Photo by Dean Karr
Near the end of 2017, the guitarist, singer-songwriter, and visual artist Joseph Arthur faced a dilemma: He needed to retrieve a Dobro he’d left in Todos Santos, Mexico, where he had played a festival. When he investigated shipping this large parcel to the United States, he realized it would be prohibitively expensive.
It would be much more cost-effective, Arthur discovered, to take a round-trip flight to Mexico and retrieve the guitar himself. He figured he could stay for cheap in Todos Santos and spend a relaxing week writing new songs. When Arthur texted a friend about his travel plans, she suggested he meet up with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who had a second home in the area. Having opened for the seminal indie-rock band in the early 2000s, Arthur agreed this was a good idea, and reached out to Buck, who suggested they do a show together there.
As Arthur sat on Buck’s porch, playing him some of his songs in preparation for the gig, the two musicians discovered they had an easy chemistry. Before performing in the town’s square, they wound up writing a collection of songs together, which they ultimately brought back to the States to record.
These tracks became the duo’s new album, Arthur Buck. Against a backdrop of Buck’s chimey strumming and melodic riffing, Arthur sings and adds his idiosyncratic lead-guitar flourishes. He also handles drum programming on the album, blending beats with a traditional drum set to create a compelling, hip-hop-informed sonic landscape.
When PG caught up with Buck and Arthur, they described how their duo instantly jelled in Mexico, how they turned this meeting into a recording project, and, naturally, what gear they used—including the storied Rickenbacker 360 Buck has used on almost every R.E.M. album.
Arthur Buck came about serendipitously?
Joseph Arthur: We had long talked about working together but never did, and I didn’t necessarily think that we even would this time, but I was like, “Well, it’s great that Peter is down there in Mexico and wants to hang out and play a show.” To me, that in and of itself was super cool.
At the time, I was working on a solo album and got to thinking how cool it would be to get Peter to play some guitar on it. So I showed him one of the songs. We jammed on it for five minutes and then he said, “Well, check this one out.” Peter writes songs that are fully arranged with the bridge, verse, chorus, but without the melody or vocal line on top yet. I just started making shit up to that, singing top-line stuff. We just started busting out jams, dude. It was easy and fun as hell—totally spontaneous. It sounds hokey when people say, “It was like magic,” but it really was magical.
“I’m more interested in things like, how do you arrange a song so that you’re not just strumming chords?” —Peter Buck
Peter Buck: It was so great to sit down and play guitar and swap song ideas with Joseph. He’s a much better fingerpicker than I am. I’m a good rhythm guitar player, and I’m more interested in things like, how do you arrange a song so that you’re not just strumming chords? When a lot of people write a song, they strum the chords all the way through. Then you have to figure out how to put little bits together: Here’s the place we can do a solo, etc. I tend to write arpeggios, maybe for the verse, block chords for the chorus, and single notes here and there. With me doing that, it left Joseph free to fool around and do whatever he wanted to.
Arthur: Yeah, it was just synchronicity. The next thing we knew, we had five songs. And we still have this acoustic EP we recorded in Mexico, because I’d brought my laptop and recording stuff with the intention of working on my solo shit. I brought it to the porch and we recorded a five-song EP that’s really good, actually. It’s got similar songs to the record, but with different lyrics.
We ended up playing a little festival show in the city center. Peter was like, “Ah, this stuff always makes me nervous.” I just thought it was so funny that he felt that way. Even though we’ve been doing this a while, I just felt this energy like we’re a new band all of a sudden. It was just fun. Then we played another bar gig. I brought up an art show I had coming up in L.A. and asked Peter to play with me. At the soundcheck at the show, he was jamming on what became “I Am the Moment.” When I started singing “I am the moment,” he started singing “waiting for you.” I fucked around with some lyrics and we ended up playing the song that night. The whole crowd was singing along. It was kind of like a movie, you know?
TIDBIT: Peter Buck and Joseph Arthur wrote the songs on Arthur Buck in Todos Santos (Mexico), Los Angeles, and Portland—where they also cut the album’s basic tracks. Originally, the music was powered by programmed drumbeats, but engineer Tchad Blake convinced Arthur to enhance the sound with live drums.
Peter, you mentioned how some musicians strum continuously throughout their songs. Are your right-hand patterns or textures as important as the chords themselves?
Buck: Yes. To a certain degree, I’m picking melodies out even if I’m using the chord structures. They become melodic if you’re arpeggiating or doing a two-note thing or linking things together by moving the chords in the left hand. I tend to build a lot more melody into the rhythm guitar than a lot of people do.
Where do you think that comes from—just experimenting or by emulating certain players?
Buck: When I started learning to play guitar, I was 14 and the ’60s were over. I had grown up listening to the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Motown—all that stuff. It seemed that everything I liked was about guitar riffs. I didn’t really become a big fan of Hendrix until later, and I didn’t really know much about Led Zeppelin. I wasn’t really listening for great lead guitar players. I was listening to song arrangements.
I knew so little about guitar I didn’t realize that [Byrds guitarist] Roger McGuinn was fingerpicking. I figured he gets all those ringing tones, so he must just be going really fast. So I worked out a flatpick style that’s fairly complicated and not a lot of people can do it. It’s just that I would say, “Well, that’s how he does it.” As I got older, I realized he was picking with his thumb and three fingers. But that’s why I tend to like to write the original guitar parts very melodic and if I do, it’s involved. It immediately sounds like a song if you have all those elements.
If you were a kid playing guitar now, do you think your style would be different because of easy access to information about how certain players approach the instrument?
Buck: Yeah. I go on the internet sometimes at 3 o’clock in the morning and look things up. I was learning some song that had a little riff and I didn’t have the record around. I just went online and typed in “how do you play the riff” for that song on YouTube and it popped up. The guy wasn’t a great guitar player or anything, but I just watched where he put his fingers for about two seconds. I went, “Okay, I got that.”
I’m kind of friends with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and we were talking about this. He said, “Oh, that’s how I learned how to play banjo. I just went on the internet and did all these tutorials.” He’s obviously a world-class musician, so he actually got really good at it. I’ll go online and learn a particular scale or something. I like learning by ear and figuring things out myself.