Wes Chiller’s latest EP, “Buffalo John and the Rainbow Crew,” is without a doubt the chillest music ever recorded about raging wildfires.
Chiller, a 29-year old Torrance (California) firefighter who moonlights as a singer-songwriter, wrote and recorded the album after being inspired by the beauty and chaos he witnessed while fighting Southern California’s devastating wildfires last summer. “Buffalo John” is due out today on all streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Music.
Chiller, whose real last name is Miller, beheld many otherworldly moments during the record-setting fires. Like watching flames rise against a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean while the usually crowded Pacific Coast Highway sat dead as a ghost town. Or hearing giant firs and redwoods crash down to Earth — one of which landed dangerously close to a chief’s rig. The latter was an especially surreal experience that inspired a song on the EP: “No Good Luck.”
“We’re talking 200-foot trees,” Chiller said. “You’d hear it from the canopy first. And you’d immediately look up to see if you were going to get flattened.”
Thankfully, Chiller was never flattened. He made it out of the haze alive to tell the tale, and that tale became “Buffalo John and the Rainbow Crew.” The album takes its name from the piecemeal strike team formed from various crews to help battle the blazes. Chiller was able to stash his ukulele — a “totally warranted piece of equipment, because it keeps me mentally sharp,” as he put it — on the rig to play during his down time. He recalled how his crew often had to wait in line for gas behind other rigs for upwards of 45 minutes. He used that free time productively: “The captain would be snoozing, the engineer would be zoning out, and I’d just be sitting in the back, quietly running through little melodies that had been occurring to me throughout the night,” he said.
Those flickers of creativity eventually evolved into the four-song EP, which was recorded at Matt Wignall’s (Cold War Kids) Tackyland Studios. Said Chiller: “[The studio] is literally in his backyard, in a shed that he built.” Chiller called Wignall a “mad scientist” who puts his unique musical fingerprint on every song and album he produces. That fingerprint — perhaps best described as deep nostalgic reverberation, which sounds great on vinyl, by the way — can be heard on “Buffalo John,” a record that washes over the listener like a pleasant California daydream. The album was recorded live, which gives it a freewheeling energy that may have been lost had a traditional recording style been employed. Said Chiller: “We captured each song within the first couple of takes.” This sense of focused looseness, and the obvious chemistry between musicians, makes “Buffalo John” an easy record to fall in love with.
So, too, does Chiller’s infectious coolness. He delivers his thoughtful lyrics (“Even if there were 50 hours in a day/it wouldn’t be enough for what I want to say/how much that I just love to love you,” he sings on “Golden Tones”) as though he’s whispering them to you on a beach under the warm California sun. Chiller’s soft, lost-in-the-salty-breeze vocal style is totally authentic, given he’s a California native and lifelong surfer who often brings his ukulele to the beach in case inspiration strikes. Indeed, he’s assumed a laid-back surfer persona that works both aesthetically and on record — a persona that’s perhaps best encapsulated in the music video for his song “Burnin’ Up,” which appears on his debut EP, “Chiller Instinct.” That video features him cruising through the Pacific surf on a jet ski, a hot and ostensibly aroused babe straddling him from behind.
His fun-loving persona has caused him to catch a fair amount of good-natured flak from some of the saltier guys at the firehouse. “I’m like a science experiment to them,” he said. “I’m one of the last single guys at my station. At first they were like ‘what the heck,’ then they came to a show and loved it.” Chiller, whose father was also in the fire service, deliberately hams it up — by wearing “weird sunglasses” around the station, for instance — in a light-hearted attempt to provoke a reaction from his fellow firemen. “I’m totally inviting it. All the ball-busting is deserved,” he said. “But it’s fun to stir the pot and keep everyone involved.” Chiller said he’s maintained a solid reputation, a commodity as good as gold in the fire service, by counteracting his more eccentric tendencies with a solid work ethic and a sense of humility. And he’s felt the love from his co-workers when he needs their support the most. “When I run a campaign, like a shirt sales campaign to fund an album, they’re always the first guys to sign up to do it,” he said.
It’s the way that Chiller spreads the love, the way he makes others feel downright good about themselves, that keeps his persona from venturing into indulgence. As he pointed out, one surefire way to become disliked in the fire service is by seeking personal recognition: by being a spotlight ranger, as it were. Chiller is adamant about doing the right things for the right reasons. Consider the fact that he dedicated “Buffalo John” to a crew of three guys — kids, really, aged 18, 19 and 20 — with the Boulder Creek Volunteer Fire Department. He met this trio of brave young men while battling the SoCal blazes. That volunteer crew fought the fires for 10 straight days, Chiller said, sleeping for an hour or two at the station here and there before returning to the front lines. “That blew my mind,” Chiller said. “That’s a coming-of-age type of moment for them. It was bad ass. I was like ‘you guys are what the world needs. You’re the type of people that the fire service needs.'” Chiller hopes to return to Boulder Creek in the near future to play those guys some songs from “Buffalo John.”
“That’s a coming of age type of moment for them. It was bad ass. I was like you guys are what the world needs. You’re the type of people that the fire service needs.”Wes Chiller
Seeing that crew of young go-getters work tirelessly to maintain the safety of their community was one of the many beautiful moments Chiller witnessed during the chaos of the wildfires. Perhaps most beautiful of them all, however, was watching people return to their homes after the fires had been tamed. Chiller, who works full-time for a city department, is more familiar with structure fires in which families often aren’t allowed to return to their homes for months. So to see the fruits of the Rainbow Crew’s labor pay off in real time — to watch people have a chance to return to relative normalcy so quickly — was a gratifying experience for Chiller. “That was the coolest part about the whole thing,” he said. “Welcoming people back into their homes and knowing that we’d helped make a difference: that’s what it’s all about.”
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.