Heavy Psychedelic trio King Buffalo stunned fans recently when they announced an ambitious goal: After a tumultuous year for the music world, the Rochester, NY-based band will release three full-length albums in 2021.
The first of the series, The Burden of Restlessness is already due for release on June 4, with “Hebetation” (the album’s first single) the only hint at what the project will ultimately look like.
“Hebetation” – The Burden of Restlessness
So far, the band has been relatively tight-lipped about their intentions for the project, offering little more than saying that the three albums will be recorded three different ways in three different locations to produce three distinctly different records that are still tied together by a common theme and a common story arc.
Paint us intrigued.
We caught up with singer/guitarist/songwriter Sean McVay to hear more about the ambitious new project, the band’s touring life, and the time the band was almost paid with gemstones and Nirvana bootleg.
A Conversation With King Buffalo’s Sean McVacy
On The Band’s Initial Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Monster Riff: If we can go back in time for a minute to the beginning of the pandemic, this was an interesting time from a musical perspective. We had a ton of albums that came out in March and April, as previously scheduled, that seemed to be a reflection of the pandemic because of their tone and subject matter.
Your album Dead Star seemed to fit right in there. You have that image of the dying star. There’s the albatross falling from the sky in the title track… As a band, what were your thoughts at this time? What were you thinking as you started to see things shut down? You had a whole slew of tour dates coming up!
Sean McVay: We had done two one-off shows. I think we did a show in Montreal and maybe a show in Toronto. And that was it.
I tend to be a little bit of a news junkie. I had been getting pretty apprehensive about COVID through January and February. I was thinking, “This isn’t good. This is coming.” And everyone said, “Well, we’re just going to wait and see.” And then, sure enough, it hit us.
My birthday is February 25, so I had a birthday dinner with my mom, and then a week later, my girlfriend and I were like, “This is coming.” So we went to Costco and bought a ridiculous amount of food and supplies because we expected to get shut in. And, sure enough, we didn’t have a choice a week later. Everything was shut down.
And then we realized the tour wasn’t going to happen. We were slated to leave in early April, almost right after the release of Dead Star. We scrambled really quickly to decide how to fill up some of the dead air through all of this.
So we did the Quarantine Sessions. We did it all in one day. We shot four different videos of about 20 to 30 minutes. Then we said, “OK, well, we have this, and we’ll take some time off and release them spread out.” We chewed up a bunch of time with that.
We all went our separate ways like everyone else, just trying to figure out what was going on. After a while, we were lucky enough to have a really big practice space. So we set up a big plastic barrier around Scott’s drums, and then Dan and I stood in opposite corners. We were all masked up and stuff. And then we started jamming again. And we started writing.
Monster Riff: It sounds like you were pretty lucky in a lot of ways. One of the big complaints from a lot of bands I’ve talked to was they just couldn’t get together. Some of them did one-off Facebook shows where everyone was in their own house, and that was cool for a minute.
But the biggest complaint was that many of them write by jamming together, and they didn’t have a safe space where they could go and feel comfortable. So they’ve been dormant for the last year.
Sean McVay: Yeah, we were really lucky in that regard. We tossed around the idea of doing some of those live-stream concerts, but it was difficult to pull off. We have this giant space, but it’s in a dilapidated building where there was no way we could get the bandwidth to run any sort of stream.
With the amount of work it would have taken, we would have had to rent out a venue or something like that. So we just focused on writing and going that route.
On Writing Music During the Pandemic
Monster Riff: How did your writing process change—if at all—this time around? Did being all masked up and being separated by tarps change the way you interacted and played together?
Sean McVay: A little bit. Before things got really dark with COVID, things were surging. We were still meeting up and we recorded a ton of jams. We were just jamming, jamming, jamming.
And then, all of a sudden, we realized we had four hours of jams to weed through. So we were like, “OK, we’re done. We’re done jamming.” I took a lot of time to really listen to everything and go through and start grouping things together and editing it down, and asking questions like, “Oh, what if we took this section and mixed it with that?” I eventually whittled it down and started shaping up what would be a couple of different records with all of this stuff.
During that time, we were all separated. I’d cut stuff up, and I would send it to the guys and they’d listen to it. And they’d give me some feedback via email or texting.
We were separated for a while, which is a little unusual because we usually write everything as a jam, and then I’ll take it home. And then we’ll add lyrics and vocals to it after the fact. So we kind of worked a little more piecemeal this time.
When it came time to record, we were never in the same room at once. I was at all of the sessions because I was the engineer, but Dan and Scott didn’t see each other in a rehearsal setting for The Burden of Restlessness.
On King Buffalo’s Upcoming Albums
Monster Riff: It’s one thing to release an album. It’s another thing to release a double album. But to have three albums back to back, that’s something else entirely. And when you make three King Buffalo albums—which are historically beautiful but intricate—that’s even bigger. When these three albums are available, how should people interact with them? Are they meant to be listened to all at once?
Sean McVay: We’ve been thinking of them as a sort of anthology. There are three chapters of the same story and themes, but they’re all going to be quite different and we’re recording them in different ways. The arrangements are different. The sounds we’re using are different for each one. I think, ultimately, there’s going to be people that love X record, and there’s going to be people who love Y record—and that’s simply because they’re different.
However people want to listen to them and take it in, that’s their prerogative.
Monster Riff: But does that overarching narrative mean they’re supposed to be digested as one piece?
Sean McVay: No, I don’t think so. It might be interesting to do that, but the fact that they’re all going to be produced and recorded in different ways and using different sounds and different styles… We’re on record two right now, and we haven’t decided when it’s coming out, but it still sounds like King Buffalo. It’s probably more classic King Buffalo than The Burden of Restlessness.
The way we are going to record it, it might have a distinctly different sound than the record before it, which could be cool. So it would feel odd to go from the end of The Burden of Restlessness to the start of the second record, and then from the end of the second to the beginning of the third.
There’s a story arc and character and theme that carries through them, but you could easily listen to any record individually. It’s like a Marvel movie. It doesn’t really matter—you don’t need to see all of them to understand what’s happening.
Monster Riff: Tell us more about your decision to record in different ways in different locations, especially since you already have your studio. How did that idea come about?
Sean McVay: One of the things we were apprehensive about was the idea of doing three records in a year and having them be three records that sound the same, and then having people go, “Why? Why not just cull a bunch of that stuff and make one or two? Is it really necessary?” And the answer is no, it’s not necessary.
But we have our own studio and we had the time to come up with this stuff and, well, why the hell not? We may never get another year off from touring. This may never happen again. So we might as well make use of it.
It is interesting trying to get so much done in a short amount of time. Once the initial writing was done, it forced me to rethink how I approach certain things and start to work a little faster.
Monster Riff: I know you’re keeping some things quiet for now. Have you announced where you’re recording the other albums?
Sean McVay: No, we haven’t. There are various rumors I’ve seen floating around on the internet. Some are a little more accurate than others. I don’t know if we’re going to announce that. We don’t really have an official release date for anything.
On King Buffalo’s 2021 Tour
Monster Riff: What’s interesting about the timetable here is that what usually happens is a band releases an album, and then they go on tour for a year or whatever to support it. And you were going to do that for Dead Star, but that got nipped in the bud. And now you have your tour coming up and you’ve got these albums coming out at the same time.
What should we expect to hear on this tour? Will we hear Dead Star or some of the music from the new records?
Sean McVay: We haven’t decided yet. I had a friend who was like, “Good luck writing a setlist.” When you start to think about it, it’s challenging. It’s going to be a little bit of a nightmare.
I don’t think the first leg of the tour in September is going to be the Dead Star tour. I don’t think we’ll treat it that way. We’ll probably play stuff from that album, we’ll probably play stuff off The Burden of Restlessness, we’ll probably play stuff off the second record [of this three-record series] that will probably be out before then, although we don’t currently have a release date.
On some of this tour, we’re doing two nights in a row at certain venues. In those cases, it’ll be easy. We’ll just write a completely new set for each night. It’ll be an interesting sort of good problem to have for a while. Right now, our catalog isn’t deep enough where we can have a totally different setlist every night, so this will be a nice change. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops.
One thing that’s interesting to think about is, as you said, a band will release a record and then tour on that record. But that can be weird as you’re trying to promote the album, but people haven’t had a chance to sink their teeth into it. They show up, but they want to hear the hits. They want to hear the stuff that they’ve been listening to for years. And you go up there, and you try to play all the new stuff. But the fans are like, “Yeah, but play ‘Freebird.’”
It could be something that actually works pretty well for a lot of bands that released records in 2020. Now that people have had the albums for a year, they’ll be excited to hear those songs when the bands tour.
On Three Albums In One Year
Monster Riff: The setlist idea is definitely interesting for King Buffalo because you’re essentially doubling your catalog with this project. When I first heard about the project, I thought, “Oh, that’s cool! That’s ambitious! Three albums in one year!” And then I saw The Burden of Restlessness comes out on June 4, and I thought, “Oh! That’s halfway through the year. They still have two albums to release after that…” As you and the rest of the band figure all of this out, are there any concerns over fulfilling that promise of three albums in one year when you really have seven months to get it all done?
Sean McVay: I mean, part of the reason The Burden of Restlessness is getting released in June is because we need to finish it and give it that sort of traditional promo. You don’t finish a record and then release it the next day, you know? So you sit on it. You have to wait months to get the physical things made, so even if we wanted to release it faster, we couldn’t. We just don’t have them yet. There’s a little bit of a concern around that, but I think it’s going to be fine, especially knowing some of the different production styles we’re using for them. Certain records will go faster than others. It’s just the nature of the song arrangements and the way we’re recording them. So there’s a little bit of concern, but we don’t hit the road again until September, so we have now until then to get them done. And we probably won’t have them all released before that tour, but we can have all of them done, announced, and ready to go.
But it’s all stuff we’ve talked about internally. I’ll be perfectly blunt: The Burden of Restlessness was the hardest slog we’ve had in making a record—it’s some of the hardest work we’ve ever put into making a record. It got to the point where we were like, “We actually have to start wrapping this up if we want to get these records done.” If we take too long at any moment, it could, in theory, blow up the whole idea.
Monster Riff: I understand if there are certain things you’d like to keep close to the chest, but can you expand on why this was harder than previous records?
Sean McVay: Multiple reasons. One is that we wanted to make a very different sounding record. As I’m sure you’re familiar, pretty much every King Buffalo record is drowned in delay and reverb. It’s very much like a wash. For this record, I wanted that to be a distinct choice in certain parts, not like we were jamming and I had my delay pedal on. This time, I wanted to use it as a color in the palette as opposed to the sound of King Buffalo.
So that required different tonalities and different arrangements. I really wanted to make our most intimate and also our most aggressive record yet. As you mentioned before, all of this dark music came out at the beginning of the pandemic. That was already a dark time, and then the pandemic made it worse.
The Burden of Restlessness was a very cathartic record. It is some of the most open and intimate we’ve ever been. So it was difficult putting a lot of myself out there in a way I hadn’t before. And it was scary. When that’s combined with the technical aspects of trying to make the most modern-sounding record we’ve ever made, it was a lot of time and a lot of work.
On Writing Lyrics for King Buffalo
Monster Riff: While we’re on the topic of lyrics… At Monster Riff, we write a lot about Stoner Rock and a little bit of Doom—in addition to Psychedelic Rock. In these circles, and especially in Stoner Rock, there’s often not much to sink your teeth into when it comes to lyrics. Oftentimes, the vocals are another instrument meant to sound cool, and when you look at the lyrics and see what they’re actually saying, it’s pretty simple stuff. One thing I appreciate about King Buffalo is the thought that goes into the lyrics. What does your process look like when you sit down to write lyrics? Who inspires you and where do you pull your inspiration?
Sean McVay: It’s interesting because I don’t think I can write like many of my favorite songwriters. Roger Waters is probably one of my all-time favorite lyricists, but I don’t think I could ever pull off his style. He can be very direct while also being indirect in certain ways. It’s not really my voice.
My second favorite would probably be Zach de la Rocha. I also can’t do that, but every time I listen, it’s like, “God, that’s just genius, the way the words string together and how percussive it is.” The delivery is so cool and I wish I could do that, but I can’t do that.
It’s funny, when I listen to music, I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the lyrics, but I never have. It’s never been the thing that draws me in. It’s always something I would listen to later. I’ve always been a bigger nerd for arrangements and sounds and the atmosphere.
For me, that means sitting down to write lyrics is a very arduous process. It takes forever. Everyone is their own worst critic, right? It’s really difficult for me. I could spend six hours with a notepad or in front of my computer typing, and I would come out with three lines. I’m just sitting there—type, delete, type, delete, type, delete.
Scott writes lyrics really quickly. So I’ll write what I have and send it to him and explain the idea I’m trying to capture for a song. And then he’ll send back a bunch of lyrics. And then, out of the whole page of lyrics, I might find one or two lines that are really cool. It helps just as a way to get me to think about the topic differently. So I’ll take that line or two and then finish the rest.
That’s been most of our flow over the past couple of years, and it’s helped a lot. Like I said, I could take forever. If it was up to me, we would probably never get anything done, because I just wouldn’t know what to do.
Monster Riff: There’s that great line attributed to Oscar Wilde: “I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”
Sean McVay: That’s perfect. I think one thing that’s difficult for me, and I even struggled with this on Dead Star, is that the world around us is so dystopian. It’s like we’re living in a science fiction novel. It’s like the real world was written by Philip K. Dick. How do you write now? How do you write about this stuff without being extremely literal and basically writing an essay instead of a song?
From the end of 2019 to early 2021, it’s been a clusterfuck.
On Interacting With Fans Again
Monster Riff: Fortunately, it looks like we’re getting back to a little bit of normalcy. How does it feel knowing you have live shows on the horizon again? How does it feel getting to interact with your fans again?
Sean McVay: Oh, we’re definitely excited. We’ve been a touring band for a long time, so it was nice to get a bit of a break. And then we were halfway through the pandemic, and suddenly I was like, “Man, I really miss getting a shitty gas station coffee in the morning.” It was the little things that I started to miss. I missed that hour and a half we’d get to play.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit scared. We’re a small band. We do our merch ourselves. I just hope we can do it all the right way and that restrictions don’t come back into play. If we’re playing a venue that holds 300 people and it’s only at 40% capacity, that’s going to be awful. I don’t want to do that, and I don’t think it’d be good for our fans, either.
Part of the experience is being in a big, dark room. It’s too loud and it smells weird and it’s sweaty, but then you have the energy from the crowd and the band and everything starts mingling together in the air and it’s a really cool experience.
So I hope we’re able to have that and we don’t have any setbacks that come between now and then.
Of course, I wonder what the physical logistics are and whether or not it will be safe to have this many people piled into a poorly ventilated, dimly lit room. I guess things are going to start happening before we hit the road, so we’ll know what’s going on before we start. But I really hope we can get back to doing it the right way. I think it’ll be impossible for it not to be a little scary at first, and then that fear will probably go away pretty quickly.
On Touring Highlights From Past Years
Monster Riff: I’m always fascinated by the nomadic lifestyle of the touring band. I love the idea of packing all of your shit into a van and traveling from town to town and drinking the awful gas station coffee and finding little hole-in-the-wall places. Those are the parts of band life that I think most fans would die to be part of. When you look back over the last few years and you think about previous tours, are there any moments from your travels or misadventures that stand out to you?
Sean McVay: Yeah, there’s probably a whole list of moments, but 99% of tour life is incredibly boring. It’s hurry up and wait every day.
But I love the simplicity of it. I like the simplicity of waking up, using my phone to find a diner, getting breakfast. I’ll spend all day driving and listening to podcasts. And then we’ll get to the show. Hurry up, load in, set up. Soundcheck. Take a nap. Play. Go find a Walmart parking lot or truck stop. Sleep in our bunk beds in the van. Do the exact same thing the next day. The simplicity of life is really nice.
It’s funny—when I’m on tour, I’ll get out of bed early in the morning with no problem. When I’m home, I don’t want to get up. It’s just because life is so easy on tour. I know all I have to do is get up, get a coffee, start driving. That’s it.
But to get back to your question, there are a few interesting, exciting things that have happened. Especially early on, we had some really goofy, weird experiences.
We once played this festival in Tulsa. The promoter was a nice guy, but he was in way over his head. I don’t think he’d ever put on a festival before. For example, he had promised every band the same time slots.
We showed up and it was a shit show. The owner of the venue was really pissed off because the sound guy had bailed. We got there on Saturday, and the sound guy was so pissed off at how Friday went, he refused to come back. So the owner of the venue was doing sound.
Everything was a mess. The promoter didn’t have our money. He was like, “Hey, man, I have these gemstones. They’re worth 100 bucks apiece.” He’s holding out these stones in his hands, and I’m like, “Dude, I can’t pay for gas with stones.” So he walked away and came back, and he’s like, “Hey, I got this Nirvana bootleg. It’s worth $100 on Discogs. Here you go.” We eventually ended up getting our money, but it wasn’t a lot.
I went up to the owner at one point and said, “Hey, I know things are stressful and crazy, but whatever you need from us, just let us know. We’re flexible. We can help.”
He looked at us and went, “I didn’t book this. I don’t want you here.” And he walked away.
Then I’m just sitting outside in our van, which at this point was like a Buffalo Bills tailgate van. At the time, I still smoked cigarettes, so I’m smoking a cigarette and the other band that the promoter had promised our same slot arrived.
See, when we arrived, we talked to the promoter and he realized he had promised our time slot to someone else. So he called them and said, “You have to get here by 6:00 to play,” even though he promised them 10:00. They were a local band from Tulsa, and they didn’t show up until 7:30.
So I see them arrive and they’re talking maybe 50 feet away. And I hear the guy talking and using hard language I don’t like to use. I just looked at my buddy and said, “Dude, if they walk over here and say anything, we’re just leaving at this point.” We hadn’t even unloaded yet.
They didn’t come over, but they had their friend, who was a bouncer at the club, block us from loading in at the time of our set so they could throw their stuff in and play their time slot. Then we went on an hour later, but it didn’t even matter. No one was even there. It was so completely ridiculous. That was probably the most insane.
The best show we played was a show in Tromsø, Norway, which is pretty much in the Arctic Circle. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I also got to eat whale, and it was fantastic.
We’ve also played on a beach in 100 degrees in Sardinia. It was fun.
There’s been a lot of really cool stuff like that. But, like I said, 99% of it is looking at shitty highways and the tail ends of tractor-trailers.