Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz lets rip

Back in the 1960s and 70s, music photographers lived the life. Rock magazines would send snappers and writers out on the road for weeks at a time, hanging with bands as they traversed the world, capturing the action at close quarters. Look at some of the seminal work from the decade – like Neal Preston’s documenting of Led Zeppelin’s tours, Pennie Smith’s Clash archive, or Mick Rock’s capturing of David Bowie at his Ziggy Stardust peak – and you see an intimacy and access it’s almost impossible to get now.

In this digital age – with more and more outlets clamouring for time with bands, and with the bands themselves often documenting their tours via social media – this kind of intimate documentary has become rarer. A few lucky photographers with a particularly good relationship with certain bands get to travel and shoot more than just the first three songs. And often it’s having that connection, that familiarity that brings better pictures. The photographer blends into the background, capturing much more natural shots in the process.

Until recently, much of my journalistic career was spent as a music writer, first in New Zealand and then in London. I managed to strike up a friendship with a few of the bands I met along the way, including Buffalo Tom, the Boston power trio best-known for their hit ‘Taillights Fade’ and a crucial role in 90s teen drama ‘My So-Called Life’.

I first met Buffalo Tom in 1998, interviewing guitarist Bill Janovitz and bass player Chris Colbourn during promo duties for the album ‘Smitten’; the fact I was interviewing them for a New Zealand paper probably helped break the ice (the band are massive fans of NZ’s Flying Nun indie label). Over the next decade I caught up with them every time they played London, or when I visited Boston. Apart from releasing a pair of best-ofs and playing only occasional gigs, the band were pretty much on hiatus, busy having families. When they reconvened for 2007’s ‘Three Easy Pieces’, they were a touring band once more. By that time I had started my soundcheck photography project, and travelled a little with some other artists I’d got to know – Nashville’s wonderful Lambchop and singer-songwriter Josh Rouse, notably. When Buffalo Tom headed back on the road at the end of 2007, I headed with them, shooting them on a tour across Belgium and Holland. In 2011, as they released follow-up ‘Skins’, I headed out on the road with them again, shooting at shows in Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne, as well as London. It’s been a real pleasure to spend time on the road with them.

Bill Janovitz in Brussels

Normally, when I’m shooting bands, it’s the soundcheck only, capturing the details on the stage as the band prepares for the night ahead. But on tours, it’s everything – soundchecks, backstage details, the energy and momentum of the night’s concert. The tour began in a wintry Brussels, a hot-bed of the band’s popularity – the night’s gig taking place at the Ancienne Belgique, a beautifully atmospheric venue in the heart of Brussels. It’s one of those venues which is a joy to watch a band in, steeped in rock history.  After the night’s show to a sold-out crowd, we repaired to a local bar – Archiduc – that looked like something from a 1930s ocean liner.

This is hardy glamorous rock ‘n’ roll travel – no private jets and limos here – but it’s the reality of much of European touring for many bands; life in a splitter van plying its way from city to city, crossing borders now reduced to a roadside sign, the sky a constant grey cloud. But then there are the little touches that mark the progress from country to country; the subtle changes in the architecture, and the different languages suddenly appearing on the signage. And the olde-world charm of a cosy bar on a cobbled side-street can make the coldest night bearable.

As ever, these soundcheck/concert shots were taken on a pair of Nikon cameras – an autofocus F100 and a manual FM2N, and only two lenses (85mm and 50mm). All were shot on Fuji Neopan, usually rated at 6400. That gets rid of any confusion over whether one particular roll needs to be pushed differently – on projects like this it’s good to cut down possible distractions and concentrate on the shooting. Everything from soundcheck stillness to glasses of wine on quiet venue bars to the sweaty denouement of a nights show are captured with the same palette. It’s a simple yet crucial piece of advice for anyone undertaking a long project, not just those following a three-piece rock band around the Low Countries.

Ancienne Belgique, soundcheck stillness

On sunny days I had a few rolls of colour film to capture the winter streets – the weather in Amsterdam was particularly beautiful – allowing me to break out of the black and white mould a little.

When the show starts, the goal was to capture moments that the show photographers and fans – busily snapping all the way through the gig – can’t get themselves. So it’s all about the vantage points on the side of the stage, or venturing to the front for those first chords of the encore, band and audience sweat-soaked alike.

I hope the next album – and European tour – isn’t far away.

Check out pics from the tour on Flickr, and my post about shooting the cover for the band’s album ‘Skins’.

Chris Colbourn, shot during soundcheck
Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my stack… shot in Brussels
Drummer Tom Maginnis during soundcheck
Bright lines from stage lights… Chris Colbourn a ghost in the shadows
Blending into the background pays off in the quiet moments
Who-style windmilling from Mr Janovitz

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Stephen Dowling
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