MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s “Let Me Come Over”

The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s Let Me Come Over

By Hobart Rowland

It’s fitting that, for quite a few Buffalo Tom fans, 1992’s Let Me Come Over was their introduction to the band. It was, after all, the official unveiling of “BT Mach 2,” a trio much less tethered to its influences and the punk aesthetic, with a rhythm section that was finally finding its form after a few years on the road. As for the songs, they were light-years more nuanced and tuneful than anything the group had previously attempted. Seen from varying perspectives, Buffalo Tom was either folk music for Pixies fans or alt-country delivered with a boozy New England swagger.

By the time Let Me Come Over was released, 25 years ago this past spring, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz (guitar, vocals, songwriting), Chris Colbourn (bass, vocals, songwriting) and Tom Maginnis (drums) had been grinding away for eight years. Embraced from the start by critics and fans in England, BT toured internationally behind its self-titled 1989 debut and 1990’s Birdbrain. They’d first assembled back in 1984 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also the place of origin for more widely celebrated outfits Dinosaur Jr and Pixies. Though the group might argue the merits of Let Me Come Over’s breakthrough status, it did pave the way for greater commercial success a year later with Big Red Letter Day. Beggars Arkive recently unveiled a 25th-anniversary reissue of Let Me Come Over, enhanced with Buffalo Tom’s first-ever live release, a frenetic, crisply recorded 1992 show in London.

“We didn’t have a lot of extra stuff,” says Janovitz, explaining the lack of any unreleased tracks from the studio sessions. “We didn’t have the luxury.”

Indeed, nothing is wasted on Let Me Come Over. It’s a lean, mean, fully formed statement—one whose acoustic-balladry-on-steroids formula and subsequent variations have sustained Buffalo Tom into middle age. In conversations with MAGNET, the band members recall how it all transpired, with some help from esteemed Fort Apache Studios producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie.

Bill Janovitz: If you listen to our first two records, it goes from muddy to less muddy—just a step above home recording. It was basically the lunatics running the asylum. [Slade and Kolderie] weren’t trained engineers, and there was a lot of pot being smoked and a lot of beer being drunk. It was like hanging out at a loft and wondering who was in charge of pressing “record.”

Paul Q. Kolderie: Sean Slade had worked with Buffalo Tom at Fort Apache on the first record and Birdbrain. Then we started working together quite a bit.

Sean Slade: Having Paul there seemed like a natural progression.

Kolderie: J Mascis (who produced the band’s first two albums) wasn’t gonna do it, so I came in as the other producer.

Janovitz: Birdbrain was kind of dark. We were experimenting with different things, writing-wise and style-wise—sort of feeling our way through stuff and weeding our way through our influences. I look at those first two albums as one big tour, heading over to Europe and playing to all these big crowds. I’d never been off the East Coast until I got into Buffalo Tom. It was a really exciting time, but it was all sort of collapsed into one. We were just happy to have a second record, never mind a third one.

Chris Colbourn: We all had jobs and families at that point, and there was pressure to get off the road. We were going down our own path, but I figured that path would be a very lonely one. The direction of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur seemed to be what everyone was overwhelmingly interested in.

Janovitz: Looking back, the list of Fort Apache bands was pretty amazing: Dinosaur, Big Dipper, the Pixies, Throwing Muses, the Lemonheads, Blake Babies—and the Breeders, eventually. But it wasn’t like there were multiple projects going on and we were all hanging out in the lounge. We’d see people coming and going; I didn’t even meet Throwing Muses until we were on the road. And it was a really difficult time in Boston to get gigs. We didn’t headline there until we headlined in London. Still, it was a great time. It was our little clubhouse. There were these Christmas parties with J Mascis playing drums with some version of the Pixies.

Colbourn: We were definitely underdogs. We were like the little brothers of Dinosaur Jr—the JV team. I think people were a little bit surprised, after Birdbrain, that there was anything else there.

Janovitz: By the time we were ready to record Let Me Come Over, we wanted to get out of Boston.

Kolderie: They gave us a tape of demos. We listened to it that night, got in the van the next day and drove to the studio.

Janovitz: We started it up at Dreamland Studios near Woodstock, N.Y., which is an old converted church. We did basic tracks there and went back to Fort Apache to do overdubs.

Slade: At that stage of our career, Dreamland was our home away from home. The room sound was very unique, and it had a certain mystery to it.

Janovitz: Our budget only allowed for a few days there. We didn’t know anything about Dreamland, but once we got up there, we were just completely in love with the place.

Tom Maginnis: We did all the tracks as fast as we could. The clock was ticking.

Janovitz: It was evident that we were making leaps. Chris was writing more, and everybody was feeling more comfortable. We were certainly entering a new phase—a mini-breakthrough. Chris and Tom had only picked up the bass and drums, respectively, just a few months before we started recording our first album, so we were much more comfortable as a band. We’d really found our legs.

Maginnis: I was definitely feeling more confident on drums. Still, when I listen to some of those songs now, they were way too fast. For the first 10 years of playing, I didn’t hold the sticks correctly. My timing was sort of all over the place, but I guess I had the energy and athleticism to pull it off.

Janovitz: We were coming off big influences like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur and Sonic Youth, but we were also letting our classic-rock influences show even more: Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, the Stones.

Maginnis: It was like we couldn’t escape our punk and indie roots, but we were trying. Then Bill discovered the capo.

Janovitz: I’d never used a capo before, other than just fooling around on acoustic guitar at home. It came down to something as simple as that—a way to get the juices flowing. It was like, “Wow, I’m playing all these cowboy chords, with all this big, wide-open space. If I just move this capo up the neck, oh man, my voice goes up here and there’s all these different harmonics.” When you apply that to an electric guitar and put it through a distortion pedal, you get songs like “Larry” or, later, “Treehouse” and “I’m Allowed”—those are all up in the same capo position.

Colbourn: It definitely was a step up, especially “Velvet Roof,” “Mineral” and “Porchlight.” Bill got away from all the other indie-rock bands and just wrote what he wanted to write. We were big Kinks, Beatles and Stones fans. Maybe that wasn’t very cool, but this was going to be our last album, anyway.

Janovitz: “Larry” felt like a big deal because it was really a completely different sort of song, almost like an Astral Weeks type of thing—impressionistic, lyrically. One of the first times we played it before we recorded it, I remember J Mascis being really interested and asking about it—to the extent that he’s effusive in his praise, which is not ever. J was sort of pointing the way for us as our liaison in the studio. To do something new—and for him to like it—was a nice little memory.

Kolderie: When I first heard “Taillights Fade,” I knew it would be a big song for them. Chris and I had sort of a falling out because I wasn’t as big a fan of his songs. I thought Bill had better ones.

Colbourn: I remember “Taillights Fade” not really impressing us at all. The beauty of that song was that Bill probably didn’t think too much about the lyrics.

Maginnis: We were recording Let Me Come Over before Nevermind came out. I distinctly remember wrapping up a night of overdubs at Fort Apache to go into Boston and see Nirvana the night before Nevermind came out. By the time we started mixing, the whole ballgame had changed.

Colbourn: We always seemed to be releasing our stuff around Nirvana albums, and Nirvana always seemed like metal to me—in a good way.

Janovitz: Paul and Sean had never really done digital mixing. It was sort of a new thing, and there were only two boards in the region that we knew of, so we went to the Carriage House in Stamford, Conn.

Slade: I guess we felt like, “Well, this is a pro album, so we have to go to a real mixing studio.” When we got there, the studio wasn’t as cool as we thought it was.

Janovitz: Paul and Sean were really feeling their way through the thing.

Slade: Then the guys in the band got this idea that they wanted to mix up the acoustic parts and mix down the electric-guitar parts. It became a bone of contention on a number of songs.

Janovitz: The mixes were pretty good; we were happy-ish with them. When (our record label) Beggars Banquet got it, they said, “We really like the material and the mixes are pretty good … But how about getting it remixed by this guy named Ron Saint Germain (producer, Sonic Youth’s Goo; Living Colour’s Stain)?” I felt very closed-minded about it. Paul and Sean were defensive about it, to some extent.

Slade: When Beggars heard the mixes, they didn’t like them at all, for the simple reason that they wanted roaring guitars. Then they gave it to Ron with absolutely no input whatsoever from the producers or the band.

Maginnis: Beggars was like, “You sound a little like Nirvana. Let’s put a little money into this thing.” It was sort of like B.C. before Nirvana and A.D. after Nirvana. The world was changing, and we were caught in the middle.

Kolderie: All of a sudden, there was a lot more money to remix the album. They paid Ron substantially more to remix it than they paid us—twice as much, I believe. Our budget was like $10,000, maybe $12,000. If they’d given us the money to start with, we could’ve taken more time and maybe they wouldn’t have had to remix it.

Janovitz: During one of my first calls with Ron, his attitude was very much like, “I’m a big-time mixing guy with my own jet … I just got off mixing Living Colour.” He was this Mr. Big-Dick-Swinging arrogant guy, I felt. But a lot of that was me being a hardheaded 20-something-year-old kid who thought he knew what he’s doing but had absolutely no idea what he was doing. I was very close to the material and reluctant to let it go.

Maginnis: Giving up that control was kind of scary.

Ron Saint Germain: A lot of bands see (remixers/engineers) as these strange entities changing their lives in back rooms. It’s not like that at all for me. I came from the musician side, so I really try hard to capture what the band is about. Nirvana’s name never came up, but I did feel that the drive of the electric guitars was more important than the high-frequency excitement of the acoustic.

Kolderie: Ron assumed that it was his record now, and we were like, “Wait, nobody really fired us.”

Saint Germain: None of the guys were there for the remixing, which happens a lot. But Sean did make it in for a few hours, which helped.

Slade: There was one song where the band was adamant that the original mix was better than Ron’s—“Frozen Lake.” Only that original made it to the master.

Saint Germain: It wasn’t my mix, but “Frozen Lake” is one of my favorite songs on the album. The other is “Taillights Fade.” That song still sticks with me.

Janovitz: When we got the mixes back, I was shocked, mostly in a bad way. Like, “Wow, this is a little Johnny Bravo here.” But after taking a day or two, it was undeniable. He brought out a sparkle—a punch that was lacking.

Colbourn: Listening to it now, it sounds really sloppy to me. There were a lot of mistakes. But Ron’s mix was pretty amazingly different. He took what was really a garage-rock record and made it brighter. I remember bringing it home and playing it on a cassette boombox with Paul and Sean, and it sounded really good to me. I was all thumbs-up, though I don’t know if the other guys remember it that way.

Kolderie: Ron did it in like four or five days, I think. And you could tell right away that it was better. He definitely solved some of the problems we had trying to mix it in Connecticut.

Maginnis: The album cover was a National Geographic photo of an Australian Aborigine chief. There was some criticism about suburban white guys exploiting the black experience, and it sort of put people off-kilter as far as, “Does it really represent the music?” But we liked that, in a twisted way.

Colbourn: Whether it’s the album cover or the title, there was a lot of ironic humor on the record. You could get away with that in the indie-rock world. We tried not to think too much about it.

Janovitz: By the time our third record had been recorded, Uncle Tupelo had been into Fort Apache, and Paul and Sean were starting to attract a lot of bands from outside the region, primarily because they were into Dinosaur Jr. Radiohead were into our records, and they came to Fort Apache and did Pablo Honey.

Slade: Our lives totally changed after Radiohead.

Kolderie: Doing Let Me Come Over really taught us a lot about the business of the record business. After that, Sean and I realized we had to get organized and do things differently. We finally got a manager.

Saint Germain: I was really disappointed that Buffalo Tom didn’t achieve what I felt they deserved. So many things have to fall into place for a band to cross over. Still, it’s great that they survived and stuck with it. But, man, that song, “Taillights Fade”—it’s never let me go. Songs like that—they’re how we mark our lives.