Richard Terfry, otherwise known as Buck 65, is an intellectual and a theorist. His albums are part whimsy, part story-raps and part concept. Often (perhaps too often, according to your opinion of his work), his ideas for his records are sometimes better than the records themselves. But it’s hard not to be impressed by the imagination that sets them into motion, even if the execution can be uneven and unpredictable.
Sometimes difficult, other times extraordinary, Buck 65 strafes at the idea of being a rapper. Since Square, he has appropriated many styles of music, from country and folk, and attempted many vocal intonations, from laconic poetry a la Ken Nordine to off-key singing. It’s all an attempt by, in his own words, an artist with no “raw musical ability” to create a sonic world that matches his ambitions.
I’m not being a hater; Buck 65 will tell you this himself. On his website, Buck65.com, he gives star ratings to most of his major works, which date back to the mid-90s. He rarely awards them more than three (out of five) stars.
“THB is something else and that’s the important thing,” he writes about 2003’s Talkin’ Honky Blues. “A door has been opened and exploring the world it leads to should be intriguing. But what’s still needed is more melody. It needs voice – female voice. It needs a little more depth and richness, more humanity. It still needs
more… But it’s also still too long. Nice art. Getting closer…” He gives it three stars.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his self-deprecating nature, Buck 65 has enjoyed a considerable cult audience for most of this decade, starting with the 2001 gem Man Overboard, which helped win him a major label deal with Warner Bros. Canada. His 2003 album, Talkin’ Honky Blues, earned a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Grammy Awards) for Alternative Album of the Year. Until recently, however, only one of his albums, Man Overboard, received a U.S. release, thanks to Anticon. (The imprint also featured his tracks on several compilations, and released a 12-inch version of the infamous “The Centaur,” a meditation on a centaur’s huge penis, in 2000.) He was briefly signed to V2 in America, which released a serviceable compilation, 2005’s This Right Here is Buck 65, but the label folded last year.
Enter Sage Francis’ Strange Famous Records, which arranged to release Buck 65’s new album, Situation. Something of a major event considering how much attention Buck 65 receives in the U.S., Situation is a hip-hop record set in the year 1957, and produced by his friend Skratch Bastid. Its title is an oblique reference to the French anarchist collective Situationist International.
Situation has received mixed reviews. Some critics, including Rolling Stone‘s Robert Christgau, appreciated his “insatiable appetite for colloquial poetry.” Others took issue with Skratch Bastid’s production. In a particularly damning review, The Wire‘s Ian Penman wrote, “On Situation we’re back to unrelieved recitation, where ‘Old Skool’ translates as ‘unimaginative’ and rather plodding.” I wonder how many stars Buck 65 would award Situation?
Originally based in Toronto, Ontario, Buck 65 currently lives in France with his wife Claire Berest. This interview was conducted on October 29, the day before Situation was released.
Plug One: Many years ago, people used to criticize you for using too many affectations in your voice. But that criticism seems to have disappeared as people have grown used to hearing you. What do you think about the idea that you’re something of a character in your music?
Buck 65: It always seemed like a natural thing for me to do in the past, just as a creative exercise where if I allowed my imagination to take me to a certain place where I was, say, reporting from the perspective of another person, in a sense, then it just seemed logical to me to embody that wholly when recording and performing, maybe in an effort to make that exercise perfectly clear.
And then, I don’t know why – no, I do know why – I think I began to abandon that practice. I wasn’t doing it as often. I think, at the time, the way I looked at it was as though I hadn’t quite found my own voice, and I maybe went into those places out of insecurity and not really being entirely sure of myself. Maybe it was easier and more comfortable to me to completely take on a whole other persona.
So I’ve since made some records where the focus was very much on Buck 65. My writing was becoming more and more personal all the time, so it just seemed logical to do things in my own voice.
With this newest record, the kid that I was working with – Skratch Bastid, this young DJ – I think, as the producer, he very much wanted to bring me back to an earlier day. I think he wanted to get some classic material from the old canon. So when we were in the studio he was really pushing me to play different characters and use my voice in a variety of ways. He was really cracking the whip on me when we were in the studio. And it wasn’t something that I felt inclined to do, but he really insisted on it and I followed him where he wanted to go.
In the end, I went back and listened to the record when it was all finished, and I’m kinda glad that he did it. In a way, I think it makes the record more dynamic and interesting to listen to. And why the heck not is what it comes down to in my mind. If you can use storytelling through music as an opportunity to wear the hat of an actor for a while, I mean, what the heck? It certainly is fun. It’s a fun way to work in the studio, and it’s even more fun to do that on stage, I think. It’s just another opportunity to be creative.
Plug One: I saw you twice on the Sage Francis tour. I remember hearing the Situation songs. They sound much more fleshed out on the album, though. When you performed on tour, it sounded like you simply rapped and scratched on a turntable; it sounded very minimal.
Buck 65: I know entirely what you mean. Basically, when we set out to do that tour, we already knew at that point that Sage would be releasing my record in the U.S. But we weren’t able to announce that publicly until about halfway through. So the thinking was to use the tour to establish the relationship and get the wheels in motion on this new record. But we were obviously several months out from the release of it, since the album comes out tomorrow [October 30].
So the handful of songs I was performing at the time, for all intents and purposes, especially in a live context, was new for me. I was performing some of that stuff for the first time. I don’t think I was entirely comfortable with the songs and performing them from a position of total comfort or doing them in an unconscious sort of way. With a lot of my material that I’ve had around for a while and know very well, I can completely lose myself in the performance and it comes out very naturally, and it’s more of a fleshed-out performance. But when I’m performing brand new material and I really need to concentrate to remember the lyrics, it’s a little more difficult to do it. But we all felt that it was important to just start getting some of that material out there and familiarizing people with it.
So I can completely see what you’re saying. I was definitely feeling it myself at the time. I’ve had the opportunity since then to perform the material a lot, and I feel like I’m getting to the point where I’m a lot more comfortable with it, and I’m able to have a lot more fun with it and embody the characters and so on.
The process in the studio was very laborious. This kid that I was working with on this record was not satisfied with nothing less than ten [vocal] takes or something. We worked long and hard until he got the performance he was looking for. Which, of course, you don’t get to do on stage: you get one shot, and if it’s not right then you move on to the next song.
Plug One: Why did you decide to do a hip-hop album this time around? I think that with the last couple of albums you’ve done…I mean, they’ve been hip-hop albums in the sense that you’re rapping on them, but they’ve incorporated different kinds of music and sounds, whereas Situation really sounds like a hip-hop album.
Buck 65: Again, this really had a lot to do with Skratch Bastid. We talked about collaborating for many years, we’re from the same hometown, and we’ve been friends for a really long time. It was just a natural thing that we had talked about getting together on some stuff. We had played around with some ideas, but nothing too serious.
My whole take on collaborating is that each person involved brings to it what they do. I wouldn’t want to invite someone to work with me and say, “Okay, I asked you to work with me because I think you’re a talented person, but this time out we’re going to do things my way.” I mean, that defeats the purpose to ask someone to imitate the way that I would normally do things.
So working with him and giving him room to express himself the way he would – this was going to be a hip-hop record because he’s a hip-hop kid, he’s a turntablist, and that’s all there is to it. But the prospect was definitely interesting and exciting to me. I felt it was a good moment to challenge myself that way again.
I really wanted to hear him do what he does. I insisted that there was a lot of turntable stuff on this record. But I also wanted to push myself with my rapping and my rhyme writing and everything else.
I can also tell you that in the two-year period between Situation and Secret House against the World I worked on a lot of material, several albums worth of material. I don’t want to say it was all over the map, but there were different approaches to making a song that I pursued. So there was this bunch that was straight-ahead hip-hop songs, and then a whole bunch of other stuff that was the furthest thing from [hip-hop], some things that may seem like a more logical progression from the last album to people.
These days, if I get an idea for a song in terms of something that I want to say, if there’s some sort of subject matter that I pursue, especially when I’m working on my own, I don’t think too much about genre and I don’t think about what instruments would be appropriate. I just think to myself, what is the best musical complement to the sentiment that I want to get across?
For example, just a year and a half ago, I became an uncle for the first time. And a day or two after my niece was born I was inspired to write a song about her and this new life being brought into the world. As I do about half of the time in this case, I wrote the lyrics first and I sat down and tried to decide, okay, what do we need here for music? So the question becomes, do I look for a hard, aggressive, uptempo hip-hop beat? Am I looking for distorted electric guitars? No, not at all, and in the end I went with what felt right for the kind of song I had written, which in the end was a very quiet, acoustic-based thing. It just seems to me that’s the logical way to do it.
In this particular case [with Situation], it seemed like a pretty good fit because I was inspired by these ideas that weren’t very personal, and so it made sense to create this backdrop that was a beat-driven thing and that would make a good canvas to get some stories and facts across. But again, the musical direction of this record was mostly driven by my partner-in-crime, Skratch Bastid.
Plug One: I think there’s only song that wasn’t part of the 50s theme of Situation, and that was “Cop Shades,” which was more of a battle rap.
Buck 65: Yeah, that’s just about right. When we started working on this record, we initially had a set of five demos. After we had put these demos together, I wasn’t happy with them, and I ditched most of that stuff. The only thing I kept was “Cop Shades,” and it was after most of the ideas for the record started to come together. So it was a relic from before that.
Arguably, you could say the same… Thematically, I don’t think the song “Ho-Boyz” has a whole lot to do with the theme. And there’s another song called “Dang” – which we actually weren’t able to get on the promo copies of the record in time because we were still hung up on some legal things – which really has nothing to do with some of the other themes on the record that pop up on the record. But there definitely is a thread that runs through most of the material.
Plug One: Was the legal issue around “Dang” due to its use of the “dang-diggy-dang” hook from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “8th Wonder?”
Buck 65: No, not so much that as it was that we just wholesale jacked an Incredible Bongo Band record. We didn’t even sample it. I just rapped flat over “Let There Be Drums,” and I didn’t really think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that we’d be able to use it on the record. But the label looked into it and, lo and behold, somehow we were able to pull it off. It took a little while to sort out that paperwork, but we were able to get it done. Obviously, I’ll never see a cent that the song may generate because, if I remember correctly, one hundred percent of the publishing will ultimately go to them. But that wasn’t really my concern. It was just a song that I enjoyed and liked to perform live. When we were able to get it on the record, I didn’t really question it beyond that.
Plug One: In the past few years, you’ve done songs that have been character studies, as well as songs that have been almost like short stories. Situation seems to mostly consist of character studies, except for “White Bread,” which seems to tell a story. On many of the songs, you seem to be describing a character from the 1950s, specifically 1957.
Buck 65: Yes, sort of. I had an original well of inspiration that I was drawing from, but after I had that I wanted to move away from it in an effort to make songs that would stand on their own as best as possible. I never wanted to make a record that needed to be explained to people or put into context before they could enjoy it or understand it.
The thing that I had in the back of my mind was that there was a larger story being told across the entirety of the record rather than it being through individual songs. Now, I didn’t want to place too much importance on that, but as far as I was concerned, it was only important that I understood that so I had some sort of direction to take my writing in. I didn’t feel it necessary to get that across to anyone else because I wasn’t trying to make a concept record.
But essentially, the idea is that the central figure is the girl that’s described in the song “Lipstick.” Then if you listen close, in one way or another, she basically affects every other character that pops up in the record or the story, maybe with a few exceptions. The story, or the scene which is being set, is this community that’s being described in the song “The Outskirts” and then the people that populate it, how they’re all connected, and how they relate to each other. When you boil it right down, because there’s a lot going on, it’s a statement on the power of sex, sexuality, and in particular a woman’s sexuality. And that girl figure is loosely inspired by Bettie Page.
Plug One: Is this a Raymond Chandler-style story where stories are interconnected? [Note: I made the wrong literary reference. I meant to compare it to Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts, which is based on Raymond Carver’s literary short stories and features several interlocking tales.]
Buck 65: Yeah, I think it’s pretty safe to say. At the time when I was writing this record, I was living in Paris. My girlfriend at the time had written a thesis about [influential publishing house] Série Noire, which basically gave rise to the whole film noir movement. She was a big fan of Raymond Chandler. Even though I hadn’t read much of his stuff myself, I was certainly familiar with and a big fan of a lot of the films for which he wrote screenplays, and I’ve long been a cinema fan and a fan of film noir in particular.
So that definitely crept in there on some level. There’s no question about it, in particular with songs like “Spread ‘Em” and a few others.
Plug One: It sounds like you’re very conscious of what you do as a musician. Is that a fair assumption to say?
Buck 65: Yes it is, maybe to a fault sometimes, whether it’s my creative life or my personal life. I tend to be a cerebral person by nature. In fact, sometimes I try really hard to push myself when I’m working with music to operate on more of a gut level.
But the simple fact of the matter is, and I have no problem admitting this whatsoever, I wasn’t born with any kind of raw musical ability. I proceeded on ideas right from the very start. The only approach I can take is more of a methodical one, I suppose.
Plug One: In the bio for your album, you defend minstrelsy. I wanted to ask you about that. I know there’s an intellectual movement in regards to that.
Buck 65: Well, a few years ago, when I started working on the record Talkin’ Honky Blues, I read a book by Nick Tosches called Where Dead Voices Gather, which may be where a lot of that dialogue got started, him being the kind of writer that he is. In particular he was talking about this figure, Emmett Miller, and a search for him. Along the way, it was an examination of minstrelsy.
I think, in a lot of ways, the more I understand it and the more I’ve had a chance to look into it, it seems to me that, with good reason, it’s definitely a stigmatized area, but I think it’s also a misunderstood area. I understand why it was necessary for it to die. The area where I struggle with it on a personal level – I was just talking with a friend about this the other day – is that, purely speaking in musical terms, there’s some music from that time and era that I quite like. I like the tunes. But then, of course, when you look at the realities of some of the songs, not just the performers themselves and the way they performed, but even in some cases the lyrical content to some of the songs, there’s some absolutely offensive stuff there. There’s no question about it. So that’s a weird thing.
It’s like that debate that, I think at one point, we’ve all had. I’ve certainly had it on more than one occasion with different friends about how there’s different moments and movements from history that had amazing graphic design, but the work was for something very sinister and evil. It’s one of those weird contradictions where you can appreciate it on some artistic level…
An example I can give you is the work of Leni Riefenstahl who made these propaganda films for Hitler. On one level I can watch those films and be totally dazed and in awe at the technical level, like, wow, she was a very gifted person. But then you think about what you’re watching and you’re, like, man, this is so wrong.
So it’s one of those things. There are parts of it that I can enjoy, and then parts of it that I don’t agree with at all.
But it’s a fascinating topic when you think about some of the things that were going on and why it eventually became taboo and offensive to people, compared to some things that are happening today. When you look at it as a mirror, it’s telling.
Plug One: It seems like a lot of the characters that you address in your music are marginalized and dispossessed people, but the way you look at them is more from a personality trait than from a socio-political perspective. 1957 is a good example because it was a very repressive time, and there was a lot of racism. But you look at the personal and sexual politics instead of the social politics.
Buck 65: I think, to a certain extent, that’s definitely true. I’ve always made the decision to not be too politically overt. But that’s not to say I’m apolitical as a person or even with my work. I just choose to be as subtle with it as I can possibly can.
One small consideration I made with the song “Heatwave” is that there’s a sketch of this guy, a cop. He’s the guy that everyone seems to be working against. I’m trying to flesh out this character and give him some complexity, and there’s one line where, even though he seems like the bad guy, it says, “I’m a civil rights crusader.” So here’s this guy who I was thinking of as a Republican-type figure from the South, who’s trying to clean up society and wants to get rid of scum. But he’s not just a one-dimensional figure. He’s this civil rights crusader and he has these things he believes in. Just by throwing that in there – I didn’t want to make any heavy political statements – I wanted to be small things in there and a little food for though.
It’s fair to say, though, that my career and the songs I’ve written are nowhere near as political as someone, like, Sage [Francis]. I’ve always chosen to paint a picture, a character study of a person, and then let people take it where they want. I like to raise questions more than answer them.
Plug One: Where do you live now?
Buck 65: I’m floating right now. I’m between places. I’m just about to leave Toronto, and I’ve been spending most of my time in Denver, which will be a base between now and January, at which point I’m moving back to France.
Plug One: One last question… Why has it taken so long for you to put out an album in the U.S.? I think this is the first full-length album since 2000’s Man Overboard, not counting 2005’s This Right Here is Buck 65.
Buck 65: That’s exactly right. Basically – I call it bad luck – I found it really difficult to find anyone willing to support me and put my record out. For a long time, it seemed no one would touch what I was doing with a ten-foot pole.
Then I ended up with the label V2. Although they signed me and wanted to work with me, for some reason they passed on both Talkin’ Honky Blues and Secret House against the World. They opted instead to do this bizarre introductory record, which I always thought was an asinine idea. Then they folded and went out of business, and I was high and dry again and looking for a home all over again.
Luckily, after momentum [from signing with V2] had completely died and, arguably, a lot of damage had been done, it was Sage Francis to the rescue. There is no two ways about it: Right now I’m in a serious period of rebuilding down there [in the U.S.]. It’s a serious uphill climb and, with the way things have changed in the past few years, as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty much like starting from zero.
Plug One: It’s amazing to me because you’ve had such a huge cult following in the U.S. for so many years. All of those albums you put out have basically been bought here on import as opposed to, say, an indie label picking it up and putting it out domestically in the U.S.
Buck 65: It’s true. Any sort of life I’ve been able to maintain in the last few years has been in the form of word-of-mouth and grassroots. The Internet has certainly kept me just barely on the radar. I’ve tried to get down, when I’ve been able to, in the last few years to do a little bit of touring. But yeah, I’ve been going on fumes for the past few years.
Plug One: Is working with Sage Francis’ Strange Famous Records fulfilling your goals, or do you still feel like you’ve got work to do?
Buck 65: It’s helping a lot. He’s done very, very well in his efforts to establish himself in the last few years. And the way his career has grown, it’s been amazing. So far his ambition and the work he’s put into this record seems to be boundless. Of course, it’s just coming out tomorrow, so we’ll all get to see what shape the fruits of that labor will take.
But for me, I’m particularly fascinated to be in the position I’m in, where I have the record coming out on a major label [Warner Bros.] in most parts of the world and a very small independent label in the U.S. I’ll have those two things to compare to one another, and I think it’s going to be a very telling thing.
I don’t think it’s a cut-and-dried situation, either. I have every belief that Sage’s efforts can hold their own. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised, based on the momentum we’ve got going into this thing so far, if his efforts on a small, independent, individual level surpassed some of the efforts in the other markets. It’s pretty much him and one other guy running this label out of a room in a house. So it’s going to be a real learning experience, that’s for sure.