Big Thief’s James Krivchenia on Blood Karaoke, Mega Bog, and His Wide-Frame Techno-Thriller Americana Computer Music

Chicago-born, LA-via-Brooklyn sonic explorer James Krivchenia’s solo music is slightly unsettling. It’s something you maybe wouldn’t expect from the drummer of an acclaimed rock quartet, but then again, America is a strange place. What’s most arresting about his three solo works to date —You’re Useless, I Love You (Reading Group, 2016), No Comment (House Arrest, 2018), and A New Found Relaxation (Self-released, 2020)—is that none were made with physical instruments: he crafted each, as well as his latest Blood Karaoke, out April 15th via Reading Group, entirely from sampled sounds on the computer. 

Krivchenia’s drum presence in Big Thief is heavy and loose, with a pocket as deep and scrappy as The Band’s Levon Helm: a mash of subtly and raw energy that is a microcosm of the group’s roaming-yet-focused ethos. While he stepped in as a producer on their most recent album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, it’s a bit of an anomaly to hear him crafting worlds of pure digitalia in his solo work. But then again, we all need those creative endeavors which pull us out of the known, and Krivchenia’s solo work definitely feels personal.

The first minute of the second single from Blood Karaoke, “The Science of Imaginary Solutions”, bubbles and curdles with heaped digital blips, internet artifacts and demolished drum sounds, before being interrupted by what sounds like gun footage from a recent war or video game, and then the sound literally evaporates into an explosion. The second half of the track transmogrifies into a swirling, twisted, virtual reality day spa-vibe, with hints of juke, and tints of Deep House, drawing to mind some of Jib Kidder’s copy-pasting worlds.

We caught up with James to discuss his new work as a producer, early drumming moments, and his computer music process over the phone from his new home in Los Angeles. An excerpt of the conversation appears below. | t csatari

Aquarium Drunkard: Hey James, how and what are you doing today?

James Krivchenia: I’m doing well. I’ve just been mixing today at a little practice-space-slash-studio-spot. I’m working on the new Mega Bog album. I’m really excited about how it’s turned out.

AD: You’ve worked on that project before doing percussion, mixing, and production. What role are you playing on the new album?

James Krivchenia: I’m co-producing it with Erin [Birgy] who’s the main brains behind the whole thing. So I’m doing a bunch of different stuff: engineered a bit of it, played on a lot of it, and mixing it, so it’s sort of like my role as co-producer in this particular project is filling in all the gaps of what needs to be done and then just trying to make what Erin’s describing happen, you know? 

AD: How are you feeling about stepping into the role of producer after having “produced” such varied music to date, and in particular, producing the latest Big Thief record?  

James Krivchenia: It’s a real blurry line because producing can mean so many things. It can be very heavy handed and it can also be, like, pretty light. But because I always made my own records of bands I was in and because I had the technical ability, in terms of recording, I was sort of a “de facto producer” without really knowing what a producer was, you know. So it was (sort of) a natural transition into just having opinions about stuff and sound, and arrangement, and the way a record should be. It’s more recent, in terms of that, like, specific role of, producer—capital P producer, the official thing—but Mega Bog and Big Thief are the two vehicles that it’s come up through: from mixing, to co-producing mega bog, and then in Big Thief, being in the band and having opinions about stuff and mixing stuff here and then to producing this record.

AD: You’ve also worked as a drummer under different producers, like with these new Taylor Swift re-recordings which you play drums and percussion on. What’s it like being produced vs. producing? 

James Krivchenia: I’ll play drums on people’s records and stuff and get produced. It’s great, I like being produced, a lot. I think some people sort of bristle at the hierarchy of the whole thing, and it can be weird and bad if that’s what you make of it. But, if you’re working with people you trust and respect, it can actually be really helpful to have some roles established on what people are doing: Who you’re looking to, to be like, ‘are we good?’ Like, ‘should we move on?’ Or like, ‘you want me to try something else?’ I’ve definitely been in situations where it’s like a headless horseman, and you don’t know how to move on to something else. It’s nice to have someone be like, ‘that’s great. Love it!’’ Or like, ‘Hey, could you just try this real quick?’ Or, ‘scratch this’, you know? It’s like, cool, this person is looking over the actual point-A-to-point-B-ness of the record.

AD: So, the production lines are pretty blurred and shifty?

James Krivchenia: Yeah, and you kind of want the band to be producing it too, and bouncing off the producer and the producer to be pushing the band and everyone to be listening to each other, not someone just saying how it should be and you just doing it. Like, everyone’s getting their opinion in there, and there’s a sort of natural chemistry happening.

AD: How do you feel about the relationship between producing and playing in a band?

James Krivchenia: It’s different. I sort of crave a heliocentric figure, who is someone strong that is coming in with an opinion and a vision that you’re bouncing off of, and not just holding all the cards and being like, ‘this is how I think your record should sound’. Someone who’s also very confident and like ‘this is what I want to do.’ I’m attracted to when there’s someone who’s like, ‘okay, this person would be fine without me, I just want to make them better’.

AD: What was that process like on the Taylor Swift stuff? There’s a lot of remote tracking and collaboration in that sort of pop world—were all the parts there when you started drumming, or what?

James Krivchenia: That was mainly just drumming with my friend Aaron Dessner, who produces a lot of that stuff. I’d often go to his studio and just play on stuff he’s working on and that’s a really nice roll change for me to just be unprecious and know that someone else is gonna drive the ship and I basically just listen to something, say ‘this is what I’m thinking’ take a couple stabs at it. And it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, cool. Maybe we’ll use it, maybe we won’t,’ like, first-thought-best-thought, no-pressure kind of drumming, which is pretty nice. Especially when I’m used to being super involved in stuff that I’m working on closely, like Big Thief and Bog where it’s super high stakes, and we’re trying to make it perfect. It’s nice to be in the role where someone else is gonna make it perfect for themselves. And I’m just gonna, do my best drumming, you know? 

AD: Did you hear all the instruments together on that tracking?

James Krivchenia: Yeah, I think there was. It’s kind of track-to-track in that world.—a lot of it’s being bounced around, and different people are trying different stuff, remotely and simultaneously. So it sort of depends. Usually there’s at least enough stuff to know what’s going on in the song. And, I’m not precious about the stuff I put on: if they want to use stuff they like, that’s great. If they want to, cut something up and loop it, that’s fine—whatever works. I’m gonna just give you all the ideas I have, and, you know, go wild. It’s kind of nice because you’re not trying to nail it. But also, there’s a lot of flexibility in, ‘this might get chopped up and moved around,’ and,  ‘this whole thing that I’m playing to you might change because there’s like a different production idea that I’m not privy to,’ or something. . . 

AD: How did you initially come to the drums?

James Krivchenia: I’ve played drums for a really long time: started when I was like 9 or 10, or something. It’s always been centered around being in bands.I had a band with my next-door neighbors when I was in fourth grade, all the way through to high school and beyond, which started with just me playing snare drum and my neighbor playing electric guitar, and my other neighbor playing cello—it was pretty absurd. That was in Chicago where I grew up, in Oak Park. It’s always been about being in a band: it’s just part of my drum DNA, being in bands. I guess to backtrack a little more. I was also into a lot of different drumming, and I had some really good teachers when I was growing up in Chicago, where I got to dive deep into Cuban percussion in high school—a lot of mind expanding drum experiences, metaphysically beyond just, it’s cool to be a drummer. Rhythm is so deep. So, I went to music school thinking ‘maybe I’ll be a jazz drummer’ because that’s kind of the allotted role for people who are really into music in high school where I was growing up. If you really liked music, and you’re good, you play jazz. And I loved jazz. I was such a jazz head, especially in high school. I studied it a lot, and was super into the history and the records, but as soon as I got to college (I went to Berklee in Boston) I very quickly realized,  ‘oh, they’re a lot of drummers who are way better than me.’ I got out of the provincial mindset of: ‘I’m pretty damn good in my high school, in my town,’ or whatever… You’re like, ‘oh, man, I am good, but there’s also this whole level of savant.’ I think it was good to have that happen at a pretty young age, that sort of ego check: ‘Dude, you’re not the most talented drummer in the world by any stretch of the imagination’ and it forces you to think about why you like it in the first place, and what you want to bring to it. You’re in that mindset of trying to be the best, in a sort of competitive rut, through schooling and shit like that.

AD: It becomes very athletic, in a way?

James Krivchenia: Right, it makes no sense! I feel like music is so natural, not competitive. I mean, when it’s really happening in a way that feels good, it really doesn’t feel like competition, it’s a very different energy. Of course, you’re inspired by people, and it’s nice to be around other good musicians, because it makes you want to get better and have some sort of language with them, but it’s weird to want to be better than someone else at music. What is better? So, yeah, I started expanding my interest into electronic music and stuff. I felt like the lid was off: ‘I don’t need to be the best drummer. What a relief, now I can explore all the things I’m really interested in, digging more into the kind of drumming I’m into, which was not chops and techniques and being alright with not practicing and stuff like that,’ which was such a relief. I was always failing at not practicing enough.  

AD: So, you were drawn to those imperfections and rawness that maybe you heard on those old jazz records, and in drumming like that, as opposed to flashy, technical stuff?

James Krivchenia: Oh, yeah. Totally. I didn’t even realize that as much until I sort of got my head out of my ass. There’s just so many idiosyncratic things that are wrong about those jazz records that we all love from the 50s and 60s: even just tempo—it’s not steady—the songs will end like 20 BPM faster than when they started and It feels great. They were thinking about time and feel in a really deep way that doesn’t have to do with precision. I do kind of marvel at the Blue Note records from the 50s. It’s just this perfect storm of the recording technology getting really good at that point, so they sound fucking amazing, you and the music is amazing. Everything came together and I’m like, wow, I’m so glad this shit is captured. 

AD: Your music—both in a solo context, and with groups like Big Thief—seems to live in some sort of wide-spectrum “Americana” realm. How do you feel about that genre and your work within it? 

James Krivchenia: With Big Thief, we’re definitely drawing on American music in terms of rock and roll, country-ish folk, and some American folk canon stuff. It’s just music we like that lends itself well to the formation of instruments we play in. The whole influence thing is very weird. I think there’s something really cool with Big Thief where, from the beginning, there wasn’t this constipation about originality; the focus was really on what feels good to us, what sounds good, what actually feels like us when we’re playing it, regardless of how we think we should play or how we want to project ourselves. There’s always been this instinct within the band of trying stuff and then knowing when it really sounds like us, even if it’s totally basic and not what we were going for. We have this barometer of not being worried about things being simple which is a hard thing to beat out of yourself sometimes. It’s really easy to overthink your music and lose touch with it emotionally. So there’s this barometer beyond genre, where we’re asking if that sounds like us, or ‘that sounds a little derivative,’ or ‘that’s goofy, but I like it.’ Even though we weren’t trying to be goofy. Genre is so strange. It probably relates to language in general, where every word means something different to someone else. So I hesitate to stake my claim on anything too specifically.

AD: Does the magic in Big Thief have anything to do with sharing musical influences?

James Krivchenia: We definitely listen to a lot of music together, but we all have really different tastes in music which overlap in different ways, but that’s one of the strengths of the band, since everyone has different stuff that they’re drawn to, and there’s some similar threads between us, but everyone also just loves music and is pretty down for being turned on to something or reacting to something that’s out of their wheelhouse, and I think that’s one of things that’s special about bands, in general. There is an alchemy and it’s weird, and it’s not always one plus one equals two, in terms of how things come together and that’s what makes it special. There’s something strange that happens when everyone’s trying to play how they feel and also please the band and try and make it sound good, and the influences mash in a very unique way, which I think is why people like bands. 

AD: I hear an element of David Lynch-style Americana in your solo work—somewhat creepy and twisted, but rooted in a modern American textural world: very Twin Peaks-Reboot. Does Lynch inspire your solo work? 

James Krivchenia: I love the new Twin Peaks, so I’ll take that comparison any day. There’s a bunch in the new Twin Peaks that would be corny if it wasn’t so scary—Lynch always does the scary-funny-thing-at-once so well—and there’s whole sequences where you don’t know whether to like it or not. The new series has this new texture, whereas the old Twin Peaks is hyper-real and high-drama, or it almost looks like an episode of CSI or something, but then it’s so weird, and he’s using these textures that feel like modern TV, but the content was fucking bizarre and amazing. 

AD: How did you come to electronic music?

James Krivchenia: I had a mind blowing Kraftwerk listening experience in early college where I listened to something that I thought i didn’t like, in a style that i didn’t like or connect to—that super straight, german Kraftwerk thing—and had some sort of epiphany where i realized what it was doing and why it was so good. It just blew me away and there was this total recalibration where I thought I didn’t value these aesthetics and couldn’t connect with them emotionally but now I do, and what does that mean, so it was this interesting epiphany moment in the computer world. There’s been many moments of that throughout . I listen and check out a lot of stuff. Oftentimes something will just strike through in that non-focus space of listening where some back-brain process is doing its thing and I’m like ‘wow, I’m so moved but I don’t even know what I’m hearing’. I do listen to a lot of music, and I’m often worried when I’m burnt out if I’m going to have that experience again, but sometimes you need to give it some space and energy. 

AD: So what’s the connection between your drumming and your solo records of “computer music”? 

James Krivchenia: My main sort of thing that turns me on the most outside of drumming (and in addition to drumming) is computer stuff, specifically, sampling. I’m really fascinated by making music on my computer, especially once you start to have a language with it and be able to move things around and figure out how to do stuff that you want to do on a computer. It’s this insanely powerful tool that’s like an extension of growing up recording on computers and manipulating sound on computers. It’s this never ending world of possibilities which can be kind of overwhelming. That’s what I spend most of my time doing if I’m not mixing something or working actively on a record with someone—I’ll just be making shit on my computer.

AD: How would you describe the process of your solo music? 

James Krivchenia: Most of my solo music I just make at home. I have a pretty massive bedroom setup of stuff at this point: my computer music world and synth world and that kind of world is all at home. I share a practice space with Erin from Mega Bog and that’s where I have my speakers and my computer for mixing and some gear where the various bands can practice and that’s been really nice to have a dedicated mixing space because it’s kinda hard to mix at home—my house sounds terrible, and psychologically it feels good to say ‘I’m gonna mix today, and I’m gonna have to go somewhere for it.’ 

AD: You’ve put out two solo “computer music” records to date—what was the process like on Blood Karaoke

James Krivchenia: I love finding some sort of route that’s producing interesting sound or something interesting, and go into that without necessarily turning it into music. Like, I’m really into sampling YouTube. So the sound of Blood Karaoke started from just finding these websites that were random YouTube video generators of videos with very small amounts of views. Just observing, a.) these are so wild and b.) I should sample this—the craziest stuff that’s just so unexpected. It forces you to react to all this weird, ephemeral sound. So I was just sampling it for fun, not really knowing what, or if I was gonna turn into anything and I have this drone setup, and I’m just droning a lot and recording it. There’s something nice about the computer setup where you can be open ended and make stuff without it feeling like you’re going into a studio to work on a specific record. There’s this unspecificity that’s really nice: ‘I’m just gonna make sound for like an hour because it’s fun, and maybe it’ll be cool. Maybe I’ll never listen to it again.’ 

AD: Is everything electronic/sampled or were there any “real” instruments on this one?

James Krivchenia: It was all computer. It’s all samples. I was really into converting audio to MIDI, so there was a lot of that process and then putting that through a synth and messing around. A lot of iterative processes of sampling and making little bits and then putting a couple of those bits together and then slowly building out this thing bit by bit without really knowing what the whole thing was going to sound like but knowing there was a general feel I was going for. I do want it to move quickly and sound like YouTube, but that was just a vague reference point and I had no idea how the music was going to go, and it was actually hard to hear it all as one thing until I actually got there.

AD: Was it made as an album, or as separate songs?

James Krivchenia: Well, I had all this material and started building from there . It wasn’t in terms of songs. It was more, ‘I have 20 seconds of this cool thing I made’ and finding out what it could fit and slowly building it with that—building it as songs afterwards because I wanted it to be all one long thing and I was constantly thinking about transitioning little snippets together and worrying about flow. It was weird. I learned a lot about editing, for sure. It was kind of the opposite of playing drums—just editing stuff—but it was creative and satisfying in a weird way. 

AD: How did you compile the samples into actual music?

James Krivchenia: I was just sampling so much stuff . I had hundreds of hundreds of things—anything that sounded cool browsing on these YouTube things: stuff that didn’t sound like a recognizable sound to me, and i just had this pile of tons of things and built it with the mindset of trying to use all of it, not using my taste to determine the styles that would make it in there and just letting that all be and assuming my taste and voice would come through the editing process and how I chose to ‘show’ all of it. 

AD: Do you still listen to albums in this age of streaming and bytes?

James Krivchenia: I do listen to albums, but I wonder how much I actually do, but I do, especially in the mornings when I’m waking up and doing stuff—cleaning up I’ll put on an album, shit like that… sometimes. I like albums a lot and grew up revering them as these perfect things and now I still have that sort of reverence. It’s a good way to focus, conceptualize and carry out a project, getting into the mindset of making an album with someone is a nice-sized container for that sort of creative experience. One song just feels like ‘what, just one song, can’t we try something else’, but then again, there’s that balance between just making a bunch of shit and putting it on the internet: getting rid of the bad stuff, and there’s a time limit because it’s going on this physical thing. I think all that stuff helps the creative process when you’re making music. That you have some boundaries, and just out of happenstance, the album turned out to be a good one for musicians. 

AD: Do you ever get bogged down with the album-as-masterpiece framework as a producer or drummer? 

James Krivchenia: On the new Big Thief record, specifically, I was definitely thinking ‘man it doesn’t sound great to try and make a perfect album,’ that doesn’t sound like what should naturally occur in the world right now: one sound, focused, which is kind of why we made it more sprawling with varying fidelities and different sections and a less precious feel. There’s something that can be kind of suffocating about all these perfect albums that are in existence and comparing yourself to them; they cast a pretty long shadow. So, trying to find a new way to exist within that without being so referential to “classic” aesthetics is important too. I totally grew up thinking such-in-such is a masterpiece, but it’s really a moving target.

AD: The song titles on Blood Karaoke are really interesting; what role does song-naming play in your works? Where did you come up with those titles?

James Krivchenia: I’m kind of a huge sci fi nerd, so I just write down titles or phrases that feel like song titles as I go through life, and have this massive running list—just referencing that against what the project is. I like the titles on this one, and it took me a while to figure them out. I want them to feel like the right title, which is pretty abstract for music without words. I do like titles: they’re fun. 

AD: Oh, right, all your solo work is instrumental music—what’s that about? Why do you choose the instrumental medium for your “computer music”?

James Krivchenia: I tried to avoid too much human talk because it felt weird to have on there—human sampling. There’s something about sampling people that is a little more delicate and harder to do in a way that feels unique to myself. 

AD: What’s next for you, music-wise?

James Krivchenia: My album’s coming out in a couple weeks and I’m producing some stuff that I probably can’t talk about quite yet to not step on their toes of announcements and stuff. Touring a bunch. 

AD: Anything you’re into right now as a major creative influence? 

James Krivchenia: There’s a lot. I’ve been obsessed with this techno-thriller series by this guy Daniel Suarez—Daemon and Freedom Trademark — these books that I’ve been literally spending all my free time reading when I’m not mixing. They’re (sort of) about future digital economies, but with pretty pulpy, action-novel stuff. I’m going to see this artist Kali Malone tonight, right now, and her music is amazing. . .

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