Interview: Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom

Dear Reader,
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom.  One of my all time favorite bands. Their 3rd album “Let Me Come Over” is a masterpiece and continues to play as part of the soundtrack to my life.  Bill and I talk about Record Collections, The early Boston scene,  the joys of owning a “law suit” era guitar, and the unifying element that was the mighty FORT APACHE studio and more ….  Thank you Bill for the great interview. 
Question: How old were you when you had your first “ah ha” musical moment?  What was the song that stopped you in your tracks & what was it about the song that effected you so     
greatly? Our musical journeys all begin somewhere. Mine started with my fathers 45 collection of 50’s artists.  Bands and artists like Elmore James, The Velvet   
                   Underground and Suicide were discovered on my journey.  What was your musical journey like and what band became your favorite and why? 
Those are some great early records to get exposed to! I actually just answered a similar question in another interview. I cannot remember a time where rock and pop music was not part of life, so trying to pinpoint one song as a eureka! moment would be impossible. I was the oldest of five, and my parents were on the Don Draper side of the Sixties dividing line, with each of their respective younger siblings on the more hippie side. So I was mostly cobbling together my listening from my parent's anemic and eclectic record "collection," really just some scratchy 45s of Elvis and the Platters, and AM radio. I started getting really into the music of the Fifties because of my parents and I got the American Graffiti soundtrack. And I had that round Panasonic Pets transistor radio, primary yellow, on a chain, which I took everywhere. And early-Seventies AM was gloriously all over the map, Charlie Rich played next to the Jackson 5; Beatles next to Helen Reddy. 
But I had two key record haul inheritances. One was my grandparents' next door neighbors, who gave me some great LPs when I was maybe 8 years old: the Stones' Out of Our Heads and Green Grass and High Tide; Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and the Greatest Hits; the Beach Boys Wild Honey; Iron Butterfly; Grand Funk Railroad; Mamas and the Papas; and the Young Rascals. The Stones and Dylan in particular really compelled me and brought me into some dark shadows where I have largely remained. The other collection was a literal rope of 45s being tossed to the corner by our own next door neighbors, British folks who were moving back to Blighty. There were probably 100 of these records, all Sixties, about half British Invasion and half US folk rock, garage, and pop -- Byrds; Beau Brummels; Paul Revere and the Raiders; Motown; etc. It was an incredible introduction and I have no idea where those records disappeared to. But I was obsessed. And the Stones and Dylan were the main two prongs. The Beatles were a given, but all this blues/folk/rock stuff intrigued me. I did not go and get into the Beatles on a deep level until later. I think I had all the Led Zeppelin records before I had four Beatles LPs.
Question: When did your love affair with the guitar begin? How old were you when you started playing and what time period are we talking about ?
I am a little odd, I gather, in this respect. I was totally engrossed with pop and rock music, as I say. But I started to take trumpet as soon as that became an option in school. And I became very good at it. But for some reason, I did not draw the direct line between listening to pop and rock and an immediate compulsion to get a guitar. But trumpet did seem to become uncool around the age of 13 and around the same time, when I was 12, my mother got me a beginner's guitar and lessons for Christmas. I took to it like a fish to water. But the odd part is usually in these stories, it is the kid begging the parents for a guitar.
Question: Do you recall how you acquired your first guitar? Do you remember what type of guitar it was and do you still have it? 
It was a typical nylon string Spanish classical beginner's guitar. Those are actually great to learn on. After a year, I was able to ask for an electric. I showed my guitar teacher the one in the Sears catalog and he said don't bother. Then the music store in which we had the lessons had a white Hohner Les Paul for sale. I pointed it out to him and he nodded and smiled his approval. "Great one to start with." Indeed it was. It was one of the "law suit" Gibson knock-offs. It has a thin, easy to play neck, with low action, solid electronics, great sound. When I got my first "real guitar" after that, a brand new 1983 Fender Strat, I sold the Hohner to a friend when I was in college in 1984 or so. I needed the cash. But on my 30th birthday, he gave it back to me as a gift. A truly great memory of a fantastic 30th birthday present. I still use that Hohner. And I still have the Strat. 
Question:  At the time, what guitar player was your main influence? Who was “your guy or girl?"
Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, and Neil Young. Probably the 18 guitarists in Skynyrd as well. 
Question:  You truly have one of the most amazing and distinctive voices in rock.  When did you realize that “hey, I can sing”.  What singers influenced your style?
I would say Mick, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon were probably the singers I listened to the most. But I also gravitated to soul and R&B singers. When i heard Ray Charles, it was like he was singing for me. Aretha as well. But I never tried to sing like anyone. Maybe that lends it some distinction? But I did not try to sing until I was a senior in high school, after playing in bands for five years, when the singer for the band I was in said he was going away for the summer. Someone had to sing! 
Question:  Buffalo Tom was formed in 1987.  Prior to forming Buffalo Tom what were you doing musically?
We started in the fall of 1986. I had been in that high school band. But I was up at college when the guys in my band were still in high school. Then they went to other colleges. So it was hard for us to get together and play, only really on school breaks. 
Question:  You were attending the University of Massachusetts when you met Chris Colbourn, and Tom Maginnis and formed Buffalo Tom. What were you studying?  How did the 
   band come together? 
In senior year of high school, I had friends a year ahead of me at UMass who I would visit there. At 16 the family had moved up to Medfield, Mass. from Huntington, NY and I had to start all over, a painful process, from a huge town with a half dozen great record stores, beaches, excellent pizza, and most tragically, a band and people I had been friends with my whole life, to a tiny (population:10k) exurban one-stoplight town in the pines 35 miles out of Boston. But I met some great kids who are still my dear friends today and a bunch of us started seeing punk and other shows in Boston and the colleges of New England -- Flipper, Del Fuegos, Gun Club, the Neats, and a band called Last Stand. In high school, two notable shows, I saw R.E.M open for the English Beat and Talking Heads on the tour that was filmed for Stop Making Sense. We would go visit friends up at UMass Amherst, and that's where I decided I wanted to go to school. I majored in Communications but minored in Comparative Lit and Sociology. While there, I met Chris Colbourn -- who had also lived in Huntington as a young child and had moved to Medfield, but was already up at UMass by the time I moved from NY -- and Tom Maginnis, who had been playing bass in a great band fronted by his cousin. They were called Plate of Mutton and inexplicably changed their name to Schuyler Hinkel. But his cousin, Phil, had this tremendous Bowie-like voice and was really charismatic in a taciturn Robert Smith-y way. He wrote his own songs. It would take a lot to poach Tom. But by my junior year, we three friends, who all hung out and went to see shows in the area together, formed Buffalo Tom as kind of a basement project in Northampton. We would play parties, open for other touring acts whenever we could. I had a backlog of songs and no band at school, so I stuck to guitar to sing, while Chris taught himself bass and Tom did the same with drums. I honesty don't know who of us really took the initiative, but it was probably Chris pulling us together. He had been playing guitar with this very popular party band and they would often have me sit in for a few covers and Tom subbed as bass player for them once or twice -- notably one time when they were opening for Dinosaur (pre- "Jr." at that point).
Question:   Was there a sense that something special and important was happening in Boston at the time? Bands like Throwing Muses, Galaxie 500, The Pixies, The Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield, Swirlies, Dinosaur Jr, Morphine, Letters to Cleo, Helium and more …  were all performing and working at the same time.  What was the Boston scene like in the late 80’s early 90’s.  Was there a sense of community?  Were there friendly rivalries?  
The answer to the two above: Yeah, when we were at school, the Boston bands I mentioned above were all happening. Additionally, around '85/'86 we started hearing this band, the Moving Targets, who all three of us loved. We were really into Husker Du and the Targets came from that vibe as well. Still one of my favorite bands. And there were all sorts of cool things coming from Boston, Volcano Suns, which rose out of Mission of Burma, a legendary Boston band. Salem 66, the Neighborhoods, and lots of others. The clubs were hopping all the time. But we were mostly out in Amherst and Northampton, so we saw those bands whenever they could play shows out where we were. And we would see them when we went back to the Boston area on school breaks. For example, we saw the Pixies in Northampton when they played to maybe 50-75 people. Same with Dinosaur. Hardly anyone out in the Pioneer Valley -- which has five colleges, one being the huge UMass -- would go out to see these sorts of bands. Even R.E.M. and Elvis Costello were only playing modestly sized theaters or ballrooms in the region at that time. 
Lemonheads, Blake Babies (with Juliana), Galaxy 500 and us all started around the same time. Lemonheads had actually been going a little longer, and Blakes came out slightly later, I think, but we all sort of came up together, literally on the same bills and tours. Bullet Lavolta was another big band. And their had been a vibrant hardcore scene that some of these bands had come from. The other bands you mentioned came out with debut records later, after we had a record or three out. But Mark Sandman and the guys in Morphine had been playing around Boston and Cambridge for many years in various combos. 
I think we were friends or friendly with ALL of those bands we have mentioned. I don't recall rivalry so much. We all felt like we were doing our own thing. Many of us recorded at Fort Apache studio, which was one unifying element. But we always felt a little outside of stuff. So it was hard to recognize it as a community per se. But once we got back from our first few tours, coming back home to it made me recognize how special it was. 
Question: Your debut self titled album BUFFALO TOM is a guitar rock tour de force. Its beautifully recorded. The guitars are crushing but melodic and the emotional force of your 
 vocals created such a feeling of powerful emotions to listeners.  What was it like working on your debut record?  The guitar solo / feedback in “The Plank” kills me.  The 
  vocal on “The Bus”  is another high point.  The record has so many amazing moments i could ask about but I will just ask you a few specifics …  what song are you most 
  proud on that record and why?  What was the most challenging aspect of making the record?  
Question:  J. Mascis produced the debut record and also assisted on the amazing follow up Bird Brain.  How did that collaboration happen?  
Question:  What was J like in the studio?  The first two Buffalo Tom records are very guitar heavy.  Did J have anything to do with that or was it just where the band was at at that 
  time?  The band moved on sonically after these two records and that heavy approach never really returned. 
I will answer those three Qs together: 
Those (first LP) are good songs that we still like to play, as is Sunflower Suit. We play more songs off that record today than we do off the second, Birdbrain record. We had very little idea of what we were doing in terms of how to write songs, play our instruments, never mind how to record in a studio. We did that first LP in a few long weekends, basically, while we were still in school. We recorded at the first Fort Apache studio in Roxbury, a rough neighborhood of Boston. It was run by musicians, not engineers. So the lunatics were in charge of the asylum. We started with a guy named Tim O'Heir, who had actually been in Tom's band. At some point, Sean Slade joined in on a session or two. It was around the same time that we brought in J Mascis. J had been a friend of ours at UMass and had been getting those crazy sounds on the Dinosaur albums. So we wanted to have a liaison like THAT, one who could be a buffer between us and what we feared to be studio guys. But it turned out that there was no need to worry about that at Fort Apache. Because it was the same kind of mentality: you do what you want. If you want to turn up on Marshall to ridiculous levels for a studio, so be it. And we did. J was really into guitars amps facts and tones, just like he is today. That’s when he really shined, when it came to getting guitar sounds. As far as the songs and arrangements, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about that. 
But it went really well with him and Sean, so that was the combination we brought in for Birdbrain. By this point, Fort Apache had another studio in Cambridge and that’s where we recorded the bulk of that record. We were still figuring out how to write songs, and which sorts of songs worked best for our band, what our style and contribution was, etc. Birdbrain feels darker to me, at least in my memory. And we pretty much recorded both records before we did much touring. Chris and Tom, as I have pointed out, we’re just learning their respective instruments. And I was not a great guitar player, but I was getting better. I actually think I’ve gotten much better over the last couple of years. Back then I was mostly concentrating on writing and singing, not so much how to play solos or technique. I was playing guitar to suit whatever songs I was writing. But some of those solos are pretty good. 
Question:  The third record “LET ME COME OVER”  is a masterpiece of recorded music.  It is one of the most emotionally heavy records I have ever heard. There are some very dark 
    moments lyrically on the record. What was the writing process like for this album?  What was going on in that head of yours when these songs were being written? 
By the time Let Me Come Over was being recorded, we had spent about a year or more on the road, and that experience really informed the songwriting. We realized what worked best on stage, and I don’t mean consciously. It was more about what kind of songs we want to keep playing over and over again. Or maybe I mean that playing certain songs repeatedly made me not write that way and constant repetition of other songs led me to write another way. I think we were fine with letting our classic rock influences show a bit more. And we had always had acoustic guitar on record, but by this point we were really good at accenting all that classic sounding stuff from our record collections. And for that record we brought in Paul Kolderie, who had been in a band with Sean Slade when they were in college and afterwords, and they were already sort of partners in production at Fort Apache. But I think Paul had been busy and we hadn't needed too many chefs back when we had Mascis in the studio as well. But for LMCO we brought in Paul and Sean as the team that they became pretty famous for being. We started that one out at Dreamland studios in the Woodstock New York area, an old church in the woods. We did all the overdubs back at Fort Apache in Cambridge. We had mixed it with Paul and Sean on an SSL board in Stamford, CT, but it didn’t come out great. And to their credit, the record company, by which by this point was now Beggars Banquet in London, really recognized that it was a strong batch of songs and that there was some potential there so they asked us if we would be able to having somebody else do we mix the record, so we did once we were given assurance that we could have final say over what was used for the album, which with Beggars, was never a question. So they hired a new mixer, Ron St. Germain, who did a great job. We were initially a little put off by some of the mixes but then we realized that everything was sounding much more clear for the most part. We did end up using a couple of the original mixes, though. 
Many of those songs are deeply personal glimpses of post-college, early 20s domestic scenes, composites of my own life and those lives of friends. Just trying to figure out life in your 20s. That sort of thing. I think that’s why it resonated with so many people of that age at the time.
Question:  Do you think living in Massachusetts sets the tone for your songs?  I ask because I cannot separate the music from the imagery of your surroundings.  
Yes living in Massachusetts definitely sets the tone in many of our songs. There is specific imagery used from the change of seasons or the landscape for the city. I think this is only become more pronounced as we’ve gotten into more records, especially the last one.
Question:  The band consistently released  some wonderful records through the 90’s  … What was life like for the band during this time period?  Alternative rock became mainstream.  
  The band appeared on several t.v shows.  Were these happy times for the band or were changes on the horizon ( starting families, new careers etc ). 
The 90s were an exhilarating time. I mean, we really didn’t expect to get more than a record or two out. And to have our first record be on SST and the rest on Beggars Banquet, labels that meant so much to us because they were the home of so many artists we loved, that was sort of like “making it" in one sense. And getting out on the road and going to tour Europe, the UK, and across United States, it was a very exciting time, even if there were very low depressing moments and very tough challenges. We just couldn’t believe that we were becoming a "professional" rock band. It was just a little hobby when we were kids, albeit a real passion and a real dream. 
But then with each success came more ambition, at least for me. And when Nirvana broke big, it really did change the whole landscape. As everyone knows. So then you have all these other ““ alternative rock" bands getting mainstream exposure, in some cases selling many millions of records. We did not get that. We got a very respectable level of success which allowed us to keep making records and touring and to buy houses in nice towns around Boston. So I have no complaints. During that time it seemed like we kept moving the goalposts. “Well so-and-so band got this tour or sold this many records or got a Buzz Bin video on MTV. Why don’t we?“ In this kind of thing became more acute as the decade ended. We had kids on the way. The music business was changing. We had finished our contract with Beggars Banquet and sign directly to a US label. That label merged and they dropped a bunch of acts, including us. But it was a good time for us to step off the merry-go-round, which we did, until coming back with a record in the 2000s. But we had continued to play shows, especially around Boston but also in Europe and we had A-sides and B-sides collections that were released, etc.
Question:  In 1997 you released your first solo record, the critically acclaimed  “Lonesome Billy”.  Was a solo record something you always wanted to do?  Were these songs you had 
     written but felt they weren’t right for the band. What was the band situation like at this point?  
Yes, doing a solo record really came from having way too many songs than BT could ever expect to record. And many of the songs just did not fit well with the band. So I went out to Tucson to record with Joey Burns and John Convertino, who were just becoming the band Calexico at that time. That was a fantastic experience. I think that record is an interesting diversion for solo record. I wanted to sound very different from BT, which it does. 
Question:  You have written two books concerning the Rolling Stones.  ( Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell The Story of the Rolling Stones and Exile on Main St for the 33 1/3 series).  
    How did those come about?  Did you discover anything new about the band in the process?  Have you ever met any of the band members
I was always obsessed with the Rolling Stones. When that 33 1/3 series came out, it seemed natural to have a book about Exile on Main St. So I pitched it to the editor and they accepted my proposal. It was great because I could write from a real personal point of view for that series. I discovered a ton about the band and the process, of course, especially when it came time to work on the second book. I was not thinking I was going to do another Stones book. I was not sure if I was ever going to write another book at all, frankly. But an agent had approached me with the idea doing something like 50 songs for their 50th anniversary. And we sold that idea and that led to that book. I did meet Keith Richards, which I talk about on the second book. But it wasn’t to interview him. I had not gotten the book deal yet. And I did not tell him what I had written another book about the band. It was a very brief meeting and I just wanted to discuss Chuck Berry with him at an event honoring Chuck Berry for his lyrics. You can read about that in the preface of the book.
Question: On March 2nd Buffalo Tom will release a new album titled “QUIET AND PEACE”.  Where was the record recorded and when where the songs written?  
   What was the song writing process like for the songs on Quiet and Peace?  Do you or Chris or Tom bring in fully formed songs or are things fleshed out in a jam type 
The songs were written for a Quiet and Peace over the last, I don’t know, four or five years. Most of them were written in the year leading up to the record, at least on my end of things. Chris wrote a bunch of songs for this record. We recorded it at Woolly Mammoth studio, which is owned by Dave Minehan of the Neighborhoods. Dave also is well known for playing guitar and the revamped Replacements and with Paul Westerberg solo. He has this great studio that is very much like the original Fort Apache. It is in Waltham, outside of Boston. A warehouse kind of loft space with walls of old amps and vintage guitars and gear. Amazing clubhouse for musicians. A great get-away from the day-to-day middle-age life. Fantasyland. And he’s a perfect listener and engineer. He stepped in to produce when we might need it, but for the most part just there to effortlessly translate our ideas to record. 
Chris and I bring in the songs, sometimes they are more or less fully formed, but half the time they are just sketches of ideas. And then we bang them out, tear them down, build them back up, in some cases, and just jam around to find arrangements that suit the band. Everybody’s responsible for their own parts, though we are very fluid and open with giving each other direction and feedback. We don’t worry too much about who contributed what. As long as the song ends up at someplace we all be with. Sometimes it can just be one of us solo acoustic. As you get older, you don’t really have much ego about that process.
Question:  What gear did you use in the studio?  We are all gear junkies so can you run us through your pedal board and guitar / amp set up? 
I recorded the basic tracks for most of this record, as most of our previous records, with an early '70s Gibson SG, my main guitar since around 1992. On some I used a traditional Tele. I played most of the basic tracks on the album through a Marshal JCM 800 combo. Dave Minehan, who recorded us, also had me going through a Vox AC-30 and a Fender Vibrolux on different tracks in case he wanted to mix in some different tones on various songs. But the SG through a JCM 800 has been the basis of my tone since around 1992 and that's what is happening here. For the solos, I recorded many of them at home on an 1983 Fender Strat, which had been my main guitar before I bought the Gibson and subsequent other SGs and humbucker-equipped guitars. I also used a Tele Deluxe for some stuff. The Strat is a nice different tone to cut through the Gibson sounds. For the rock-ish solos, I cranked up the pre-amp gain on the JCM 800 I have at home (I have a head and a combo) and also ran guitars through a Klon Centaur. Bill Finnegan brought the early model of that to me around the early '90s as well. He is a local guy. I loved it so much that I ended up with three of them, which represents my retirement savings now that they have gone up in value. Truth be told, I stupidly sold one to a friend back around 2000 or so. I also bought two KTR Klons for the live pedal board, choosing now to leave the original Centaurs locked in the vault for home recording. I don't discern any difference in the sound. But I would not trust my ears at this point. And of course, there is a strumming Guild JF-30 acoustic in the mix.  
Question:  I know you just rediscovered the univbe and plan to go all Hendrix on the upcoming tour, any other gear favorites? Is there a pedal you can’t live without? 
The Klons are pretty essential, but I could get close with other gain pedals. Bill is juts a great guy who is now a legend himself. Any sort of tremolo and phase pedals work for me, but I use a Boss Tremolo and MXR Phase. As you mentioned, I just added a Voo Doo Labs Micro-Vibe, which has made me happy. I also use a Roland Tape Echo delay pedal. One thing that seems fairly unique to my live rig is that I have a B amp that comes on and off, while the A amp always remains on. So I have an A/B box that I use as an A/Y box. That second JCM 800 is set higher in gain, so I use that for louder parts, including solos, of course. So I have the amps doing most of the work. I am currently working with someone to make me a custom bypass loop switcher to include an A/Y box into a line of bypasses for my various pedals, to keep the switches close and not keep hitting the volume and tone knobs on the pedals by mistake. 
Question:  What will touring in support of the new album look like?  Will they be short runs or will it be an extended timeframe.  
We will be doing Seattle, LA, and SF in early March. Then NY on March 17 and Boston April 20
Question:  If you could perform, write and record with anyone living or dead who would it be?  
Keith, Neil, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan. 
Question:  Do you still seek out new music / bands ? If so what bands have come across your radar that as a fan you would want me to know about? 
Recent (relatively in some cases): Big Thief; Sharon Van Etten; Thee Oh Sees; Real Estate; Parquet Courts; Moon Duo; Twin Peaks are the ones that come to mind. 
Question:  Top 5 desert island records in no particular order
Veedon Fleece
Blonde on Blonde
Mule Variations
White Album 
Question: its 3am and I’m driving through Boston. The snow is coming down, what song should i be listing to?
Our song, "Crutch" of course. 
Question: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself ?
Don't be such a control freak and don't sweat the small stuff. 
Question: Any final words you would like to share?
I think I have said quite enough! Some of these answers you might see in another interview or two. The gear stuff was a variation on an answer I gave to Premier Guitar Mag about the new record.