For more than 15 years, singer-songwriter Jake Smith, known by the stage name The White Buffalo, has taken a workingman’s approach to building his prolific brand of dark roots rock/country-folk/blues. An avid surfer, his career was catapulted by the success of his song “Wrong” in the Chris Malloy surf film, Shelter, in 2006. Since then, he has released seven studio albums (including this year’s “Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights”) and seen his music featured in numerous outlets including the shows Sons of Anarchy, Californication, and others.
In three words, describe your new record “Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights.”
Dark, light and in between.
The song that initially grabbed my attention was “Nightstalker Blues.” But I’d like you to tell me if a person picked up this record for the first time and could only listen to three songs, which best capture what you want to convey on the album?
If I had to pick three songs I would hit “The Observatory” or “If I Lost My Eyes” for something that’s a little more somber and introspective. On the dark side, I would go either “Nightstalker Blues,” which is pretty gnarly, or “Border Town / Bury Me In Baja.” And for something that kind of feels good, maybe “Heart and Soul of the Night.”
You recorded the album in LA. How did the recording process for this one compare to prior ones?
This one was a little different because I didn’t have a whole lot of songs going in, so there was some urgency in writing while we were recording that was different than in the past. I luckily hit a very prolific time where I was writing close to a song every day and completing it from beginning to end. That, as well as the initial approach, was to record vocals and guitar first to give it this kind of raw power that would keep those two things connected, which we didn’t end up doing on all the songs but we did it on a handful of them. So that was a bit of a departure as well.
I know that in the past you re-recorded and re-released one of your albums. How important is it to you that fans be familiar with your old material?
I don’t think it’s that important. If they like it and they want to go into the back catalog, it’s a nice introduction and hopefully people enjoy what I do. But as far as any kind of lineage or any need to sell the old material to accept this material, I think it’s not necessary.
The holidays are approaching and I heard you have a Christmas song in the works. What can you say about that?
(laughs) I do. Yeah, I recorded this Amazon acoustic Christmas thing and they asked me if I would write [a Christmas song]. Initially it felt out of my wheelhouse and then I sat down and wrote one. But yeah, it’s probably a different approach to a Christmas song. But it feels good.
It’s no secret that there is this DIY quality to what you do. You double as your own tour manager, load your own van, drive from show to show. Is all of this out of desire or necessity?
It’s a little of both. When I think I can do the job and don’t have to pay somebody to do it and I can just work a little harder, I prefer to bring that money home. But I know that many bands at our level do things differently. We don’t roll with techs or roadies or sound and lights, which is three guys in a van going from town to town. It’s part of the punk ethos and part of the idea that you can do it yourself. I’ve been doing it for so long that I’m fairly comfortable doing it. We’ll see if things change in the future at some point.
I was floored to learn that you grew up listening to bands like Bad Religion, Bad Brains and other punk acts. You’ve even played Riot Fest and toured with Flogging Molly and Chuck Ragan. What influence does punk rock play in your songwriting style?
I think there is an underlying aggression in how we perform, and in some of the darker songs and high energy songs. There is a little bit of a punk element still. More so it’s probably the approach to doing shit yourself, you know? For us, we’re not really in a “scene.” We’re more of an island where it’s just genre-bending and we’re not totally associated with other acts or genres. It is kind of this punk thing, this lone wolf idea that it’s us against the world.
Today’s music landscape is dominated by hip hop and pop, which command a disproportionate share of attention. Where do you see the place of guitar-driven music today?
I just want people to feel something. I want to create something that isn’t disposable. The ultimate goal is to create something timeless that somebody can listen to in twenty years, or where somebody twenty years ago would have listened to it. Music that moves people is kind of a dying art. Whether it’s sorrow, fear, heartbreak, love, happiness – there are so many emotions. A lot of pop music today is kind of this frivolous, disposable stuff.
You’re playing The Fonda in Los Angeles in January. As an LA guy, what does it mean for you to be headlining a venue like that?
I always want to progress and move onto bigger and better things, so it’s great. We’ve played there the last two or three times we’ve been in LA and it’s a nice spot. I like things to build and move forward in every market. We’ve probably played more in LA and the surrounding areas than we have anywhere, so playing The Fonda is a good feeling.
Name an artist, living or dead, that you would choose to collaborate with on a record.
Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.
I’m told you’re an avid surfer. A while back, Chris Malloy featured your song “Wrong” in his movie Shelter. Have you explored other opportunities to collaborate with the surf community?
Early on in my career, that was kind of the start of it. The use of “Wrong” in Shelter was kind of the impetus for me to say “Man, I should really try to do this music thing.” I was living in San Francisco at the time and [my song in the movie] gave me the push to say “Maybe this is something viable that I should undertake.” I had a couple songs in other surf movies but it’s been a while. My home surf spot is Topanga. I’m kind of off and on. I’ll surf and then I won’t surf for six months and be like “What am I doing?! I’ve got to get back in the water.”
What’s your most memorable surf story?
Last year I took a trip down to Baja which was amazing. Surfing is it’s own magical thing where you catch one wave and it’s this kind of cleansing thing. No cell phones or anything – you’re just in the water and maybe with a few friends. There’s nothing like it. You’re bonding with nature in a way where it’s just you and this moving thing. It’s therapeutic in a way.
Let’s do a little word association. Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?
Oh Jesus. You can’t really choose. It’s like picking a child. I would say Bob Dylan if I had to because he’s been a little more prolific in his career. I love Leonard Cohen though.
Gibson or Fender?
Gibson. I play Taylors though, which I love. I’m an acoustic player and Fender’s acoustic history isn’t nearly as remarkable as Gibson.
Jim Beam or Jack Daniels?
I’m not really a bourbon man. I’ll go with Jameson.
Europe or Latin America?
Here’s a Los Angeles one…East Side or West Side?
East Side. I like all that cool shit over there – Silver Lake, Echo Park, Elysian Park. All those places are quite cool.
Festival or club show?
Club shows are more consistent. Festivals are a crapshoot. Sometimes you’ll play while a big band is playing and no one will come to your stage. But I’ve had some great festival experiences too.
Dark or light?