Good Bison – ‘I discovered a way to be true and authentic to myself’

Words: Miljan Milekić

It’s not too often that I finish doing an interview feeling like I just got off the phone with some of my close friends. And this one one of those. I caught up with Pablo Alvarez, aka Good Bison to talk about his (relatively) new project, new EP ‘Scattered Storms,’ and his background in music, but we ended up casually talking about our favorite skaters, artists, and how the love for music and skateboarding influenced both of our lives. So, tune in below for his story, a bit of my blabbering, and some good music.

Good Bison / Photo: Krölhaus

Hi Pablo! How are you?
Pablo: Great, thank you! Just enjoying a rare rainy day in LA.

Is it really like that? That the rain is so rare that the people are actually happy when it happens?
Pablo: Yeah, exactly. It’s a nice change of pace.

So, for the last year or so, I’ve been starting every interview with questions about the pandemic and lockdowns and how do people handle them. However, this time, I had to go with something else. You’re from Colombia, and you still have a family there, so are you in touch with what’s going on there? Is the situation a bit better now?
It’s pretty much still going on. There have been protests in the streets every day, a lot of violence, and it’s just a really difficult time for the country. I know my family in Bogota is safe, thankfully. Most of the activity has been happening in Cali, which is another city. There have been protests and stuff in Bogota, but thankfully they’re more centered around the old downtown area, and my family lives somewhat removed from there. So that they’re all right.

That’s nice to hear. I really wish for things to get back to normal as soon as possible.
Pablo: It’s just really crazy, difficult time. It just feels like there’s stuff going on everywhere right now. It sounds so basic, but I just wish that we could stop causing each other so much harm.

So, tell me more about the Good Bison – this is not your first project, but it seems like it’s the one you’ve finally fully found yourself in.
I would say that you hit the nail on the head. Personally, as a musician, I’ve experimented with so many different genres and styles. I’ve been in bands, I’ve recorded solo projects, I’ve done so many different things. And with Good Bison, I started it back in 2016 when I moved out to Los Angeles. The first two projects, ‘Buffalo Roots,’ and ‘That’s Bodhi,’ were very experimental and fluid in terms of the musical genres that I was exploring.

When I started working on ‘Scattered Storms,’ in a lot of ways, I really felt like I had discovered a way to bring all those elements together in a way that was true and authentic to myself. It was also the first time that a few of the songs were things that I wrote on guitar, just sitting on my couch. It felt very personal and very stripped down, but at the same time, it also was the culmination of all these different routes that I’ve walked and explored because it’s all still present in one way or another in the project.

I’m in love with ‘Scattered Storms.’ I like the fact that it’s so diverse, it embraces all those different influences, and yet it sounds like it has a clear sense of direction. How did it come together and what did the writing process look like?
It’s funny when I think about it because, in a lot of ways, it was the most straightforward writing process, compared to how I’ve approached music before. This time, it was just me sitting with a guitar and I’ve never been the primary guitar player for my projects. I’m not a great guitar player by any means, but I’ve been really connecting more with that side of the music. I’ve always been so driven by lyrics, that this time I was driven a little bit more by the music. I started playing chords and the words just came to me in a way that was very spontaneous. I didn’t even write them down. I have notebooks just filled with lyrics, just so many notebooks. It’s insane. And I have like, serial killer handwriting, I’m always scratching out, so it’s pretty creepy. And this was the first time that I didn’t really write them down. 

It almost felt like I was cheating because the words were already in the music. It was very seamless and organic. I wrote two of the songs on guitar. The other two songs were written by Mauri [Viladegutt], who I’ve been working with since we were teenagers. He sent me some guitar parts, and again, that felt very authentic because that was how we started making music. I would freestyle, he would play guitar, he would sing, I would sing… So, he sent me these guitars that he came up with and I was like – “These are perfect.” And immediately, melodies came into my head, words came into my head. It was very acoustic, the creation of the project. In fact, I originally envisioned it like an acoustic EP, but then we got in the studio and started laying down bass, started playing with some percussion, and it grew from there. But it really is a guitar and vocals-driven album.

It seems like everything about this EP has a story – songs, artwork, visuals. How important was it to tie it all together like this?
It was a huge priority for me. I have always felt a certain level of disconnect between my music and the way that I present it, and the way that I present myself. And this time around, I was really lucky. I worked with a visual director Krölhaus. She’s incredible. We worked together to really listen to the music, and think of a way to visually represent it. And for the first time, I really felt like I was putting as much of myself into the visuals as I did into the music. And, like I was saying, I’m a very lyric-driven person. I’ve always felt like if I am conveying everything through the words, then that should be enough. But over the years, I have really fallen in love with the more immersive experience that is not just the music, but the cover art, the videos. And like you said, there is a story to all of it. The same message that I’m trying to convey in the music, I’m conveying it with the visuals, and I’m conveying it with every aspect of the presentation of this project.

And how hard was it to connect all these different media, especially with the lockdowns and all the limitations that were going on in the past year?
Pablo: Not at all. It was very weird to have to collaborate at a distance and workshop creatively without being in the same space, but what was really lucky was that I was able to pull it all off with people that I had around me. I didn’t have to necessarily reach too far to find the talent that helped me bring it together. It ended up feeling like hanging out with friends and making it happen very bootleg. And since you couldn’t do big productions and you couldn’t really have these big teams, it all was very small and concentrated, but it almost made it feel more special. It really reminded me of back when I was a teenager and we used to go skateboarding and make our own skate videos. There’d be someone with the camera and then someone else would edit. It just felt the same way.

I actually love that you ended it like that because as a website, we do focus on music – especially punk rock and hip hop, but we also put a lot of focus into skateboarding and other extreme sports. I know you have a background in skateboarding, so can you tell us more about it? How did it all start for you?
Pablo: Skateboarding definitely came first for me. I think I got my first skateboard when I was seven years old. I didn’t really know how to do anything besides riding it or going downhill or something, which was a lot of fun. But it wasn’t until I was probably 12 years old that I really started getting into skate culture. I think that part of the reason that it happened for me was that, in a lot of ways, growing up, I was a bit of a loner. I didn’t really hang out with a lot of people. I spent a lot of time on my own, and skateboarding was something that I could do on my own, but at the same time, I would see groups of people skating. And I wanted to be a part of that. I really wanted to be a part of these, what looked like to me, just cool kids skateboarding. So I pretty much just started to tag along with people who had been skateboarding.

And skateboarding culture is a little harsh and a little crude. It’s not like you’re best friends, all of a sudden, but you are welcome to skate with them. So I would just go to the places where I’d see people skateboarding and just try to learn, try to grow from there. And I was never the best, there were people that I skated with that I didn’t understand why they weren’t pro. I was like – “This is insane what you’re doing, and I’m here working on my kickflip.” (laughs) But through that, I found a group of people who I would then skate with every day, and friendships evolved that way. It was the first time that I felt like I belong to a group, that I was part of something bigger than myself.

And obviously, music is a huge part of skateboarding. Not only because you’re probably listening to music when you’re skateboarding, but watching skate videos was a huge pastime of ours. I remember Almost Round 3′ or Zero videos. ‘Baker 3’ is a masterpiece! So, you start watching these skate videos, and you discover a lot of music that you had never heard before. And all of a sudden, that music is what’s cool. I’m not like this anymore, but growing up, I was very much – “this is cool and this isn’t cool.” If I discovered music through skateboarding, that was cool. And it was always a little bit older, it wasn’t what was coming out right now. Or if it was, it was very underground.

Or for example, in ‘Baker 3,’ I think Terry Kennedy‘s part and he does his own song. He’s actually rapping. And I, that was the coolest thing to me. Then, it was a very big deal when we were making skate videos, choosing your skate song as it should represent your personality and your skating style. And I remember the first skate video that I made, I used ‘The Kids Aren’t All Right’ by The Offspring. I mean, even before skateboarding, I was into punk and hip hop, but then skateboarding, sort of, reinforced it. That was what’s cool. And that was why I continued to explore that and discover more bands and more artists in those genres.

Good Bison / Photo: Krölhaus

On ‘Scattered Storms’ you have two visuals heavily inspired by skateboarding – video for ‘Lunatic,’ which I love, and visuals for ‘Can’t Predict The Weather,’ which I’ve been watching for an embarrassingly long time before realizing it’s a loop. How important was it for you to portray this side of your personality as well?
It was something that came about organically because, as a teenager, I skateboarded all the time, and then obviously, that kind of fell off. It’s funny because I remember always being like – “Can’t wait to get a car because I want to have a car and be able to hit all the skate spots, We’re going to go skating everywhere.” Then I got a car, and skateboarding fell off for me completely. It wasn’t until here in LA that I was like – “Wow, I should get a skateboard again. At least do some flat ground.” I don’t skate the way I did when I was a teenager, but I have my skateboard and I feel really comfortable when I’m skateboarding and I have friends who still skate incredibly.

So in a lot of ways, it almost felt silly to me that I hadn’t incorporated that aspect of myself before. It also felt like a very genuine way to give people a better sense of who I am and where I come from, which is a big part of this project. For example, in ‘Lunatic,’ in the chorus, I say “I can’t find my way back home.” And in a lot of ways, skateboarding was a home to me. That was where I felt comfortable and safe. It made a lot of sense to represent what’s going on in my head with skateboarding. And also, I just find it super cool. I love how it looks on, on camera. I will still spend hours on YouTube watching skate videos and stuff. So, it was very important for me to bring that out in this project.

I’ve always seen skateboarding as something between a sport, culture, and art form. As a creative outlet, do you think skateboarding influenced your music and the way you approach songwriting, and vice versa?
I definitely think that skateboarding influenced my music and my songwriting style, and not only because of the fact that a lot of the music that I grew up listening to came from the skateboarding culture. Like you were saying, it’s a creative outlet, and I felt like the people that I skated with weren’t just creative on their boards. There were really talented artists, talented videographers. They were just creative people who had all these different outlets. And I never necessarily felt like that. I didn’t really feel like I had a creative outlet. Except writing. I’ve always loved writing, but I never viewed my writing through a musical lens. It was more writing fiction, short stories, and things like that.

And I remember, hanging out with, with everybody skateboarding, that we would also have freestyle sessions and people would just freestyle. And I never felt confident enough to do that. I never thought like – “Oh, I could just start rapping right now.” And once I did start making music, I felt this surge of confidence. In a lot of ways, it was what I always wanted to feel skateboarding. As much as I loved skateboarding, it was always very hard and created a lot of anxiety for me because I skated with people who were really good. You know, I am over here trying to learn how to ollie the six stairs, and there are people doing backside flips on them. It’s just always felt like so far away from being what I would consider a good at skateboarding.

And once I started making music, right away, I was, kind of, cocky with it. I was like – “Oh man, I’m the best. This is amazing.” It was funny because, in a lot of ways, one of the big critiques that I have of my skating style and the other people have shared with me of my skating style is that I’m very stiff on the board. I’m not loose. And you know, when you’re watching a skate video, the best, they’re just loose, they look so relaxed. They make it look easy. I wasn’t ever able to do that. And then with music, I was. That looseness, that fluidity that I wasn’t able to accomplish on a skateboard influenced the way that I then approached music, where it was very loose. Very “I’m not even trying” kind of thing.

Again, I like that you mentioned it because I think I’ve never met a skateboarder who is just a skateboarder. Even with the pro ones, there’s always more – whether it’s photography, videography, art, music, design. Writing fiction. There’s always more. It was always fascinating to me how it drives that creative vibe from people. And I’ve always admired that kind of people like – Steve Caballero is the first one that came to my mind, that do all these different things.
Pablo: Yeah! Like, someone who I think is super cool is Spike Jonze. It’s so crazy that he was a skateboarder who just started taking pictures of his friends skateboarding and then went from that to being an Oscar-winning director. It’s crazy, but his creativity comes through in everything that he does – in his own skateboarding, in skate videos that he’s made, if he makes a commercial for a credit card, it’s incredible. So, I just think that, in general, skateboarders are really creative people, and that’s one of the reasons why they gravitate to it as a creative outlet.

Now that the pandemic is slowly getting under control and live shows can be seen on a distant horizon, can we expect to see any Good Bison shows in the future? Do you have any idea on how to convey these songs into the live setting?
I definitely have plans to perform this project and get on stage with Good Bison. I think that my ideal setup would be to have a full band. When I was in Miami, I was in a band called Dinosaurs And Disasters, and when we would perform, we had two guitars, bass, drums, we even had a viola player at one point. So I want to get back to that full sound because the way that I’ve performed over the past few years has been with more production. There’s probably always a guitar involved, but I haven’t really had live drummers. And I want to get back to that. I really want to get back to that band, organic sound, which is such a big part of ‘Scattered Storms.’ So, I definitely see that as the lineup, but I also see more stripped-down and acoustic performances as a possibility, especially since the album was born that way. It feels very natural to me to just do these songs with, with a guitar, or with whatever instruments we have around. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start lining up some shows once everything is opened back up.

Another thing that I’m really looking forward to is getting back to throwing my own shows. In the year before the pandemic, I had started organizing monthly shows here in Los Angeles at different locations. Good Bison would always play a set, but I always like to have a featured artist, a different headliner every month. And aside from the headliner, I would have a bunch of different up-and-coming or touring musicians come and share their work with everyone. I’m really looking forward to getting those back, and I’m hoping maybe the first one, now that things are easing up and people are getting vaccinated, could happen sometime this summer. I think that it’s closer than it has been in a long time. I’m excited about that because part of the reason I even started working on ‘Scattered Storms’ was the frustration of not being able to perform and share the music. I just felt everything bubbling up. I needed to get it out somehow, and that’s how ‘Scattered Storms’ came about.

With the EP being out for some time now, do you feel like it’s time for the next step and maybe a full length in the future?
My immediate plans to follow up ‘Scattered Storms’ are going to be more single-based. I have a couple of songs that I really want to get out, that I’ve been working on that I think are good follow-ups to ‘Scattered Storms.’ I’m very eager to work on an album, but I’m also not trying to rush it because, I basically had to make ‘Scattered Storms’ happen from the ground up, with all of my own resources. I’m very lucky to have amazing, creative people around me, people who work in the industry, but for an album, I just want to have the most resources I can have available to me because I don’t want to pull any limitations. And it’s something that when it happens, I think will be worth the wait for me. And also for fans of the music, because I don’t want to make an album with any restrictions, and just for the sake of making it.

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