Of Owls and Buffalo

Jesse Payne Self-Portrait
This odd bird is a nice guy: Jesse Payne plays at Rogue Tavern on Oct. 29.

In the not too distant past I worked in a downtown office-building food court, and one day as I trudged home from the fluorescent doldrums that filled my day, attempting to get the ringing of Fox News blather out of my ears, I saw a peculiar sight. Perched on the edge of the topmost tier of a parking deck was an owl. A big one. It was absolutely still, and I stopped and stared, wondering how such a beast had come to be in such a place. The next day, as I made my way back to work, I checked for the owl, and strangely, it was still there, stoic, unmoving. Before long I realized that it was a fake owl, probably left out to scare away pigeons and other vermin. Still, I took comfort in its presence. It was nice to know that there was an odd bird waiting to make me smirk as I traced my own footsteps on that familiar path.

Jesse Payne also has a thing for owls, and when I meet him on a lunch break from his own daytime gig, he reminds me of my fake feathered friend. Payne, with his rumpled hair and long beard, stands out in the crowd of clean-cut business-folk who are going about their lunches around us, an odd bird himself. Since I’ve got owls on the brain and Payne has featured owls in many aspects of his work, I ask him about his own attachment to them.

“The owls, man,” Payne exclaims. “Well, it goes back to my childhood. My dad, when I was six months old, obviously way before I can remember, brought me an owl from Washington, D.C., and that started this whole trend throughout my childhood, of pictures on the walls and like — I mean, we carry an owl with us on stage now, it’s pretty funny. [I like] that they’re nocturnal. I relate myself to that lifestyle. I always look tired during the day because I was up all night. I seldom sleep. Really, during the day I feel like I’m asleep all day, and nighttime it doesn’t matter how tired I am, I’m re-energized.”

All that nighttime energy has paid off in the form of the album Buffalo and companion DVD Kettle and Crow, which were released on Oct. 4. Although Payne began working on tracks for the album in 2010, an extremely rough patch of fate put a temporary wrench in the song-works.

“This last winter was really hard for us, on the road, because of stuff happening at home,” Payne says. “A family friend died, a neighborhood cat that was kind of my buddy died. We were on the road for a lot of hours, and [when we arrived] at on Ohio show, the local who was on the bill was standing outside the venue in four feet of snow turning people away. The venue hadn’t cancelled the show — they had closed completely. That started a whole trend. I broke a tooth on a nacho, from little things to big things.”

According to Payne, the misfortunes changed the album.

“I think the vibe of the demos going into the recording sessions completely changed,” he says. “It became a little heavier, a little darker.”

Both Buffalo and Payne’s previous album Nesting were recorded at Birmingham’s Capture Music Inc., a recording studio, production company and record label run by Mike Creager. Payne says it’s a key partnership.

“I wanted to try and find somebody that fit my style better, and when me and Mike started working together it was obvious,” he says. “I sat down and talked to him before I even said that I wanted to come record there, just to pick his brain about what he thought about music. He talked about ‘the nuances of noise,’ and once he said that, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up with you.’”

Though Buffalo contains much of the soft, mellow warmth of Nesting, it’s occasionally harder-driving, and sometimes changes gear into full brood. In album opener “Take Me” — a lazy Sunday song if I ever heard one, filled with distant horns and plenty of breath — the bridge’s ambient undercurrent conjures images of wasteland, bringing a murky disquiet to the affair.

In contrast, the lighter second half of the album is the live audio from Kettle and Crow, which can be synchronized with the DVD. It has two versions of songs from the first half of the album, and the two best songs from his earlier albums, “Yards of Paint” and “Skeletons.” Although the live version of “Take Me” lacks the glorious horns featured on the studio version, the reimagined tracks are a nice change of pace. The DVD is gorgeously filmed and worth a look on its own right.

In many ways, Buffalo feels like an ending, with Payne resurrecting the best parts of the past for one last encore before he moves on to new things. He says he’s planning another album for next October, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a whole new bird.

Jesse Payne will play at Rogue Tavern’s “Peaches ‘n’ Scream” Halloween party on Saturday, Oct. 29. Buffalo and Kettle and Crow are available locally at the Charlemagne Record Exchange and Renaissance Records and online via downloads.jessepayneonline.com.

Orig­i­nally printed in WELD Birmingham on October 19, 2011.

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