The White Buffalo, aka Jake Smith, talks with Pollstar about his first concept album and how he plans on presenting it in concert.
You might already be a fan of Smith’s music without even realizing it. His songs have figured prominently on the TV shows “Sons Of Anarchy” and “Californication,” and his new tune, “The American Dream” is on the “The Lone Ranger” motion picture soundtrack.
Dropping Sept. 10 on Unison Music Group, Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways tells the story of Joey White who goes off to war and returns to find more violence in his hometown as he struggles to readjust to civilian life while reconciling with his pre-war girlfriend.
A couple guests were in the studio during the Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways sessions. Not only did former Jayhawk Jessy Greene perform along with Smith and core musicians Matt Lynott on drums and bassist Tom Andrews, but drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner played on the track “Don’t You Want It.”
The advance word on Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways is that you didn’t start out writing a concept album and didn’t consider it as such until later, when the songs began falling into place. Does that happen very often? That is, when writing music for an album, the songs might relate to one another in some way?
This is kind of the first time I decided, or it decided itself, that it would be this concept kind of narrative. Often the songs kind of write themselves or, at least show themselves … without my initial interruption. I think, song-wise, it’s very common for me that a lot of the songs come out in a way … it’s not a very conscious thing. … [I’m] realizing what the good part of it is and then expanding upon it from there. And then really kind of crafting it, which is a different set of skills.
During the creative process, are you mentally visualizing images while writing?
Yeah. For me, especially for this album, I try to make them like mini-movies that are linked together and try to make them as visually, as cinematic as possible to make you feel and care for these characters.
Does having a new album coming out affect you in any way? Are you like a little boy looking forward to Christmas? Are there any anxiety or worries, something akin to stage fright, before a release?
Not really. This feels kind of like the [most real] album I’ve ever done. I’ve always been an independent artist where I would record it and just put it out. So I don’t really stress on that. There’s some nervousness and excitement as far as it coming out and being able to play new songs live and whatnot. As well as see what kind of traction it gets and see if people are into this human story. I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of narratives that really dealt with such a real story. It is a work of fiction and fantasy but it’s based on a very human element and a very human experience. I don’t know if that’s been done much before, especially in the folk, country, rock-genre …
You just mentioned several genres. Are you comfortable with people labeling your music?
I think it’s inevitable. I think people are going to do that and need to do that. I think of it as American music. It’s based in roots music but it goes in all different directions at any given time. I think I have a unique sound and hopefully people can respect that. Labels are fine. I don’t love the Americana label, the country label … but I see that it’s human to do that. Just as it is, for instance, for people to say I sound like somebody as far as a singer. I get that a lot. Early in my career that used to offend me, I’d say, “I sound like myself. I don’t know why you have to make these comparisons.”
But at the same time I think it’s just human nature for someone to say, “You sound like Richie Havens” or “You sound like Eddie Vedder.”
I call it American music. It’s acoustic-based. I am a singer/songwriter but it seems to have a little more balls than most of the singer/songwriter [songs].
How does the creation process begin?
It’s a stream of consciousness kind of thing. I’m playing guitar and singing and melody all comes at once. For the most part. Some of the times melody and lyric come [separately]. But for the majority it comes at the same time. Then there will be a small time period when the song will show itself and I’ll get the idea of how to write it.
This last album was a little different. It had to be more focused as far as linking the narrative together and having songs bleed into each other, kind of seamless. Which was liberating but also confining at the same time. I think it was a fun exercise and an exciting way to write. Three verses and a chorus to get this guy off to war, get him to sign up for war, get him trained and into the shit, get him shot and sent home in two and a half minutes. And put my head around that and figure out how to make it happen.
Would you like to do another concept album?
Absolutely. I like the liberation at the same time of being able to write about whatever and whomever as opposed to being confined to a story. [But] … there can be endless ways of taking a concept or narrative.
For the upcoming shows, are you doing the entire album or just selections?
Now, before it comes out, I’m just playing selections. But I’ve kind of thought about that. It’s not that long of a piece. It’s only 38 or 40 minutes. As far as what I might do – at some point start playing it in its entirety in its linear fashion and maybe bookend the set with some of my older songs people like to hear.
How are you presenting the new material? Are you taking a band out or are you playing solo?
It really depends. I’m doing this East Coast run before the album comes out, and I’m just going by myself, just me and my guitar. But then there’s other times … I know we’re planning tours post-release that will be at least the trio. Then other markets we might have a 4-piece.
You got your first guitar when you were 19, 20. What were you planning to do with your life before you got into music?
I was an athlete. I played Division I baseball. That was my earlier training, to be a baseball player.
Were you shooting for the pros?
Yeah, for a time. I got kind of burned out as I got to my college years and other things started seeping into my life and music might have been one of those. Not to say I lacked focus, but early on in my music career I kind of lacked focus. Never on the songwriting side but as far as getting my shit together.
What position did you play?
I played shortstop, third base and I was a closer in college.
Was there a particular moment or turning point when you realized you could have a music career?
For the longest time, I went to a college up north [Saint Mary’s College Of California]; lived up there [San Francisco] for four or five years [after I graduated]. I wasn’t doing much, waiting tables, kind of raising hell, partying. Not playing much at all. I’d play a show, maybe two shows a year, in a dive bar at the corner or in a coffee shop or something.
But there wasn’t much really going on. There were some bootlegs scattered around and a friend of mine would send out tapes for people’s birthdays or Christmas or something like that. Somehow they got into a filmmaker’s hands and they wanted to use one of my songs in a movie. It was the stimulus for me to move to Southern California, Los Angeles area and get a little more focused.
Those first three years I stayed in guest rooms and slept on couches and played a bunch of shitty spots but I was building a fan base at that point. It’s been, probably the last 10 years that I’ve made a living [playing music] and the last, maybe five or six years that I’ve supported a family.
You didn’t begin playing music until you were a young adult. Were you a music fan before picking up the guitar?
I was. I always liked melody in music. I didn’t come from a musical family but my parents were super into country music. We used to go to country music concerts when I was little. Music was a part of our lives, for sure. I got into the punk scene a little bit when I was in high school. Once I started playing guitar I started discovering the songwriting aspect, which was maybe there from the country music upbringing as well as the punk sensibility of the more politically charged, some of the more intelligent punk stuff.
Was it easy for you to learn guitar?
I never really worked that hard at it. I would play a lot. I still kind of have a primitive style of playing guitar that’s probably hard for good guitarists to do. … I still find it very primitive, but it’s still my style. As far as the live style, it’s a really aggressive way of playing acoustic guitar. I break a lot of strings.
Learning guitar and launching a music career at what might be considered a late age for a musician – were you surprised you could do it?
The idea that I could sing, that I had an interesting voice was very shocking to me. Very early on, even the initial songs were filled with a kind of teen angst, early 20s angst; they were still kind of intelligent and were tackling some kind of political views even though I didn’t know much about much. They were still these human stories that always came out of me. I didn’t learn other people’s songs. I just started writing songs. That wasn’t really a conscious thing, that I would be a musician or a songwriter. It’s just what I did. I think it chose me as opposed to me pursuing this idea of being a songwriter or musician. It just kind of happened.
If you could write a song with any artist dead or alive, who would it be?
Do I have to choose only one? There’s a handful of songwriting heroes like Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen or Elliott Smith, any of those guys, that would be pretty mind-blowing.
“The idea that I could sing, that I had an interesting voice was very shocking to me. “
Upcoming shows for The White Buffalo:
Aug. 9 – Boston, Mass., Church Of Boston
Aug. 10 – Greensboro Bend, Vt., Hill Farmstead Brewery
Aug. 17 – Irvine, Calif., Orange County Great Park
Aug. 23 – Victoria, British Columbia, Upstairs Cabaret
Aug. 24 – Ucluelet, British Columbia, Ucluelet Rec Hall Field (Otalith Music Festival)
Aug. 27 – Grand Forks, N.D., North Dakota Museum Of Art
Aug. 28 – Minneapolis, Minn., 7th Street Entry
Aug. 30 – Milwaukee, Wis., Harley Davidson Museum
Aug. 31 – Milwaukee, Wis., Henry Maier Festival Park (Harley Davidson Anniversary)
Sept. 1 – Chicago, Ill., Schubas Tavern
Sept. 6 – Sisters, Ore, Village Green (Sisters Folk Festival)
Sept. 7 – Sisters, Ore., Village Green
Sept. 8 – Sisters, Ore., Village Green
Sept. 28 – Los Angeles, Calif., El Rey Theatre
Please visit TheWhiteBuffalo.com for more information.