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The White Buffalo interview with Lee Zimmerman
With a Superb New Album, The White Buffalo Proves Yet Again He’s A Rare Breed
The White Buffalo interview with Lee Zimmerman
Jake Smith, aka The White Buffalo, is as unpredictable as his somewhat obtuse moniker might suggest but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Over the course of his eight studio albums, he’s consistently defied categorization, thumbing his nose at those that would try to pigeonhole him in any one particular genre. His new album, Year of the Dark Horse, bears that out, given a set of songs that reflect such various and disparate influences as Tom Waits, ELO, Daniel Lanois, Bruce Springsteen, and any number of Americana references as well. A follow-up to The White Buffalo’s highly lauded previous album On The Widow’s Walk, it reaffirms the fact that The White Buffalo remains a singular breed, one whose passion for making music and pursuing his muse not only broaches boundaries, but effectively also ignores them entirely.
Nevertheless, Jake Smith admits that the new album did present him with a number of challenges, most of which were instigated by producer Jay Joyce, owner/operator of Nashville’s Neon Cross Studios, a man with whom The White Buffalo found himself working with for the first time. Joyce threw several ideas at the band — Smith, bassist/keyboard player/ guitarist Christopher Hoffee, and drummer Matt Lynott — creating a topsy turvy sort of scenario that made sheer unpredictability a key factor in the album’s inception.
‘He really pushed us’ Smith recalls. ‘It was like, we went to war, every day, but we won. I wasn't terribly prepared for it, so I was writing as we were going along. Nobody knew the songs coming in. It was very spontaneous and very experimental. And challenged us on every level. He put us on instruments that we weren't comfortable with, that we didn't really know how to play. He would have me singing in really strange ways to kind of take my body out of things. He had me sometimes sit down on a couch, in a really low-riding couch, and put the microphone in between my legs. I was hunched over my body, and that took a lot of my power away, just kind of cooled things out. But, still, he was amazing. He's really beyond any producer that I ever worked with before. He really pushed us to get special performances and unique sounds and twists and turns. And he really drove a lot of it’.
While one might wonder what that did to his psyche, The White Buffalo insists he was happy to go along.
‘I fully trusted him, and whatever his ideas were, however odd or kind of off color they might have appeared initially, they always seemed to kind of land in the right place and really work. There was kind of an unwavering trust in Jay. We would be done at the end of the day, not even knowing what the hell we did. It was just this kind of seven, eight-hour whirlwind of recording, doing live stuff, but then overdubbing and just the way we would set up. We would set up drums for an hour and then Jay would go, ‘Everybody can make drum sound good, right?’ And he’d go and grab a child's kit and mic it up with one single mic and put it through a Marshall amp and then record it. He was just doing some really unique kind of things to get different tones, to get different kinds of a sonic palette, things I've never really gone after before’.
Despite the unexpected elements involved, Jake Smith said it suited him just fine, and affirmed the fact that he wouldn’t need to confine himself to any specific regimen.
‘I wanted to push everything, and kind of abandon genre’ he says in hindsight. ‘People always want to put me in a box, whether it’s a Country box or an Americana box or something like that, which I never really thought I belonged in. So, I felt like this is a unique thing. This is what I aim for’.
Unlike some artists that fight for control and resist the directives offered by an outside producer, The White Buffalo has never had those issues. That proved to be the case the last time around with On the Widow’s Walk when Shooter Jennings sat behind the boards. It proved true once again during the current go-round.
‘Going into this, I met with a handful of producers’ Smith recalls. ‘And when I met Jay and hung out with him and talked music and talked about the concept I really wanted to achieve on this album, it was apparent that he was the guy. The only priority was for me to just finish the songs and kind of get the whole scope and arc of the story and the narrative, as well as to just explore all these new sounds and ideas. Yeah, at times it could be uncomfortable. We would argue about shit, but it wasn’t like I wouldn’t do something or we wouldn't compromise. In fact, I would just do what he said. I wanted to do something beyond what I've done in the past. I thought that he was someone that could help guide us and ultimately, we were all in’.
Happily, then, Smith says he’s satisfied with the results. ‘I really wanted to push things, to go to extremes and make kind of a headphones album, where you could sit down and listen to it in its entirety. It's really made to be consumed in one sitting, but at the same time, at the heart of everything, the fact that these are good songs, with the emotional impact. I'm always trying to just hit you in the heart or hit you in the head. And I think the songs kind of stand-alone as well as kind of a grander, larger piece’.
Still, The White Buffalo understands that the album may not be so easy to grasp by those with shorter attention spans or those that need to easily categorize the music from the get-go.
‘I'm not worried about that’ he insists. ‘I think it might take some people some time to get into it, but I also think that my core fanbase will come around to it, and appreciate it for what it is. It may be somewhat shocking for some people, initially, but now that I’ve listened to it, it doesn’t even seem strange or off-color or very different at all. But it might take some people some time to get into it, and others, well, they’ll just go along for the ride’.
Surprisingly, for an album that boasts such disparate elements, Smith admits that he didn’t come into the project with a lot of preparation.
‘I am a procrastinator’ he said, ‘and unless I'm really pressured to do something, I put things off. And in this situation, I wasn't entirely prepared. It was the opposite of being prepared, kind of, but as it went along, the pressure was eased and the creative muse and just having to get it done and having it be as good as possible and make every word count kicked in, my goal was to try to hit people in the heart. I work well under pressure. We ended up doing this album in only eleven days’.
At the same time, he was determined to defy any preconceived notions of who or what The White Buffalo is or aspires to be.
‘I've been so caged by this idea that my sound is acoustic guitar and voice and heartfelt songs’ he muses. ‘I started to abandon that with On the Widow’s Walk, the album we did with Shooter (Jennings). It's been a long journey, and it's always been an upward climb, a slow growth. I was lucky enough to get a few TV licensing deals, but those are really the only thing that helped expand my base, other than touring and word of mouth. I’ve taken a very old school approach to building a fan base. But it's always kind of growing. And hopefully with this album, we'll grow even more and reach people that we haven’t reached before’.
Of course, the question arises as to how Smith chose his handle but being the gracious guy he appears, he doesn’t seem to mind repeating the story.
‘I honestly wanted it to be something bigger than just, you know, my name, Jake Smith’ he allowed. ‘You can't really sell many T shirts with that name. I wanted something grander than that could always be. It could be just me solo, it could be something with an ensemble, with a band, but I just wanted it to be something larger with a little more… mysticism. The idea that it's bigger than just kind of one person’.
Nevertheless, he admits that the name came about in a more or less unambiguous way.
‘It's a stupid story’ he confides. ‘I think it was like an email chain, like, from my buddy or whatever, 25 years ago. He was like, ‘Man, you need a stage name. And then some people threw a couple of names in the hat. And I saw that one. I was like, oh, ‘That's the one. That's perfect.’ There’s a mythical kind of rarity in the white buffalo, one that’s attached to American Indians. It was just the idea that it's something rare and unique’.
In that regard, The White Buffalo may not be on a stampede, but Smith is convinced that he can connect with listeners regardless.
‘The audience and performer relationship are something that's important to me’ Smith concedes. ‘That’s something that feeds my artistry and affects the way I think. It’s important to have a show where people cry at some point, where people dance at another point, and, where there’s the extremes of all the emotions and the roller coaster ride that we can take people on. I think that’s especially true in a live setting. I believe people appreciate that, and I feel like they’re getting it from us. We never simply phone it in’. (Lee Zimmerman)
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