"It's a Long Way to the Top (...)" - Great White Buffalo Makes Their Mark on SF and Beyond

From GWB's Instagram, @GreatWhiteB

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

"Sometimes a song comes together in a perfect amalgamation of creative ideas from everyone in the band -- this isn't that song. We paid a homeless guy $2 to write it for us." -- Guitarist Stephen Johnson describing GWB’s new hit “Thanks for Nothing” to Spinner.com

Ralph Barbieri, former co-host on the legendary Bay Area sports talk radio show “The Razor and Mr. T”, used to close ever show with the same quote, every time. “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”

In Barbieri’s case, who was “relieved of his duties” last year after a long and distinguished career on the airwaves, the quote seemed to serve as a reminder or ethos that he aspired to follow himself, but not without struggle. Great White Buffalo, on the other hand, appear to have the whole flying because you’re taking yourself lightly concept in spades. And by the looks of it, it’s starting to pay off.

45 minutes prior to last weekend’s show at The Independent in San Francisco, I found myself backstage in the Green Room with GWB and to be sure, no one was taking themselves too seriously. Sure, I may have forced Great White Buffalo’s iconic looking lead guitarist, Stephen Johnson, to admit this was the band’s biggest show to date, but nobody seemed too phased by the whole ordeal.

Beside showing the visible strain of dealing with pressing issues like an empty Green Room beer fridge or the pain-in-the-ass of making a half decent set list, you could have fooled me into thinking I was in Stephen’s Orinda garage, getting ready to cover another Zeppelin track before moving straight into another Foo Fighters ballad.

For Johnson, who quickly bagged the idea of playing piano when he approached the six foot mark and started draining three pointers with girls in the stands, the whole idea of being a rockstar in Los Angeles is still a novel concept. It wasn’t until college that he strummed his first guitar in earnest and, to steal his words, it took him two years to stop sucking.

After reuniting with a former high school buddy and fellow 925 Native, Graham Bockmiller, the two eventually moved to West Hollywood (or “WeHo”) and started running down Tom Petty’s proverbial dream.

“This is probably the biggest show we’ve played since starting the band in 2011,” explained Johnson moments before stepping on stage to rock for a hometown crowd. “If you asked us a year ago if we thought we’d be playing The Independent soon, I would’ve laughed at you. But a month ago, the idea seemed very real to us. Next month we play at SXSW, it all just builds on one another.”

GRockmiller at The Indy

For as much as Johnson’s quick wit and carefree attitude do for GWB’s rapid rise to success, the efforts of Bockmiller, the lead singer, cannot be overstated. In similar fashion to Johnson, Bockmiller himself did not blaze your typical path to becoming an indie-rocker. A nationally ranked pole vaulter by trade, “Rockmiller” as he is known in some circles didn’t scratch his musical itch until late into his college years.

Said Bockmiller in a recent “off the record” interview, “You know I’ve always loved music, you know, a lot. I always dreamed of being a musician as a kid, or whatever, but I didn’t think it was possible. I could play guitar, but I couldn’t really sing. But once my track career was over, I started listening and playing more music. I started kinda writing stuff and seriously, well not seriously, but spending more time at it.”

Despite the fact that he’s steering the ship of an emerging LA rock outfit, nothing seems too serious about Bockmiller, and his who-gives-a-shit-things-will-work-out attitude seems to reverberate positively throughout the rest of the four man band.

Of course, maybe some of Rockmiller’s rosy outlook on GWB’s chances of sticking on the rock scene can be attributed to the band’s relationship with producer/engineer Phil Allen who has a Grammy in his trophy case, not to mention experience working with Aerosmith, Adele and the like. Perhaps Allen is wise to be betting on Great White Buffalo, an upstart band who still has a long way to go before realizing their full potential.

As far as the music Great White Buffalo is currently turning out, well go see for yourself. If you compared them to Japandroids, The Strokes, Kings of Leon or The National you wouldn’t be too far off. With a plethora of catchy, upbeat sonic treats in his quiver, Bockmiller and co. have more than enough ammo to sustain a great live show.

The South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival is what’s next on the docket for GWB. The venerable music festival held in Austin, TX will be the band’s biggest stage yet, but as they embark on their latest journey, it’s doubtful they’ll forget their 925 roots. Just watch the band’s signature video, "(You Gotta A) Pretty Mouth", if you were ever concerned...

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