Movie director Vincent Gallo saved Richard Terfry’s music career. Living in near-squalor in a run-down apartment above the Black Market on Grafton Street, Terfry found himself in a deep hole musically and emotionally. His latest release at the time, Man Overboard, seemed headed toward the same relative obscurity as his previous work and his mother had recently succumbed to cancer. Fed up, he inquired with the Saint Mary’s University registrar about going back to school. That’s when he received the email.
“I was like, screw this shit, I’m getting nowhere, I don’t know what I’m doing, my music is just getting weirder and weirder all the time, I’m not getting anywhere, I’m broke and I’m hungry,” the 33-year-old, gravel-voiced Terfry says from a tour stop in Manchester. “My mom died with me being a bum and I was so depressed. Right when it couldn’t have got any worse, I was contacted by Vincent Gallo.”
At the time the indie auteur was at the top of the entertainment buzz list after the release of his dark comedy Buffalo ’66, starring Christina Ricci and Anjelica Huston. He was a fan of Terfry’s smart lyrics and hip-hop influenced noise collages and wanted to say hello.
“It just gave me a real boost,” Terfry says. “It kind of put me on my feet again. It gave me so much confidence and courage to hear from him at this moment, someone that I respected so much, and we’ve remained friends since.”
It was a turning point and Terfry hasn’t looked back. In 2002, he signed a huge deal with Warner Music in Canada and one with V2 Records—home to the White Stripes, Gang of Four and Mercury Rev—in the US. He released a US compilation, This Right Here is Buck 65, has been nominated for several Junos and has played the major European festivals, including Glastonbury. He’s just released his latest record, Secret House Against the World, and plays the Marquee Club this Saturday.
But don’t think that has gone to the head of the Mount Uniacke-bred beatnik-rapper. During our interview he never takes more credit than necessary, and when he does brag about the people he’s worked with, it comes across as amazement at the privileges he’s been afforded.
“Throughout the years I really had a lot of opportunity if I was a little less scrupulous to be a name dropper and use that to get ahead and a lot of people do that,” Terfry says, despite the aforementioned Gallo. “I really never wanted to do that, and the few times that it popped up and followed me around, it’s always made me a bit uncomfortable and I tried to avoid it.
“The fact is, looking back, for better or worse, and arguable for the better, it turns out I do have a lot of people to thank. I mean, I feel I worked really hard the last 15 years or so, but lo and behold, I really do have some people to thank.”
Most of the credit goes to Terfry, however, who refuses to be pigeonholed into any one category of music. His album Vertex took hip-hop heads to a strange land far from the constraints of the genre; Man Overboard and its lack of song titles solidified Terfry as a linguist and sound artist extrodinaire; Square indulged his experimental tendencies in four sound collages long before Mars Volta could say afro; and Talkin’ Honky Blues introduced the world to Buck 65 as the beat poet with a serious jones for old school rap and Woody Guthrie. Secret House follows the trend, this time delving into indie-rock along the lines of the Raveonettes, Blanche and the alt-folk of Tom Waits.
Terfry recorded Secret House in various studios in Chicago and Paris from December to February. For the first time, he collaborated with other artists outside “the Entity,” the songwriting core comprised of him and local musicians Charles Austin and Graeme Campbell. But the opportunity to record with members of the respected Chicago post-punk band Tortoise was one that Terfry could not resist, although he admits he had misgivings at first.
“For some reason, the idea always bothered me,” Terfry says. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to make it and people are going to know who I am, it’s going to be because of the work that I’ve done without saying I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that person.’ That’s always been really important to me.”
There are several things that make Secret House much different from what Buck 65 fans have come to expect. Terfry sings on the album, there are female backing vocalists including Tara White from Elevator, and the lyrics are written from a broader point of view as opposed to the much more personal Talkin’ Honky Blues. The collaboration with other artists moves indie rock to the forefront, with the folk, blues and hip-hop of previous works used more as supplementary elements. It’s a move that could alienate old fans as much as it makes new ones. Terfry is well aware of this.
“It’s kind of exciting for me to step back and listen to this record and say ‘What the hell?’” he says. “This is becoming more and more a Franken-stein monster as it goes on but it’s really given me some kind of confidence and I’m really starting to feel like my own thing. It’s starting to take on its own life and I don’t know what to call it, but it’s nice to see that it has 14 fingers and 16 toes.”
To understand his new direction, one must understand why Terfry is so willing to take risks. Once an advocate of the fundamentals of hip-hop on his weekly CKDU radio show The Bassment, Terfry became jaded with hip-hop when he realized no one would take a white kid from Mount Uniacke—and his harebrained ideas—seriously. Taking a cue from Public Enemy, a group that destroyed all notions of the hip-hop music that came before it for the sake of creating something new, Terfry began to change his tune, preaching originality as the path to musical enlightenment.
“When people outside of Halifax started to hear my music, when they heard Vertex the first time, they said, ‘Wow, I haven’t heard anything like this,’” Terfry says. “That really gave me a charge to hear that kind of reaction to people. I’ve been getting the same reaction about this album.”
Campbell, who has known Terfry for over a decade and helped write and mix Secret House with PJ Harvey engineer Head, thinks that better financial circumstances would have furthered Buck 65’s evolution much quicker.
“The argument can be made that the approach he’s taken over the past few years is the approach that he would have liked to have been taking all along if he had the resources available,” Campbell says. “His old records are lo-fi and charming, but he might not have made them lo-fi if he was able to do it in another way.”
It could be Terfry’s ability to change and incorporate new styles is what got him signed to Warner in the first place. It’s also a reason why Terfry is well known in Europe, has been written about in Rolling Stone, Spin and the Globe and Mail, and why V2 labelmate Moby invited him on tour of large-scale clubs last April.
Although the increased exposure has been great for song material and record sales, the difficulty to categorize Terfry’s music has led to a downside, with several critics calling him a sellout who had turned his back on his hip-hop roots. In an interview with British weekly Kerrang, Terfry spoke out about hip-hop artists’ ignorance of other forms of music. It stirred a controversy among hardcore hip-hop fans and led to heated debate on dozens of messageboards, with some accusing Terfry of being a poseur. Terfry later apologized for the comments.
“On a smaller scale, it’s like Dylan at Newport”—the festival where Bob Dylan switched to electric guitar in 1965—“sort of vibe where somebody known and beloved for one style changes and it’s going to ruffle some feathers,” says Charles Austin, who also helped write and record Secret House. “Hopefully it’s all in pursuit of trying to grow as an artist. I know him pretty well and I don’t think selling out is even remotely on his mind because if he wanted to, he probably could make some blingy hip-hop thing that would be more commercial than what he’s doing right now.”
After stints in London, New York and Montreal, Terfry now lives in Paris when he’s not on the road. He’s engaged to his French writer girlfriend Claire, who also appears on Secret House. He feels more at ease as an artist than ever before.
“I feel closer to a sense of completion than I ever had, but there are still pieces I want to put in place,” he says. “Basically, what it comes down to is if—heaven forbid—I die tomorrow and I had a minute to reflect, I’d say, ‘I did it. That was pretty good.’ But that’s not to say I have a whole lot of ambition and things I want to accomplish.
“In terms of career goals, given that I don’t want to be superstar famous or a billionaire, I kind of have to sit down and start making a new list because the last time I did it, I’ve managed to check all those things off, which is great,” Terfry says. “Every now and then I need to stop and say, ‘Wowee, what do I want to do next? I’ve got to make a new list.’”