The October 2009 issue of The Walrus includes a profile of CBC Radio 2 host Rich Terfry. During our interviews for that article, we also talked at length about Buck 65, Terfry’s hip hop alter ego. In these excerpts from our conversation, conducted on a bright spring day in the atrium of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, Terfry talks about his influences, Dirtbike — a three-part series of new, original material released for free download from his website, Buck65.com — and the hypothetical conundrum of what if Kanye West were from Winnipeg.
I’m interested in your experience growing up in Nova Scotia. I’m from Newfoundland, and one thing I notice while listening to Buck 65 is that you obviously have a long and deep history with folk music. I heard a lot of that around me when I was younger, but it was mostly the big-guys-with-big-moustaches-bellowing style of folk, that sort of stuff. In your own music, you haven’t gravitated toward that sound as much as you have toward the American tradition of folk.
My experience [growing up] was a lot of listening to country radio. That wasn’t necessarily fiddle music, you know? I heard a lot of Charlie Pride, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. And the nearest music event to where I grew up was a bluegrass festival. It’s not necessarily what comes to mind first when people think of Maritime music, but there’s definitely a strong scene for it out there. When I was a kid, a lot of that traditional folk music from Nova Scotia, I hated it. I hated almost everything except hip hop when I was young, but I am getting more of an appreciation for folk, and I want to learn more about it. Once in a while I’ll hear some incredible sea shanty or old Irish tune or something else that blows my mind, so now I’m tackling as much territory as I can. I’ll devote months, years, whatever to different areas of music. One day I’m going to take the plunge and learn as much as I can about Irish music. I go to Ireland fairly often; in fact, that’s where I’m heading next. I’m often hitting people up — “C’mon, man, make me some tapes. Teach me about Irish music.”
In one of the blog posts on your website, you asked readers, “What if Kanye West [were] from Winnipeg?” What’s that about?
I posted it as a hypothetical question. If Kanye West were from Winnipeg, would he be huge? Or, what if the Vivian Girls were from Des Moines or Boise or somewhere like that? I’ve come to the conclusion that [location] matters a lot. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for someone to make it if they come from the middle of nowhere, but with so many talented people I know, I think, “Oh yeah, he’s got what it takes to cross over and get a bit of a pop thing going,” [but it hasn’t happened for them]. Then I see like bands that aren’t necessarily so good, but they come from Chicago or New York or LA or wherever, and really seem to be cashing in on the cool factor. Maybe the songs are OK, but honestly, if Kanye West were from Winnipeg, would people accept him in the same way?
What inspired you to make Dirtbike completely outside of your major label contract with Warner, and not promote it at all?
I got everything out of that experience that I ever wanted to get out of making a record, and the fact that money and press and all that stuff had nothing to do with it was enlightening to me in so many ways — existentially, but also in terms of what my relationship to Warner means. In so many ways, at this point in my career and in my life, Dirtbike was the best thing for me to do. It’s extremely self-indulgent, and that’s coming from a guy who’s indulged himself for his entire career. At first, I listened to it quite a bit myself. Then I sent it out to my friends, and saw that it started to make the rounds, to spread out on the Internet. It became a very badly kept secret. Finally I thought, let’s put it on the website to make it easy for people to find.
You’ve been making records for what, fifteen years now?
It’s been a long time, yep.
And you’ve talked about so many personal things. Does it make you uncomfortable to know that so much stuff about you is out there?
I’ve had the somewhat terrifying realization in the last couple years that [listening to music] is like getting to know someone in a new relationship. It happened when I was talking to someone who was something of a fan of my stuff. As we got to know one another over the course of months, different stories would come up. And the reaction was, “Yeah, I know about that. I remember when you talked about it in such-and-such a song.” I was like, holy smokes, if someone’s really been paying attention, they must know just about everything about me, because it’s all there in the songs. I ask myself — and it’s my biggest struggle — why am I doing this? It’s something I wrestle with constantly. My personal level of angst as a quote-unquote artist probably resembles a needle buried in the red.