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."
Janovitz has always been verbal. At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where Janovitz, Maginnis and Colbourn all met in 1986, he studied comparative literature and had a poetry seminar with leading American poet James Tate. Having been a writer before he was a musician has made Janovitz a passionate participant in the words-versus-music argument.
"Lyrics are so much easier to get away with," he says. "They achieve their goals a lot easier than words on the page. I don't consider what I do poetry. It's in lieu of poetry for a lot of people."
The band's first semantic hurdle came when the threesome, "who never intended to get past one jam session," decided to form a band. A friend suggested a play on Buffalo Bill. When the drummer's first name somehow entered the discussion, the boys knew they were onto something. "Tom is very shy and quiet," Janovitz says. "The fact that it's a constant annoyance to him is probably why it stuck."
The word play on Big Red Letter Day begins with the album title.
"It's old-fashioned in a way," Janovitz says of Big Red Letter Day, the Howdy Doody title he and his bandmates chose for their fourth album. "A lot of kids today haven't even heard that expression, so it's a nod to Americana in an odd way. We're also finding that it has a lot of other connotations and people come up with their own meanings. For example, some people have told us that tacking 'big' on the front makes it very cynical."
The title isn't the only nostalgic term on the record. Other midcentury-vintage references include "Torch Singer" and "Soda Jerk," which is the album's first single/video.
Although immersed in finishing their own album, the Buffs found time to be part of two recent high-profile benefit projects. The first was Sweet Relief, Sony's all-star fund raiser for MS victim and songwriter Victoria Williams. The other is the upcoming alternative-band version of the Red, Hot and Blue AIDS benefit called No Alternative.
"We were on tour with Giant Sand, whose drummer, John Covertino, had dated Victoria Williams for a while, when the news came through that she had been diagnosed with MS," Janovitz says. "For a musician to lose the ability to form chords with your hands is a scary thought. Compared to people who donate immense time and money, it's such a minor thing to donate a song."
As for the future, Janovitz says the band is taking it one step at a time. He says that if the new album sells twice as many as the last one did (Let Me Come Over sold 100,000), the Buffs will be happy. It's a good bet that record-company expectations are a tad higher.
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The one sure thing is that the Buffs are adamant about not getting caught up in the rush to anoint them the new lords of guitar band horde. They're image-conscious in the sense that they want to keep theirs low-fi. Despite their foray into high fashion, they refuse to be packaged for mass consumption.
"I've done whole interviews lately where all we talked about was how well other bands are doing, where do we think we should be and aren't we bitter. When we started, Hsker D had just signed on a major label. And I'll never forget when R.E.M. cracked the Top 40. Coming from that mindset, we feel like we've done pretty well.
"I find it really distressing when I read about bands that have been around for a couple of records saying things like, 'If we don't sell this many records, we're going to call it quits, pack it in.'
"When we formed this band, it was to get involved in music, not to become rock stars. But now there's a lot of talk again about 'image.' We don't want to be marketable, so we don't have a marketable image. We just want to be ourselves.