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Buffalo TomYou know the drill. You hear that Buffalo Tom are nearing completion on a new album and you hassle the hell out of your press contact for an interview from that day on. Finally you get your date but in the back of your mind you know you've something booked that same day. Slowly the realisation dawns that it's that not-so-easily rescheduled REM performance on Later with Jools. Happens all the time. You just have to arrange to catch them at another stop on the tour. Except Buffalo Tom aren't playing any other British dates. The solution? Cash the giro, book a flight to Amsterdam. Call up your old pal Joost and tell him you'll exchange a ticket for a little floor-space and you're on your way.
Whilst a sleepy-eyed Bill Janovitz snoozes elsewhere, Messrs Colbourn and Maginnis invite us into their dressing room...
The last time you played London, as part of the Sleepy Eyed tour, someone called out for The Bus from your debut. Besides that guy, has your audience grown with you?
by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Tom: I hope so. Sure you're gonna lose some people and gain others as the music changes. But, I think we were allowed to build an audience, coming out of a more independent-minded scene. You'll get some people who'll latch on early on and just grow up with us. I think, these days, there's a lot of pressure on bands to, like, get signed right away and sell loads of records, or have the big hit, and then they're gone. It's a different world now.
After Sleepy Eyed and Bill's solo album (Lonesome Billy), both of which were pretty raw and stripped down, Smitten comes as a surprise. Is it important that each album maintains its own identity?
Chris: I think the songs dictate the production lots of times but, I think, we react off the last albums a lot. Certainly Smitten is unlike any other record. It's a definition of us at this later period. So, by adding a keyboardist and choosing the songs carefully and working with them for three years, this is going to be our studio record. We made exceptions to our rulebook. Like, let the producer work on the songs with us and add another member that's playing on every song. Then the songs have their own definitions, by adding strings and horns it became really, like, 'studio'. And we worked on the songs in the studio quite meticulously on the vocals, the drum parts... there wasn't going to be anything on the record that was just a one-take. Even the most sparse things, like Under Milk Wood, are pretty layered.
This would seem to suit Bill's work ethic. He loves the technical stuff, messing with different guitar sounds and stuff.
Tom: It can get time-consuming. It's hard, y'know? It gets to the point where we all feel like 'Agh! There's so much coming out of the speakers I can't hear anything anymore.'
There's always the fear that you'll swamp the original song in production. I guess you've learned how to hold back.
Chris: You gotta trust a lot. A lot of it's trusting your producer or your engineer. A song like Wiser, for instance, was changed, maybe, four significant times. And then, when Tom wasn't even there - Bill and I'd flown out to finish the album in California doing vocal overdubs - we cut the ending and a different vocal arrangement for the outro in the studio. And we never do that kind of thing.
Tom: Very un-Buffalo Tom!
Chris: Yeah, even though we'd rehearsed it 300 times in different ways. David Bianco's not taking a 'close enough is good enough' kinda thing so, with vocals, we'd spend hours and hours doing things. It was pretty hard going you know? On our later albums, some of the vocal harmonising and things and bringing them to the forefront took some discipline. And adding keyboards actually meant bringing guitars down and bringing the band down and not playing so hard all the time. Which I think is great, because it complements the earlier albums. We're not too apologetic for the later part of our career which has turned a little more percussive and acoustic. We're all really big fans of that kind of music, like Goats Head Soup and a lot of the early Rolling Stones use acoustic guitars as percussive things. I think it's our strong point. It's actually been our true... our one original contribution to, y'know, this indie-rock thing, that more acoustic sound. I'm amazed at how much people are critical.
In what way are they critical of it?
Chris: That we're pussies, that we're not cool. It's not a cool thing to do. We were doing that during the Nevermind era and, of course, Soundgarden's big era, and Smashing Pumpkins, kinda metally-sounding things. We were definitely influenced by J Mascis and hugely influenced by Hüsker Dü. A lot of the reasons that we got on stage were because of those bands. I think, once you play, what's really true to heart comes out.
You'd probably be thrown in with less fashionable contemporaries now.
Chris: Yeah, I wince when people say 'you guys are sounding like The Wallflowers.' I feel like there's traditional elements to our music but I never felt that we were copying too much of a retro thing. I wanted to stay clear of the Black Crowes, Counting Crows thing.
Would you agree that you wrote your best songs for this album?
Chris: I think there are a couple there that shine out. I feel that with each record.
I meant your own contributions.
Chris: I don't distinguish them very much. I always felt that I make my best contributions on songs that I don't always necessarily sing on. It's always been my ground.
It's not a separate songwriter thing?
Chris: In a sense. They definitely start off with melodies and acoustic demos we both bring in but, I always felt, like, when in most bands you see people start to go in their own directions you go 'well, what is wrong here?' My place in the band, I think, is to really contribute towards songs that Bill sings on - that's my strong point.
Knot In It debuts the seemingly contradictory Buffalo Tom drum loop.
Tom: We wanted it to not feel forced or anything, something that is going to meld with what we do traditionally. I think we did need to try something like that, twist some things around. It gives it a different feel. I think we're all looking for slight differences like that - add some horns, add some more keys here, more vocal harmonies and stuff - trying some of this technology that we have now.
How different is the group dynamic having added Phil Aitken to the line-up?
Chris: You gotta make some room. It's like sitting four people on a bench. You've got to give people their space. You've been playing together for twelve years so that space is etched in your mind, but Phil's so fluid that he fits right around us.
Nice to hear Carol Van Dijk singing with you on Under Milkwood. She once said that she'd be happier writing songs for other people than having to perform them herself. Was she nervous?
Chris: That's funny because that's the way I felt on this song. I said 'Carol, I want you to sing this song, here's a tape.' She gets to the studio and she's like 'I don't want to sing this song, you sing the song. I'll sing along with you.' I was hoping she'd take the lead because it's a story I wanted from a female point of view. But Tom was listening and he kinda placed in when she sung the best. Which is good, because it's hard for me to tell. You gotta be on your toes and create from your... it's very instinctive. My favourite parts of the record came out that way.
You've used a different production team for every album. Is that to keep things interesting for you?
Tom: I think so, yeah. Let's hear some other ears, hear what they have to say.
Chris: The last couple of records we were talking to a lot of people who are producing real studio records. We talked to the guy who was producing Neil Young right before we recorded Sleepy Eyed. He was the guy who planted the idea of us recording live. We met with Chris Kimsey who led us in the direction of how the Stones recorded Some Girls - very live - and out of all these conversations we take a lot of things. We shy away from producers who have a distinct sound. Daniel Lanois, that's the kind of guy we try to go against because we've got our sound that we want but we want to let it breathe. Grand Prix, the Teenage Fanclub record, we're such total fans of that. That record sounds so good. Then they mentioned that David got into their songs and wrestled with them a bit...
Looking back at your albums do you have any favourites?
Chris: It seems our audience prefers Let Me Come Over so far in our career. We play a lot of music from that record. I kinda like Big Red Letter Day, but I like Smitten. A lot of it I really like. But playing live is very different from a record.
Tom: Once you start touring certain songs may wear on you. It's like 'I don't need to play this.'
There was a stylistic jump from Birdbrain to Let Me Come Over typified by songs like Taillights Fade, then I'm Allowed and now Wiser.
Tom: I think those songs were us following our own writing voices. Not taking so much from your influences. It was like us finding our own niche as a band. I think Birdbrain is kinda flowing in different directions to see what we think of and the first one... I think we decided 'these are the ten songs we have, let's record them'!
It's perhaps a little early, but how's the press reaction to date for Smitten?
Chris: There was a really good one in Raygun. I appreciated the mention that it was a studio album that had twelve different kinds of sound. I think that was sort of an intention. When you get to this stage in your career people review your records as your career. I read the whole review and they haven't mentioned a song - they want to talk about you as an entity.
Tom: I think you get a little jaded. I remember how it feels when you first read something they write and it's kind of a shock. You get used to it. It's tough to get a lot of press. I mean we get our share but unless there's a story. We're not getting arrested, being assholes or thrown off planes or anything.
You've always been cast as the anti-rock stars.
Chris: The boys next door...
CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue