Calgary retro-rock act Scratch Buffalo pack a perfectly imperfect punch with their brief but big full-length debut

With how admittedly prolific a songwriter Chris Naish is, it’s interesting that, after four years, only now has his time-hopping rock trio Scratch Buffalo released its self-titled full-length debut.

It’s one of the constants you have during a conversation with the artist — and there have been many, including during his previous life as a quieter, less raucous and rowdy solo act — the fact that he can’t seem to turn off the songwriting spigot.

Yet here we are and prior to the 12-track scorcher’s release last month all of the band’s recorded output amounted only to a pair of EPs.

“One in 2016, one in 2017, and then a full-length in 2018,” Naish says with a smile sitting in a Starbucks with drummer Mark Straub. “Box set 2019, movie 2020, theme park 2021.”

We’ll take that. But we’ll also gladly take what they’ve finally given us now, thanks.

The album is a nasty Nuggets-y attack on the senses — sweaty, surf, Stooges, Sam the Sham, garage, glam, retro-rock, Gruesomes goodness packed into blistering, bite-sized shards of brilliance.

They’ll bring it to life Thursday, June 14 at the Nite Owl — their first local gig since they officially dropped it at the East Town Get Down festival at the end of May.

When you hear it — in that form, or on CD and cassette — you’ll likely understand why they waited so long to give a full accounting of themselves. Over the course of the under-30-minute wild-ride there is a sound, there is focus, with the threesome — they’re rounded out by bassist Scott Wildeman — harnessing all of Naish’s wide-ranging influences and ideas in a way that makes Buff’ the bad, bold, big, yet brief beast it is.

“I write a million different songs, but then they get put through the meat grinder that is Mark and Scott, and they become whatever they become,” he says.

“And I think whatever I was thinking or wanted it to become is set aside when I bring it to the band. I don’t say, ‘I was going for this vibe or this feel,’ it’s just, ‘Here’s a song,’ and then Mark does what he does and Scott does what he does and then it’s the song that it is.”

He laughs. “And that’s how we got to where we got.”

When it’s asked if now, after all the years in the band, Straub knows where to take it, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes. Definitely, yes. We’ve played long enough with him and we know him well enough and the style that he wants,” he says.

“He used to record the drums and the bass himself, and he would just give us the song and say, ‘This is what I want to hear,’ and Scott and I would just play that, we wouldn’t add anything to it. So now he just brings us the song and we’re so used to the old tracks that he sent us, we know the style that he wants — we just add our own flair and our pizzaz to it, I guess.”

Helping narrow the focus was the influence of what Naish calls an outside “editor” — Hutch Harris, formerly of Portland indie heroes The Thermals.

The artist wanted some outside ears to help in bringing his sonic visions to life and reached out to Harris out of the blue.

“I just emailed him,” Naish says simply, noting that he didn’t know anyone well enough in the local pool to trust them to produce, and he wasn’t really looking for a traditional producer anyway.

“I wanted someone who got where I was coming from, and I saw that Hutch had posted that he was producing. So I emailed him and said, ‘I’d like to pay you to produce an album, but not actually make it.’ …

“And he replied back that he’d be interested in doing that, and really liked the songs and was really encouraging.”

In his non-traditional, long-distance producer role, Harris helped Naish whittle down his wealth of material to a dozen over email, Skype and phone calls, and gave him and the Scratch Buffalo boys some notes and offered some advice.

Some of the advice he offered, Naish says, was to add “more character in the vocals,” and Straub says he also advised them to “make the songs more crazy,” sending them a playlist of 70 tunes that ran the gamut of grindcore to classical.

“He pushed us to get out of the comfort zone a little bit, because that’s what you need to make yourself different,” he says.

“I think it was good just to have some direction,” says Naish. “We do a lot of different styles and it feels quite diverse, especially the stuff that didn’t make it — there’s a straight-up country song, all these things — and it was good to have that direction. And when you’ve got that direction, you can be more intentional about what you’re doing …

“It was a lot of fun going into the recording knowing that there wasn’t a box to check, like we didn’t have to be good, we just had to be us. So it was very relaxing in that way to feel free to make weird noises, to make crazy things.”

They did that this past February over two days, in Naish’s grandfather’s office. The trio used to rehearse in the warehouse he owned below, but found setting up in the smaller space took them out of the way of the workers and customers who came and went, and it actually also sounded pretty good in the close quarters.

Most of it was done live and off the floor, with Straub’s recording equipment and computer taking all of the action in, little overdubbing or editing necessary or, frankly, wanted, with the band embracing the art of imperfection that makes rock music what it is.

“This is the least amount of editing I’ve ever done,” Straub says. “I usually spend … hundreds of hours on making us sound better than we are, but I didn’t do that this time.

“There’s something about the mistakes. There’s character and something special about a mistake … It just adds to the overall character of the band, it just makes it more real, more raw.”

And those songs, themselves, continue to be raw and emotional, most of them snapshots of Naish’s life cloaked in imagery, allegory.

The songwriter is reticent to dig into them in too much detail, preferring people take away what they need — Straub admits he rarely ever understands what his frontman is singing — but he does admit, as with those previous EPs and the formation of the band itself, there are a couple that deal with the loss of his mother.

Again, that’s not something that he wants people to focus on, preferring instead that they tap into the celebratory feel of the music they’re making.

“That’s not the point of the songs or the band,” he says. “Every song has a sad story behind it — maybe, probably — but at the same time I think when you make a song about a sad thing you’re doing different things. Like if you’re saying, ‘This is a sad thing, let’s be sad,’ but I’m kind of saying, ‘This is a sad thing, but fuck it. I’m in control of this.’ ”

One of those tracks, Hyena Snow, is what Straub points to as his favourite on the album, noting the highs and lows musically on it over its four minutes, which is epic for Scratch Buffalo.

“It’s almost too long for one of our songs,” he says with a laugh.

For his part, Naish singles out the tasty, Dazed and Confused-y anthem Girls In the Back Row, which he thinks would fit snugly on a K-tel compilation from days of yore.

“I always thought this is one of those songs, where you could see, like, there’d be 38 Special then there’d be us doing the Girls In the Back Row, then it would cut to the Bay City Rollers,” he says. “To me, that’s the one where I feel that vibe the most.”

He continues, invoking the opening scene from the Kiss flick Detroit Rock City where the gang is in the basement happily, obliviously mangling Rock and Roll All Nite.

“I always thought if we could sound like we were taking power-poppy or poppy songs, but we’re playing them them with that enthusiasm, that spirit, that would be cool,” he says. “And that one for me, we do that. So that’s the one that I dig the most.”

(Photo courtesy Johanna Hung.)

Scratch Buffalo perform Thursday, June 14 at the Nite Owl.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at He likes beer. Buy him one.