"This is my first album where nobody dies" - The White Buffalo

The White Buffalo onstage
(Image credit: Frank Hoensch)

The Oregon-born, California-raised singer, songwriter and guitarist – known to his family and old friends as Jake Smith – talks about tearing up the rule book with a fascinating latest album Year Of The Dark Horse.


So massive are the musical and lyrical curve balls thrown with Year Of The Dark Horse that at times the album doesn’t sound like the White Buffalo

To those that know my songwriting I think it’s still me, but I’ve really stretched out. There’s increased instrumentation, and each song flows into the next. The album takes the listener on a journey. 

Was it exciting to step out of your comfort zone? 

Definitely. I had got a synthesiser during covid, and started writing on that instead of my trusted acoustic guitar. I wanted to be less genre-specific, and because I didn’t have a full set of songs going into the album my producer, Jay Joyce, became more involved. Subject matter-wise, I wanted to get into the passing of seasons over the course of a year, addressing some of the mental health stuff that I deal with during the winter. 

You’ve described Jay Joyce, who employed various motivational techniques, as a “fucking genius with a splash of bullying ex-wife”. 

Jay has this real kind of duality going on. We did twelve songs in eleven days in a whirlwind haze. There was no time to reflect on what you did yesterday because tomorrow was coming right at you. He was also overtly guarded about letting me hear anything. Most producers stroke your ego to achieve the best results, but Jay could tear you to shreds. It was a type of genius I had never experienced before. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the guy. 

The album was made towards the end of lockdown. Do you think that’s where some of its angst comes from? 

I don’t think of it as an angry record, though there are some moments of darkness. There’s no murder. [Laughing at the realisation] This is my first album where nobody dies.

Not only was the album recorded in sequential order while the story was still being finalised, also each track has its own video, and they slot together as a mini-movie. What an undertaking! 

Not only that, but four directors were each doing three songs. It was fun to work in that visual space, bouncing from one guy to the next. In spite of all that, it flows together really well, capturing the drama of the album. 

Did some diehard fans just not get it? 

Yeah. Even my manager didn’t understand. It’s the type of album you need to hear three or four times. But a really high percentage of those that like my music are really enjoying it. 

How has working in these new ways in the studio affected your approach to playing live? Do you present a different show now? 

Not really, apart from the fact that we are trying to play these songs as a trio, which means that my multi-instrumentalist Christopher [Hoffee] is even busier than ever before. 

Having previously covered Bruce Springsteen’s hit I’m On Fire, on this tour you get to support him at an outdoor gig in Rome. Is The Boss a personal hero of yours? 

I’m not a huge Bruce person, although of course I love and respect him and his longevity. In terms of a career arc, there’s Bruce and there’s Bob Dylan. Springsteen is a quintessential American performer; he’s just like apple pie. So this is an honour and a blessing, as well as being somewhat daunting.

The White Buffalo’s European tour begins on July 7, with UK dates from July 14. Tickets are on sale now.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.