“Anyone can talk shit and make it rhyme”, claims Buck 65 on the last line from his 1996 album, Language Arts / Part 1. You’ve heard this one before through dismissive indie-rock creationist dogma, or maybe your parents, but it was an odd admission from a young hip-hop MC in a field that relies heavily on self-mythologising bravado.
He’s half apologetic delivering the line, and by his own appraisal (buck65.com offers retrospective reviews of his own records), the album was a half-baked idea, with his whiny, “funny accent” laid over self-indulgent scratching and poor production. Speaking on the phone 10 years later, Buck 65 (Richard Terfry) doesn’t denounce his early work outright, as it “germinated future ideas”, but still maintains he “sounded like a brat on the earlier stuff. What an annoying voice – I really hated it…”
Maybe he’s got used to the sound of his voice – I anticipate a typical 15 minute production- line phone slot but Terfry has some time on his hands. He answers my call with a joke James Bond baddie voice: “ Ah… I’ve been expecting you…” He’s in Paris, which he calls his “home, in a manner of speaking… I still have an address in Canada for legal stuff”.
“What an annoying voice… I really hated it”
It’s a few days after his short tour of Ireland, and he’s on a rare break from touring his seventh album, Secret House Against the World. Anyone who has witnessed a Buck 65 live show know he loves an audience, however small. He chats to me for over an hour, often meandering but ever-articulate. He doesn’t do yes/no answers.
Richard Terfry was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia, Canada in the early 70s, “in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by music. All kinds”. Afrikka Bambatta ignited a breakdancing fixation in the early 80s and, according to one of his many surreal online childhood recollections, the young B-boy Buck “followed him [Bambaata] spiritually like Siddharta following the Buddha for ten years. Then one day – suddenly – he stopped short and ran full tilt in the other direction, after the ghost of Woodie Guthrie”.
Psoriasis, his first proper attempt as a rapper and producer was recorded with fellow Canadian, Sixtoo, and over the next few years he recorded five further solo albums – the Language Arts series – Part 1, Vertex, Man Overboard, Synesthia, and Square. These first records were DIY lo-fi affairs, often recorded in whole over a few days in Terfry’s bedroom. This deconstruction and experimentation with samples was a rite of passage that he feels was more important than the end results. He says: “In the beginning I just had basic ideas, and I got really excited about complex layering but it wasn’t really dynamic – I could only really establish a groove – it was just my voice, turntables and SP1200 sampler so I was thinking in hip-hop terms but I wanted to go beyond that and work in wider musical terms.”
Square was a turning point – vastly improved production, coherent song structures and live instrumentation. He also lost the affected self-conscious vocal delivery by a happy accident, and says: “I got signed to Warners on the back of Square but until then I’d done no real touring. My voice really got put to the test during those live shows – it just wasn’t strong enough. It then started to go to crap, all croaky and busted up… but I kinda liked it… it wasn’t so snotty, had more character. I found myself recording vocals straight after shows and it seemed more natural.”
Although Square has Buck 65 flirting with ‘proper’ songwriting, he says he still felt constrained by hip-hop at the time, and his subsequent Warners albums Talkin’ Honky Blues (2003) and Secret House Against the World (2005) freed him to assimilate folk, punk and even country influences. Inspired largely by constant travelling, his lyrics extol the virtues of “the counter-clockwise, the despised”, a hobo voyeur of the Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, reminiscent of Springsteen or Tom Waits.
“There’s a reason why actual songs are written”, he says, when quizzed about his apparent evolution from sample-based producer. “Think of any timeless classics – they’re all songs with some emotional complexity. There’s even a lot of songs you mightn’t necessarily think of, like I had a weird epiphany listening to You Are My Sunshine. I’d always thought of it as this nice song, but the lyrics are really sad, creepy even… it’s because of the melody – it’s way more complex than you imagine.”
“For years I wrote these bullshit songs that never had an impact”
When speaking of lyrical inspiration, he harks back to “the sixth grade teacher telling you to write what you know, and go with the first thing you think of, when telling a story… for years I wrote these bullshit songs that never had an impact. The more personal you are the more people respond.” He once sang, on Wicked and Weird that “The highway’s a storyteller – I just write it down”, and it’s often these chance meetings and fleeting observations that form a song’s backbone, “like the guy the song Craftsmanship is about the philosophy of this old shoe-shine, shoe-mender guy I met in Edinburgh when I was hanging out after missing a train. If stuff is interesting to me it makes sense for me to write about it, you know.”
In February Buck 65 played Maple Leaf Mojo Meets New Orleans Gumbo, a Hurricane Katrina benefit gig in New Orleans, which he describes as “extremely humbling on all counts… I got to share a stage with some of the legends who helped found the music scene in New Orleans – people like Eddie Bo, and members of the Meters. I did feel helpless though, at the level of devastation, and visiting New Orleans was the first time I’d realised the scale of what happened.
“We watch the news and we get a scene in abstract… you know, an aerial view or a view of a street full of debris. I took photographs of family photographs, teddy-bears, babies’ shoes, Spider-Man bedsheets… it adds a human face to the tragedy and it’s heartbreaking. I think when I took those photos and posted them on the site I was saying, ‘I want you to see what I saw’. That’s what I do with songs, as stories or observations, but sometimes a photograph is more powerful.”
Would he feel comfortable using the stage as a political platform, as Kanye West did when he echoed the sentiments of millions in the US over Bush’s handling of the tragedy? “I really don’t know, I’m happy to play my part, no matter how small… but what he says matters, and to some people his words may be even more powerful than the president’s. If you’re in that position you have to decide whether to accept or reject that responsibility. He spoke from the gut so I suppose that counts for something.”
Buck’s improvised live shows are more suited to intimate surroundings. He comes armed with a backing track, one turntable (“that kills fascists” – Guthrie style) and his BSc degree that he says he keeps in his shoe. He never makes a setlist or rehearses: “What do bands do during a ‘rehearsal’? Stand in front of a mirror with a microphone? I can barely look at myself when I’m brushing my teeth.”
He sees himself as a music fan first, and gives the crowd “a concert I would like to see… you see some bands playing live, I hesitate to say performing, and they operate under this idea that it’s not cool to give too much of yourself… I think it’s important to give a little extra.” The “little extra” involves accepting requests, throwing confetti, and on one occasion giving everyone in the front row at Whelan’s a nickname for the night. I got called “Meat-Shorts: always a good guest at a barbecue…”
This confidence comes from “15 years of reaching into my guts on stage… it took a long time to get comfortable up there.” I ask about the altered lyrics for the US release of the Centaur, from “my cock is so big and the end of it glistens”, to “My clock is so clean and the hour hand is missing.” He laughs, insisting he’s not pandering to American conservatism, but finally embracing his audience: “That was a really hostile song about how it freaked me out making music for an audience, and worrying about their judgments… so I’m the centaur, throwing the cock in people’s faces, a freak.”
He thinks it’s time to be less heavy handed. “Come on man, I’m in my 30s”, he says. “It’s time to reel the cock back in.”
Originally version in NUI Galway student paper, Sin (March 2006)