I get to look at musicians a little differently since I’ve started to do these interviews. Performers on stage (even a stage as tiny as The First Unitarian Church) always seem like they are really high up, and very unapproachable. Several artists have since proved me wrong, and one of them is Jamey Robinson of Buffalo Stance. The long time West Philly musician who released his first album under the Buffalo Stance moniker in 2009, and is now working on some new material. I was lucky enough to talk with Jamey about his musical beginnings, songwriting, and collaborating with other artists.
How long have you been playing music?
I have been interested in sound and music since my earliest memories. I remember playing piano while talking to myself and waiting to go to kindergarten. I also used to play my Dad's Elvis records backwards and slowed down (chopped and screwed) as a child. I got my first synthesizer when I was 13. I saved up half the money with my paper route. My first band was shortly after that.
Has songwriting always been something you’ve been interested in?
I always came up with original music, most of it was improvised. I've never not had ideas, wrangling them was most of the challenge. I wasn't ever great at reading music so I had to make up stuff to have something to play. I've experienced an excess of ideas and impressions in my head that defy description but somehow feel like they ought to be shared. It's constant. Making improv into to songs is more of a refined skill that I've been struggling with eternally. Playing along with my brain at a piano had something to do with ghosts and dreams when I was a child. Now writing music is more of an organ or a knee for me. I have deadlines and things can't be over-processed to no end anymore. I've listened carefully to so much music now, arranging it into bite sized chunks or songs as it comes out seems a little easier.
We saw you open up for Mister Heavenly a while back. However, it was just you on the keyboard. Since then you’ve added a few members, correct?
I play solo when it's appropriate for the show. If a friend needs a low maintenance opener, I can do that my self. I enjoy playing solo with a portable pump organ from the 1940's. It's more like poetry that way. I have played most full band shows with Evan Smoker on drums and Matt Gibson on bass and vox. We have had up to 7 friends playing and singing at a show. The last few shows, longtime friend and collaborator Chris Powell played drums and electronics. I've actually been playing under the name Buffalo Stance for 15 years or more. Various friends have helped.
When you were on stage you seemed pretty candid and comfortable with the audience, talking between songs and making jokes. Are you normally like that on stage?
Most of my live work I do behind a great drummer with zero stage banter. Solo shows make it seem like I'm suddenly carrying the weight of the show. I actually don't like banter in most cases. It's a different part of my brain that is not one I have rehearsed to be good at. I don't have stage fright much, but if I open my mouth and I'm telling some joke before I'm supposed to go into a musical trance ...sometimes this is a conflict that I might over compensate for.
Did most of them record with you for “Sugar Glider?”
I carefully documented all the personnel in the booklet for the cd. I recorded most everything in a zillion different ways over 10 years on various computers and tape machines and musician friends and neighbors and Chicago friends helped. I recorded a portion of the record in Chicago at a place called the Shape Shoppe. I won a Pew Fellowship a while back that let me get some equipment for my studio. That made the big push at my house to finish.
Are most of the artists you work with from the Philadelphia area?
Mostly. Most everything was done at my home on the edge of west Philly.
Who did the artwork for “Sugar Glider?”
My friends Kevin O'Neill and Karisa Senavitis at Will Work For Good in New York did all the layout and design. The idea was from a Fats Domino cover done in clay. I handed them piles of my sketchbooks and they took the drawings they liked and recreated them in clay. Some of the drawings and the font for the inside text comes from drawings I did when I was 10. If there are two people shaking hands they are usually ambidextrous drawings that I did with both hands at the same time.
Do you think being in another band effects your songwriting process?
Working in Man Man on a record is a very different process than what I do with Buffalo Stance. Buffalo Stance is like a dream or a notion diary. It started as a side project to get songs I couldn't get other dudes to work on finished. At the time I was working with a precursor to the avant party band Need New Body. My own music was strange and I didn't think much about anything other than getting it out so that the sounds and lyrics would stop haunting me.
So, collaborating with other songwriters on music for a specific audience is challenging and very different. I generally have to simplify what I'm thinking about when working in Man Man. My ideas can be a little too far out. It's like creating an engine for a car that’s already been built.
One thing I like to do with my own music is switch around and experiment with musical forms. I might lose a certain amount of audience on this, but I've been listening carefully to music since I was little and now I've heard a great deal of the same thing rehashed with a new band name. Why is my strange brain gonna mess with long standing well travelled musical roads when I make music for myself for enjoyment? I hear the word experimental thrown around a bunch. That means to me that you are actually trying completely new things in order to find a result that you never would have thought of off the top of your head. Try making music where the outcome is unknown. You've got to be willing to fail, or to look weird to lots of people. It’s not just about adding an eclectic instrument or 2. Like DEVO said, "We're through with being cool..."
Where do you get a lot of your influences from?
I have been a voracious music eater since I was a kid. I took on the idea that it takes different ears to hear different music from the get go. I spent the first half of my life collecting every sound in the world into my brain drive. I read Keyboard magazine from cover to cover as a child and listened to what ever they told me about. This was the 80's when they were more of an educational art publication and less of an advertisement for what you should buy. I learned about Frank Zappa and Musique Concrete, also commercial and movie music, the obsessive art of Conlan Nancarrow's player pianos, the birth of samplers in popular music, the strange genius Wendy Carlos... There was no Internet so I it was a lifeline. Vintage electronic music is a long time influence on what I do. I've always been fascinated with the important history of electronic music production.
After that, I love old Soul and R&B (Otis, Gino Washington,) and Doo Wop (Coasters) and easy listening. I love New Orleans (Professor Longhair, Huey "Piano" Smith, Fats Domino,) piano and also 1930's stride piano (James P. Johnson, another Fats.) Man, I love a million things. That's top of my list for the longest time if I listen.
What’s your ideal venue?
Norway outdoors at night under a brilliant Aurora.
Australian Outback by the light of the Milky Way during a prolific meteor shower.
Any place with an audience and a decent and clean bathroom.
You working on some new material?
Yes I am finishing up the new BS album by the end of this month.
Do you think it’s much different from your last album?
It's a synthesizer fantasy. I'm really enjoying wrassling it from the ether all day. I know it sounds different; I'm a different person now. Also it will be mixed in surround sound if people have such things these days.