Not Your Enemy: Buffalo Tom’s Birdbrain Hits 30

On its gamechanging second album, the Massachusetts trio shedded the ‘Dinosaur Jr Jr’ label and took their ace songwriting to the next level

Buffalo Tom’s sophomore classic Birdbrain turned 30 this year (Art: Ron Hart)

When the trailblazing Amerindie bands are lionized in the annals of underground rock, Buffalo Tom indisp-utably stand in the upper echelon.

Alongside their Massachusetts pals Dinosaur Jr and Minneapolis’ legendary Hüsker Dü, guitarist and singer Bill Janovitz, bassist Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis melded melody and noise into next-level indie guitar trio greatness.

Navigating a likeminded sonic plane as their brothers in arms in Dino Jr, the classic rock influence and punk rock ethos—along with a lethal dose of lo-fi-grade fuzz—shone through on Buffalo Tom’s self-titled debut released in 1989 on the celebrated SST Records label. While that record cemented Buffalo Tom as a force to be reckoned with alongside fellow Boston bands like the Lemonheads, Pixies, Blake Babies, Galaxie 500 and more, it would be the trio’s second record that signaled their complete arrival and a shedding of the tongue-in-cheek “Dinosaur Jr Jr” label bandied about by the indie rock press elite.

Buffalo Tom Birdbrain, Beggars Banquet 1990

On 1990’s Birdbrain, the epic sludge drip of the first record was traded in for a razor-sharp assault that was more Mould than Mascis. With guitars set to buzzsawing levels and the arena-sized riffs and hooks jacked to 11, Buffalo Tom—with Janovitz’s heart-on-sleeve voice in the forefront—helped put the quiet/loud aesthetic of the grunge-era 90’s on the map but with their own distinct stamp of sound. Birdbrain bursts out of its flannel seams with should-have-been hits like “Enemy,” “Fortune Teller,” and “Birdbrain,”—all still staples in their live set decades later. 

After 2018’s sprawling 25th anniversary release of Let Me Come Over, Beggars Banquet is now following that gem up with a 30-year anniversary mint-green vinyl edition of the seminal Birdbrain

To celebrate the milestone, the Globe recently caught up with Janovitz, who is hard at work on his third book, an authorized biography of LEON RUSSELL: Master of Space and Time (to be published by Hachette Books) and Maginnis. Keep reading for their recollections of Birdbrain, J Mascis, Grant Hart, touring with Rollins Band and more. And, although the pandemic has wreaked havoc on plans, Buffalo Tom are trudging on and are working on new material, albeit at a snail’s place, and will eventually have a follow-up to their ninth album, 2018’s Quiet and Peace.

 

VIDEO: Buffalo Tom “Birdbrain” 

Let’s talk how you went from your first record on SST to Birdbrain. Buffalo Tom had a strange path for your debut to be released on SST, right? 

BJ: It was a licensing deal. It was timing. If we had sat down six months before (with Greg Ginn and J Mascis), we probably would have been signed to SST. And thank God we weren’t because SST was a friggin’ mess by that point. I mean, for us, it was like, “Whoa! SST! Hüsker Dü, 

Sonic Youth, Black Flag! Oh, my God!” But we were sort of saved from ourselves by, you know? It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire in a lot of these cases. But the best part of all of this is that we hooked up with Beggars Banquet who, to this day, Martin Mills is the most ideal record guy and he’s one of the real good guys in the industry. He’s like Mo Ostin—just one of these legendary guys. He was always like, “you guys do what you want to do and here’s the money for the record.”

Tom Maginnis: The business sense of SST was very loose, very indie. I believe it was like a two-page contract. They didn’t try to nail you down to seven albums or anything like that. It was, like, “okay, I’ll put it out. We might promote it. We might get it in the stores.” That’s cool. It was very loose. We were lucky because we had this Dutch label (Megadisc) that we went through before Beggars Banquet. 

 

What jumps to mind when thinking of Birdbrain?

Bill Janovitz: I remember it pretty well, although there were certain songs on the next record, Let Me Come Over, that I sometimes think were on Birdbrain. It’s funny, in anticipation of my Randy Newman interview (for my book on Leon Russell), I was just listening to him and he’s like “is that song on this record?” Bands don’t know, bands don’t remember so much. 

 

How about recording Birdbrain versus your debut? 

TM: I think they were both done on short time. The first one was a little bit more pieced together so it was kind of a mix. I think it was done in a bunch of different short sessions because basically the guy heard some demos, the Dutch guy who signed us to that first label, was like, “Okay, well make some more” and he’d send us a bit of money and we’d go in and make a few more songs. Then it was like, “Okay, why don’t we do an album?” It was literally sort of piecemeal. This one (Birdbrain) was like we’d gone on tour to Europe, we played a lot more and I feel like the band was really trying to push it and it felt like we could play better live and better as a unit, in general. But this is still crazy and manic. But I’m just thinking of the drums, I guess. Some of the parts I think to myself, “what were you trying to do?”

BJ: The first one was done at the original Fort Apache and then the second one was done completely at the new Fort Apache which was in Cambridge on Camp Street at the old Rounder Records. That was a huge step up for all of us, including the guys from Fort Apache. They were all learning what they were doing, as well, as we go. At that point we had Sean Slade and Mascis for the whole thing. We did that all on Camp Street. We were still working day jobs. Tom and I worked our day jobs until we really started touring a lot on Let Me Come Over. So pretty early on and up to the next record the two of us quit our day jobs. Chris already had a really cool music industry job that he still holds today as a booking agent so he had nothing to quit, really (laughing). 

 

 

The first record came out in 1989 and Birdbrain seemed to follow up really quickly in 1990. Was it that fast of a turnaround? 

BJ: It may be foggy but the way I remember it is that we had both records more or less in the can. I think that’s mostly true. By the time we were touring Europe, certainly by the time we started really touring the states, we had two records because we had been out for little jaunts on the first record in the States. But the second one was done before we really started touring the States on the first one pretty much. But they were they were both done within a year, I think. The first one we did in spurts and I know we had written probably almost all of Birdbrain, if not all of it. But the second one we did do in a short, condensed period of time—that wasn’t done in spurts, like we didn’t keep coming back and forth like we did the first one. We did that in like a two-week process or something like that.

As far as production goes, the first one is heavy on the sludge and super-lo-fi while Birdbrain is somewhat more polished and sharp, but in a good way. 

BJ: I don’t think we got “produced sounding” until really the third record. My impression of the second record, Birdbrain, is I’m in total agreement with you. The first one is like a muddy kind of mess. It was low budget, pretty low budget equipment, a raw space in Roxbury, Massachusetts, really rough part, really rough studio. It’s almost like a home studio. Sean knew what he was doing. He came in a little bit. We started that record with Tim O’Heir, who went on to do Sebadoh and a bunch of other stuff. So, it’s a few different engineers and Mascis didn’t know what he was doing but he knew more than we did. You’re Living All Over Me had already come out and that record–to me–is revolutionary and it still sounds unlike anything else that came before it. We knew J and we’re like, “why not have this guy come in?” If he can get these crazy, insane sounds on our recording then…you know, because we were afraid of studios. But we didn’t really need to be afraid of Fort Apache because they were basically the same kind of guys: just a bunch of dudes smoking a lot of pot, drinking, having a good time and, (being) like, “what does this fader do?” But Paul (Q. Kolderie) and Sean were two brilliant guys and skyrocketed with their knowledge and engineering skills. It’s funny because they talk about having Let Me Come Over remixed by this guy Ron St. Germain as a real wake up call for them to really learn how to mix with the big guys. Then they became mixing engineers for Radiohead and Hole and all these other bands.

TM: The idea too was we had to have the songs down before we went into the studio because we literally had to do in like three or four days, at least the basic tracks. We didn’t have time and money and money to have the time to really take our time. So, there’s no writing in the studio or anything, especially in the Birdbrain era, the first two records. Even the third one I think we had the songs pretty well down before we went in because we’d get like four or five takes maybe. If you nail it on the second take I think they’d just take that. It’s that kind of mentality, that very indie rock, studios are expensive, can’t do it at home. It was a different time for that for sure.

The songwriting on Birdbrain seems like you guys took a huge leap forward, too.

BJ: I think of it as a step up, Birdbrain. But to me, in my brain, in my memory, it just seems like it’s certainly dark subject matter, a lot of it, and I feel like it’s a murky record but less murky than the first one. A lot of it is filled with minor chord stuff, too, so I think of it that way. But I think we did get some more clarity on the guitars. I think we figured out we didn’t need to have eighteen guitar tracks on every (song) just because we could. 

How did you how did you guys hook up with Mascis? 

BJ: We went to school with him. Chris, Tom and myself formed at UMass Amherst and J grew up in Amherst and still lives there. This other guy that I did know that we all knew who, to this day, is probably of my oldest, best friends is this guy, Jason Talerman, who did the photos for the first Dinosaur record—the photo of Artie and the sun. So, Jason introduced me to J when I was in high school. I went up there to visit when I was a senior in high school. I’m like, “who is this cat? Who is this enigma?” (laughing). But he always struck me as “Wow, this guy’s great.” J is the one that told us about Fort Apache but it turns out we kind of knew about Fort Apache already because this guy Tim O’Heir had played bass with a band that Tom was in late high school and early college. So, Tim was starting to get engineering time there at Fort Apache. The way I remember it is J lent us a drum set, even when we were practicing in a basement up in Western Mass. in Northampton. But we certainly did some early gigs with them and J sat in with some bands at parties. I remember having mushroom tea at this party and going down and playing a Blind Faith song with Mascis drums (laughing). I think J was playing drums and I was trying to play guitar and it (the mushrooms) was coming on and I was like, “This is wrong. I don’t know what to do with this guitar, man.” 

J is still so quiet but he was a nice guy. He was goofy, kind of funny. We really got to know him during those records. He introduced us to Greg, he kind of introduced us to Fort Apache and he came in and started producing but he wanted to get his experience producing, too. I think he wanted to see what it was like to work with another band. 

How do you feel J Mascis grew as a studio pro by Birdbrain?

BJ: He was really there to help us get guitar sounds. He’ll always tell the story that I was using a JC-120 Roland and a JC-120 solid state amp and I had been. I grew up with tube amps, like Peavey tube amps and shit and Les Pauls so that was the classic 70’s thing I had moved away from that in the 80’s like a lot of people had under the sway of R.E.M. and Echo and the Bunnymen and jangly bands. Like The Neats from Boston. So, I was into that clean sound and we were coming back to the hairy sound, certainly influenced by those SST bands and Dinosaur Jr. right at the forefront. To be honest, the first Dinosaur Jr. record didn’t do a ton for me. I was really compelled by it but I didn’t love it as much as I did when You’re Living All Over Me came out. 

We didn’t anticipate (being called) “Dinosaur Jr. Jr” per se but I don’t care if people knew that we loved this band and we want to have our friend, this guy that is touring the world already, come in and usher us into the studio. Why not, you know? Low hanging fruit (laughing).

What about that story J likes to tell?

BJ: J said, “Yeah, don’t bring your JC-120. Use the Marshall. Here’s how to use a Marshall.” I had tried out Marshalls before but I didn’t know what I was doing. You know, those old ones without a preamp and you had a crossover, blah, blah, blah. They seemed complicated to me. But J showed me how to get tones. Sean and those guys knew how to do it, too, but they were really turned on by J. They came from more of an art-rock scene and all these hairy post-punk bands are coming in now. So, they learned a lot from J, too. J knew what he was doing. I think he knows now how to engineer a lot better—he’s got a home studio. But even on his own records he has some of the best engineers like John Agnello. Basically, it was like “here’s how not to give a fuck about engineering and meters and the science part of it. Here’s how to get a big hairy sound. Maybe you should do an acoustic here, do a different vocal.” Where he really thrived was on performances and guitar sounds. He wasn’t really like “you need a bridge on this.” It was more like “that’s a good take. I think you should try a new vocal,” that kind of stuff.

Birdbrain actually came out before Dino Jr’s major label debut, Green Mind.

BJ: I remember going into Fort Apache there to pick up stuff and he was overdubbing or tracking bass for that record, because he played almost everything on it I think at Camp Street. I sat around to listen a lot of that being made or at least a couple nights of it being made. That’s a great record. 

But he’s a wise ass, you know? I remember trying on our first record “Under My Thumb” and “My Sweet Lord.” But when we did “Under My Thumb,” J came in and he just looked at us and shook his head and said, “That used to be my favorite Stones song.” (laughing). (Later on) When we actually did the “Birdbrain” track, Sean was really excited and said, “that’s a real keeper. That was a really good take.” J looked at us and said in his stoner voice—and he’s not a stoner by the way—in that laconic way, “that’s gonna be the track that makes all the girls cry.” (laughing). 

TM: Bill and Chris are both very big Rolling Stones, excuse me, freaks—to put it lightly. They also like The Allman Brothers and stuff like that. Of course, when we got infected by punk rock, especially early post-punk (like) Hüsker Dü and the Replacements kind of thing, which to us, drew from that classic rock but still have this punk rock energy, speed and aggression. So melding those, and of course the Dinosaur Jr. influence as well. We’ve had those elements of classic rock guitar solos and stuff but it was still punk rock anyway. So we liked that mix. I think this record (Birdbrain) sounds a lot like that. I was listening to it today because I hadn’t really listened to the whole thing in a long time just on my way to work and back and I was like, “man, I think I drank too much coffee or I was on amphetamines or something!” Some of the parts are like, “wow, just calm down.” (laughing). I think at this stage we’re recording and basically playing like we would play live on stage and just trying to get a good take and the energy is just going for it. It’s not like controlled studio sound, which we kind of learned to do especially when you make more records and have more time. But, to me, I just remember being exhausted after certain takes and just trying to power through it (laughing). Just nuts and crazy energies.

 

 

J is really a drummer first before a guitarist. Tom, what did J bring to the table for you since you’re a drummer?

TM: (Laughing) He’s very laissez-faire and laid back but he will say stuff and he gets his point across in his own way. He’s very into equipment sound. He’s known for not being very talkative but you can get him talking about guitars and pedals and he’s a good drummer, too. He actually can play the drums really well, probably better than me at the time for sure. So he had a few comments (laughing). I do remember the song “Crawl.” There’s a crazy part in the chorus where there’s crazy fills and J was like, literally, “who came up with that? Is that your idea?” I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know.” I’m an untrained drummer myself. I took some lessons later so I’m just kind of following what the guitars are doing and it’s sort of crazy. I’m just trying to follow the rhythm of the guitar, which usually it’s the other way around. So that’s why I’m playing these crazy rhythms to what they’re doing on “Birdbrain” and “Crawl.” I do remember him saying that and I’m like, “I’m just trying to do some crazy stuff.” I did it anyway and we left it in. I just felt like maybe I’m trying to overcome my technical shortcomings by just going with pure energy. It’s a crazy quality that’s kind of cool.

I was looking at the credits on the CD and I wanted to ask who “Monte Rose” was.

BJ: That’s J. That’s how we credited J, sorta like an Exile on Main Street miscredit like “just come up with a fake name.” J was a really good, inspirational guy. Since I’m doing this Leon (Russell) book I was reading about Leon and T-Bone Burnett and T-Bone is like a classic vibe master, like set the scene, make everybody comfortable and get a really good creative atmosphere. J was like that in his own way. I remember it was the era of cassingles and he went out and got the cassingle of “Fight The Power” that had just come out by Public Enemy and we’re pumping that out of the big speakers. Then one day he pumped “Bad Motor Scooter” by Montrose. In fact, that’s why he’s credited as Monte Rose playing lead on the last lead guitar on “Birdbrain.” 

TM: I think it was because he was into Montrose which was Sammy Hagar’s band before he joined Van Halen. J comes in (on the guitar solo) on “Birdbrain” and it’s much more metal.

Did you then hit the road for Birdbrain

BJ: Our first big year or two of touring happened on that record and that’s when we went everywhere. Let Me Come Over was the first time we went to Australia. But (for Birdbrain) all of Europe, our first tour of Europe was like six or eight weeks and some of the gigs hadn’t even been booked yet, they were being booked as we were there. It was a real “catch us when you can.” By the time Birdbrain came out, we were back everywhere and you could really see the growth in the shows. I believe we toured Germany opening up for the Rollins Band, which was interesting. He was super-intense. He wasn’t “Mr. Cuddly Guy” yet and I still don’t know if he’d be cuddly to us. I really felt insecure about meeting the OG SST guy. I’ve still not met Bob Mould and I don’t necessarily want to. He’s never said a bad thing about us but he was such a hero of mine. But Grant Hart, as soon as our first record came out, Grant Hart picked it as his “record of the decade” for NME or Melody Maker. He called me, too. He looked me up in the phonebook and called me on information while I was away on our first tour and my then-girlfriend, now wife said, “Oh, you’ll never guess who called.” I remember the first time I met Grant, it was just such a thrill. He was so supportive right until the end of his days.

Grant’s Intolerance was released that same year, 1989, as Buffalo Tom’s debut. 

BJ: I think I saw him on that tour and we met for the first time outside The Rat. We were talking and it’s the first time I’ve met him and he was complaining about having hemorrhoids on the road (laughing). He was a character. 

 

AUDIO: Grant Hart Intolerance (full album)

How did you get paired with the Rollins band on tour?

BJ: So we did the tour with Rollins in Germany. You can’t think of a more intense thing than a tour with Rollins. I think through the booking agencies over there, too. It was like “Our Band Could Be Your Life.” It was a lot of that same circuit. In fact, on Let Me Come Over, we inherited these dates that was the actual tour that Nirvana were going to do. They had all these club dates held across Europe and then they became bigger, to put it mildly (laughing). I have this fax still that says Nirvana’s moving on to a different tour. Does Buffalo Tom want these dates?” And we took the dates. 

Getting back to Rollins. Were you super into Black Flag at one time?

BJ: I was a Black Flag fan but I wasn’t like a big Black Flag fan. When I was a kid in high school, I liked the jokey stuff and then I saw them on Slip It In and I thought it was one of the most intense shows I’ve ever seen in my life to this day. I’ll never forget it. We saw them up at UMass together before Buffalo Tom started, in fact. Kira was on bass and Greg was completely hopped-up but playing pretty well. It was just cacophony. He was seething, Rollins. He was coiled like Iggy but without the looseness (laughing). 

 

On Birdbrain, Buffalo Tom really started to develop into a two-songwriter type band.

BJ: For all-intents and purposes, if we had operated like a classic band, more or less most of those songs would be my songs arranged by Buffalo Tom. And that’s kind of how we do our tracks. But there’s sliding scales of this like there’s a song called “Wiser” from the album Smitten which was a real group-write. I had this germ of an idea but we really broke it down and built it back up as a band. But Chris, the first time that he sings a song that he actually wrote was on Birdbrain, “Baby.” Then he did two tracks, at least, on Let Me Come Over. Chris is also a counter-melody singer; he comes up with Mike Mills-type of different songs within the songs. That’s where the group writing comes in. I don’t even know what he’s singing sometimes to the songs that I wrote. He does sing some harmonies but it’s usually me coaching him on what harmonies I want to hear. Chris had never written a song before Buffalo Tom. I think the interesting stuff about Birdbrain is that the songwriting was changing. I had written everything on the first record. You know, it’s the classic “you have your whole life to write your first record and six months to do the second one.” “Birdbrain” is kind of a melancholy track but most of it, like “Fortune Teller, “Skeleton Key,” “Enemy,” “Directive,” those are very angry songs in a lot of ways. It was way more punk rock feeling to me but we moved in that direction and I don’t know why. But Chris was starting to write. Chris sings and wrote “Baby” and the way we wrote—we didn’t write in the same room together—but we brought these ideas to each other and kicked them around.

TM: Chris was definitely more reticent or shy, especially on stage at first. He was a guitar player as well in his earlier band so he was picking up the bass and playing like a guitar. I think he started maybe singing some backups but I think a lot of times he would have his back to the audience and wouldn’t even turn around. But eventually, he turned around and he would maybe sing some backups and he then started giving us songs. I think that (“Baby”) was the first one. We’re like, “okay, let’s try that one and put it on record.” I think developed as a really good songwriter now.

I think there was a big change in songwriting, as well as the sound of Let Me Come Over but still was done very quickly. We’d had a lot more time playing and I think Bill and Chris kind of developed the songwriting. So, really, the approach was different. There’s little more acoustic guitar, organ and stuff and adding percussion, just putting touches on it, where before it was just guitar, bass, drums, add a few more guitars. Now just go. It doesn’t have all those subtle things but it has a lot of energy. Crazy and manic. Those guys are singer songwriters. They’ll sit down with an acoustic and write a song. So it’s basically generally not riffs and jamming in rehearsal; it’s more they come in with the bones of verse/chorus, maybe we screw around the arrangement but they have the melody and the verse and chorus of the song. Then we electrify it, figure out an arrangement, try to add some interesting things or if it sounds too much like something else and whatever and change it. But it’s generally those guys at home. I think back in those days, they would send a cassette tape or they’d make a recording from a boombox and just send it to me and I try to figure out what I might play on drums. 

But it wasn’t until the record after Birdbrain, Let Me Come Over, that you guys broke through. 

BJ: That record came out but it was a real slow build. We went out on tour and we started out going down through Virginia and these were places that we were playing in some cases for the first time. They were really into The Connells, that sort of Southern pop stuff, some of which I’m a big fan of, especially like the DBs and stuff. But there was a different kind of vibe. I think even the jam band thing with Matthews had started maybe somewhere along there but it was certainly laying the groundwork for that. My point is that it felt miserable for a while. Then we went over to Europe and people in Europe were really into it. There it felt like it had really stepped up markedly. It happened really fast there but in the States we put out “Velvet Roof” as the first single on that record because it sounded more like what I thought was a single. Then “Taillights Fade.” People were like, “you gotta put out this song” and I was like, “Really? This song is so dark and murky.” It started to really get legs, especially as Nevermind started to break. By that time, we had been on that record on tour and we went out and did a tour with My Bloody Valentine on their Loveless record, too, across the states and that was with Yo La Tengo and Mercury Rev at various points. Then things really started to take off, especially as Nirvana broke everywhere for all of us.

 You May Also Like

Brad Cohan

Brad Cohan is a music journalist in Brooklyn, NY.

One thought on “Not Your Enemy: Buffalo Tom’s Birdbrain Hits 30

  • November 9, 2020 at 1:05 pm
    Permalink

    Great article, great band.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.