Interview: Buffalo Tom

I remember buying the self-titled debut album from Buffalo Tom the very day it was released from that once-great record emporium, Rhythm Records in Camden Town. That record still gets healthy attention from the deck, especially ‘Sunflower Suit” which still has this middle-aged man jumping around like Vedder. Thirty-years later and I’m sat here enjoying ‘Quiet And Peace’, the band’s new album – their first in seven years – and possibly their best yet. That classic brooding guitar sound may not be so much at the forefront these days but the whole album still resonates both with its presence and dynamism. The songs, thoughtful and mature, underline the fact that here we have a band still right at the top of their game both observing and absorbing the ever-changing world around them. I speak to the band’s Bill Janovitz about making records, getting older and Simon And Garfunkel.

First time working with David Minehan. What drew you to him specifically for this album? What does he bring to the party and was the experience working with him everything you expected?
I had worked with Dave on a side project and loved him, loved working with him, and loved his studio and I knew Buffalo Tom would work well with him. He brings a winning personality, a deep knowledge of music history and technical know-how. He is a steady presence who knows exactly when to step in or lay back with an opinion or suggestion.

For me, he had beautifully managed to frame the songs whilst leaving that characteristic Buffalo Tom ‘burn’ hanging in the background a lot of the time and even a bit more understated on the rockier tracks. Do you feel the same?
Yes, indeed. Also, John Agnello with the mixes.

The album has a real sense that you guys are a band that are completely comfortable in their own skin these days. It’s as if you have really made this album without any of the pressures and constraints of the music industry playing any part? Is that the case?
Yes, we have absolutely no pressure and have to please no one but ourselves.

I remember buying your debut album on the day it was released and still play it loads. Do you still get the same buzz performing and writing these songs?
Yes, same buzz, though there was something a little extra in the novelty of it all on the debut record.

I sense with songs like ‘freckles’ and especially ‘overtime’ which I think is beautiful, there is a real sense of nostalgia – a calm reflection I guess – that exudes here? Are you still writing from the same place emotionally or has the perspective shifted somewhat over the years? Age, I guess 🙂
In a sense, it is the same emotional core from which I write, though with more and varied experience and hopefully with more craft.

I really love the female voices, your daughter, the choir et al, on this album. It works beautifully. What were the inspirations behind those?
With my daughter, Lucy, I was working on “The Only Living Boy in New York” at home, layering vocal tracks, and she was around. It occurred to me that she would sound good on those harmonies. She is a singer as well. As for “Overtime,” it started as just me and an acoustic guitar. I had not thought much about where the song was going to go until Tom suggested with take a stab at the song I had just sent them in demo form, describing it as “the Stonesy one,” which I had not thought of. Sure enough, when we started playing it, it started to sound like one of the gospel-informed ballads on ‘Exile on Main Street.’ So we embraced that. I wanted to get some real gospel singes — not a choir, more of a quartet. It proved to be a very difficult task in Boston. But then I remembered my friends had a gospel brunch side project at a pub. I had not seen them perform it yet but I knew they were all great singers. So we had the (the Revelations) sing on the track and it sounds awesome. One of them, Erica Mantone, was pegged by Chris to also sing the high part on “Cat V Mouse.” Chris also has a friend, Sarah Jessop, who sings on “High the Hemlock Grows.”

Given your sound over the years – for me a mix of heartland rock, sonic playfulness and a sort of underplayed anthemic exuberance (if there is such a thing!) – there is much to love for all your fan base in this album. It has a kind of retrospective quality to it. Was that the intention?
We don’t plan or discuss much about the sorts of things you enumerate regarding the approach. But we do often discuss what each song needs in terms of arrangement and sounds.

Tell me a bit about the Simon and Garfunkel cover? What drew you go that?
There is a history of this song in Buffalo Tom. We all grew up with Simon & Garfunkel, of course. But back around 1996, after our touring on ‘Sleepy Eyed’, we were getting ready for the next phase of the band. Part of that was thinking about signing a new record deal. But mostly it meant trying to stretch ourselves musically. We thought of maybe fleshing out the line-up with a multi-instrumentalist, someone to play keyboards and second guitar here and there. Tom Johnston, our manager at the time, suggested asking Tom Gorman of Belly to jam with us to see if that went anywhere. I think Belly had just broken up. We were friends already and we are all very close with Tanya Donelly.

Tom Gorman was a good sport about giving it a go. So we rented a house on Chappaquiddick, the island off the island of Martha’s Vineyard, in the off-season, for about a week and brought a bunch of recording gear, amps, guitars, drums, etc. We did dozens of covers and demos for new songs. Some of the covers have appeared on compilations or B-sides over the years, notably the Spinnanes’ “Hawaiian Baby” and My Bloody Valentine’s “Cupid Come.” Tom Maginnis also took his only ever vocal take on Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers’ “I’m Straight,” which hopefully be dusted off some day. But that bleak late-fall New England Island atmosphere really seeped into a cover of “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which Tom Gorman had suggested and on which he sang lead vocal. I found that recording recently and sent it to Tom and the band and we all loved it. Chris suggested we take it on during the sessions for ‘Quiet and Peace.’ I don’t recall exactly how we came across the arrangement back on Chappaquiddick, but I recall that I suggested we do the first verse in half time. So that’s how we did it this time. And I always love the BT songs where Chris and I each have separate vocal parts. So we alternate verses here.

How much are you looking forward to touring this record? Do you still enjoy that aspect of the ‘game’?
We really love to perform. I like reasonable travel, that is, a manageable pace, not too many shows in a row, nice accommodations, and no more than two weeks at a time.

Some bands just espouse a sense of place and belonging. I’ve always felt you guys epitomise that whole Boston scene. Do you still feel at home there?
Sure. I have been around Boston since 1982. But I still feel like an outsider to a small extent. I will always feel like a New Yorker, which is where I grew up until age 16.

What music are you listening to at the minute? Anything I NEED to be hearing? In terms of new bands, I have been most excited about the band Big Thief. Amazing songwriting. And the new Belly record is amazing and beautiful.

And finally, what are the plans for 2018??
Some tour dates, on the Buffalo Tom site.

Quiet And Peace s out now on Scrawny Records

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