Carl “Buffalo” Nichols may be building a name for himself as a blues artist who combines folk-inspired storytelling with some of the slickest riff making you’ve ever heard, but the Milwaukee raised musician is hoping to transcend genres. Believing that such labels as confining to the creative freedom he is searching for within himself, Nichols just wants to write the music that interests him. Currently, that includes the eight tracks that make up his exceptional self-titled debut, which drops October 15 on Fat Possum Records.
I recently sat down with Nichols to discuss channeling anger into art, his personal journey with music, and the dream board guitar he hopes to one day rediscover.
Americana Highways: The album is due October 15. I’m curious what you’re feeling as you lead up to dropping your debut onto the world? What’s it going to mean to you?
Buffalo Nichols: It’s just been such a long process that I think I’ve just put it pretty far in the back of my mind. I think it’s all just going to hit me once it happens, but at the moment I’m eager to get it out there.
AH: Is having an album of your own a piece to a childhood dream come to life?
BN: In a way, it is. Really, most of my life and music career, it wasn’t something that I ever imagined I would be doing. I always wanted to be a part of a band. Being a solo artist was more out of a necessity than a desire, but later on, it became a goal and a dream that I’m happy that I’ve achieved.
AH: Now that you’ve achieved it, what would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to the album front to back?
BN: I was just thinking about that actually, because in a way a lot of the songs on this record are like demos. In the process of writing songs, you can’t be very discriminating. This is at least my practice. I try to just let the songs come out, and then I’ll judge them after they’ve been written because if you think too harshly about how you feel about it and if it’s good or not, I think it just really gets in the way of the song existing, which is the first challenge. So, some of these songs are just not fully thought out versions of me. Maybe that’s a truer version of myself, I don’t know, but I think it’s not the full picture, but it’s the rough draft of who I am, which is usually what you get in the first impression. You don’t get to think too hard about everything you’re going to say. Whatever you end up blurting out in the moment, that’s what people are left with. So, I think that’s what I did.
AH: It’s true. And sometimes when you think too hard, you overthink.
BN: Yeah, and I do have a habit of doing that. So I think in the world of extremes I approached this with an extreme mindset. I didn’t really have the luxury of finding that balance, but it’s better to put something out that’s under thought than to keep something to yourself and overthink it.
AH: Well, and that’s where the honesty comes from in music. Sometimes whatever comes out spur-of-the-moment allows you to be truthful to the world because then you’re not going, “Do I want to put that in there? Do I not want to put that in there?”
BN: Yeah, and I think the Internet is a very expansive kind of parasitic thing that we all live in. I’m sure most artists have been very sensitive in the age where people who will never listen to you will criticize you just because they feel like it. But I think for the most part, the people who matter, they have a certain grace that they give to artists, knowing that it takes a lot of courage to put a song out there – anything that you’ve created out into the world. So, I try to keep that in mind.
AH: Touching on that courage, what would the Carl who first picked up a guitar think of this “rough draft” of who you are as an artist? Would his mind be blown?
BN: No, definitely not. No. To be totally honest, I spent a lot of my early musical years with a drive for a really intense musicianship. I think it’s sort of a more mature version of me that’s tried to rely more on the song than the execution of it, which I’m certainly not ashamed of, but I think if you would have asked – should you have played this album for 13-year-old me – I would have been one of those internet trolls. (Laughter) At the time, I was terrible, and I was a jerk anyway.
AH: (Laughter) Beyond the guitar play, would 13-year-old you be impressed with the songwriting and lyrics?
BN: Yeah, I think so because when I started writing songs, the song was an afterthought. It was just all about playing guitar and being angry. So I think the progress that I’ve achieved as a songwriter – that’s something that I think I’d be proud of.
AH: What was it about the guitar that allowed you to have an outlet for that anger? Why that instrument?
BN: It’s something I don’t really fully understand. I’ve sort of got a fundamental understanding of other instruments, and some instruments just don’t make sense to me at all, but something about the guitar just clicked with me and I still can’t exactly put my finger on what it is.
AH: When I think about working out some anger, I think about jumping on the drum kit and pounding out for a while. Was the guitar just cathartic for you?
BN: Yeah, definitely. It was cathartic, and it wasn’t even just that visceral, physical expression of it. Something about it just felt like an extension, like this way was what felt like the natural way. Even before I started writing songs, it just felt like this really natural way to express emotion, and the reason why I’m still playing it almost 20 years later.
AH: Is part of that, and I guess this is sort of music as a whole, but is part of that an escape? Does music give you a vacation from reality?
BN: Yeah, always has. When I started playing guitar before, even when I was really young, my main interests were typical young boy interests, which were like sports and video games. I wouldn’t even call them interests. They were just things that I did. And then when I found a guitar, I was like, “Wow, I don’t have to do this other stuff.” I actually didn’t like that stuff. So, I finally had something to do with my time that felt… for some reason, it felt more useful than anything else that I was doing. It took me away from some people, which was one of the big things that seemed to be a problem for me.
AH: You’ve been in a bunch of bands over the years. What does being a solo artist do for you that you couldn’t find in that band atmosphere?
BN: There’s a couple of things. One, is I like to see an idea be fully formed and come to fruition from beginning to end. I’m certainly not against collaboration, but I think some ideas deserve to get there. The intention should be there in the final product. I just don’t think it makes any sense to involve other people if you’re just going to do everything yourself. Then, there’s also the freedom to change direction, I think. Again, involving other people, it’s almost disrespectful to be like, “Hey, I have this idea, and I need you all to just do what I say because I know what I’m doing,” because I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to bring anyone else down with my experiments.
AH: You could say that you want to do a ska album next and nobody’s going to tell you no, because it’s up to you.
BN: Right. Exactly.
AH: There’s so little that we can actually control in life, but creating is one of them. How has music, especially now, built who you are today? Who would you be today had you never picked up the guitar?
BN: I think I’ve gone on some personal journeys to find that out, and I don’t think it’s anything that I really would want to be because I stepped away from music for a few times throughout my adult life and I tried different things, but I always come back to music. Not necessarily because it’s like this vocation and I can’t get away from it because it’s calling me, but it’s more like I really don’t know what else to do. Everything else just doesn’t feel right.
AH: As the journey continues, where do you want to see it all go?
BN: I think I have the same goal that I’ve always had, and I guess this ties into the last question you asked. I just feel like the guitar gives me this freedom. As long as I could figure out how to make sound with these strings, I can get away with anything. It’s a sort of safety net that I had. So, that’s what I want to do moving forward. Even though right now, I’m kind of being introduced to the world as this blues artist, I’ve always just really been disgusted by the idea of genres as far as music marketing goes. I totally understand it – genres exist for record labels and record stores. I just think, especially now, people don’t really care. Now that you can have all the recorded music in the world in your pocket, people can take five minutes out of the day to figure out what it sounds like. They don’t need labels and the words. So I think moving forward, I just want to make music and I want to just be done with genres and boxes and all these things.
AH: Being able to grow as a person and then write what reflects that growth should be the artist’s journey.
BN: Yeah, and I think that’s going to be the future of music. You see it here and there. People are proving how you can make it in the industry as it is without these genres, but I think moving forward, that’s going to be just the way it is. We’re going to be done with this. We’re tired of it.
AH: I wanted to end the interview on a guitar specific question. If somebody came to you tomorrow with a blank check and said, “Buffalo, go buy whatever dream guitar you want to buy,” what would it be?
BN: Huh, that’s funny. If I really could, there was this special edition, left-handed headstock Jimi Hendrix white Stratocaster that my grandpa bought me that I ended up selling. If I had a million dollars, I would track that guitar down and buy it back.
To pre-order the record and see the full list of Buffalo Nichols’ tour dates, visit http://www.buffalo-nichols.com