Unstuck in the Middle with Buffalo Tom

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bill Janovitz (the redhead in shades) formed the rock band Buffalo Tom in 1986 with drummer Tom Maginnis and bassist Chris Colbourn. We spoke over lunch at the Elephant Walk in Waltham and continued our conversation down the road at Coffee on the Common.

Q. Do you think much about getting older?

A. Uh, yeah. I started doing that Molly Shannon joke: I’m 50! And then people started saying “Wow, these guys are great for 50!” And I’m like, I’m not 50! It’s a joke. I’m only 44, or whatever. 43. I’m, uh, 44. I have to check that.

Q. Buffalo Tom turned 25 this year. How have you changed as an artist over a quarter century?

A. There’s at least three elements to the changes. Sadly, the first one that comes to mind is the profession, and how that plays into the identity of Buffalo Tom. For a long time it was taken for granted that we were artists. That’s what we did. We made a living at it. And then we had kids, the music industry does whatever it does, we started to drift outside that realm, and when we got back into music in a more serious way again it was mostly for fun. Jobs, kids, family had way taken precedence. And I think it’s sort of like anything you neglect, even if it’s more shifting focus than active neglect, you start to feel like, “I took it for granted and now I need to reclaim it.” As far as aging and maturity and all the stuff people hate to hear about rock and roll bands, there’s more satisfaction in what I’m writing. Maybe it’s that I am still writing. The lyrics resonate in a different way, although I don’t think we’ve matured musically at all. But I really feel like I’m starting to see people, and not only see them but identify with them. So here we are in the middle, and I’m friends with people in their 60s and 70s, and I have these kids. It’s like you can see the whole realm of experience and it all seems so short all of a sudden. You can feels those pangs of youth that your kids are going through and go, god, that was yesterday. And if it was that fast between 20 and 40, 40 to 80 is going to be….wow.

Q. Are you mining that territory? Have your lyrics grown more contemplative?

A. There’s always been a poignancy to Buffalo Tom, it’s always what we mined, and its very difficult with rock and roll to put some subtlety to it, unless you’re doing a singer-songwriter record. But yes, I think especially reflecting on this newish record [here's the opening track], god, we’re talking about kids, we’re talking about people downgrading, we’re talking about marriages, Bergman-y things. It’s not like we didn’t do that before and now we’re doing it, but our experience colors it. What do you know in your 20s? You’re just opening your mind to these sorts of things, soaking up so many other artists. Now it’s supported by experience and also changing perspectives.

Q. Is it a challenge for you to address the identity shift, personally and musically?

A. Yeah, and we’re not the first or last. Keith Richards was talking about that very thing on the radio yesterday. The interviewer asked “How do you deal with these things? What are you going to write about now? How do you keep writing about T and A? That was purely sexual, “Satisfaction.” In the ’70s Jagger sang – I always come back to the Stones – about putting his daughter on his knee, little lines that give you glimpses into their existence. Peter Wolf has a song with Merle Haggard on his new record about being an old guy, it’s a heartbreaker about watching the girls. He’s still clearly attracted to the young girls, as we all know. But he realizes “it’s too late for me.”

Q. Do the burdens of adulthood take a toll on your creative life?

A. That’s where I am now. What I do for a living I fell into because all of a sudden I did have kids and the music industry wasn’t going to be paying the bills anymore, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s not like I got a job in the music industry. Real estate is almost cheesy to me. I know a lot of people think of it as cheesy, so there’s that identity aspect of it. When Lucy, my daughter, was born — she’s now 11, and Will’s a kindergartner — and I finally realized that not only I would take a couple of years off to help raise her but I’m not going to make a living in music again, it was depressing. See, being in the band and being a musician was much more than a career. That’s why the music industry thrived. Because people are so willing, as long as they don’t have to actually pay to be a musician, It’s not what they do, it’s who they are. People talk about the exploitation of the music industry on artists and that’s what it was based on. So to stop having that identity, it was a huge time of searching for me. I was reading books on Buddhism and it helped me deal with it. The idea that who you are is changing all the time, that you don’t have to cling to one notion, that you have to grow, that helped me get through it.

Q. How has leaving music as a full-time job impacted your songwriting?

A. I’m never not writing songs, although I write a lot less, and I like to think I’m getting better. Back in the day there were two extremes. Keith talked about having the guitar with him at all times. He uses the analogy of being an antenna. Then you have a guy like Pete Townsend who talks about the craft. If you’re not there doing it every day it won’t come out. I believe it’s both. Back then I believed the creativity would dry up if I wasn’t disciplined about it. I would sit down every day with a tape recorder and let everything come out. The guys, Chris and Tom, would be overwhelmed. I didn’t realize it but I was writing eight versions of the same song and trying to figure out which was best of the eight versions. I never sat down to write the next record. It was an ongoing process. I had the big old Sony Pro Walkman, I’d record in hotel rooms, at home off a tour, I wouldn’t slack off. I thought of it as being the antenna as well. Now it’s just really catch as catch can. If I pick up a guitar once a day it’s a great thing. I can go a week without thinking of picking up the instrument. The thing is, I don’t worry as much and I don’t miss it as much. Part of it is not having the energy to apply. It’s about relaxing and trusting that the muse comes and I’ll know what to do with it. Then again, I’m also OK if I stopped writing songs altogether. I always thought as a kid if I heard myself saying that I’d be, “Oh no! How tragic if I stopped writing.” Maybe this comes back to Buddhism or the changing self. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I would hate to not have that creativity anymore. I’m also quite happy going down to Toad and playing other people’s songs for two sets. There’s other ways to channel it. I think that’s inevitable as you get older and other things come into your life. There are the true artists in a garret, and everything else can be damned for all they care. Every creative profession is littered with broken families. But I’ve always been a bit too bourgeois to let myself go that way.

Q.What were you inspired by as a young man?

A. I don’t know if I could have told you back then, but a lot of it was stream of consciousness and trying to make sense of being 20-something. I can’t say that I didn’t have these sorts of conversations back then, but I don’t know if it was as reflective. It was not a lot of spoken direction. We all just worked off each other.

Q. Is there anything you find harder now, aside from the logistics?

A. From a purely artistic standpoint, maybe the idea of being very conscious, maybe overly conscious, of your place, of who you’re expected to be, of repeating yourself. They’re not overwhelming concerns. If you let yourself get meta-conscious about these things it can really squelch everything.

Q. Do you think about your relationship with the audience and the marketplace?

A. I think about the relationship with the audience but not as I’m writing. I’m not a very good editor anyway, so I don’t think about turning anything off until it’s done. I’m very good with the wellspring of ideas and riffing and letting it all hang out and stream out. The biggest challenge with all of this stuff is how do you maintain a creative relationship with guys you’ve grown up with? That’s the single biggest accomplishment of Buffalo Tom. We’ve managed to keep this partnership, not just a business, but primarily a creative partnership, all these years. It’s a dynamic, still-alive entity. It’s a source of motivation and inspiration.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Hey random online blogger person, be my valentine? Jokes, but you’ve got a fun writing style. If you weren’t a figment of my imagination, I’d write you poems and such.

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