DS Interview: The White Buffalo on growing up punk, Sons Of Anarchy, and “Love and The Death Of Damnation”

Jake Smith is not a name uttered around these parts with any great frequency, though it really should be. Performing under the moniker The White Buffalo, Smith has been building one of those slow-burn-style careers over the course of the past decade that should have resulted in his popping up on your radar. Perhaps it was stints at Bonnaroo or Riot Fest. Perhaps it was his stellar 2012 label debut Once Upon A Time In The West (Unison Music Group), which first served to introduce his gravelly baritone and penchant for dark-themed songwriting to the masses. Of course, it could have been 2013’s epic tour de force Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways, which traces the fictional-but-all-too-real story of the down-on-his-luck Joey White as he enlists in the US military, fights an unjust war overseas, and struggles to adapt to society and to the love of his life, Jolene, upon his return abroad.

In all likelihood if you’re a Dying Scene regular and you’re familiar with Jake Smith, it’s through his 2014 tour alongside Chuck Ragan, or his various stints performing music for the groundbreaking TV show Sons Of Anarchy. Hell, the latter garnered Smith an Emmy nomination earlier this year, though you’d be hard-pressed to get him to expound on the meaningfulness of that accolade — “my manager was like “dude, this is fucking crazy! You can always say, for the rest of your life, that you’re an Emmy-nominated artist” or whatever, and I was like (*shrugs*) “oh yeah, that’s pretty cool I guess.” I don’t get that swelled up by things like that.”

The lack of ego on Smith’s part was culled, in part, by his upbringing in the punk rock community. Though he grew up almost exclusively surrounded by country music in his early years, all roads eventually led to punk rock, specifically, as is the case for so many of us, to Bad Religion. “Suffer,” says Smith, “was probably the first one that I had where I thought “this is great.” The lyrical content, and how smart it was, was surprising to me.” Bad Religion begat the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains and NOFX, and spawned years of attending shows scattered up and down the California coastline. “That whole DIY ethos, and the whole idea that you get in a van and play, and you play with passion and you give it all you’ve got and you get fucking sweaty every night, that’s something that I’ve held on to.” Coming in well north of six feet tall with a bushy blond beard and a lionesque mane to match, Smith cuts a rather imposing figure, aided all the more by a whiskey-and-cigarette fueled baritone that’s drawn comparisons to (however unfair) to the likes of Eddie Vedder and Richie Havens. The energy that Smith attacks the stage with night in and night out somewhat belies the at-times mythical image that his physical appearance and penchant for dark, narrative-driven storytelling can create. In many ways, then, it’s not a quantum leap, then, to see why last year’s tour with kindred-spirit Ragan was such a natural pairing. “I had fun on that tour with Chuck, man,” says Smith. “Sharing a stage with somebody else who leaves it all out there night in and night out is an awesome thing.

Smith took the slow, steady route toward his present destination as an “Emmy-nominated singer-songwriter.” In fact, Smith only picked up a guitar for the first time at the ripe old age of nineteen or twenty. “Initially, I was super into punk and I wanted to write punk songs and stuff,” Smith says. In spite of repeatedly practicing the “only two chords (he) knew,” becoming a punk-rock songwriting heavyweight was more difficult than initially imagined. “They didn’t come out, man. The punk songs didn’t come out.” Instead, Smith opted took to the acoustic guitar (I can’t play the electric guitar; I think I squeeze it too tight!) and began crafting dark narratives that drew richly from society’s underbelly. “I remember the first song I wrote was about this guy committing suicide,” Smith says rather matter-of-factly. “Another one of my earliest compositions was a war song, or about a guy coming back from Viet Nam and people treating him like shit,” he adds. None of it based on personal, or even familial, experience, mind you. Instead, the stories that Smith continues to fashion come from the darker recesses of his own imagination. “I think I end up going to alcohol, relationships and murder, you know?” Smith laughs. “Alcohol, violence and love are my things, so inevitably I end up writing a lot about those.

Smith’s latest album, Love and The Death Of Damnation, is still character-driven and contains some of the darker lyrics of his catalog. However, songs like “Home Is In Your Arms” and, most specifically, “Go The Distance,” are not only more overtly personal but more light-hearted as well. “(Go The Distance) is one of the lighter things I’ve ever done,” says Smith, adding that the conscious decision proved a lesson in stretching songwriting comfort levels: “I always tend to go to the dark side with almost everything; with this one…there was a moment  where I had the second verse go into a darker thing where there was an argument or a fight or something. And then it started getting darker and darker, and I was like “wait, why am I doing this?” The light and the love of life is there, why not represent it?

We caught up with The White Buffalo during his recent stop at Boston’s legendary Paradise Rock Club, the same venue he played at on the Chuck Ragan tour. He’s got a handful more Canadian and US dates left on tour before closing up shop for the holidays. Just don’t expect him to play the Emmy-nominated Sons of Anarchy series-closer “Come Join The Murder.” “Kurt Sutter, who is the creator and the writer of the show, wrote those lyrics. Almost 100% of them…were just on a piece of paper and then me and the music supervisor got in a room together and we put it to music and melody.” While it’s made for a frequent topic of conversation and an interesting resume bullet point, it comes without the level of ownership that writing and performing one’s own lyrics. Given the barn-burning 90+ minute sets he’s been playing night in and night out, there’s plenty of firepower to go around.

Check out our conversation (some of which was edited and condensed for clarity’s sake) below, and catch The White Buffalo’s remaining 2015 tour dates here.

Photos by Jason Stone for Dying Scene.

 

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thanks for taking some time to hang out and chat!

Jake Smith (The White Buffalo): Yeah!

I’m actually doing this for a slightly different website then last time we talked. The website that I’ve been writing for for the last five years is called Dying Scene, and it’s a punk-related website…So that’s sort of the angle here. Obviously, you’re not a traditional “punk” artist, but I know that you’ve talked before about cutting your teeth on country music exclusively as a little kid and picking up punk music later on.

Yeah!

Did you have one sort of defining album that was the first one that you put on and had that sort of “holy shit” moment; where you knew punk was the new thing for you?

Yeah! I mean I got really in to Bad Religion’s Suffer;  that was probably the first one that I had where I thought “this is great.” The lyrical content, and how smart it was, was surprising to me. Even some of the more debauchery-based punk bands like the Circle Jerks, but even they had some politically slanted songs that were really cool. That whole DIY ethos, and the whole idea that you get in a van and play, and you play with passion and you give it all you’ve got and you get fucking sweaty every night, that’s something that I’ve held on to.

I think that that’s why there’s a lot of carryover in the respect sense from guys in the scene toward your music, because that’s pretty much what you do. It may not be three chords and a Les Paul and a Marshall stack –

Right, right!

–but that’s pretty much what you do.

Yeah, I mean other than me playing an acoustic guitar, a lot of the stuff is fairly aggressive, especially how we do it live, it’s a lot more aggressive than traditional Americana or whatever you want to call what we do…

I don’t even know what we call it anymore.

It’s silly. I just say we play American music, because Americana seems a little lighter than what we do. But yeah, the punk influence was definitely a big influence and it still kind of impacts me.

Has that stayed over time or has that lessened or broadened?

I mean, I think in high school, the teen angst helps that whole thing, you know? I’d go to shows – I saw H.R. and Bad Brains and Bad Religion at the Palladium in Los Angeles. And there was this place called the Ice House in Orange County where you’d see NOFX and bands like that. I saw Face To Face (a reference to my hoodie) when I lived in San Francisco.

I saw them here, coincidentally, with Strung Out a couple years back now Anyway, Love And The Death Of Damnation is the new album. I liked the last album (Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways) a lot, and I didn’t think it would be really easy to top that one because it’s the story, in particular, is so strong.  This album blew me away really from the first listen.

Really? No way!

It’s such a different album in a lot of ways. When we talked last time, I think we talked a bit about the concept piece from the last album and whether or not that was going to be a thing going forward.  Did you toy with that idea again this time, or was there a fear that if you did another concept album, you’d become, like, the Rush of Americana music?

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to necessarily to that. I think it was a cool experience to write a concept album because it was so foreign to me. The idea of tying all these songs together and trying to make it this real linear thing was real cool, and it opened up different ways of songwriting, and forced you to keep the story going. I almost think maybe it would be cool to do concept EPs; shorter things, where it doesn’t have to be so much of a story. I mean, within each song, it doesn’t have to be the whole lifespan of a person, you know? It could be a shorter period, or you could get a little crazier it seems. If it was a smaller composition, you could write something super gnarly and it would be okay, rather than having a whole, twelve or thirteen songs, you know? So I think doing another longer one…never say never… But I that on this album, I definitely wanted to get back to songs, and have every song be different. Most of them are narratives, (that’s just) how I write. A lot of them are character-driven, whether they’re partially about me or complete fantasy, you know?

That’s one of the things I wanted to get in to. A lot of your stuff traditionally has been character-driven, whether or not you explicitly name the characters like Joey and Jolene on the last album. But it seems like there are at least a few songs on the new album that are maybe more personal. There are songs like “Go The Distance” and “Home Is In Your Arms” that seem like they’re maybe a little more personal . Do you write songs like that differently?

I just write whatever spills out of me. Some of them are fantastic, drug-addled songs like “Chico,” which is about a drug deal gone wrong. Other ones just come from a different place in my brain, I guess. They happen to be on a more personal level. They’re skewed, twisted versions of reality. With a couple of these songs…I always tend to go to the dark side with almost everything. With this one, I sorta consciously and unconsciously decided not to go there. You can take songs in any different direction, and even with “Go The Distance,” there was a moment  where I had the second verse go into a darker thing where there was an argument or a fight or something. And then it started getting darker and darker, and I was like “wait, why am I doing this?” The light and the love of life is there, why not represent it? I’m a part of it, everyone’s a part of it, everyone has good moments and everyone has bad moments. Why not keep a couple of the songs positive? So I kinda did that consciously.

Does one way or the other feel more natural for you as a songwriter? Does it seem easier to tap in to the negative, darker side?

Yeah, I just love that, and it’s always been my “go to;” going to the shadowy parts of society , or the underdog or the darker hero character.

And even that song, it talks about going to the bar with your wife and maybe you get drunk, maybe you get stoned, whatever…so even that is not all lovey-dovey, but it’s still a cool relationship song.

Yeah. It is positive; I would say it’s one of the lighter things I’ve ever done, but it’s still me, I think. I never was consciously saying “I’m going to try to write a pop-country hit” or something, you know. But, it might crush on Canadian country radio… (*both laugh*) That remains to be seen!

I can see the last album, where it was a concept album, you want to keep that theme obviously and write material specifically for that project, but did you have any of these songs written back then and maybe they didn’t fit, or were they all written now?

I’m always kinda writing, so there’ll be melodies or the bones of a song or a few lyrics that I’ll start out with; I’ll have at least a very shallow idea of what I want to write. There were a couple though; I led off with “Dark Days,” because that was a composition where the label was kind of like “we need a barn-burner on this one,”  because Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways was kind of sleepy and scary or whatever. So I started writing that for that album, and the whole idea was that I was going to put it on the end, like things were getting better, and it would bookend the last album. I tweaked it, and it wasn’t a finished composition, so I consciously made it less about that, a little bit (and put it on Love And The Death Of Damnation). It still could, in some ways, fit on the concept album. But the majority of them were new compositions in between those two albums.

Love And The Death Of Damnation, I know, is not a concept album, but you can still pick out the elements from the title in a lot of the different songs. Did the title come afterwards because you noticed a thread running through it, or did you set out to have at least some trace of a thread there?

No, I think I end up going to relationships, drinking and murder (*both laugh*) you know?

The big three!

Right! Alcohol, violence and love are my things, so inevitably I end up writing a lot about that. I love to play with the idea of damnation, or heaven and hell, or good and evil and that kind of thing. There’s some of that on this album as well.

In writing for Sons Of Anarchy, particularly the song that you were nominated for a Grammy for…first off, is that weird? You don’t strike me as the type that will let your head get too big from positive accolades, like a Grammy nomination or whatever…

…It was an Emmy, but yeah…

Oh right, an Emmy nomination. Where does that rank in the list of cool or surreal things that have happened as The White Buffalo? Or is it just sort of weird?

(*laughs*) Yeah, it really is. They were like “wow, you got nominated for an Emmy!” and my manager was like “dude, this is fucking crazy! You can always say, for the rest of your life, that you’re an Emmy-nominated artist” or whatever, and I was like (*shrugs*) “oh yeah, that’s pretty cool I guess.” I don’t get that swelled up by things like that. I’d rather touch people’s lives out here…

Do you have things that will make you sort of take a step back or pinch yourself like “wow, this is a really cool thing happening?” Does that happen night in and night out, or maybe on bigger stages or whatever… surreal moments where you take stock of how cool what’s happening is?

I do sometimes. Not on a nightly basis, necessarily, but even last night, we were playing at the Gramercy Theater in New York and it’s not sold out but almost sold out, and there was a moment right after I had played two songs where I was like “holy shit, man, this is fucking crazy! This is what you do now?” Like, while I’m waiting to start a song I’m thinking “wow, this is what you do now?” (*both laugh*). And when people respond to it? It’s pretty overwhelming sometimes.

Getting back to the Sons of Anarchy stuff, when you write music like that with somebody, or particularly when you sing lyrics that somebody else wrote…

Kurt Sutter, who is the creator and the writer of the show, wrote those lyrics. Almost 100% of them. I tweaked a few of them to cool a couple of them up, and some of them didn’t sync so well so I switched it up there, but otherwise they were 100% his. I never even talked to him.

Oh really?

Yeah. They were just on a piece of paper and then me and the music supervisor got in a room together and we put it to music and melody. But yeah, I mean, I never even play it. Sometimes I’ll get people saying “you’ve got to play it!” Like we were in Poland…they flew us out to Poland and we were playing and there were all these people and this guy was like (*fakes Polish accent*) “you’ll play “Come Join The Murder,” yes?” This guy was super passionate. And I was like “I don’t really know it very well? I’ve played it a couple times but I don’t really know it!” And he’s like “oh you must! You must!” So I said alright…

Did you have to relearn it?

Yeah! Every time. I should just have that ready, you know? The thing that’s cool about the show is that you don’t really hear it that much. People hardly, if ever, come up to me after a show and say “you didn’t play “Come Join the Murder”? What the fuck’s wrong with you?” They seem to have gone deep enough into the other stuff. And for me, it doesn’t really mean as much.

Because it’s not yours? You haven’t taken ownership of it?

Yeah, you know? Which is kinda weird. Because I hardly do covers, but on occasion, I’ll do “The Highwayman” a lot. We recorded a version of that. A lot of the covers we do I just learn them for whatever we’re doing it for and then I don’t remember them anymore. But “The Highwayman,” I feel like I’ve kinda made that my own thing, and I feel it every night, I know the lyrics.And I didn’t realize the whole “Come Join The Murder” thing was a reference to crows. I think it was kind of a double-meaning, but then I heard that it was a murder of crows, and I thought that was pretty cool. It’s a pretty dark song, but that’s pretty cool. It’s been singularly the biggest thing that’s happened to me as far as growing a fan base. But, the fact that I had so many songs already, it wasn’t just…

That wasn’t your first thing out of the gate, right. You’d been doing it for ten years or whatever before Sons came along…

Yeah, totally. (At this point, we move to the alley behind the venue, as the evening’s openers, The Saint Johns, began soundchecking.)

I finally got around to watching the Ernie Ball series today. I’ve always been fascinated with studio behind-the-scenes footage and watching how the sausage is made so to speak.

Yeah!

And I know that that’s the part that people aren’t always attuned to. In watching that, I’m amazed in particular about how most of the songs started with scratch lyrics and then you wrote as you went in the studio. Has that always been the way that it works for you?

Often, yeah. On the first couple albums, I had some compositions that I’d had and that we’d been playing live for years. The first album that I did with the label, Once Upon A Time In The West, half of those songs I already had, and they were complete and the arrangements were there. But Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways was similar.

Really, even a concept album like that was scratch lyrics until the end?

Yeah, I basically would go in with the producer and talk about arrangements of songs, and how to make each song a song, because some of them were just snippets, and to really figure out how to move the story along and how much time you had to get (the album’s main character, Joey White) from here to war and back. On this one, it’s how to move the emotion along in the allotted amount of time. This album, we did pre-production, which we’d never done. That was kinda cool, because then I could lock in some of the lyrics a little bit earlier.

Why was that not the approach before?

I don’t know. We just didn’t. We’d talk about arrangements as we were in there.  We’re not really on a clock, which is kind of a luxury. It’s kind of a home studio. But I thought that Ernie Ball thing came out cool!

It came out really cool, yeah!

People reference that all the time in interviews now. It’s pretty neat. They’ll be like “wow, you do that all in studio?” Which is cool, it actually informs people a lot more than…being completely uninformed! (*both laugh*) Which you’re not.

It was cool to peel back the curtain a little bit and see how those songs came to life.

Yeah, it was cool. It was just one guy in a room and really one guy editing.

How long was he there with you for?

He was there the whole time. We recorded for maybe…two months? If that. But we don’t have a super hard schedule. It’s like weekdays from 11 to 7. Dad hours! (*both laugh*)

And you only started playing and writing late, comparatively. I think 19 or 20 is what gets thrown around.  Did you start writing songs right away, or when you first picked up the guitar were you just learning Bad Religion songs or whatever?

Initially, I was super into punk and I wanted to write punk songs and stuff. But I only knew like two chords, which didn’t really matter. But they didn’t come out. The punk songs didn’t come out. I started writing these dark narratives that were a little more angst-ridden and vaguely loose and a little more about society and “the man” and shit than the stuff I do now. Which, there’s still some of that in there, but I build some of the bigger pictures into more human stories that are small but have a larger…

Yeah, the whole last album in and of itself is against “the man” by way of storytelling.

Yeah, totally.

I read somebody a while back, when Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways came out, refer to it as something like the most pointed, critical anti-war album to come out since the Neil Young album Living With War which, A) is a bit of an obscure reference because I don’t know how familiar a lot of people are with that album, but B) is also probably true.

There aren’t a lot of them out there, for sure. There aren’t really that many songs about war, let alone a  whole album about the effect it can have on people.

And it wasn’t necessarily inspired by any one person, right?

Yeah, it was all kind of imagination. Initially, I didn’t even have it tied to a war in any time. Then things just started coming out when I was writing, and I would talk about the desert or things that made it a little more specific.

What sort of songs were you writing, if you look back to 19 or 20 year old you, what was your voice back then. Were you writing “American” songs or whatever we’re calling them now?

I remember the first song I wrote was about this guy committing suicide.

Oh really? (*both laugh*)

Then another one of my earliest compositions was a war song, or about a guy coming back from Viet Nam and people treating him like shit.

Was that told from experience? Like your dad or an uncle or anything like that?

No, my dad was like in the National Guard and he was at Kent State, but I had no military close relatives, at that point especially.

Musically, were they still acoustic-driven songs like this?

Oh yeah.

So this has been the thing…

Forever, yeah. I can’t really play the electric guitar. I squeeze it too hard!



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