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Bill Santen and Birddog Get it Together in Buffalo

Updated: 7 days ago

(EDITOR’S NOTE — From meeting, performing and touring with Elliott Smith to losing his drummer to Wilco, Bill Santen has had an interesting musical life. Now residing with his wife and child in Buffalo, Santen, who retired his guitar for several years, is back making music and will be performing at Nietzsche’s at 8 p.m. Friday May 10 with Birddog. The show is part of an important multi-band bill put together to benefit The Buffalo Hostel, a vital cultural institution that was shuttered by the city in April. The Hostel is hoping to re-open and is now working on future development plans. Please consider attending this benefit show.)


Bill Santen is a Kentuckian who moved to Portland and ultimately landed in Buffalo. Married to a UB painting instructor, his days are now kept busy taking care of their toddler while once again trying this thing called ‘songwriting’ and performing with his band, Birddog.


“A week will go by and I will just completely forget to check my e-mail or Instagram and I’m trying really hard to stay up on it, but I just don’t like it. It’s a real chore,” confessed the 48-year old folk singer, who rejects the “indie-folk” label as an accurate reflection of his music. “I sort of struggle with that all the time. People say ‘indie folk’ but it’s not. It’s not indie folk, I think.”


That hint of ‘old-timey-ness’ which resides in Santen is drawn out during conversation of his past. Some of it is innocent, such as driving to Seattle from Portland with the late Elliott Smith after he wrote an ‘honest-to-god’ letter to the acclaimed songwriter. Others parts, meanwhile, involve offenses that could land someone in federal prison for violating laws such as using your brother’s birth certificate and Social Security card to procure a fake ID — even if doing so was simply to play in 21-and-older clubs.


Setting to guitar lessons at the age of 14, Santen always liked George Jones, a country singer who was sort of a Norman Rockwell figure, only with a flask and pile of amphetamines in his pocket. Between Jones and Donavan, as well as Pink Floyd, a lyrical-center was established in Santen’s youth — a reason why he describes himself as a singer-songwriter, “as lame as that sounds,” he said.


“It all goes to the words of the song. Everything plays around with that,” he said. “I’m most interested in lyrics.”


Santen moved to Portland, Oregon in 1996 and was gigging at a place called The Egyptian Room, where Elliott Smith was invited to play. Besotted with the indie maestro’s songs, Santen wrote Smith a letter, asking to play with him.


“He called me up pretty soon after he got the letter and he said, ‘Hey, I’m playing Mo’roc’n Café in Seattle with Mary Lou Lord and I wanted to know if you wanted to open?’” Santen recounted. “I had a car, Elliott didn’t… and I was like ‘Hey I’ll drive,’ and he would put me on the bill and I would drive. Then he ended up taking me on a couple tours after that… I didn’t have to drive for those tours. So, that’s how I met him.”


He ended up recording with Smith, and for many years he kept it moving with his music, eventually moving back to Kentucky only to have his drummer, Glenn Kotche, poached by a-little-band called Wilco. It was sometime around then that he began to tire of music, songwriting, and bands and chose to go to college for film and art, eventually leading to graduate school at Columbia.


His long-time girlfriend got a job in Buffalo and then she and Santen got hitched shortly afterward. Now Santen’s a stay-at-home dad. He also has become “more interested” again in music, so he’s dusted off the old guitar and resumed playing.


Santen’s label,  the Georgia-based Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records, intends to rerelease his EP, “The Trackhouse, the Valley, the Liquor Store Drive-thru” on vinyl in January and from there the relationship is to continue with new music to be released.


For now, though, Santen is still trying to navigate the Buffalo music scene. He’s gotten to

a good point, playing with the likes of Tyler Smith on bass, Katie Weissman on cello and Bill Conroy on drums in “Birddog 2.0,” as he called it through the course of a recent conversation with 1120 Press.


“It’s kind of the same as it’s always been,” he said. “It’s my songs and working and collaborating with other musicians. Sort of the old 'getting the band back together.’”


(Please consider supporting 1120 Press HERE so that we may continue to fulfill our mission of ensuring Buffalo’s musicians, artists and DIY creators are seen. Thank you.)


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