The Massachusetts-based trio Buffalo Tom “crafts rootsy garage-rock pop songs that tap the essence of ‘real life’ with infectious melodies and knife-edged lyricism,” Scott Carlson wrote in A&E. Jon Steltenpohl added in Consumable: “Their sound mixes the power three-piece sound of Sugar or Hüsker Dü with the pure pop of a band like the Smithereens. The result is a pure, no-frills style of bare bones music which you can still sing along with.” In their nine years of existence, Buffalo Tom has gone from Boston cult favorite to alternative-radio mainstay, but they have yet to live up to Rolling Stone’s prediction that they would become “the next R.E.M.”
Buffalo Tom formed in 1988, when three college friends from Amherst, Massachusetts—Bill Janovitz, Chris Colboum, and Tom Maginnis—began playing parties and local clubs together. All three were originally guitar players, but Colbourn switched to bass and Maginnis learned to play drums to accompany Janovitz’s guitar and vocals. Maginnis explained the origin of the band’s name to Steltenpohl in an interview for Consumable: “A friend of ours was just kind of playing around with the name ‘Buffalo Bill,’ perhaps since there was Buffalo Springfield. Bill’s the lead singer, and I’m just more of the shy guy in the back playing drums, and they thought it was pretty funny to have ‘Buffalo Tom.’ We didn’t think too seriously about it at the time because we were just playing parties and shows at school, and it just kind of stuck.”
The members of Buffalo Tom began to have bigger ambitions when they saw the success of bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü—“bands that to us were normal people,” as Colbourn told Rob Galgano of You Could Do Worse. “We thought we could do that, too.” The band attracted a cult following on the Boston music scene with their live shows and made a demo tape of three songs that they sent to a number of record companies. “The only real response was from a guy in Holland who had a label,” Maginnis explained to Steltenpohl. “He just slowly sent us some more money and wanted to hear some more demos, and those eventually became our first album.”
When recording the songs for their self-titled debut album, the group looked to a friend from western Massachusetts, J Mascis—founder of the band Dinosaur Jr. “He had put out a couple of records, so we asked him to come in and help out because we didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” Maginnis admitted to Steltenpohl. Mascis was eventually credited as producer on both Buffalo Tom and its follow-up, Birdbrain, and his early influence was so apparent that some critics called Buffalo Tom “Dinosaur Jr., junior.” Mascis also brought Buffalo Tom to the attention of the independent record label SST, which released Buffalo Tom in the United States. “At that time, you know, they were a pretty hip indie label and all our favorite bands were on SST, so we were amazed that we actually had a record on SST,” Maginnis recalled to Steltenpohl. Buffalo Tom’s early releases garnered significant airplay on college radio stations, while their frequent concerts at small venues earned them strong grass-roots support.
The band signed with Beggars Banquet in 1990. The label released their next four albums and helped them break into commercial alternative radio. Their 1992 release, Let Me Come Over, shows Buffalo Tom “finding a magical middle point between furious distortion and calm grandeur,” reported a reviewer for The War against Silence. While several songs received airplay, including the moody “Taillights Fade,” the album did not find a wide audience. By contrast, 1993’s Big Red Letter Day— which was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by the legendary Robb Brothers—tripled the band’s sales to over 85,000 units. It also marked a bit of a departure for Buffalo Tom, as the group left their punk-rock and grunge reputation behind and went for a cleaner sound. The album features the song “Tree-house,” which Steve Gullick of Melody Maker called “a
For the Record…
Members include Chris Colbourn, bass, vocals; Bill Janovitz, guitar, vocals; Tom Maginnis, drums.
Group formed in Amherst, MA, in 1988; released self-titled debut album on independent label SST, 1989; signed with Beggars Banquet and released Birdbrain, 1990; contributed to Velvet Underground tribute album Heaven and Hell, 1990, and to benefit album Sweet Relief, 1993; appeared in television series My So-Called Life, ABC, 1994; performed “Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” for the Schoolhouse Rock tribute album, 1996.
Addresses: Office— Buffalo Tom, P.O. Box 88 Back Bay Annex, Boston, MA 02117. E-mail— [email protected] Record company —Beggars Banquet Records, Ltd., 274 Madison Avenue, Suite 804, New York, NY 10016.
rumbustious, rock ‘n’ soul shouter…unlike anything Buffalo Tom have done before. “This work also includes the singles “I’m Allowed” and “Sodajerk.” The success of Big Red Letter Day earned the band a spot on one of the hottest concert tours of that summer, along with Live, PJ Harvey, and Veruca Salt.
Buffalo Tom’s eagerly awaited 1995 album, Sleepy Eyed, was recorded at Dreamland Studios in Woodstock, New York, inside a converted nineteenth-century church. “It’s got nice, big stained glass windows,” Colbourn told Carlson in A&E. “The sun comes in during the day and we would record rock songs, and at night we’d light the candles along the wall and record songs like ‘Twpnty-Points’ at two o’clock in the morning. It’s nice. It really is haunting.” Many of the songs on the album deal with relationships and the pain of everyday life. For Example, “Souvenir” describes a dysfunctional family, and “Twenty-Points” explores how couples tend to keep, score. Janovitz wrote 11 of the songs on the album, while Colbourn contributed three.
Carlson described the music on Sleepy Eyed as “a return to a gritty sound and a straightforward approach that sharply contrasts the pristine production” of Big Red Letter Day, adding that “the guitar is a blunt instrument and Janovitz’s honest, raspy and sometimes straining voice is reminiscent of Rod Stewart imitating Paul Westerberg.” Steltenpohl commented that “Sleepy Eyed works because the guitars are raw, the lyrics are real, and whether it’s a loud, raucous song or a melancholy ballad, the songs latch onto you.” Some other reviewers were less complimentary, including Audids Mike Bieber, who characterized the songs on Sleepy Eyed ‘as uneven in quality and remarked that “such peaks and valleys give the album an untethered feel, hastening its arrival on my shelf, where it’ll gather dust for a few years.”
Prior to the release of Sleepy Eyed, Billboard noted that Buffalo Tom had long been “poised at the brink of crossover status” and was in some ways approaching “a make-or-break stage in its career.” Though the band had attracted numerous fans and by many accounts was continuing to grow musically, they still had not emerged as a major mainstream success. “I’d be lying if I said we were totally satisfied,” Janovitz admitted to David Sprague of Billboard. “But we’ve long ago exceeded our day-one expectations. We’ve never gone backwards, always moved forward in small increments. My heroes have all done that—people like Tom Waits, Van Morrison—all have a small, dedicated audience, which I’d rather have.”
The band planned to continue refining their sound and using their experience to bring greater depth to their music. “A lot of my big heroes wrote beautiful albums in their forties,” Colbourn told Carlson. “There is something to be said for the confidence and the things you learn in life as you get older. If you can keep it together enough to integrate that into your music, then there is no limit.” Unlike many other groups, the members of Buffalo Tom remained close friends despite the pressures of recording and touring. “I couldn’t go through this kind of a journey with anyone that isn’t a friend,” Colbourn admitted to Gullick. “We’ve got to know each other so well. Way beyond brothers. I always say, if you’re gonna start a band, start with a bunch of friends and teach them how to play. That’s how we did it.”
“Sunflower Suit,” Megadisc, 1989.
“Enemy,” Caff, 1990.
“Crawl,” Megadisc, 1990.
“Birdbrain,” Situation Two, 1990.
“Fortune Teller,” RCA/Situation Two, 1991.
“Velvet Roof,” RCA/Situation Two, 1992.
“Taillights Fade,” RCA/Situation Two, 1992.
“Mineral,” Beggars Banquet, 1993.
“Sodajerk,” EastWest/Beggars Banquet, 1993.
“Summer,” EastWest/Beggars Banquet, 1995.
Buffalo Tom, SST”, 1989.
Birdbrain, Beggars Banquet, 1990.
Let Me Come Over, Beggars Banquet, 1992.
Big Red Letter Day, Beggars Banquet, 1993.
I’m Allowed (EP), Beggars Banquet, 1993.
Sleepy Eyed, Beggars Banquet, 1995.
A&E, October 12, 1995.
Audio, November 1995.
Billboard, June 3, 1995.
Euphony, October 20, 1995.
Melody Maker, October 2, 1993; July 1, 1995; July 8, 1995.
Rolling Stone, February 21, 1991.
The War against Silence, August 24, 1995.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the on-line versions of Consumable and You Could Do Worse ‘zines.
—Laurie Collier Hillstrom