Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is a convoluted title for an album. It sounds more like a secret passcode to a sacred place only known by the handful of starry-eyed kids who discovered it. For the New York City-based indie-rock band Big Thief, the body of work released in February 2022 resulted from its venture into uncharted territory two years prior.
Ahead of the band's show in Miami Beach, guitarist Buck Meek spoke to New Times about the childlike wonder spurred from recording music and messing around in the vacuum of pandemic-induced isolation.
"Our friend [and engineer] Sam Evian lives on this five-acre property, and they had this beautiful creek," he says of the album's first sessions in upstate New York. "We were jumping in the creek between every take almost, many times a day swimming in this beautiful swimming hole, and we built a big fort up on top of the mountain above his house — and every session felt like that. There were these moments when we had enough time just to slow down and be playful. It felt like we were kids again."
The band's current lineup has been together since the making of the sophomore album, 2017's Capacity, which saw the introduction of drummer James Krivchenia. Capacity is a chilling vignette of deep melancholy that mirrors the sensitivity of looking through old family photos. Songs like "Pretty Things" are painfully subdued and delicate in their delivery of acoustic guitarwork, field recordings, and lead vocals from the band's prolific songwriter Adrianne Lenker.
Three albums later, the sentiment has grown softer and more playful, as Meek continuously describes it. Dragon New Warm Mountain ushers Big Thief and its audience into a new era defined by a cacophony of cavernous melodies, yelps of joy, and big, strong drums (see "Little Things"). The 20-song, hour-and-20-minute album is an unrestrained embrace of spontaneity and vulnerability through the lens of indie rock, folk, and country. The band spent eight months recording across the U.S. in four different locations with four engineers, molding sounds and experiences borne out of thin air.
"'Certainty' we recorded just minutes after we'd written the song, and it was the first take of the song during a crazy thunderstorm and blackout," Meek recalls. "The power was out for three days, and we wrote that song on the porch, and we just plugged into the truck cigarette lighter with an inverter and ran a tape machine to record that version of [it]."
Nearly every song on the record can be attributed to a naturally occurring epiphany or some whimsical encounter with a new character, like the involvement of session musician Richard Hardy. Hardy, a tenured flute player they overheard in a tower near the secluded studio where they recorded in the Colorado Rockies, contributes to the tranquil kinship of "No Reason." Hospitality breathes through the record like a pair of healthy lungs.
After spending the past year touring the new album, many tracks have taken on lives of their own that deviate from the versions recorded in the studio. Meek finds comfort in that "the songs are really in their bodies now," allowing the music to swell and shapeshift as they pour out into open ears. For ongoing tour dates, Krivchenia suggests inviting local children to ask questions and be creative with them at soundchecks to "feed two birds with one hand" during concert prep. The band has been more than happy to oblige.
Big Thief acts as a democracy that prioritizes the collective over the individual. Every decision made on behalf of the band is a decision that's made unanimously. Meek holds gratitude for the personal growth he's netted as a result of Big Thief's communal approach. "Being in a band is like being in a family or being astronauts or something. You're in a very small space for such long periods. It's inevitable for friction or conflict to happen," he says. "It's been so huge for me to surrender a bit of control and to open my perspective to others."
As they did for Dragon New Warm Mountain, Big Thief looks inward for guidance and inspiration for whatever comes next in its discography. Although the next album's recording hasn't started yet, Meek's tone makes it seem like none of them are in a rush. He sounds excited to lean into the band's "heavier rock 'n' roll side." They wait patiently for their studio to finish being built in the Northeast before the creative process starts over again.
The next chapter for Big Thief will start whenever they feel like it — they'll have some more fun first.
Big Thief. With Buck Meek. 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 21, at Miami Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-453-2897; miamibeachbandshell.com Tickets cost $41.72 via dice.fm.