+ By Leah Weiss + Photos by Alison Harbaugh
One week in January 2016, Ahren Buchheister’s parents were trying to reach him. They kept leaving messages but heard nothing. Apparently, he had been preparing for a David Bowie tribute concert and was busy charting out individual parts to “Blackstar,” a nearly ten-minute song, for his band Pompeii Graffiti to perform. “We were trying to call him to give him our old car, but he was not getting back to us,” says his mother, Bevin, laughing. “He was like a monk, cut off from everything, working on that piece!”
Those who know the 30-year-old understand that this is not unusual. He often gets into a flow state, working on something for eight to ten hours at a stretch. He once asked every band he was playing in to make a music video for a National Public Radio song contest. Not even faintly interested in winning, he pulled together and submitted 11 videos within weeks. “I probably didn’t have a lot to do that month and thought it would be a great idea to make something with all of my friends,” he modestly explains.
Buchheister is a prodigious musical talent, proficient in many styles including rock, swing, jazz, classical, country, and American roots. While acoustic, electric, and classical guitars are his primary instruments, he’s adept at dobro, pedal steel, mandolin, and electric and upright basses and can play studio-quality lines on a host of other instruments. “Whatever the song needs is what I’ll do,” he says. “I’m happy being in a supporting role.”
Cellist Erin Snedecor, who since 2013 has been collaborating full time with Buchheister in three bands—Black Rhinoceros, Doublespeak, and Pompeii Graffiti—admires his drive, dedication, and generosity. “He’s out six to seven nights a week playing a show. And before that, he’ll be in a recording session, usually for somebody else, and then he’ll be teaching, and then he’ll come and play three sets with a band . . . and he’ll run sound—he’ll make sure your live sound is amazing because he wants you to sound good. He’ll be the first one there and the last one out. He’ll make sure all your bartenders are tipped and that everyone’s fed. He wants Annapolis musicians to play out and feel comfortable, and he wants to play with you for no ulterior motive—he just wants to play.”
“He’s got this work ethic that’s just out of control,” declares Ruben Dobbs. Buchheister arranged string and horn parts on most of Swampcandy’s albums and put down dobro and steel guitar tracks. “He’s so many different things,” says Dobbs. “He’s an excellent songwriter, composer, and arranger. He’s such a good musician and so song oriented. Collaborating with him is super-easy. He usually just does it, and it’s right. He puts the song first.”
“Everything he plays is in service of the song,” says James Von Lenz, with whom Buchheister plays in Doc Pine & The Respect He Deserves. He and another of his bands, The Thorn Apples, had Buchheister record some songs. “Everyone agreed that it was, hands-down, our favorite recording experience,” he says.
Alexander Peters recently recorded a single at Buchheister’s home studio in Arnold. “I knew I didn’t want it to sound like my old stuff and asked for help. A few fuzz pedals, ’80s synth sounds, and one saxophone later, we had something special,” he says. “He breathes and sleeps music. Odds are, he’s playing music right now, while you’re reading this.”
Nothing in Buchheister’s early childhood foreshadowed his musical excellence. He had a traumatic encounter with the recorder in primary school and played violin (“poorly,” he says) in orchestra. Then, during the summer before seventh grade, he stumbled upon his father’s guitar. It was missing some strings. “I just started messing around on it. I remember picking out little melodies like ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ by Pink Floyd—it’s three notes, you don’t need to change strings,” he recalls. “I was immediately interested in it, more interested than I’ve been in anything else, ever.”
One day, after hearing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” for the first time over the car radio, he later remembered and figured out its guitar line, note-for-note, in the correct key. “That was one of the few instances of having that kind of luck, that early on, without any ear training,” he says. “It’s one of those great riffs—it plays itself on the guitar. That was inspiring to me.” He became immersed in music. “I loved doing it, loved thinking about it, and loved talking about it.”
Dobbs taught guitar to Buchheister for six months, after which he told the teen’s mother, “I can’t teach him any more.” He encouraged Buchheister to form a band with his peers and eventually invited him into his own band. Dobbs brought him to gigs in Annapolis, Baltimore, and New York City and involved him in productions of his rock opera, Jody, during which Buchheister subbed for the lead guitarist with two-week’s notice. “He came in and played the material flawlessly.”
Buchheister played with schoolmates nearly every weekend of his high school senior year in the indie rock band Pompeii Graffiti. He worked hard to deepen his musical skills at Towson University, where he studied jazz, classical, and commercial guitar performance. “My ability to pick things up pretty quickly is something that people in the music community are fascinated by. I totally did not have it before. I went [to Towson] with really bad ears.”
During college, he brought Pompeii Graffiti back together to record, infusing what he’d learned into the songs with string arrangements and vocal harmonies. He also spent time with Annapolis guitarist Gary Wright. “He expanded my world view,” Buchheister says, “I learned a lot from him about how to play chords and melody at the same time—that’s a very important part of how I play.” Says Wright of Buchheister, “He’s fluent in so many musical genres while maintaining his own voice. He’s also a great improviser. I can always count on him to grasp the feel and play what’s needed.”
Of Buchheister’s role as a producer, songwriter Dan Mollen says, “He helps me form songs in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. He’ll say, ‘Oh, what we need here is some glockenspiel,’ and then he just pulls one out and plays it amazingly well. It never ceases to astound me.”
Buchheister’s songwriting has evolved over the years. Initially focusing on his own personal experiences, he’s shifted to social issues, presenting them through an intimate view of someone else’s life. Most of what he considers his best songs are still in production and will take a few more years to release. “Songwriting is the melody—the chords, and the lyrics, at its barest elements—and that is a beautiful thing on its own. But production is equally as important,” he explains.
In the duo Black Rhinoceros, Buchheister and Snedecor write together, usually starting with a riff, then playing off each other. “He has so many ideas and such a clear vision. It’s an interesting collaboration that never gets old or stale. He’ll say, ‘Let’s just work on it until it’s good, until we both love it!’ It would be so easy to give up, but he can’t,” Snedecor laughs.
He’s proud of Pompeii Graffiti’s Internet World Tour, a 13-part multi-media video series. Over a two-year period, he released one song at a time over the internet. Each piece was introduced by a phony host, ostensibly from a different location—a jocular acknowledgment that the band couldn’t tour. Buchheister engaged different videographers, recording studios, and sound engineers as well as guest musicians, creating yet another community project.
“I feel very lucky to work with so many talented people. I get to work with my favorite musicians and songwriters, and that’s a dream come true. It makes me wish that more people could find that local music is often just as good as global or national stars—they just have to go out and find it.” █
Learn more about
Buchheister’s music and upcoming shows at www.Ahrenfield.com