“I’ve kind of been adrift for the last little while,” drawls iconoclastic MC, DJ, producer and rumpled troubadour Richard Terfry, AKA Buck 65.
Buck's surely playing up to his hobo reputation, having flitted between France and his native Canada for so many years. Musically, he’s rarely sounded quite so at home than on recent LP, Situation; all but swept under the carpet in the midst of 2007 end-of-year-list mania when it emerged late last October.
Doused in samples and scratchwork - much more than one might expect from an artist who, just a few years ago, claimed in song that hip-hop music ruined his life - Situation gives nods to a smorgasbord of peculiar influence and wraps it up in classic, proto-rock ’n’ roll energy. Distinctly at odds with the zeitgeist, Buck 65 injected it all with a penchant for ‘50s pop culture that speaks – and we’ll get knee deep into this – pretty loudly about the state of our own.
DiS broaches all of the above and shares a few thousand words with the affable Nova Scotian before he hits the UK for a ten date tour that starts this week.
There was a two-year gap between your last two full-length albums, Mr 65. That’s not bad going by the usual industry standards - for want of a more appropriate yardstick, you’re certainly no Axl Rose - but that’s a long time gone judging by your own. Have you taken your foot off the pedal any, following up on other pursuits?
I’m still promising myself a holiday. The time since the Secret House… (review) album has probably been the busiest I’ve ever had. All the work I was doing in those years hasn’t seen the light of day yet, but in addition to working on the Situation album I scored two films and worked on another album that’s pretty much ready to go. As a matter of fact I believe I have the bits and pieces of – honestly, for as crazy as this may sound – probably my next four albums, all lined up and waiting to get finished off.
For whatever reasons, ‘concept album’ has become a dirty phrase, but would you not use it to describe the ‘50s theme that Situation largely explores? The Allen Ginsberg quote at the beginning of it: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” fairly sets the tone for the 50 minutes that follow…
When I first started working on the album it was completely aimless and I came up with about five demos, they just didn’t last long. So I actively looked for inspiration and went to some of my usual places… books, films, art, then I realised that all of the places I was going originated in the ‘50s. That was a curiosity to me, but all I really wanted to take from it was the inspiration. When I explained what was going on to the label they got pretty excited and it's fair to say that the record is being marketed in a very conceptual way. But I did want to create some sort of atmosphere that pulled it all together; I still really love that idea of a collection of a dozen songs that are all brought together in one place for a reason.
Video: Buck 65 & Skratch Bastid, '1957’ (live)
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You reference cultural shifts that were spearheaded by musical revolutions on the album, but when you say “Hello Sid Vicious / Goodbye Brooklyn Dodgers” on ‘Dang’, you could just as easily be talking about your own pursuit of a career in music over baseball. Was that accidental?
Through my own lens, the fact that the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 was obviously a more compelling idea than the fact The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss was published that same year. Punk has always been pretty important to me and what I do. Although most people associate the year 1977 with punk, it seemed to me that the seeds of it were planted in ’57. These shifts are really important to that discussion, but basically the way I see it, to sum it up as simply as I can, is that Rock ‘n’ roll really exploded into the mainstream and essentially took over the pop charts that year – especially in the United States. It was the year Elvis’s career skyrocketed, then this strange, political art movement called Situationist International formed [that same year] in Italy, Malcolm McLaren became a student of Situationism and a believer of its ideologies. A few key figures from the punk world were born in ’57, including Sid Vicious and Siouxie Sioux.
Then, in 1977, another shift - Elvis dies and the punks come along to say “What we wanna do is destroy the boredom that we’re all feeling about prog rock, y’know, 12 minute songs, noodly stuff and light shows…we want to get back to the original rebellious spirit of rock ’n’ roll as it was essentially 20 years ago”. Then Malcolm McLaren took what he knew about Situationism and applied it to the philosophy of the Sex Pistols and essentially created the best example of it.
What was it exactly that drew you to this particular symmetry, why immerse yourself in it now, almost a neat 30 years later?
What got me thinking about all that stuff was the question of whether shifts like that are even possible anymore. Have our efforts to tear down walls and break taboos almost negated the possibility of that happening? Despite all our advances and all the good that may come out of those, have we created a world where we’ve completely lost our sense of wonder? We’re completely apathetic now; nothing can really shock or surprise us and if the next genius comes along or the next – whoever the case may be – the next Elvis, the next great writer, the next great thinker… what are they going to do, set up a MySpace page along with a billion other people and keep their fingers crossed that they won’t just evaporate into the ether along with everybody else? We’ve opened up this Pandora’s Box, the way I see it. Right when we need another shift or another – at the risk of overstating it – revolution, at a time we need it the most, is when it’s become almost impossible for it to happen.
Bloody MySpace, eh? Seemed like a good idea a few years ago. I think there was a minute where some of these social networking platforms had created the illusion that the playing field could be levelled, but the saturation point, I guess, has buggered that idea. Is your main concern that there might never be a way for a band or movement in music to break, organically, ever again?
Yeah, I just don’t know what somebody would have to do to separate themselves from the pack, short of having a lot money or an incredible ability to ass kiss. Talent is not enough anymore, I think marketability really is the most important thing, but that’s also so fleeting because tastes change so fast. It seems that a lot of people have recognised that you can be that person everybody is talking about for a week if you have the audacity. I think a lot of people get into it for that, and then they’re perfectly satisfied to kind of disappear forever after. But that’s not me, I believe in a long career, I don’t want to see the artists and thinkers that I believe in go away. But we’ve created this monster that eats everything, we need a new model and my approach to this record was to raise some questions. But I don’t really feel like I’m the person to propose the answers.
After all the hoo-ha surrounding the ‘controversial’ interview you gave to that renowned hip-hop periodical Kerrang! a few years ago, did you feel some need to go back and rediscover what it was that got you into emceeing in the first place?
In a way, yes, but this record was completely a 50/50 collaborative effort between a long-time friend of mine named Paul - professionally known as Skratch Bastid. He’s a young hip-hop DJ, a turntablist who has won a whole bunch of battles and is really into contemporary hip-hop these days.
I recently came to the realisation that, when I’m realistic about who I am and where I come from and the fact that I’m a white guy from Canada – and rural Canada at that - entering into the highly competitive, macho and dog eat world of hip-hop where it can be very confrontational - if I’m going to play the game by the rules and do what everyone else is doing, there is no way in hell, ever, that I’m even going to be able to compete. I mean, forget the features of my make up and the demographic that I fit into and all that stuff and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the greatest rapper in the world - far from it – nowhere close, either technically or stylistically. So if I’m going to find a place for myself in that world, but I’m not going to compete because I’m realistic about the fact I know I can’t, then what is my place? What is the point? I was wrestling with that and hadn’t even thought to ask myself the question when that whole Kerrang! mess happened. I was frustrated, me finding acceptance essentially wasn’t happening and the audience that I was beginning to cultivate was mostly from outside hip-hop circles. So where I ended up going instinctively was just to try and do something unique. Without even realising I was doing it, I think that’s what I ended up doing on a record like Secret House Against the World.
Video: Buck 65, 'Kennedy Killed The Hat’
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Do you have the resolve to back up that purpose nowadays?
What I’ve realised now, having made records like Secret House… and [Situation], is that this is where my strength is. Even if a lot of people never understand it, even if people listen to a song like ‘Drunk Without Drinking’ and can’t make sense of it, even if the place I occupy in the hip-hop world is very, very small? Fine. I would rather be there than trying to compete with that world at large and failing miserably. So now I’m more steadfast in my resolve than ever, looking forward to the future and these next couple of records that I want to make, I can tell you that having had this time to think about it has put things into context.
You referred to your recording efforts as a process of “patch-work, collage-style assembly” in the sleeve notes of your last mix tape (Strong Arm) and lamented a certain decline in sampling at large in recent times, is Situation as much a homage to the glory days as anything else?
Yeah, I made this record twice essentially. The first time around it was a 100 per cent sample-based record, but then I basically had to face the fire that I’d created and ended up in a situation where I had my back up against the wall both legally and financially when I was trying to deal with sample clearance. In the end I was able to clear a small handful of things but essentially I was forced to go back into the studio and create a completely different record. At the time that was really depressing but in the end I’m kind of glad, the record benefited from it, but philosophically I resented the idea…its been a real focus for me to try and find loopholes so that I can make music the way I want to, in as unfettered a fashion as I possibly can.
So when the law isn’t hindering you, whose crates do you, Skratch Bastid and DJ Signify go digging around in for source material?
The more I learn about that world, the more nerdy and esoteric it can get. These days I’m finding it hard to get my hands on records that it seems only a small handful of people in the world even know exist. But it seems that it got to a point where I was so deep into it that there was a renewed excitement about the stuff that was right under my nose. With ‘Dang’ for example, that music was pulled from one of the cornerstone hip-hop sample sources; the Incredible Bongo Band, but one of the songs on their record that no one else really looked at. People always turned to ‘Apache’ and there was another that the Beastie Boys used, but then there’s this other called ‘Let There Be Drums’ that was always skipped over. For me it kind of sums up my whole approach, it’s got one foot in the tradition and another in the not-so-obvious.
Video: Buck 65, 'Dang’
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Your mate Yoni Wolf (Why?) recently said “…it seems like you never can quite communicate as clearly as you would like on how it feels to be alive for you, you have to make another record”. You say you’ve almost finished half a dozen in the last two years, what do you imagine the catalyst is for that determination?
I can answer that by presenting to you two struggles that I deal with all the time. The primary one is ego, like, I love Yoni, he’s somebody that I consider a personal friend and the last time I saw him big hugs were exchanged. But the real kind of existential quandary that I face - and I’d love to have a conversation with him about it - is a discussion about ego pertaining to the idea that, if this is how you feel to be alive right now, then why sell it? I can understand writing that down and expressing it for yourself but then what happens next? And how can that be explained without it being an ego thing? And that drives me crazy, even when I stop to think that I’m having a conversation like this with you now and that other people are gonna read it later and what that means…what that says about my own ego, it torments me no end. Is the only way that’s really artistically pure, the only way to separate ego from [your art] just to bury it in the ground and never let anyone see it? Sometimes I think so.
The other thing is that, although this is probably something really dirty to admit in popular culture – music in particular and maybe the hip-hop world especially - is that I’m 35 years old. I’m not a kid anymore, I have bills to pay like everybody else and recently got a regular job to help with that. I’ve been [in the music industry] for 15 years and I know that I can do this; I can release a record, do a tour and make some money. That’s what’s on the other side of the scales from the ego thing – is that I’ve gotta make a living and here’s a way for me to do it, but, like I was saying earlier, there are sacrifices and compromises that I’m not willing to make, I could just completely sell out, try to make hits and sell ‘em to McDonalds or something…which I’m not willing to do.
What do you make of that mindset in some fans, where accusations of ‘selling out’ are bandied around almost any time an artist so much as chooses to change direction slightly? You seem to be scratching the surface of that battle on ‘Cop Shades’ (“Give it a go, Under the lights / No looking back, held to the boss / Fill in the blanks, never look down / No second chance, nailed to the cross / Difficult isn't it? The point, it's obvious / Probably the difference between professionals and hobbyists”)…
That’s something that people are really uncomfortable with - we have a tendency to idealise artists, and we don’t want to think of them as human. If anything we want to think of them as sacrificing everything for their art. We expect our artists to be martyrs and I know that’s an honourable thing in a way but I have to admit that at this point, for me, there are things bigger than that. I’m deeply committed to what I’m doing in music right now and there’s no question about it, but at the end of the day I have to have something to write about, right? I need to be a real person.
Buck 65 is on MySpace here. Situation is available via Strange Famous and Warner Records now.
Forthcoming UK tour dates:
18 Oxford Zodiac @ Academy
19 Portsmouth Wedgewood Arms
20 Bristol Thekla
22 Liverpool Academy2
23 Manchester Roadhouse
24 Glasgow King Tut’s
25 Leeds Cockpit
26 Birmingham Barfly
27 London Dingwalls