Q&A with Buck 65
Eryc Eyl’s November 22 profile on Buck 65 was based on the following interview with the high-profile indie rapper. In it, Buck 65, also known as Rich Terfry, discusses -- with very little prompting -- his love for Colorado, his new disc, Situation, and his intensely personal artistic process.
Westword (Eryc Eyl): So you mentioned in your voicemail that that the Boulder/Denver area has become like a second home to you. Can you tell me more about that?
Essentially what it comes down to is that the love of my life comes from Boulder and lives in Denver, and so, that being the case, I’ve been spending a lot of time down there when I’m free and not on the road. That’s pretty much where I am, so I’m coming to know the area quite well. It’s almost becoming a home for me, and it’s a special place for me. It’s where I’ll be spending my holidays this year, and I’m there whenever I can be. I actually made special arrangements for this tour, so that when I’m passing through the area, there are some extra days off, just so I can hang out, see the extended family, as it were, and it’s just a place where I want to be. I’ve got one day off before and two days off after the show, and it’s almost like a mini-vacation.
So you find yourself in love with this woman and with Colorado. How does this affect your work?
I find myself pondering all those big ideas and finding the love of your life has a way of giving your life real meaning. It gives us pause. It’s the one real miracle that you can have happen in your life, if you’re lucky. It affects how I look at everything. Ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, I never would have imagined the love of my life would be from Colorado, but it’s true. The world is a small place and you never know where these things are gonna take you. There’s so much about the area that feels right to me and feels familiar and there are these spiritual links. I recently made an excursion to the town of Ward, which is just amazing. I took hundreds of photos. I grew up on Mt. Uniacke, so I’m kind of a mountain man myself. It’s absolutely beautiful.
It sounds like you’re working hard on the balance between work and life.
In a lot of ways, it’s been really important for me for a long time, but in this particular situation, it’s more important than ever to strike a really healthy balance between my own personal life and my career. One affects the other very strongly -- I’m more aware of that now than I ever have been -- so I can’t downplay the importance of the role of all that, but I can’t let this career and the lifestyle that goes along with it make me insane and ruin other important things in my life. It can happen really easily.
This way of life can be a real monster and it can take over. It’s really easy to allow this to be a 24/7/365 job and task, and it has a way of squeezing the life out of you and any semblance of a real life out altogether. It’s a job with a lot of challenges, the way the business is changing, but that’s the biggest one. How can I make this work, find the balance and stay happy? I have to maintain a certain level of joy for myself. It requires real diligence. You have to put in extra effort. You have to plan all the more, and be really good about staking out time and place for yourself. In some cases, I’ve learned that the hard way. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn. I’m glad at this point that I’ve figured it out now. Finding this little oasis of sanity in the middle of all that is an opportunity to fully recharge and have a time to be the strongest person that I can be. That’s where my happiness is.
Everything about this person that I’m sharing my life with and her family is really important. There are few things I look forward to more. I really struggle sometimes with the word “luck,” but I’m lucky with this for all sorts of reasons. To find this whole thing that’s working so well has created an amazingly fulfilling life and just that I’ve been able to figure it out the way I have.
Do you think you would have handled all this differently when you started out in the early ‘90s?
To be honest with you, although I definitely started doing this when I was young, I didn’t sign a record deal until I was pretty close to thirty-years-old, and I think that was a real benefit for me. If you sign a record deal and the world is yours for the devouring as a seventeen, nineteen, 21-year-old kid, that can be really dangerous. I’ve seen people’s lives really destroyed or shortened. I was lucky enough to have my head screwed on straight before this happened, and it’s given me a lot of clarity and time to get my priorities together. My humility is still intact.
For as long and as hard as it’s been, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve always been a believer in real experience and paying dues or whatever you want to call it, but it’s basically amounted to, by having things go slow and having learned through experience, but also by being completely uncompromising -- which is why it’s gone so slow -- is that I’m doing things one-hundred percent on my terms now. I’m pretty much calling the shots at this point. There aren’t too many people who have the kind of career I have right now and the relationships I have with my label, agents, and everyone.
A lot of mainstream hiphop -- and underground hiphop -- can be very myopic, focused only on its world and its time in history, but your raps reach well beyond your immediate sphere of experience. I’m sure you didn’t start out this way. How did you come to this approach?
I remember when I first started out, I really thought that I was making really normal hip-hop that could stand side by side with records coming out of New York, and I got this response that what you’re doing is really weird. I think it just has to do with being a curious person, someone who reads a lot of books. I like to look at things and appreciate what’s there, but I also like to ask questions about what isn’t there. We don’t stop to consider why rules exist because they’re so ingrained. I’m always the kind of person to say, “Oh yeah? You can’t do that? Watch this.”
Not having raw musical ability, I just have these ideas and these challenges, to varying degrees of success. Some of these ideas and attempts have gotten very little notice, but it says something about the myopic nature of the world. It’s been a common thing that I’ve gotten used to that my presence or some of my individual ideas have gotten rejected or people have chosen not to take a close look. They’ll say, “That’s different, I don’t like it.” The tendency is to run away from things we don’t understand, and I get that, but it hasn’t deterred me.
Maybe I get it from my father or grandfather, who were just weirdos. It was inspiring for me as a kid when I heard that first De La Soul record which just blew my mind the way they’d combine samples from James Brown and Johnny Cash, and I thought, “Why not?” I grew up with folk and country music, so that’s part of the source for me. You find out that that seems like some kind of rebellious thing to do.
The first words on your new album refer to Allen Ginsberg, another person with close ties to Denver and Boulder. Do you see connections between what you do and what Beats like Ginsberg did?
It’s an idea that I’ve encountered a lot and people have tried to draw the parallels. Some of the philosophies are interesting to me. I’m probably more a fan of Burroughs than the rest of them. What’s more interesting is the impact that they had, that is was so shocking to so many people, and it was an idea that was so new. You know, there was this movement, and it was new, and it was dangerous, and it’s inspiring and exciting. We like the ideas and we got them then.
Someone might come along with an idea or a piece of art that’s so shocking and so new that it’s going to change the world. We want those things so bad, and they almost never live up to those things. I don’t think we’ve seen a figure like Elvis since Elvis. This is just a way of thinking we learned fifty years ago that we haven’t forgotten because it was so ground-breaking. It’s amazing that with words, with books, that they created an impact like that.
The personal side of this, the connection I feel with that area – and saying this probably won’t come as a surprise – but there’s been a strong cultural exchange between Boulder and Halifax with the whole Buddhist community. Half – more than half – of my friends growing up in Halifax were spending time in Boulder. Halifax is a major center for Shambhala Buddhism, so there has been this sort of tunnel between the two towns, and there was already an interesting connection and sense of awareness for me. There was a major event that took place in Halifax when I was younger, and Allen Ginsberg was there and different friends of mine have stories about him and their personal encounters.
As a whole, the new record seems to highlight how little has really changed since 1957 and also highlights the dark side of a time that has been mythologized as a Golden Age. Would you agree?
That’s why I chose to do it. I didn’t want to create this document as an artifact. What made it interesting was comparing exactly fifty years ago. The more I started to look at it, the more I started to see these parallels. One of the things that was going on was the Cold War, which was just getting started. Underneath the comfort and everything else people were enjoying, there was this vague undercurrent of fear of attack from a mysterious foreign enemy, that we were just seeing as evil and plotting against us.
How is that different from the atmosphere we’re living in now and living in fear of being attacked? It’s the exact same thing. We can see the ‘50s as being a conservative, puritanical time, but look at the rise of religion and evangelism and how strong that’s getting and we’re in pretty conservative times all over again. If the conservative times in the ‘50s necessitated this explosion of ideas, art, rebellion, are we primed for that again?
Furthermore, is it possible, with Pandora’s box already opened, that we have made it impossible for that to happen? I was thinking about seeds that were planted fifty years ago that we’re just harvesting right now. For example, there’s reference on the record to the Great Leap Forward in China, and now we look at what an increasingly powerful role China is playing in the world. They’re becoming this powerhouse, and it started with Chairman Mao. China has become this industrial powerhouse and becoming strong in another way.
So Situation is really as much about today as it is about 1957?
It was meant to be a mirror to show how what was being done in that era took a while to come to fruition. The events of ‘57 are still unfolding. Some of it will only come to bear in the years to come. We tend not to think about these things too much. There’s so much focus on the right now and the immediate and not a lot about consequences and legacies. Hopefully, if people look back, they’ll also look forward and ask, “How are my decisions going to affect things 50 years from now?”
Some of the prevailing concerns of the ‘50s -- like Bettie Page, obscenity trials, the Cold War, seem almost quaint and insignificant today. What does that say about the hot-button issues of today?
I was also thinking about the loss of innocence. A lot of the events and the walls being torn down were necessary. In January 6 of that year, Elvis Presley was on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they’d only film him from the waist down. Maybe it was necessary, but I have to wonder, what’s left when all the walls are torn down, and when everything is at our fingertips with the Internet, and when nothing shocks us anymore, and there’s no more mystery, and our sense of wonder is used up because the answer to everything is right there? What’s left? What effects is that going to have on us as we evolve?
I don’t want to live in a world without wonder or without magic. I don’t want to have all my own innocence lost. These things mean a lot to me and I think they’re essential to us. When you think about nostalgia and romance and love, what happens to us when the mystery of that is gone? I think it’s vital to me and vital to us, and it’s what separates us from the other animals. The pursuit of knowledge and experience is important, but what’s left when all the walls have been torn down? At that time in the ‘50s, people were scared shitless, but it was also exciting for a lot of people.
The formation of a youth rebellion culture then is now the focus of all marketing. So now what? That was the real emotional starting point for this record for me. I just wanted these sorts of dialogues to happen. It wasn’t about creating the answers. It’s food for thought and I love it. That’s how I want to engage with people.
There’s a decidedly cinematic quality to your raps. Does film influence your work?
I get a lot of inspiration from film. I think I learn more from it than from other sorts of music. I watch tons and tons of films. As a matter of fact, when I’m in Denver, I go to school with my girlfriend, and I attend classes with her, and she’s actually taking a couple of film classes. I’m sure that will benefit my music. The idea of creating a strong sense of atmosphere is really important to me. That’s where you get emotional complexity. I’m not interested in making one-dimensional art or music. I want to operate on a deeper level, should someone choose to look deeper. It’s not necessary. I don’t want to force it. I want people to enjoy it without thinking about it, but if they choose to look deeper, I want that to be rewarded. For better or worse, I think about everything a lot.
Are there particular filmmakers or directors who inspire your work?
A real strong one for me lately has been a French director named Robert Bresson. His stuff really touches me in a strong way. Mouchette was incredibly powerful. I also recently watched Au hazard Balthazar, about a donkey. I’m also a big time fan of David Lynch, Godard and Alejandro Jodorowsky. You’re talking to a guy with a list of 200 favorite films on his website right now, so I could go on and on. One of the classes I’ve been attending is a film noir class, and I’ve always been interested in that whole world. I’ve seen some truly great films, like Detour or Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. It’s incredible that one of the toughest films in the genre was made by a woman.
As a writer and musician, what do you do with the things you learn from films?
I’ve learned from film which details to leave out, to let the listener fill in the blanks. If everything is spelled out, then what’s the point in listening again when there’s no new questions left to be answered? That’s important to me for a variety of reasons, some of which are political. For me, it’s been more interesting to paint the picture the way I see it and allow people to come to their own conclusions -- give people the chance to think, and never underestimate anyone’s intelligence or their heart.
Considering the intellectual nature of your work, it’s interesting to hear you ascribe as much importance to intelligence as heart.
I like to think that I’m an intellectual guy. I wasn’t born with any particular musical gifts, so my approach is going to be a little more mental. But I’m also driven by my heart. I’m an emotional person. I’ve argued in almost a joking way with my girlfriend that I’m the woman in the relationship. I’m going to allow myself to feel and never suppose that no one else is going to be able to feel the same way. That’s the belief I have to fall back on.
With fame and money not being a huge concern for me, what else do I have left other than a faith in my audience? That’s been job one. Lo and behold, it’s working, even though it felt like a leap of faith in the beginning. It feels really good that it means something to people. That’s satisfying more than getting a few bucks or seeing my photograph plastered all over the place.
When you start wearing your existentialist hat -- which I haven’t even figured out how to remove -- you start looking at what kind of contribution you want to make. There’s a responsibility, even with this job, that I wrestle with. What am I doing? I’m a musician. I’m not a doctor. I’m not saving lives or building roads -- and when you hear from a person that it really means something or helps them, it makes you breathe a little easier. I must be doing something right here.
That sounds noble, but I’m sure you wouldn’t mind making a good living in the process.
Having said everything I just said, I have all the same problems and stresses with money that everyone else has. I think we have this expectation for artists to be martyrs, for the art to kill you, but I’m not ready to die just now. I’m at a point in my life where I’m starting to think about having a family. I don’t want to be this drifter all my life. We’re really in need of a whole new business model, because the one we’ve got is dry now.
What’s the biggest challenge you see the music industry facing today?
One reality is that it’s really affecting the touring side of things as well. It’s easy to say you can count on touring, but what’s happening is that the music industry being in the toilet, it’s forced every working band out on the road. Speaking about it in purely practical terms, as my agent was putting this tour together, in some parts of the country, it was impossible to find a room in which to play because there are more bands out there on the road than at any time in history.
In some cases, we have three or four nights off because there weren’t rooms. And the music fans have to choose among three or four great shows in their towns every night. The competition is too much and to try to get an edge on that is hard. You have to hope that your ticket will go on sale first because there’s gonna be other great stuff going on that night. Touring is no longer the reliable fall back plan. What are we gonna do? Is being a musician even a job?
Are you able to make it yourself as a full-time musician?
I just picked up a regular job for the first time in seven years. I actually put out a call on my website. I said, I love what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep doing it -- it’s an instinct for me -- but I’ve got to get the rent paid, and I need a job. I got an incredible response -- half of the people were really upset that I wasn’t being a martyr, and the other half was people offering me work -- everything from manual labor to office work, but I actually took a radio job. I can go in, prerecord a bunch of hosting and stuff like that and do that between trips. It’s just about perfect.
I love radio and have had experience in the past, but it’s also a paycheck. I started doing a college radio show around 1989 and did it for about eleven years. That’s where I got a lot of my music education, and I love it. I prefer to listen to a baseball game on the radio than to watch it on the TV. It’s a real dream job. When all is said and done, I imagine myself just being an old guy on the radio, playing records and telling stories.
What do you see as the main differences between the Buck 65 of today and the Buck 65 who first emerged almost ten years ago?
A lot of things have definitely stayed the same, especially with the priorities I’ve had. Maintaining some kind of real life has always been really important to me. It was always a worry to me that if I gave up too much of myself, I wouldn’t have anything left to write about, and I didn’t always do a good job of protecting that. Through some hard trials, I’ve learned about the music business and becoming a business man -- managing my own money, understanding the ropes.
There’s been a lot of things that have been hard to swallow at times. Like anyone, I think I’ve matured personally, but definitely musically and as a writer. With some of that earlier material, I was really insecure. I was in the middle of something of an identity crisis, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was a rural white guy from Canada and all these other factors and finding myself weirdly in the hip-hop world. I just didn’t know what to do, and I’m trying to fit in and not stick out too much, weirdly enough.
It seemed like a bad thing at the time to stand out. My priority there is the exact opposite now. At the time, I wanted to find a place for myself and be this rapper. I listen to some of that old material and it’s quite uncomfortable because I’m listening to the voice of a really insecure person, someone with something to hide. That’s always been the case with any sort of art or music for me. When I’m taking a look and I get the sense that the artist isn’t buying it, then I’m not buying it.
It sounds like honesty and integrity have become more important to you.
It took me a long time to figure that out. I figured it out by accident. In the ‘90s, my stuff was interesting and had some good ideas, but there wasn’t much to it. I don’t see it as really honest or being the kind of thing that has any real humanity. Emotionally, something was lacking.
In 1999, the year that changed everything for me, I was working on Man, Overboard. In the middle of that process, my mother died. Being driven to art for the outlet and expression, not money, it was a natural thing for me to pick up a pen to deal with this heavy thing. I had a very strong and complicated relationship with my mother. I wrote this song that seemed so personal and didn’t belong on a record. I debated it long and hard. It felt like a huge risk and terrified me, and I made the decision to include it.
And I just had this flood of response to it, people responding in a really strong way. I was hearing from people all over the world, rich people and poor people, every kind of person. I was completely flabbergasted by this. It hit me as a real epiphany to get it, to realize that human experiences are a universal thing. That’s how you touch on it. You listen to your heart. It was kind of a mind-blowing thing. The first time I was honest on a record was the first time I touched another person. It was a huge eye-opener and has dictated the way I’ve worked ever since.
That was the record that got me some real notice, and it wasn’t long after that that I signed a record deal. It got the attention of the guys in Radiohead and Vincent Gallo, and these people were contacting me and telling me they liked the record and saying so publicly. This was in the Amnesiac/Kid A era, and they were mentioning me in interviews. That’s when the phone started ringing a whole lot. They were hooking me up with their publicist in the UK and practical stuff. I wonder if I would be where I am right now without their help.
So where is your personal connection in the journalistic approach on Situation?
The basic lesson I learned wasn’t just to open up my chest and let everyone poke me in the heart, but I had to find humanity and the understanding of people and what they’re looking for when they turn to art or music. When I was writing some of the songs on Situation, I’m getting into these character sketches,and there’s this loner or this sleazy porn profiteer. I’m thinking, here’s these people that I’m examining and I want to give them a pulse. I had to find commonalities between these people and myself, put myself into it, and write those lyrics.
When I get any sort of idea, it has to have a piece of me in there somewhere. I don’t bother to pick up the pen unless that’s the case anyway, unless there’s a chord being struck. The more I learn to keep myself open as a filter for inspiration or emotion, it’s becoming easier and I get it in more places. Just being an observer is my job. My job isn’t as a musician or a t-shirt salesman. I’m a professional people watcher.