Interview: Ash Black Bufflo
Portland-based musician Jay Clarke, AKA Ash Black Bufflo, has been a busy guy. For years he’s been playing with bands like Grails, Dolorean, Holy Sons, and The Standard, and scoring theater and dance productions. Just last year he composed the soundtrack for the award winning documentary Marwencol, which took the Jury Prize at SXSW. Now, he’s released Andasol, an amazing attack on conventional, radio-friendly tunes and a declaration towards music’s infinite possibilities. He recently took the time to answer some of my questions.
How did you get involved with music?
“Music-music,” I started when I was six. The piano. “Band-music,” I started when I was 17, playing in nice bars, nervous as hell, virginal and making a lot of money. Everything’s changed.
What brought you to Portland?
I moved to Corvallis for graduate school and was lined up to teach at a university in Tunis after I finished my time at OSU. I woke up one morning and somehow had the knowledge that I wasn’t going to Tunisia and that I was going to move to Portland and do god-knows-what.
Portland is a musical cornucopia. Who are your biggest local influences, or who are you currently a fan of?
I’ve been lucky to play with very good musicians over the years. Emil Amos, Al James, Ben Nugent, Jesse Bates, Dan Wilson, Rob Oberdorfer, Alex Hall, Billy Slater, Jon Neufeld, James Adair…these names might not be recognizable to the casual listener in or outside of Portland, but they have formed the core of my musical life and have been incredibly influential in this town. Without them, Portland’s horn-of-plenty of which you speak would be a mere horn-of-a-pretty good-amount, and I’d be playing somewhere but I’d be playing questionable music…or more questionable music.
The absence of playing with a band (Dolorean, Grails, etc.) has obviously affected this album a lot. How has going solo helped shape your sound?
Well, I haven’t gone totally solo, we’re just older and don’t tour as much. And it’s a question of differentiation. Dolorean and Grails have very distinct presences: sound, visual look, feel, and general vibe. I didn’t want to ride the coattails of those bands. I didn’t force the issue to be different necessarily, but there were choices made along the way where I thought, That’s a little too on the nose, jag left here.
As far as helping the sound, I think the arranging I’ve done for Dolorean helped a ton when I had to do it for my own stuff. Grails has a kind of fearlessness that I appreciate. They cover a lot of ground and they don’t half-ass the execution.
Outside of Portland, and throughout your life, who have been major musical influences on you?
You know, when you’re 15 and in the shower and you daydream of the day when you’ll get asked this question and you have it figured out by the toweling off that you’ll say Lenny Bruce and Carl Stalling and Rush and Ernest Hemingway, this seems like the best question to ever get asked. Now, it makes my palms sweat. I’m not even sure why. There’s so much pressure placed on influence, where you’re coming from, who you reference. Ah, shit. Paul Bowles for sure, James Salter, Lou Harrison, Ed Ruscha, Kubrick, John Carpenter, John Barry, the Art of Noise, John Zorn, William Goyen, Morricone, Malick, and Gary Numan. Seriously. Gary Numan.
What made now the time for Andasol to come into being? What inspired you to make this particular album?
I’d been wanting to do my own thing for a while. I had no idea what it would be, I just had enough ego and frustration to want to branch off and do everything myself. I like playing in bands, the camaraderie, the communal high, etc., but music making is often a small portion in a band’s life. When you have good bands, you’ll find good players, and where there’s good players there’s many ideas….you’re bound to sublimate some things in favor of the greater thrust. Still, I think the main inspiration was the desire to fix a broken estimation of myself and that is that I’m a failed fiction writer. I have not fixed that estimation, but I sleep better at night.
Andasol rewards the listener thoroughly for both repeated listens and close attention. On my third or fourth go around, I began to pick up on a theme or thread running through the tracks but was unable to really identify the premise. What would you say your main theme was when composing the album?
I’m reticent to say too much here, though I will after a brief walk down another path. Take the edge of my coat, won’t you? The benefit of instrumental music is greater obtuseness of meaning. I can’t sing or won’t sing, so I might as well use the instrumental to its fullest.
To me, the strength of wordless music is the increased gap it leaves for the listener’s imagination. We are handed so much these days, so much information is so easy, that the mystery and mystique of music is all but dead and gone. I’m frustrated with the modern band’s (or artist’s) willingness to lay out all their cards on the table as if they thought it was the only way to really sell albums. All that said, it’s important to say something, right? So the main threads through the album are violence, of all stripes, and perseverance through service to others.
In Marwencol, the soundtrack seems to work on two distinct levels, one being the score for the documentary itself, and another being the score for the world that Mark created. Particularly, the scene when Mark is describing his wedding to Anna, and states that he can’t remember his real wedding. The music for this scene is tragic because it embodies the happy undertones of his Marwencol wedding along with the tragedy of the loss of his memory. How did you go about combining the two layers of this film so well, and how did the making of the soundtrack influence Andasol?
I think that’s a great question. It speaks more to the strengths of the director, Jeff Malmberg, than to me, though. He’s got the finest sense of narrative and pacing of anybody I’ve ever met and a deep sensitivity to tone. One of the persistent conversations we had about the music was that it needed to stay close to Mark’s mind and it needed to help narrate the movie as well. The scene that you’re talking about is more Jeff’s laying of the conceptual egg in my mind (there’s a metaphor for you) about playing the two sides of the street (Mark’s experience and mind, and the narrative of the movie, or what the audience is seeing) sometimes at the same time.
All of the above is how Andasol was most affected as well: the sense that I needed to pay attention to pacing and that a piece of music by itself can mean one thing, and by the nature of where it fits in the album, also mean something else. These two things can exist at the same time for the listener. There’s a metaphysical argument in here somewhere but my wife is asleep next to me and I don’t want to wake her.
Andasol has a real theatrical feel, and blends calm, pastoral tracks like “Summer Night with Silverware” with more busy tracks like “Go’way Old Ghosts” to great effect. How has your work in theater and film affected the way you composed this album?
I think I have a predisposition toward narrative music, so writing music for theater or film naturally fits that pretty well. It’s a lot like a piece of fiction. There are themes, a kind of setting, development of character through time, a climax, and denouement. I think it was Maupassant who said you have the lever in your hand and you can only pull it once. Maybe it was Babel. I don’t even know what I’m trying to say here. It’s a cool idea though, that you have a precious turn in your power and you better be fucking careful with it. That happens in an album too. In Andasol it’s in “Go’way Old Ghosts.” The lever gets pulled there, I think.
You play around with a lot of different sounds and instruments. What’s your favorite instrument to play?
I started playing the piano when I was six. To say any other instrument at this point would be disingenuous. Still, it’s a contentious marriage. I’ve been fighting with that thing for more than 30 years. It has not done what I wanted and I haven’t always done right by it. We have moments of pleasantness. Ultimately, it is the only thing I think I really own in this world, and probably the biggest lie to myself and others. I’ve hitched my identity to this thing a long time ago. I don’t think the piano cares whether I touch it ever again. Still, it doesn’t bend notes, it has way too much baggage attached and it might be the easiest instrument with which to fall into parody. Yes, I’m aware I might be describing myself; still, it’s what I know, what little of it I know. Til’ death, etc.
Do you plan on touring to support this album? If so, how does this album translate into a live show?
I like working in my underwear, cup of coffee close by. I’d like to play the album live, and I have been thinking about it, but I don’t want that to interfere with just putting my head down and working. There’s still so much to do.