6 questions for Milwaukee country band Buffalo Gospel
Milwaukee's own Buffalo Gospel, a five-piece country band featuring original music with a progressively traditional vibe, drops its long-awaited, sophomore album "On the First Bell" today.
And more than any of its previous EPs and its last album, "On the First Bell" showcases Buffalo Gospel's immense talent. From first word to last note, you get the feeling that you're being taken on a journey through the highs, lows, joys and red dirt pain of life.
The album is a supreme blend of traditional country, Americana and contemporary folk styles. You'll want to dance. Your heart will break. Soulful, gritty ballads; a brilliant two-step; a song that will stick in your head all day; a song about a man we all know (but the band won't tell you who theirs is), plus Buffalo Gospel's tried and true sad country, all combine to create an album worthy of not only a listen but a permanent place on your playlist.
Buffalo Gospel will celebrate the release of "On the First Bell" on Saturday, May 5 at 8 p.m. at Anodyne Coffee Roasting with special guest Joseph Huber. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee got to chat with the band about its latest work.
OnMilwaukee: This record feels like it's coming from a completely different place than the last one. It's not a new sound for Buffalo Gospel per se, but it does feel different. Where did the spark for this record come from, and what's the overall theme you're going for on this one?
Ryan Necci (lead singer): Great question. I think there are probably a couple of different things at play. First, we definitely spent a lot more time in preproduction with this record than we did with "We Can Be Horses." "Horses" was a very quick, from-the-hip undertaking. I think the special thing about that one was that we didn't really have time to think about it. It was raw and that seemed to work.
This time around, we spent a few months editing these songs and reworking them in a rehearsal setting until we were pretty sure what we wanted to do in the studio. Having those blueprints gave us a lot more time and room to push them once we got there. Things definitely morphed and shifted while we were recording but we had a good base to work from. We also were able to add some more layers to this one. There are banjos, fiddles, extra vocals, synthesizers – it fills things out a bit more and we could play a bit with dynamics.
As far as a spark or theme, I'm not sure I was consciously aiming at anything like that. The song well went pretty dry for me during and after my divorce. Shortly after, I had a very close friend pass away. That really took my legs out from under me and I was pretty much at my lowest point. New material was very, very far from my mind. I'd never lost a friend before. It really took a toll on me.
That's about when I met Chris. He and I hit it off and started talking a lot about songwriting. I remember a writing session where he asked if I'd tried to write about my friend's passing. I realized I hadn't and that I also hadn't really processed losing him – short of an ugly, drunken breakdown on the stairs of the Ryman.
Within a few months of that conversation, the gates just kind of opened up. I started working almost every day on new songs and things came together pretty quickly. When I did finally have a group of songs that felt like a record, it became pretty apparent that a lot of it was me dealing with losing him.
I was saying goodbye, trying to figure out what was next, trying to put myself in his shoes, trying to figure out how his family was coping. It still isn't easy but making these songs and performing them has been a really great form of therapy. I know that's what he would want and that definitely helps.
OnMilwaukee: There's a song on the upcoming album that you said you wouldn't play.
Ryan: There's a few that we haven't played yet. They're a little more epic. We're gonna save those for the release show. We had a bunch of other people play on the record – we had a female singing and a fiddle player – so we hope to get all the people that played on the record involved in that show, so we'll be able to rip some of those off.
We definitely did a few of the songs and weren't thinking about necessarily how they'd translate to a five-piece band. And we were just making the best song in the studio that we could. So now it's going to take some going back on a few of those and re-thinking how are we going to do this every night.
OnMilwaukee: Who's singing falsetto?
Kevin Rowe (upright bass): That's mainly me. On the album, it's a lot of Haley Rydell, a fiddle player from Minneapolis. That came through a friend of a friend. We heard her sing on the new album with the Lowland Lakers. And she's great. So we got ahold of our friends and said, "Hey, can we have her come?" The first time we met her was in the studio. And her voice is amazing.
Ryan: We were going to have her sing on like three songs. We ended up with six or seven songs having her sing on.
Kevin: And she thankfully took a bunch of my falsetto parts. Because I can do it, (laughs) but it's not exactly my comfort range. She does it so much better and effortlessly than I do. But yeah, when she's around or there's another more competent singer than I am, I can switch parts.
OnMilwaukee: Were there any crazy moments recording that stand out for you? Or moments where a song took a completely different direction in the studio?
Ryan: Our craziest moments are likely in the rearview but recording with this crew was really a gas. Everyone's personalities work well together and the hang was just as good as the work. There was no ego in the studio this time and that let us focus entirely on making the songs the best we could. We did learn that I sing a lot better when the room is very hot so we spent a lot of time trying to get my vocal booth temperature as high as possible. It didn't smell the best but I think – I hope – it helped.
OnMilwaukee: The first single off the album is "High Time to Hang Fire." There's this brilliant juxtaposition between the music which seems more romantic and the lyrics which are heartbreaking. It's beautiful. Can you talk about what the lyrics mean?
Ryan: I like to keep specific meanings of songs close to the vest because I really enjoy leaving a little bit of room for the listener to hopefully live inside. I will say that one's about losing somebody close and having some regrets. Loss often comes without warning and that's what makes it so crushing. We always think we'll have more time to tell our loved ones the things we want to – to tell them what they'd meant to us. We see their fight with mortality and we want so desperately to let them know that there is no shame in resting easy. One last goodbye, a little too late.
OnMilwaukee: "Lonestar" starts out as the ultimate down on your luck song, but moves from sort of gritty, despondent lyrics to spotting that lone star in the sky and being okay with the way life is rolling. I asked you a similar question awhile ago about "Son of Gun," but how do you get from these tragic, winding up bust lyrics to musically being a song that you seriously want to listen to all day, roll down the windows and belt it out loudly?
Ryan: It's interesting that that's how you processed the song. It's not at all what it means to me, but that doesn't make your take wrong in the slightest. It's why I'm very careful with how I answer "What is song A about?" or "Who were you talking about in song B?" It's my favorite part about songwriting: I can write something that is ultimately a manifesto on coming to terms with your weakness and mortality and you run it through your experiences and current situations and it turns into a hopeful windows-down anthem. It's really a wonderful connection that songwriters get to have with listeners – and it's one of the main reasons I keep doing this.
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