Circa June 2007 – Fazer Magazine
Buffalo Tom hail from Boston, Massachusetts. They formed in the 1980s and have recorded numerous albums. Nothing in the past eight years though.Buffalo Tom’s principal members are guitarist Bill Janovitz, bassist Chris Colbourn, and drummer Tom Maginnis. Chris and Bill took the time to sit with me for a short interview just before catching a cab to the airport to fly home on Friday June 8th in a bar below the NXNE reception area.
Mike: So, Three Easy Pieces comes out in two months?
Bill: Mid-July. Yeah, July 10.
Mike: How long has that been seen you guys recorded together?
Bill: The last recording came out I think in ’98, Smitten – the last actual studio recordings. We also did a couple compilations. So it’s been a long time, but we took a lot of weekends, we kept working on this project. There’s a lot of kids, kind of slowing us down…the Buffalo Tom Family
Well you guys have family now right?
Bill: Yeah. Six kids. Two kids each..
Chris: It’s a comedy, we all live in the house…
But you still kept the band together, you put the material together. Are you going to tour the album?
Bill: Yeah, on weekends. We’re going to Europe for a week in July. It’s going to be different touring now with family. Yeah. We’ve had some serious conversations about it.
Chris: It’s actually a good excuse not to hit the road for six weeks at a time. I was just reading a thing about Cowboy Junkies, who I haven’t followed, but they do like two weeks on, two weeks off and they’re all families. But ‘THEY’ make money (chuckles).
Bill: Yeah when we first started, we were in college and music became sort of a treat. We were doing it and we worked. With kids it becomes different, you think about it a different way rather than when it’s a full time thing, and too many demands on it sometimes, especially year after year and tour after tour. We’ve toured for many years. So it’s kind of nice looking at it from a different way. This is kind of our break, we get a babysitter, so it’s kind of nice. It’s a romantic kind of view of how to make a record. And it was nice, the songs came together nicely in the end.
I’ve only heard four of them. They sound good.
Chris: Thanks. We’ll get you a copy of the record.
How does it feel being, I hope I word this right, ‘part time?‘ Your focus on your families; you’re working, but still putting material out which sounds as good as what you were putting out back in the day.
Chris: Oh thanks. The part time aspect is sort of like, you just try to make life work and whatever you’ve got going on. I don’t think there was any conscious decision to not be Buffalo Tom as a living, although it was sort of inevitable. We were sort of winding down at a certain time and said “alright we’ve been on the road, we’ve been together for a long time” – we’d been on the road at that point for almost a dozen years, almost straight. So it was like okay let’s take a break, let’s take a step away. It wasn’t like we were going big – the only way we could really continue to make a living at it was to continue to really to be out there on that cycle of touring, and we weren’t even sure if that opportunity would afford itself, so we’d rather just sort of walk before they make us run.
Bill: Yeah we sidestepped a little. I think our first contract with Beggar’s Banquet was up and we were sent another contract for five records or something, it seemed overwhelming at the time.
You know, when you are in your mid-30s How do you look at that? That’s like a year and a half to two-year cycle per album? That’s a ten-year commitment.
Bill: Exactly. We take those things pretty seriously too and I think there was an element, for me anyway, where I don’t know if I ever identified myself as an artist or a recording person. I think we’ve always had things – we’ve been a college student, doing music for fun and then when you’re doing it for so long, you know, your passport says ‘musician’. It’s a whole different kind of thing. I think we were seeing a lot of people too getting to live their life and have kids and Tom started having a couple of kids and we also said let’s stop being the arrested 22-year-old when you’re 37. It’s time to have kids and get married and be an adult.
Chris: Yeah we’re pretty good family men, you know you meet so many great musicians, all our heroes, all these people that continue to do it and even the marginally successful ones are people with a lot of trash relationships, and alienated kids and we just never were those people that were really interested. I think we would fight against that. We managed to really keep a good balance for a little while but I think we’re getting back into balancing music into it a little more, and music went back to just being fun for us the last few years.
Bill: Yeah I wouldn’t say we were lazy about it. There were elements, you can only pick certain days that everybody had free time and that slowed the process down but it was a long time. But it’s interesting just doing a record like that and bouncing songs around. We weren’t writing on a schedule where we kind of had to write during certain time periods, and sort of be inspired and
improvise a lot. Then technology changed it a lot, which is pretty fascinating. But, for me, I find in an ironic way, we use the technology to sound more raw. It became very quick to set up a sound. But we used it because instead of spending months to make this record we wanted to do it basically live like the great ’60s records that we’ve always read about being made. We tried to make it that way but we recorded digitally. We didn’t like try to stick with tapes and spend too much getting the monitors equalized for 2 days. You can trade all your pieces off now too, you just ship them around and…
Bill: Yeah its what we did. It’s a really interesting way to make music.
Until you kicked into “Velvet Roof” last night, I’d just forgotten how good you guys were. I don’t think I’ve played Buffalo Tom in a few years. I mean the set was super, I really enjoyed everything you played. I busted out the Buffalo Tom – “A sides” CD again, and I was playing it this morning.
Chris: Oh cool.
Bill: For us too. Without playing that much it becomes a little more exciting. Even the old songs that we’ve played a lot. They sound very pertinent now.
That Buffalo Tom kind of sound is coming back. I don’t want to call it low-fi – but it’s a minimalist song writing style – and the three-piece approach to doing music is what it is – grass roots. It’s nice to see it resurging again.
Bill: Yeah and an easy simple kind of thing, not that the title’s like that, because I think the title is a bit ironic in some ways, but there is an element to this being very organic simple to us. It’s the language that we speak.
I figured it represented the three of you.
Bill: Yeah, yeah in a sense. But sometimes it can be the opposite. In general it’s like riding a bike –we don’t need to set up too much. Put us in a room with microphones on. Or in a rehearsal space, which is what I was thinking of a lot when we wrote the record. You know, there weren’t a lot of directions. We sometimes threw out chords and wrote a couple of songs, let our instincts go through. I think that’s a good way to make a record, and it’s a shame more people can’t. I think there’d be better records out there, but we know more than anyone else that once you get on the cycle it’s difficult. Playing a lot and touring makes you a really good musician, and really learn your chops too.
Do you guys tend to do music first and then write the lyrics or vice versa?
Bill: At the same time…
Chris: Yeah sometimes that’s the best, but this record we were writing you know like Chris and I were playing with different hook ideas and we might each have a couple of lines. But there’s a lot more singing on dual singing, you know different parts than our other records. We had done that in the past a little bit but it was almost like 2 lead parts on a lot of these songs so we would kind of just write our own things that we were going to sing there. When I write at home I usually come up with way more music than I do lyrics so inevitably there’s just a lot of music lying around without song elements to it.
So do you find you’re thinking about music at your day jobs, or is just when you sit down?
Bill: I think I always think about music. I have an annoying thing that I think most musicians do. I always have a little thing in my mind that I can’t get rid of, plays maybe 2,000 times a day, a certain song or a melody. And it’s constantly in my toes, underneath the chair… I’m clicking constantly. I can’t get rid of it. I wish I could (laughs).
See, that’s awesome. I don’t have any musical talent at all. I love music. I tried. I can’t sing, I can’t play, I can’t do much of anything. So I always find it interesting when you know 3 or 4 people can get together, crank out a riff and it turns into a single.
Bill: I think we were lucky too in our growing up and being in an era where there’s a certain amount of talent involved. A generation where musicians read music. It wasn’t until punk bands, which really inspired us, that we realized that people with moderate amount of talent can get together and be in a band and be taken seriously. So I think that was a big plus for us. The guys are, you know, just three guys playing very simple kind of music. Which I grew up with and loved. But it wasn’t, like the generation before us, the musicians really had to go to school or learn and I think that’s a great era. You can build music on the computer now with zero talent.
Bill: Yeah ha-ha. And that stuff gets popular.
When you get to hear it on MTV and Much Music all the time, it cant be helped. When they actually decide to play a music video that is – it’s mostly reality TV these days. So assuming you guys get a single off of this new album, what if it gets big? What if there’s a demand for more Buffalo Tom?
Chris: I can’t plan beyond next week, so if in some weird wrinkle of time and place all of a sudden Buffalo Tom became popular in a big way, we would take it as it came I’m sure. But we’re certainly there to promote the record in the important ways. I think all of our ideals are realistic. I mean, what are the chances of three 30-something-year-old-dudes all of a sudden going back 20 years ago? Indeed we are having our mid-life crisis.
Bill: The real kind of beauty of it, again the kind of weird irony, is that through our career our accountant was telling us, ‘you’ve sold about a million records.’ Weirdly, like you just keep doing it little by little and you know, there were no hits. But it’s quite a body of work and that’s something we’re proud of. Our kids are now listening to it and kind of making fun of us.
A-Sides plays well. I dumped all of my music onto my computer and got rid of a lot of my old vinyl and CDs just because it was bugging me, the space it was taking up. I had a tonne of them. And now, I like getting best of compilations where I can just say okay well this is the body of work that I want to track and if it really inspires me, then there’s always something else out there. I’ll go and find it on iTunes or if you decide to put a “B Sides” compilation out after this that I’ll probably get that.
Chris: Yeah we did do a B sides.
I thought you did. OK. I’m going to scoop it up. So what are you tracking now for music? Are you still music fans? Do you still listen to a lot of tunes? What’s floating your boat these days?
Chris: We just saw Electrelane. Do you know this band? They’re an all female band from Brighton England. They’re young. I don’t know how I came across them, they’re pretty popular. I work with a lot of people in their 20s, so they throw out a lot of stuff. We saw Sea Wolf last night. They’re good.
That was my second time seeing them. They were here a month ago opening for the Silversun Pickups.
Bill: That’s a fun part of getting up there, touring a little bit and doing the media thing. When I’m left on my own I just delve into old music, 30, 40, 60 years ago. So it takes trips out like this for someone to go “Oh, do you know this band….?”
There were some young people digging you last night. I hope your UK gig goes well. Anything planned after that?
Bill: We’re going to go to the west coast in July: San Francisco and L.A. We’re going go to the Midwest in September. Kind of long weekends here and there when we can afford to. And the week in Europe.
Cool. That’s awesome. I’m glad you could take the time to chat with me. Best of luck for the rest of the year’s gigs.