One of the many acts that made the Boston music scene from the late-’80s to mid-’90s the stuff of legend, the enduring Buffalo Tom has always been part of the conversation when it comes to New England rock lore. The trio will be performing a two-night stand at the Sinclair in Cambridge this Friday and Saturday — the latter show finding the band performing 1992 album Let Me Come Over in its entirety — so we caught up with frontman Bill Janovitz on a variety of topics, like the new talent coming out Western Massachusetts, the constant romanticizing of the ’80s and ’90s, royalties and music video budgets, Janovitz’s love for Neil Young, and other good stuff.
Rob Duguay: You guys started out in Western Mass in the ’80s before staking a claim to Boston. Lately bands from that area, like Speedy Ortiz, have been following a similar path. What do you think about all of this new talent achieving success in the Boston music scene?
Bill Janovitz: I think it’s great, anything that renews itself with kids picking up guitars, writing songs and getting some acclaim for it. I think especially with people like me when we leave one age bracket into another one, you’re just never sure if it’s ever going to renew itself or music has just moved beyond it. I got a daughter who’s 16 and she’s going out to see bands now. When it comes to what’s happening in Western Mass I don’t really have much to say because we weren’t really from there and we were just going to school there. It’s funny to look back and see us, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, which was an offshoot of Dinosaur Jr., and technically the Pixies were coming from there and it made people think that there was actually more than what was going on. It was actually kind of dead back then.
That’s pretty weird, from reading books like Our Band Could Be Your Life that romanticize yourselves and the bands you just mentioned coming from UMass it made the school seem like a creative hub. You would say that it wasn’t really that exciting when it was all happening?
Overall, Our Band Could Be Your Life could have not have made things more exciting for a band like us. I loved that book because it perfectly describes what we aspired to and a lot of that book talked about the touring circuit that was furrowed out by those bands. Dinosaur Jr. was an almost immediate predecessor of us, almost more contemporary. With Mission of Burma, Black Flag, the whole SST crew, the Replacements and Husker Du, our house out near UMass in Northampton was basically a crash pad for a lot of those bands coming through. What was going on at UMass was that it was the ’80s with 25,000 kids and maybe 20 to 200 people, to be generous, would be at a Husker Du show. We’d go see Dinosaur Jr. go play to 40 people. I saw the Pixies play at the basement of Sheehan’s, which was a great bar in downtown Northampton, and there were maybe 50 people there.
It was mostly people that were interested, like everybody at any point in time, in hookin’ up and dance music and having a good time. It was really tough to get gigs around there but that scene was so small and it was perfectly described in songs like the Replacements’ “Left Of The Dial”. We definitely romanticized it and we wanted to get on that circuit as soon as possible. As soon as we got scooped up in it, it was exhilarating. Certainly looking back, I’m as guilty as anybody else for nostaligizing the past but when we got to do things like play the Channel with the Lemonheads and Galaxie 500 it was an exciting time for sure. Being able to play anywhere was exciting but getting on bills like that were great.
Buffalo Tom came up with its name by naming yourselves after Buffalo Springfield and drummer Tom Maginnis. How much has the music of Stephen Stills & Neil Young influenced you as a songwriter?
Personally I can say quite a bit, not much of Stills, even though I’ve always been a casual fan of him and Buffalo Springfield to the extent that I went back and found out about the band as a kid after being really into Neil Young and finding out a bunch of his songs were Buffalo Springfield songs from obviously hearing them on the radio, and things like that. I might be the only guy in Buffalo Tom that likes Crosby, Stills & Nash to any extent but Neil Young is a giant influence on me as a songwriter and a guitar player. When I saw J Mascis do what he was doing with garaging up the stuff that I grew up with and making it into punk rock and new, exciting and different but still with one foot firmly placed in the past and obviously taking a lot of influence from Neil, it made so much sense to me.
That’s why we were getting this comparisons to Dinosaur Jr. while having J as a producer and being on SST Records and coming from the same town and all of that stemming from the obvious. To me, the real overlap between J and me particularly had to do with the guitar influences. He’s a way more accomplished soloist than I could ever hope to be, everything else pales in comparison to the Neil influence that we both share.
Especially with the loudness and electricity coming from both you and J’s styles you can notice a distinct channeling of Neil Young. One of the many issues in the music industry that has been talked about, not as much to the forefront as it should be in my opinion, is musicians getting fair royalties nowadays. Buffalo Tom got a little bit of fame for being on the soundtrack for the ’90s TV show My So-Called Life along with a few other things. Do you think royalties aren’t worth as much today as they were 20 years ago?
I should start off by saying that I’ve never been a good music business guy. I have a good head for business in general but I’m not the best person to give the most accurate comparison of royalties and how musicians monetize and make a living then versus now. I do read a lot about it and I don’t know what the hell is going on now aside from people are getting paid even less. Most musicians, even the biggest ones, weren’t necessarily getting royalty payments on their records. Unless they were taking really low advances, very few people would actually start getting record royalties. What they were getting was mechanical royalties to some extent and artist royalties were all recouped.
The way the economy worked for indie bands back then before we transitioned to major label land in the ’90s was that we would get an advance to record. You could use all of it to record, which is what we usually did, we didn’t take huge advances to live on. We would mostly spend the money we got on records and then there were video budgets sometimes that dwarfed the recording budgets. We could spend more on one video than we did on a whole record back then. You hoped that it would help sell more records or that it was make you bigger and more well-known out on the road and you’d make money on the road. You would sometimes get a publishing deal if it made sense and you could get your music on TV for shows like My So-Called Life which would be a mechanical royalty. I think that the mythology that records aren’t selling anymore so people aren’t getting record royalties like they used to didn’t really work like that. If you were super successful, for example Janet Jackson, you would negotiate a deal where you’d get a lump sum payment for each record that could equal to millions and millions of dollars. They never would get royalty payments, you’d just get big checks.
With the accessibility the internet has where you can pretty much make an album and create a music video in your own basement and get your music out there in a week, do you think video budgets are still as important as it was back in the ’80s and ’90s where being on MTV was the way to get heard?
It’s not even in the same stratosphere. Starting out as a band now, you have so much at your disposal. Everything in the creative side is cheap, you can do so much at home now when it comes to recording and otherwise. You can reach people very easily, it’s just a matter of how do you get to the numbers that you want to reach? Who’s the gatekeeper? You can look at sites like Vanyaland and Pitchfork and anywhere else that’s a centralized place where people come and check out music. Back then, it was about handing physical things to people. You went from making cassettes and trying to get them stocked at the local record store then to 7-inch singles and trying to get a DJ at a good college radio station to play your songs. There’s a guy named Jim Neill who currently works for The Iron Horse in Northampton, but before that he was a DJ at UMass’ radio station and he turned so much of us on to good music. So when guys like him and Jon Bernhardt, who’s still at WMBR after 30 years, played your record to people that’s how they discovered it.
We would get out to the Midwest on our first tour and the way the kids found out about us back then maybe we got a couple spins on MTV’s Cutting Edge on Sunday nights. Videos were very important in that respect when it came to getting known nationally, unless you got a national hit it was very difficult to get traction. It went even further when bands like Nirvana started to break on MTV when they were still playing mostly videos. To get a video on Buzz Bin in ’92 or ’93 was humongous, you would go from selling no records to KROQ in L.A. playing you on the air and therefore all program directors across the country would add your record to the rotation and then you’re talking about bigger money, bigger record sales, bigger advances, bigger merch sales and bigger guarantees when you would go on tour.
That was kind of how it worked then, but we ended up spending ridiculous amounts on videos. I remember spending six figures on at least two videos, which was astounding back then. It’s all a gamble, and when MTV plays it a few times or not at all and when it goes away you’re just like “shit, what a waste of money”.
That’s crazy, spending six figures on a video to get it spun twice on MTV and before you know it you’re wondering what the hell happened.
That’s how crazy the music industry had gotten, and then MTV decided not to play music videos anymore and became something else.
It became a reality TV wasteland, which is a whole other weird thing in itself.
The popular term for music during that time was “alternative rock”. Buffalo Tom got grouped into that genre and nowadays it’s such a broad term where you have bands sounding like they’re from London in 1984 rather than a band from Seattle or Boston in 1989 and they still call it “alternative rock.” Same thing with the term “indie” and everything else along those lines. Do you think the term “alternative rock” is still relevant in 2015 as it was 25 years ago?
We thought it was ridiculous then, honestly. When we first heard the term and MTV had something called Alternative Nation, we were asking “It’s the alternative to what?” Indie was a thing that we heard in England first, we didn’t know how to describe ourselves back then. In ’88 and ’89 it was “college radio rock” and this is why labels are so difficult with music, alternative didn’t mean anything to us. Especially when it became a term that described bands like Third Eye Blind and The Goo Goo Dolls. To be fair, the Goo Goo Dolls, who are great guys, really did come up from this punk rock scene. There was all this other middle of the road stuff called alternative and it was just a marketing term because it became something for radio guys to plug into their specific format.
I recognize it as a journalist and as a fan of music in general. As a journalist, I hate it when I have to put in genres in an article just so I can show the casual reader what I’m talking about when I wish there was some other way to do it rather than dumbing it down.
At least now you guys can show a sample of the music and people can listen to it for themselves. Back then, we were buying records on fate. You’d go and say “We’re going to buy everything on Sub-Pop” and the same could go for other labels like SST. For a long time SST could almost do no wrong and then they very difficult to count on. We would also buy magazines like Alternative Press or Spin for a while or more importantly the British weeklies like NME or Melody Maker.
When we were kids those were sort of like Bibles, you followed certain journalists and we became big in England just based on reviewing in these British music publications. There were radio stations over there that would play our stuff from time to time, John Peel was an early supporter of ours. It almost completely came down to these weekly papers though. I understood when people said “Well if you like Dinosaur Jr., if you like Husker Du, if you like the Replacements then you’d probably like Buffalo Tom” and that’s how we sort of got to where we are with recommendations. I have a friend who started this record store called Hear Music that Starbucks bought and he would basically put together mix CDs of personally curated music.
Pretty much like making a mixtape for everybody.
Yeah, Hear Music was pretty much based on that. You could go into a listening booth and they would have a release that you knew along with other releases that they thought you’d might like. It’s a great way to discover new music but now you can read an article and click play on a video or on a Soundcloud link so the listener doesn’t really have to depend on genres anymore. People can click immediately and find out.
I think the Internet is a double-edged sword because you have the interactive accessibility you just described but you also have these torrenting sites where you can download an album for free and the artist is left without any money from it and that’s when it becomes a whole new debate.
That’s the problem, we have these two different things with turning on the music itself and getting paid. I hear ya, and that’s absolutely the case but there was a time in my early 30s where I could feel myself losing the will to use my energy when it came to discovering new music and then Napster came along and soon after that you had the iPod. The convenience and being able to go into someone’s music library on Napster was a revelation, all of a sudden it made music discovery exciting and simple. It’s been a complete fumble for more than 17 years when it comes to how to make the economics work for artists.
In the grand scheme of things, artists have always been the last ones to get paid. That’s always been the case, and the album as a format is going to be just a little tiny blip in the timeline of music. Before recorded music in the ’20s, playing live was the way to make money playing music and that’s kind of what we’ve come back to. It was the baby boomer generation of artists who reaped the benefits of the album as a means to be getting paid because they could sell lots of songs and lots of records all at once when they moved away from the single format. From the rise of the album in ’65 to it’s conclusion to… let’s say 2000, to be generous, is not that long of a time.
In wrapping up, after this two-night stay at The Sinclair this weekend, what’s next for Buffalo Tom? Can we expect a new album in the works?
I don’t think anyone should expect a new album anytime soon, we’re trying to figure out new ways to get our music out there with our very out-of-sync schedules. I wish we could play a few more shows without hitting the road too much, none of us are really dying to do a tour. Last year we went away for about a week and did a couple of shows in the Netherlands and Belgium.
That’s our pace, to go do a few shows and call it a tour. When it comes to a new album, I’m not sure if albums are even necessary anymore. I think what would make sense for Buffalo Tom is for us to do a few songs at a time, release them digitally, at some point have a collection in a physical format and that’s probably what we’ll end up doing.