Peter Buck and Joseph Arthur: “The only way you get good is to try something new and fail at it”

(Image credit: Dean Karr)

We grab the rare chance of an interview with Peter Buck as he talks alongside his collaborator Joseph Arthur about their alt-rock collaborative album as Arthur Buck, and why learning from others is the key to flexibility as a player.

For most of us, music is a medium of collaboration - whether it’s a relationship with other musicians we play with, a producer we record with or even an audience we play for, much of the music we hear is the result of a collective effort. 

Reaching beyond our own creative limitations with the help of others can be inspiring, challenging and, at its best, a way to create something that would never have been possible otherwise. Arthur Buck, a two-piece comprised of former REM guitarist Peter Buck and singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, is a shining example of this mindset.

There’s something very effortless about writing with him because he is so melodic

Joseph Arthur

Friends for many years, a chance encounter between the pair in Mexico last year led to a three-day writing session and a string of impromptu gigs, with the fruit of this unforeseen partnership arriving in the shape of their vibrant, self-titled debut. 

Peter Buck, of course, knows a thing or two about collaboration. Since the amicable break-up of REM in 2011, Buck has been working almost continuously, recording and performing under his own name as well as with established bands like The Minus 5 and Tuatara, while somehow finding time to form new groups (Filthy Friends, The No Ones) and rack up session work with the likes of First Aid Kit and Robyn Hitchcock. Arthur himself is no slouch either, having formed not one but two supergroups in the guise of RNDM and Fistful Of Mercy.

We caught up with the pair to talk about their new endeavour, and about what it means to be a truly collaborative musician...

Arthur Buck started out as a happy accident, with the album being written over just a few days. Was that spontaneity helpful for the songwriting process?

Peter: “I think so. We were both in Mexico, Joe came and visited me and just kind of never left. We started playing together like we do normally and for some reason instead of just playing we wrote songs. So it wasn’t really planned, I didn’t have anything prepared. These songs started coming really quickly.”

Joseph: “That’s the process we found. There was an energy to working with Peter that I couldn’t duplicate by myself. He’s obviously a very gifted songwriter, and one of the most melodic guitar players I’ve ever played with, really. There’s something very effortless about writing with him because he is so melodic, there are beautiful elements that come out easily when you sing over what he’s playing. It seems somewhat simple on some level but there’s something about it... I’ve never had an easier time writing songs.”

Straight to it

Peter, you’ve said in the past that when it comes to writing you prefer to get stuck into something without too much preamble...

Peter: “Well, yes, that’s the ideal process. I mean, sometimes you have to just keep revising and reworking but I tend to feel like the ones that come really quickly and spontaneously have something. There are just so many ways to write songs that sometimes you just pound your head against the wall until it’s finished. And sometimes you just give up.”

Are there benefits to writing as a two-piece, as opposed to a larger group of people?

It’s always easier to write one-on-one than with a group

Peter Buck

Joseph: “I guess it would be, on some level, like dating! It just depends on who you’re dating, you know? It could be terrible or it could be great. When you have trust in a partner that you’re writing with, that’s powerful because you’re not second guessing each other.”

Peter: “It’s always easier to write one-on-one than with a group, in a group you’ve obviously got more opinions. With REM it worked very well because we all had roles that we played and a deep understanding of what each other could do, but sometimes you get somewhere, like in a studio, and it just bogs down because everyone has to throw in their two cents’ worth. But working with one other person allows me to learn stuff , to have that person push it in a direction that I might not have foreseen.”

Musical partnerships often have an, ‘I’ll wash - you dry’ approach - is there much crossover in your playing styles?

Peter: “Not really. It was a matter of me throwing some chord changes and melodies and occasionally a word or two, and Joe just taking it right on a run. Our guitar styles are fairly different. I’m kind of a formalist as far as songwriting and guitar parts - I write parts out, I tend to have a bridge, an intro, an outro. The idea of somewhere two-thirds of the way through the song you’re getting new information melodically and lyrically, I think that’s really helpful. I was the chord guy, putting in the riff s. That’s my job. I’m a way better rhythm guitar player than I am a soloist. All the soloing stuff is Joe.”

Joseph: “Yeah, I get to be the soloist, so that’s kind of fun!”

Peter: “When we work together we have more in the way of a formal structure. I trained myself to write songs by looking at music books, whether it’s The Beatles or Burt Bacharach, I tend to be that way, and Joe tends to be the kind of guy, he writes 13 verses and one chorus. Both ways are valid ways to do it.”

(Image credit: Dean Karr)

On the upbeat

You’ve said that you wanted to make a positive, forward-looking record - is it more of a challenge to write upbeat songs?

Joseph: “Yeah, it doesn’t sound particularly cool to write a happy song, it’s much cooler to have, like, a dark pose. We live in such complicated, wild times, I want to be uplifted because this world is dark enough, it’s beating us down. I don’t want to listen to something too dark right now.”

Peter: “Musically, it is hard to write death-metal when you’re sitting out in really nice sun... not that I’ve written a whole lot of that stuff! Part of it is also just the way it came together, it was without preconceptions, that tends to make it feel buoyant. It wasn’t a process of anxiety and struggle.”

What guitars were you playing on this record? Was the Rickenbacker 360 still your guitar of choice, Peter?

I love the Rickenbacker and the one I’ve been using since 1980 or ’81 is still my favourite guitar

Peter Buck

Peter: “Yeah, I love the Rickenbacker and the one I’ve been using since 1980 or ’81 is still my favourite guitar. But, you know, this record that we did, I played acoustic guitar on almost everything. I used a 1961 [Gibson] J200 that I’ve had since the mid-80s.”

Joseph: “I think it’s mainly a Tele and Les Paul for me, although in the rehearsals I was using an SG, I’ve been into the idea of using an SG for this band.”

Did you use those for the solos?

Joseph: “Yeah, and there’s this one pedal of Peter’s that I’ve been using and it’s the best fuzz pedal I’ve ever dealt with, it’s meant to sound exactly like The White Album [a Jext Telez White Pedal]. That’s what you want every time you solo anyway, if you can get a lead sound like that, you’re done.”

Some artists are reluctant to share unfinished material, but you performed these songs live right away - does that ‘test drive’ influence the finished song when the time comes to record?

Peter: “Yeah, definitely. I wish every record I do, I could play all the songs in public because, you know, you work in your basement or wherever you’re rehearsing and then the minute you get on stage you realise, ‘Yeah, something needs to be done in the middle of that song,’ or ‘That bridge isn’t as good as I think it is.’”

Joseph: “The songs live in the moment. The benefits of fleshing the stuff out live and getting feedback from the audience, you can really tell what’s working and what’s not working.”

Rough with the smooth

Peter, your solo output has a rough and ready vibe that might surprise listeners who know you primarily from your work with REM - what attracted you to that sound?

Peter: “I think one of the things that made REM a strong band was that all four of us were pulling in different directions at different times. I was always the guy who would prefer to rehearse a bit and then keep the first or second take. 

I think that the first few times you play [a take], you discover something that you’ll never get again

“I think that the first few times you play, you discover something that you’ll never get again. I did one record with [Nirvana bassist] Krist Novoselic on it, and I didn’t even tell him the chords - I just said, ‘I’m gonna play chords, y’all just kinda go for whatever you wanna do,’ and it was a chaotic mess in a way that I really like. That’s what I’m looking for, I want it to sound like some element of decay has crept into it.”

Do you use the same gear for all your different projects? There’s quite a contrast between your solo work and Arthur Buck’s polished sound...

Peter: “Well, my solo records are basically cut live: live lead vocal, two guitars, bass, drums. On my personal stuff , we’re all in a room so there’s a lot of leakage but that’s kind of the way I like to record. I tend to use the same equipment, I bring the same guitars. With my solo records, I was standing looking at the drummer eight feet away, shouting into a microphone, so you can hear cymbals on my vocals. But those records aren’t really designed to be played on the radio, they’re just designed to be played on a vinyl record in your house.”

Joseph, you started out as a bassist - does that past experience have much impact on how you approach rhythm in your songs?

Joseph: “It must do. I’m definitely rhythm-oriented, and I play the drums on this record, too. I listen to music when I exercise mainly, so I want it to move me and push me. In terms of how that works with guitar, I like that thing James Brown said about how every instrument is a percussion instrument. Keith Richards, too. Keith Richards is the greatest example of it for rock ‘n’ roll - that guy’s basically a drummer on guitar.”

Collaborate to innovate

You both put great stock in the process of collaboration - what do you learn from working with so many different artists?

Joseph: “Oh man, that could fill a couple of books! With Ben [Harper], there’s a whole history of his family’s folk music shop and the different kinds of guitars he plays, so I feel in a weird way you tap into folk music history. With Dhani [Harrison] it’s like, are you joking? You tap into the motherlode!”

The only way you get good is to try something new and fail at it, and then figure out why

Peter: “I tend to learn something from everyone. If I don’t feel like I’m learning anything then it’s miserable, I want to be challenged and pick up something new. I’ll always listen to other players and figure out what they’re doing. 

“I just did a session with Barrett Martin who was in The Screaming Trees - I was overdubbing stuff but one of the songs had this great chord change that I was pulling apart, and I said, ‘This guy that plays rhythm guitar, does he play flamenco music?’ And Barrett said, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’ and I said, ‘Cos this is a flamenco chord change.’ It was really interesting, it was a voice that I would have never used and I’ve been playing it ever since.”

You clearly haven’t lost your love of music, so what advice would you give to younger musicians who want to maintain that sort of passion?

Peter: “I read this interview with Stevie Winwood when I was young, one of the things he said was always make sure there are better players than you in the band you’re in, because that way you’re always learning something. I still think about that. The only way you get good is to try something new and fail at it, and then figure out why it wasn’t as good as it should have been. The more you do that, the more you’re really adaptable.”

Arthur Buck’s self-titled debut album is available now via New West.

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