Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser admits that Oct. 9 was an awkward time to release “The Symbol Remains,” the first studio album he’s cut in 19 years with his classic rock outfit Blue Öyster Cult. But in Maryland, where he and Sandy, his wife of nearly 50 years, have been happily sheltering in place, he found it relatively easy to finish the record remotely. Using online collaboration programs in which longtime members Eric Bloom and Richie Castellano tracked their parts separately in their own home studios, the group hammered the files together in a master session, then sent it off for final mixing.
Going back to when and how you formed in 1967, you’re one of the few bands that was put together to provide music for a poet/producer’s heady work, “Imaginos” by Sandy Pearlman. He even created your name.
Yeah. And it all bubbled up simultaneously. Sandy got the idea to do it because he met me and a couple of the other early guys jamming in student housing, a house that was rented by Stony Brook University students (in Stony Brook, N.Y.) back in the day. Sandy had graduated from Stony Brook and had gone on to Brandeis by that point, but he was really interested in this Stony Brook student girl, who later became his longtime girlfriend — they never got married, while I married my wife the year that our first record came out. But he heard us playing, and that’s how he met me, and it evolved from there.
What exactly was the philosophy behind “Imaginos”? It concerned aliens trying to help humanity, right? I think they might have failed.
“Imaginos” was illustrative of Sandy’s idea that the surface of our reality is just the top layer of the onion, and that there’s a lot more stuff going on than what there appears to be. Which may, or may not, be the case. But a lot of his “Imaginos” stuff was history rewritten with the idea of all this supernatural stuff going on. And we were really on board with the storytelling aspect of it — we didn’t need to believe in it like a religion. But we were down with it, and we were also down with the idea of not being just a typical pop band, singing moon-in-June lyrics. We really liked that concept, too.
You went on to become one of the most literate rock groups around. And on the new album, there’s some otherworldly stuff, like the sinister presence in “That Was Me.”
Yeah. I really like that lyric. That’s one of John Shirley’s. And John Shirley has sort of replaced (the late) Sandy as far as the biggest lens image of our lyrical direction. He was one of the first cyberpunk writers, and he actually gets a nod from William Gibson himself for being one of the guys at the forefront of the movement. But he does a lot of art, a lot of other stuff, and he also is a recording artist — he’s got his own New York band, Obsession . So he’s the lyricist on probably 60% of the new record. But we had a high bar anyway, to even attempt a new record after a 20-year layoff. We’ve been content to just be a really good performing act, because we certainly had plenty of material to play. And we weren’t really selling records anymore after the mid-‘80s. And that is a long time. We didn’t kid ourselves about it.
Your inverted question-mark logo became this classic insignia. Where are some unusual places you’ve seen it replicated?
On a lot of tattoos. A lot of bridge abutments, a lot of overpasses. That kind of thing. And of course, back in the day, I saw it a lot more than now. But you still see it around and that’s cool. I’ve enjoyed — and been gratified by — the limited way our lore has rippled out into the larger culture. And again, that’s a really cool thing.
When did you start to develop your own mythology? Around “Agents of Fortune” and “Spectres”?
I think the band began to want a little more recognition, as far as identity, around the “Agents of Fortune” period. But that’s probably evolutionary. But the mythology wasn’t that important, because I don’t think we ever took ourselves too seriously. Although we realized that fans do — they took our ideas very seriously in terms of what they perceived from recording artists.
“(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” from 1976 has been covered by everybody from Big Country to HIM, Heaven 17 and The Goo Goo Dolls. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.
Yeah. And now we play it as a sendoff when people we love or admire die. We send ‘em off with a dedication from the stage, and we play “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.” And it’s really survived over the years, which is pretty cool. I wrote the lyrics, and I was writing a love story about a couple, where the guy dies, and rather than having the girl get over it and take up with somebody else, he comes back across the void, across the gulf — imagining that there is a bridge between this life and another one — and they’re reunited.
From your early web series “The Dharmas” to issuing your solo music on Soundcloud, you embraced modern technology pretty early on.
Well, I try to stay on the horse if it’s galloping. I’m not determining which way it goes — I’m just trying to hang on and stay with it. Because you’ve really got to hold on to your hat if you want to keep pace with the rate of change in the information age. In making “The Symbol Remains,” we were fortunate that the technology and tools were available. Because going forward, I think just about everybody is going to be recording that way. It’s just going to be too much of a chore to work together in the same space, unless you happen to live in the same town.