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The White Buffalo: Songs of anarchy

Chris Bieri

Jake Smith's musical handle is a perfect fit, symbolizing his primitive start in the record business and the sparse, shadowy landscape portrayed in his songs.

Smith, known as The White Buffalo, got his break when his homemade bootleg tapes circulated in Southern California's surf community. Since then, he's developed a loyal audience by painting murky sonic sketches of outsiders and hard-bitten heroes.

The White Buffalo headlines Saturday's edition of Humpy's Big Spawn summer concert series, joined by locals The Eternal Cowboys, Life Ain't Fairview Trio and Blackwater Railroad Company.

Like its namesake, The White Buffalo's career was rather plodding at the outset.

Smith started writing songs in his early 20s and spent years on the couch before venturing out to coffee shops and other venues in Northern California.

"It came about very unconsciously and without much motivation," he said. "I got my first guitar when I was 19 and just started writing songs. I didn't come from a musical background at all; I just started writing without an agenda and I wasn't really into poetry or literature. I just kept writing and composing more songs. I would just play in my living room. It wasn't until six or seven years later (that I started to play in public)."

Feeling musically stagnant, Smith started doing simple taped recordings, just vocals and guitar, which he'd send out to friends for birthdays or holidays.

Those caught the ear of surfer and filmmaker Chris Malloy, who was in the midst of producing the surf movie "Shelter," in 2001.

"He called me out of the blue," said Smith, who contributed to the soundtrack and later played at the film's premiere.

Shocked that the audience at his premiere knew his songs from the tapes, the opportunity motivated Smith to move from San Francisco to Southern California and tackle music more seriously. He independently recorded a number of EPs and a full-length album under the moniker The White Buffalo.

"The motivation was that it could be something grander than myself," he said of the name. "It could have different faces or lineups. It could be solo or a band thing, but be much more mysterious or mystical than just Jacob Smith."

Smith's career got a shot in the arm when his lawyer (he didn't yet have a musical agent) made contact with a producer from the hit show "Sons of Anarchy" and lobbied for the inclusion of Smith's songs in the upcoming season.

"It's been great," Smith said. "Essentially, I didn't have management at the time. I didn't have much of anything. My lawyer, who was a fan of the show, saw the parallels with the conflicted themes of good and evil in my songs. He pitched them and that's how it started."

Smith's music has become a fixture on the program and its soundtrack compilations.

"They've used seven of my original compositions and I sang a version of 'House of the Rising Sun,'" he said. "It's been huge for expanding the audience and exposure. The way they use music is different than a lot of TV shows. It's more the pulse of the show. I've been lucky that I've had a bunch of songs (featured) there and people have dived deeper into the catalog."

Smith's most recent release, "Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways," is an ambitious concept album, chronicling the lives of young lovers Joe and Jolene in a 14-song narrative.

The story's protagonist, Joey White, joins the army and goes to war after losing his job. When he returns, the couple attempts to salvage their battle-scarred relationship.

Smith said writing the songs was both liberating and confining, as he tried to develop authentic characters and bridge stories within the album.

Smith and producer Bruce Witkin used the lower register of a baritone guitar to manifest Joey's persona, while the lighter, more vocal feel of a violin embodied Jolene.

"I had a lot of the bones and the choruses even before I considered doing a narrative," Smith said. "I'd always wanted to do a longer story that linked the characters and songs together. I arranged these ideas that worked as a story, I filled in the blanks, changed a bunch of characters and had to write other songs to fill in the gaps to make it a linear thing. I knew where they had to go, so it was great to have that guide."

Despite a lack of formal musical training, Smith has shown himself a meticulous writer who creates lush imagery with the use of mostly straightforward language.

"I still write songs the same way (I did when I started)," he said. "I'm going to try to make every word count and tell fantastical stories and try to take people on emotional journeys. I'm going to continue to do that and expand musically."

Smith plans to return to the studio later this year to record a follow-up. It may include a refurbished version of a song written by Smith for a companion album to the film "The Lone Ranger" called "The Lone Ranger: Wanted -- Music Inspired by the Film."

The song, called "The American Dream," examines the impact of Western civilization on Native Americans, but the album, like the film, failed to find an audience.

"I don't think I'll do another concept album," he said. "I've got a huge number of ideas and the bones of songs. Inevitably there will be some dark things on the next album."


By Chris Bieri
cbieri@adn.com