eclectic – and occasionally beautiful – as you’d like from an artist who’s always made genre-mashing sound so natural.
A highly active Tweeter and releaser of music online (ah, the old Tweet ‘n’ treat!), Buck – real name Richard Terfry – also hosts the weekday Radio 2 Drive show on CBC Radio 2 and is as eloquent, witty and insightful online and on air as he is in his relentless, joyous rhyming schemes. Rocksucker caught up with Buck to discuss, amongst other things, the creative freedom bestowed unto him by his label Warner, a guest vocalist giving birth shortly after recording and the whereabouts of a certain Uncle Climax…
Congratulations on twenty highly fruitful years making music. Do you think you’d have lasted this long if you’d broken into the mainstream at an early age? Was widespread acceptance ever a goal of yours?
I’d probably still be here if I’d gotten a break early on, but I’d probably either be totally forgotten now, or would have come back down to where I am now. Where I am now is where I’m meant to be.I like to imagine it’s obvious, but big mainstream success was never a goal of mine. When I signed my record deal, I was playing shows to between 500 and 1,000 people on average (in Canada and parts of the U.S.). When it came time to attempt to expand that audience, I decided to focus on finding 500 to 1,000 people in more and more cities, rather than trying to play to more and more people in the cities where I had already built something. I knew I’d never play in arenas or be on the cover of magazines or sell millions of records. So rather than trying to build upwards, I’ve concerned myself with casting my nets as wide as possible. It seems to be working. I’m quite happy with my career.
The Flaming Lips said that they were able to make their Zaireeka album (which came on four separate CDs, all to be played at the same time) because Warner basically left them to their devices while focusing on bigger name artists. Do you think that being a small fish in a big pond – at least in terms of profile – has allowed you to get away with more wickedness and weirdness than a smaller label who might have regarded you as a flagship signing? For instance, did Warner have any reservations about Square (Buck’s 2003 album, consisting of just four tracks, each containing multiple songs)?
Warner has never batted an eyelash at anything I’ve given them. I signed a deal with V2 before they folded in the US a few years back. They were a much smaller label, but they messed with me a lot more. I had less freedom there. So being a small fish has worked for me, I suppose. I need to be able to do what I do. Warner has always understood that. I was already quite successful when I signed with them. I like to experiment and mess with things, but for the things that matter to me most artistically, I’m totally uncompromising.
Did Marie-Pierre Arthur really have a baby a few hours after recording her vocals on “Final Approach”? Had she appeared to be in any discomfort during the recording?
Yeah, the baby came very quickly after recording the song. She didn’t seem uncomfortable. In fact, there was something kinda beautiful and exciting about the whole thing. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think what was happening with her came through in the song. It gave her performance a real energy – a joy.
How much of an undertaking was “Gee Whiz”? Do you know of anyone else who’s done that kind of thing with a turntable before or since?
My friend Buddy Peace – an extremely talented DJ from London – put that part together. It blew my head off. I had never heard anything like that before and I haven’t heard anything like it since. Rather than a scratch solo, it’s a verse! It’s crazy!
The video for “Zombie Delight” takes the lyrics very much at face value. Who are the real zombies? Or is it in fact just a song about zombies?
There are a lot of ways that song can be sliced. But before any of the metaphors began to emerge, the initial inspiration for the song was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. I wrote the song the day he died. My strongest memories of him – when I was at the peak of my fandom – are of the “Thriller” video. I was obsessed. So that’s just what came out. My video was very fun to make. We had no budget to work with, but pulled off something pretty good, I think.
Do you have an idea yet of what direction your next album might take?
I have a few notes scribbled down in a Moleskine about the next album. But it’s hard to say what it might sound like quite yet. I’m only just beginning to see it. One idea I’ve been flirting with is allowing only two or three instruments in the studio. I like the idea of forcing limitations on myself. Most of my albums cover a lot of musical ground. So I think it might be interesting to make one with a strong single identity. We’ll see. I also thought of picking two genres and mashing them together. Like, making a post-punk/cowboy songs record or something.
Can you see it ever getting to the stage where it would make sense for you to release music independently of any record label?
I absolutely see a time when I’ll be doing things completely independently. And arguably, I’ve been doing that all along. It’s as if I maintained an independent career that has run parallel to my major label one. I’m thinking about projects like Dirtbike, for example. Or the Unhip EP. I put a lot of music on the internet.
Who or what would you regard as the biggest influences on your lyrics? Literature, other rappers/musicians, or is it simply a regurgitation of the world and culture around you (as appears to be the case on “Superstars Don’t Love”)?
To be honest, and for as pretentious as this might sound, I think art theory has been the biggest influence. Dadaism, in particular. Various off-shoots of Surrealism. I was once asked by a customs officer what kind of music I make. I told him “sub-realist”. I was detained for twenty-four hours.
Ha ha. I’ve said before that I’d be up for collaborating with anyone under the sun, but I might have to draw the line there. I find that situation to be very painful.
You mentioned that your set in Boston the other night was cut short due to curfew so you finished it in the street, “attracting the police and homeless”. Were you performing a cappella? What did the police have to say about it?
Yeah, I was performing acapella. At one point a guy started beat boxing. And there was a guy with a guitar, but I think he was too shy to jump in. The police seemed concerned with the mob of people on the street more than anything else. It was a side street, but we pretty much blocked it off. So I guess there were safety concerns. But the police were being a bit overly concerned, I think. It was 1am. No traffic. But before we wrapped it up, they seemed ready to start cracking some skulls. I told the people we should move on, even though we were having a good time because I’ve had some very bad experience with police in the past. So I get a little paranoid, I suppose.
Does your appearance on Sesame Street (“The Grocery Store Rap”?) still exist anywhere? It doesn’t appear to be on YouTube. Would you care to treat us to any of the lyrics?
Yeah, that clip seems to be very hard to find. I have a VHS copy of it. Maybe I’ll figure out how to upload it one of these days. But I think Sesame Street is very protective of their content. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it. I don’t know if I can remember the lyrics. I recall there being a funny line about “meat”.
Will we ever see the return of Uncle Climax or Jesus Murphy? Without doubt two of the finest nom de plumes of all time!
Thank you! I’m quite proud of Uncle Climax, I must say. If I’ve ever come up with something resembling genius, it might be that name. Uncle Climax was always my sexual persona. And I still dabble here and there. There are a few good sex rhymes on Dirtbike. So the dirty uncle still creeps around…
Are there any up-and-coming artists you’d like to give a shout out to?
Up and comers? Hmm… I wish I could. I feel like I haven’t had my socks knocked off in a long time. And I really want them to be knocked off! If I hear anything, I’ll let you know…
Could you name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
Albums is hard. Funny enough, I find it easy to name my favorite song of all-time: “Trans-Europe Express” by Kraftwerk. No problem. Easy. Albums? Probably Pink Flag by Wire, Yo! Bum Rush The Show by Public Enemy and Heart Of The Congos by The Congos. But it would be a different three if you asked me tomorrow. It’s hard not to include Master Of Reality by Sabbath. Or a Townes Van Zandt record. Or This Heat’s first album. Ugh. Stop me.
20 Odd Years is out now on Warner. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit buck65.com