Luke Haines and Peter Buck - Interview

  by Denzil Watson

published: 10 / 4 / 2020

Luke Haines and Peter Buck - Interview

British singer-songwriter and author Luke Haines and ex-REM guitarist Peter Buck speak to Denzil Watson about their new collaborative album, 'Beat Poetry for Survivalists'.


Brought together by a shared love of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, this is a tale of no ordinary collaboration. Peter Buck, guitarist of global indie legends REM, needs no introduction. His partner in crime, ex-Auteurs front man, author and now established solo artist and documenter of outsider culture, Luke Haines, can not claim to the uninitiated to enjoy such a level of international fame as his collaborator Peter Buck perhaps does. But this is a tale of a partnership born out of the modern age. Enabled by the internet and file sharing, the two didn’t meet up once during the creation of the ten-song strong album, 'Beat Poetry for Survivalists'. Due out on 6th March 2020, and followed by a short tour of the UK in April, this is a modern record reflective of the times we live in. In some ways it’s the perfect collaboration and the album certainly doesn’t disappoint. In a surreal day, Pennyblackmusic conducted two illuminating interviews with the album’s creators. Both interviews proved equally fascinating, giving two insights into this fascinating meeting of musical minds. The Luke Haines interview: PB: You’ve previously collaborated with Cathal Coughlan and Andrew Mueller on 'The North Sea Scrolls'. What do you look for in a collaborator? LUKE HAINES: I don't look for anything. It's just instinctive. It's intuitive. That's all. I never sit down and think, "I want to collaborate with this person or that person.". The only real time that happened, I suppose, was when I asked Steve Albini to record [Auteurs' album] 'After Murder Park'. That's something I thought about for a while. That's still a collaboration but I guess it's a different sort of collaboration. But, no, it's intuition and the Gods that guide me there. PB: Are you an easy person to collaborate with? LH: Yeah, I think I am. And I think the people I've worked with say I am. I think that if you are really difficult in collaboration then it's not going to work. I couldn't collaborate with someone who isn't up to muster. So, I suppose, I make sure the people I collaborate with are up-to-scratch. Put it that way. PB: Which leads me quite nicely to Peter Buck. LH: He's up-to-scratch (Laughs). PB: I read the press release and I've seen your paintings, and they are really good, but that's how you came into contact, isn't it? LH: That's right. I was just sitting around one Wednesday afternoon and a notification came through and it was Peter Buck and I thought, "Ah, that's interesting. I wonder if that's the Peter Buck". And it turns out that it was Peter Buck and he wanted a Lou Reed painting, so I did him one. Then we exchanged e-mails and he told me he really liked my 'Baader Meinhof' record. I knew he liked some of the Auteurs' stuff as back in the '90s he would occasionally drop our name in which was very nice. So, after I'd had a few glasses of wine one evening, I thought, “Let's just do a record,” so I e-mailed him and said, “Let's just get on with it and make a record together.” And he e-mailed me back and said, "I'd like to but I'm a bit busy" (Laughs). But I thought, "That's cool. Nothing ventured, nothing gained," and then a few weeks later he sent me an electric guitar and drum machine demo of what became [album opener] 'Jack Parsons'. So that dropped into my inbox unannounced and we just continued from there. So, from that moment we were 'out of the traps'. PB: You hadn’t met before, had you? LH: We hadn't then but we have now. We hadn't met until the album was finished. PB: Are you a REM fan? LH: Yeah, of course. During the '80s, for me, they were one of the three bands that were making it possible to do anything, along with the Fall and the Go Betweens. There wasn't anything else and I was never a Smiths fan. So, it was those three groups and they always seemed to have an affinity between them, although I think Mark E Smith would have been horrified to think there was anything like that. PB: Who came up with the title 'Beat Poetry for Survivalists'? LH: I wrote the lyrics, so I guess that was mine. The lyrical side of things was very easy because he just turned everything over to me. So, I did that bit, and so far he hasn't said, "That bit's terrible," or anything like that. If you trust your collaborator, it should be a pretty smooth ride. PB: So, he set the ball rolling with the songs themselves? LH: Yeah, he would record a guitar and drum machine demo which would just be that and then send it over to me with a sort of chord structure. Then I'd fit a melody and lyrics over it and some overdubs and send it back to him and Scott McCaughey, who is from the Minus 5 who Peter works with, and they added bass and mellotron and what not, then it came back to me and I played a recorder. It was all that kind of stuff. PB: You like a recorder, don't you? LH: I do like the recorder, yeah. I think it's the new pop sound of 2020. I think all the young groups are going to be using it. I can see that. In two years’ time it's going to be a Dick James figure; "Recorder bands are out, guys". Then there's going to be a new Beatles come along and they are all going to play recorders. It's going to be a like a recorder quartet, and I was the original inspiration behind it. I know it! PB: Then you could do a greatest hits album, like you did last time, but, instead of using a conventional orchestra like last time, you could record it with a recorder orchestra. LH: I’d listen to that. Not necessarily my stuff. Anyone's songs done on recorders. Yeah, I like recorders a lot. PB: Looking at the album's song titles and having read the press release, there's a lot of favourite Luke Haines topics in there, isn't there? LH: Yeah, I guess. The lyrics were written very quickly, I have to say. I don't mean that in a slapdash way but it's the way I write these days. If an idea comes to me, I can normally get it down in fifteen minutes wherever I am, which can be annoying for anyone I happen to be with. It just means me dribbling into a dictaphone or scribbling on a cigarette packet or whatever is to hand. Old school. Then I kind of tidy it up but it's all automatic writing. I got into the Surrealists [art movement]. Not so much the paintings as I've been through all that many years ago. More the automatic writing stuff which is really interesting. PB: I really like the album's first track, 'Jack Parsons'. LH: I knew a bit about him, and I'd been meaning to write about him for a while, but it didn't seem the right approach. He was entwined with L. Ron Hubbard. What I really liked was the idea of a scientist embracing the occult. We don't seem to have the capacity to do that anymore. It all seems to be very ideological, like stick to the ideology time without the imagination. And Parsons was a gigantic figure really of the twentieth century. Although he's little known it's kind of like he invented everything in a way. Perhaps that’s over-selling it a bit, but he's a really important and interesting figure. PB: I have to say though the image of him masturbating onto magical tablets accompanied by Sergei Prokofiev's 'Second Violin Concerto' worries me a bit. LH: Don't do that. They see that in East Grinstead all the time (Laughs). That's just a Wednesday evening. I don't have a problem with that. You know, better out than in. PB: He blew himself up in the end, didn't he? I think it was an accident. Neverthless it was a sad end to have come to at the age of just thirty-seven. LH: I was always taking it was an accident. He was mucking around with some pretty unsteady stuff in a home rocket lab. And this was serious rockets. He was being employed by World War II, and the atomic people were on to him too and wanted his help launching warheads. But he was doing all this in his house. He was pretty hardcore. PB: On the press release it also says there's a song about Pol Pot. So, I listened to all the songs and couldn’t spot any lyrics that gave me a clue. LH: Ah, I made that up. PB: Did you? LH: Yeah, I just put that in the press release. There's nothing to do with Pol Pot in there at all. PB: You bastard (Jokingly)! I went back and listened to all the songs again and I still couldn't work out which song it was. LH: Sorry for wasting your time (Laughs). I've had that I few times and I thought I'd better lead people down the rabbit hole. I like a bit of Mad Hatter's tea party with people, every so often. But we'll nip that one in the bud right away. There's no song about Pol Pot. PB: On to 'Apocalypse Beach'. That's about the post-apocalyptic radio station that only plays Donovan records, right? LH: It is. The whole thing is like a version of automatic writing. Out of that came a very apocalyptic feel. It's the times we live in and you can't completely ignore that. And in terms of making a record of the times we live, this is probably as close as I get right now. So, I think all this kind of stuff was coming out at a subconscious level. Maybe 'Apocalypse Beach' is part of the 'British Nuclear Bunkers', but I just liked the idea of people sitting on an LA beach under post-apocalyptic red skies and a desolate kind of radio with just Donovan strumming away forever. And that's it. The future, forever. I like Donovan by the way. I'm a huge fan. But I don't know why I just latched onto Donovan. It’ll all become clear as time goes on (Laughs). PB: Keeping with the American theme, I really liked ‘The Last of the Legendary Bigfoot Hunters’. How do the Ramones come into that? LH: That was just a signifier of the times again. If you look at the front cover of the album it's Teddy Roosevelt with the pelt of a bigfoot because there's a kind of conspiracy theory that Teddy Roosevelt was a Bigfoot hunter. So, if you think about the idea of the President of the United States being a Bigfoot hunter then you're kind of getting halfway there. It applies to now. We're in those times. We're living that now. PB: You’ve written about witches before. Is witchcraft something that fascinates you too? I’m guessing 'Witch tariff' is the one about the Enfield hauntings. LH: Actually, no. They are connected but the Enfield hauntings is in the last verse of 'Jack Parsons' and the voices there are from the Enfield hauntings. PB: Ah, because there were references to places near Enfield in 'Witch Tariff'. LH: Yes, there's a reference to Billy Fury Way which is in West Hampstead. But, no, 'Witch Tariff' is more of a song about the Faustian Pact and the accounting for the price of stardom and that kind of thing. PB: I love the guitar work on this one. LH: A lot of that is Peter and some of the twangs are me. It's a combination. It's the Buck and Haines dual prog attack. PB: It sounds like a potent force. And I'm guessing Andy Warhol was a common touch stone between the two of you. LH: Yeah, and that kind of links in with the Bigfoot song, which may or may not have some links with what's going on politically in America right now, with the lines about building a wall etc. PB: And following on from you mentioning the Fall earlier on, on 'Ugly Dude Blues' I got a bit of a Fall feel from this. LH: I hadn't really thought about that, but I guess so in terms of the kind of distorted vocal sound. But Peter presented me with this almost finished song. It was pretty much fully formed. And I just put a vocal over it and it became pretty obvious it had to be this garage blues thing. In the sleeve notes I put that I wanted it to sound like this unreleased or unearthed Troggs track. Hence the recorder as the Troggs were big on recorders. PB: On 'Bobby’s Wild Years' who is the Bobby you are referring to here? LH: No, no, I'm not going to give that one away. It's a Bobby that I know, and a Bobby people would know so I'm not going to give it away. I think it's kind of obvious. It's a little nod and an affectionate tribute to a friend. To give it a bit of a clue we can say a 'Rock and Roll' friend. PB: As an album I think it’s great: LH: Oh good. I'm glad you like it. PB: I know it's a collaboration but as soon as you hear it you think, "Ah, that's a Luke Haines record." LH: Yeah. I think it would have been impossible to make this record as a solo record. It's not something I would have thought to do, and I've not made a rock record and Peter's guitars are unlike mine. When you listen to and study REM records you really learn about his guitar playing and he plays like no one else at all, and he covers a lot of ground in rhythm guitar. 'Monster' is one of my favourite REM records and that's a great guitar album and it's a real Peter album. It's one of the great guitar albums of the '90s. To me, this album has a bit of that to it. That kind of garage sound that I can't do. Then, there are the other musicians like Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon from the Filthy Friends who played drums. It's a very American album in the sense that the traditions are American, and Americans play really differently from English people. I like working with Americans a lot. I should have always been in an American band, I think. PB: Actually, I get that as with Luke Haines albums you've been using less and less in terms of drums, and then all of a sudden there are big thumping drums on this album. LH: Absolutely, and I've really enjoyed that element to it. So, we've got a live band and at the age of fifty-two I've got the best band in the world. PB: So, last question, Luke. How are you approaching the gigs you are going to play in the UK in April? LH: We're going to reproduce the songs. It's going to be a four/five-piece band and we might have a synth player as well. We want it to be an impressive, rock'n'roll deviant thing. It's going to be good. It isn't going to be some little garage band. PB: Thank you. The Peter Buck interview: PB: In terms of Luke Haines, had you come across his work prior to collaborating with him? PETER BUCK: Oh yeah, I got a cassette of ‘New Wave’ before it was out. A promo cassette. I think he was the best songwriter of that Brit Pop wave. Brit Pop was a bunch of people playing songs, but I was impressed by the intensity of his work. And then he just kind of walks away. The 'Baader Meinhof' record is a bit of a classic. I've kept up with him for years. PB: He always does interesting stuff and writes about interesting subjects, doesn’t he? PETER BUCK: Yeah, and our record kind of shows that. PB: When I saw the press release, I was quite excited. I spoke to him this morning and he's a big REM fan, as you probably know. So, when I heard you were collaborating, I knew something good was going to come out of it. PETER BUCK: Yeah - it doesn't sound like anything either one of us has already done. It's a basement record. I and my friend Scott McCaughey would go into his basement, and just throw down the strong structure with just guitar, and we'd add a drum machine and send it off to Luke. He'd put vocals and synths on and send it back, and we'd put drums on it, and then we mixed it, so I never met him until it was mastered. PB: In that sense it's a modern way of working, pinging files across the Atlantic, isn’t it? PETER BUCK: Yeah, it's one of the few things in the modern world I still really enjoy. We were first corresponding about his artwork and he said, "We should make a record," and a couple of months after, I just kind of started sending him stuff - one every month, and he'd immediately come up with something. PB: There's some really interesting narratives in the songs, isn't there? PETER BUCK: Yeah. It wasn't really what I was expecting. As a songwriter, I'd done this for years. Supplied music to someone and ideas of where the melody might go and he took them in different directions melodically, certainly lyrically. I don't think I would have gone for writing about, say, a fridge, or going out in a cannibal gang, roaming the streets, although it makes sense. PB: I really like the opening song about Jack Parsons. I thought that was an interesting narrative. PETER BUCK: Yeah. Do you know of Jack Parsons? PB: I did vaguely as Luke's written about the occult stuff before. PETER BUCK: He kind of invented American rocket science. And no one seems to believe he was trying to combine science with the occult to bring something about. Maybe that's why he exploded. PB: Luke has made a bit of a career of writing about these fringe characters who are interesting, but who are not in the mainstream. PETER BUCK: I hadn’t heard about Jack Parsons. After he wrote the song, I ended up going out and buying a book and reading it. It’s a fascinating story. PB: The song ‘Apocalypse Beach’ about the radio station playing Donovan record is interesting as well. PETER BUCK: That song doesn’t really have a structure that you would describe as song-like. I just sent it to him to see what he could do with it. And he totally turned it into something. One of the things he talked about when we were emailing each other is that everyone thinks the world’s going to end and it doesn’t end, and it just gets cheaper and tardier as the days go by. PB: In terms of his solo albums, he was putting less and less electric guitars on them and getting softer, but this record is quite a departure from that as you’ve really rocked him up. There are your trademark fuzzy guitars and it’s a real rock record. PETER BUCK: I’ve kept up with all he's done, and, as far as I know, he’s recording in his basement, just as I do, and, as a songwriter, he’s just trying to get closer to those faiths in the form. But I’m a guitar player and I write on guitar, so that’s kind of how it’s turned out. But he added all the synths which were great. PB: I guess for many artists they get in a practice room and jam ideas around and it comes organically, but this has come out of a totally different process, hasn’t it? PETER BUCK: Yeah, but that’s kind of the way I’ve always worked. Sitting at home, coming up with stuff. Every song’s got guitar riffs, chord changes. Here’s the chorus, here’s the intro, here’s the bridge. If I was a better musician, I could play all the instruments myself. I like working with other people who do things on bass that I wouldn’t do. PB: For example, Luke is a really big fan of the recorder, isn’t he? PETER BUCK: Yeah, that was kind of a surprise. It popped up all over the place. Then he’s got synths that sound like recorders, so you don’t know where you are. PB: But when you put it all together it really works and hangs together as a record. PETER BUCK: As we were doing it, it wasn’t until we compiled the thing and he mixed and mastered it that I could kind of see what we’d done. It was like at time “We have five songs. is that enough for a record.” And it was like “Yeah!” And we’re still writing, and we’ve got a couple of new ones on the go. PB: With the lyrics, he said it was almost like a stream of consciousness and he wrote the lyrics very, very quickly. PETER BUCK: I think my song writing, melodically and harmonically, is different from his song writing, so it just kind of pushed him to just kind of go with it. In the same way that it then came back to me, and I had a little think and just went, “Wow! That’s a crazy chorus.” It makes things in a way that isn’t particularly linear, which I quite like. You can pick out things and say, “That’s a good hook.” It’s kind of a weird dance record. PB: So, Luke chose the narratives and wrote the lyrics. PETER BUCK: Yeah, he never mentioned anything to me about what he was writing about until it came back. Which is great. When I collaborate with someone, I don’t want to do what I would do. I know what I can accomplish. But it’s nice to have something that is clearly different to what I would have chosen myself. PB: That’s interesting because when I was looking at the themes I was wondering if you’d written some of the lyrics as there’s quite a lot of American themes in there. PETER BUCK: Yeah, he did dig a lot of stuff out. With the way that the world is going, it’s hard to pick which country is going worse. America’s kind of going down the toilet right now. I don’t think he did it because of me. I just think he was looking around the world and thinking how idiotic it is. PBM: Which is your favourite song on the album? PB: I think ‘Apocalypse Beach’ really. It doesn’t really have a rhythm structure. We overdubbed the drums later. It was done to a click track or drum machine originally so it just kind of wanders around, but it all makes sense lyrically and melodically. PB: And you’re coming over to the UK to do some shows. Are you looking forward to doing the shows? PETER BUCK: Yeah, very much. We haven’t played together yet but I’m already kind of rehearsing the stuff. And we’re writing new songs, so we have enough stuff to play, so we’ve got a few new ones. I’m not too sure but we might do an Auteurs song and something from ‘Baader Meinhof’. It should be interesting. We’re going to have several days of rehearsals, and we’ll know the songs so it should be really cool. It’s a really different record to play. PB: And you’ve got a full band with you, haven’t you? PETER BUCK: Yeah. Scott McCaughey on bass who I’ve been playing with for years. Linda Pitmon on drums who I’ve been playing with for another twenty years. And there’s a synth player that Luke knows. Ideally, he looks exactly like Vangelis. PB: And the record’s getting a joint release both sides of the Atlantic, Cherry Red here in the UK and Omnivore Records in the States. It’s going to be interesting as obviously REM were massive in the UK. I guess in the States it’ll introduce Luke Haines to a new audience. PETER BUCK: Yeah, ideally in the fall we’ll get around to doing some shows over here. The problem is that I don’t have a manager or a booking agent or anything, so I don’t really know how to go about that. PB: Could you not hire one? PETER BUCK: Well, I don’t want a manager. The manager who managed REM still kind of manages me, but I don’t ask him to do stuff outside of the band. And a booking agent? I don’t know. I manage myself. I make the phone calls, book the studio time. It’s not that hard. PB: Well, I have to say, when I heard about this collaboration, I was really excited, and I’m pleased to say all my expectations have been met with the record. PETER BUCK: Thank you very much. And I’m very happy with it too. PB: Thank you.

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Luke Haines and Peter Buck - Interview

Luke Haines and Peter Buck - Interview

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