The White Buffalo Interview

The White Buffalo, aka Jake Smith, played at the Bluesfest in Dublin’s 3Arena in late October, 2018. We were able to catch a few minutes with him before soundcheck to chat about his career and the growing reputation that he has been enjoying since his music started reaching a bigger audience. With a sound that spans Southern rock, alternative country and folk Americana; The White Buffalo performs with an intensity that sees him break strings on a regular basis with his performance method. Backed on tour by regular bandmates, Matt Lynott on drums (The Machine) and Christopher Hoffe on bass, The White Buffalo is a band you will not want to miss.

You perform under the name ‘The White Buffalo’. Is there a back story to how the name came about?

Yes, but it’s not terribly exciting...! Some of my friends came up with it; we just threw a few names into a hat. My name is Jake Smith, which is not very mystical or intriguing and I wanted to come up with something that was grander than just a singer songwriter and which could be just me on my own with a guitar or with an ensemble or a trio.

The name has a great imagery about it 

It does, I think it sticks in your head a little bit.

You started life in Oregon?

Well, I was born in Oregon but the family moved to California when I was very young. So, I’m pretty much a California boy.

Your first recording was Hog Tied Like a Rodeo in 2002?

Yes, it was independently recorded and released. I felt that the production had kinda got away from me at the time so I took the decision to re-record the album and released it under the name of Hogtied Revisited in 2009... There were a few new songs on there but the bulk of the record was the same, with a different production.

There was an E.P. in 2005 and then some more time before your next releases?

I was playing all the time, beginning to plant seeds and build a fan base and still looking to do everything independently. I had content but just not the means to record and put it out.

Unison Music Group arrived on the scene about then. Bruce Witkin and Ryan Dorn. Were they always in the background?

They are record producers and engineers who had a small boutique label. My lawyer represented them and he recommended me. They came to a show and we ended up doing it, which was cool. I was building things on my own fairly well but they opened up the recording hugely while still giving me my own personal freedom. They are really great to work with.

Can you tell me about your song-writing process?

I usually sit down with a guitar and write music and melody at the same time. Sometimes it comes from a stream of consciousness, from a silence and where things seem to come in from nowhere... Not always knowing what the songs are about but picking out what is valid or interesting in something that I’ve said during that lucky time and finding a jumping off point and crafting it from there.

Are the songs always character based?

Some are loosely based or autobiographical. Others are complete fantasy and dark - there’s love songs, heartbreak songs and a lot of the songs are character songs or murder songs.  A lot of my content is based in narratives and smaller human stories that are about grander themes and are moderately universal, so that people can attach their own lives too... 

Ultimately, I want to hit somebody in an emotional place; in the heart or the mind and make them think about things.. I like the darker side and the more shadowy side of the street, I think it’s interesting in a kinda darker, exciting World.

In 2012, we saw the release of your next album, Once Upon a Time In The West

This was the first one with Unison and as I hadn’t recorded in a few years, I had a bunch of songs to choose from. I’m usually pretty prolific and consistent anyway when it comes to writing but I just didn’t have the means; so, every couple of years, we now just go into the studio and make an album.

Shadows Greys And Evil Ways in 2013. It was a concept album based around the return of an army veteran coming back from the war in Iraq and his struggles to adapt.

It starts out as a love story, where a young couple meet each other and he really can’t support his new family and lifestyle, so he joins the army and goes to Iraq. He kills, loses his mind and then comes home damaged and tries to assimilate. He still feels blood thirsty and ends up killing on American soil. The ending part is more about the road to redemption and the idea of can he be human again. Through the love of his woman he gets as close as he can.

Did the album concept come to you as a fully formed idea or had it built over time?

There aren’t really that many people who write in a Kisner narrative style anymore. I wanted something with a real beginning and an ending. I had songs going in but I wasn’t really considering a concept album but when I looked at the structure of the songs and the layers of them, I thought that I could format and create this story, so I filled in the gaps. That created the ebb and flow of what the album is.

How did you develop your links with TV shows, Sons of Anarchy and Californication?

Again, my lawyer played a part. I had no management or label and no representation apart from my music attorney. He had a lunch with the music supervisor from Sons of Anarchy and as I write a lot of conflicted songs with a lot of very human people making terrible decisions in life, which had a nice marriage with the show. We did some collaborations and it was really something that built my fan base to a point and made people dive deeper into my catalogue to see that there was more... I also had song placements on NBC's This Is Us and the Netflix original series, The Punisher. Also, on the Netflix series, Longmire and in Chris Malloy's movie Shelter.

Did you notice a shift in the number of your album sales as a result?

Not so much, I think that it’s fleeting. Your song will come out and it has a boost for a couple of weeks and it will spike, but it’s not monetarily life changing. 

These days, the younger generations just want to buy the single song that interests them and no real commitment to anything beyond this

 It’s real important for me that every song has an emotional purpose and I don’t like to have any filler. The single song world is a contemporary thing. In my kind of artistry, the album is important to me. The highs and lows, the tempos and the feelings and how you sequence the album and to build an emotional journey that you go on. 

Darkest Darks & Lightest Lights appeared in 2017 and before that you had released Love And The Death Of Damnation. Both have consolidated your success as an artist of quality and with the lack of radio play these days, I wonder if the only way to gain mass appeal is through film or tv work?

I’ve gotten more licences as a result but I think that people have to champion you. It’s really not about having the pay day on your licence but more about having it grow your fan base and have people go deeper into your catalogue and come out to shows. You really make very little from the online modern musical formats like Spotify.

In the garage, is a loose blog that you do and have on the website. 

A lot of people think that I’m this dark, brooding person because I write all these heavy songs, but I’m really quite light-hearted and this is just another way of getting in direct communication. It is a place where I create a lot of my compositions and talking candidly about my work; it’s just me putting my phone out on a little stand and talking about whatever is happening. Nothing is really rehearsed.

Ernie Ball (the eponymous corporation started by Ball to market guitar accessories), did a series of documentaries around the time of Love and the Death of Damnation?

They have been really supportive and have done a handful of films and videos. They did a whole documentary series in 10 parts about the recording of the album, the highs and lows. Each one had a theme and they were released each week and they put it out there. There is also a short film that is more of an art piece than a marketing project...  It was called ‘Where the Buffalo Roams’.

Any plans to come back and tour Ireland in 2019?

There are a lot of Irish people coming to the shows so I would love to come back to Ireland and do a little bit more than just Dublin.

Interview by Paul McGee