TAS Interview: Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom
Along with Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom were among the bands that defined one of the most significant, non-grunge, American alternative sounds of the Nineties, crafting a raucous thrash with wiry tenderness.
The Boston-based trio of singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz, bassist Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis took a nine-year hiatus at the end of that decade, pursuing their own projects and solo albums. Happily, and somewhat unexpectedly, Buffalo Tom reformed in 2007 and released a comeback album, Three Easy Pieces, and returned to touring.
Their next album, Skins, drops on February 15 on their own label, Scrawny Records. On the heels of the band's Mercury Lounge gig in New York last week, The Alternate Side had a chance to catch up with frontman Bill Janovitz over email to talk about this invigorating new chapter in the band's long life:
TAS: It's always intriguing when a band decides to break a long, perhaps permanent, hiatus and come back to the fray, like Pulp, Blur and Buffalo Tom. Did you, as a trio, sit down and really weigh the pros and cons of recording again in 2007?
Bill Janovitz: It has been a while. I am not sure I recall the details, but, yes, we sat down to discuss getting it all rolling again. Much of it regarded communication styles and how to approach the working relationship again, as well as musical/artistic goals, and plans for supporting the record or whatever came of it. We really took it in baby steps, without committing much beyond small goals. We wrote, rehearsed, and recorded in bite-sized chunks.
TAS: Since the pros won and you're releasing Skins in February, what have you all learned that you love about being a part of Buffalo Tom? What were things you wanted to avoid in this new chapter in the band's life? And what have you all learned as friends and bandmates?
Bill: None of us are very good/flashy -- technically speaking -- musicians individually. All the stuff we do separately has a lot of positives and merit, including learning what else happens in music and combos/bands outside of the world of BT. But there is nothing like a band brought together in the first place by the very chemistry that keeps it going in subsequent years. In other words, through all those years of recording hiatus, we still played live from time to time. And there was something undeniable about the sound that the three of us achieve together.
On paper, in theory, none of this should sound or feel as good as it does. But there was something right about the feeling the very first time we jammed in 1986, and the musical chemistry only got better. The whole is truly larger than the sum of the parts. So, the musical side was never much of a question. But being in any kind of partnership or collaboration takes a great deal of effort. There came a time when we needed to devote such energies towards other things in our lives, mainly forming solid family bonds. We had learned a lot about how we related to each other, for everyone relates to various people in different ways. I am who I am with Chris and that is different than who I am with Tom, and the two of them together different than how I relate to my wife and kids, and so on. So, while it is one of the things we are most proud of, keeping it together with the same three guys, it needed to have a little break there to be put on the back burner. We were a little soured on touring and recording in relentless cycles, as well as the dissolving major-label model. That model had served to promote us during the mid-1990s but had run out its usefulness.
When we got back together, we were wiser about big and small things and what is important in life. We try not to take each other for granted, but mistakes still happen. Tweaks still need to be made, and so on. While it is a well-oiled machine musically, it is a battered but beloved old van personally, and that requires a lot more pit stops to re-oil.
TAS: The first song from the record, "Arise Watch" has that perfect Buffalo Tom mix of ferocious snarl and eloquent sadness. Can you talk a bit about the songs you've pulled together for this new record? What might please longtime fans and intrigue new ones? What tracks are you especially excited about? And who produced the record?
Bill: I think "Arise, Watch" is a great example of a song that sounds different for Buff Tom, but it still is Buff Tom. What I think has resonated with people who have heard this record is our wizened perspective about relationships: families, bands, couples, etc. There is birth, death, and the present in all of these songs, sometimes all in one, as in, "Here I Come." The lyrics are deeper than ever, I think. But the music is highly rewarding, it seems.
It has that classic mid-career-BT feel, like an updated Let Me Come Over, Big Red Letter Day, or Sleepy Eyed. We produced it ourselves, but had Paul Kolderie, an old friend and producer of Let Me Come Over, work with us on recording and mixing a handful. He works with a young guy named Adam Taylor, who is also a great asset. Tom Polce also mixed the rest. He did the last CD as well. Q Division studios up here have some great young engineers that we work with and take their opinions into account.
TAS: Is it a bit scary releasing an album on your own label? How does the new architecture of labels and digital promotion altered the way you think of of getting your music out to not only your fans, but new listeners as well?
Bill: No, not scary. There is more control. We are excited by the energy and enthusiasm of the team we have assembled, primarily at the Orchard, who feel like a label without actually being the label. In fact, it feels invigorating to finally be shedding a bit of the old model and embracing some new ideas/models. I personally dig the direct-to-fan idea. We have always been pretty grass roots. I am not sure what any labels can offer us this time around, at this level. There are some I like a lot that seem to do a great job - Anti, Merge, Matador - but they are just great teams of people and now you can assemble similar teams yourself.
TAS: You just played Mercury Lounge again last week; you did a summertime stand there as well. What is it about playing a small, intimate venue, especially in New York, that invigorates you as a band?
Bill: The directness and immediacy of the audience being right there, of course. But my perfect venue is something like the Bowery Ballroom, when filled. An old theater with great sound, sightlines, and a soulful vibe.
TAS: The three of you have been together for so long? What are the quirks, missteps and beautiful characteristics of the three of you that makes your alchemy so right? How have you changed over the years?
Bill: Yes and no; we have all learned a lot about ourselves and each other. Trying to keep these wiser perspectives is easier when you have all this other stuff in life. In one's forties, your in the middle; you can identify with your kids, you remember some of what they are going through pretty acutely. But you can also be very good friends with people in their 60s. I had dinner with a friend who is in her 70s. She came to me via a painful episode. But I had fascinating and stimulating conversations with her that I did not want to end. You start to realize, as friends actually pass away, that we have so little time here that it really is important to try to not stress about small bubbles of froth.
TAS: Boston has become such an invigorating hub for a new generation of bands like Passion Pit. What Boston area bands would you like to ballyhoo and champion?
Bill: We love the band, Mean Creek. I saw a great young band the other night called You Can Be a Wesley. Don't get out as much, but I have three brothers also in the Boston music scene and two in bands that are nominated for Boston Music Awards this year -- The Russians (Scott) and Sodafrog (Tom). Tommy is 16 years younger than me, the oldest brother.
TAS: If you could choose anyone to cover a Buffalo Tom song, who would it be and what song would you give them?
Bill: Tom Waits. My fave. I would love to hear him sing "Paper Knife" off this record. Would love to hear the 1972-era Stones do "Velvet Roof" or "Out of the Dark." Would also love to hear Van the Man [Morrison] cover "Larry." All of those are specific influences I hear in those songs. In fact, I started it spontaneously one performance, but can't stop singing "Into the Mystic" over the end of "Larry." Elvis Costello doing "Guilty Girls."
TAS: Buffalo Tom is a band that so defined the 90s for many people, alongside Nirvana or Pavement or Radiohead. Since you're now looking forward to the future of the band, beyond the naughts, what are your hopes for Buffalo Tom? What would you like the band's longtime legacy to be?
Bill: I would love nothing more than to be continued to be mentioned alongside such great acts and to be considered as a great band in the tradition of all such influences as those mentioned above. We know we will never be as important as Dylan or The Clash, but why not aspire to it? Also, I would like to buck the trend of the music industry and sell a million downloads in the first week, like Taylor Swift. Daddy needs a new car.