American Roots Sessions Interview: The White Buffalo
As of this writing, Jake Smith, better known as The White Buffalo, is three weeks deep into a co-headlining tour with Chuck Ragan (featuring support from Jonny Two Bags, a fine solo artist in his own right, though you might know better from his work in Social Distortion and the US Bombs).
The co-headlining bill seems to be a perfect fit: Ragan and Smith both seem cut from the same salt-of-the-earth cloth. Their penchant for brutally honest storytelling and dynamic live performances have combined to create an almost mythical, Paul Bunyon-esque, larger-than-life persona for both of them alike.
My wife and I were privileged to grab a few minutes of Smith’s time for a sit-down interview at a local coffee shop before the tour’s Easter Sunday stop at legendary Boston’s Paradise Rock Club. And while he does cut a rather imposing and intense physical presence that matches his White Buffalo namesake note-for-note in person, Smith, the man, is every bit as laid back as his Southern California roots would indicate.
Jason Stone/American Roots Sessions: So how did this tour come about now? I know Chuck had mentioned to me before that he’d wanted to get you The Revival Tour a couple times. How’d it come up now? Seems like a perfect fit.
The White Buffalo: Yeah, it’s a good fit. I’m not really exactly sure. I think it might have been Chuck or Chuck’s people contacting us, maybe? \
How is it going so far, three weeks in?
It’s going great. It’s been really fun.
Good crowds so far? Since it’s a co-headlining tour, is it mostly Chuck Ragan crowds or mostly White Buffalo crowds?
It’s really mixed. There are a lot of people for us, a lot of people for him, so it works out great. I think in some markets maybe we’re stronger, in some markets he’s stronger, it’s hard to judge.
Are you guys flipping who closes the shows?
We haven’t been flipping. They were kinda steering the beginning of the touring, so we kinda let him do it. We talked about flipping—he mentioned that maybe we should flip sometimes.
Are you both playing full sets, though?
Yeah, we’re both doing like an hour/hour-and-ten each. So it’s not the full hour-and-a-half or whatever that we’d normally play. It’s a little shorter, but it’s cool. Now we’re getting to some collaborative stuff that we’re doing together. Chuck will come up and sing, we’re getting some of the guys…Jonny Two Bags is going to come up and play with us tonight. It’ll be fun.
How does your music translate to Chuck’s crowd? He obviously has an established solo career, but it’s been my experience that a lot of the people that come see him solo around here still come from that old-school, hardcore Hot Water Music crowd.
I think it’s good. We’re pretty aggressive live. So, you know, you get a lot of folded arms at the beginning (*we all laugh*), but we end up breaking them by the end and get them bobbing their heads a little bit at least, you know?
Yeah, I’d imagine it doesn’t take much more than the end of the first song to win them over. You and Chuck, at least from my perspective, seem to be a lot alike in terms of how you perform, and “leave it all out there.” You pick up on that pretty quickly.
Yeah, that’s one of the things I really respect about him. I think we both do similar things in terms of writing—trying to write good, honest songs and performing with passion, you know?
Speaking of good, honest songs, “Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways” has quickly become one of our favorite albums to listen to. It’s such a dark and deep and intense album…how are you able to tap into that nightly when you’re on stage? I can see the writing process, but how do you get back there every night?
I just listen to the words and try to feel what I’m singing every night. We’re not doing the album in its entirety here. We’re playing a few tracks from it and I think they still stand on their own.
Do you still play them in order?
Nope. Actually…not intentionally, but we might actually be doing that. There’ll be a couple songs from that and then an older song … but now that I think about it, they might be in order.
Is it tough to write an album like that and then know that you’re going to go on tour and chop it up a little bit?
No, I don’t think so. I think at some point I’d like to do it…have a couple shows or a little tour… where we do the whole album in its entirety. But people want to hear it bookended, maybe, with other songs. People would get a little upset if we didn’t play some of the old ones too.
The album is obviously about an Iraq war veteran coming back and all that “coming back” entails. Have you heard from people that were vets, or were you conscious of writing an album like that from a perspective that was respectful, to make sure that you were getting it right?
When I was writing it?
No, I didn’t talk to anybody, really. I don’t how it came…
Yeah, how do you find that place?
I don’t even know. I just kinda try to, you know, dive into those characters to figure out what that may be like. But yeah, I’ve gotten insane feedback from a lot of guys that have come back and are not handling being back too well.
Awesome. Because there are some heavy moments…you talk about “putting the gun in your mouth to feel something real”…you singing that hits me every time.
Yeah, that’s pretty heavy. That whole section is pretty heavy, from “Joey White” when he goes off to war, and then he comes back, and then “The Whistler,” that whole three-song section before he’s kinda starting to look and feel a little more human. It’s pretty dark.
You’ve obviously written stuff that’s sort of dark and goes to a dark place before, but I think, especially that song “30 Days Back” is such a specific feeling that you evoke. If you haven’t been there personally, did people check on you? Once they heard that you write something like that, did people close to you ask, you know, “are you okay?”
Me? Well, if you know me, you know that I’m okay (*we all laugh*).
What I mean is that it sounds so authentic the way that you pull it off, but if you haven’t been to that place yourself necessarily, that sorta indicates that there’s something else going on upstairs that you’re tapping into. (*we all laugh*)
Ha ha! I don’t really know how I’ve been able to write all of these disturbing, conflicted songs, because I’ve been fairly..at peace! (*we all laugh*) But I love that. That whole idea of these kids going off to war for the wrong or right reasons and coming back and being expected to just fall in line as far as what’s out there for them after they’ve had this horrific experience…I think it’s a pretty modern story and I don’t think that people are addressing it much.
Have you seen the documentary “Body of War” about Tomas Young?
He’s a kid who signed up for either the Army or the Marines after 9/11 because, like a lot of people…
Right. But then he realized while he was going I think through advanced basic training that he was being trained to go to Iraq. And he started to think to himself “this seems a little strange…this isn’t what I signed up for.” And I think he had been boots-down in Iraq for a week before he got shot in the spine and was paralyzed from the upper-waist down.
He’s become a Gold Star veteran and an outspoken anti-war activist. They did a really compelling documentary on him, I think Phil Donahue put it together. But listening to this album brought me right back to watching that documentary. It evokes a lot of the same feelings that I think he was going through, so I’m surprised you haven’t seen it.
I’ll check it out. What’s it called again?
“Body of War.” And the soundtrack to the movie is all stuff that Tomas himself listened to during the recovery process and music that was inspirational to him, so he’s got Eddie Vedder on there, and Against Me! is on there, I think Bouncing Souls are on there.
Switching gears entirely. You’re based in LA, which doesn’t, I think, come across at all in your music.
Has LA influenced or changed your style at all? I mean, you’re not an “LA artist”…
No, and I mean, I grew up in Huntington Beach too, which people wouldn’t expect. I was born in Oregon, but I was like one when I moved to Huntington, so I’m pretty much Californian. Especially being in Orange County, you wouldn’t expect the kind of stuff that comes out of me. But I was raised on country music and I got into punk early on. My influences and my outlook is probably different than that. But as far as LA changing me at all, I’m not really in “the scene,” you know? I’m on a small label (Unison Music Group) that lets me do what I want to do, and I’m not in any kind of circle of musicians. I’m a family man, you know? When I’m home, I just stay with my family. Still stuck in my room writing my strange compositions! (*we all laugh*)
With the success of either the new album or the stuff from Sons of Anarchy or the song from The Lone Ranger, has there been a pull to go to a major label, or to a bigger label?
No, not really. Not at this point. We’ve got another album with Unison that we’re with and we’ll definitely fulfill that and see what happens after that. But I don’t know what I might do. I might go back to going on my own again, how I was before.
Yeah. I mean, the thing with this label is they give me as much freedom as I want and it’s great that we have time to record stuff. Essentially, the owners of the label are also producers and engineers of the albums.
So they’re invested.
Yeah, and they’re more musicians and music men than they are “business” men, you know what I mean?
Sure. So if you’re going to go the independent label route, that seems like the way to go. If you’re not going to go the total Tim Barry, do it completely by yourself in your woodshed route…
…which I think there’s something compelling to doing that too.
Yeah, there’s something to be said for that. But I mean, I was completely independent, putting out records with no setup or anything. We’d finish it and it would go up on TuneCore or whatever and it would just go out. There was no press or no machine behind it…not that there’s much of one now. But I like the control of that as well as the freedom to keep doing what I’m doing.
What was the pull, then, to do it with Unison and to do more of an album cycle rather than just by yourself.
I’d been doing that for years and I don’t know…I kinda thought it was time to just get in the fucking game a little bit, however small it is. I just thought it was the right time in my career to try to make things happen. And with them, it’s been great. It’s really been great.
How did all of the Sons of Anarchy stuff come about? I’ll admit that I’ve never seen the show, so that’s a world that I totally don’t understand (*we all laugh*), but I know that it’s such a cultural thing, it’s a water cooler show at work that somehow I’ve missed entirely! (*we all laugh*)
At the time, my first song was on the second or third season, and I didn’t have a manager, all I had was a lawyer. And my lawyer somehow knew the supervisor or had met him in the past, from some other time. I don’t know if he knew somebody who represented him? Because Bob Thiele, who’s the music supervisor of that show, used to be an artist. So maybe from then? And he just called him up and asked him to lunch and said “hey, you should listen to this guy’s music.”
There was no management or label or anything at the time, he played him some songs and said “you should check it out, it’s pretty conflicted.” How the show is, there’s a lot of push and pull, good and evil, so it fits really great. Once that got opened up, it’s been great for my fanbase, it’s really broadened and introduced my stuff to more people. Six or seven million people watch that show a week. And the way they use music is unique, especially for TV, I think. It’s not just background music, they do full montages with the whole song. They help it kind of guide the narrative of the show.
Yeah, your music sounds like how I’d imagine that show plays like.
Haha! For me, though, I always thought, you know, people always say that “your vocals are so strong and prevalent and your lyrics are so story-based and specific, that there’s not a whole lot of filler. You don’t really get that many licenses because unless it’s perfect, it’s not something where you can’t understand what they’re saying or that it’s just setting a mood, some kind of glossy feeling in the background. (These songs) are all, kinda, doing something, you know? But with Sons of Anarchy, they’ve used them and that’s made for a really good platform for it.
They’re going into the last season, right? Is there anything in the works…
Yeah, I’m talking to him. I might go in and sing on a cover. I did “House of the Rising Sun” for them, and they kinda changed the lyrics. That was the only composition that wasn’t mine, that wasn’t a pre-existing song that they’d used. I think we’ll be doing something like that, maybe, somewhere? And then, maybe they’ll use something else of mine, who knows?
That’s about all I’ve got…thanks so much for getting together. Oh, wait, a little birdie told me to ask what you do on your off time on this tour while Chuck is out fishing and Instagramming all day! (*all laugh*)
I’ve been driving!
Have you really?
Yeah, I’m driving. (*all laugh*) I’m still as DIY as you can get. On this tour it’s been great, because we’ve been sharing backline with them, so we’ll share their drums and their bass gear, so I just bring my acoustic guitars and the drummer brings his cymbals and sticks and the bass player brings his bass. So we’ve been flying sometimes. It’s work. We’re pretty bare bones.
So Chuck’s out fly-fishing and you’re driving to Pittsburgh or wherever.
Ha! Right. Filling the day up.
Where do you go next? Where do you go from here?
We have three more left and then I jump off the tour to go spend some time with my family. We’re going Pittsburgh, Philly, DC, and then I jump off. Then I jump back on in Houston, Texas, and we go Houston, Austin, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles.
Was breaking it up that way your idea? To be able to spend some time back home?
Yeah. This is longer than I normally do. I normally try to do two weeks, which sometimes is not totally realistic to try to do something nationally.
I think about that all the time for you guys with families. That’s tough.
Yeah, it’s hard. I want to see my kids and my wife, especially on days like this where it’s Easter. Breaks my heart, you know?