The White Buffalo – ‘It’s easy to convey emotion coming from the heart’

Words: Miljan Milekić

I can’t remember when an artist hooked me up so fast with his music, especially being this far from what I normally listen to. But The White Buffalo did just that. The music, the lyrics, the energy, it was all just there. And I’m not the only one. Speaking with some friends who grew up on punk rock music, just like I did, who were never that deep info folk, country, or Americana music, just as I wasn’t, I realized they all hold The White Buffalo close to their hearts. So, when the opportunity for this interview came up, it’s something I just had to do. I caught up with Jake Smith to speak about his new album, punk rock roots, and a little bit of ‘Sons of Anarchy.’And I’m grateful that I was able to.

Your new album is just days away from the release date. I really like it so far, but at the time this is out, there is a serious chance many people still won’t have the chance to hear it in full. So, in your own words, can you tell me more about it, and the direction you took with ‘On The Widow’s Walk?’
Jake: It was a little bit of a different approach, recording-wise. It came in super organic, and it’s produced by Shooter Jennings. We all just sat in a room, basically, and recorded it at the same time. All of the piano, bass, and drums are, for the most part, all done in single takes. You know, we would do multiple takes, and just take the best one. That approach was Shooter‘s idea, but after doing it now, that’ll probably be the way I’ll do it forever because it just seems so natural and honest. It’s really what I’ve been after my whole recording career. To try to, kind of, recreate that live emotion and dynamics that we’ve tried to do here.

Song-wise, there are some introspective songs, there are some heartbreak songs, some darker songs. Tempo-wise, there’s quite a lot of ballads, this is more of a piano forward album than I’ve ever done, just by the nature of how are we recording it. It’s less focused on the acoustic guitar and more on the piano, which I thought was cool and worked. There are some conceptual themes with this album, it’s a part concept album and part other songs. I initially thought of the ‘Widow’s Walk’ as a concept album idea I had to explore. The whole romance a woman and a fisherman’s husband and that whole life. I just thought there could be a lot of drama and romance in that story. So I started writing that concept and then started twisting it because other songs started coming in. But inadvertently, those songs, a lot of them had water or the ocean or heartbreak, or some of the stuff that would have gone into the concept album, but then ended up seeping into my other compositions, that weren’t really part of it.

Your new album will be out via Snakefarm Records, a relatively new label under the Universal Records umbrella. How happy are you with the work they’ve done for you so far?
Jake: Yeah, it’s an offshoot of Spinefarm, which is kind of a rock label, and I think Snakefarm are focusing more on songwriters, more organic rootsy kind of music, looking, for kind, more timeless stuff. We’ll see. I mean the album is not out yet, but I’ve been doing interviews and stuff like that. It’s a weird time to assess people’s workload. They’re a UK based label, and this is a worldwide release that we’re doing. It’s, kind of, the first time that we’ve done a worldwide release that hasn’t been pieced out a little bit. We used to have Earache in the UK and in Europe, then Unison Group put out the albums in America, Universal putting them out in Canada. It was more pieced, a different kind of boots on the ground. So it’s hard to tell really. I know I’m doing a lot of interviews in Europe and some in the UK, but not too many in America. I never have, but it seems less this time, which is odd. But, yeah, I’m happy with them. I was happy with their enthusiasm initially, and their love for me and this new album. So hopefully, it’s going to be a good relationship. But it’s too early to say.

And I guess this is the first time that you’re releasing an album during a global pandemic…
Jake: Yeah. I mean, it’s going to be hard to tell what are the numbers, and what the numbers tell you. You know, if we sold more the first week out than last time… It’s a weird time, everything’s weird. You can’t be out there touring. You can’t do a lot of the normal things, or at least the physical body things that you could do before. So it’s a totally different model and a totally different way to work it.

I don’t want to box you in terms of genres, but the music you play can be seen as pretty endemic to the US. How challenging has it been thus far to win the audience over “across the pond,” or is that just a common misconception about Europe being less receptive of it?
Jake: Honestly, I would say it’s the other way around. (laughs) It’s more well-received in Europe than it is in the United States. I still feel like a dirty little secret in the United States, and that people aren’t aware of me. I’m not on the radio, and the crowds are even smaller. The shows we play in the US are smaller than some of the places we play in Europe. And the enthusiasm is definitely different in Europe, but that’s partially a cultural kind of thing. I don’t know, I feel that in Europe, they respect writing a little bit more, that they dive a little deeper, and are okay with some of the darker elements, or some of the more emotional elements, than maybe Americans. I’m not sure, I totally feel like it’s the opposite. And we definitely have a pretty strong fan base in Europe. It’s not terrible here, don’t get me wrong. We do fine here, but in some other, foreign territories, it seems a little bit better.

That being said, did you come across some European singer-songwriters that caught your ear? For me, it was people like you, Chuck Ragan, Brian Fallon who got me into this music, and after them, I found people, geographically closer to me.
Jake: European singer-songwriters? Contemporary? I don’t know any. I like Paul McCartney. (laughs) But he’s like the model of greatness that continues. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Wings lately, but that’s not very contemporary. (laughs) But yeah, I don’t know. Hit me with somebody who’s good!

I will! When I listen to your music, it usually takes me to a setting much resembling those old smoky wooden bars by the road. How do you manage to transfer such intimacy onto an audience and venues ten times the size of those bars?
Jake: It’s easy. I mean, it’s the nature of how I perform, and how my band performs, which is normally the only three guys. It’s just me, the bass player, Christopher Hoffee, and the drummer Matt Lynott. It’s a little bit stripped down, but there’s never a whole lot on the albums. It’s easier to convey if it’s coming directly from your heart to theirs. And if the way we perform is with as much passion, and as much emotion as we can, on a nightly basis, it seems very easy to translate. I think that, if the songs are good, and they have their moments and purposes, you should be able to play them. If you’re capable of playing them live, which we are, it should be easier to convey that emotion and the intimacy, and all those things live, regardless of if you’re playing for a hundred, or 4,000, 5,000 people.

You recently teamed up with for a live stream of your set. In these challenging times, how important was it for you to go into a project like this, and stay in touch with your fans, especially now when you have a new album, and you can’t tour?
Jake: It was just an important thing to do. We’ve already canceled gigs, and live music is really important, not just to me, but to people that come out and watch. It’s important for fans and the people that love live music. You get that connection and feedback. That wire – them feeding me, me feeding them, I think it’s super important. And once we started canceling gigs, we looked for a different format, other than Facebook Live or Instagram Live, that had better visual quality and better sonic quality. We tried to elevate that and, and Cadenza, I thought they really did a great job, and it came off more of a live thing.

I mean, I really just wanted to give people an escape for an hour, to give them something to do. To give them a reason to, you know, drink some beers in the afternoon, or whatever their time frame was. (laughs) And we got amazing feedback from it, it couldn’t have been better. Worldwide, we have like 68 countries tuning in, over 2000, 3000 people, and it was cool. It was important to give people a chance to see what we’re doing and then play some of the new songs. And not necessarily marketing, marketing wasn’t the main thing. It was just like – “We need to do this. We need to play for people that have nothing to do and need something to look forward to, and hopefully have something to enjoy while they’re listening to it.” And hopefully, they were feeling like a part of the concert. I mean, that’s basically what we did, we just played, you know?​

I am one of the many people who got to know your music through ‘Sons of Anarchy.’ Is it possible that today, movies and TV shows can be a bigger and more important platform for getting your music out there, than the traditional channels the music industry relies on, such as radio, magazines, and music videos?
Jake: Yeah, I mean, that’s had a huge impact on my career. I don’t know how many folds it has increased my fan base. It’s a different medium as people are watching the show already. So you’re getting new fans, it’s not like you watching videos on Youtube. The radio, that’s a dying thing. Maybe playlists on, you know, Spotify, Apple Music, and those kinds of things help. But the TV stuff, I mean, people often attach their emotional thing to TV shows as well. If you’re already watching the TV show, and you like it, and then the music supervisor has a good idea of the tone, the taste, and emotion, and it fits in scenes, a lot of the time people can really attach to it.

Luckily, with ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ that was a crazy opportunity because I had like 10 songs on that series. So, it was a voice that you kept hearing, and I think at some point you’re probably like – “Wow, I like that. I like THAT. Oh, that’s another one by him.” Like, you can tell it’s me, and then, a lot of people would go explore and go deeper into my catalog, which is just a gift. And I don’t know if it’s better. I’ve never had much success with my songs being played on the radio at all. So for me, it was the biggest thing, to grow my fan base and grow my career. Absolutely. It’s almost weird though, ’cause it’s almost like you don’t have to play the game as much. You could still be this dirty little secret at the same time. It definitely expanded the fan base, but you know, I can still walk around, no problem. But maybe that’s just me, though. I still feel kind of anonymous.

When it comes to your songs being used for movies and TV, and I’m not talking only ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ because I know you didn’t write every song on there, but do you ever feel like the songs you wrote got taken away from you in a way? Like they got a huge exposure, but most people don’t go any further from that one song, which in turn loses some of its initial meaning and become “THAT song from THAT show?” Does it ever frustrate you?
Jake: Honestly, I did almost all the songs, other than a couple of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ songs that they had me just come in and sing on, which were mostly covers, other than ‘Come Join the Murder,’ which was a collaboration. All the other songs were songs that I had already recorded that they just used. So the majority of the songs that I have had licensed are songs that I’ve already written, and that already had a life before they got into the movie or the show. I don’t know, I always think of it in a positive, optimistic way. If there are more people are hearing it, that possibility of them liking it and then exploring further in it is great.

But then also, if they just heard it, and it was just that moment in time, in that TV show they saw, and it works for the film, that’s fine too. My expectations are limited to whatever happens with it. You don’t know what kind of usage it’s going to be. You’ll get a request for a license saying: “Hey, they’re going to use this song in this TV show.” And you’re like – “Oh, great!” But, does that mean they’re sitting in a bar, and it’s just background music, and people were talking over it the whole time? Or is it a quiet moment where they’re actually using it as one of the characters? Or is it a total emotional feel for the scene? They could use it in so many different ways that you don’t know until you’ve seen it. I’m grateful either way, if they use it, it’s great. It’s much nicer, obviously, if it’s loud, if it’s not buried in the mix, and the scene. But I never feel bad about it.

There is one thing I found interesting about your music. I quickly got hooked up by it, and I’m somebody who grew up on punk rock music. And many of my friends who also like you came from the same background as me and were never folk, country, or Americana fans. It was a bit later, that I found out that you are actually a fan of punk rock. What bands got you into it, and do you feel like even nowadays those influences are being felt in your music?
Jake: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up on country music with my family, and then, when I got to high school, I kind of started making my own decisions and started getting into punk and hardcore. You know, bands like Circle Jerks, Misfits, Descendents, Bad Religion. Fugazi, which is not really entirely punk, but they are definitely part of that DIY scene, and the punk scene of that time. But yeah, totally. I still have that, kind of, punk ethos as well. We still just do it ourselves, you know, three guys in a band driving around. Maybe a tour manager, but not some lavish thing. We’re still doing the driving, doing the work, loading our own gear and stuff. And also, musically, there’s an aggressiveness to both some of the songs as well as the performances. That definitely has elements of punk and hard rock kind of stuff. It still carries through, even today.

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