Don’t even try to guess Buffalo Tom’s primary influences. Sure, it seems easy enough to dissect their folkie, fuzz-rock roots – maybe name a few predecessors to their brand of smart, edgy popcraft. But try to pin down the major inspiration behind the Boston trio’s greatness, and trust me, you don’t have a prayer. Don’t believe it? Try this.
“Our moms are a really huge influence on us,” says bassist Chris Colbourn. “My mom would love it if we still rehearsed in their basement.”
“It’s a different kind of influence but really important.”
OK, it ain’t exactly Black Sabbath, but what the hell. Actually, better make that what the heck. To be sure, Mrs. Colbourn, Mrs. Janovitz (mom of singer-guitarist Bill) and Mrs. Maginnis (mother of drummer Tom) ought to be bursting at their collective seams. Their sons, all in their late twenties, are scholarly enough to discuss the introspection provoked by long rock tours (“It starts getting like a Bergman movie,” says Colbourn. “You start thinking so much about little things”) and pragmatic enough to have held on to their day jobs for years after they were putting out records. “It gave us financial independence,” says Colbourn, who still holds his job despite the fact that his band mates gave theirs up about a year ago. “It’s good not to have to be a full-time rock guy. There’s something about the rock mentality that needs to be balanced by the sanity of a real job.”
And now, with Big Red Letter Day, the boys have delivered their fourth collection of inspired, straightforward power pop. This time around, however, things are a little different. While every other band in the Free World is busy adding the layers upon layers of white noise that graced Buffalo Tom’s first two albums, 1989’s Buffalo Tom and 1990’s Birdbrain, the group has taken the acoustic tinge of last year’s Let Me Come Over a step further. At this most flannel of moments in the collective unconsciousness, Buffalo Tom have tuned in, turned on and toned down.
“We got criticized for the louder guitar stuff, if only because J Mascis [of Dinosaur Jr] produced the first two records, and people thought we were trying to ride on his coattails,” says Janovitz. “Now people don’t get why we’re quieting down, now that grunge is big. We’ve wanted to tear things down, even within our own realm.”
In these days of the band’s deconstruction, the accent is increasingly placed on Janovitz and Colbourn’s harmonies — creating a more traditional singer/songwriter feel to the group’s work. It makes sense. You see, both Colbourn (he of the boyish, pop-inflected voice) and Janovitz (the tougher, more world-weary cry that has always distinguished Buffalo Tom) are each singers and songwriters. While Janovitz handles the bulk of the Buffalo load, Colbourn tosses in his two songs’ worth on Big Red Letter Day, just as he added a pair of tunes to Let Me Come Over and one to Birdbrain.
“I had never sung before a couple of years ago,” says Colbourn. “It’s not like it’s this huge thing between the two of us. You see a band like Belly and realize Tanya [Donelly, formerly of Throwing Muses] had been writing all these songs for so long. And it’s hard with an established band to change how things are. I realize that if I had my own band I wouldn’t have the chance to be on a major label.”
Janovitz sees it as a healthy balance. “To be perfectly honest, I thought in this year that it might become more polarized,” he says. “I knew Chris was writing more stuff, and it would get tough. But it worked very naturally.”
The payoff to all this diplomacy lies in the substance underneath the hook-laden structure. Buffalo Tom offer nothing new to the rock form whatsoever. Not a thing. They just happen to be better at the same old thing than just about everyone else. The lyrics are smart, the songs are catchy, and then they end. The lyrical depth, meanwhile, stems in part from Janovitz’s fascination with poetry. Yes, poetry. But before a collective ugghh rises from the readership, just hear him out.
“It’s a very dubious thing, hearing that a rock songwriter writes poetry,” says Janovitz, who studied with James Tate, last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. “I read a lot of poetry as well. We all do. But what I write for songs is much different than personal poetry. When people hear rock and poetry, they start thinking Jim Morrison. Oh, one of our greatest American poets, Jim Morrison. Yeah.”
Not that everyone is a fan of the Buffalo Tom canon. “We got slagged in the British press,” says Maginnis. “They said, ‘Buffalo Tom like short words that rhyme.’ “
YOU PROBABLY DON’T REMEMBER PLATE OF MUTTON. It was the early ’80s, and Boston was experiencing a post-punk boom. Mission of Burma. The Neats. Dogmatics. The Lyres.
On the banks of the river Charles, Plate of Mutton were also getting gigs, and this fact was not lost on local suburban youths Bill Janovitz and Chris Colbourn. The significance wouldn’t be felt for a few years, but it would eventually have its impact on Buffalo Tom. You see, the bass player for Plate of Mutton was high-school student Tom Maginnis. By the time all three Buffalo Tom members met and became friends at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Maginnis had already helped inspire his future band mates. “Plate of Mutton were playing original songs,” says Janovitz. “That was really encouraging.”
So, flush with optimism – and mostly badgered by a close group of friends that all three shared — the trio was born. They named themselves Buffalo Tom — like Buffalo Springfield only with Maginnis’ first name, because as the quietest, most low-key of their friends (have you noticed a decided lack of Maginnis quotes thus far?), they knew it would embarrass their drummer. It does to this day. Then, since all three played guitar, they began figuring out just how it was all going to fit together.
“A big part of developing the group was just learning to play,” says Colbourn. “We still feel like we’re learning to play our instruments. For a very un-punk-rock band, it’s a very punk-rock element.”
For a very un-punk-rock band, Buffalo Tom are not afraid to turn their live shows up to ear-bleed levels and offer brutally physical sets.
“We see these fratlike guys coming to our shows,” says Janovitz. “And I keep thinking: ‘These are the guys that I used to be afraid of. These are the guys who used to head-butt me for no reason.’ Now they’re in the front row. We call it the idiot factor.”
To create their latest offering for the idiot factor, the three friends from Boston headed West. In Los Angeles, the band worked with the Robb Bros., the three-sibling production team that once served as Del Shannon’s backing band and that has brought the world Alice Cooper’s Zipper Catches Skin, the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray and John Davidson’s Every Time I Sing a Love Song, among many others. It was there that Buffalo Tom encountered the other folks sharing studio space: Lita Ford, Gene Simmons, David Lynch (who was producing an LP for Julee Cruise) and, as if the surreal ante weren’t upped just enough, thank you, funkster/alleged kidnapper and torturer Rick James. Buffalo Tom — who cite meeting Lynch as the two-month period’s biggest thrill — were happy with the bizarre quotient.
“You have to realize that people who look very regular on the outside aren’t always that way on the inside,” says bass player and extremely regular-looking guy Chris Colbourn, when speaking of the importance of meeting Lynch. “You find the more bizarre stuff packaged in average-looking ways.”
AN OPEN LETTER TO MRS. COLBOURN, MRS. JANOWITZ and Mrs. Maginnis: Please don’t rent Blue Velvet and begin weeping uncontrollably. The kids are all right. As it turns out, ordinary doesn’t have to have a heart of darkness any more than it has to be boring.
“All the bands that I liked were just regular guys, like the Replacements or Hüsker Dü,” says Janovitz. “The real eye-opening band for me was Talking Heads. Seeing them, regular people wearing collared shirts, playing music, I realized it just didn’t matter.”
For Janovitz — who in the high-school cafeteria of life always sat with “the guys who didn’t get girls but weren’t into sports: misfits with a great sense of humor” — music has become his identity. It’s a realization that is making Buffalo Tom consider a few forays into professionalism.
“We think we’re going to hire a real crew when we tour this year,” says Janovitz. “We’ve never been comfortable enough getting real crew members. We always bring our friends out. And you can’t really get your friends to lift all your stuff. So half the time we’re carrying our amps, and our crew’s sitting backstage, drinking beer.”
Tack on to that the fact that now, four albums down their chosen career path, Buffalo Tom just bought their first PA and rented their very own rehearsal space. No more parents’ basements for these guys. “Yeah,” says Colbourn. “It’s almost like we’re a real band.”
It must be noted, however, that this moment of musical clarity should in no way be construed as one of life’s great epiphanies. It is true that both Janovitz and Maginnis are married men and that all three band members live in the Boston suburbs. But none feels particularly close to living, let alone uncovering, the American dream.
“A lot of people in our generation are trying to make a political statement out of the fact that they won’t work the same jobs as the people in the generation before them,” says Janovitz, who counts the band’s own political statements as participating in the Sweet Relief benefit album for Victoria Williams and contributing to the upcoming AIDS-benefit album No Alternative. “But the real key is it’s not an option in the first place. When I got out of school, I was either going to have a day job and be in a band or just have a day job. I couldn’t find a really good job. ‘You have a college degree? Get in line.’ “
Which makes you want to surround yourself with your best friends. Even if they are a bunch of slackers. “We got into a band together because the three of us had the same friends and the same sensibility,” says Colbourn. “And it was nice for us to see people like the Robb Bros. They’re older guys, but they’re very kid-like at heart. It’s Kind of a prolonged adolescence. I think we could relate to that.”
Janovitz interrupts. “These guys were our fathers’ age, and they’re still immature, and at this point, they’re rich,” he says. “I felt like ‘Hey, there’s hope for us.’ “