Modern Saga: A Conversation with The White Buffalo

Photo: Cheyenne Ellis

We recently caught up with singer-songwriter Jake Smith of The White Buffalo before hitting the road on the Ones To Watch tour. Of course, we had to ask what it was like to be a musical fixture on the iconic biker drama Sons of Anarchy. Read on below for our interview and see dates and tickets here

Ones To Watch: Your last album was a concept album that dealt with a character and his experiences. What headspace were you in when writing the new album, Love and the Death of Damnation?

Jake Smith: The last album was a concept record, which was a narrative about this guy's life that was super heavy. It went through the arc and span of this gentleman's life, who couldn't support his family so he went off to war, and came back and was fucked up, and couldn't really assimilate. It was just this long story, and everything had to link up - which was its own challenge. For this album, I wanted to keep it song-oriented, I wasn't going to do another narrative or concept album. I wanted to have songs. I look at songs as kind of miniature movies, not that many people write narratives anymore. Most of them are character-based and based in first-person. A lot of time it's from my perspective but not from me as a reality. It's like me as a fantasy, kind of.

Ones To Watch: Where did the title Love and the Death of Damnation come from?

JS: There's love songs. It's a growth, in the past I've always kind of gone to the dark side on almost everything. This time I almost consciously didn't do that. You can take songs in a million different directions and I didn't really want to do that on some of these. I tried to keep things positive, at least on a few of them. There's a couple murders in the songs too [laughs] but, for the most part, there's some more positive content.

Every time I title an album, I try to make it a broad stroke about how a lot of things can apply to the different songs. There's songs about love and questioning spirituality. There's a song called "Where Is Your Savior" about maybe not looking to the heavens or hell for that support, but looking to people who actually affect your life on a day to day basis, people who can help you immediately and effectively rather than this idea of this grander thing that may or may not be. i intentionally make things general, even in songwriting, so there's some sort of interpretation people can relate to.

Ones To Watch: What was the aftermath of having your songs featured in the movie Shelter, then Sons of Anarchy and Californication?

JS: The Shelter thing, that was the first things I ever got. I was just writing songs in my living room and playing twice a year in shitty dive bars and coffee shops up in San Francisco. I would send out these bootlegs for Christmas on cassettes to family and a couple of friends. One of my buddies worked in the surf industry, and somehow one of these cassettes that I sent out started circulating throughout the surf industry. That was kind of the beginning of it. Because at that point I wasn't doing anything. I was just drinking and partying and hanging out, and still writing songs.

The Sons of Anarchy thing has been amazing for me. I had maybe eight of my own songs that they licensed for it. I didn't write intentionally for that, they were just dark and conflicted songs that just kind of worked with the show. There's conflict, the idea of good and evil and conflicted feelings and emotions. And just the way they use songs in that show, has been crazy. It's probably helped me more than anything in building my fan base. I think that due to the fact that I had a number of songs on there, it's gotten people to dive a little deeper into the catalog rather than just staying there. I think it's cool how they've used the music to tell the story. Most of the time it's just background, and the more vague and you can't understand what the lyrics are, the better for licensing opportunities. In the Sons of Anarchy situation, there would be a montage that would help guide the story.

Ones To Watch: So are you a big fan of the show now?

JS: I was! It's over now which is a bummer. I was a fan, at first it took me a minute to get it. They started using my music in Season 3, and I hadn't watched it up to that point. But once you get into the story and the characters, I was pretty hooked. I'm not a big T.V. watcher but that was one of the shows that I would look forward to every week.

Ones To Watch: What shows are you a fan of when you watch T.V.?

JS: I have an 8-year-old so I don't get the remote very often. But I do like Clarence, which is a cartoon, which is maybe one of the funniest cartoons I've seen. I don't know what it's really catered to, maybe 8-year-olds. I've been watching Empire with my wife lately, it's actually pretty bitchin' when you get into it. I've heard Narcos is really good. I just started watching it and then I got distracted, but I think I'm gonna get into that. I dig the realism. I dig True Detective.

Ones To Watch: How do you feel about Season 2?

JS: I didn't hate it, I thought it was a lot better than a lot of shows out there. I was kind of pissed that everybody died at the end. I wanted Colin Farrell's character to live… oh no I spoiled it! Get up to date people.

Ones To Watch: You picked up a guitar at 19 years old while you were in school… how did you come across your songwriting style and your sound?

JS: I had this whole listening life before I picked up a guitar. I was raised on country music, my family would listen to country music and go to country concerts. I mean, I've seen almost everybody from '85 to '95, of all good and bad, of what country was at that time. Then when I got into high school I started listening to punk and I still didn't have a guitar. It wasn't until I got a guitar that I started getting into songwriters at that point. Lyrically, I need to be moved in a way. But I think it has a lot to do with that listening time before I picked up a guitar that I was absorbing things and then put it into my own style which I've developed now into my own.

Ones To Watch: How do you prepare for touring?

JS: We tour in a different world than a lot of bands. We're a working band. We don't carry techs, we don't travel in a big bus. We're just a blue collar, hard working band. It's about the songs and it's about the passion and the emotion that we convey every night. As preparation goes… we don't rehearse really. I like that spontaneity and the energy that comes from not knowing sometimes. We get out there and we play. We just got off a two-week tour and we had a new bass player who we'd never rehearsed with, we just threw him right into the fire and he played great. So now shit's pretty tight. It's great to go out and support a new album and to go out and play new songs in this stripped down way, where they have to come back to the core of what these songs are about. I think people can feel it regardless if there's a horn section or background singers on the album. If it doesn't come across on just an acoustic guitar and vocals, I wouldn't put it on anything.

Ones To Watch: So how many band members do you have?

JS: 3 guys, 3 instruments. We were at a festival the other day and saw a rack of guitars with like 25 different guitars for a 45-minute set. For us it's just not really what we're about. I bring two guitars, if I break a string, I'll play the other guitar.. which happens pretty much on a nightly basis. It's pretty bare bones.

Ones To Watch: Are there any cities you're excited to visit that you haven't before?

JS: I did a charity where I just sang in New Orleans. There's other cities that we don't have a lot of history in. All the places in Texas: Austin, Houston, Dallas. Last year we did a co-headlining tour with Chuck Ragan and we hit those spots but didn't have much history there. Atlanta is another one. And I'm just excited to go back to New York and Boston…the east coast crowds and the east coast mentality and excitement is kind of second to none.