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by Mark Walton / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Was there a better American guitar band in the early to mid Nineties than Buffalo Tom? They were never going to threaten Nirvana for record sales, but to know them was to love them. From the opening bars of Sunflower Suit on their eponymous 1989 debut album they were special - the undeniable influence of fellow Bostonians Dinosaur Jr. notwithstanding. But, with ĎLet Me Come Overí they took the quantum leap to a masterpiece; Taillights Fade and Larry rank among the greatest songs of the decade. Three subsequent albums, each blessed with at least a trio of contenders for similar honours, cemented the reputation of singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz, bassist/singer Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis. Since 1998, apart from their version of Going Underground for a Jam tribute album and the ĎAsidesí compilation, all has been depressingly quiet on the Buffalo Tom front. So quiet that when Janovitz slipped out his second solo album, ĎUp Hereí, on SpinArt in the States as the taillights faded on 2001, it barely registered on this side of the Atlantic. But four January concerts in Britain and Ireland were a surprise New Year present...
I spoke to Bill Janovitz before his show at Glasgowís King Tutís Wah Wah Hut about his low-key, subtle new release and various other projects. A sense of sadness hung over the conversation, at least from my side, that the man who wrote The Bus and Enemy and Treehouse and Summer struggles to make any living out of music. But with it came the faintest glimmer of hope that Buffalo Tom might yet record again.
My first thought when I saw you were doing these gigs in Britain was it would be fantastic to see Bill Janovitz live again. But itís been five years since Buffalo Tom did a full British tour, more than three since the last proper album, your new one isnít even out here yet, so why tour now?
I thought the solo record was out [laughs]. I did a festival in Amsterdam and Antwerp back to back, they flew me over so my budgetís paid for, so I added some British dates, not knowing that the record might not be out yet. [The album is now available in the UK on the Fire Records label]
How confident were you of still getting an audience over here?
I wasnít. I came with no expectations but itís got to be better than America right now because America is just dismal. I went out with Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets for about a week down the East Coast - we thought thatíd be a good thing - but it was pretty drab. But I didnít expect anything over here; itís been great, people have really turned out so far and have been really enthusiastic.
You didnít record the album on your own - Phil Aitken and Chris Toppin are on it - but you chose to tour on your own. Was that out of financial necessity or preference?
Not out of preference, because I can still play solo if I bring people out, I could do both, which is what I was doing in Boston before I came over. But the record is really pretty sparse, there are no drums at all and very little bass, so itís really the kind of record that I could go out and do as a solo thing. Itís something I love doing, I love playing a lot of Buffalo Tom songs completely solo; if I bring in a band I canít really do that many Buffalo Tom songs because Iím not really allowed to play Buffalo Tom songs with a band and I understand that.
To bring things up to date, could you describe where Crown Victoria and Bathing Beauties are at and, of course, the status of Buffalo Tom?
The short version is Buffalo Tom is at a hiatus. After our last record we had just signed to Polydor after Beggars Banquet, and Polydor merged with Universal/Seagrams, so we were one of 200-something acts to get dropped. But we were paid to get dropped, not to the same extent that Mariah Carey was just paid to get out of her deal but the same theory, just not the same amount of money [laughs]. So it was a really good time for us to take a break. It had been fifteen years together and I had a kid coming and Tom already had two kids. It took us so much energy to get that last record together that we just needed a break. And the break has turned into a really long break with no end in sight. We sat down together the other night and said, ĎWell, what do you guys want to do?í And I expected somebody to really kind of lead the way and say, ĎLetís do another recordí, but nobody really did. So weíll see. Weíre very good friends, weíre brothers in a way and so I assume weíll do something together. But that hiatus has let me do some solo stuff. The Bathing Beauties was already going, it started as a fun project, playing covers and out of my partnership with Chris Toppin from my first solo record we formed this songwriting commune so we could merge that with the Bathing Beauties. Thatís really catch as catch can, because everybodyís so busy, so itís a matter of trying to get everybody in the same room at the same time and finishing off some stuff weíve started. But thatís still very much a side thing. My solo stuff I was just going to have it all under one umbrella - do solo acoustic stuff, do some stuff with a band, some rock and pop, stuff that mirrored all the many moods of Bill Janovitz. But that kind of diverged into a couple of things because Crown Victoria became its own little rock and roll outfit, pop in kind of a garage-y way, and then I had all these solo acoustic songs so I said, ĎRight, let me just slip this one outí. I could whip it up pretty fast and I was going to put it out on my own. But SpinArt put it out in the States and itís started getting publicity over here. Thatís kind of the short/long story of it all.
Do all your various projects...?
Nothing pays [laughs].
You donít make a living from them?
Well, I do, but I donít know if I would if my wife didnít work. The thing is my kid came so I stayed at home with baby for the first two years and that was really my main focus. In the meantime, music was still happening, I still made a little bit of money from music; money would come in here and there. Buffalo Tom made a living for ten years, but it was very much a working class band, we had to work and then we got paid. It wasnít like we just sat there and waited for the royalties to roll in because we never sold enough, which is why we did publishing deals. We were able to keep the boat afloat for all those years when it was really against better odds because we didnít sell anything. In America you just canít live unless youíre making tons of money. I could make a living over here but I canít make a living in America anymore so... I mean, I could but itís such a pain in the ass. I donít want to be struggling all the time because it makes music not as joyful to me. I was freelance writing for a little while and I got my real estate licence to lessen the pressure off of music a little bit, to allow me the possibility to still do music.
For the new album how was your approach different from ĎLonesome Billyí?
Well, ĎLonesome Billyí was very much a side project at the time because Buffalo Tom already had another record in the pipeline, so most of those were songs that didnít fit into the Buffalo Tom mould. I wanted to work with those guys from Calexico, I loved their stuff and we were buddies a little bit. But it wasnít meant to be a real record, it was meant to be more experimental and an interesting thing for fans. This one I had all these songs that are much more direct than a lot of other stuff Iíve written; you have a straight-up love song, stuff about having a kid. Lots of people came up to me that loved this record that didnít like Buffalo Tom at all; not didnít know us, did not like us - itís hard to believe! [laughs]. My aim was just to do something different than Buffalo Tom and expose a side thatís as much a part of me, if not more, than the actual big rock guitar side. I love big rock guitars, but I think people were sort of missing the point with that. The songs were always the point to me. When I play the Buffalo Tom songs itís the same as when I play the new songs, itís just a guy with a guitar and they fit right in and thatís because they were all written that way. I just wanted to peel away the extraneous layers and get all the songs out. I wanted to present a more intimate... portrait of these songs.
You could probably throw a rock in the States and hit an acoustic guitar player - were you conscious that there are a lot of people doing that at the moment?
Yes and no. Iíve always played more acoustic guitar than electric, even when I was a little kid. I was always more into that stuff than the big rock stuff; I was never a big metal head or anything, even punk rock. I liked bands like HŁsker DŁ and The Replacements, who had acoustic guitars and open chord-type songs. I love all of Neil Youngís albums but I really love the acoustic music. I loved the acoustic balladry of the Stones, and even like Led Zeppelin, who are considered a big rock band, they had an immense amount of acoustic music, they always had that Celtic, folk, country side. So thatís always been me. The fact that there are a bunch of other bands that are getting known over here - though not very well known in America - thatís only good. I donít think anybody would accuse me at this point of copying because itís always been the tale of Buffalo Tom that weíre going the other way, itís not even consciously contrary, just kind of bad luck [laughs].
Were you looking for a new audience or aware that you may pick up a few new fans?
I was aware that I might, but I was more aware that I would probably lose a lot of Buffalo Tom fans. I suspected that a lot wouldnít be interested in this as a lot of Buffalo Tom fans were just not interested in ĎLonesome Billyí. But there was a better reaction to it over here than there was in the States, I think it was taken more in the spirit in which it was intended. But I didnít figure all of a sudden I would be exposed to a huge wide audience.
Youíve mentioned HŁsker DŁ and The Replacements; obviously the main guys there now have solo careers. Iíve often wondered if I like the solo stuff quite as much as I love what they did with the band and the answer is probably no. Do you need that tension of being in a band?
Thatís a very valid question and I feel the same way. Quite bluntly I wish - I wish - that I loved Paul Westerbergís solo stuff and Bob Mouldís solo stuff but I just donít although thereís some of it that I think are real peaks. But would they have continued to make as vibrant and relevant records as they were doing? I donít think they would have done that. Great bands are usually only great for a little while. The main point of a band is that it is larger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts. Thatís what youíre saying: Bob Mould good, Grant Hart good - together fantastic. But after a while a bandís shelf life, that common ground, that larger than the sum of its parts aspect kind of shrinks. With Buffalo Tom my experience was that we had an amazing amount of common ground and we had mainly one writer who was bringing in a lot of stuff. And the years went by and Chris was starting to write more stuff and I was starting to write more and more stuff, and Tom became much more confident at saying Ďyesí and Ďnoí to certain things - more like an editorial position - and that really peaked around the middle of our career. The last few records were very good with some of my favourite songs but that common ground seemed to be shrinking to the point where I felt with the last record that we were becoming about equal to or even less than the sum of our parts. I have this little theory that the three of us alone all have this amazing breadth of experience and taste but when we get together we can only move the band so much together for some reason. So it felt like Buffalo Tom was starting to fall into formula and it was really hard for us to break that because itís got all this presumption; itís like a relationship - when you have a relationship with somebody you fall into the same patterns of communicating and thatís definitely the same with Buffalo Tom. The amount of energy to break that is an extreme amount of energy and I wasnít sure if it was necessarily worth it anymore and Iím still not convinced that it is or is not.
Now you are your own boss and thereís no-one else writing the songs is that liberating or does it make you lazy or complacent?
Oh no, itís liberating. I donít think it makes me lazy, Iím still writing as much as I ever did. As I get older I donít really care as much about what other people have to say because I know what I like. I just felt with Buffalo Tom we were ruling out so much of stuff that was interesting because one of the other guys didnít feel like it fitted into the Buffalo Tom thing. And what is that? Itís a formula. I would like to think that the Buffalo Tom formula can still really work for some things and hopefully weíll find that ground again. But I donít really feel the need to keep the band together for sentimental reasons.
Does it rankle with you that a few people are so passionate about Buffalo Tom and yet not enough bought the records?
Iíd be lying if I said that we didnít think about it sometimes but I donít feel we were more or less justified than Big Star or The Replacements or HŁsker DŁ, who are given their due by critics and other bands but didnít sell a lot of records. But thereís a lowest common denominator version of bands that sells better - I stopped getting annoyed by that in my twenties. Very few of my favourite artists are artists that sell a lot, so who am I to say that I should sell more records than Nick Drake, who died in obscurity or any other artist like Van Gogh - you can go as far back as you want? Did I get annoyed at times? I resented the amount of work we put into upholding the band, I resented the fact that amount of work exceeded by far the amount of musical time that we spent on the band, and very little came of it. The amount of work just trying to sell ourselves in the States especially, I resent all that time shaking peopleís hands at radio stations. It didnít do anything. I would have loved to make more money but we were able to do it for ten years. I donít know if we were the greatest band; I do agree with you certain people were passionate about us. I would have loved to have had the same level of audience that Nick Cave or Sonic Youth or Tom Waits have, or like Van Morrison, who can put out record after record and people go see him and they grow up with him. He hasnít had a hit record in twenty-seven years but heís a respected writer and thatís what Iíd love to have.
Creatively there was a sea change between ĎBirdbrainí and ĎLet Me Come Overí - what was that?
The first record was a product of a bunch of different influences. It was a very melodic record and it was all about what we wanted to do, take these HŁsker DŁ influences and add this melodic edge that we had and a very ĎBoston soundí coming from Mission Of Burma and Moving Targets. Then that led to ĎBirdbrainí which was a bit of an anomaly. I think itís a good record, it has some of our better moments on it, but it also has some of our lower moments. That was very much an experiment, we got pretty dark on it, I donít think it was really representative of who we were; that was J [Mascis] producing - I think he might have accented our edgier side. With ĎLet Me Come Overí I was writing some of my best songs, I think, and we struck upon our sound with the help of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade: very Stones-y, kind of post-punk. It took all our roots, like Van Morrison and the Stones, and converted what was going on and what we were in the mood to hear and I donít think a lot of people were doing that; standing with electric guitars and strumming away - I never saw anybody do that. We did a couple of quietly innovative things and we converged our folk-rock side with our harder rock side. It was like The Who to us, like a lot of older, classic, rock records. But I actually think it really comes down to the songwriting, I think we really hit our stride with the songwriting.
Did you think with ĎLet Me Come Overí that the time was possibly right then for American rock bands?
Well, when we were doing it we were still very much in our own little world. Nobody was having great success. To us success was The Pixies coming over and doing the Town & Country or wherever. Thereís this book called Our Band Could Be Your Life which was taken from a Minutemen song. Itís by this guy Michael Azerrad who chronicles the rise of bands in the early Eighties like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., HŁsker DŁ, The Replacements. Itís about how the mainstream had nothing to do with us. Black Flag and the Minutemen went out and forged this touring circuit in America that did not exist; if you were a band in America you didnít go on tour unless you had a big major label deal; but now there are all these indie-rock bands. I canít drive home enough that that our idea of success was a deal. We were still in that mindset with ĎLet Me Come Overí. Then it started to do pretty well. There was a little bit of mainstream radio for Taillights Fade and Velvet Roof, and a lot of our fans and people we grew up with were starting to get jobs on radio stations and MTV and they were putting on bands that they liked instead of bands that they were told to like. So it really was an interesting time. But it really had nothing to do with what we were making the record for and certainly with ĎBig Red Letter Dayí, if we trying to make a commercial record we were doing it the wrong way because what was big and successful right then was Nirvana and we turned down the guitars, put up the acoustics and made a really classic Ďrock soundingí record. I donít think we were oblivious to commercial influences, we were conscious that they were out there but it didnít affect the way that we made the record. Maybe it should have.
When you did the Jam tribute album were you aware of just what a revered song Going Underground is?
I donít think I really knew. I was surprised it was available; usually we do some also-ran song. When we did it in Buffalo Tom style it sounded too much like The Jam to me. We werenít as mod obviously, but we loved The Who as much as they did; they were way more clipped and staccato in their style; Buffalo Tom was more languorous. I always thought my voice was overly Paul Weller, without the accent but certainly in timbre. We had to re-invent it in some kind of silly way that was interesting to us, that had nothing to do with us - Buffalo Tom had never played with loops before that.
A lot of what you have said doesnít bode too well for another Buffalo Tom album so is it more or less likely for all of those who wait with bated breath for one?
I think itís more likely that weíre going to do one, I just donít think that it will be any time in the near future. I have more stuff I want to do before Buffalo Tom and these things take so long. But no, I think weíre still together, we still might do something, the last meeting we had we came away without a definitive answer. If we do do it, it should be something different. It just has to feel right. Iím not sitting on the fence, I just donít really know.
So finally, for all the struggle of making this work, it sounds like you will continue making music in many different forms.
I donít want to come off as sounding bitter or just like Ďthatís the end of it because I canít make a living.í I can always find time for music and time to tour. The touring thing I just have to limit because I have a kid, I canít stay away more than ten days at a time because it really kills me. I would like to come back with a band next time. I have to bring my wife - she told me - so I donít know how Iím going to swing it all. But, yeah, Iím going to keep making music, I just donít want to do it from the point of financial desperation, like, ĎI have to make money on this record or Iím not going to be able to live.í
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002