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A chat with (two-thirds) of Buffalo Tom and Mike O'Malley

Posted by Sarah Rodman  November 17, 2011 05:59 PM

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(Photo: Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff )

Next weekend Boston-based rockers Buffalo Tom celebrate 25 years together with three shows at Brighton Music Hall. The Globe asked BT superfan Mike O'Malley to have a chat with the band for a piece in today's paper.

Since calling on the trio of singer-guitarist Bill Janovitz, drummer Tom Maginnis, and bassist-singer Chris Colbourn to write the theme song for his eponymous 1999 sitcom, which lasted two episodes, the four men have become friends. They've kept in touch through the course of the band's subsequent albums and O'Malley's ever-brightening career, first on "Yes, Dear" and currently as a co-star on "Glee," and as a writer for the Showtime series "Shameless."

O'Malley, Janovitz, and Maginnis convened at Eastern Standard last week. (Colbourn, who was missed, had a family commitment.) The following are a few more edited and condensed excerpts from their conversation.

Buffalo Tom plays Brighton Music Hall Nov. 25-27 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 at Ticketmaster.


O'Malley: Something that I really love about continuing to see you guys play is that it holds up the quality of the songs. I know you’re probably listening to a record and saying “God, man I could play that bit so much better or I wouldn’t have written that intro” but the recreation of the song is really beautiful. I always think of Van Morrison, he doesn’t want to sing “Brown Eyed Girl” so he turns his back to the audience, and he doesn’t want to sing these songs that mean a lot to people. I find that even though you guys may have played some songs more than others you still never phone it in. Is that hard not to do? Or when you’re making up the setlist for the shows coming up, are you saying “oh God, we’ve played ‘Larry’ enough.’”


Janovitz: I think it’s probably different for every guy. I don’t know. The worst part is practicing.


Maginnis: Because there’s no audience.


Janovitz: There’s no audience and there’s nobody that it means anything else to. Those songs mean a lot to us but we’ve got such a complicated relationship with those songs at this point. Any band with 25 years under their belt has the same thing. I worry more about Chris or Tom, like are they going to be as interested in “Larry”? I’m singing “Larry” so I feel it. Brian Eno was on [the] Colbert [Report] the other night and he said he knew he had to stop performing when he was onstage thinking about his laundry. (Laughs.) And there are times when your mind wanders off from any kind of artistic inspiration from the song. But the songs that sometimes we need to practice are the songs that are so obvious that we take them for granted, that we’re not as necessarily plugged into the stream of the feeling of the song anymore that it’s almost rote. Those are the songs that we haven’t played them in a year and we’re like, “alright we haven’t been playing for awhile so we have to play ‘Soda Jerk’ again.” Listen, I could stop playing “Soda Jerk” now and it would never blip on my radar screen-- and I like playing it in front of people because it’s that energy, it’s almost 90 percent the energy from the people so I can try to dig into it in a different way but I worry about Chris and Tom. Are they going to want to  play this song again or does it mean just nothing to them? So we get into the room to practice and it’s like ugh, do we really want to go through these songs that we play every night? And  then if we don’t play them, we go up onstage and it’s like what’s the [expletive] lyric here? (Laughs.)




O'Malley: Tom you talked about this on the "Asides" record: you start to play the opening strands of "I’m Allowed" and the audience starts singing and especially in Boston-- what I love about seeing you guys in Boston is really being surrounded by likeminded people who really cherish you guys. Not just in a way that "they’re hometown guys,” but just their enthusiasm for the music and how it all goes back and they show up! Does that help you get through those songs when you feel like you need a lift?


Janovitz: Yeah, and we will never play a song that we feel like we have to “get through.” I tend to exaggerate sometimes. It’s true, I don’t feel a burning need to play “Soda Jerk” but we feel like people are bummed if we don’t. I’m not sure they would be.


O'Malley: Oh they’d be bummed. 


Janovitz:  See, when I go to see the Stones, I don’t want hear the Stones play “Satisfaction” anymore. I really don’t. It’s good, valuable set time that could be used to play something more interesting.


O'Malley: Yeah, but you go deep into the catalog, you’ve written a book about “Exile [On Main Street]” for God’s sakes.


Janovitz: But so do Buffalo Tom fans, they are not singles people. I feel the need to play “Soda Jerk” or “Taillights Fade” when I’m opening for another band that may have heard a Buffalo Tom song or two.



You guys publish your music together as a trio, Scrawny, right? What I’ve found interesting since I’ve met you guys is Bill will oftentimes send the initial demo of him playing a song and by the time you guys end up recording it, it’s expanded and evolved so much. Was that always process? How has the democracy changed as you guys have gotten older? Are you more or less opinionated? Are you blunter with each other? More delicate?

Janovitz: We’re not a very blunt band. I think I’m more blunt than Chris or Tom, I think that’s an understatement. I appreciate and encourage directness but not everybody’s that way, it’s sometimes more nuanced than Bill Janovitz wants to represent.  (Laughs).


Maginnis: I think I can be pretty direct when I want to be.


Janovitz: Yeah, and if you are then it’s certain! But the process has evolved. It went from me more or less saying “here’s a bunch of songs” for the first record to Chris doing the same thing, introducing as we go along. We were just guys in a room tossing off songs. Then on “Let Me Come Over”-ish, we started giving each other cassettes, “here’s what I’m working on.” And they were still pretty much just a guy with a guitar. After “Let Me Come Over,” the ideas started [coming faster] maybe because there’s a bunch of things happening:   there’s encouragement because now we’re on our third record, we’ve got tours under our belt, people are listening. But also now you’ve got time off between tours because we’re not working day jobs anymore. I became more prolific but they’d be five versions of the same idea and those guys would have to edit and say "here’s the one that’s worthwhile to work on." And that was inevitably a difficult process. But once we got into the room all bets are off because we just start messing with the songs... At one point in addition to the tapes I would give prodigious notes like “here are the chords, here’s what I’m thinking on this song, it’s Teenage Fanclub-meets-Buffalo Tom" or something. (Laughs.)


Maginnis: Right, I think there was a point when you started putting some drum tracks on there. (Laughs)


Janovitz: One tape! (Laughter over his protestation.) Drums and bass. And Chris said "don’t ever do that again,” in no uncertain terms. I didn’t mean to write parts it was just all of a sudden, I had tracks.


Maginnis: You were practicing in your basement so all the stuff was there too.



Janovitz: This sounds really flip but during the early years we really didn’t know what we were doing. There were a lot of bands that formed that knew what they were doing maybe to a fault. We didn’t know every song had to have a bridge, and that’s not true, not every song does. But certain producers like David Bianco would ask us “where’s the bridge in this song?”


O'Malley: Take me to the bridge!


Janovitz: And not only the bridge but  he was such a classic pop guy—he  loved the Beatles and Big Star, he produced a great Teenage Fanclub record—he had a certain classic outlook on songs. So when we would come up with a bridge he’d say “where are the words?” Not only could it not be a wordless bridge, but the words in the bridge were supposed to arrive at the point of the lyric. And we didn’t even write lyrics with any point. (Laughs). The songs were so oblique, we didn’t know we were supposed to tell the story in the bridge and then resolve. He wasn’t like that with every song but he was like “look, you’ve written a pop song, you should perfect it.”  And it was great. And the Robb Brothers had certain things. But with these guys it was like “here’s the chorus and I’m singing something about my pain.” (Laughs)


O'Malley: That should be your autobiography: (adopting a Southern accent) “I’m singing somethin' 'bout my pain.” That should be every artists’ autobiography.


O'Malley: There is a comfort in knowing deep down that Buffalo Tom will never break up as long as I’m writing television shows because we still have another chapter to write, the four of us, which is another show that lasts longer than two episodes.

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The latest news, commentary, and reviews on music in Boston and beyond.


Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

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