IS HERE, NOW
Written by Tyler Booker
Photography by Dustin Cohen
I’ve struggled with being present over the past year. And sitting down to lunch with Carl Nichols, a longtime musician and recent Austin transplant, I was feeling no different. The combined force of being maskless in public, meeting someone new, and being handed a menu for the first time in umpteen months had me running through that familiar pandemic hat trick of fear, disbelief and grief. I wanted to retreat back in time to when a menu inspired hunger instead of nervy illiteracy, or fast forward to a day when the sound of laughter didn’t have me imagining clouds of toxic droplets. But hearing that Nichols was also struggling with being present made my anxieties loosen their grip. “I’m really bad at it,” he nodded, and when asked whether he preferred to dwell on the past or hyperfocus on the future he added, “Both, constantly bouncing back and forth. Then you get a little second in the present and think, ‘nope, I don’t like it here.’” And with that flash of humility and humor, Nichols had his audience of one at rapt attention and fully present, eager to learn more about his past progress as an artist, his future as a Texan guitar slinger, and (briefly) his current pandemic reality.
Nichols was born in Houston and raised in Milwaukee. At around 11 years old, he turned to guitar in order to, why else, avoid little league. “I didn’t like team sports, I just wanted to be by myself. So the most solitary thing I could do was play guitar,” Nichols recalls. “And once I started playing guitar, everything changed. That was the only thing I did.” He taught himself to play by emulating The Ramones, his favorite band at the time, on an acoustic guitar borrowed from his older sister– “It’s very punk to try to be like your big sister,” Nichols notes. After conquering all of Johnny Ramone’s riffs, he was hooked. “I started taking it as a challenge: as soon as I could play all the Ramones songs, I started playing Green Day.” Heavy metal soon followed. “I was getting angrier, so the music was getting more aggressive and more challenging, too.” He started playing in bands with friends, but soon had no choice but to set his sights a little higher. “By the time I was 13, I was just better than all of them at guitar, so I started going on Craigslist looking for bands to join.” Soon after, his first proper music release came in the form of a death metal demo, when he was 14.
Still, Nichols never envisioned himself as a career musician, until suddenly he did. “Up until I was 17, I just did it all the time and I didn’t think about anything else, because I was a dumb teenager. And then once I started realizing I’ve got to make a living somehow, I thought, ‘well I spent the last six years doing nothing else,’ so it’s either this or nothing.” So he began exploring even more genres as a hired gun guitar player for those in need, jumping at the chance to sharpen his self-taught skills by learning everything he could from his fellow musicians. But while this helped him become more technically proficient, he found it creatively unfulfilling over time. “I got into music for creative reasons, and at that point it was just a job. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but I do feel like I spent too much time playing for other people.”
Nobody listens to one kind of music, but still artists are expected to make only one kind of music.
The next natural step was for Nichols to strike out on his own path, and Buffalo Nichols was born. Why that name? “I just always had the [Buffalo nickels] association in my mind, because of my last name. And when I was young I was fascinated with the Buffalo Soldiers, and my grandfather was part of an all-Black infantry in the Korean War also called the Buffalo Soldiers. So the imagery of those words was always very powerful to me.” As Buffalo, Nichols has been able to channel all the diverse influences of his past into a singularly-voiced solo act that’s often been billed as the blues– but Nichols himself is not so sure. “I’ve been playing different types of music for 18 years now, so blues is one part of it. But for me as a musician, that’s a tiny fraction of it.” And though applying such genre shorthands to his music helps him reach interested audiences, Nichols hasn’t let it stop him from writing and playing what he wants. “It affects the way the music is released, but as far as writing it doesn’t enter my mind. Sometimes I write blues songs, sometimes I don’t.” And Nichols makes a great case for rethinking the way we classify music and its makers. “Nobody listens to one kind of music, but still artists are expected to make only one kind of music. So I’d like to present every side of me, rather than fit into one thing.”
Having worked our way up to date, we had no choice but to acknowledge the Now. Nichols is still settling into town after leaving his lifelong homebase of Milwaukee last year. And though moving cross-country during a pandemic, let alone moving to Austin in the summer, isn’t for the faint of heart, Nichols says he didn’t have much of a choice. “It was one of the only places where I could continue to make a living,” he says, playing a series of digital and, once lockdown started lifting, in-person residencies. Nichols describes his time in Austin so far with my favorite complicated catch-all descriptor: interesting. “I’ve played a lot of residencies, and a lot of low capacity crowds, and to a lot of people who’ve never seen me before.” Nichols says he’s been able to find a bit of a fresh start in the fresh eyes of these more intimate audiences. “I feel like I’ve become a better performer, just trying to win people over. A lot of people, I feel like I’m interrupting their evening in the beginning, then by the end they seem to be on my side.”
But while he’s found a silver lining in the limited feedback of a masked-up crowd, he’s less enthusiastic about his future as a Zoom performer. “I’ve done a couple virtual shows. I’m waiting for that to be over.” Sure, he agrees, there’s a potential benefit in digitally reaching a more distant audience, but he’s just not interested in playing for cams over crowds. “I’m hoping this is temporary, so I’m not putting that much effort into tailoring how I work for what is, hopefully, a once-in-a-generation travesty.” When asked about what media he’s consumed to help distract himself from said travesty, his answer warms my present-averse heart. “I’ve just been sticking to the old stuff. I haven’t wanted to hear anything new for the past year. I just want to hear something comfortable and familiar.” Although, Nichols notes, even some of the old stuff has been off limits for him. “Unfortunately, just before the pandemic, I watched The Office like 17 times. This would’ve been the perfect time for it, but I’d already exhausted it.”
Fortunately, this lack of distraction and the overall quiet of quarantine gave Nichols the chance to get a lot of writing done. “My whole process is pretty isolated. Every once in a while, the muse arrives and leaves you with something unexpected, but generally I need to be alone for a long time before any good ideas come.” Given how full of longtime alone time the last year has been, it’s no surprise that Nichols has managed to be prolific. “It’s all a blur. I don’t know what I did. I think I just wrote a bunch of songs.”
People are so far removed from the actual source of the sound that they don’t know the raw feeling of the actual vibrations.
With that, we again escaped the present by looking towards the future of live music in Austin. Nichols seems to brighten a bit at the thought of getting to play for some real crowds in real rooms again soon. “There’s a big aspect of music that’s physical– the actual instruments moving air. Being in the same room with someone singing and playing, it’s really powerful.” Having seen several videos of Nichols deftly drawing sonorous echoes from resonator guitars in concert halls, coffeeshops and sidewalks alike, it’s clear that he wants more audiences to feel the power of those literal good vibes. “I think a lot of people haven’t experienced that, strangely enough. People are so far removed from the actual source of the sound that they don’t know the raw feeling of the actual vibrations.” (At this, Nichols laughs at himself and passes an imagined blunt, but I couldn’t agree more with this line of thinking– I’ve missed the feeling of live music so much that I recently had to stop myself from giving a weeping ovation to a band’s pre-show acoustic sound check.) Nichols seems eager to see what our various local venues have to offer, but between releasing an album later this summer and planning a tour for the fall, he’s honest about what his near future looks like. “If things go well, I won’t be here very often– I’ll be touring. But I would like to see what Austin is really about.”
And Nichols seems just as ready for Austin to see what he’s really about. Hopefully that means we’ll get to see him play plenty of shows in town before success takes him back out on the road. But even though mapping out his near future has become a welcome antidote to life under lockdown, he admits that he probably owes it to himself and his new home to be present in the meantime. “At some point, you’ve gotta enjoy where you’re at,” Nichols relents, adding with an implied smile, “but I think any good artist does that the last two seconds before you die. That’s when you get to have your retrospective.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. There’s a time to be here, but it doesn’t have to be now. Until we’re fully out of the woods of These Unprecedented Times, I’m gonna keep dabbling in the past or dreaming of the future as needed. But as soon as I get the chance to see Buffalo Nichols play live, I’ll be first in line and fully present.
Follow Buffalo Nichols on Instagram (@buffalonicholsmusic), Twitter (@BuffaloNichols_), and Facebook for updates on his upcoming album release, live shows, and touring schedule.