Buffalo Clover's Margo Price: The Cream Interview

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Buffalo Clover is a sextet of locals who like to boogie down late-‘60s and early-‘70s rock 'n’ soul style, which is what you’ll hear them doing — with contagious zeal — on their brand-new self-released album Test Your Love. In the past, married co-founders Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey also liked to serenade from street corners. And agitate with topical folk tunes. And cover classic country. And try countless other styles on for size.

Price, a sanguine, peppery-voiced veteran of the independent scene, predicts there’ll be more changes to come. But she and her bandmates are making the most of this present phase with a vinyl pressing of their new album, a music video for its longest track that they shot in the boonies and a release show at their hometown haunt, The 5 Spot, tomorrow night.

The Cream caught Price on a break from filming the video a couple of weeks ago and got her take on everything from D.I.Y. ingenuity to the popularity of “buffalo” as a band name.

I know the seeds of Buffalo Clover were planted when you and Jeremy started making music together several years ago as sort of a folk duo. What was that like?

It was definitely quite a ways away from what we’re doing now. We started kind of just playing together, two acoustic guitars and a lot of Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris songs.

We sold everything we owned and moved out to Colorado. Jeremy knew this place that you could camp for free. So we were camping for free, living in a tent. And we would go into Boulder and hit up Pearl Street. We weren’t married at the time, but we would put up a sign that said, “Just Married.” It would be something like, “Need money for rings,” or like “Going on a honeymoon.” So we would sit and busk all day until we had enough money for a bottle of wine and some dinner. And then we’d go blow the money and just stay out at the campsite, and then go do it all again. [laughs]

I bet that the “Just Married” angle helped.

Oh, yeah. It definitely did. People would be like, “Oh, that’s adorable. Where are your rings?” We were like, “Oh, we don’t have money for rings.” We were engaged for about five years before we tied the knot.

You’ve alluded to a musical epiphany that you had while listening to the Gillian Welch and David Rawlings song “I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll.” That’s an interesting song — entirely acoustic, and rather subdued, but they’re singing about wanting to play rock ‘n’ roll so they can be heard over the din. What about that flipped a switch for you?

When Jeremy and I first met, we decided we were going to write only political, topical kind of like folk songs and go that whole route.

What were you writing about?

Oh, goodness. You know, like, the war and famine. I remember I wrote a song about the bread famine that was going on in India. We were really into The Kinks, and they wrote love songs, but there was so much of it that wasn’t love songs. I thought, “It’s so boring that everybody’s writing about love.” We both decided that we wanted to write only songs that had strange subject matter.

I mean, we definitely cleared some rooms. …I felt so many times like I’d be trying to sing in some bar, and there would be people talking loud in the background. Sometimes you could draw a room in for sure, people that would listen intently and that loved it. But it just hit me one day when I heard that song. I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna get an electric guitar. I’m gonna play some drums. I’m gonna be loud.” Like, shock people, you know?

The funny thing is that Welch and Rawlings sort of made that move themselves. They plugged in a bit on the album after that.

Yeah. It can seem really sacrilegious, too, when [you] love Odetta and all these people from the ‘60s that were playing more mellow music. It’s like the whole story of the Newport Folk Festival, when they were trying to cut Dylan’s power source when he played electric.

I feel like everybody kinda goes through these phases. It’s just something about growing, trying new things. It’s a different medium, just like writing on guitar [versus] writing on piano. It opens up a whole new window to a different room that you can pretend to be somebody else for a moment.

You’ve made all kinds of music since you plugged in. One of your old bios had a description along the lines of “underdog gypsy-punk to Motown boxcar blues, vaudevillian acid rock to train-wreck folk.” In other words, all over the place. What made you decide to get more focused in what you were doing with Buffalo Clover?

Um, I think it was just like when people were trying to book us: “Who do you belong with?” … We’d get put on bills with some pretty hardcore bands sometimes. When you say some of those descriptions that you just mentioned, then people think, “Oh, I’m gonna put ‘em on with this metal band.” But we got booked for one tour where we were playing a lot of acoustic venues and I’d be like, “Well, I have to tell my drummer and bass player, ‘I think you guys should sit in the van, and we’ll just play acoustic.’”[laughs]

I really felt like we had to hone in and try to make something a little more cohesive. I think we’ll probably end up, you know, probably moving on to another genre at some point again.

When it comes to the sound on Test Your Love, you invoke some of the standard ‘60s- and ‘70s-era rock, blues and soul influences, like the Stones, the Band and Delaney & Bonnie. What new contributions did you want to make to that established form?

As far as the direction we’re going, I really love the Stones. I like that they did cross genres so well and it wasn’t a big deal for them. It seems like in the ‘60s and ‘70s it was, you know, a little more accepted to do [that]. I really like the idea of doing an acoustic song or an a capella song in the middle of a set, and not being scared that we’re gonna scare people off with country music or whatever.

When you sing songs that have a rock, R&B or blues foundation and attitude and you’re telling somebody off, what do you try to bring to it of your own?

I feel like with a lot of the songs on this album I still maybe am singing about things that aren’t really the happiest. …It sounds like we’re singing about something happy, but I’m talking about getting arrested or the way it is on the road and how it’s been for us the last few years. ... It’s like you reach this plateau and you want it to go so much further. I think we write about a lot of that in our music, just getting kinda thrown around in the music business.

We’ve been wanting to get back to writing more topical again. I think [that’s] probably our next direction. Bob Dylan’s always been one of my biggest influences. I just think that if you’re going to stand up and sing in front of people, you should have something to say, something to give back, or at least something that people can relate to. Life is not all roses.

You made this album at the Bomb Shelter, which was become a real hot spot over the past couple of years. Were there particular projects that’d been recorded there that got your attention?

We’ve been working with [Bomb Shelter owner] Andrija [Tokic] for such a long time, back when he was recording out of his house that literally was kind of like a bomb shelter, down in a cold basement with no heat. We heard about him through a friend, and he’s a really good friend of ours. ... It’s been a long-growing relationship.

When I first started working in there, I maybe didn’t realize that he was also a producer too, or I didn’t give him that leeway. I was kind of like, “Well, this is what I want it to sound like.” But he’s just one of the most incredible people to work with, because he has so much energy and so many good ideas and really pushes you to get the most out of your time there in the studio.

Brittany Howard also recorded there with the Alabama Shakes, and you have her singing on this album. What are the other projects you’ve done with her?

There was a group from Australia that needed some backup singers, so [she] and I went in there. I think that might’ve been the first time we worked together. We just hit it off. She’s a crazy party animal. When she comes to town, we go out and do karaoke.

Another project we worked on was Jacob Jones’s album. And that was kind of like we all went in at different times and sang on it. That was not at the Bomb Shelter, but at some other studio.

It was very laidback [this time]. She was hanging out in the studio and I said, “You know if you feel like jumpin’ on something, cool. If not, no big deal.” We sat in there and cut the vocals live together. It was quick.

You used Kickstarter to help with the cost of releasing the album, and made the goal you set — 10 grand. I often wonder if what bands estimate they need from their fan-funding campaigns actually turns out to be the right amount. Has it gotten you where you needed to go?

It definitely has helped. But it’s funny, because when money’s there, then it’s like, “Oh, we need this”—things that we didn’t account for in the budget end up coming out of it. It’s been nice, because we’ve never really before had a band fund. It would be everybody, you know, just paying out of pocket from the measly little jobs that we work on the side. It was good to have that and start looking at it more as a business, which I am so terrible at running.

My drummer, Houston Matthews, had to do a lot of poking and prodding at me to actually do it. Because everybody has their own opinion of Kickstarter and Indiegogo and all these different [services] that people use now. I had to look at it like people were pre-ordering the album. That was what it became to me, in my mind.

Did you catch anything on fire during the filming of that Kickstarter video? It sounded like you, at the very least, set off the smoke alarm.

Yeah, um, I didn’t have the foresight to remove the rug from the living room. So there are burns all over my area rug now. Every time I look at it, it’s a little memory of us deciding to light sparklers in the house. A little bit of my hair got burned. …We’re lucky nothing else burned down.

Do you happen to have any theories on why the word “buffalo” has recurring popularity as a band name, why it seems to come back around every couple of decades? There was the Buffalo Springfield era. Then in the ‘90s there was Buffalo Tom. Now there’s you guys and White Buffalo and others.

I don’t know. It’s almost like children’s names or something. People are like, “Oh, that’s catchy. I’m gonna do that.” The whole animal name [thing], with all sorts of different animal names, has definitely kind of become the new thing.

People have always said, “Oh, Buffalo Springfield — is that where you got your name from?” But it was just a plant, and I remember my grandmother saying it so long ago, talking about this clover that used to come up. I also grew up in an area called Buffalo Prairie. My dad had a farm out there when I was a baby. There was a drought that came and took the farm, and he had to go work in a prison. ... For me, it was kind of all about that.

But yeah, now there does seem to be an epidemic of buffalo band names. Maybe we’ll have to ... [pause] Nah, we can’t change it now.

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