By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
Bill Janovitz vividly remembers the night last summer when his band's manager called with big news.
"He said, 'I've got good news and bad news. The good news is you got a five-page spread in Rolling Stone. The bad news is you guys have to do this fashion type of thing.' Our first reaction was to laugh. We're a totally antifashion, no-image band. We literally buy our clothes at the Salvation Army. To ask Buffalo Tom to do a fashion shoot is almost surreal."
At the band's suggestion, the photos were shot in a bar in its hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The resulting spread is predictable--frothy pints, pensive looks and the kind of self-conscious poses normal people affect when modeling. The whole ironic package was topped off by long photo captions like "Bill wears a blue plaid cotton flannel shirt, $62, by International News."
Grooming for a power-pop trio named after a shaggy, odoriferous beast? Manicures and mousse for a noisy guitar band whose four uncommonly inspired albums have made it one of 1993's most likely to succeed?
No doubt about it. Record labels, managers, even fans are all trying to gloss up Buffalo Tom's thrift-store image these days. Bring them the success they deserve. Turn them into New England's answer to Pearl Jam. The next Nirvana. So far, though, the band ain't buying.
According to Janovitz, the band members agreed to this bit of shameless schmooze for several reasons, beginning with the power of the press. They were afraid that if they turned this down, Rolling Stone, which had always ignored them, would never ask again. In terms of exposure, the Buffs' decision turned out to be a winner. Accompanied by a 3,000-word article on the band and its new album, Big Red Letter Day, their fashion faux pas ended up inside R.S.'s controversial September 16 issue, the one with the cover shot of Janet Jackson wrapped in her boyfriend's hands.
Other than that, Janovitz says, "I think I've learned from watching other artists, especially Evan Dando [of the Lemonheads], that you've got to have a sense of humor about this business. If you start paying too much attention to where you draw the line, start trying to cut out the ridiculousness in rock n' roll, it's fruitless because the whole thing is ridiculous."
If things work out like the band and its record label hope, Buffalo Tom may be laughing, nervously, before this year is out. Big Red Letter Day is the kind of album most bands set out to make--one studded with enough accessible, radio-friendly singles to attract new fans and enough subtle material to keep loyalists satisfied.
Musically, Janovitz, drummer Tom Maginnis and bassist Chris Colbourn have come of age. With both Janovitz and Colbourn on vocals, the band's sound is a loose cross between Crazy Horse and Black Sabbath.
Although their first two albums, Buffalo Tom (1988) and Birdbrain (1991), were scattered stylistically, last year's Let Me Come Over showed that the band's songwriting and playing had come together to form a powerful new voice in the alternative wastelands. On the new album, the trio has honed its sometimes jagged, sometimes sweet combination of guitar noise and soaring, noisy drama into a brand of power pop that's nothing short of a knockout. In the process, they've also demolished what was left of early, unflattering comparisons to Dinosaur Jr. (they were once referred to as Dinosaur Jr. Jr.) and Hsker D.
As a power trio in a genre dominated by quartets and larger groups, the Buffs have always had to work harder to fill out their sound. Overdubs make that easy in the studio. But the richer the studio albums, the more difficult it is trying to re-create that sound onstage.
"We look at our shows as a challenge to do something differently. Good bands don't reproduce their albums note-for-note onstage, anyway," Janovitz says. "When we play live, it's fun to try and fill up all the holes that are left when there's only three of us--and no overdubs."
One way the band used to fill out its sound live was to get loud. The term "wall of guitar" was the adjective most frequently used to describe the band's sound. Hence the comparisons to Dinosaur Jr.--a band whose sound never dips below ear-splitting. Some of the band's ideas about deafening decibels obviously came from Dinosaur Jr. head man J. Mascis, who served as producer on the Buffs' first two albums. But with the release of Big Red Letter Day, the volume knob is again below 11. Bucking the trend to grunge out, the new album has a more acoustic feel.
"We've never made records with commercial or marketplace considerations in mind. Otherwise, we probably wouldn't be turning the guitars down this year, we'd be turning them back up," he says.
"We were really afraid of the studio our first couple of records. We just wanted to capture the very live, raw, power-trio sound which is what we were and still are in a lot ways. "But now instead of having one or two guitars blazing and basically covering up a lot of the song, I've gone back and listened to the classic records in my life, the Beatles, the Stones, even Big Star. There's all kinds of subtle textures going on in those records that somehow adds to their being timeless classics. That's what interests us now."
Another thing that sets this band apart from the sea of competition is its skill with words. "The words are everything, maaann!" Janovitz says in his best stoner dude accent. He writes most of the band's music and lyrics. "No, but I constantly try and solve the old riddle--whether lyrics or the melody is more important to music. I will say that when something comes on the radio, I listen to the music first. But then if the lyrics are poorly written, it will ruin the song for me."