TRAVIS BUFFKIN: THE LONG, LONG Q & A
My first conversation with Travis Buffkin started at the Hi-Tones patio on June 14, the day Cryin’ D.T. Buffkin & The Bad Breath presented Tattooed Rose. It was a rainy day and a wet night, but people showed up. Obviously, not an Afton Show. The second part of the conversation took place in my car a week later on a weeknight.
At Hi-Tones, Travis Buffkin was accompanied by guitarist Roland Delacruz (Masters of Love and producer/guitarist for the Bad Breath) and Tiffany Whirly, who works with Buffkin at The Station Café.
What were you saying earlier?
We were trying to stay sober because we had the listening party earlier and we were at The Station Café drinking good beer.
What are the odds they’ll stay sober tonight?
Tiffany: Oh man, it’s going to be great. I mean, I hope you guys are drunk, or a little bit drunk because it will be better.
TB: We’re co-workers, so she’s like, “Nah… You need to be fucked up.” You know… because we’re coworkers.
Is that the piano you used to record Tattooed Rose?
It’s beat up to shit, but it’s a good one, though. This isn’t the one we recorded with. The one we recorded with on our records was a half-step flat. Everybody had to tune down, so it’s all fucked up. If you listen to the record in another room…
Is that the famous one you got from somebody?
I bought it from a lady in San Antonio. She painted it red. For 400 bucks I got it and moved it. It’s a good looking piano, but it’s out of tune. A half-step flat and they all had to tune down for the record. So if you’re in the other room it sounds like shit.
Do you feel this is the best time for the band?
No, man. We’re not opening up for Willie Nelson. We’re not opening or playing at the Majestic, so no, it’s not the best time for the band because that’s what we’re shooting for.
OK, forget about the best time, but is this the best lineup?
Yeah, best lineup. We only had to replace one or two guys. From the get-go we had good players, we just had to replace them.
What do you feel you contributed as a producer on this record?
Roland Delacruz: Not much. I just said, “We gotta use that piano.” Yeah, it’s out of tune with itself and almost a half-step down, not quite. Not even perfectly out of tune, and it just sounds beautiful, man. It’s like old-beautiful, like that old drunk man that tells you all those stories at the bar. He might be a little too much at times, but he tells good stories. That piano was like that.
(We’re now in my car with Travis)
Do you feel like The Lone Ranger or the lone wolf of the local music scene? You’re so… different.
And you’re comfortable with that.
I don’t care about being different. I just…
What I mean is, most bands are so… “professional.” You don’t seem to give a shit.
We’re doing what we want to do, but I care a lot. I do. I think about that shit.
You care about your music, but you seem to be living in your own planet, with your own rules. You won’t play the game of fame and success.
It depends on who asked us and why. I mean, if Flaco [Jiménez] came to us—I’ve been on a Flaco kick lately—and was like, “Man, I’d love for you guys to back me up, but you gotta do this, that, and the other,” that might be cool. If it was someone I respected. I mean, I don’t know. Nobody has ever approached us that we felt like if we “do this” it’s going to be compromising anything. But as far as being alone or whatever in the genre… I thought Sugar Skulls were doing something real great and I always talked to Alyson [Alonzo] and told her to get a full band, get an upright bass, get a piano player. That’s what San Antonio needs: more bars with pianos, I think.
That would’ve been great, your band backing Sugar Skulls.
That would’ve been great. Alyson and I have sung together before. When we first started playing Hi-Tones, she would come out regularly and sit in on some stuff. For a while there, she encouraged a bunch of young women, but we had to cut that out. I mean, how many young girls do you come across that sing like Alyson? You know, send the people who want us to pull our pants down our way and we’ll decide.
You won’t pull your pants down unless, of course, the price is right.
Today I was looking at this Shiner “rising star” competition that Blackbird Sing won a while ago. I think we’re better, but that doesn’t mean anything. I mean, of course, hopefully they think their band is better than ours.
I remind you that you’re on the record.
Yeah, I’ll go on the record saying that.
Yeah, dude, but everything you say is on the fucking record unless you say “off-the-record.”
I understand that you might cut me out for certain comments…
I’m may not be cutting anything, so watch out.
OK, but “better” or “worse” is just taste. That’s just taste. Taste doesn’t matter. What is taste? Some people think that they’re better than us, and that’s fine—maybe they are better, to them, than us. But to me, there’s no better band in town than us, but that’s because I’m in the band. I can pick.
Well, you just opened a big can of worms. I don’t think it’s just “taste.” I do believe in song structure, execution, attitude. And I don’t necessarily mean you must have great technique. But we all agree there’s no other band in town like yours.
Yeah, I mean that’s nice. There aren’t a lot of other bands doing what we do, but you know, what I was getting at is that at the Shiner Rising Star thing one of the things they ask you when you’re selected is, “Do you agree to the terms that Shiner has set forth in their contract if you get signed to Shiner Records?” And you have to send a SASE to Shiner Records to get the terms, because they want people that will be, “Ah, I don’t have time for that, I don’t have time to send a SASE, so I’m just going to say yes.” They’re praying on, “Oh we want to be big, now we want Shiner to back us up.” I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I was looking at that today, and I doubt they’re throwing a bunch of money behind those guys. But it’s probably more money than I have.
I haven’t looked at those contracts or read the terms, but yeah, let’s face it: all labels rip you off. You have to sell a billion albums in order to make a penny.
I’m sure. We would be happy to come through to anybody’s hoops, but it’s got to be hoops that we’re willing to jump through, and nobody offers anyway.
OK, man, enough about legal stuff. Tell me about the making of this album. I love the fact that, instead of releasing a bunch of EPs, you waited two years to do this one, and it shows.
We were ready. We had about 20 songs [They wisely chose 12]. I mean, I’m already sick of these songs.
That’s why I keep telling kids, and they just don’t get it: don’t just write a handful of songs and run to the studio. Keep on doing demos and then choose the best ones for an album. Don’t rush it. An EP here and there is OK, but gimme a break…
Sure. I wanted to do like 17 but some of them were going to be like environmental pieces where you just listen to it and maybe it’s an instrumental and also there is not a lot of stuff necessarily going on, but there are weird sounds like Kurt Vile kind of stuff. Or more like theater pieces, but we said, “fuck it.”
You have a different voice than the one you use, don’t you?
I can sing like anything you want. And I’m sure that Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits could too. They could sing like anything you want, I’m sure. I mean, you know, I was talking to a buddy of mine earlier today, I got back to watching Tom Waits videos when he was younger, and he was so full of shit. You know who you’re ripping off. And when we first started off I was ripping off Tom Waits. At that time that was my inspiration. I like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, I liked these people with these voices… Howlin’ Wolf… You know what I mean? Captain Beefheart, man, I listen to Captain Beefheart now and I’m like, “Man, Tom Waits said he didn’t know who Captain Beefheart was,” but no one does because it’s not very cool. I mean, maybe he didn’t know. But Tom Waits is apin’ some real Captain Beefheart shit real hard. But like I said, I’m sure Tom Waits could sound like Al Bowlly, that guy who sings, “Is it a sin, is it a crime, loving you dear like I do.” [“Guilty,” the song from Amélie] He could do that. Like Bob Dylan back in the day, he could affect like anybody.
In Spanish we have two words for singer: cantante and cantor (canTOR). The cantante is the “real” singer, full of technique. The cantor is the visceral guy. Sinatra is a cantante, Waits a cantor, and you’re a cantor. I prefer the cantores.
But their voices are shit. Lennon’s voice is shit.
But who sings better than Lennon?
Right, right, right. Yeah, sure, on some songs. Well for me, the song dictates how you need to sound. I mean I could sing like that. I’ve been in choirs before where I sang like baritone and I’ll sing real white or classical.
The reason why I’m asking is there any shyness in you that makes you sing like that, as if hiding from something. I mean, are you shy?
Oh, yeah. Very much. I played classical guitar in school and I sucked, man. I was bad.
Yeah, terrified, because that is your voice. When you play classical guitar there is no other voice other than your classical guitar. Whereas with vocals, I feel like it’s more…
So with vocals you can hide…
Not so much hide, but I can be more myself. It’s the opposite with guitar because I’m just playing something else. Have you heard of Heitor Villa-Lobos? I’m playing him. And with classical they are very serious about, “Well, this is the way the composer dictates that you need to play it.” So your voice is secondary, and it’s almost not even in the equation. Whereas where the Bad Breath plays, I can do whatever the fuck I want. I can do anything I want because it’s my band and because it’s like sculpting in a sense that nothing is done, nothing is written, and it’s all undone until we do it—then it’s done. Then people hear it and they can decide whether they like it or not. It’s more like sculpting rather than regurgitating Villa-Lobos or Bach or any composer. They want it to be played this perfect way, so with guitar I was terrified, and I was bad because I was terrified.
But you still play some guitar with the band.
With the band that’s another thing because I don’t have to play like, repertoire pieces. You almost have to sacrifice your ego completely because then people will… “Ohh…!” they’ll respect you, and once you get to the level of people respecting you because you can regurgitate Mozart then you can go be like Glenn Gould. These guys that are like, “Oh I’m going to do it my way.” I mean, Thelonious Monk is a perfect example because a lot of people who didn’t know what he was doing were like, “Oh, this guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, he’s playing all these wrong notes.” But it’s because he knows the right notes.
But that’s where I’m shy. If you take away my voice and I don’t get to do my thing then I’m terrified.
I’ve been doing this forever, and when I hear you…
Sure, don’t mince words.
I see artists that start singing one way until it eventually clicks and they found their own voice. Do you see yourself with a band or a solo project where you sound like…
On the record we were going to put like an operatic tune where I sang falsetto. I mean, I can affect Puccini’s or that opera… There is this tune Maria Callas did… I forgot… I can do that Pavarotti [tenor] bullshit, but that’s not what our tunes dictate. I’m not bullshitting when I’m growling—I used to because I hadn’t found my voice. But now I found my voice and now I feel like Billie Holiday.
Do you know Astor Piazzolla?
OK, he was an Argentine bandoneón player who revolutionized tango. In the ’50s he went to Paris to study under Nadia Boulanger, and he showed her his compositions and she wasn’t impressed, found them too derivative. “Where’s Piazzolla? Where’s Piazzolla?” she kept asking. Then, he showed him his other compositions, which he wasn’t too sure about. And she was blown away. “Now, that’s Piazzolla!” she said, and changed his and tango’s life. So I ask you: where’s Travis Buffkin?
It’s there, all you have to do is listen. I’m just trying to beat everybody to the punch because that’s the first thing people say: “Oh, this is Tom Waits,” and it’s the easiest way to write me off. And people do it and that’s fine.
Was it Picasso who said…
“Bad artists imitate, great artists steal.” Sure. And early Dylan sounds like Woody Guthrie or early Tom Waits sounds like Louis Armstrong.
Yeah but even early Dylan, his attitude was Guthrie, but his voice was all his.
But I don’t hear Tom Waits when I listen to me. I mean, I don’t really like listening to me period, but I just don’t.
I don’t either. I hear Satchmo, but I see Tom Waits… But I don’t mean you’re just merely copying. You have the songs, and a personality all your own. You’re not doing it the way they did it in the ’40s.
Right. We’re not a jazz band. We can’t play jazz. We’re not that good.
All I’m saying is, I strongly believe you’re in a phase and, sooner or later, you’ll really find your own voice.
Well… I never sound better than when I just sit at home and play the piano or guitar by myself. Honestly that’s when I sound best.
That’s what I’m talking about! When can I hear some of that?
Whenever you want. That’s what I do all day long. Whenever you want to do it. [Days later, he sent me three songs via email, I loved them all. “Glad you liked them, but you haven’t heard the Flaco one,” he texted me, referring to “Houston St.,” ideal for a Flaco Jiménez solo. The song has an unexpected instrumental neo bossa nova bridge. OK, back to the interview]
Yeah, please send me those songs.
I will, but I got my voice on this record! You don’t think so? Don’t lie.
Just don’t lie, be honest.
I just love Louie Armstrong and can’t help thinking of him when I listen to you.
I’ll take Louis Armstrong but I won’t take Tom Waits anymore. Because too many people say, “Oh, this is Tom Waits.” I won’t take that anymore.
I really don’t understand the Waits comparisons. Is it because of the piano and the booze? I don’t think of Tom Waits at all.
Well, then you have a decent ear.
The only thing I see between you and Tom Waits is…
(interrupting) We’re white.
You’re white and you both play the piano…
And the atmosphere, but that’s about it.
And I play up my alcoholism, too.
But musically and vocally, I think you’re closer to Satchmo.
You have to hear our next record, man. I’ve got like four or five songs already. That’s what I’ll record. I’ll record those songs, some on guitar, some on piano. I mean, I don’t have a fancy way of doing it. I’ll send you some demos I have that I just recorded for my band on GarageBand. I’ll send it to [the band] and say, “Alright, this is kind of the feel of the tune.”
Is that what you did with [Tattooed Rose]?
No. For that, I just worked in the tunes to our live set. You know, we would play at The Mix every other Tuesday and I would just bring sheets with the chords and stuff and the changes and be, “Alright, this is what we’ll play. Watch me and watch for the changes,” and we just learned it that way.
What about the actual making of the album? I like to think that the sessions were full of anecdotes.
It’s wasn’t that interesting. We just recorded a bunch of stuff at my old place on my piano that’s like shit out of tune. Roland did it all. I mean, it’s digital, which is like…
Yet it sounds completely analog.
I hope so. I mean, that’s just Roland. Roland’s ear.
So there’s no magic in the making of the album.
No, there’s not. I mean, it’s pretty boring. We did one demo that if I sent it to you it’s so straight and white. I mean, we did like seven tunes. We did “My Babe,” we did a Patsy Cline tune, we did a Hank Williams tune, we did “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and it’s just so straight. It’s real straight and it was boring as shit. And we recorded that little demo and it sucked. It was nice and it got us gigs but it was boring and then we got better as a band. I mean, everything is just, me and the drummer [Mason Macías]; I played piano, he played drums. And everything else we just did over that.
Roland deliberately made it sound dirty, like a vinyl record coming out of a cathedral radio.
Oh yeah, because Roland knows. I like to think that this is where Roland would like to be at 48 years old, in this band, because he and I are always on the same page. We have the same taste, more or less.
Is he a Beatles man?
He’s not a Beatles man.
His [website] says he’s a Beatles man, but he’s a Kinks man.
Roland will tell you. And I was thinking about that today, as matter of fact, I was like, “Man, I love the Kinks.” But I like them begrudgingly. I think I’m a Stones guy. What are you? Don’t be a Beatles guy.
Fuck yeah. I’m a Beatles guy.
But I don’t believe in Beatles vs. Stones. I believe in Beatles and the Stones.
And the Kinks. You’re absolutely right. That’s exactly what I was thinking.
And when I say “Stones,” I mean the Stones with Brian Jones.
There used to be no Stones without Jones. It used to be that way, but now it’s all Keith. It’s all Keith for me, and of course Charlie Watts. I’m a Kinks guy, man. But the Beatles come in third for me. It’s the Kinks and the Stones. They’re both up top.
Don’t get me started on the Beatles… Let’s change the subject. Are you playing anywhere besides the Current’s cocktail party?
Let me see… Oh, yeah… There’s this show at Nightrocker on the 27th, but I don’t want to promote it.
What do you mean?
Who’s gonna play 11 bucks to see me? [the show’s actually $13].
You’re so full of shit! Of course we need to talk about that!
My thing is, is there’s not a band in town I would pay 11 bucks to see. Would you? I mean, when was the last time you paid to get into a show?
You’d be surprised…
I mean a local show…
When I’m not doing a review or working it, I always pay. But let’s see… Who would I pay 11 bucks to see?
You better say “nobody,” or else I’m going to think your taste is shit.
I would pay 11 bucks to see Masters of Love, to name one.
Oh, really? Well, yeah… It is unreasonable, but that’s just the promotion company. It’s like this online thing, they’re out of Portland so, I mean, that sums it up for me.
How did you get the gig?
They just contacted us online and say like, “Hey we can set up shows for you guys.” Somebody directed them our way. I mean, it’s good. Basically it’s like the more people you get to do it, the better it is because then the ticket prices get lower and stuff like that. They give you all these promotional opportunities if you bring in 20 or so people then the tickets are like all going to be eight bucks.
But you should be promoting this. Of course you can bring more than 20 people in.
Dude, I’ve done like so many Facebook event things and we’ll have 30 people say they’ll show up and not even one of them shows up. I hate the Internet, man. I hate it. I don’t even know how our band even works because, how can you be in a band that plays like juke joint shit and be like, “Yeah, like us on Facebook.” I won’t do it.
Oh, yeah, all the self-promotion bullshit.
Exactly. When other bands do it, it bums me out. I automatically write them off. I’ll like the band and support them and buy their record, but when they talk about “like us on Facebook,” I’m done. If you’re a big deal, you’re probably on Twitter. You’re probably a big deal because you suck. I mean, you do something very vacuous like, who cares? You know, I saw Doug Benson, the comic. I saw him in Austin and for the last 15 minutes of his set he read his Twitter account. Like the shit he posts on Twitter, he was reading that.
And people were laughing.
And people were laughing! And I was like, “Don’t laugh at this man; you don’t have to pay 25 bucks to read this guy’s Twitter. You can go home and do it.” And he’s just like getting away. He’s getting paid like thousands of dollars. That guy got guaranteed like five grand, I would imagine, to stand up there and get stoned as fuck and read his Twitter. If I wasn’t with my lady, and there wasn’t a bunch of drunk people around and frat boys, I would have just stood up and been like, “Fuck you for reading your Twitter, dude. This is a live event!”
Did you always know they were going to charge $13 for the Nightrocker gig?
I don’t think they should pay that much to see anybody.
Yes, but if you did know, why do it? Either you do it or you don’t. If you’re going to show up, you might as well promote it.
Well now I’m stuck, honestly. I felt obligated with this anonymous guy. The language they use is very manipulative and I already cancelled one gig with them, and I emailed them and said, “That’s a joke, dude. If you think we’re going to draw people for $13 when they can see us the night after for free. It’s a joke. We just won’t pull it.” I told them, “We won’t pull people for $13. Good luck finding a band that will.” Their whole thing is about supporting up-and-coming acts, and they were cool. “Oh, OK, we’ll try and get you another gig.”
Just do it, man. As you said, you’re stuck.
I don’t know… It’s like, fuck it. I’m not going to promote it because I don’t feel comfortable promoting a show for $13 to people. I know they’re not going to pay it. I’m not comfortable asking people to pay it, and no one is going to show up, which is what I prefer. And then they are going to cut our set short. One of the things that they have in their policy is, “Well, if you don’t draw 20 people to the door, we have the right to cut your set in half.” So in reality is what’s going to happen, I’m going to show up with two or three guys. We’re going to get to play for 20 minutes and they’re going to say, “Well, you didn’t draw anybody that was willing to pay $13 bucks at the door, and you didn’t sell any presale tickets for $11 dollars or $8 with the special online discount that we give you. So you make no money and it was all for nothing” and it’s like, “Fuck you, we never want to work with [your band] again.” [Obviously, Buffkin is paraphrasing]
Needless to say, you don’t have a manager, right?
No, we don’t have a manager. But if anyone is up for the task man, we’ll fucking take them on, if they want to take 10 percent of the measly money we make. I mean, shit… It’s a San Antonio thing. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a blessing and a curse.
I feel San Antonio, from a creative point of view, is a place where you can step back and see what’s going on, you can breath, think.
San Antonio is good in the sense that it’s easy to make a name. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond. But at the same time San Antonio taste is like so blue collar, which is what I love. I love good, humble people that work hard and drink shitty beer , and like good music, and they can tell heart when they see it, and that’s why they like our band 90 percent of the time. And some of them don’t give a shit, but at the same time it’s a curse too because they still listen to Sublime and think it’s the best thing there is.
Where do you go to buy the tickets for the Nightrocker gig?