A Conversation with Bill Janovitz
Mike Ragogna: Bill, you've got a new album, Skins.
Bill Janovitz: Well, sometimes, we have a title to begin with lifted from a lyric, sometimes we have an image that begets the title, and in a perfect world, they work together in conjunction. So, we had this image of Tom playing drums, and we were coming up with all sorts of silly titles off of that--Tom On The Drums, Buffalo Tom Tom-Tom--then, we said, "How about, On The Skins?" Then, that got boiled down to Skins, which actually resonates with a lyric on the record as well. We like the open-endedness of it.
MR: What was the recording process like for the album?
BJ: Well, back in the old days, we would do that old-fashioned way of recording, which is that a band goes into a studio for a month or so--in the old days, we were usually limited to a couple of weeks--it was really just do it as you can, until you ran out of money. Back then, it cost quite a bit of money even to record on our level, which was a pretty local, smaller studio type of level. We built it all the way to the apotheosis of going out to L.A., which, at some point, if you're long enough in a band, you'll do. That was a great experience with Robb Brothers, but that was probably an eight-week commitment out in L.A., and I don't even want to know how many dollars a day we spent at the studio, but it was a big budget. You'd also get budgets for shooting a video, where one video would trump the whole recording budget. So, for a band at our level, which was very modest, it was quite an outlay of cash, which is why we were on major labels for the most part--you want to get the best sound possible, and you want to get the best promotion and distribution possible.
Now, the whole digital revolution has turned almost all of that stuff on its head, which is good for us because we're at a point where we can't really make those huge commitments, and I don't think anybody would want to make those huge commitments to us either after being around for so long with a modest amount of success. So, it's great to be able to pop into a studio here in Boston whenever we're able to and record some drums and some basic tracks, take them home where we can do a lot with our home studios and Pro Tools--stuff like that--then we can kind of get back out and finish them off in a studio. We definitely have someone professional mix them, which is the essential component at this point. The label thing for us is great too because we're basically our own label, and physical distribution doesn't matter as much as it did back then when it was completely physical distribution. Now, it's digital stuff, and brick and mortar, sadly, for many people, is an afterthought. To be able to kind of reach the fans directly is a plus, I think.
MR: Speaking of brick and mortar, one of my favorite places to visit in Austin at SXSW this year was Waterloo Records. I was like, "Oooh, a real record store. I remember that."
BJ: (laughs) We were just over in the U.K., Holland and Belgium, and I think London might have maybe one or two record stores. It used to be that you'd go to HMV and Virgin, plus all these great jazz and specialty shops, but it's boiled down to one now. In Boston, we're lucky to have this little regional powerhouse called Newbury Comics, but I don't think they make much money on record sales--it's all posters, memorabilia, and other stuff.
MR: I remember the day they did make money on CDs, like when I lived in Cambridge and my second home was Newbury Comics.
BJ: Yeah, thank God it's still there. You need these sort of social gathering spots still. You lived in Cambridge, so you remember the old Skippy White's where you'd go in and the proprietor would have a point of view and it was a very selective and engaging experience.
MR: Oh yeah, and there were so many other great small record stores.
BJ: For me, I'm forty-four. But to be able to sit there at night and have a glass of wine while I peruse websites finding new music and old--to me, that's almost as great, if not greater, than the old record stores because I don't have a whole Saturday to devote to record and book shopping like I used to in Cambridge.
MR: I'm with you.
BJ: Now, we're talking fifteen years of this or more. You want to find out about a guy that played on a session, then you click on his name and see all the other sessions he's played. That leads you down this wormhole, finding other music. I don't know, that's of equal, if not greater, value to me.
MR: Yeah. So, Bill, the first song on Skins, "Arise, Watch," was given away as a free digital download.
BJ: Yeah, it was sort of the leadoff promo track before the record came out--you know, one of those things where your fans put in their email address, and you know where they are and when you're going through their town. Again, it kind of speaks to the whole digital nature of this "give and take" with fans, and the cottage industry of it all with being able to reach them directly.
MR: For the three or four people who still don't know, where did "Buffalo Tom" come from?
BJ: It was named after Tom, our drummer. He's a quiet guy, and he was extremely taciturn back then, so we thought Buffalo Bill--it was probably sitting around and drinking too much, and one thing led to another until we said, "How about 'Buffalo Tom,'" which is sort of the lesser known little brother of Buffalo Bill.
MR: And in a million words or less, what's the Buffalo Tom story?
BJ: Yeah, I'm a long-winded guy (laughs). We started out at Umass Amherst around '86, and at that time, Dinosaur Jr. was coming out of that area, The Pixies were from the University of Massachusetts--in fact, they had a song called "UMass" but they really formed out in Boston. Similarly, we really got going once we got out of school and into Boston--I'm talking '88-'89. We ended up working a little bit on our own at Boston's famed Fort Apache Studios, and about halfway through the recording of our first record, we were lucky enough to have our friend J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. come in and help oversee the production of it. It was a very freeing time because studios were really expensive and intimidating places, but Fort Apache was like this big clubhouse warmed by musicians who were also put off by the lab coat mentality of studios, and J added another layer or buffer to that world.
Basically, we just made it sound grungy, for lack of a better word, but that's how everything sounded back then. So, in a way, we were on...I wouldn't say the leading edge because a lot of these bands were from SST, which was a very important label out on the West Coast--there's a great book about this era called Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which really captures the indie rock scene and college post punk scene that we aspired to. So, with that first record, we ended up on SST records, which, you know, is as good as putting up a gold record on my wall would ever feel. Being a part of that was such an honor. We started touring very soon; in fact, I think we started touring Europe before we started touring the United States in any earnest way. We were headlining in Belgium before we even made it out to the West Coast of the U.S. So, we got a real good scene going over there, and then, we started doing okay in the States as well, but it took a little while. It took about two or three records to really get some traction in the States. So, Let Me Come Over came out, which was our third LP, and by this time, we were signed to Beggars Banquet out of the U.K.
MR: Weren't you distributed by BMG back in the States?
BJ: Yeah, and "Taillights Fade" was sort of one of our big breakthrough songs--it's still kind of our signature song to a lot of people. That song got a lot of radio play around New York and Boston on mainstream stations, and out in California and Chicago. Lo and behold, it really took off in Europe again, so, we were always sort of leading over there. Then, as I was saying, on our fourth album, Big Red Letter Day, we went out to LA. We did a few more records after that that followed kind of the same trajectory, but Big Red Letter Day was probably our biggest commercial breakthrough. And from that, we ended up having "Sodajerk," "I'm Allowed," and "Tree House," which were some pretty big songs for us with some videos on MTV. We also had the song "Late At Night" be featured, with us playing actually, as part of the storyline on that old TV show, My So-Called Life, which was a pretty big breakthrough for us as well.
MR: And that's where a lot of folks got back into Buffalo Tom.
BJ: Yeah, we went from playing to all guys--dudes in white baseball caps was sort of the look back then--to, well, all of a sudden, there were younger females in our audiences. We were like, "We should have done this a long time ago." To this day, I'll say to a woman of a certain age, if she's asking me what band I play in, I'll say, "Did you ever see that show called My So-Called Life? Do you remember when Jordan kissed Claire Danes?" They'll say, "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah." That's like an instant calling card, you know?
MR: (laughs) Nice. So, speaking of TV appearances, you were the last band on The Jon Stewart Show.
BJ: Yeah, stuff just kept happening. When I said that SST was kind of like the gold standard for us, everything else was just gravy. We just kept moving the goal post a little further down the field. Stuff like being on The Jon Stewart Show, that was well before Jon Stewart became the most trusted man in America. He was just this guy on MTV, and he had his own syndicated show, and we were on both. Recently, Jon Stewart--the only reason I call attention to this is because it makes me feel so great--said on The Daily Show, "My top three artists are Bruce Springsteen, Buffalo Tom, and Tom Waits." Those are the sort of moments that mean so much. It's not like selling more records or anything. It's a guy that I'm a huge fan of, and watch pretty much daily, and to have him say something like that was great. I respect him so much. We just kept exploding in all these different ways--I shouldn't say exploding because we never really hit in a big, big way like Nirvana or something else. I guess we never broke into the mainstream in a big way.
MR: Which maybe is partly why you've kept your loyal audience over all these years.
BJ: When we first started in '86-'87, it was all about just sleeping on couches across the States and across Europe, and really low-budget tours. It's sort of where we are now again, a little bit. We're not sleeping on couches, but we've sort of brought it all down to a smaller economy of scale.
MR: You're also being very contemporary, however, because you're out there being an indie act with all the other indie acts that are doing exactly the same thing.
BJ: Yeah, I think it was important for us to have the SST blessing. Sub Pop, Homestead--those record labels meant a lot, and there are very few of those labels left still. In fact, Matador is one of them. Anti-Records and Merge Records are very important labels. Those are the kinds of labels that I will pretty much buy anything that is on them. Starting out now, how do you break through all this stuff? Anybody can make their own music, and get out on the Internet and promote it.
MR: That's a good question, how do you "break through" now?
BJ: Well, I don't know. We've already amassed this sort of core audience through twenty-five years of being around and touring. I think touring is the main way to do it. I can't imagine spending six to twelve weeks on the road anymore, but if I was twenty years old again, I couldn't imagine a better life. The reality of it is a lot different, though, especially once you start leaving people at home. Back then, it wasn't even on our radar. The stuff that was on the radio then was Bon Jovi, hair metal, and the fact that R.E.M. was starting to break through a little bit--that was huge. I mean, R.E.M. was just this little club band, but we never expected them to have a top forty hit, let alone number one singles and records.
MR: Well, the whole Athens scene was terrific and surprising how it contributed to popular music. Forgetting American Idol and its cousins, it seems that it's college towns and their stations that still set the bar for taste.
BJ: Well, the story of my generation, and probably your generation as well, was exactly that. It started out as this really indie college radio scene. So, you'd play the most influential college radio stations, and we were lucky to come from Boston where you could turn something on at any time of the day, and to this day, you hear some really interesting stuff on college radio. Then, we'd start getting out to places where all they had was fading in and out--it's the story of "Left Of The Dial" by The Replacements. The stations started to fade, and then you're at the mercy of whatever the guy would play once a week on 120 Minutes on MTV. It was really hard to find this stuff, so it was a circuit of places to play, and it was a very regional thing, though now, it's not as regional because everything gets ironed out a little bit by the web. The story is that all these people who were these college DJs, newspaper writers, and fanzine writers eventually started working at record labels and MTV, and some of them managed these little bands like Nirvana that, all of a sudden, became huge bands like Nirvana. The guy that has been booking us since '88 from SST records in-house promotions is booking like Nickelback and all these huge bands now. For a really nice moment there in the '90s, the lunatics were in charge of running the asylum and it was great. Then, very quickly it seemed, the accountants took over and people started hedging their bets, and for every Nirvana, they signed eighteen Silverchair's or something. I don't mean to disparage them in particular, but I have no memory of the music, and that's sort of the point.
MR: It was sort of like the showbizzy '80s mercifully had fallen victim to indie radio. Kurt Cobain's death, I think, played into that too.
BJ: It's funny to think about this now, but Nirvana paralleled our career until they broke through. We were very much on the same level and same scene. So, it's funny to think of that now because Pearl Jam is such a bastion of integrity and great music, and they've been around so long. But on that first record they were seen as coattail riders--they were seen as the lowest common denominator version of the Seattle grunge scene. I mean, they signed right to a major label, so back then, it was like, "Oh my God. You guys didn't pay your dues." Meanwhile, they'd all been in a million bands in Seattle, paying their dues all the way, and God bless them, you know? Just think of all of the stuff that came after. We were opening up for some horrendous mainstream acts at some points in the '90s--I'd rather not mention their names--and it was like, "Is this really the lowest common denominator version or everything? Why are these the guys that get anointed?" I suppose that's always the case, and I don't mean to sound bitter or anything because, like I said, we were just giggly and giddy through the whole thing, just to be able to extend our careers as long as we did. All we're doing right now, in the last fifteen minutes or so, is talking about the career aspect of it. We were just like, "Really? Someone's going to give us more money to make a record?" It was all about writing more songs and writing better songs.
MR: Let's get back to Skins. I want to ask you about "Don't Forget Me," the ballad that includes Tanya Donelly.
BJ: Yeah, it actually dovetails nicely with the conversation we were having before. Tanya was originally in this band, Throwing Muses out of Newport, Rhode Island. They were sort of right before us with a record or two over in the U.K. In fact, The Pixies opened up for them--they had done very well in Europe. We knew them slightly in Boston at that time, but for the most part, we met them on the road. The first time I remember meeting Tanya, Evan Dando introduced us in Düsseldorf, Germany, at this big festival we were all playing. Then, Tanya left Throwing Muses to form The Breeders and then quickly moved over to form her own band, Belly, with the Gorman brothers. She did very well with that, obviously, with a gold record and "Feed The Tree." That was the best of the '90s kind of stuff happening right there--our friend Tanya on the cover of the Rolling Stone. It was like, "Yes! These are our people winning now." It was great to see. We became closer and closer through those years--my brother was in a band called Cold Water Flat that went on a tour with them. So, I've known Tanya for a long time--twenty years at this point--but it was only in the past twelve years or so that we've become so tight that I consider her a sister. Our daughters were born within a week of each other, we live ten minutes away from each other, and our families are really close. So, to have her finally on a record is almost too emotional to me for words.
MR: So, what is the future for Buffalo Tom?
BJ: Well, we're sort of back to where we were when we were starting out, in terms of how far down the line we look. At this point, we only do one-off deals. We're our own label now, which is basically just an imprint through The Orchard, which is a great organization of digital distribution and marketing--they're a fantastic combination of veteran record label people and young new media people. So, we really feel energized, but we don't take anything for granted. Literally, before I talked to you, I was just on some emails with the guys in the band trying to think about how far are we doing this, into the summer? Into the fall? What is everybody's availability?
Well, Chris and I have two smallish children, and Tom's are just hitting sort of the heart of high school right now. Economically, it's a hard thing to do to be in a band like this--it's an indulgence to our families to let us go because it's, at best, more of a break even proposition at this point. So, if we continue to grow the band, that would be one thing, but we've been kind of going along preaching to the converted in a lot of ways, which is why it's nice to have these opportunities to talk about the band and play some music a little bit. So, maybe there are some new fans out there, I don't know. The short version of the long way of saying it is, who knows. After this record we'll see.
MR: Stay around for a long time. By the way, favorite guitar?
BJ: Oh, I use this '68 Gibson SG. I've never found a backup guitar that is even anywhere near close to it. This is akin to those pair of jeans that you just can't throw out because they just fit so well, you love them, and they look great. That's how a guitar feels. It's just one of those things that you can't let go, and you're always trying to find a suitable replacement for it.
MR: Favorite song...ever?
BJ: Oh, my gosh. I can't boil it down to one song. The first song that comes to mind though, is "Let It Loose" from The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street because they've written some of my favorite songs, and they're probably my all time favorite band to listen to, and that song just kills me.
MR: We touched on this a little bit earlier, but what advice do you have for new artists?
BJ: Well, assuming they're playing the same sort of thing that we're playing and want to achieve what we've achieved it's just--as so many people say--so much of it is just luck. We were able to hook up with the right people and get the right people to listen to out music. I think you've really got to hone it over years of playing live. Back then, we had friends that would jump to New York or L.A. thinking that was the place to get discovered. But it's not about careerism--it's sort of like playing the music that you love, and if you do that, everything else follows. You've got to sort of believe in the music more than worry about the career. It's got to be about the art, man.
MR: Beautiful. Where are you touring?
BJ: Well, in the States. We've just done the U.K., Belgium, Holland, and Germany a little bit, but we're probably going back there, maybe in the summer. In the meantime, we're going to hit Chicago, Minneapolis, and the Midwest for now. We're going down the East Coast as far as maybe D.C. or North Carolina. Then, we'll do the West Coast run, sort of from Vancouver down to L.A., stopping in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. That might be all we're able to do this year.
MR: Okay. If you sent an email to Jon Stewart right now, what would it say?
BJ: "Jon, please have us on your show again. What, are you too big for us now?"
MR: He had Springsteen, Waits, and, yeah...what about the Tom?
BJ: I know, exactly!
MR: Okay, time for your David Lynch story.
BJ: It's funny, when we were out in L.A., it was like a surreal talk show there. We were at this studio called Cherokee Studios, which had three studios. So, at any point in time, one was like a hip hop studio, and through the entire time, Rick James was at one of the studios, and then we had Hank Shocklee, who was producing this band...Hank Shocklee did all the Public Enemy stuff. So, he would be there, and then the guys from Jane's Addiction had that band that I think was called Deconstruction. It was all kinds of crazy. The Robb brothers had all kinds of stories--they were the producers and the studio owners--going back to the '60s. Sometimes we didn't know whether to believe them or not, or how much of it was mythology. They would tell these stories about Jeff "Skunk" Baxter doing this or that, and then Ron Wood was there with their dad and--crazy stories. One day, they were mixing the song " I'm Allowed," from Big Red Letter Day, and while we were in this one mixing session, David Lynch came in with Angelo Badalamenti and listened to the song and said (doing a Lynch impression), "That's a hit boys!" And then he told us the whole story of getting started in L.A., and going to the Denny's every day. Do you know that story?
MR: No, let's hear it.
BJ: He said (Lynch impression again), " I was down to, literally, my last penny, and I reached into my pocket and there was my last greasy penny with a hair sticking on it. I thought, 'Things are getting really bad.'" But then, he got some call--I think it was around Eraserhead--then, one thing led to another. But David came in with Angelo, and then Jeff "Skunk Baxter" himself came in and listened to the track, and then at the end of the day, Gene Simmons from KISS was in there listening to our song. He told this story about Gene Pitney, which involved him standing up and singing, a cappella, the whole song "Town Without Pity" which, to us, was just insane.
MR: Sounds like the makings of great liner notes for the deluxe reissue.
BJ: Exactly, that's what we'll have to do for our twenty-fifth anniversary.
MR: Nice. I'm really glad we did this. I've been a fan for years, it's been fun to finally interview you.
BJ: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
1. Arise, Watch
2. She's Not Your Thing
4. Don't Forget Me
5. Guilty Girls
6. Miss Barren Brooks
7. Paper Knife
8. Here I Come
9. Lost Weekend
10. The Hawks & The Sparrows
11. The Big Light
12. The Kids Just Sleep
13. Out Of The Dark
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney