Following The Herd Of The White Buffalo
The Alternate Root Magazine May 2012
If you have not yet heard the name Jake Smith, otherwise known as The White Buffalo, then put your ear to the ground and listen because this singer-songwriter from Southern California (born in Oregon) is charging your way with distinctive song writing, boozy-baritone vocals and a dynamic presence that will seep into your soul and capture your imagination with every song he performs.
Photos courtesy of The White Buffalo
Raised on the music of legends such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and George Jones, the seemingly obvious first question is, how did the White Buffalo moniker come about? "Well, there really isn't some 'cool story' behind the name, "Smith stated in a recent phone interview. "But 'Jake Smith' (laughing)isn't exactly a great stage name, so my friends encouraged me to create a more mystical name. We put a bunch of names in a hat, picked one out and The White
Buffalo seemed to evoke that mystical persona." The name also accommodates both his live solo act, as well as band performances with his smokin' trio, which includes Tommy Andrews on bass and Matt Lynott on drums.
However, for the first eight years or so you could have called Smith the "Lone Buffalo" because he had no record label, no manager, and no real prospects. An imposing sort of figure with long brown hair, full beard and piercing eyes, it has been a long and winding road to this point for The White Buffalo, starting out by hitting up the occasional open-mic night while waiting tables in San Francisco… but instead of recording his songs and sending them around to potential record companies, Smith would rather tape his songs and give cassettes to his family and friends as gifts.
But these seemingly harmless tape exchanges would somehow turn into an unexpected opportunity, when they started circulating throughout the Southern California surf community and found its way to pro surfer Chris Malloy. "I really wasn't looking at music as a potential career move at that point, just an occasional open mic night and that’s about it," Smith said.
"I played in my living room and probably didn't have 20 performances under my belt at the time, but my tapes started circulating around the area. I got a call about one of my songs, ("Wrong") asking if they could use it in the surfer movie Shelter. This made me start thinking about whether I should take this a little more seriously." Later on, three more of Smith songs would appear in the FX television show Sons Of Anarchy and HBO's Californication.
The Shelter development would indeed, prompted Smith to move from the Bay Area to Orange County in search of a musical path, sleeping on friend's couches for the first few years while starting to dig for every gig he could get… which included calling clubs on the phone and playing snippets of his songs into answering machines. The White Buffalo would start slowly building a fan base by playing shows relentlessly, willing to drive hundreds of miles between gigs.
In 2002 and on practically no budget, Smith recorded The White Buffalo's debut album titled Hogtied Like A Rodeo, continued touring and accumulating fans, before releasing an EP some three years later aptly titled The White Buffalo EP, which was producedby Eels' Koool G Murder. Smith's early releases featured darker themes revolving a lot around lost loves, boozing "and a little murder mixed in."
The White Buffalo's following continued to grow and in fact, Smith would begin performing throughout America and select foreign countries as well. He sold well over 20,000 units on his own while touring throughout America, Europe, Japan and Australia with the likes of Ziggy Marley, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Donovan Frankenreiter, Jack Johnson and Gomez among several others.
The continued momentum prompted several music labels to offer development deals, all of which he turned down. "They just didn't feel right," Smith said. "I had a family to feed and felt timid about cutting off my lifeline… and what I had been doing up to tha tpoint had been working pretty well."
After Smith re-visited his debut album by re-recording the tracks (in a friend's living room) with a different vibe and dubbed Hogtied Revisited, a new EP titled Prepare For Black And Blue was recorded in less than a week and released in 2010 through the Ruffshod music label and produced by Jimmy Messer. Messer is a producer and guitarist for Kelly Clarkson.
Smith would also finally take the music label-plunge, after finding a label that not only shared his enthusiasm, but also didn't interfere artistically or make him wonder if he was taking some big risk after all his hard work. The Los Angeles-based indie label, Unison Music Group, who according to Unison co-founder Bruce Witkin, was looking for not jus tan artist, but a storyteller. Someone that could "move you with justa voice and guitar."
Oddly enough, Smith would connect with Unison through his lawyer, who had also just picked up the label as a client. "Unison had just hired him as their attorney, and they asked if he knew of any unsigned musicians or bands," Smith said. "He told them about me and they liked my stuff.. it all happened super fast. I really feel like Unison is also passionate about the music."
After another EP titled Lost And Found in late 2011," The White Buffalo released his latest full-length release in February titled Once Upon A Time In The West, featuring songs that remainin the same vein as Smith's previous works, but perhaps not quite as dark. "Although the songs mostly remain on a darker side, I suppose, I think the themes are a little rounder, more broad and a little more topical, perhaps. " Smith said. "And we're also working now workingwith some different time signature stuff as well."
The 13 tracks on Once Upon A Time In The West depict a theme of growing up in suburban California, a theme in which anyone and everyone can relate to and translate into their own childhood experiences. The songs convey a skewed truthfulness, which sort of leaves one to their own devices in deciphering the lyrics and imagery. With titles such as "Ballad Of A Dead Man," "How The West Was Won" and "The Pilot"… there is obviously plenty to absorb, especially in the live, trio setting which injects white lightnin'into the songs.
Working with a label also allowed Smith to enter a recording studio for an extended period of time to work on his craft, working nearly every day for a couple months. "Song writing is just an endless pallet to me," Smith added. "This was the first time I was able to really spend some time in the studio." However, despite all of the sudden support - a record label, new manager and even a publicist - Jake Smith does not see himself making any changes in his approach to songwriting and performing, for it has served his music well to this point.
At press time, The White Buffalo was getting ready to hit the road for a series of shows, including dates in California, Washington, Idaho and Utah throughout April and May, with some east coast shows planned for the summer months. So, put your ear to the ground and listen for The White Buffalo. Visit www.thewhitebuffalo.com