It’s an understatement to say that COVID adversely impacted musicians and live music. Some bands didn’t make it. Others, however, maximized their downtime to record new material and prepare for the return of live music. One such band, the Rochester, NY-based, psychedelic, stoner rock trio, King Buffalo (Guitarist Sean McVay, Bassist Dan Reynolds, and drummer Scott Donaldson) are an example of the latter. They produced not one but two new releases recorded in 2020—“The Burden of Restlessness” LP, and their latest, “Acheron,” another LP (scheduled for release on December 3rd). With those two offerings, the band has released a total of five LPs, four EP’s, one tribute album, and two live releases since their formation in early 2013. The band has earned their stripes touring with and opening fo The Sword, All Them Witches, and Clutch. They are living the DIY philosophy and committed to building their following one sweaty, pulsating show at a time, and also by releasing a steady stream of epic, engaging heavy “product.”
We caught up with lead vocalist and guitarist the thoughtful and articulate frontman, Sean McVay, preparing to fly to Belgium before embarking on their US tour commencing in November. We discussed the impact of COVID on his writing, the band’s DIY work ethic, the misguided media pronouncements of rock’s death, and the enduring relevance of Pink Floyd’s masterpiece, “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Are you about to get ready to get back out there? Do you like touring?
I like being home, but it’s been a long time since we got to do a real tour, and I do miss it. We just got a taste of it with the West Coast run in September. We had the October run planned, and that, unfortunately, got cut short. Someone in the touring party tested positive, and we got the bad news that they were putting the kibosh on the remaining dates.
We’re now getting ready to pick it up again. We do the best we can to avoid it (COVID), and we’re diligent about mask-wearing. I can’t do it while singing. The whole mask thing got kind of awkward at a few shows. Some audience members were calling us “sheep.” That was in upstate New York–our backyard. So, we’re wearing masks for your (our audience). If any of us gets it, there goes the whole tour and our income.
We played a show somewhere in the Northeast, and one of the audience members had a Confederate (Flag) mask, so that is kind of an entirely different thing that we’ll deal with another time (laughs).
“The Burden of Restlessness” (latest full-length) seems to have a more experimental prog feel, and the lyrics seem deeply personal? Do you feel like it’s your best full-length release so far?
I do feel that it’s our best. It was the hardest we’ve ever worked on a record, and we put a lot of painstaking detail into it. It was a very cathartic, dark, and challenging album to make. Personally, it was the hardest one for me to make, so that’s my take on this one.
The album seems to express the feeling of being trapped, bored, and possibly going mad. Are those the emotions you were feeling when writing and recording the album? The lyrics seem to project a feeling of being overwhelmed and being claustrophobic, especially “Silverfish.”
Yeah, there are aspects of that. So, a couple of years ago, I had some pretty heinous family secrets that came to light, but I was too busy to pay attention to and process them. When the pandemic hit, it really impacted me as my world was on fire. “Dead Star” touches on the same ideas, but more outer and not inner. I was struggling. I didn’t want to write lyrics that directly reflected how I felt or what I thought. I wanted to write in an ethereal, allegorical vein, but when I coupled it with the way I felt, it just didn’t feel right. It was kind of bullshit. I needed to write lyrics in a way that no one else would read them. I bounced the ideas off of Scott, our drummer, and he chipped in. He writes lyrics faster than I do. I usually come up with the skeleton, and he’ll write a full page of lyrics, and then I take some ideas from his lyrics. I almost didn’t intend to share it (my lyrics). I was scared to share it with the other guys, much less put it out there for people to hear. It still feels weird singing some of the lyrics in front of people singing, “Don’t think I want to live no more.” It was an intense record to make, but worth it.
How did the video for “Silverfish” come about? That video is really innovative, and it’s a real stand-out from the typical videos these days.
It was entirely up to the director, Mike Turzanski, and his vision for the video. He’s done a lot of work for us in different capacities, so we know how to work together. Initially, we tapped him to do an animated video (for “Silverfish.”) He said he wasn’t feeling it as an animated video, and he had another idea of shooting us in front of a white screen. We trusted him and followed his lead. It only took one day to shoot, and when we saw the rough version, we were impressed. His concept was sound, and that’s what you see in the finished video.
You just started taking pre-orders for your new EP, “Acheron,” yesterday. I knew that it was some kind of Greek myth. I looked it up and discovered that Acheron is known as the “river of woe” and was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. Was that what you were going for?
Yes, that’s correct. It’s one of the five rivers of the underworld, and it seemed to fit the mood and theme of the music.
Are you a big reader?
Honestly, I try to be, but many of my lyrics stem purely from my Google searches or whatever I find when I pull out a thesaurus, find a word, study etymology, and then find words or concepts that fit with what I’m trying to do. And it (“Acheron”) ended up matching the vibe I was going for.
Do you like epic rock or storytelling?
Yes, each of our records follows that model in different ways. However, I always try to have a singular story or theme, even on our EPS.
Do you consciously try to release a lot of music because you’re so prolific, or was it because of COVID?
A little bit of both. When the pandemic hit, we had just released “Dead Star,” and then, all the tours got shut down. So, we decided that we should use this time to write and record more material.
We had a lot of things planned (before the pandemic). We asked ourselves: What do we do with all of this time? We decided to start writing and see what happens. We typically record all our jam sessions and practices, so we had a lot of ideas and riffs. Then, I started finding the best parts in these recordings and ended up with four hours of ideas. Then, we had to decide what to do with all of those ideas and weed through them. Things were falling into natural modalities, tonalities, and vibes and into what became these three records.
We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we never need to take this much time off from touring again. We use the time the way we think we should because we don’t have a label or manager to answer to. There is no one to say no, so we try a lot of things. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Things are definitely coming back, but we always try to make the best use of our time, and putting out more material was the right move.
You appear to be a self-contained unit. Is that by design?
It stems from the fact that where we live (Rochester, NY) is not a hotbed for the (music) industry. There’s not going to be an A&R guy from Epic coming to our next gig. There aren’t people here trying to manage bands or break into the (music) industry. That just doesn’t exist. We just have to do things to make it happen. Fortunately, our drummer, Scott, has an excellent aptitude for something and is our defacto manager. We’ve had offers from little labels, but they didn’t seem like they would be able to offer us what we need. We make enough money from touring and sales to put it back into the band and operations. We keep building our thing and turning it into our machine. We farm out our booking, and we have a label in Germany that distributes our releases all over Europe, which is something we couldn’t do easily. Especially with the shipping and distribution aspects. We feel good about our little operation, and we’re open to other opportunities, but it has to be something great. We hire and budget for the right people, and we’ve been lucky that we’ve found good people to help us with some aspects of running the operation.
How do you categorize your music for someone that doesn’t know you?
I Just say rock music if someone asks us. We were kids that grew up in the 1990s but also listened to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. We get labeled as stoner rock, and I guess we have elements of that. But, we try not to get hung up on categories. I think we’re different from a lot of stoner bands like Fu Manchu. We’ve found that our music is an excellent fit for many different bills and festivals with diverse lineups.
Keyboards seem to be a more prominent part of your music on the last release.
They’ve been on every record except for our demo. They are space fillers, and they create textures, and as you said, we’re a three-piece. We want it to sound full and get people to go wow that they’re only three people. My favorite band is Pink Floyd, and Richard Wright is my favorite member. So, we’d like to stay a trio, and synthesizers are great in helping us round out our sound.
My favorite Pink Floyd album was “Meddle” or “Animals.” I think it’s probably hip to cite both of those albums. I can’t say what my favorite is these days, but I believe “Dark Side Of the Moon” is definitely their best work. Everything about that album is just perfect. It’s like a really good sports team playing the perfect game. Alan Parson was the engineer and at the peak of his career. Everything aligned perfectly for that album—the performances, the sound, the humidity, the weather (laughing).
Is there power in a trio?
Not necessarily, but for us, yes, it keeps it interesting. There’s no redundancy in a trio. Having only three people keeps everyone on their toes. We’ve toyed a few times with adding a fourth person, but we feel we do well as we currently are. If we feel the need to add, we’ll do it. Plus, it’s easier to fit three guys into the van.
Is Wicked Squid Where You Always Record?
No, that’s a local recording studio where we did just one record. I’m the defacto and sole engineer and mixer for our material, and we really don’t work with producers. So I’m in control, and it works.
We have worked with a producer once, and that was Ben from All Of Them Witches. We are friends, and it was fun working with him. We kind of co-produced. And we had Grant, our FOH engineer, was the recording engineer for “Dead Star,” and he recorded and mixed “Acheron.”
I produce and record most of our albums at our home studio and rehearsal space. I went to school to learn audio engineering, and it’s something I’ve always loved doing. Plus, when we first started, we couldn’t afford studio time or a producer, or we would have gone bankrupt. By me producing, we’ve had the freedom to experiment and not have to watch the clock. It’s worked out pretty well for us. Only “Acheron” was recorded at Wicked Squid.
Is “Acheron” a departure?
You can pull some things from the other album, but it’s not really a trilogy. It’s a loose anthology. It’s loosely related and can be listened to on its own.
The songs on “Acheron” are pretty epic.
Yeah, a lot of the songs are 10 minutes long, and that’s what we like to do.
Is it hard to do shorter songs?
Yes, I find it more challenging to write shorter songs than longer ones. When you have a shorter song, you have to pay much more attention to all the details. You have to make a lot more decisions. But, on the other hand, I love playing long songs live. It feels more like a journey. A four and half minute song doesn’t allow us to get cooking; we don’t get cooking until about seven minutes in. So, I definitely like playing the long-form stuff live.
What have you learned from the bands you’ve toured with, like the Sword or Clutch? Any advice?
We try to take something away from every band we play or tour with. Sometimes it’s actually something negative or something that we wouldn’t want to deal with. Most recently, with Clutch, it was their dedication to their craft. Their drummer (Jean Paul-Gaster) plays every day, he’s dedicated, and it shows at every show. Some things are hard to verbalize, but we pick up on things—something we should do or don’t do.
Do you all get along?
Yes, we have our boundaries, titles, and functions. We’re approaching nine years of being together. It sounds negative, but we’re all normal boring people. So, when we’re on the road, we’re not disappearing. We don’t have a wildcard guy that we have to watch when we’re in Vegas. We all actually sleep in the van, and we’re packed in tight. So, if there were a wild man, that would be a problem, especially in close quarters.
Have you seen that meme floating around of that meme that shows what people think it’s like backstage? It’s got scantily-clad women backstage and a big party.
Yes, it’s hilarious and so wrong. It’s really guys in sweat pants hanging out backstage checking their messages on their laptops.
How did you become aware of Beksinski’s (Polish artist) art and decide to use it for the cover of “The Burden of Restlessness” release?
Well, I’ll start from the beginning. Our drummer (Scott) had the idea. He’s liked this guy’s (Beksinski) work and thought it was so awesome, and when I stumbled across that piece, I agreed with Scott that it fit the feel and the music of the album (“The Burden of Restlessness”). Scott reached out to an art gallery in Poland that had the rights to his work. We coordinated with them and paid for the rights to use. Honestly, when I first saw it, I knew it was right.
You seem pretty self-contained and DYI. Is that by design or by necessity?
We have clear roles, boundaries, and titles. We’ve been able to go as long as we have—almost nine years. We’re all pretty dull. We’re boring, normal people. When we’re on the road, no one is standing on the roof screaming; I’m a golden god. Of course, we get on each other’s nerves. It’s simple when there’s no big drama. There’s no wild card, or we’re going to have to keep an eye on them when we’re in Vegas. We sleep in our van.
Is there any significant difference between the US and European audiences?
Yes, I think rock music is really alive and kicking over there, and there are so many more festivals. Rock is still more culturally-relevant. I don’t know if it’s better or worse. Our crowds are a little more inclusive over there (Europe); it’s women and men. Here it’s a little more masculine. LOL. And, it also varies by city. There are many American cities where we always do well—San Francisco, Seattle, Denver. Minneapolis is a market that we’ve played multiple times. It’s hard to figure out what it is. We played a lot of cities before anyone knew who we were. In 2013, they didn’t even have our name listed on the marquee correctly, and that was when we were out with All Them Witches. There were some shows where we played for the bartender, and no one else.
Have you ever played at the Levitation Festival?
No, but I’ve been a fan of that festival and the Black Angels. I loved that “Passover” record and was like, wow, you can do this? I think it was called Austin Psych Fest. I said to myself that I wouldn’t go until I was playing it. LOL. Then the ranch got flooded out. And that was that. (Editors Note: The Austin Psych Fest is now known as the Levitation Festival)
Are all the intelligent bands DIY these days?
Yeah, I think so. The days of the industry holding your hand are pretty much over. You have to do it yourself if you want to succeed.
Do you try to tour year-round?
Not as much now because you’re at the mercy of the weather, plus the people that do show up will be tapped financially after the holidays. Some bands don’t tour during the winter, and there are pros and cons to that.
Have you been to St. Louis?
Yes, I think we’ve been there twice. Yeah, they (thieves) broke into our van. Yes, that was a frustrating situation, and the venue owner didn’t tell us where to park. It was getting pretty bad. Luckily it was during the show, so they didn’t get much. You could tell them were pros and not just kids using brass knuckles to break windows.
King Buffalo will be performing at Off Broadway on Sunday, November 14. Tickets are still available.
King Buffalo On Tour:
November 5th, Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA
November 6th, Mercury Lounge, New York, NY
November 11th, Club Cafe, Pittsburgh, P
November 12th, The Loving Touch, Ferndale, MI
November 13the, Hi-Fi, Indianapolis, IN
November 14th, Off Broadway, St. Louis, Missouri
November 15th, The Back Room @ Colectivo, Milwaukee, Wi
November 16th, The Bur Oak, Madison, WI
November 17the, 7th St. Entry, Minneapolis, MN
November 19th, Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL
November 20th, Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, Cleveland, OH