“‘Supergroup’ is just lazy, ‘60s journalism. Cream was a supergroup. We’re people who know each other and do music.”
(Photos: Patrick Weishampel)
Peter Buck was already waiting for me in a corner booth when I entered Dot’s, a dark, divey drinking establishment in Southeast Portland. We had been having an unseasonably run of hot weather and the temperature pushed past 110 degrees. Buck, wearing boots and long pants, said he had just walked over from his house a few blocks away. I asked him about the heat and he said he would never be seen out wearing shorts. “Never going to happen,” he said, expanding that no band should ever wear shorts on stage, not even an emo one.
Over the course of an hour, Buck and I spoke about his new project, Filthy Friends, a band featuring Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney fame on vocals, Kurt Bloch and Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 and Bill Rieflin on drums, though Linda Pitmon played when I caught the band at Portland’s Project Pabst festival. We also talked about politics, Portland and which R.E.M. albums Buck does not own on vinyl. I’m pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Peter Buck.
A term lazy journalists like to use is “supergroup.” In all the prior press I’ve seen leading up to your Filthy Friends album it’s not coming up. Are you guys actively trying to avoid that?
Every time someone sends me press releases to okay, I cross out any reference to “supergroup” and “R.E.M.” Just because my assumption is if you don’t know who I am at this late date, having that in there isn’t going to impress anybody. And if you do know, you don’t need to be told. I’m always like, “Think of another way to say this.” “Supergroup” is just lazy, ‘60s journalism. Cream was a supergroup. We’re people who know each other and do music.
It seems like latter-day supergroups usually don’t ever put out anything amazing anyway.
Yeah, I think about the ones from the ‘80s and ‘90s where it was people from bands that I kind of liked. They would make a nine-song record with two good songs. Then they would play live and do three covers and the record. I didn’t want to go on-stage until we had a real thing. We’ve got the whole next record written, or should I say possible next record. We’re doing a bunch of that stuff live. It’s like seeing a band on its second album. We’ve got 20 songs.
I’m friends with your neighbor and they told me once they went outside and heard you and Corin Tucker playing. That was years ago. So it has been going on for a bit, right?
The first time we did any work together was when she sang on my solo record, which was 2011. We started writing in 2012 but we really didn’t get to the point where we wanted to record for a couple of years. Just the whole thing of getting the record deal, mixing the record and all that stuff took a while. Then we had to work around Sleater-Kinney, which is fine. It took a little longer. I’m hoping the next record comes out next year.
Was the album always going to come out on Kill Rock Stars?
I didn’t really have anyone in mind as far as a label goes. At first we talked about just doing it ourselves. I don’t really want to be in charge of rounding up interviews and deciding window displays or sending out bulk emails. We wanted to stay on a smaller [label]. Corin’s worked with Kill Rock Stars. I’ve got a million of their records. They were interested. That’s the main thing. You want somebody who is going to be interested in what the record is and not in vain hopes that we could sell a million.
Are you primarily handling all the press, such as interviews?
Me and Corin do all the interviews. We’ve been doing a bunch together and then we’ve been doing some phone stuff. We try to keep it even. I don’t know why I’m doing this one alone, but she’s busy. She’s got stuff to do and we’re leaving town tomorrow to play some more shows.
The record just came out. Are you guys looking at press?
Not really. My understanding is it’s doing really good, but I don’t really pay much attention to it. I kind of stopped reading reviews in 1983 or 1984. Very seldom is a review well-enough written or have enough insight for me to take anything on. Either it’s really good or really bad. I don’t care about the good ones and the bad ones hurt my feelings. So, forget it.
Yeah, more or less, even though there was a bunch of bands in between us.
Still, it is good exposure because the festival draws a big crowd.
I think there were probably 800 people there, which is twice as many as we can probably draw here in town. People seem to like it. That also means we can play here in January. We can do a club show. Ideally, we build up a slightly bigger audience. Fill up the clubs. That’s kind of the goal.
You mentioned you cross out the Sleater-Kinney and R.E.M. references, but the press releases I got said, “Members of Sleater-Kinney and R.E.M.” Is there a way to escape that?
We’re both proud of what we’ve done. It just feels stupid to me to have it in there. Anytime we try to give them something else, they always try to stick it in. It’s just the way it works. Somebody thinks this is a marketing tool. I don’t really think it is. I think knowing what Corin has done is more important than knowing what I have done.
With the interview with our local paper, you mentioned willfully trying to stay away from sounding like Sleater-Kinney and R.E.M. How does that manifest in the songwriting process?
Well, we’re both trying to lean away from it. Just a little bit. You don’t really want R.E.M. with a female singer. You don’t want Sleater-Kinney with me as guitar player. We have a lot of ground that doesn’t include those two bands. My guitar style is part of what I play. It’s there but I’m trying to consciously avoid the kind of stuff R.E.M. might have done.
Were you primarily playing your Rickenbacker during the show the other day?
Mostly, but I use a Gibson on a few things.
Is this the first band you’ve been in with a female vocalist?
A band, yes. I’ve backed up plenty of female singers on their records. But, this is the first band where I’ve co-written the songs and made a record with a female singer.
Does gender account for any differences in dynamics?
No. I think we kind of come from the same world. We have some of the same political ideals. It’s not as if there isn’t a different understanding for different genders, but it doesn’t affect what I bring in and I don’t think it affects what she does.
I’m glad you mentioned the politics thing. One of your songs is about Trayvon Martin. I know R.E.M. wasn’t explicitly a political band, but you had plenty of political songs. It seems that in this day and age we need something to fill in the void.
Yeah, what a year, huh? All the songs on the record were written before the election. It’s a troubling, confusing time. The right-wing has been on the rise for a while because of the whole having a black president thing. You see it all over the place. They’re getting a little bolder. The thing is, there aren’t many of them. They have these rallies, like the one in Charlottesville, where people come from all over America and there’s 800 people. You could wave a wand and get 800 people from the opposite side of the fence. Everyone’s gotta watch out.
It just makes some of the stuff Michael Stipe rails about in “Ignoreland” seem a bit quaint.
Yeah, this is a period that we gotta get through. All the idiots who think this is a great way to go, well they are not a large amount. We’ll see what happens in the next four to eight years. I lived through Nixon. Nixon and Ford. Carter was a good man. He got one term and then Reagan, really? We’ll just see.
They know how to play the game.
Essentially you could run for president and say I’m going to cut taxes for rich people, cut social services and put the brown and black people in their place and you’re going to get 30% of the vote. Which is really distressing, but that’s the country we live in and I guess it’s the country we’ve always lived in. I was kind of hoping that it was a little better than that.
One of the downfalls to living in Portland is that we all hold similar ideals, but then our diversity is horrible.
There is nowhere perfect in America. You try to make your part of the world as good as you can.
Neither of us is a Portland native. You did live for a while in Seattle, but what drew you down here?
A relationship. I just like the place. If I didn’t like the town, I wouldn’t be here. But I do like the town. Seattle got really built-up and upper-middle classy and crowded. Portland still has a place like Dot’s. If this was Seattle it would be turned into some super fancy martini bar with a cigar room and a bunch of millionaires hanging around with hair gel. You can kind of avoid that here, which I kind of like.
How many years have you lived here?
I’ve been paying taxes here for about four years.
One of our mutual friends told me you don’t live in the [wealthier] West Hills because you would hate your neighbors.
Yeah, this is more my kind of town. I wasn’t one of those guys who went out and bought a big house and a Cadillac. I like this neighborhood because I could walk to Dot’s, there’s a record store, an independent theater, a video store owned by a guy who was in Guided by Voices. Good restaurants and all kinds of stuff nearby.
The town has kind of changed recently.
Yeah, every place does. That’s what happens when you get older. My kids don’t notice Seattle is a much different place then I remember it being in the ‘90s. They don’t have any idea what New York was like in 1980, which was when I first went there. You know, things change. That’s just the way it goes.
Do you see yourself staying in Portland for a long time?
Yeah. I don’t really think that far ahead. This is where my wife is and my guitars and my records and books. I might move on, I don’t know. It also depends on what I’m doing with my life. Am I playing music? Am I in a band that’s popular or successful or mildly successful? I don’t know. I can’t make any big decisions.
Has anything about Portland influenced the Filthy Friends since you all live here? Is there a Portland sound?
I don’t really know. We live in a world where you can hear any music at any second on any day. The local scene generally doesn’t affect me. I’m more likely to read about a record that came out in West Africa or New York City or wherever. Having access to that, whether it be on CD or vinyl or streaming thing or whatever means there aren’t really local scenes anymore. Local people who play music together are influenced by scenes from all over the place.
That’s a product of the internet.
Yeah, the internet. I remember when you just couldn’t find certain records. They were available, but did your little town have them? Not necessarily.
Like R.E.M.’s Monster?
That one’s around. You can get it used right now, I think.
Yeah….on vinyl? I dunno. I don’t have one.
The only time I’ve ever seen New Adventures in Hi-Fi in a store, it was $120.
Yeah, they’ve all come up in price on vinyl. But we’re doing the reissue program, but as they come out, they come out on vinyl. So yeah, Monster is two years away.
My wife got me a copy of Automatic for the People recently for my 40th.
That will be coming out again in a month or two with a whole CD of bonus stuff. Really cool stuff. A couple of unreleased songs.
Looking back at your legacy of music, R.E.M. will always be in the forefront. However, your relationship with Scott McCaughey is equally important. You’ve been in multiple bands with him. He’s in Filthy Friends. Can you count how many different iterations of bands you’ve done with him?
Oh, we can’t count them. Bands that actually made records and played shows? Probably eight, 10? I don’t know. We’ve got a new one, besides the Filthy Friends, called the No Ones. We are best friends. We work together well. It’s really good. I can trust him. I know what he’s going to do. He’s got a wild sense of where to put notes and how to play them. That works really well.
Is there a personality alchemy involved as well?
Yeah, we’re pretty different people. I like people who are up and focused. Scott’s like that. I’m maybe not quite so up, but I’m equally as focused. Those things work.
He is definitely one of the faces of the Portland music scene. You go to a show and he’s there.
He’s at every show that I hear about. He’s like, “Oh yeah, that was great.” I can’t go out that often.
I am curious about the synergy that exists between the two of you.
We’ve influenced each other a lot. But we were friends first. He plays bass, guitar and keyboards so if I ever need one of those, he’s the guy I’m gonna call.
There seems to be a tight-knit community for musicians in Portland.
I think every generation has its own little in-group. There’s a lot of us of similar age who know each other and have played each other’s records and hang out.
Are you a big record collector?
I buy a lot of records. I listen to a lot of music. I don’t really like the idea of collecting, but I guess I have a big collection.
Do you have any favorite stores in town?
Over here [at Clinton Street Records] is great. Mississippi, which put out my solo record, is a great shop. Jackpot is really cool. Music Millennium. Those are the ones I go to.
Well, that’s about all I have.
And you never even got your drink! I’ll go and tell the guy to come over. You want a drink?