Interview: Buffalo Clover (DW is 5! Special)

This interview was originally published in Issue #10, DW is 5! Special, December 2009.

In Issue #8 DrunkenWerewolf interviewed Nashville, Tennessee singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose, and for the first time we became fully aware of the talent the city has to offer. Here Tiffany Daniels talks to Margo Price, frontwoman of the gloriously sultry Nashville band Buffalo Clover, about their varying influences, life in the USA and their UK aspirations.

First off, for the sake of everyone this side of the Atlantic, can you introduce yourselves?

Margo: Well, there are two founding members, Jeremy Ivey (who is also my husband) and myself. We met about five years ago but didn't start playing together until 2007. Last year, we met Matt Gardner here in Nashville, and he had a similar style to us. Jeremy and Matt switch between bass and electric guitar. Matt is also the one playing banjo in “Midnight Circus”. I sing, play guitar and also sometimes drums.

Buffalo Clover is an unusual name. What made you chose the name of a plant as an act?

M: It was a plant I had grown up around in Illinois. I had always heard my Grandmother say, "look at all that buffalo clover". I asked her why it was called that and she told me it was a plant that appears after the hooves of a stampede trample the ground. My father and his parents lived on a farm outside of a town called Buffalo Prairie, until it was repossessed in the early eighties, during a bad drought. Buffalo to me have always been a strong symbol of the American plains.

You’ve described yourself as Nashville’s “most eclectic band”; do you think Nashville needs to develop in order to steer away from its country stereotype? Or does the media need to appreciate the diversity that already exists within the city?

M: Nashville has developed past the stereotypes in a way, but real country music is only underground here. What Nashville puts on the radio is not country music. Real country music is about hard times, love stories and old tales that stemmed from rudimentary folk, blues and Appellation music. As far as other forms of media go, there are only two papers that cover or review music, art and film. Unfortunately, corporate publishers bought both of them out a year ago. They seem to put more attention on nationally known acts rather than local talent.

Although hints of country run throughout your music, you also incorporate gypsy, folk, blues and bluegrass roots. Did you set out to embrace such a ramshackle variety, or did the sound naturally develop? 

M: I suppose it developed along with our interests; say there’s someone out there you meet, and they interoperate music and chord changes completely differently than you do… left handed and upside down maybe. We see that and translate it into something new. You can take a little bit each time you hear good music, but you have to be open to receive it. Because of Matt's banjo style, he has brought touches of bluegrass and gypsy to the band.

In Issue #8 I asked Caitlin Rose what attracts her to country music and she responded, “country music is the endless search for the perfect song…the simplest, well-written song sung earnestly with feeling stands alone”. Do you agree? What attracts you to the scene? What doesn’t?

M: I have to agree; simple, well-written songs are the ones that really last. I do however think that there are a lot of people that seem to settle for simple and hope that singing with feeling will make the song have meaning. I think that Caitlin does a good job of interpreting country music.

The thing that attracts us to the scene is that there are tons of talented musicians to play with, lots of used record shops and great studios to record at. The Bomb Shelter is where we record (along with Caitlin and lots of other local folks) live on analogue tape. On the down side, it's hard playing to a room full of other musicians. Supportive or not, it's a tough crowd, but it really does make you push yourself to always improve.

Did you grown up around country music, or did you come to embrace it in your post-teen years? To me it’s quite a mature genre.

M: My folks listened to a lot of 60's rock and roll; my great uncle, Bob Fischer, was a country writer in the mid 50's and has lived in Nashville ever since. I found country music around the same time I found his '56 Gibson sitting in my Grandmother’s basement (I was about 19). I had just gotten into listening to Patsy Cline, Roger Miller, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash; they all influenced my writing in ways I can't even understand.

Jeremy was forbidden to listen to anything but classical and Christian music growing up.  He would sneak Beatles, Nirvana and Bob Dylan into the house, but his parents would then take the tapes into the driveway and smash them with a hammer in front of him. He also found country music through his Grandfather, Bill Farrish, who led a Texas swing band.

How did you come to embrace those other genres (folk/blues/bluegrass roots)? What musicians particularly caught your attention?

M: We all three are huge fans of early roots music. We all have a mutual love for Dylan, Howlin' Wolf, Karen Dalton, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Holiday, Tom Jarrel, Odetta, Skip James, Leadbelly, Blaze Foley, Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.  Also, 60's rock and roll played a huge part in our development. Bands like The Kinks, Harry Nilsson, Neil Young, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, The Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival and all those over mentioned bands that deserve to be mentioned. On the soul and Motown side of things, people like James Brown, Etta James, Wanda Jackson, Sam Cook and many more have also really influenced us.

What genre of music did your parents listen to? I was having a discussion with someone the other day about the influence parents can have on taste, and in respect of your multiplicity your opinion would be appreciated…

M: My Dad liked The Beach Boys a lot. He was always jamming music really loud in his truck on the way home from school. He doesn't like a lot of country music, especially not what's on the radio today, but he loves Johnny Cash and all that old stuff. My Mom likes everything, but she has no idea who sings what. It's pretty cute that I know more about the specifics of her era than she does!

Jeremy was never exposed to most of the albums that many of us grew up with. When he heard the White album at 18, it really blew his mind. In retrospect he is happier that it happened that way, because when he finally heard it, he didn't take it for granted.

Matt's parents listened to mostly classical music and early folk music like Burl Ives. He also got his first Leadbelly record from his father. His whole family was musical: his older sisters played piano and fiddle. They used to serenade him to sleep with guitars when he was young.

You all share vocal responsibilities, but you’ve recorded few duets. Is this something we can look forward to in the future? Have you deliberately avoided the technique?

M: There might be some on our next record. We have written several, but never recorded them.  I love groups like The Band that all sing equally.  We are still working on incorporating more harmonies and shared melodies.

Margo’s voice is particularly reminiscent of Jenny Lewis. What other contemporary acts do you take inspiration from?

M: Okay, I have to admit, I just heard Jenny Lewis for the first time yesterday. I guess we live under a rock… but the rent is cheap! I liked what I heard though, she has a great voice and she had a lot of good lyrics.  Thanks for the introduction!

As far as contemporary acts that have inspired us, the main one is an Albuquerque, New Mexico band called The Handsome Family.

Buffalo Clover released single “Midnight Circus” recently, and debut album Pearls to Swine preceded it. To date, what other records have you released? Are you intending to release anything internationally soon?

M: "Midnight Circus" was a single off the album Strong Medicine, which was released this past June. It’s for sale on iTunes, Amazon and in The Groove and at Grimey's in Nashville.

Before we released Pearls to Swine, we were called Secret Handshake and wrote mostly topical and political songs. After clearing out barrooms all over the South with our opinions set to music, we found out the name The Secret Handshake was already taken and we re-evaluated our sound and changed the name. During '07 under that name, we released two EP's: Listen and Black Flowers.

If all goes well, we will have a new LP by March to bring over seas. The working title is Stealing From Thieves.

Were you pleased with the critical reception Pearls to Swine and Strong Medicine?

M: Since we only really promoted "Midnight Circus", a lot of people haven't even heard the rest of the record, but we are receiving exceptional feedback with the song and the video. It will be shown here in Nashville next month at Kamera Sutra at The Belcourt Theater. It will also be shown on the local video TV station.

I heard you’re interested in visiting the UK for a tour. Would it be a short stop or do you want to make a thing of it? Please play Bristol! I know the city would love you.

M: We are so excited to get overseas. We plan on touring the UK for at least a month, early summer 2010. We are just starting the tedious process of booking shows. No matter what, we will do our damnedest to get to Bristol!

You extensively toured the states to promote Pearls to Swine. Did you find some states were more receptive to your music than others? There’s a real divide in taste in the UK.

M: Oh yeah, sometimes you just get put on a bill with a death metal band and you get up there with your banjos and acoustic guitars and do your best to try to entertain the room. And yes, we've won over a few drunk metal heads along the way and that's always the best part. There was a blues club outside of Los Angeles, CA in Hermosa Beach called Cafe Boogaloo; it was probably the best response we had on the trip. Austin, TX was also really cool, Wilmington, NC and Chicago, IL were among our favourite cities.

Finally, what do you personally find more important: the lyrics to a song or the instrumentation? Do your lyrics precede your music or vice versa?

M: Every song is unique when it comes to writing. Sometimes I'll have a poem and give it to Jeremy and he'll think of a melody. Sometimes, I'll have a frame and he'll put words to it. I don't know if either one is more important, but I find that we'll never keep a song if the lyrics are weak. You can't bore people with an uninteresting tune, but at the same time, if you don't have anything to say, you shouldn't say anything at all.

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