Power Trio

Peter Buck goes West with Eitzel, Middle Eastern with Tuatara, and everywhere else with Minus 5

By contrast, Tuatara's Breaking the Ethers rings with the pretensions of a jazzbo collective, a handful of marksman musicians come together to exercise--and exorcise. It's the sound of the Middle East and the Southwest reconfigured for velvet rooms and quiet nights. In the end, it sounds like soundtrack music--which is actually why the band was formed, to score films; indeed, during rehearsals for the current Magnificent Seven Versus the United States tour that will feature Tuatara, Eitzel and McCaughey performing together and separately, the band is recording some demos for Hollywood producers enamored of Breaking the Ethers. "The band started with the idea of being a soundtrack band," says Scott McCaughey, "one that didn't need a movie necessarily."

McCaughey's own album, The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy, is perhaps the most familiar-sounding of the three Buck-plus projects; McCaughey and Buck, whose on-and-off partnership dates back several years, have arrived at "a big folk-rock-pop-record type of a thing," as McCaughey says, his grin obvious even as he speaks over the phone from his Seattle home. Buck McCoy, which also features the Posies and Guided by Voices' Bob Pollard, possesses an extraordinary Younger Than Yesterday/Rubber Soul vibe; it's what R.E.M. might have sounded like had Green never happened and the band had remained an indie hero instead of becoming an arena superstar. And it's the first McCaughey/Young Fresh Fellows album from which you get the feeling this guy's in it for keeps; the Fellows' deadpan laughter is replaced this time around by feedback melodies and folk rhythms and songs about dead mommies and moonshine girls and being abandoned by them all.

"I realized so many songs were about being alone, and that's when I changed the name from The Ballad of Buck McCoy to The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy. A lot of the time, I unconsciously realize a lot of the songs are tied together and make an effort to tie them together. Old Liquidator [released in 1995] was a concept album, but I didn't say it was about booze and death."

Taken as a whole, West, Breaking the Ethers and The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy add up to an impressive array of sounds and structures--a little bit of everything, yet not so much of anything as to become the product of dilettantes with too much money and too much time to kill. And at the very least, Buck didn't take his Warner Bros. millions and disappear 'til the next album. Indeed, between finishing these three recordings and preparing for this Tuatara tour, R.E.M. has already begun work on the follow-up to last year's New Adventures in Hi-Fi--and what Buck has written so far might well end up bearing the marks of his three on-the-side projects.

"For the next R.E.M. record, I'm trying to teach myself keyboard and writing string-quartet things--if you can imagine that," Buck says, emitting a rare laugh. "I've come up with four-voice choruses, so we'll see what happens. But one of the joys in playing music in a structured environment is the community. People who write about music don't realize I can sit with a jazz player and a folk player and we can talk all night even if we don't like each other's records. I'm older than most of these guys [in Tuatara], and I've been doing it forever at a level most people will never get to, and when people ask me advice, I love it. I feel like I've been around a long time.

"And when I talk to people about music, it's amazing how many people tend to overthink things. You go, We're not thinking about: Is this going to make it on the radio? Your best idea is the first one. And sure, the kick drum could sound better, but if you really want a great kick-drum sound, buy a drum machine. Focusing on little things doesn't make any sense. You're trying to capture lightning in a bottle, and you can't obsess about details. . . . I've done demos with bands, and sometimes I go, Why am I doing this? When I'm in those situations, it sucks because amateurs don't have any understanding about how to be in a band. They go, 'It's about my guitar sound or my bass.' It's not about that. It's about three minutes of noise . . .

"Every experience I have I try to internalize. Music is a place where you can be thrown into a new world at every step. A baseball player doesn't take a year off and play basketball. Tuatara and R.E.M. are a whole different language. I really have learned a lot from everything I've done. When I did Document in 1987, I had done Warren Zevon's record [Sentimental Hygiene], and it was an L.A. record. It was $2,000 a day, and they bring in lunch and they listen to takes with a beat counter and say stuff like, 'The third chorus is one beat faster per minute,' and it's important to them. I had never thought about that--generally, we just play. But then I tended to think about it, and I was a lot more conscious of going back in and making it right. Document is a product of that. And when Out of Time and Automatic for the People came out, I had played folk music for a year with musicians in Athens. You'd sit and learn these songs and play mandolin, and then the next thing you know, you're writing these songs and going, Where the hell did that come from?

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