Joseph Arthur lands in the middle of whatever new project he takes on like a benevolent tempest, a lopsided grin forming below his third eye and an oil pastel pencil in his hand. Friends and fans of the singer-songwriter and visual artist have come to cherish his relentless pursuit of new sounds and visions – Arthur, who's been recording since 1997, has more than 20 releases to his name, plus countless paintings, drawings and assemblages. He's the kind of guy Jack Kerouac had in mind when he famously wrote, "The only ones for me are the mad ones." But as he's matured, Arthur has also become a passionate advocate for sanity, charting his own journey into recovery and self-realization in his sweet psychedelic songs.
Peter Buck is a guy who likes to join people's storm systems and make them sing. His legendary work in R.E.M. helped rewrite the rock songbook; he's the crate digger who connected Michael Stipe's numinous musings to the history of hooks and riffs. Beyond R.E.M., his myriad other recordings occupy their own overflowing rack, from the Warren Zevon-fronted Hindu Love Gods to supergroups The Minus 5 and Filthy Friends, which featured Pacific Northwest-based luminaries like Scott McCaughey and Corin Tucker. "I don't really believe in side projects," Buck tells NPR. "Anything I do is something I am completely focused on in the moment. I really believe in the process of collaboration."
Buck's open mind first encountered Arthur's whirlwind in 2004, when the solo artist opened up for his band. Since then they've played together occasionally, including at the intimate festival Buck and his wife, Chloe, organize in Todos Santos, where they live part-time. They met up again in the small Mexican coastal town last year.
"The day I got in, I heard from a mutual friend of Peter's that Peter and Chloe were going to be down there the exact days I was," Arthur explains. "I immediately got a text from Peter and it said something like, 'Let's play a gig at the Todos Santos Inn,' and the next day I went to his house and never left. We ended up playing three gigs that week."
Songwriting commenced. Arthur had been working for a while on songs about a matter that's both highly personal and complicated: his own recovery from abuse at the hands of intimates with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. (He's been open about this on his Instagram.)
"For me this Arthur Buck record in many ways is like my first record," Arthur says. "And I'm about one year old. Sounds bonkers I know, but it's true. The solo songs I was working on when me and Peter began hit the subjects more on the nose than these and they allowed me enough liberation to keep this record fun even though it touches on heavy things that shocked me about human nature and my own nature."
Arthur's determination to share his psychic transformations coupled with Buck's receptive nature and they began a creative binge. "I've never had an easier time writing with someone than I do with Peter," Arthur says. "This record has a vitality to it that is surprising to everyone who hears it. And I think it's down to we aren't just tired old cats who are bored and f****** around. We are people who still hold onto music for survival. You can't fake that. You can hear that."
The sparks fly freely in the song "I Am the Moment": a classic chiming Buck guitar lick sets up a vocal that's both gritty and cosmically gleeful, enlivened by a handclap-sharp rhythm track. Buck and Arthur came up with this song in Los Angeles, where Arthur had decamped to prepare for a gallery opening and play a show.
"We wrote 'I Am The Moment' within the first ten minutes of seeing each other," Arthur recalls. "Same way as we wrote our other songs. He had the chords and arrangement and I did the top line — except when I sang, 'I am the moment ,' he sang back, 'Waiting for you.' Peter said, 'Okay, finish the lyrics so we can play that tonight.' And I did, and we did. And the crowd completely sang along to it."
Arthur Buck came together so quickly partly because of the energizing isolation of Todos Santos, where they embarked on the project – "It's the kind of place where the outside world doesn't have much sway," Buck says — and partly because the two men were already so at ease with each other. "Joseph's and my writing styles complement each other well," the guitarist observed. "Joe is a great melodicist and lyricist, while I tend to be more focused in form and structure. I've known Joe for over twenty years and have played music with him almost that long. The Arthur Buck album and the songs we wrote are a kind of mesh of our personalities and songwriting. Having known each other for so long, the creative stuff occurred naturally. The fact that we are both going through some similar life experiences kind of helped the collaboration."
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