Buffalo Princess makes music that cannot be corralled or classified
The uncompromising, unclassifiable Chattanooga quartet Buffalo Princess has no interest in appealing to the lowest common denominator. In fact, if you don’t absolutely love them, then they prefer that you hate them, rather than have a tepid reaction.
“I don’t want there to be indifference,” said guitarist/vocalist Chris Ballew, who, with the other three members, sat down with The Pulse to answer some questions in advance of the group’s Mar. 5 show. “Indifference is the worst thing I think you can give somebody. You either have to come away from it not wanting to ever hear your shit again—‘I hate those guys, they scare me’—or I want it to be like, ‘That was fantastic, I completely got what you were going for.’
“I don’t want, ‘That band was just like the other two bands.’”
It would be difficult to find a more eclectic group in Chattanooga or anywhere, with influences as disparate as Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, prog-rockers King Crimson, composer Igor Stravinsky, Metallica and Joni Mitchell.
Wise and skilled beyond its years—the members are barely out of their teens—Buffalo Princess has a discipline and focus only seen in the most dedicated groups, articulating a unique musical vision that’s been in the works since early adolescence. Drummer Erik Gehrke, saxophonist Beck McGrath and bassist Dustin Smoote had classical training at the Center for Creative Arts (CCA), while Ballew was home-schooled.
“All of the people from CCA here have had a firm [foundation] in music early on,” said Ballew, who pointed out that they learned the importance of not only understanding what to play but what kinds of “cheesy sounds” to not play.
Ballew cited Gehrke as his main inspiration in his music life, and regarding Ballew’s self-driven, less conventional training, Gehrke said, “Chris comes from a much—I don’t want to say necessarily less restrained [background], but there aren’t ties that have been reinforced for so long.”
Although the quartet draws from numerous sources in rock, jazz and classical, the influences often manifest themselves in unexpected or unusual ways, and like true music fans, the group talked enthusiastically about its favorites.
“The way Fela Kuti solos...he makes the horn sound like it’s laughing,” said McGrath.
“Hard bop,” said Smoote. “We all listen to plenty of jazz, because it’s a real free idea of music. We’re very influenced rhythmically by James Brown.”
“There are a lot of harmonies that stick out to me between Beck and Chris that are like Frank Zappa,” said Gehrke.
“If I could sing like Joni Mitchell as a man, I’d totally do that,” said Ballew. “But I can’t. But I try to make certain things, like the quivering nature of her voice, with melodic aspects of the guitar.”
While the group sweats over its original compositions, it actually doesn’t want its audiences to think too much when listening to their performances, preferring instead to allow a visceral, ineffable reaction to dominate.“I like to be almost thoughtless when I’m enjoying something, not having to judge it,” said Gehrke.
The band aspires to channel that indescribable quality—transcending mere notes on a page—by going beyond the technical rigor of a performance to transmit something natural and intense.“It’s that moment when musicianship becomes art that’s really important,” said Ballew.
Although Buffalo Princess stands apart from the crowd, it would actually prefer to have more kindred musical spirits around, who have a similarly inventive attitude, so that the bar is raised for everyone.“I think of it like sparring,” said Gehrke. “I took martial arts as a kid, so when I think about somebody being better than me, it’s like I’ve got to learn and work with this person, [with] practice and discipline.”
Since Buffalo Princess doesn’t fall cleanly into an easily definable genre, preferring instead to smash genres rather than blandly ape its heroes, this makes it a challenge for the band to find its place within the acutely fragmented Chattanooga music scene.
“There are a lot of genre-fueled bands in Chattanooga, and it’s a little disappointing,” said Ballew. “People are like, ‘I’m a JEFF the Brotherhood kind of band.’ That’s so recent that it’s crazy you’ve already taken that as a genre.”
With amusement, the group recalled an awkward performance at the ill-suited downtown nightclub Raw.“You can’t grind to our music,” said McGrath.
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Buffalo Princess with Hypercolor
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave.
7:30 p.m., Mar. 5