Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck: Hecho en Mexico
A relaxing south-of-the-border hang leads to Arthur Buck—an exciting new collaboration between R.E.M.’s guitarist and the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter and painter.
Near the end of 2017, the guitarist, singer-songwriter, and visual artist Joseph Arthur faced a dilemma: He needed to retrieve a Dobro he’d left in Todos Santos, Mexico, where he had played a festival. When he investigated shipping this large parcel to the United States, he realized it would be prohibitively expensive.
It would be much more cost-effective, Arthur discovered, to take a round-trip flight to Mexico and retrieve the guitar himself. He figured he could stay for cheap in Todos Santos and spend a relaxing week writing new songs. When Arthur texted a friend about his travel plans, she suggested he meet up with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who had a second home in the area. Having opened for the seminal indie-rock band in the early 2000s, Arthur agreed this was a good idea, and reached out to Buck, who suggested they do a show together there.
As Arthur sat on Buck’s porch, playing him some of his songs in preparation for the gig, the two musicians discovered they had an easy chemistry. Before performing in the town’s square, they wound up writing a collection of songs together, which they ultimately brought back to the States to record.
These tracks became the duo’s new album, Arthur Buck. Against a backdrop of Buck’s chimey strumming and melodic riffing, Arthur sings and adds his idiosyncratic lead-guitar flourishes. He also handles drum programming on the album, blending beats with a traditional drum set to create a compelling, hip-hop-informed sonic landscape.
When PG caught up with Buck and Arthur, they described how their duo instantly jelled in Mexico, how they turned this meeting into a recording project, and, naturally, what gear they used—including the storied Rickenbacker 360 Buck has used on almost every R.E.M. album.
Arthur Buck came about serendipitously?
Joseph Arthur: We had long talked about working together but never did, and I didn’t necessarily think that we even would this time, but I was like, “Well, it’s great that Peter is down there in Mexico and wants to hang out and play a show.” To me, that in and of itself was super cool.
At the time, I was working on a solo album and got to thinking how cool it would be to get Peter to play some guitar on it. So I showed him one of the songs. We jammed on it for five minutes and then he said, “Well, check this one out.” Peter writes songs that are fully arranged with the bridge, verse, chorus, but without the melody or vocal line on top yet. I just started making shit up to that, singing top-line stuff. We just started busting out jams, dude. It was easy and fun as hell—totally spontaneous. It sounds hokey when people say, “It was like magic,” but it really was magical.
Peter Buck: It was so great to sit down and play guitar and swap song ideas with Joseph. He’s a much better fingerpicker than I am. I’m a good rhythm guitar player, and I’m more interested in things like, how do you arrange a song so that you’re not just strumming chords? When a lot of people write a song, they strum the chords all the way through. Then you have to figure out how to put little bits together: Here’s the place we can do a solo, etc. I tend to write arpeggios, maybe for the verse, block chords for the chorus, and single notes here and there. With me doing that, it left Joseph free to fool around and do whatever he wanted to.
Arthur: Yeah, it was just synchronicity. The next thing we knew, we had five songs. And we still have this acoustic EP we recorded in Mexico, because I’d brought my laptop and recording stuff with the intention of working on my solo shit. I brought it to the porch and we recorded a five-song EP that’s really good, actually. It’s got similar songs to the record, but with different lyrics.
We ended up playing a little festival show in the city center. Peter was like, “Ah, this stuff always makes me nervous.” I just thought it was so funny that he felt that way. Even though we’ve been doing this a while, I just felt this energy like we’re a new band all of a sudden. It was just fun. Then we played another bar gig. I brought up an art show I had coming up in L.A. and asked Peter to play with me. At the soundcheck at the show, he was jamming on what became “I Am the Moment.” When I started singing “I am the moment,” he started singing “waiting for you.” I fucked around with some lyrics and we ended up playing the song that night. The whole crowd was singing along. It was kind of like a movie, you know?
TIDBIT: Peter Buck and Joseph Arthur wrote the songs on Arthur Buck in Todos Santos (Mexico), Los Angeles, and Portland—where they also cut the album’s basic tracks. Originally, the music was powered by programmed drumbeats, but engineer Tchad Blake convinced Arthur to enhance the sound with live drums.
Peter, you mentioned how some musicians strum continuously throughout their songs. Are your right-hand patterns or textures as important as the chords themselves?
Buck: Yes. To a certain degree, I’m picking melodies out even if I’m using the chord structures. They become melodic if you’re arpeggiating or doing a two-note thing or linking things together by moving the chords in the left hand. I tend to build a lot more melody into the rhythm guitar than a lot of people do.
Where do you think that comes from—just experimenting or by emulating certain players?
Buck: When I started learning to play guitar, I was 14 and the ’60s were over. I had grown up listening to the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Motown—all that stuff. It seemed that everything I liked was about guitar riffs. I didn’t really become a big fan of Hendrix until later, and I didn’t really know much about Led Zeppelin. I wasn’t really listening for great lead guitar players. I was listening to song arrangements.
I knew so little about guitar I didn’t realize that [Byrds guitarist] Roger McGuinn was fingerpicking. I figured he gets all those ringing tones, so he must just be going really fast. So I worked out a flatpick style that’s fairly complicated and not a lot of people can do it. It’s just that I would say, “Well, that’s how he does it.” As I got older, I realized he was picking with his thumb and three fingers. But that’s why I tend to like to write the original guitar parts very melodic and if I do, it’s involved. It immediately sounds like a song if you have all those elements.
If you were a kid playing guitar now, do you think your style would be different because of easy access to information about how certain players approach the instrument?
Buck: Yeah. I go on the internet sometimes at 3 o’clock in the morning and look things up. I was learning some song that had a little riff and I didn’t have the record around. I just went online and typed in “how do you play the riff” for that song on YouTube and it popped up. The guy wasn’t a great guitar player or anything, but I just watched where he put his fingers for about two seconds. I went, “Okay, I got that.”
I’m kind of friends with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and we were talking about this. He said, “Oh, that’s how I learned how to play banjo. I just went on the internet and did all these tutorials.” He’s obviously a world-class musician, so he actually got really good at it. I’ll go online and learn a particular scale or something. I like learning by ear and figuring things out myself.
R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, shown here playing a Gretsch 6120, recently said he owns about 80 guitars, 10 of which are Rickenbackers. For the Arthur Buck album, he used a ’60s Gibson SJ-200 and his beloved ’81 Rickenbacker 360.
Photo by Tim Bugbee
Describe how your impromptu songwriting became an album project.
Arthur: We went up to Portland and wrote two more songs, one of which was “Wide Awake in November.” “Are You Electrified?” might have been the other one. Then we went into Type Foundry Studio. I programmed a bunch of beats and Peter played all the rhythm guitar stuff, the arrangements. Then I took all that back home to Brooklyn and fleshed it out—worked on my vocals, worked on the lyrics, and other stuff. It was just such a cool process.
Is that how your album-making process normally works?
Arthur: No, this is uncommon, man. I mean, my solo albums take years. I work fast, but I’ll get a whole bunch of songs and some of them are kick-ass, others aren’t so kick-ass. I’ll put everything on the shelf, get depressed for six months, then come back and have all these new ideas and new songs. Then I’ll take the best from the old batch and put it with the best of the new batch. Then I’ll get depressed again and another eight months will pass by. Then I’ll come back to it again. I’ll go through that laundry-wringing process eight times and then five years later, I’ll have a kick-ass solo album.
I think you always need to collaborate. Even if you’re a solo artist, you need to collaborate with yourself through time—because there’s different versions of yourself that you’re collaborating with. But that takes time. Whereas with me and Peter, it’s a full-on collaborative effort, songwriting-wise. I could never write the songs we’re writing on my own. It’s because he’s bringing his whole thing and there’s a chemistry involved with it.
Peter, what was making this record like for you?
Buck: For me, it was super simple, because Joe was doing the drum programming into his Ableton setup. We basically recorded the songs in one day with just the beats, Joe singing along, and me putting down my guitars. I wasn’t certain we were even making a record. I was thinking it may be a demo, but at the end of six or eight hours, we had the record pretty much done—all my guitars were finished, at least. We added one more song, “American Century,” later. By that point, we had nine finished tracks, which Joe adored.
The guitar sounds—both acoustic and electric—are killer. What instruments did you play?
Arthur: I like playing Strats but didn’t have any in the studio—I left those in Los Angeles, so I used this Tele that I love, which is disappointing, because I never wanted to be a Tele guy. But it’s this kick-ass Masterbuilt Tele that’s relic’d, so it looks like it’s been played by Jeff Beck since 1962. I used a Les Paul, too.
Buck: The acoustic guitar I played was a Gibson SJ-200—I think it’s a ’61 or ’62—that I’ve had for 30-something years. The electric guitar was the ’81 Rickenbacker 360 that I’ve used on pretty much every record I’ve ever made.
Joseph, how did you get that warm lead tone on “The Wanderer?”
Arthur: That’s my Tele through Kevin Henretta’s multi-effects box into a Vox. Sometimes I’ll put on fucked-up sounds just for fun. And when I sent [engineer] Tchad Blake the rough mixes, I accidentally printed all my effects on the stems. Tchad loves dealing with problems and wild shit like that, and he definitely made it sound better than I had it. But yeah, I love the way that solo came out. It’s funny because when Peter and I were first writing “The Wanderer”—which is my favorite song on the record, by the way—that was the only song I actually played guitar on. I would just sing, and then I would pick up my Dobro and play like, a Dobro solo over the top of that.
Though you produced the album, Joseph, Tchad Blake mixed it. Tell us more about his sonic imprint on Arthur Buck.
Arthur: Tchad knows how to accentuate the spirit of an album like nobody’s business. He knows how to make it sound cool. One of the things I love about Arthur Buck is that it could be considered indie-rock in a way, but it has this funky, hip-hop feel to it, a dance kind of energy to it, based on those beats. I really like that. I wanted to keep it like that, because I felt this was our lane of originality on some level, too.
At the same time, it sounds like there are real drums.
Arthur: I was gonna keep it all electronic drums, but as I started listening to Tchad’s mixes, I called him and said, “Hey, man. I got a question for you. Do you think the programming is a bit stiff? Or do you think it’s cool?” I wanted him to say, “No, it’s perfect just like it is!” But what he said was, “In a perfect world I would have real drums to play with, too.” I was like, “Dude, you are killing me right now.”
So I booked a studio with a really good drum room—this studio called KIZMIT in Brooklyn—and spent two nights putting real drums on every song. And this was like the 12th hour of mixing. I sent him all the live drums. When he mixed “The Wanderer,” he was like, “Dude, this one drum take makes the whole drum session worth it.” You can hear much more of the real drums on it—the toms—and it sounds more like Tom Waits, when at first it was sort of straight hip-hop.
Where did the hip-hop inspiration come from?
Arthur: It’s the music I’m usually most excited about. I’m all up on Pusha T’s new album [Daytona] right now. And I just wonder, is Arthur Buck as good as that?
Peter, what was it like for you to record without a drummer?
Buck: I’m used to playing with a live drummer, as I’ve done since I was 17. In every band I’ve ever been in, the drummer follows me or I lock in directly with the drummer and we are the rhythm section. Playing with programmed drums was way different. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye and speed it up or slow it down. We rehearsed a month ago with a keyboard player, bass player, and drummer. I was definitely approaching the songs differently than when we made the record because I had different jobs to do. We’ll be using some loops and things like that at different points, which gives me more latitude to move around.
So what’s next?
Arthur: What’s great is that we’ve got six or seven killer new songs, dude. It’s just exciting when it’s kind of—I don’t want to say effortless, because there’s effort involved—but the magical element feels effortless. It’s like, “Man this is just a fun band.”
Accompanied by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck—and a gorgeous string quartet—Joseph Arthur pays tribute to Lou Reed by performing “Walk on the Wild Side” on Late Night with David Letterman.
In a live video performance at New York’s Q104.3 classic rock radio station, Peter Buck and Joseph Arthur play several songs from Arthur Buck and discuss the genesis of their new creative collaboration.