Buffalo Nichols’s self-titled debut is one of the starkest releases in recent memory, almost monolithic, the kind of record you should know better than to settle down with alone after dark. Buffalo, né Carl Nichols discovered the blues after he received a copy of the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues box set. After a youth spent devoted to the punk and emo scenes, he eventually returned to blues, sparked by a renewed appreciation for the possibilities of the folk tradition.
Buffalo’s brand of blues recalls the lean, earthen stylings of Charley Patton, Skip James, and Blind Willie McTell, bluesmen whose music haunts rather than commemorates. There’s a clash of precision and purity in his fingerpicking, a technique at once virtuosic and elemental. The finesse doesn’t spare us from his testimonies of ache, bitterness, and suspicion. From the opening track, Nichols levels with us: We are lost and lonesome ’til the end of our days.
It’s a revelation he never relinquishes, whether it’s the sadism of “Living Hell”, the lonely pall of “Sick Bed Blues”, or the vicious circularity of “How to Love”. Most chilling is “Another Man”, a song detailing the litany of violence– legalized, systemic, or otherwise– perpetuated against African Americans, a reality that remains as topical, unfortunately, as it does timeless. Brief as it is bleak, BN resists a redemptive arc, offering no platitudes on an immersive experience that strands us in the aftermath, never standing a chance.
Buffalo Nichols turns Grant’s Lounge into a cathedral on Monday, April 4th.
CF- This record is full of solitary figures, busted relationships, suspicions, loneliness, and heartbreak. Are these people whom you know, or is there an autobiographical element to them?
BN- It always depends. There are elements that are autobiographical; there are second and third-hand tellings that I try to make seem firsthand. I try to draw from everything and do whatever works best for the song.
Are you an introvert? Do you prefer that sort of loner existence?
Yeah, in a way, maybe– it’s not a preference, but it is the way I tend to do things.
Is thinking about it, singing about it a way to confront loneliness, or is that maybe a way out of it?
Not really. It’s not that it’s a way out or a confrontation. It’s just the same sort of processing of emotions that anybody does, introverted or extroverted. I think music and songwriting is just the thing that makes the most sense to me.
How do you find the balance between being an introvert and a performing artist?
I don’t (laughs)! The stereotypical artist is emotional or has addiction problems. I think the root of the stereotype is the fact that it’s so difficult to find a balance. People have unfortunate ways of coping with it. I think the only way you really can balance is to have some sort of set boundaries.
For these shows, are you touring with a band or playing solo?
Yeah, I’ve been doing solo for the last couple of years and probably a little bit in the future.
Are you able to do much writing on the road when you have that kind of time alone?
No, not really. I’m busier on the road than I am at home, so it’s not too much time to write.
I was wondering about the record. I love the stripped-down, bare-bones production. What does sparse production offer that a more orchestrated approach can’t provide?
For me, it just makes you focus on the delivery. You have to be a lot more deliberate with the words you choose and try to get more emotion out of it since you can’t really rely on instrumentation or production to help out with that.
How do you sustain that heavy atmosphere throughout a recording session?
I think it is by being depressed (laughs)! I think, for me, the mood exists when I’m writing the songs. If I’m sitting down for a month or two or three to write songs, they all end up being in a sort of similar mood. I can’t really switch moods from day-to-day from the songwriting perspective.
What about any newer material you have in mind for the next record? Is it as dark, or a bit more optimistic?
I think the newer stuff I’m working on is in a similar vein, but it may be darker. There’s a song “These Things”, which is an example. It’s probably the newest, the latest written song on the record. I think it’s a lot more deliberate in the delivery of the emotions.
Could you have written this album five years ago? On one hand, it feels incredibly topical, yet those concerns are unfortunately enduring. Is it a product of its time?
There’s a lot of topical things, but it’s not really relevant to a specific year or month. I am one of those people who naturally writes topical and political things– it just feels natural, so it could have been twenty years ago; it could have been five or ten. It’s just that the things that come to my mind first when I’m writing songs are always somewhat political.
Not a lot of topical or protest music ages very well because it’s heavy-handed or cliché. How do you avoid these trappings?
I think the first step is to accept that the cliche is the easy route to take. You’re probably going to do something that’s cliche your first and second and third attempt. I think the worst thing that you can do as a songwriter is to address things that you don’t really understand. And I’m not even taking myself out of this– I’ve been guilty of it, and I hear so many sort of protest songs that are written from a place of privilege. And your intention is right, but your delivery is off because maybe it’s not the song that you were supposed to sing. I think that’s the most important thing– to just speak to the things that you truly understand.
Where do you look for understanding? Before committing pen to paper?
I think it’s really about perspective because it’s important to write songs that aren’t just about you. But then I have to understand that I can’t write this song from anyone’s perspective but my own. When you understand that, then everything else comes across a lot less awkwardly.
You have a number of characters who are broken, yet you afford them a genuine sense of dignity. How do you cultivate that empathy for these people?
That’s s a good question. I think it ties into before when I said that I always try to combine perspectives when I’m writing these stories. When I’m writing, I prefer to have a level of empathy, even if you’re writing a character that you don’t particularly agree with or it’s not you. It’s easier to write that story if I still have some empathy for that person. I think it’s just about trying to– you don’t have to put a positive spin on it– but the relatability of it is the humanity.
Is it difficult to draw the line sometimes?
As a songwriter, it’s easy; as a person, I don’t do that. It’s pretty easy for you to draw the line, and that’s something that I’ve actually worked through songwriting. A song like “How to Love” is an example of that– how much empathy can you really afford someone before you start to hurt yourself?
I love that song, and I always wonder if the narrator is breaking the cycle– learning from his former partner’s mistakes– or if he’s fallen into the same behavior…
The way I see it, as of today, is that it’s like somebody who just started going to therapy. You’ve noticed the cycle, and it’s harder to break out of it. But once you realize that you’re caught in something, that’s the most important step to take– to acknowledge it.
You mentioned earlier about avoiding cliches, and I’m wondering about your revision process? When you write, are you done and done with an idea, or do you leave it alone for a few days and return to it?
For a long time, I didn’t do any sort of revising. I felt that the immediate pen-to-paper moment was the most important thing. If it didn’t come out right, then it was a song that wasn’t meant to be. I still feel that way sometimes, but now I’ve made more of an effort, like I said, of being more deliberate and saying, “Okay, I got this part right, but the rest of is not quite working. Let me go back to it.” I didn’t necessarily do that on this album– there’s a lot of first draft kind of stuff on the album– but generally as an artist, I am now giving songs the third and fourth chance.
Do you think music has the power to enact real social change?
Yeah, I think so, but it is a pretty long, long arc. I don’t think even the most influential artists are going to see that change in their lifetime. It takes a lot of concerted effort from a lot of different people, and I think artists are a part of that effort.
What’s the ideal outcome of releasing songs like that into the world, songs that are politically and socially charged? What’s your goal, if there is one?
The goal to me is the same as any song– to reach people who feel like they might be alone in their thinking. If you’re motivated to be better, to do better, or to just stay alive another day, then I think that’s a song that’s served its purpose.
Do you believe that there’s any truth to the idea that people make the best music during the worst political climates? I’m thinking of the punk movement that stood in opposition to Reagan in the 1980s…
Yeah, I agree with that. You can look back and say that because there’s a lot of great art and highly motivated people that come out of times of turmoil. It’s not really a pessimistic outlook. The reality is that great music came out of hard times, but also, there are so many people who are struggling too much, and they don’t even have the time and the luxury to create or even to think. Everybody needs a little motivation to commit to great work, but I don’t think it has to be a crisis.
You have a background in punk, correct?
I sort of grew up aspiring to be… It was a sort of hardcore, punk, metal scene, and there was a pretty low ceiling. It was all about community and expression. There wasn’t a lot of commercial success to come out of it. And that’s the biggest takeaway I’ve had, still to this day– I don’t want to be rich and famous; I just want to make good art that connects with people. I think that’s the most important aspect of punk.
Do you think it’s easier to make that connection today with blues instead of punk?
I think in a way, yeah. It’s there because I was not there in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but I think there was a pretty obvious enemy. There always has been fighting against the music industry or whatever status quo may be for a particular act, but I think punk rock has changed so much that there’s less to fight about– not nothing, but less– and I think the blues is so rife with problems and structural issues and power imbalances, that there is so much to say, so much to lose, and so much to fight
What records or other art has taught you about empathy?
I guess I have to think about that for a second because, for a long time, I couldn’t really find movies that I liked because if you’re talking about Hollywood movies– where there’s not really empathy– you are supposed to root for the main character because “we” said so. That kind of narrative always turned me off.
That’s so true! The movies of my youth– the movies of the 1980s had distinct lines between the good guys and the bad guys. I don’t remember many anti-heroes from my youth. Those didn’t come until a bit later…
Yeah, definitely. And I think music and film have that in common, where you follow the narrator, and you take them at their word. One of my favorite books is A Clockwork Orange. It’s more prevalent in novels where you go through moments where you really dislike the main character. That was the thing– I’m still going to see this through because I am partially invested in this person, but I don’t necessarily like the decisions they’re making me.
I don’t want to dwell on pessimism, so I wanted to ask you about hope. Is that something within reach? I know it seems like with each week, there’s some new barrier, some new threat, or bad news.
Yeah, I’ve been wondering in the last few months, “What does hope even mean?” And if it’s even worth anything. I mean, if it’s that thing that you cling to, to just keep going, it’s vague, and it’s worth whatever it means to you. But I don’t think you have to be hopeful or positive. Staying alive is very important, but you can be angry and mistrusting of everyone and everything and expect things to go wrong and still move forward and contribute to a better tomorrow. I think hope just makes other people feel comfortable. But if you don’t feel hopeful, I think it’s totally fine.
What gives you joy these days, then?
I like performing. That’s a nice little break from the world. And again, if you’re just paying attention, there’s not a whole lot of joy in the world lately, but getting to spend time with people and things like that and little bits of remembering what the world was like before the pandemic, I enjoy that.
Can you still remember what that’s like, or is that slipping from you?
I think there was a certain point during whatever lockdown it was where I just had to let that go and accept that things are going to be different for a really long time and be okay with that.
What’s it been like touring with the realities of COVID looming over you?
At first, it was so great to get back to how things were or seemed to be. But then, there’s this sort of realization that things haven’t changed. We’re just on this big collective denial– and that might just be good enough, you know? (Laughs)
Is traveling essential to who you are these days?
It’s a pretty big thing for me because I didn’t travel really much at all when I was a kid. But as soon as I had my own agency and my own money, I started traveling a lot, and, it made a lot more sense. I was one of those people who needed to be in a different place every other day of every week. I learned a lot about myself, and I think I got to meet so many different people that it was mind-opening. It really made me feel more positive about the world, seeing how big it is and how small it is.
Where do you feel like you belong in the blues lineage? Are you part of something contemporary, a version 6.0, or do you feel that you fall in line with the blues artists you admire, artists who were doing this 50 or 100 years ago?
I think it’s kind of both. I acknowledge how much of what I do is made possible by the people who came before me, and I acknowledge that I would like to be that for somebody 50 or 100 years from now, to be a piece of that journey. I’m still sort of figuring out where I fit in the blues world or the music world of 2022. I see a lot of artists that are doing things with a similar ethos, but I don’t know how connected it all is, yet.
What fuels that search of finding out where you belong?
I think it’s just human nature, you know? As introverted as I may be, there’s still sort of this instinct that you want to be a part of some sort of community in a way. It’s also like knowing where this music comes from and the role played in social circles, some of them very small, some of them bigger and more commercial. I still feel like there’s always these cool, solitary blues albums that get discovered, some guy that nobody heard, but I think the real greatness comes from people working together and creating together.