VIDEO: Buffalo Tom, "Sodajerk"
In a year when every outfit from Smashing Pumpkins to the Police is reuniting, it can be hard to convince people that you never broke up. When Buffalo Tom played South by Southwest in March at a show that announced their signing to industry vet Danny Goldberg’s Ammal/New West new label, a number of Austinites were expecting a heavy dose of nostalgia. One paper even characterized the gig as the reunion of a favorite ’90s band. But the band were really there with the future in mind — specifically to tease the release of their new Three Easy Pieces. Buffalo Tom may be a local institution, but they’re still evolving as a band. And they never officially broke up. You don’t have to live in Boston to know that, but it probably helps.
“How do people see us?”, asks singer/bassist Chris Colbourn. He’s in a self-depreciating mood when we meet at Bukowski’s in Inman Square. “‘You’re nobody anymore, nobody cares.’” From across the table, singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz provides the voice of reason. “I’m sure most people outside of Boston think we’ve broken up. Even in town we’ve only done a show or two a year. And now we’re probably going to get lumped into the reunion thing with Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr. But it’s fine, we’ve got a niche somewhere.” Colbourn concludes, “We’re the guys who try real hard. We’re the rock guys who always show up early. Everything is so important to us, and that fucks us up even more. But I’m real comfortable in that role.”
You can’t blame the band — who play the Paradise on July 14 — for feeling like underdogs these days. It’s been nearly nine years since their last proper studio album, Smitten (Beggars Banquet). That disc was meant to re-establish Buffalo Tom after a shorter break, but it wound up disappearing fast and getting them dropped from their long-time label. “Part of me was really hurt by that,” notes Colbourn, “even when our manager was saying, ‘Chris, shake it off.’ ” A pair of singles compilations, Asides and Besides, were released in the interim on Beggars. But the band then went part-time: Janovitz focused on two solo albums and one with his now-defunct band Crown Victoria, and Colbourn made a disc with ex-Fuzzy singer/guitarist Hilken Mancini. Like the two frontmen, drummer Tom Maginnis (who’s not there at Bukowski’s) focused on raising a family and took a day job.
The material on Three Easy Pieces was written and recorded over the course of several years, starting well before there were any formal plans for the trio to release a full album. Nevertheless, it sounds like classic Buffalo Tom. The band has tended toward a consistent sound throughout each album; this one, however, has a little of everything they’ve done. There’s guitar noise that harks back to their first recordings with J Mascis; there are acoustic numbers that recall their big breakthrough, 1992’s Let Me Come Over. There are also two short, punchy songs that could have been on 1995’s Sleepy Eyed, and a two more-epic numbers in the Smitten vein. The songwriting on the new album matches that of 1994’s Big Red Letter Day, and there’s notable growth in the vocals. The rush of harmonies that starts off the opening track, “Bad Phone Call,” is a new touch that brings to mind the Beach Boys, but Janovitz says they were thinking more along the lines of the Band. Above all, their trademark empathy for misfits is here in abundance.
“Autumnal melancholy” is how Colbourn describes the album’s feel. Adds Janovitz, “If anything, having kids can remind you of how melancholy life can be. I don’t know if we’ve ever gotten what we aspire to be, but I’ve always wanted to be John Cheever, writing about that miserable guy having a drink and catching the last train home. But then I realize we were always doing that.” Colbourn observes that his title song was more personal: “It was about a very difficult time I had keeping my wife and family together. I don’t mind hurting my own feelings, and I certainly did it in that song. So the word ‘easy’ is there, but it’s really about how hard things can be. And sad and pathetic and all that.” Concludes Janovitz, “The band has always been a relief valve. But it’s also something we need a relief valve from.”
Indeed, time away from the band gave both songwriters a chance to feel good about their past. “We played in England after the Besides record,” Colbourn recalls, “and, I mean, what can be more desperate than a band putting out a B-sides record? But we’re up there playing ‘Larry’ [a sad tale from Let Me Come Over], and someone up front gets teary-eyed. I mean, I’m done with ‘Larry’ myself. But I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe it does mean something. Good for Bill for getting that reaction. And good for us that we have this crazy core audience that sees us through the worst of times.’ ”
Now that Buffalo Tom are back to being a full-time operation, Colbourn jokes that they’re aiming for “The toppermost of the poppermost,” invoking John Lennon. “We want the cover of GQ, and I’m not kidding. And then I want to find out what GQ stands for.”
BUFFALO TOM + MOVING TARGETS | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | July 14 | 617.562.8800