Still a Real Band: Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz Talks Boston Shows and New Material

“All of a sudden we look at the calendar, and you say ‘ Guys, if we’re a real band, we need to play.’”

Buffalo Tom plays the Paradise this Saturday, and Bill Janovitz, guitarist and primary songwriter of the legendary Boston band, knows it appears as if the guys crawl out of hiding once a year. But even the infrequent gigs require enough work to keep the band busy.

“You know you have to plan these gigs almost a half a year in advance to get a good booking,” Janovitz said during an interview earlier this week. “We’re so part-time now, if it’s even that. But we are working on new material this time. Years go by before you realize it’s been a while for a new record.”

Now, this is news. For those of us eager for a follow-up to the band’s latest album, 2011’s Skins, any sign that Buffalo Tom may be headed into the studio is more than welcome. Janovitz confirmed that there are some new tunes floating around.

“We’ve been slowly, since last fall, doing new material. In addition to the Sinclair shows we did last summer, we did a show up in Newburyport for an education foundation up there. It’s a cool benefit out on this farm that’s owned by, or at least is in the stewardship of Historic New England. The reason I bring that up is that we did have a new song that we debuted there. So it’s been about that long since we’ve been in the practice room, chipping away at new material. So we’ll trot out about three or four songs that are brand new [at the Paradise]. And when we record them is anybody’s guess, but I assume it’ll be at the end of this summer. Probably next fall knowing how slowly things go.”

Knowing that there is a follow-up to Skins in the offing, this summer’s annual gig feels a bit more significant. Buffalo Tom always seems to skim cultural currents, whether it’s their famed appearance on the definitive 90s teen soap, “My So-Called Life,” or their seeming ubiquity as a top five band among taste-making, influence-peddling celebrities (looking your way, Jon Stewart). But so much of their place in contemporary pop culture links to a wistfulness for the best rock music of the 90s.

Over the past five years, it has felt that the annual Buffalo Tom summer gig was a bone thrown to the 90s kids in town, to the nostalgic past of Boston Rock City. The night belonged to aging Gen Xers looking to get out to hear one of their favorite bands tear through hits and deep cuts from Big Red Letter Day and Let Me Come Over again. But in addition to this year’s show previewing some new music, another funny thing has happened. Those aging Gen Xers now have kids who are starting to dig Mom and Dad’s records, and the sounds that are coming out of the Boston scene are awfully familiar to those of us who were around for the 90s wave. Whether it’s echoes of The Pixies in Palehound, or the traces of Tanya Donelly in the latest from Lady Pills, bands on the Boston scene sound a bit more like bands of Boston past. For Janovitz, this hits a little closer to home as he watches his seventeen year old daughter embracing dad’s music while her peers start to make up dad’s audience.

“I think the bulk of the crowd — if you’ll forgive the term bulk — are people that are our age. I’m the young guy in the band. I just turned 50, and the other guys are about a year, two years older. Most of our crowd, in fact, goes up into the 60s now. But I’m making sure that kids that are about 17 or 18 can come to the show, so it’s the children of people like me. My kid is coming, and she’s 17. And there’s other fans that grew up listening to their parents’ records that are 17 and 18 years old.”

Janovitz certainly isn’t afraid of the band’s past. He indulged questions about touring and recording as part of the late 80s and early 90s so-called alternative wave for a good twenty-five minutes of our interview. (How could any self-respecting 90s rock kid pass up the opportunity to ask Bill Janovitz about working with the Robb brothers on Big Red Letter Day? I certainly couldn’t.) But he made it clear in our conversation that the shows aren’t only about looking backward. They’re about celebrating Buffalo Tom as a living, breathing, working band, (a “real band” in his words) and to establish even more deeply their relationship to the currents of rock music — particularly in Boston — today. In other words, Buffalo Tom have gone from being the young lions of an underground scene to being the tradition bearers for a younger generation. Even if they were always conscious that they’d likely be heard as such. As Janovitz said, “Our early days were not so concerned with being cutting edge. We weren’t really that conscious of that sort of thing. We saw ourselves as part of a tradition.”

They still do. And they’ve firmly established their place in that tradition. “Is everything old new again? You could say that. But I think it’s a continuum. Things circle back on themselves, particularly with guitar bands. Some say the model is archaic, but I don’t think so. There’s not much that’s as exciting as when you see a band that’s clicking together, and with good material too.”