Psychedelic Rock and 'Speed' Inspired the World of Orville Peck's 'Bronco'

The masked country singer opens up about the music, books, and action movies that inspired the surreal, memoir-like follow-up to 2019's 'Pony.'

orville peck
Orville Peck performing in New York | Dominik Bindl/Getty Images
Orville Peck performing in New York | Dominik Bindl/Getty Images

For the deep-voiced country crooner Orville Peck, the desire for anonymity doesn’t extend to talking about what other artists make him tick. Perhaps best known for wearing a fringed mask to hide his face and performing under a pseudonym, Peck, who broke through with his Sub Pop debut Pony in 2019, has never been shy about paying tribute to his honky-tonk heroes like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Dolly Parton. But for his latest record, the released-in-three-chapters Bronco, he made even more of an effort to write in a confessional style that blends his personal history with his proudly eclectic taste.

The geographic range of his songs, from the Florida heartbreak narrative “Daytona Sand” to the New Orleans-set ballad “Lafayette,” reflects his travel-heavy lifestyle. But the record also provides a chance for Peck to explore his memories of growing up in South Africa, allowing him to dispel rumors about his semi-mysterious background on his own (still semi-mysterious) terms. “I’m proudly South African to everyone who knows me, and it’s such a big part of my life and my family,” he says in a Zoom interview (no video, of course). “I felt like on this album I was really excited to share and reveal that part of my life.”

Searching and lacerating, Bronco explores trauma, depression, and self-doubt through Peck’s distinctly surreal, sensitive framework, one that’s grounded in his experiences as a gay man and in the imagery of cowboy mythology. Though he notes that the writing was “heavily steeped in autobiography,” he’s forthcoming and thoughtful about how other musicians and writers inform his work. Even when blazing your own trail, it’s helpful to know all the back roads and the pathways home.

jefferson airplane
Jefferson Airplane | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

‘60s and ‘70s psychedelic rock

As a musician, Peck is interested in the crevices between genres. He’s particularly excited by styles and sounds that let artists sing about “real shit but in a beautiful, poetic way.” So, it only makes sense that his take on outlaw country leans into the psychedelic, space-y textures.

I listened to a lot of those kind of bands when I was in high school. I was a huge fan of Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Papas, and even the more rock stuff like Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett. I hadn’t been listening to a lot of that music for many years, but still loved it and it’s in my wheelhouse. But when I was writing this album, I started re-listening to a lot of that music that I was a fan of when I was younger.

And on the country side of things, I was listening to a lot of the folk, flower-child-era country stuff, like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and Willie Nelson. Also, the Bakersfield artists like Merle Haggard. They all had this Laurel Canyon influence on them, so that was the world I was in. Obviously, it just inspired the music I was making at the time.

Miriam Makeba
Miriam Makeba performing at The Bitter End in 1961 | Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

South African folk music

While Peck's music circles big American themes and makes ample use of the iconography of the West, he's not limited by a single country. On Bronco, he was excited to delve further into his South African background and the music he first heard as a child. 

I grew up listening to tons of marabi and mbaqanga. South African folk music, essentially, so artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. A lot of those artists in the ‘60s, especially in South Africa, created this very specific sound, which Paul Simon, of course, made very famous on Graceland.

I have a song on the album called "Lafayette," which isn’t about South Africa—it’s actually about New Orleans. But musically that song is inspired by marabi music, which is essentially South African folk music that was played in the townships. My grandmother grew up where a lot of that music was played. So, for me, [the music] has a special place in my heart.

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Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in 'Speed' | 20th Century Fox

Speed and other classic action movies

Peck's music often gets called "cinematic," a shorthand that basically means "makes you see pretty pictures when you close your eyes." Still, he says the music on Bronco was not particularly inspired by specific films or directors. But the music videos? Those came laced with references to some of his favorites. 

When we did the music videos, we were inspired by a lot of specific directors. The music video for "C'mon Baby, Cry," we wanted that to be our Bob Fosse musical movie. The video for "The Curse of the Blackened Eye" was our creature feature, so there’s a lot of references to horror films. For "Daytona Sand," I wanted that to be my action movie set in Florida.

It was like if the film Speed was directed by Kenneth Anger and you throw a little bit of Urban Cowboy in there. With "Daytona Sand,'" when I was a kid thinking about music videos or thinking about being a music star, that’s what I would have cooked up in my brain and thought was really cool. I wanted to surf on an 18-wheeler truck and be chased on a horse by police and I wanted to steal a convertible, so we just made it happen. I just wanted to make an exciting video that moved with the pace of the song and felt surreal yet real.

David Wojnarowicz
Artist David Wojnarowicz performing in a Ronald Reagan mask | Thomas McGovern/Getty Images

The work of David Wojnarowicz

One of Bronco's standouts, an acoustic track called "City of Gold," wasn't even meant to be on the album. Peck wrote the song as a form of catharsis, exploring a difficult personal situation he had recently left behind, but when he played it for his band, it was clear it needed a place on the record. "I still think it’s mortifying that people are going to hear that song because it feels like I’m reading out of my diary," he says. But he's always been drawn to work by writers who explored similar themes in an often confessional style.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a conscious inspiration that I draw from, but I read a lot growing up. For me, the books that really stand out to me now as an adult that I always go back to are books like Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. It’s a biographical, kinda manic rant about being a gay man. For him, it was in the ‘70s in New York. Soon after he would die of AIDS. Books like The Velvet Rage [by Alan Downs] or Confessions of a Mask [by Yukio Mishima].

I just think there’s something that stands out to me about them. Obviously, I’m a gay man, so it’s relatable literally, but there’s also something beautiful about art that’s confessional in a sense and goes to dark places that might feel difficult to talk about and difficult to share while still doing it in a poetic way. That’s always been the type of literature, film, and music that’s spoken to me.

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Bob Dylan/YouTube

Patter songs and life on the road

Touring, which was put on hold by the pandemic, is essential to Peck's life and art. On "Any Turn," he captures the velocity and energy of hitting the road by singing in a "patter" style, where the tempo matches the tumble of words that spill out of his mouth.   

"Any Turn" is my patter song. It's a super fast and rocking country song. That’s kinda my ode to "I’ve Been Everywhere" or "We Didn’t Start the Fire" or "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Those are famous patter songs. It’s all about touring, so every line in that song is about a specific place and a specific memory. I sing about Dee's, which is a honky-tonk in Nashville, and I sing about the Troubadour, a venue in Los Angeles. I sing about really specific places in that song. 

People keep asking me what to expect from this tour, and I think the exciting thing is that I actually don't know what to expect. We don’t know either. It’s all new material for us, which is really exciting. And I say that in the best way possible. I think anything is possible and we’re going to be discovering these songs live together. I have this tradition of my live show finding its own life outside of this album. I’m excited to see how it feels to sing these songs to a crowd. What’s it going to be like to sing "City of Gold" to 20,000 people at a festival? That’s going to be a trip. It’s going to reveal itself as we go. I like giving into the unknown.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.