By Emily Eveland
By Sarah Stanley-Ayre
By CP Staff
By Zach McCormick
By Jack Spencer
By Sarah Stanley-Ayre
By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
On paper, it's a no-brainer: Buffalo Moon must surely be Karen Freire's band. She was born in Ecuador, and the group's music is unmistakably South American. Her voice, too, ties together the band's many ricocheting ideas, as she is the singer and chief songwriter. In short, Freire's fingerprints are all over this band. "When we started," she admits, "I just had the songs written and everyone else jammed to them."
But in practice, it's not quite so simple. Buffalo Moon is, in truth, a tight-knit group of friends, virtually a family at this point, and it's increasingly a collaboration between its members. Not surprisingly, the quintet have also gotten a lot better at what they do, even if their music continues to thrive on a precocious, often shambolic energy. On their new album, Selva Surreal, that growing maturity sounds like the work of a band that's figured out its true identity.
"When we recorded the first album, [producer] Neil Zoomwald was like, 'I don't hear any sound here. This is a bunch of different people playing together,'" recalls guitarist Joel Schmitz, peering out from behind his glasses at a late-night happy hour in Seward. Despite the fact that most of the band members were close friends well before forming Buffalo Moon (everyone besides Freire grew up in South Dakota), they still came from eclectic musical backgrounds. "Jonathan [Wetzler] and I wanted things to be heavier. We were in hardcore bands growing up. That's why it was so hard getting things together at first, I think, because we had a completely different idea of how we wanted it to sound."
From the outset, however, Buffalo Moon's sound was distinct, especially compared to what's happening in the Twin Cities—or probably anywhere in the Midwest, for that matter. That they've developed a keener focus has only helped to highlight the spritely, festive melodies they get from Gilberto Gil, or the playful, even chaotic experimental streak that comes out of Os Mutantes' playbook. Add in a saxophone solo here or a wah pedal there, and the results are one flight of fancy after another, be it a scratchy, shuffling rhythm like the one from "Vida Caníbal" or the poolside seduction of "Chica de Luna." There's even a children's choir adding some tiger and chimpanzee noises on "Trust Your Instincts," just for good measure.
Most striking of all is the band's aesthetic sensibility, for their music, as well as their lyrics, are chiefly characterized by a vivid, sometimes surreal color palette—which brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges as much as it does Jorge Ben. It's no coincidence, either, thanks in large part to multi-instrumentalist Preston Holm, who has audio synesthesia. "I'm a visual thinker," he says, struggling a little bit to put his experiences into words. "I have colors and shapes come to me." The upshot is that, rather than express ideas to his bandmates in musical terms, Holm might describe an image to them. "So, like, melodically, you can hear a question mark. Or rhythms, too—rhythm is a personality," he adds.
Of course, it helps that Holm's unusual vocabulary is on a wavelength similar to Freire's. She has a cinematic, if somewhat cryptic, flair as a storyteller, whether the stories revolve around a woman with bloodied hands or Moses' mother as she speaks to her infant son. (For all we know, the narrator from "Salt in My Mouth" is probably Penelope awaiting the return of her husband, Odysseus.) "When I go about writing songs, a lot of these songs aren't even things that have happened to me, or to any of us. They're just things that I visualize," she explains, her head tilted sideways as she leans it on her hand. "I just put myself in the situation." Suddenly, Freire sits upright as a fresh thought crosses her mind. "I also try to make it something people can relate to: Even if it's a weird story, it has to be a love story so people can relate to a feeling." Freire could just as easily say that she has a vivid imagination, for that, most emphatically, is the truth.
Even if you don't habla español, as Freire occasionally does on Selva Surreal, there's usually reason to enjoy her lilting vocals. In fact, those Spanish-language songs are some of the prettiest on the album. "It's just whatever I feel like that day, or if a song fits a certain language," she shrugs about deciding which language to use. For his part, Schmitz sees it as something a little more intuitive: "Karen is incredible at hearing an atonal line and writing something melodic over it," he says, encapsulating, in a way, the whole dynamic of the band. Then, laughing at himself for his sudden effusiveness, he adds, "We've definitely matured as people in a band playing together. Now we can actually express ourselves in an intelligible way."
BUFFALO MOON play an LP-release show with Larry Wish & His Guys, Sleeping in the Aviary, and Larva Ink on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, at HELL'S KITCHEN; 612.332.4700