It's not too often that I get to trade lines of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with anyone. So when I had the chance to do that with Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom, I jumped, even though the lines we traded spoke of depressing topics like unrequited love and growing old. Such is the mind of Janovitz, though, an introspective guy whose thoughtful lyrics demand as much attention as the music. Again, not surprising considering Janovitz references Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in conversation.
After a three-year hiatus, Buffalo Tom returns with the album Skins. Read my interview with Janovitz after the video.
Do you have any other creative endeavors besides songwriting?
I wrote a book about the Rolling Stones called The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. I like to write, but I haven't felt any pull towards fiction. So far it's mostly writing about music. I like writing essays, and I have a blog. I've been doing a cover of the week on the blog and little essays to accompany them. If I could do that full time, I would do it. But it's probably only slightly more lucrative than being a in a rock band.
Do those types of writing make you a better songwriter?
They are completely separate. Songwriting is different from everything. In college I took some undergrad courses in poetry with James Tate, and I like writing poetry; I find that anything I write in a poetic way goes into songwriting. I don't make a poem stand on its own. Songwriting is like that. The music and the words inform each other, and to take one out of context perverts the system. As a fan, I don't want to read someone's lyrics until I've grown accustomed to the song, since they are one and the same.
Maybe it makes you a more disciplined writer. To do other types of writing besides songwriting takes discipline and adherence to routine, don't you think?
There are two polar views of songwriting, but I think the truth lies in the middle. I grew up listening to Keith Richards and Pete Townsend. Pete views himself as a craftsman: he goes in every day and does the work. If you do that, it will come to you. Keith is way more from the ephemeral realm: you've got to have your antenna up, sure, but when it comes, it comes.
Like anything, you have to wait for inspiration. But you can't wait forever; you have to be there digging the channels and creating those paths so that it can come to you. You have to be open to it. With my songwriting, sometimes it comes fully completed. And another time it might take years.
I used to very disciplined about songwriting when it was my full time job. I had all this time off when I wasn't on the road, and I wasn't just going to sit around. The result was that I wrote tons of stuff that wasn't very good. It put a big onus on the band to go through it all and find the gems.
And if you want to be a good writer, you can't be afraid to write shitty stuff.
Absolutely. I think writer's block has its basis in fear. For artists, in particular for artists who come from an upper middle class suburban upbringing, it takes a lot of balls to get in front of people and sing. As a guy who grew up in that world, that extends down to the micro level of being a failing to yourself in life. But I'm not afraid of not writing for months. Back when I was in my 20s and 30s, I was afraid of that muse not coming. It's probably why I was so disciplined in my writing and just sat there with a guitar.
Some people avoid writer's block by writing in cycles. That down time allows them to refill the well of inspiration.
It all depends on how it works for each person. There's no one system. I don't purposely not pick up the guitar so that I can replenish the well, but I do look at the down time as time when the well is being replenished.
Why did you turn to songwriting as a means of creative expression?
I wasn't really looking for a means to express myself. I just happened to know, from early memories, of being enamored with pop music and rock n roll. It's what I breathed and lived. I wanted to play covers first. I wasn't in a rush to write my own stuff in high school. Some of the early Buffalo Tom stuff is painful to listen to. Laughs.
What's your creative process like when you write a song?
I don't sit down anymore to write. I am back to letting the stream of consciousness come whenever it comes. I don't get frustrated if days go by and I haven't written anything. Sometimes days go by without even picking up the guitar. I don't set aside time to come up with the initial inspiration. What I do is pick up the guitar, and if something comes, I record it on my phone. If I'm lucky, I'll get all the words at once, but that hardly ever happens. Mostly I'll just get a phrase or two to build a song around and just follow that muse later on. I let those ideas gestate for a while so I am ready to put things together. I try to do that latter half in spurts so I'm not faced with writing a notebook of lyrics all at once.
This process is ever evolving. Back in the old days I had cassettes and sang it live with a guitar into a mic, then I'd give that cassette to the band. Now I've got Pro Tools and I may flesh them out more on my own.
Where do your song topics come from?
Very rarely do I have a lyric in mind that I set down to music. I don't try to fit music to words. I have way more music than I could ever put words to. So when an opportunity comes to score a movie or write topically about something, I welcome it because it's an opportunity to use some music that hasn't been fleshed out yet. Maybe it's evocative on its own but just needs words.
One of the lines that stuck out with me on your blog was how disappointed you get when you hear a song with great music but atrocious lyrics.
I've listened to some Elvis Costello songs for over twenty years and never much paid attention to the lyrics. Not all, but some, because he is a brilliant lyricist. At the risk of sounding sexist, I find that woman pay more attention to lyrics than men. Like I listen to the music of Bob Dylan before I pay attention to the lyrics. There are plenty of times when I am really absorbed by the song, and it either dies because the lyrics aren't interesting or I turn the song off because the lyrics bum me out.
What do you mean by "bad lyrics"?
There are times, lyrically, when the theme of the words doesn't match the tone of the lyrics, and there's a juxtaposition there, a tension, that really works. A song of ours like "Soda Jerk" is a big bouncy song that is borderline despondent and about alienation. But it rocks out in a poppy, major key way. Elvis Costello was brilliant at that.
For example, that Train song "Sweet Soul Sister" is a catchy song. My friends make fun of it. But with the lyrics I think, "Dude, you didn't even TRY with this one!" And yet it's a huge hit, so maybe we should stop trying. And that "mister mister" lyric bums me out. It was probably the first thing that jumped into his head.
Words can sound musically great, but they have to resonate. Take Chuck Berry. His words sound great and sit rhythmically. He has a knack for picking words that resonate. They may not have been the deepest songs, but they captured an essence of Americana that a lot of people identified with.
What musicians out there don't get enough credit for their lyrics?
The Rolling Stones. I don't think people think of them in that manner. But only in later years have they written some weak lyrics. Some of those deep tracks like "Coming Down Again" from Goat's Head Soup stick out.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
That's the hardest part for me: how much of that first draft is the real stuff? There are Buffalo Tom songs where I trusted in that early stage stream of consciousness. But I listen now and am not sure what I was trying to say. Laughs. Sometimes you look at yourself as a vessel, and you just go with what comes out. The problem is that a lot of those songs are too opaque even for me. Now I try to capture the more inspired bits of that stuff and have a song that makes sense.
On the new record, "Revise Watch" might be one of the least revised songs. "Guilty Girls" is one that changed a lot in its revisions.
When you are really struggling with completing a song, are you driven to finish it or likely to say it's probably not meant to be?
I very rarely feel I've got a great song I can't finish. If there's something compelling about the music or lyrics, I'll stay up as long as it takes. Buffalo Tom is a very reticent collaboration when it comes to lyrics. I don't think we have any trouble letting our songs die if they won't go anywhere. I've told the other guys that if a lyric gets in the way, they need to let me know. I won't take it personally, like maybe I once did. These guys are my sounding board, so I want them to tell me if something is weak.
Yet I don't think I could do the same thing for Chris. I'd have a hard time telling him that a lyric wasn't doing it for me. There's an artful way in the collaborative process about letting them know. Usually it's about telling people what you do like. Tom, our drummer, is a pretty shy guy. And he let me know on "Down" that a the line "a pit of lies" should have been a "pack of lies." He was right about his version being more powerful sonically.
What kind of reading do you do?
Richard Ford is my favorite author. Also John Irving, Raymond Carver and Richard Russo. I was a latecomer to Cormac McCarthy. No Country For Old Men and The Road both contain devastating writing. McCarthy has such an ear for dialogue. And his hard, vivid imagery. Buffalo Tom was never hugely successful, I think, because we tried to integrate some very difficult themes into our own songs, stuff that interested us. It's easy to do when you are a John Prine with an acoustic guitar. Van Morrison, when he hits it, is the perfect songwriter. He captures all these mystical things, the concrete things, then the singing and the voice.
I grew up in that Sorrows of Young Werther mode, like this wayward self-pitying adolescent. As soon as I heard about the Romantic poets when The Jam quoted Shelley, I went down that road trying to seek out all these poets mentioned by songwriters. Up until recently, I was still pretty good about reading poetry. And I mean actually going out and buying books.
I grew up reading the Beat stuff, that mix of narrative and stream of consciousness poetry. That's where I came from. Also, Yeats and Blake I pick up from time to time. For a long time, I could quote long parts of Eliot's "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," like when he says "I should have been a pair of ragged claws." That part about unrequited love really speaks to an 18 year old.
And as you get older, it's more about the line "I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
Believe me, I know! Now that I'm in my 40s, it's more like "I've measured out my life in coffee spoons."