The White Buffalo and the Lighter Side of Damnation
Jake Smith (The White Buffalo) has certainly benefited from having numerous songs featured on Sons of Anarchy. The chilling “Come Join the Murder,” a track co-written with Sons of Anarchy creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter and music producer/composer Bob Thiele Jr. was even nominated for an Emmy.
Smith recently phoned us from the San Fernando Valley, where he was driving to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to talk about last year’s Love and the Death of Damnation, an album that received rave reviews.
Talk about your upbringing. Where did you grow up?
I’ll give you the short version. I was born in Eugene, Oregon and moved to Huntington Beach when I was 1 so I was essentially raised there. I got a guitar late, maybe when I was 19. It was a piece of shit Fender I got from a pawn shop for $150 or $200 bucks. I lived in San Francisco for a while. I finally settled with my family in Los Angeles in the Fernando Valley.
What drew you to singing and songwriting?
Initially, I didn’t have any agenda. Once I learned two chords, I just started writing songs but not with any aspirations to be a musician or songwriter or have it be a career. I don’t know I did it. I just kind of did it. It was meant to be, I guess.
Living in Orange County, were you familiar with the punk scene there?
Absolutely. I was raised on country music and we would go to country music concerts, but when I got to high school I got into punk and hardcore. During my pre-songwriting days, those bands had a big influence on me. Bands like Bad Religion, Circle Jerks, Descendents . . . all those punk bands were influences.
Pro surfer Chris Malloy put your song “Wrong” in his popular surf movie, Shelter. What’s the story there?
I was living in San Francisco at the time. I wasn’t playing out much. I was writing songs and I would send cassette tapes to friends for their birthdays or for Christmas. It was pretty primitive – on a Pioneer tape deck or something. One of my friends worked in the surf industry and the tape started circulating. Chris Malloy heard it. He called me up out of the blue and asked if he could use it. That’s when I realized it was what I should be doing. It was a weird time in San Francisco and I was dicking around and getting fucked up. I wasn’t playing. San Francisco was very DJ-oriented and a lot of the small clubs had started doing that. After that movie, I moved out to Southern California and I’ve been there ever since to give this a fair shake.
Surf movies helped plenty of people’s careers.
For me, I was like why do you want my music. I grew up hearing these punk rock soundtracks. They started doing arty cooler movies that had more of a loose storyline. Surf movies have gotten a lot cooler.
What was it like recording your debut Hogtied Like a Rodeo?
It was a full-length that I discontinued. I didn’t know what I was doing. Through that movie and the cassette tapes, this guy Bob Hurley, who owns the surf company, heard of me. He asked me what I was doing and how I didn’t have an album. He put me up with surfer Peter King and I stayed in his guest house and recorded it. I was super green. I didn’t feel totally at the helm, but it was cool. I don’t know why I discontinued it.
“Come Join the Murder” was co-written with Sons of Anarchy creator and executive producer Kurt Sutter and music producer/composer Bob Thiele Jr. What was that experience like?
That song came about because Kurt sent lyrics to me. I never talked to Kurt about it. Me and Bob just sat in a room and worked out the music and melody. I tweaked a few of the words but not much. It was mostly a huge percentage of Kurt’s stuff. I made it a little more sing-able. That was a different process for me. I’m a lyricist but it was cool. It was supposed to be in earlier episode. It wasn’t supposed to be in the finale. But Kurt loved it so much, he switched it up.
When did you start writing the songs for Love and the Death of Damnation and did you find that they went in a particular direction?
I tried to expand both thematically as well as musically. I tried to keep things a little more positive. I tend to go to the dark side quite often. On some of them, I felt like I had to do that. I wanted to represent all walks of life and love and positivity is part of that. I wanted to have some different grooves too. We had a gospel, almost soul song to finish the album. I was trying to grow but keep it in my style.
Do you think of yourself as a country singer?
I don’t really. I don’t have any labels or things like that. Whatever comes out, comes out. If it’s alt-country or whatever it is, that’s what it is. I don’t really care either way.
I like the duet “I Got You.” How did that come about?
That was my manager who challenged me to write a duet. He thought it would be cool to do a song with a female singer, which I had never done. I had the first verse she sings and thought I could twist it into a real love story that’s not as powder puffed as a lot of duets tend to be. I wanted to have it be a little realer.
My favorite song is “Last Call to Heaven.” What inspired that song? Was it something in particular?
No. I love those stories that are about the strange outsider who is trying to assimilate. I wanted it to be a portrait of heaven and hell and the dive bar is the scene and then all hell breaks loose. It begins very stream of consciousness and I don’t know what’s going on with it.
It has a real eerie sound.
It’s a strange combination of violin and pedal steel that are both distorted. There’s also electric guitar droning in the back. It’s simple production but eerie, which is the point. We play it live but with a keyboard.
Have you written any new songs recently?
Yes. I’m always writing. For the last couple of months, I started focusing on the next record. It’s all over the place. There’s some slow finger picking stuff. I’m trying to get better at guitar. I think I’m a competent rhythm guitar player, but I never really worked at it. I play a primitive style, which has its merits. I’m trying to expand that a little bit. I have a bunch of different ideas of what I might do.