Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65 was in town on Monday to play a show with the Barenaked Ladies and also to do a free dj set at the Green Room. I had the pleasure of catching up with him at his hotel in the afternoon. Though the conversation only lasted 20 minutes or so, it could have easily gone on for hours.
The Concordian: Is playing with the Barenaked Ladies something you ever anticipated?
Buck 65: No, not really at all, and admittedly out of fear, or whatever you want to call it. When I was first offered the job I said no. But then, this business is so complicated, there’s so much politics and other things involved; the time of the year and the label saying “you know this is going into the Christmas season we really wanted to bring you back into Canada and put a good push to hopefully sell some records.” That’s the label doing their job. What am I going to say? No I don’t want to sell any records. I had an experience earlier in the summer; a very similar scenario with my label in the U.S. where I was asked to go on tour with Moby. It was the same thing. At first I say “no way, Jose!” I didn’t think it made any sense. I was pretty trepidacious about it but I finally said “ok, we’ll see how it goes; this is how I feel and remember what I say.” So we went out and it was actually really not a good experience for me at all. That having been the case, now I sometimes have these fears of facing a big audience that is not mine. I guess the one thing we do have in common, even though their music is very different, is that it’s a big pop phenomenon and my music, for all it’s intents and purposes, is the antithesis of that. It’s going to require some really open-mindedness from the audience, so that’s where I just don’t know what to expect. I love the challenge of it. I feel like I’ve put together a show, there’s certainly no compromises in it, but I think I got a show that these people will hopefully enjoy. I’ll find out tonight.
The Concordian: You are also playing a free set afterwards at the Green Room, spinning tracks off of your records. Two appearances in one night for an artist is a lot. Why was it important for you to do that set?
Buck 65: Several reasons. Like I said probably most of the audience that will be at the Barenaked Ladies show tonight won’t be mine, so it will be good while I am here to have the opportunity to do some other events that are mine. So “my people,” plus I just want to do a few things differently on this whole run. I’m doing a couple of spoken word events here and there and some DJing. I’ve been arguing with a lot of people that I work with whether it’s agents or people at the label. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into making a record that’s kind of unusual and I think that every other aspect of this job, whether it’s the touring or the marketing, needs to be approached in an equally creative way. It’s something else; it’s not a formulaic kind of thing, not only does the record not follow a formula but really no aspect of my career is going to follow some kind of formula. So we really need to be thinking about just other stuff we can do to keep it interesting knowing that my audience is a bit different. I’ve got lot’s of different cards I can play and I want to play them. In the last couple of years, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play some of those other cards, so I’m glad we’re getting the chance to do that here.
The Concordian: I read in your biography that when you started out you had a story to tell, but weren’t exactly sure how to tell it. Do you still have a story to tell now?
Buck 65: Yah, I think so. I still find myself going to back to where it all started a lot: there’s still enough of a story there by itself that I think it will take me a long time to tell. The last song I wrote was about my old hometown, which was a pretty intriguing place. But of course, every day, just my travels and having this weird job; I’m on a real adventure. There are new stories every single day. Now it’s just a question of time. I just figure that if I do this for 100 years, it won’t be enough time to tell all the stories I have to tell, but I wasted a lot of time early on in my career because I was insecure. I was concerned probably way too much like a lot of other young people and especially in hip- hop music with these ideas of credibility. My concerns for that got really perverted because for the kind of credibility that was expected of me. In truth, I didn’t have it. I didn’t have any street credibility because I never knew anything about the streets. It was all a big cover up for a long time, trying to be whatever a tough guy or a clever liar, talking about a whole lot of nothing for a long time. It took a while for me to get comfortable enough with myself, with who I am and where I come from to say “ok, forget it; I’m dropping the act.” If you like it great but if you don’t what can I say. I would rather you hate me for who I am than love me for who I am not.
The Concordian: When you did an interview for MusiquePlus this summer you were saying that you’d like to be known as a good songwriter. In 2003, you were nominated for a Juno for Best Songwriter. Do you think that you’ve been able to achieve that?
Buck 65: Well there’s still a long way to go with that. Just last week I was in the studio with the guys I work with in Halifax and one of the guys was kind of cranky and in a bad mood. He was saying to come into a situation like this and start working on new material; it’s hard having these scraps of ideas rather than having a whole song completely written. In terms of being a really strong songwriter in a classic sense, I’ve written a song with a melody and with its chord changes and parts, that’s happened a couple of times, but I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m really hungry: I’m learning and asking questions all the time. I’ve got a few people that I know that I am somewhat close to that know a lot about that; some who have been classically trained. Once in a while, I’ll just call them in the middle of the night and ask them some super technical theory question. I hope some day to be the kind of guy that when you want to hear a song, can pick up a guitar and I can do a song, and it’s a real song. If I just recited a bunch of lyrics for you right now, somebody might call it poetry, but I don’t think you’d call it a song. That’s what I want to do: I want to be that kind of musician. I really admire someone like Ron Sexsmith or other great musicians and songwriters who can do that. I have a great memory of that same year at the Juno Awards, after the awards ceremony. I’m a pretty anti-social guy; Ron and I just went off on our own, we went back to his hotel room and he just broke out the guitar and we were just singing Hank Williams songs and Leonard Cohen songs all night.
The Concordian: That’s awesome!
Buck 65: That is awesome! I wouldn’t say that every musician needs to have that but for whatever reason, even if I can’t always explain it in the best words, it’s become important for me. It’s just something that I wanted to do. It’s also very important to me to know about the roots of popular music, to study the blues and folk music. This is my religion and these are my gods. I figure that out of duty and respect for the religion, this is what I have to do. It’s become an important thing for me. Not that I would want to impose that on anyone else, but certainly I imagine that it will serve my music well to educate myself. I hope. I haven’t seen a good example yet of when education can be a bad thing…actually, no: I have. I was riding a train recently and there was this person sitting next to me reading a magazine and it was probably the most lightweight literature possible like news about celebrities.
The Concordian: Like Star magazine…
Buck 65: It was exactly that kind of thing, and it occurred to me that the knowledge that you would get out of that probably makes you dumber [laughs].
The Concordian: Would you consider your new record Secret House Against The World, a growth or a departure for Buck 65?
Buck 65: I suppose a little bit of both. It was certainly a departure in the sense that I had this opportunity to work with this other established band from Chicago, so one predicted that was going to come out sounding like a normal record of mine. Because I’m working with people that I’ve never worked with before and we were collaborating, it wasn’t a usual sort of effort. I’m really excited about that kind of work because it’s interesting for me ,and hopefully interesting for other people.
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But I certainly learned a lot from it too, so I know when it comes time to do my next record on my own again, I’ll have taken some stuff from that experience. You’ll probably hear some common threads; it will be obvious to some people what I took away from that. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a strong indicator of where it’s going: it doesn’t mark an all-new direction. Although we didn’t really promote it as such, which was a long and interesting debate that was a collaboration with Tortoise.
The Concordian: How has working with different people, like with Claire Berest, impacted you and your music?
Buck 65: In a couple of different ways. You can look at it on the surface: she’s French, she’s a woman, and she has these particular qualities in her voice. I was taking particular influences from a French singer called Serge Gainsbourg when I was working on this record. She was a very important piece to that puzzle because in another quiet way this album sort of served as a tribute to Gainsbourg, especially the song “Drawing Curtains,” and Claire’s involvement was paramount in all of that. Also ,on a personal level, everything I do is influenced by just what is going on in my life. Claire’s a very political person, so you heard politics addressed on the record, not in a heavy-handed sort of way, but that’s her influence; that’s her being outspoken and very politically active and involved. That rubbed off on me to a certain extent, absolutely. And she’s really smart and has read a lot of books, so there are a lot of references to everything from Racine on the album, which probably no one’s picked up on yet unless there’s some Racine expert out there who’s heard the album, or other writers that she’s turned me onto like Jacques Pr