Buffalo Tom at 30: midlife ruminations and plenty of passion
Toward the end of the sessions for Buffalo Tom’s new album, drummer Tom Maginnis suggested the band work on an acoustic demo singer Bill Janovitz had shared with his bandmates.
“Let’s try the Stones-y one,” Maginnis said. Janovitz was surprised to hear his song described that way — he’d thought of it, “if anything, as James Taylor-y.”
And he’s a Rolling Stones fanatic. He’s written two books on his favorite band; when his phone lights up during an interview at a Davis Square coffeehouse, his ringtone squawks the opening chords of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
As it turned out, the song, “Overtime,” has a distinct Jagger-Richards-in-the-’70s feel, with a wistful twang and a subtle gospel-vocal backing. More than 30 years since their own formation, the three members of Buffalo Tom are still plenty capable of surprising themselves, which is very good news for fans.
“Quiet & Peace,” out Friday, is the band’s first new studio album since 2011, their ninth overall. They play a few West Coast shows this weekend and have other tour dates planned, including April 20 at the Paradise.
The new album puts a fitting cap on the band’s third decade together. The trio, which also includes bassist-singer Chris Colbourn, met while attending UMass Amherst in the mid-1980s; they released their debut album in 1988. Their first 10 years coincided with the alternative rock heyday, and its downslide; their second decade was marked by disillusion and regrouping.
Now they’ve figured out how to be homeowners and family men — Janovitz is a Realtor, Colbourn runs a booking agency — without losing the creative spirit that drove them in the first place.
“Leaves fall around us/ We come kicking through/ It’s the least that we can do,” Janovitz sings on one new song, which has a sense of foreboding and a descending progression that will be instantly familiar to Buffalo Tom admirers. (It even mentions taillights, a sly nod to the band’s most beloved song, “Taillights Fade.”)
“Least That We Can Do” is one of several standout tracks on “Quiet & Peace,” including “Lonely Fast and Deep,” “In the Ice,” and Colbourn’s stately pop song “Roman Cars.” To mark the recent 25th anniversary of “Let Me Come Over,” the band’s biggest album, they’ve played some live dates that have featured that album in full. There’s a cohesion and a sustained level of craftsmanship on the new album that makes it hard to believe a quarter-century has passed between those records.
“They’re such an efficient band,” says David Minehan, frontman of Boston greats the Neighborhoods and the proprietor of Woolly Mammoth Sound in Waltham, where Buffalo Tom cut “Quiet & Peace.” “The songs have no fat, and their emotions are always at the ninth setting, with a little extra to go when needed.”
Minehan, who knows a thing or two about songcraft, turned out to be a “perfect” choice as producer, says Janovitz: “He’s the most even-keeled guy. No baggage. I think I can speak for everyone [in the band] in saying that.”
It was Minehan who chose to showcase Janovitz’s daughter, Lucy, a college freshman who sang in a cappella groups in high school, on the haunting version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” that closes the album. Over the years the band has recorded a batch of exquisitely curated cover songs, from the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine, and the Jam, to name a few. But those have usually appeared on special projects.
Lucy recorded a backing vocal for the Paul Simon song, but it was Minehan who suggested opening the track with her isolated voice. In January, when Janovitz played a solo set at the Burren, a few doors down in Davis Square from where he’s sipping coffee, he brought Lucy along to join him on the song, and she nailed it.
“I’ve never had a genuine standing ovation like that, and it wasn’t me,” he says, warning with a smile that he might choke up at the memory.
Even when the band was young, mortality always felt like an underlying theme. Now it’s pronounced: The opening track on the new album, “All Be Gone,” pictures a world without the singer in it. “Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead,” sings Janovitz, who’s 51.
But the music still surges, with an abundance of purpose — joy, even.
“I love bands who’ve been around the block.” says Minehan. “The passion still burns in the loins, and you gotta do something about it.”
Janovitz claims he’s still not sure why certain songs dig their way into fans’ psyches. But he’ll allow that he has settled into the idea of his band being middle-aged.
“Maybe I’ve just grown into my old soul,” he says.
At the Paradise Rock Club, April 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25, www.paradiserock.club