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A reporter has just informed Buffalo Tom bassist Chris Colbourne that his name appears under the image of the band's drummer, Tom Maginnis -- and vice versa -- in Buffalo Tom's brand-new record company photo. "Ohmygod!" Colbourne exclaims. "I hadn't heard that before. That's hilarious. That's great. Poor Tom! He'll be furious, but I'll take it." When he recovers from laughing, Colbourne recalls that a few years back, around the release of Buffalo Tom's 1992 album, Let Me Come Over, Maginnis was cited for a "Cute Drummer Alert" by Sassy magazine. "I wish they'd screwed the names up there," he adds drolly.
Speaking over the phone from a New York City hotel, Colbourne notes that later in the day Buffalo Tom will play the first date on its current tour in support of the just-out Sleepy Eyed, the band's fifth full-length album -- all released since 1989, a wildly prolific output. "It's easy to get the first album of songs together," he explains, "just out of the pure enthusiasm of being in a band. But for us it was never too much of a thought process, and that sort of reflects itself in these records, because you don't have a band after its first record thinking" -- and here he affects a cartoonishly whiny voice -- "'Oh, well, we need another record. Where do we turn? Do we really need to think about this?' But we never did, we just pump them out almost subconsciously."
It's been almost a decade since Colbourne, Maginnis, and guitarist-principal vocalist Bill Janovitz formed Buffalo Tom while attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (they resettled in Boston). During that time, they have experienced an extraordinarily gradual growth, moving incrementally from playing tiny Boston clubs on dead weeknights to opening arena shows (fourteen U.S. dates with Live this summer before breaking off to play a handful of European enormo-fests, then doubling back to headline an American club tour). And just as Buffalo Tom's audience and album sales ("50,000, 75,000, 150,000, 200,000," Colbourne ticks off) have increased at a slow, steady pace, so too has the band's sound evolved deliberately. It started out as a fetching din on 1989's Buffalo Tom, and with each successive release the trio has honed the music to a compact and tuneful roar, while consistently maintaining a harrowing emotional intensity lyrically, something that Janovitz's throaty voice renders even more potent. That gnawing instrumental-and-vocal whorl informed "Taillights Fade" and "Larry" on Let Me Come Over, "I'm Allowed" and "Anything That Way" on 1993's [big red letter day], and can be heard to best effect on "Sunday Night," "Sparklers," and "Crueler" on the new Sleepy Eyed.
"People often say, 'You guys are kind of dour. Are you like this in real life, or is this sort of an outlet?'" Colbourne relates. "I tend to think that people write things that they hide away and can get through only with art or by writing songs. And when you meet them, they're really not dour. It's funny, Billy [Janovitz] and I grew up in similar circumstances, where it wasn't acceptable to be a brooding, depressed person. It was almost like that was really bad manners. You suppressed those things. And songs or artwork or writing allows you to express those things. It's not surprising to me that people like us tend to write sadder stuff."
For instance, the new album's swaying "Kitchen Door," which Colbourne sings and for which he wrote the lyrics, draws on his childhood visits to his grandmother's house (with his five brothers and sisters in tow) to comment tellingly on growing up and growing older: "I'm the gifted son who cannot score." Typically, Colbourne says, he and Janovitz work on songs individually, bringing as many as 40 (combined) to rehearsals before each new album. At that point, the band records acoustic demos, assembling and disassembling the songs they like best, with Maginnis assisting with the arrangements. "It's very rare that we have a song written all the way out," Colbourne explains. "In fact I don't even pick up a bass until we're in rehearsals. And the process in Buffalo Tom is not, 'This is your song, this is mine.' I feel very protective of certain songs on a record, and they're not necessarily the ones I sing." Colbourne cites "Summer Song," the first single from Sleepy Eyed and a Janovitz lyric-vocal, as just such an instance: "I really felt comfortable writing with that song in mind, making it electric and adding vocals."
Colbourne also feels comfortable with Buffalo Tom's opening arena shows for MTV-creation Live -- with whom they share neither a similar sound nor audience -- while acknowledging the concomitant pitfalls, including the strain it puts on his band's indie-band-on-a-major-label credibility. "We're in the middle of saying, 'Well, look, if somebody wants us to play, it doesn't matter where,'" he says. "Because we've played for years in front of our fans, who go get our records and sing along with all our songs. There's an element in me that doesn't feel that it's way cooler to just play for your fans rather than play to people who haven't heard you. We've toured a lot with Lemonheads and Dinosaur Jr, and that's the kind of thing that's maybe seen as somewhat hipper. But with the Live thing, there's definitely a side of it that makes us feel, 'We have a new album, and a lot of these places we've never played before, like Miami.' We're not sort of bursting with joy that Live called us up and asked us to be the warm-up band, but I certainly have no greater vision of us playing our own concerts versus this. And I don't think that one or the other is any more honest, or feel like this is a sellout."
Even before they agreed to sign on to the current tour, Janovitz, Colbourne, and Maginnis talked at length about the perception their participation might give. "As a band, especially after you get into a few records, you start to realize there's a lot of money out there to be taken in this indie-rock-meets-the-Gap world," he says. "And so we do discuss a lot of this, and it's a combination for us A it's not always just one way or another. And we've learned, too, that we've got songs to sing for all kinds of different people. We've never been a real punk-rock band, in almost any sense of the term. We're huge fans of the Kinks and Rolling Stones, and it's reflected in our music."
Bob Dylan, too, when you consider the new album's "When You Discover," with Janovitz's rattling guitars and observational lyrics turning the song into a less acerbic take on "Like a Rolling Stone." Janovitz can be biting and he can be funny. In the case of "Sun Dress," also from Sleepy Eyed, he can be both, singing, "I don't need to read about myself in other towns/don't want to hear all you have seen or what you've found," and "This time of year I want to breathe/but I just sneeze/and the sunshine is killing me by degrees." (About that "reading about myself in other towns" line -- ouch!) And while the band, especially Janovitz, sends the Sleepy Eyed catharsis-o-meter into the red zone on the midtempo, cauterizing "Sunday Night" and "Crueler," they show equal aplomb on bracing, likable rockers such as "Souvenir" and "Tangerine."
In fact the whole album brims with a palpable immediacy, and Colbourne concedes that Buffalo Tom wanted a less produced sound than they sought on its predecessor, [big red letter day]. "We tried to record this record very live," he allows, eliminating, as he puts it, "the studio-guy element, getting the ringer to come in." Accordingly, Janovitz added some organ, piano, and harmonica, and Colbourne some cello and harmonica, but with the exception of the harmonica (Dylan again!), those instruments hover discreetly in the background, with the band functioning as a tightly wound power trio.
Whether Buffalo Tom can convey that sound by seizing the attention of a packed house (or shed) of Live fans and not letting go during a 40-minute opening set remains to be determined. Regardless, Colbourne seems unworried. "I remember some of my favorite gigs of all time with Buffalo Tom were very early on when we had about 30 minutes to play, the first of three bands at [New York's] C.B.G.B.'s or in Boston when we were playing on a Tuesday night. And, boy, you can hit your stride pretty quick. This is almost a stadium, versus a club, of course, and you have other elements. But when I go to see a concert, even when it's one of my big heroes, like Bob Dylan or whoever, after about 45 minutes I tend to look at my watch."
Buffalo Tom performs with Live and Big Audio Dynamite at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 30, at the Miami Arena, 721 NW 1st Ave; 530-4444. Tickets cost $24.