Interview with The White Buffalo

It was great to get the chance to sit down with The White Buffalo recently and chat about On The Widow’s Walk.

Jake Smith, otherwise known as The White Buffalo, released his latest album, On The Widow’s Walk, on April 17, giving us some new music to keep us occupied and entertained during the pandemic lockdown. We chatted with him about what he’s been doing to keep himself occupied during this downtime, what it was like working with Shooter Jennings on the new album, and how he got started with music.

 LH: How are you coping with the current situation? Are your family and friends all well? 
Jake: Yeah, I’m fine. Other than like not being able to work, I’ve been pretty good. I’m pretty good at being lazy, kind of, and so I’m just doing that. I’m just drinking a little more than normal.

LH: Yeah, I’m exactly the same. Theres’ a lot of weekday drinking which doesn’t normally happen. From a music perspective, you were pretty much a road warrior so it must be tough not having that connection. It seems like the music industry is pivoting a bit, and a lot of people are doing live-streams. I know you were already doing your In The Garage series and you’ve started that up again, but I don’t think that’s ever going to replace a live show or the feeling that people and artists get at a live show.
Jake: I mean, even just for your own sanity as a performer, that whole give and take that you get with a crowd is kind of irreplaceable, and you can’t get that shit on a live-stream. You can have some connections, you know, it’s better than nothing, I think. And yeah, In The Garage is just its own stupid little entity [laughs].

LH: It’s good fun though. My wife was in the other room watching your most recent one and I could just hear her laughing at the way you came into the garage. 
Jake: [Laughs] Yeah, I work up some pretty terrific entrances. It’s a fun thing. I like that because you can see my little silly side so not everyone thinks I’m this brooding f*cking brute, you know.

LH: The Cadenza show when On The Widow’s Walk came out, I saw you talk about that having some production behind it, and it really did. You sounded great on there.
Jake: Yeah, I mean that’s kind of the downfall of some of the whole live-streaming thing is it just sounds terrible and it looks terrible, you know. The idea to do it with Cadenza, we’re hoping to do another here hopefully fairly soon, well not fairly soon but maybe in June or July or something, do another one with Cadenza because it’s just such a better experience. It just seems like people… at least it’s closer to something live, you know. I mean there’s some angles so that it sounds good and you know, it was just fun to play with the band. It was a real treat.

LH: I agree, the sound’s the main thing. We’re watching a ton of live-streams and sometimes it’s maybe best not to stream when the sound is bad or their internet is so bad it’s dropping out all of the time. I’ve seen you talk before about being an artist and songwriter, those moments of connection with fans when they tell you how your music has affected them. The last time I saw you live was at The Shelter in Detroit. There was a guy standing next to me with his girlfriend and he kept shouting out a song he wanted you to play. Every single time you would finish a song, he would shout it out. You played the song in your encore and when I looked over, the guy was down on one knee proposing to his girlfriend to the song. That’s a unique thing that music does for people. That song is forever built into that couple’s history now. 
Jake: Right Yeah, I know it’s really cool people text stuff through, songs and stuff. I was talking to a lady about nostalgia and just how songs bring you back to certain places in time.

LH: I think at the moment, in the current environment with us all being locked away from other people, with limited contact, the power of music is so important and right now it’s more important than ever. When we do come out of the other side of this, nobody will ever take that live experience for granted any more. Those first shows after all of this are going to be unbelievable, for audiences and for musicians.
Jake: Yeah, I think it’s pretty reciprocal as far as people needing it. We didn’t think about it much, like postponing the album or that kind of thing, and it just seemed like the right thing to do is to put it out. People kind of need something especially something that’s honest, that could be I guess introspective but also optimistic. 

LH: Absolutely. I’ve read about how you started out, and you really started quite late. Or at least later than some people. You started listening to a lot of country music, and then punk-hardcore. When you picked up a guitar for the first time, did you start writing straight away? Was it always in your mind that you wanted to write music, or did you start off playing other stuff?
Jake: You know, I just started writing. I kind of learned a few songs, but hardly. Once I learned a couple chords, I started writing songs. But it wasn’t an idea really, or an aspiration of being a songwriter or doing anything, I just kind of started doing it out of, I don’t know…. Not that I needed to do it, I just did it and they were kind of off-beat and super primitive ones, you know, narratives and topical.

LH: So it came straight away. That was just the way that you started. Were your parents musicians themselves? Or were you the first in the family?
Jake: Nah, I mean they loved music. We would always go to country music concerts and stuff as a kid and it was definitely always a part of the journey in the car, in the station wagon, was listening to music but yeah they weren’t musicians. My mom plays a little bit of piano but it definitely wasn’t a feature. Nobody else played any instruments and I didn’t start until I was like 19.

LH: Wow, 19 is late by a lot of musician’s standards. I’ve heard you say before that the fact that you’re not steeped in music theory that you use that to your advantage. I’ve heard a few people say the same thing, because they’re not bound by any of those rules that maybe you are if you’re very formally educated in music, you feel like you have to follow. 
Jake: Yeah, I mean I know that I put extra bars in and different time signatures that are tricky for drummers and like I can turn things around some of the time. And I’ll wait a little bit here, and the next time I won’t wait….I don’t think about it as seeming wrong… I’m almost always thinking about sort of vocally for me, and so just whatever feels right there seems to be what feels right for the song you know. 

LH: I really enjoyed On The Widow’s Walk. I watched the Ernie Ball documentary you did, and you talked about songwriting and the fact that when you already had songs ready for the next album while you recording the album you were working on at the time. It sounds like you were writing all of the time. But for this one, it doesn’t sound like the case. It sounded like you were in a bit of a dry spell coming up to this album.
Jake: Yeah, I was. It wasn’t really until I got together with Shooter Jennings that I even had anything of much worth at all. And he kind of inspired me to finish and to explore a lot of the ideas that I did have but I just wasn’t very confident in them and so I wasn’t really seeing them through and he was like “That’s a great idea, that’s a great idea.” I just needed a little validation because I didn’t really, you know, you’re sitting in the room by yourself all the time and think about these genius ideas and then end up thinking they’re shit, you know. 

LH: Typically when you are writing, do you take yourself away? Do you need so element of pressure to write normally or is it something that you’re just doing all of the time?
Jake: I suppose that I have ideas coming in all of the time. I mean there’s huge, huge lulls of periods of time, it seems like, you know, that I don’t write at all or that I’m not thinking about music, I don’t pick up my guitar, I just kinda… but even in those times sometimes melodies will come in. I’ll be in the car, I’ll be walking or something and then I’ll sing something into my phone. The majority of the time I’ll sit down with a guitar and do it. Often, the last few albums have been really these kind of these crazy benders of like prolific writing when it’s just like I feel like I have nothing, and then the next thing I know in two weeks I have enough for an album. 

LH: How does it come in for you? Do you go into it with an idea to write a song about this or is it something that would just typically arrive and then you build it out from there?
Jake: Yeah, I don’t really totally feel responsible for the initial stuff. It just kind of comes out of silence, you know, out of the ether and then you make sense of something or you’ll find something cool or something that I’d use that like becomes the platform for the rest of the song. Sometimes it’s just like they just set themselves up and I think then, not my gift, but I’m good at realizing what, in a very few amount of words, how to expand on something, to make it into a song. 

Jake: It’s interesting, listening to this album, you sound like you were dealing with some pretty deep stuff. One of my favorites on there is “No History.” It’s really apt for the times we’re living in, that idea of living in the moment rather than thinking about what’s happened in the past or what’s to come. A lot of people at the moment are just writing off this time that we have right now, just waiting until we can all get outside again. Who knows what’s going to happen between now and then, right? That’s what you’re getting at in that song. 
Jake: I think there’s a handful of songs that are very timely in this time. I always like to, not necessarily through life lessons in there, but like at least give you something to think about. 

LH: It’s interesting how albums come out like that. One of the things I love with music is that everyone will take your music and attach their own meaning to it, but I think this album allows people to do that pretty easily in the current environment. 
Jake: Yeah, there’s not… I mean there’s some narratives in this one. I had initially thought about doing a concept album, which was kind of the optimal idea of the Widow’s Walk thing, and then other songs just started coming out that I wanted to be represented or be on the album and not be confined to the construct of a concept album. It’s still even loosely conceptual because it seems like a lot even those themes of whatever, kind of the romance of the idea of the Widow’s Walk, there’s actually a couple of songs that were part of that idea. I mean, obviously “Widow’s Walk” and “Sycamore” was one that was part of that larger story, but then there was a lot of water and ocean and longing that arrived in the other songs too, which I kinda unexpectedly made it all work into a cohesive thing.

LH: I heard you talk about the theme of water running through it, and how you used the Leslie speaker to highlight that in some of the songs, which was pretty effective. It sounds like you really clicked with Shooter Jennings when you were working with him, firstly on a personal level – I heard when you first met you just got drunk together. But then I guess, listening to you talk about that first day you worked with him, it sounds like as well as him being a producer on this he sounded like he was a little bit of a muse and helped to build you up to where you needed to be to write this album. 
Jake: Yeah, I was emotionally, in my life, kind of in a dark place and I couldn’t see the worth in work or the few ideas that I did have. He saw that and he saw how quickly I could map them out in front of him. So I’d go, “Oh, it could go like this, or I could do this” about where the song could go or it will go, and he totally filled me up. He inspired me, more so… especially in that time and he just opened up the flood gates of creativity for me for where I didn’t think I had anything to a week later I had enough to say, “Oh, let’s get in the studio again already.”

LH: You suddenly had an album worth of songs.
Jake: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

LH: You’ve played with the same guys for some time now, how does it work in terms of when you arrange the tracks? Do you sketch out an idea and then do you just hash it out with those guys?
Jake: Most of the time, in terms of the arrangement of the song, it’s mostly dictated by me, but then the arrangement of the instrumentation of when the drums come in or what the drums are doing when they do come in or when the bass comes in, is kind of a collaborative thing as one… partially… a lot of them were Shooter. Shooter was quite good at building things out and then going, “Ok, let’s start with the piano, let’s intro this song with the piano and then we’ll all come in as a band, or let’s do that and I’ll come in on guitar.” He’s quite good at that, at fleshing it all out. It all happened really naturally though. This is the most organic, it was basically just all of us in a room together. There was Shooter and my rhythm section just in one room, in an isolation room, and we’re getting takes, so the rhythm section and Shooter in singular takes basically, all their parts in single takes.

LH: When I listen to this album, it sounds like a band playing live, in a good way. You’ve managed to catch some of the feeling on this album of standing in a room and seeing you perform live. 
Jake: I think by the nature of recording it like that was… I’ve always been kind of chasing that because I always feel like it always just sounded… not that I’m upset with my other albums or anything, but they sound a little less cohesive or a little less bound together or less live really and that’s by the nature of how we record. We’d record the guitar first and then… you’ve got all different ways but it was rarely everybody in the room together and just press record, you know. 

LH: There’s a few bands I’ve chatted to who are going back to that way of recording, rather than tracking separately. Having everyone in the room together and recording, I think you get something that you wouldn’t otherwise. 
Jake: I don’t know why, because I’ve never done it like that and it wasn’t like we were in a huge space or anything, and the lack of concern and with Shooter and the engineer, Mark Rains, would lead. And I guess with different mics picking up other people’s instruments, we were taking pretty much whole takes of everybody at the same time, it doesn’t really matter who’s bleeding, you know [laughs], because you can always go back if somebody messed up one note or something, you could always go back and possibly punch it in, but it didn’t really matter. I had the same producers and engineers for the last four albums before this and they were super meticulous about mic placement and isolation and maybe three mics, one right on guitar, one right on the soundhole, one across the room and one in the other room, and an amp and all of these, not trickery, but just all these options you know. This one, it was just like just bend the mic to somewhere close to where the guitar is and just go for it you know. 

LH: It must be refreshing. I mentioned that Ernie Ball documentary following your recording process when it first came out, and there was one scene that stuck with me from it. It was where you were trying to hit that low note, and you must have done it about 50 times. I’ve seen singers recording and trying to hit the high notes, but you were the first one I’ve seen trying to get the low note. I don’t know why that stuck with me so vividly.
Jake: [Laughs] That was a fun little piece. That’s a f*cking low note, dude!

LH: The other thing I noticed on the album, which is fantastic, is that it covers a lot of ground musically and I was wondering about Shooter’s involvement because his output himself musically is so wide. There’s such a variety in his recorded stuff. And I think on this album, you cover so much ground sonically. It was really illustrated with “Cursive” which feels like a troubadour kind of song, and then you go straight into “Faster Than Fire” which is a balls to the wall rocker, but it all fits together. Did you have any concerns about the amount of ground you were covering on the one album or were you just going for what felt right?
Jake: It was just the songs that were there. The only one that really felt like it might be out of place was “Faster Than Fire” for me because that one was obviously way more of kind of a rock/punk, way more aggressive than the other stuff and not piano-driven at all. Those were just the songs that I was writing, you know. The idea of doing it, of not having really everything be acoustic guitar like super in your face, like the idea to kind of use Shooter’s piano playing as more of a feature, and just kind of see and feel what that does to my voice, and how those play with each other.

LH: I think it worked really nicely. It seems like a really well put together collaboration, working with him as a producer worked well. 
Jake: Yeah, I thought it was great. He’s a really good friend now too, which is great. I mean we share the same birthday! 

LH: Hopefully we’ll be out of the lockdown soon, and you can get yourself back out on the road. We’ll be out there to see you!
Jake: I hope so as well my friend! Thanks for the chat!

Photo By: Cheyenne Ellis

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About Phil Walton 49 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.