From Frédéric Chopin to Frank Ocean, Buddy Ross has as diverse a history with music as anyone. We sat down with the LA-based composer/producer/musician to discuss where he’s from and where he’s going.
“Buddy Ross”, nominally, is a product of the porn star name game. Yes, the one you’re thinking of: where you combine the name of your childhood pet and the street you grew up on. “Mittens”, Buddy’s first dog, didn’t have quite the right ring to it, but the Beagle his family acquired later most certainly did. “Buddy was our Beagle,” he explains. “And Ross is the street I grew up on in Kelso.”
Outside it’s role to inspire the composer/producer/musician’s surname, Kelso, Washington is also home to Ross’s musical origins. His grandma got him started playing piano when he was five. “It was pretty serious piano lessons. Chopin. Liszt. I was practicing concertos and stuff for six months and doing recitals and competing when I was 12.”
Now 32, Buddy has a strong bass in his voice that reverberates on the brick walls of our studio. And a mustache. And he’s a long way from Kelso. But 20-some years later, he’s still doing what he’s done since the very beginning: music.
Kelso was where it all started. Tell us about the roots of music for you.
“Kelso actually breeds really talented people. It’s so boring there, you either take meth, get pregnant, or do something awesome. So I played a lot of music growing up. That was my thing. In high school, I was a straight-A student, and then my dad bought me a keyboard. It had this floppy disk that you put in so you could play drum and bass moves and stuff by hitting keys. Then I figured I could engineer it so I could start making my own beats. But my grades started going down, so my dad had to take the keyboard and lock it up. So ya, I was really into music. I decided when I was 18 not to take my SATs and go to college because I knew I wanted to do music. I don’t know why. I just knew.”
You played in churches growing up. What was that like?
“It’s not my vibe anymore, but it’s such a good breeding ground for music. They put you up there and you get to work out arrangements with people. And you get to play every week. Thankfully, I did cool church music with great people. Leather pants and stuff. There were a lot of homeless people who came in there, so it was pretty diverse. That’s where my first band started. They let us do shows there. I threw some raves there, too.”
From church music to raves to Frank Ocean, you’ve done a lot. What’s another random project we don’t know about?
“Well, I did the track behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement video, so that was pretty big. My parents were stoked for me. They posted it to Facebook, but they’re not Democrats, so they captioned it with ‘But this doesn’t mean we’re voting for Hillary.’”
So besides writing tracks for Hillary and touring with Frank Ocean, there’s obviously been some tough times grinding it out, yes?
“Of course. Shorly after The Listening [a band that had developed out of his days of playing music at church], I moved to Seattle and got a job delivering refrigerators. I was doing that full time. It was like, 12 hours a day driving around delivering fridges. I hated it so much that I’d work those full days and then come home and make beats. I wanted to be a hip hop producer, so I would just come home and make hip hop beats all night until I fell asleep. Then I’d go to work, then come home and make beats all night all over again.”
“After a few different projects, I met Daniel from Motopony and I started working with him. It was just me and him. That worked out really well because he was a singer that had a 3-string guitar and he would just kind of go, ‘bum, ding-dong ding-ding ding’, playing these two-note rhythmic things. And he left all of the rest of the space to do anything I wanted. I could just go all out and fill everything up with sounds and textures and parts. That was probably the most successful thing that I’ve been a part of so far. That really boosted my confidence. I was with Motopony for 3 years.”
Tell us about getting connected to Frank Ocean.
“There was a guy that ran sound for Motopony, and he had started bringing monitors for Frank Ocean and heard at their rehearsals that they were looking for a keyboard player. He texted me and said, ‘You need to send a video right now of you playing.’ I was in my basement, so I had my roommate film me just jamming on my keyboards. I just uploaded it to YouTube and sent him the link. That’s how they hired me basically.”
And then you went on tour?
“We were in the middle of recording the Motopony album and the last day we were in the studio, I had to leave for LA to start rehearsals for [Frank Ocean’s] tour. It was a week before the first show. I had to learn 15 songs in about 24 hours. I didn’t sleep very much that weekend. I just wrote all the chords down. The first show I had chords taped to the keyboards for all the songs.”
“After about a year playing with them, [Frank] called me to go in the studio with him. I didn’t realize he knew that I could do all that. That was a super exciting thing — to go in the studio and write with him.”
What are you up to now?
“I recently signed with a publishing company called Heavy Duty Music, so I’ve relocated to LA. It’s all new to me right now. They send artists to my studio and I pull up tracks and see if they’re inspired to write lyrics. I’m so used to working with someone for a month and finishing things, and now I’m practically working with a new person every day. It’s fast paced, but it’s really great.”
“Oh and I went to Hawaii over Christmas to visit my brother. I’m working on music and sound design for a video game he’s making.”
How’s LA compared to the Pacific NW?
“It’s so hip there. There’s all these coffee shops with super fancy cold brew. Everybody there looks really good. And I hate it. So I go to this Starbucks that’s in a laundromat. There’s like an arcade, a Subway, a cash advance store, a shipping store, and a Starbucks. It’s my favorite coffee shop.”
How do you go about finding inspiration?
“I try to change the scenery. Get away from my computer. When I was moving fridges, it sucked so bad that I wanted to work every hour that I had time off. But now that’s changed. I have to force myself to find ways to get away. I also love to fish, but now that I’m in LA, it’s hard. Some people do fish the Los Angeles River for carp. It’s concrete, but there’s pockets of vegetation. You can kind of pretend you’re in the woods…”
“I’m also really inspired by sounds. I have a Moog Voyager I bought 12 years ago, but I got bored with it. I never sold it, and now I’m rediscovering how cool it was. I also have this new mini keyboard from Yamaha. It’s battery powered, but it’s a serious FM synthesizer. I can just hang out on the couch and make sounds on it. Just changing it up. I want to get a guitar next. I’ve been playing piano for so long, I’m almost detached from it. I’ve played every chord on the piano. With a guitar, I could tune it weird and have no idea what I’m doing. That helps inspire me to do new things.”
Tell us about your writing process.
“I don’t want to glorify grass but that definitely helps me get in the zone. Then I usually start with a beat. Then I just start throwing anything I can at it. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I just throw so much at it until it’s just a huge mess of sounds. And then I start sculpting and pulling stuff away. I’ll put down three minutes of 20 tracks, then just start muting stuff until I find something that sticks out to me. Once I find something in there, you start to hear spaces in between the lyrics where there needs to be a phrase to help resolve a lyrical cadence. All the different parts are just playing around, so there’s a conversation happening between the song and the music. Then, you give in to the tones of everything and there’s a whole spectrum of frequencies you can plug stuff into. That’s just the whole other side. There is the whole writing part where I’m just writing musical ideas and then I get into sculpting the tones of everything. Honestly, a lot of what I do is instinctual.”
Do you source any sort of “darkness” for your writing?
“Not much. If I’m feeling bad or weird, I actually tend to write music that makes me feel better. I haven’t written dark music in a while because I think I’m always trying to feel good.”
“Well, I’m interested to see what happens with Frank. I’m not sure how much of what I worked on will make it into the new album. Maybe a lot, maybe nothing. But either way, I’ll keep doing my thing. [Heavy Duty Music] is a small, family operation. Everyone lives within a mile from me. They’re great. Ariel Rechtshaid, the main guy, is doing Adele right now. It’s a great company to be a part of.”
“Ultimately, I don’t care about being famous. I want to do well enough where I can buy a house on the river, fish, and record music.”