Let's call it happycore. Phantom Buffalo's singer and guitarist Jonny Balzano-Brookes has turned his back on fads, on the kind of music that ages poorly by being fashionable. “It's kinda weird to be conscious of this, but I think I try to make sure we're steering clear of modern trends and try to make it so that it would not sound dated in 10 years.”
It's a sweet sound with a folksy, almost ’60s pop emphasis on good hooks and charming, innocent lyrics. Members met at the Maine College of Art, where they were immersed in the visual. “We were all thinking about painting and stuff like that,” but soon music as an equally expressive medium had them hooked.
After releasing a 45 in 2002, their first full-length, 2005's ShiShiMuMu on Time-Lag Records, came out to huge critical fanfare and got them picked up by the UK's Rough Trade Records. “We don't come from music backgrounds. So many people being into it gave us more self-confidence,” Balzano-Brookes says.
Balzano-Brookes says they'll keep playing no matter what, though the band isn’t a huge moneymaker. At least they're able to save a little cash on merchandise, given their art school backgrounds. Phantom Buffalo designs all its own album jackets collaboratively. “The visual and the music are coming from the same place, and they inform each other a lot,” he says. Usually, someone comes up with a concept, and the piece is then passed from member to member until it feels finished.
The songwriting process is similar, says Tim Burns, another of the Buffalo's singer-guitarists. Typically, he imagines a place or character or feeling and then goes from there. Once the rest of the band gets ahold of it, something new emerges. That's his favorite part.
They've been on the road for a couple weeks and, so far, the gig-to-gig contrast is hilarious, Burns says. One night, they're playing with the Fiery Furnaces in a huge theater in Denver. The next, they're booked at the Boys and Girls Club in Missoula, Mont. “There were, like, 30 15-year-olds,” Burns says. “They were really into it.”
From the musky basement in Portland, Maine, where they learned to play their instruments to being named in Mojo Magazine's top 50 albums of 2005, success has changed things for Phantom Buffalo. “It sort of let us know that this was something we could do, and sort of consider it our career—not that it's had enough money to support itself,” Balzano-Brookes says, “but it made it seem possible.”