Music: Natural Born Killers

Former Shams soldier on as Buffalo Killers and have a big first year

Erin Volk

Local trio Buffalo Killers (from left, Joseph Sebaali, Zach Gabbard, Andrew Gabbard) earned wide critical praise for their eponymous debut.

There was a time when Zach Gabbard realized all good things must come to an end. Six years of constant touring with Thee Shams and four albums on as many different labels had started to take its toll on the band he founded in 1999. Gabbard, and his younger brother, guitarist Andrew, were ready for a change and disbanded the group late last year.

"I think it was bound to happen, not that I regret it," Gabbard recalls. "I'm very grateful for that time, but in the end it was broke and the road only made it worse. It was best to move on, take a break and re-evaluate the situation."

Reborn this year as Buffalo Killers, featuring a slimmed down trio with former Shams keyboardist Joseph Sebaali switching to drums and the elder Gabbard taking the opportunity to move from guitar to bass (a move he secretly coveted for years), the band is the next step in the Gabbard brothers' musical evolution.

The Killers released their self-titled debut on California-based Alive Records this past October. In reinventing themselves, the band mix a little of the old with the new, taking the juiciest bits from their self-described "swamp Rhythm and Blues" style and enhancing new tighter Rock compositions with occasional bright BritPop melodies and harmonies.

Shades of the new direction were evident in Thee Shams last release on Fat Possum, Sign the Line, which incorporated poppier, Anglo influences into their Blues-based workouts.

Ultrasuede owner/engineer John Curley recorded Sign the Line and co-produced the new band's debut. He sees the Buffalo Killers' sound as more of an evolution than a new direction.

"Thee Shams were about to outgrow the 'Garage Rock' label," Curley says. "The Buffalo Killers sound is heavier and more focused. The absence of keyboards and second guitar lets the quality of the songwriting show through a little more as well."

Gabbard agrees and says it's a direction he has wanted to go for some time.

"The new sound is a natural progression from where we were, but the break-up and subsequent make-up allowed us to drive the sound squarely in the direction that we wanted without preconceived notions of where we should or shouldn't be with our sound," he explains.

Disc opener "San Martine Des Morelle" is a classic example of this evolution, combining a '60s-era psychedelic wah workout with the brothers' familial harmonies. Sweet melodicism is in the forefront of tracks like "SS Nowhere" and "Children of War," which could be mistaken for lost outtakes from The Beatles' Revolver.

But this isn't polished Pop. The Killers keep it raw, choosing to drench their new songwriting with the hallmarks of their earlier fuzz guitars, loose arrangements and Zach Gabbard's possessed howls.

The new approach is already paying dividends, earning the band a New Artist of the Year award at this year's installment of the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, where Thee Shams previously nabbed Artist of the Year and Best Rock awards in 2004.

Less than seven months after holing up with Curley at Ultrasuede and recording a five-song demo with the intent to release it themselves, their debut disc on Alive was released. Gabbard had dropped a copy in the mail to a few labels on a lark and received a call from Alive one week later.

After having done the indie label shuffle releasing early singles locally and on Orange, switching to Telstar during the height of the Garage Rock revival, and scoring the big one when tourmates The Black Keys turned Fat Possum onto the band, Gabbard gladly calls the Killers' new deal with Alive "the definition of a symbiotic relationship."

"I'm very happy to be part of the Alive/Bomp family — they are helping us out every step of the way," he says.

As for the label-hopping, Gabbard thinks there were lessons learned that play well into their new association with Alive.

"Those years afforded me something you can't buy — experience with the business. My experience with each (label) has been different and I've learned a lot from each. It definitely helps to have someone helping you out financially ... but in the end, it is business and the music industry is a real bitch," he says.

The years of constant touring to build Thee Shams' good name and ample press kit follows the new band as well. Whether it's the requisite comparisons to Exile-era Rolling Stones and Blues deconstructionists like Cream and Moby Grape, the Gabbards have heard them all, many of which have followed them since their early Sham days. Nonplussed, Gabbard says his favorite name-checking includes the classic bands that inspired him to start playing music in the first place, including The Band, Beatles and Neil Young.

"Everyone has to compare you to someone, and frankly most of the comparisons are flattering," he says. "Although our music is akin to a more classic sound, I think our contribution lies in our ability to meld multiple genres cohesively."

As for the new name to fit the new evolution, Gabbard gives credit to Neus Subjex 'zine founder, Shawn Abnoxious, who Gabbard claims would always refer to Thee Shams as "buffalo killers." When plotting their new project, the name stuck and even survived a mild protest this fall in Seattle where parents' objections to the name threatened a university show. All went well, though, and the gig turned out incident free.

"We are pacifists ... lovers, not killers," Gabbard says, laughing.

BUFFALO KILLERS play the Southgate House Friday with Ekoostik Hookah.

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