Their music defies description – alternative, indie, folk-rock, Americana, roots? Some try to label, but nothing quite fits.
“The genre stuff is confusing,” said James Krivchenia, drummer of Big Thief and an Oak Park native. “It’s usually not a very accurate descriptor to me of what the music is actually doing. … I think our music is definitely song-focused – the songs come first, and the music sprouts out of that.”
However you may label the music, or if you choose not to, Big Thief is having a moment.
Up for a Grammy this Sunday, topping NPR’s Best of 2019 list and, even cracking Barack Obama’s playlist for the year.
Lead singer Adrianne Lenker writes the music in which band members Krivchenia, Max Oleartchik, bassist, and Buck Meek, guitarist, contribute.
But what also makes Big Thief special is the bond between the four.
“There’s a lot of trust and a lot of love,” Krivchenia said. “It allows for everyone to be pretty vulnerable in the music. Everyone is giving it their all and putting it all out on the table and not holding anything back when it comes to creative stuff.”
Krivchenia lives in Los Angeles but got his musical start in Oak Park.
Like so many instrumental music students, he chose something to play in fourth grade. As a Longfellow Elementary student, Krivchenia’s instrument of choice was drums.
He continued playing percussion in the Percy Julian Middle School bands and started playing jazz there. He had Ms. Holleman, who he said was a “very inspirational teacher and got a lot of kids hooked on music.”
Krivchenia also found other like-minded kids on his block of 600 S. Gunderson, where he lived at the time, and formed a rock band with them by fifth grade. They played venues such as Pilgrim Church. Krivchenia’s Uncle Bill made albums of the band as a Christmas gift, which the drummer still has.
“They’re good; they’re very free and wild,” he reminisced. Krivchenia finds them hilarious to listen to now, but said his uncle was straight-faced during the recording process. “We totally thought they were the best things ever and he totally bought into it too.”
In middle school, he also started private lessons with Don Skoog, who still teaches in Oak Park. Skoog recalls Krivchenia was a nice, easy going guy who played well and was very dedicated. Krivchenia studied with Skoog through high school.
“He was the rock of my music stuff,” Krivchenia said of Skoog. “He got me into jazz and a bunch of other styles of music and was influential in broadening my horizons beyond just rock stuff.”
At OPRF, Krivchenia continued to play, winning an Outstanding Soloist award at a jazz competition in 2007, his graduation year.
He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. After moving to New York, Krivchenia spent his time playing in bands and working as a sound engineer at Bunker Studio, Brooklyn, ultimately introducing him to Big Thief.
It was mid-2016, and Krivchenia was a sound engineer on Big Thief’s first album, Masterpiece. He quickly moved on to become the band’s drummer, initiated into the group by “touring nonstop.”
Now, after a whirlwind schedule of touring and recording three more albums, Big Thief is getting more widely noticed with an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, their song “Not” designated #1 on NPR’s Best of 2019 and a Grammy nomination. Even Barack Obama put “Not” on his Favorites of 2019 playlist. All this comes on the tails of a 2017 break out that included the band’s first European tour and an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
“We were just playing a lot and trying to get better,” Krivchenia said. “You could feel it building. Ever since I’ve been in the band, it always felt that there’s a momentum beyond the crowd getting bigger, the band getting bigger. There’s a momentum to the creative stuff too.”
While touring, they performed a collection of songs, which later became two albums released in 2019, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands. The song “Not” came alive by testing it on the road, according to the drummer.
“It always had a different energy to it,” Krivchenia said. “You are having an open-ended conversation with an audience and you can feel when stuff is translating really well to them.”
Big Thief played “Not” on The Late Show in October. Krivchenia said it was fun, but it felt different from the “ebb and flow” of concerts.
“We’re used to playing a bunch of songs every night,” he said. “It’s weird to get in the mindset and focus for one little moment. You’re spending all day doing soundchecks and waiting around to play for four minutes.”
In November, U.F.O.F. was nominated for the Best Alternative Album Grammy. The title, taken from a song on the album, refers to a UFO friend, “accepting and finding some peace and coexistence with the alien inside yourself or the unrecognizable parts inside of you” according to Krivchenia, and “also about aliens too,” he said laughing a bit.
But the band doesn’t want to be distracted by the award show on Sunday, Jan. 26, with a tour starting soon and other projects on the front burner, so they will not attend, according to Krivchenia.
“We don’t follow the Grammys or know when the nominations are coming out,” he said. “We’re more neutral about it. … It’s cool, but we’re trying to not let it go to our heads too much.”
Band members work on their own creative projects during down time from Big Thief. Krivchenia is sound engineer and plays percussion with Mega Bog and plays drums in other bands. He also creates computer music, like his 2018 release, No Comment, with sound samples of “media violence.” He plans different and “not quite as scary” releases for 2020.
Big Thief’s world tour starts Feb. 17 in Europe and goes on to Israel, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“This year we’re trying to focus on just playing and getting better as a band and finding some new dimensions live,” he said. “The live process and the recording process, and the writing process are all happening simultaneously sometimes, but they’re such different skills. It’s one thing to make an album that you feel really good about and it’s another thing to perform in front of a crowd and have it feel fulfilling.”