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Big Thief’s exploratory folk is alternately intimate and expansive on ‘U.F.O.F.’

Big Thief’s exploratory folk is alternately intimate and expansive on ‘U.F.O.F.’
Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The four members of Big Thief are a traveling family; as prolific, dedicated and free-spirited as the artists of Laurel Canyon in the 1970s. It makes sense then that today we're in Topanga. Two of them – Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek – were married, but no longer.

Meek got a house up here six months ago. He fell in love with the woods after the four of them decamped to this area in 2018 to work on their third album, “U.F.O.F.,” the follow-up to 2016’s “Masterpiece” and 2017’s “Capacity.” Lenker doesn't have roots, describing the van outside as her “house.”

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The other two – Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums) – provide smiles and chuckles, contrasting the intensity that their counterparts inhabit. Oleartchik talks about “magic” and “the intangible.” It's apt considering the indie folk of Big Thief is as evocative as the horizon — familiar yet uncertain, and always comforting.

“It's love that I feel in the core of all of it,” Oleartchik says at one point. Meek and Lenker are always present but something in the air suggests there's a wolf they can't quite keep from their door.

Meek looks distracted. Moments before, Lenker introduced her partner, Indigo Sparke, an artist who appears in her Instagram posts. Perhaps Meek's distance is merely hunger, as Lenker's own green eyes stare ravenously into a bowl of veggies. “I'm shaking,” she says, savoring each morsel. It's hard to get a handle on them. In outside company they're quiet, until you can't shut them up.

“U.F.O.F.,” due Friday, is the first album they'll release to pregnant anticipation. After their 2016 debut, they'd amassed a dedicated following from relentless touring, all while their albums earned critical accolades and dotted many a best-of year-end list. “Capacity” even briefly cracked Billboard’s Americana/Folk albums chart.

Now signed to 4AD (they were previously with Saddle Creek), Big Thief and their alternately cosmic and naturalistic sound are facing growing expectations. The band will headline the Fonda on Thursday, and play a more intimate, sold-out show at the Bootleg on Friday.

The gentle self-exposition of Lenker's poetry has been a source of obsession for listeners. The songs on “U.F.O.F.,” however, contain a fresh optimism.

“U.F.O.F.” is an acronym, the final “F” for “Friend.” “It's this fascination with the intangible that bonded us together as friends,” says Lenker. “We all have a similar pull towards something that keeps us digging into our music, our inner lives. We're excavating and exploring, we're all down for this journey.”

Big Thief are, clockwise from top right, James Krivchenia, Adrianne Lenker, Max Oleartchik and Buck Meek
Big Thief are, clockwise from top right, James Krivchenia, Adrianne Lenker, Max Oleartchik and Buck Meek (Michael Buishas)

Touring has taken them from Brooklyn, where they formed, to everywhere and anywhere. “By day 612, we're just trying to stare at a candle for 20 minutes before we have to go onstage,” says Oleartchik. “There's only so much as an organism that you can take in.”

Lenker doesn't think they could do it without each other. “It would be very lonely?” she says. She'd know. Last year she toured solo in support of her own LP, “Abysskiss.” “There was a point where I was like – 'Do I want to be Adrianne Lenker in the world, my own isolated artist? Or…” She looks to her bandmates. “It wasn't even a question. No. I want to be a smaller part of a bigger thing, I want to be surrounded by friends who I trust.”

Yet talk of the universe and unidentified flying objects is a decoy for dealing with matters that are too large to swallow. You wonder if Big Thief intend these songs to provoke their listeners to ask questions of themselves. “We don't have an intention to get people to do anything,” says Lenker. “I'd rather our music helped encourage people to focus on their own inner worlds than focus on an outer thing.”

Unsurprisingly, this album is to date the most reflective of them as people. “We've slept, eaten, cried repeatedly for nine months out of each year and made this album. What we create together as friends is 10% music and the rest is just time.”

As a result they've had room to explore more. “Contact,” for instance, chimes with “OK Computer”-era Radiohead. “Open Desert” is serenely pop. “Strange” is a meditative psych jam. The most personal song for Lenker is “From.” Nobody can be my man, nobody can be my woman,” she quotes from her lyrics.

There's a gender fluidity there that Lenker relates to. “I have a lot of that in myself. I think I am both man and woman, and neither. I listen to the heartbeat of the pulse of the source of the universe. I identify with that, so why am I ripping myself away from the deepest part of myself?”

When asked what they've learned most about one another, they shy away.

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“None of us anticipated the amount of group therapy we were headed for,” says Krivchenia. At this, Lenker starts reeling off a list of emotions they can't hide from, as the other three laugh. “Fear. Jealousy. Anxiety. Frustration. Insecurity. Hatred. Joy,” she says. “Nothing can be swept under. You can either walk away completely or dive in.”

“We smell each other, we feel each other, we've melted into each other,” says Oleartchik, smiling.

Lenker's thoughts on the growing recognition are egoless. “People worship their heroes,” she says. “If there's something that I admire in my heroes it's not an obsession with them, it's this appreciation for what their art does, which is to help me understand parts of myself.”

Because of that they need to not focus on fan expectation. “In a relationship,” Lenker says, “you have to care for yourself and then you have this foundation from which to give to the other person. If we focus on what we think they want from us, it's a false structure – clumsy. The deepest foundation we can build is rooting down into ourselves even more, our art, what it means. And if people like it that's great, and if they don't there's millions of other things to listen to.”

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Big Thief

Where: The Fonda, 6126 Hollywood Blvd.

When: 9 p.m., Thursday

Tickets: $25

Information: www.fondatheatre.com

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