LOOK TO THE SKIES Buffalo Tom

The beloved Boston band serves up the
comeback to their comeback and it’s aces all around.

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

 

It took Boston’s
alt rock heroes Buffalo Tom four years to record Skins, the follow up to their comeback album Three Easy Pieces. But to hear frontman and guitarist Bill Janovitz
describe the process, it’s amazing the album every ended up getting made in the
first place.

 

With nearly a decade lapsing before the release of Three Easy Pieces, the band – which also
includes drummer Tom Maginnis and bassist Chris Colbourn – was well out of the
record, tour, repeat cycle and had settled into other commitments like family,
jobs and pretty much day to day life as grown-ups. But somehow, the group
managed to get schedules aligned long enough to get a dozen or so tracks on
tape (or the 2011 equivalent of tape) and have finally put the album out on
their own label – a first for the band.

 

Janovitz, while waiting to get his hair cut recently, was kind enough
to take some questions from Blurt, discussing the current mindset of the band, the
status of the music industry and why it took him so long to finally record a
song with Tanya Donelly.

 

***

 

BLURT: You guys
just got back from a European tour right?

BILL JNOVITZ: Yeah, we did about two weeks or so – seven shows in
eight days, so it was pretty intense.

 

Are you getting
to play any of the new songs off of Skins to these crowds?

Yeah, some of the die-hards had picked up copies (of the album) that
week and we sold a lot at the shows. .. The songs that we’ve sort of been
concentrating on are “Guilty Girls,” “She’s Not Your Thing,” “Arise Watch,”
“Don’t Forget Me.” I’m reading the boards on the Web and
Facebook and a lot of people are talking about “The Big Light,” “Here I Come”
so it seems to be all over the map. I’m not quite sure ultimately what’s going
to pan out.

 

It’s obviously
been a few years since the last album came out, so I assume it’s been awhile
since you were last out on the road. Is it starting to feel like you’re getting
back to the routine of touring behind an album?

Well, we’re not going to be on the road for too long. We can only do
little jaunts. That two weeks (in Europe) is
probably going to be one of the longest times we go out. We’re going to do sporadic
shows. The west coast will be like five dates. You know, it’s not like we’re
going to hit the road for six week tours like we used to. I’m not sure if
that’s going to affect how the relationship has evolved or not.

 

Let’s talk for a
minute about the break between Smitten (1998) and Three Easy Pieces (2007).
Did you officially break up or were you just taking time off to try some
different things?

Exactly. We still kind of kept on playing through those years. We had
an A Sides record and a B Sides record and we sort of had a hit, well it was a
number one single in the UK, “Going Underground,” a cover of the Jam’s song for
a benefit record. You know these things kind of brought us into the early 2000s
and we kept playing around Boston
about once a year or so. It’s more like a break from the touring and recording
cycle… specifically from the recording cycle. I think it was sort of like a
soft breakup. But maybe from a marketing perspective it would have been wiser
to break up and then reunite like a lot of these bands are doing. It might have
been wiser.

 

When you got back
into writing and recording with Three
Easy Pieces
did it feel different at all having come off that tour, record,
tour cycle? I know it was the same three guys it’s always been, but a lot has
changed presumably.

It’s weird; years go by fast. We were all embroiled in other things
and with Three Easy Pieces we really eased
into it. It was sort of like let’s see if the band is still clicking. We know
we were still clicking in a live way, but that was kind of the impetuous for
doing the recording. We didn’t really have much time. We were doing it in Boston, so we sort of
just did a few songs at a time and whenever we could find time and rehearse and
write together, we’d go in, work on arrangements and record a few more. That
was the idea, but it ended up taking awhile. Summer comes and everyone goes
away. It’s not like we’d go away for four-to-six weeks at a time and make a
record like we used to do. It ended up taking awhile and there was a point
where I wasn’t really sure if it would ever be finished or not.    

 

Was that Skins or Three Easy Pieces you’re referring to?

Skins. You know, there
were a lot of starts and stops. Well, one big start and stop. We started on it
and it took awhile for us to get going and the momentum was starting to get
lost. We regrouped and said let’s get this thing done and it was still kind of
tough to find the time to do it. Our lives are not just the band at this point
anymore, and it used to be.

 

That’s a good
point. You were obviously all a lot younger when you first got together as a
band, now with kids and families are people’s priorities changing?

Yeah, definitely; Family, kids, jobs. The band, from an economic
standpoint, is hopefully a breakeven or slightly better situation. At this
point, we’re not making a ton of dough off of it. I think if we had shifted our
energy back into being a touring and recording band it might have ended up
being a viable living again, but we kind of gave up on that. The idea of making
it more of a hobby, well I shouldn’t say hobby; it’s more of a pure artistic
endeavor at this point. From that perspective, we don’t make decisions based on
touring and making a living and it sort of easies the pressure off a little
bit.

 

With only three
band members it seems like it’s a little easier to be democratic with an odd
number. Have the decisions, how long to tour, when to put a record out, always
come down to a vote?

Without a doubt. If one guy can’t do it, it’s not like we go out and
find another guy. It’s never been like that. There are times, within songs,
when maybe two guys feel stronger than a third about something, but that’s the
triangulation, that’s the benefit of the band. We’re all pretty easy going;
we’re willing to give the group the benefit of a doubt a lot of time.   

 

You guys have
managed to keep the lineup consistent for decades now. If that an indication of
how well the three of you get along?

At this point, it’s much more like brothers than band mates. You
remember spending those times together and it’s not always easy and you don’t
always get along, but you always assume that you’ll be brothers and be together
for the next holiday. There’s a lot of that analogy that works for me because
there’s a lot of getting older and forgiving a lot of things about your
siblings or your family and keeping the bigger picture.  If we had continued along, I can say I
wouldn’t have been able to stay in the band. It’s not so much a commentary on
the others guys, it’s just suck a freakin’ unnatural setting to be in. You
can’t make decisions about people when you are spending six weeks in a van
together for 10 years. It’s just a freak situation and no one can be judged on
how they will act.

 

With Skins, you had mentioned earlier that
you had started and stopped. Was any of the time in between due to the fact
that it just wasn’t working
?

No, it wasn’t really artistic, but more just a matter of logistics.
Stuff was going on with families and jobs; it was more of that boring kind of
day to day stuff. If one person is on a track and feels a certain artistic
momentum and the others don’t, it’s sort of tough. There was a time when it was
all for one and one for all and we were all in this sort of moving train, but
now were all on these different trains and try to connect every now and then,
excuse the metaphor, by the way. Just trying to get on the same wavelength is
not always easy and we don’t feel a need to put a record out every year. Even in
our heyday, it would take a year and a half to two years at least to get a
record out, so four years is really not that big of a deal to me. Everything at
this point, to be honest, is just sort of gravy. There’s something really kind
of nice about being able to put a record out when you want to, on your own
label, at your own pace.

 

What was the
decision behind putting this one out on your own label? Obviously the industry
has changed a lot since Big Red Letter Day and Smitten and I assume it’s just a
lot easier to put out a record on your own.

Yeah, I think that’s it. It’s sort of like what does a label offer us
at this point that we can’t do ourselves? The last label we did was a 50/50
deal with New West, which is sort of like a label for bands like us. (New West)
and Yep Roc and Merge, they do these 50/50 like deals and partner with the
bands and give you a nice advance. New West was a really nice label… But
ultimately they were very nice people, with a certain amount of money who
couldn’t do much. We hired an indie publicist, but we were laying out all this
cash ourselves and we were becoming more like this cottage industry that we
ultimately have become. So much recording is done at home now, you don’t need
so much brick and mortar distribution and so much of it is just in the ether
now so I’m not sure why we need to do a 50/50 deal. We have this cool tiered
deal with The Orchard (the distributor the band is partnering with) where they
put it out and do services based on what we need.

 

So you anticipate
doing this again in the future?

Yeah, I can’t imagine not being able to handle whatever sales we have.
There are some great labels I’d love to be affiliated with, but just because of
their roster, like an Anti or a Merge – great labels who put out records that I
love, almost everyone one of them – I’m not sure that they could do much more
with Buffalo Tom than we’re already doing with the current model.  

 

Tanya Donelly (The
Breeders, Throwing Muses, Belly) sings on the song “Don’t Forget Me,” off the
new album. Did you have her in mind for that song the whole time or did you finish
it and think, you know who would sound good on this one?

 It was more of the latter. Tanya
is almost like a sister to me. She lives really close by, our daughters were
born like weeks apart from each other, they’re almost like cousins they’re such
good friends; our families are really tight. I snag on a record Tanya did
awhile ago so it was amazing that it took this long for her to be on a Buffalo
Tom record. But Buffalo Tom records don’t leave a whole lot of room for
collaboration because there’s so much collaboration within the band. It’s not
like there’s a lot of room for guest stars to come in. With that song in
particular, I had written it and I didn’t even think the verse, which was
definitely written from a girl’s perspective, necessarily needed a woman’s
voice on it. But once it came to me, I was like how could she not be on this
song? This is made for her and low and behold she sounds fantastic on it and
now when I’m singing it live it just feels kind of false almost.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Crackerfarm]

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