“I’m not sure whose water this is,” says Gail Greenwood right before taking a swig from a bottle she found on the stage of the Paradise Rock Club. “But it’s fine. I trust everyone here.”
Greenwood’s band Belly are about to finish a rapturously received set, and true to her word, she’s surrounded by old friends. It’s a frigid Saturday night in mid-March, and some of the most popular and beloved figures to ever emerge from the Boston alternative rock music scene — including Belly, Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, and Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz — are all under the same roof for the first time in decades to play a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Organized by local musician Shaun Wolf Wortis and members of the long-running oddball Boston group the Gravel Pit as part of the ongoing benefit series Boston Stands, the show has a bit of a college reunion feel. Nearly all of the musicians have known each other since the late ’80s and early ’90s, and based on the vintage band T-shirts, weathered smiles, and yelps of recognition for Belly hits like “Gepetto” and “Super-Connected,” many members of the audience go back just as long.
The benefit produced a classic Boston moment, as Evan Dando showed up late to his own set. He sounded as golden-voiced as ever, and continues to be unreasonably handsome. His set included a cover of Florida Georgia Line’s “Round Here,” because Dando is as Dando does. The event, which raised at least $28,000 for the ACLU (Boston Stands’ Ed Valauskas is waiting on the final tally for some of “the auction stuff”), culminated in many of the acts (as well as the comedian Eugene Mirman) joining Nada Surf onstage for a run-through of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought The Law.”
Credit: Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
Nostalgia is unavoidable at an event like this, but the night felt deeper than that. There was a sense of reconciliation in the air, a coming to terms with both the past and the future. For three of the artists on the bill, the show also felt like the first step into the next phase of their careers. This week Hatfield will release the raw, politically outspoken Pussycat, and both Buffalo Tom and Belly are working on new albums as well. The intriguing and melodically complex new songs Janovitz and Belly played that night made it clear that neither artist is interested in rehashing the past.
Before major labels and MTV got involved and things got bigger than anyone was ready for, and before the digital revolution of the ’00s made regional music scenes seem like a quaint concept, there was a time when Boston was second only to Seattle for sheer quantity of beloved rock artists. (The scene isn’t as bustling as it once was, but it can still lay claim to vibrant young acts such as Pile and Speedy Ortiz.) Buffalo Tom, Belly, and Hatfield were three of the most popular and influential, and the Boston Stands show seemed like an appropriate time to check in with them, explore the bonds of friendship and music that led them to this night, and see what’s next.
Boston has been an incubator for rock bands since at least the 1970s. The city can lay claim to the Pixies, the Breeders, Galaxie 500, Aerosmith, the Cars, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, ‘Til Tuesday, Big Dipper, Morphine, and of course, the eponymous band Boston. (Quincy, Massachusetts is close enough that we can go ahead and include the Dropkick Murphys. Amherst natives Dinosaur Jr. and Natick-bred the Modern Lovers also deserve a mention.)
There is something undeniably unique about the alternative rock scene that started percolating sometime around 1979, in the wake of the formation of the groundbreaking, and still ongoing, post-punk band Mission Of Burma and reached its zenith around 1995. But as Buffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz admits, it’s difficult to put one’s finger on what exactly made the town special.
“A lot of these bands weren’t really Bostonian; there might be one guy that grew up in Boston,” he clarifies. He then ponders the diversity of the town, transplants and all: “In the club scene, there’d be real townie punk rock bands like the Dropkick Murphys, those guys are real Boston guys obviously — that’s their image. That’s always been a part of it. Really cool, liberal, but really working class. There were also very effete bands like Galaxie 500, and I don’t mean effete in an insulting way, I mean it in a ‘Harvard intellectual,’ artsy way.”
That push and pull between the hardworking, head down, “you’re not better than me” blue-collar Boston attitude and the record-collecting academics looking for a new spin on an old sound is the Boston music scene “in a microcosm,” Janovitz says. Just like the town itself, it contains many colors: “‘Is it parochial? Is it racist?’ No, it’s liberal. ‘What is it?’ It’s all over the fucking place. And every year it changes a bit more.”
It’s difficult to nail down exactly why Boston and the nearby area (some of these bands technically came from nearby Cambridge, but there’s no need to split hairs) produced so many enduring rock groups in the late 80’s and early ’90s. It’s also difficult to elucidate exactly what made these acts so endearing to people. But there are a few factors and common threads worth exploring. (Obviously, this is sort of topic one could write a book about. This is an overview and is not meant to be definitive.)
A common link between many of these artists was the fact that they recorded at the local Fort Apache Studios, and worked with local producers Gary Smith, Paul Q. Kolderie, and Sean Slade (the later two would go on to produce albums for Hole and Radiohead). Not only could Boston bands make a great-sounding record, but there were plenty of outlets for them to get heard.
“I suppose that if you were a younger music fan looking at it from outside, it would really look like a scene. But it felt that it was accidental that it all happened at the same time,” says Blake Babies guitarist John Strohm while driving back to his home in Nashville from a vacation. “When I think about it, I think some of the resources that we had in Boston really created a perfect environment. We have great college radio, so if we could get in the studio and make a decent sounding tape, we could get it played on the radio and then we could get some popularity.”
Strohm mentions the Harvard college radio station WHRB (which, during the time Strohm was active in the scene, included Lemonheads member and future television and film director Jesse Peretz as a DJ and future Matador Records co-founder Patrick Amory as a station director) and the MIT station WMBR as key early supporters of his band Blake Babies as well as the Lemonheads. But he holds a special place in his heart for the Emerson College station WERS.
“They had this show called Metro Wave that was every Sunday night at 8 o’clock that I used to listen to religiously from the first week I moved to Boston,” he remembers. “That’s how I would hear all the bands, because I was too young to get into the bars. I never missed it. I would always tape it.”
Strohm and his high school girlfriend Freda Love moved to Boston from Bloomington, Indiana, and he attended Berklee College Of Music. Juliana Hatfield was one of the first people they met at Berklee, and they formed the Blake Babies shortly thereafter. “We were trying to kind of find our way into the scene that already existed when we got there,” he says. “It was proving difficult.” They eventually befriended the Lemonheads; Evan Dando was impressed that Strohm was friends with the Indiana punk band Zero Boys. (Boston was the kind of scene where one was expected to know their shit.)
“They were record collector guys. When I met the Lemonhead guys for the first time, they were from a really different background than me. I’m from the midwest and came up going to public high school, and they’re all private school Boston guys,” he says. “They all went to prep school and had pretty wealthy families. But we had the exact same interests and wanted to do the same things. We really came together over music.”
Credit: Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
When discussing the college rock scene of the 1980s, it’s difficult to overstate how influential R.E.M. and the Replacements were. Every sensitive misfit saw that if you worked hard enough and maybe got a few lucky breaks, you could find an audience without compromising your art. Several Boston groups were inspired, directly or indirectly, by this ethos, and success begets success. Once one artist in a scene starts to make it, other artists begin to get empowered and feel like it could happen to them as well, which leads to more groups working harder in the studio and on the road. Blake Babies became the little brothers and sisters of the scene, and made friends with Galaxie 500 and Buffalo Tom and other bands in Boston, and watched as they all started to go national. “We weren’t necessarily friends with the Pixies, but they were definitely in the same scene as us,” Strohm says. “It was just this disorienting moment for a couple of years when all the bands started to find ways to get successful around the same time.”
From Jimi Hendrix to the Strokes, there’s a long history of England discovering, championing, and ultimately breaking American artists back in their home country. Around the late ’80s and early ’90s, publications such as NME and Melody Maker started writing about the American indie rock scene and Boston in particular. (Journalists were particularly fascinated with J Mascis; when My Bloody Valentine started, Kevin Shields was sometimes seen as a Dinosaur Jr. acolyte.) “It filtered through the UK first,” says Belly’s Tanya Donelly. “Everybody got signed over there. There was a weird current that went overseas and then back.”
Blake Babies signed with the Chapel Hill, North Carolina label Mammoth, which would later go on to have platinum success with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. They got college radio play and a bit of 120 Minutes love before breaking up in 1992; too soon to ride the waves that their peers would go on. (Strohm notes that he has no regrets in life, but does wish they hadn’t turned down the opportunity to open for Nirvana on the Nevermind tour.)
Boston was a great place to have a band, but it wasn’t cheap. Eventually, it didn’t make sense for Strohm and Love to pay $500 for an apartment they were barely living in, so the pair “left and went back to Bloomington, and that was probably the death knell for the band. With Juliana still in Boston and us there, we kind of lost the feeling of cohesion of being a group,” he says. “It was a little bit frustrating, because things were really starting to work, but we had already decided to break up.”
I asked him if he wishes he could have kept the band going for just a few more years in order to take part in the alt-rock boom era, but he says it just wasn’t in the cards. “There was no holding on a little bit longer for us, because we weren’t functioning well as a group anymore,” he says. “At some point, Juliana really found her voice creatively, and there’s no question that she was the person in the band people looked to as the genius. It wasn’t an accident that we got in a band with her. She’s a true original, same with Evan. And at some point the band came to confine her and she wanted to experiment creatively.”
There are no hard feelings, he stresses. The Blake Babies reunited for a 2001 album, God Bless The Blake Babies, which he considers one of their best releases. They played some shows last year, and have talked about possibly making a new record at some point in the future, if all three members can find the time, which at the moment is quite an “if.”
“Very few people in the world care at all, but the people who do care acknowledge that everything we’ve done has been of a high standard quality. We wouldn’t just go make something to just play shows behind and throw it out there,” he says. “We’d want to actually make something with care and time, at least of the standard that we’ve established. That just takes time. Freda is actually at the point where her kids are grown and out of the house, but I still have young kids and I’m really busy with my career so it’s really, really hard to find time to do that.”
While he says it was disorienting to see his friends get famous in the ’90s, he played in the band Antenna for a while and also joined the Lemonheads for a few years. “Because of that I got to experience what it was like to play in a hugely popular band,” he says. “It was a blast. I feel like I kind of got the best of all possible worlds. I never thought that I was the guy that could carry it. I never thought that I was gonna be the Juliana or the Evan for a band. I felt very fortunate to just be part of it.” He later got his law degree, and today does entertainment law for the Nashville firm Loeb & Loeb. He focuses on the music industry, and sometimes works with his old pals at Matador Records. For her part, Love now works at Northwestern University and wrote the memoir/cookbook Red Velvet Underground in 2015.
If the Blake Babies are indicative of the factors that helped Boston bands gain an audience, then Letters To Cleo are a helpful illustration of some the reasons why these bands stood out.
A living example of the proverb that it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success, Letters To Cleo were formed by cousins Greg McKenna and Kay Hanley in 1990; she had never sung in a band or written a song before they started playing together.
“It never even occurred to me to be a singer in a band before I became a singer in a band. Greg was kind of a dreamer in that way but I was not,” says Hanley via phone from Los Angeles. “We come from a very blue-collar town, there is no entertainment business in Dorchester, and so I just never saw anybody doing that.”
She immediately backtracks that comment in order to shout out one of the city’s most popular groups. “Oh! Except, you know what, I grew up across the street from Marky and Donnie Wahlberg, who became huge music people.”
Hanley went to college for half a semester, and then left to focus on the band. “I would work a double shift at the restaurant on Thursday and then we’d all hop in the van and play New York, D.C., and Philly and then come back, so we could all go back to work on Monday,” she says. “We were going at the band thing hard, because at that time, there were a lot of examples in the Boston music scene of people doing that.”
Letters To Cleo were finding their footing just as Belly and Buffalo Tom were starting to get a national profile. “Even the Pixies at that time — even though they were hugely influential, they weren’t a household name by any stretch,” she says. “But they were a huge influence in that you could go out and have fans and still be a normal person. I think it was the idea of being a rockstar; that was the thing that was weird to me. It was the working bands who were just out there on the road — the road dogs — that really appealed to me.”
The band released their first album, Aurora Gory Alice, through the Boston label CherryDisc Records, and cool hunters descended, eager to find the next alt-rock hitmakers. “There was a big feeding frenzy. I think that was the nature of A&R at the time was to kind of hover in one musical center and scoop everything up and throw it to the wall and see what stuck. They would sign the big thing and then they’d stick around long enough to discover a couple of other next big things. But in our case, there were a lot of people just getting crazy, really mondo record deals after us, like just signing for tons of money and it was crazy.”
After five years of touring in a van, Letters To Cleo were playing SXSW the week of their album’s release, which was greeted by a glowing review from Billboard. “We got wined and dined by all the labels and Jeff Aldrich from Giant came to see us in Boston and we asked him, ‘What do you have going on?’ and he said, ‘Well, there’s this one thing we’re doing where we’re putting out a Melrose Place soundtrack and Dinosaur Jr. is going to be on it, Paul Westerberg, all these people, and we were like, ‘Oh my god, can we be on that?'” she says. “And he was like, ‘Sign the record deal and you’re on it.’ And that was huge. We wanted to be on a record with Paul Westerberg.” Giant re-released Aurora Gory Alice and pushed the single “Here & Now” from both the album and the Melrose Place soundtrack. “When we made the video, we didn’t realize they were going to tie the two together, but they did and it was miserable for many years to have to answer questions about Melrose Place, but again I understand now that without that we may never have had that hit.”
Almost as soon as Letters To Cleo hit the mainstream, their credibility was called into question, as that was the most popular pastime of the ’90s. But not only did Letters To Cleo have years of road experience to their credit, they shared a common trait with their Boston peers: an unabashed love of pop hooks and sunshine melodies, slanted and dusted with enough reverb to keep things modern. (Hatfield would often say that Olivia Newton-John was a huge influence on her.)
None of the Boston bands were overly macho or aggressive; that was for Seattle and Chicago. Instead, their music could feel romantic, sweet, and innocent, even kind. They had angst, but it was often more of a yearning variation. The bands were all smart enough that they wanted to make music with depth, that evoked ineluctable, undefinable feelings, but they were too Boston at their core to turn their noses up at the value of good songcraft.
“I was very self-conscious about the whole thing, to be honest,” Hanley says. “We were writing these really frothy pop songs, but I thought we were Big Star or something like that. I thought we had a lot of credibility, but I just thought, ‘People won’t get it, they’ll just think because I’m a girl, that just it’s pure pop.’ But it’s got this depth, and I just thought people wouldn’t understand. And so, you know, being criticized for the way I looked, the way I dressed, the way the band sounds — it’s too pop, it wasn’t huge enough — I’m not great at being criticized anyway, and that really was just like, ‘Ugh, fuck all of you all.'”
She’s over that now. “What a great way to spend your 20s.”
It also needs to be noted that Boston was the most egalitarian of the ’90s music towns, with more prominent female artists than any other scene. This also explains why the Boston acts fell out of the spotlight in the second half of the ’90s. As Clear Channel, in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, started buying up radio stations and standardizing playlists from the top down, fewer and fewer women were played on rock radio, and more aggressive (and often blander) fare was prioritized.
Letters To Cleo released two more albums, but after a while they’d road-dogged as much as they could. “Greg and I had always said, ‘As soon as it’s not fun, we’re not doing it anymore.'” Hanley and her then-husband, Cleo guitarist Michael Eisenstein, had their first child in 1999, and the band ended in 2000. Like Donelly’s and Janovitz’s, her firstborn will head to college soon. “We were all good friends when we were pregnant, and I have a picture of me and Tanya somewhere [where] she was holding Grace and I was holding Zoe and we were both new moms … and now they’re all grown up.”
Hanley was hired by the producer Babyface to provide the lead vocal for the Josie And The Pussycats film, and has gone on to have a solo career. She and her writing partner Michelle Lewis also compose songs for cartoons such as Doc McStuffins and Hanley toured as a back-up singer for Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana concerts. Letters To Cleo reunited for a series of shows and a Parks And Recreation performance, much to the delight of Adam Scott’s character Ben Wyatt. Last year, they released the EP Back To Nebraska. A new album has been discussed, but there are no current concrete plans for one. “We did a bunch of dates and they all sold out and it was a blast, and now we’re all back to work. I mean, I’m not saying we will never do it again — we talk about it; we might, but we’re just not right now,” she says. “Speaking for myself, I’m in the weeds with work.”
Hanley lives in Los Angeles these days, and is bummed she couldn’t make the benefit. But she wasn’t surprised to hear that the show was great, and that the music of that era still endures.
“That music was fucking rad,” she says. “It was band-led. Not producer-led, not A&R-led, not stylist-led, not photographer-led; it was a band-led phenomenon. It was a very authentic period of time and I’m not surprised kids are connecting with that authenticity now. I think well of them for that.”
Sitting in the coffee shop Diesel the day before the fundraiser, Janovitz is enjoying one of the perks of his adult job. Realtors get to set their own hours, he notes with a grin.
His acoustic set the next day will include an impromptu cover of Chuck Berry’s “30 Days” (the legend’s death hit the news a few hours before the show started), New Order’s “Age Of Consent,” a few new songs, and Buffalo Tom’s signature anthem of regret and longing, “Taillights Fade.” He’s been a member of the ACLU since the ’90s, he notes, and though Buffalo Tom were already booked to play the upcoming Boston Calling festival, he asked Valauskas, one of the organizers and a longtime friend of his, if he could get on the bill.
“These sorts of events are always great, cause it’s a very kumbaya-type ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling,” he says. “It’s not about who’s headlining. Not that anybody is like that at 50, anyway.”
Of everyone on the bill, he says he’s remained closest with Belly singer/guitarist Tanya Donelly. “She’s kinda like family,” he says, noting that their eldest daughters are good friends. “I feel a real kinship with everyone,” he adds. “I’ll see Evan tomorrow, and we’ll probably say a few words. It won’t be like some long, in-depth conversation, it doesn’t sort of need to be, because we’ve all been crossing paths for almost 30 years.”
Credit: Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
Janovitz grew up on Long Island and moved to the area when he was 16. He enrolled at the University Of Massachusetts At Amherst and majored in communications, but really, he says, “I went to college hoping to find a band, just like I hoped to find a girlfriend.” He kept running into drummer Tom Maginnis and bassist Chris Colbourn at shows. “The Pixies, Black Flag, the Replacements, whoever was coming through UMass. We’d all be at the same shows and sometimes it could be 20 people, 10 people, and we were like, ‘Well, maybe we can kind of just form a band,’ so we just learned our instruments together.”
Formed in 1986, Buffalo Tom have had long gaps of inactivity since the ’90s ended, but it’s always had the same lineup, and they’ve always done at least one show a year together. “You always take it for granted that you’re a family,” he says. “I think we’re three really loyal, level-headed guys. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some absolute, almost psychotic moments on any of our parts, particularly Chris and I. You’re in your 20s, and you’re trying to control your destiny.” He smiles and shakes his head a bit.
Buffalo Tom released their ramshackle self-titled debut album in 1988. It was produced by J Mascis, whose Dinosaur Jr. had already become standard-bearers for the Boston music scene. Their creative breakthrough came with 1992’s Let Me Come Over, and with the next year’s Big Red Letter Day they earned even more critical acclaim and received some MTV airtime for the single “Soda Jerk.”
“We never sold millions of records,” says Janovitz, plainly. He’ll readily admit that if one were to start making a shortlist of key ’90s rock bands, Buffalo Tom would likely not be on there.
They played a classicist, working man’s version of heartfelt college rock, focusing hard on winsome melodies, gauzy atmospherics, and sturdy craft. They didn’t have the off-the-cuff genius of Mascis or Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. These guys put a lot of effort into their work, but that was a big part of their charm. They were never particularly fashionable, but the upshot is that their music also doesn’t feel dated or tied to a particular moment in the slightest. (Though that’s not quite true of some of the artistic accoutrements that came with the albums. The retro ’70s kitsch cover for Big Red Letter Day and the sepia-toned shots of working class people making anguished faces in their video for “Soda Jerk” are very of their time.) When an ambitious television producer inevitably creates a drama set in the ’90s that examines what the time period meant in an indirect fashion (along the lines of, say, Halt And Catch Fire or The Americans), and they want to score a climactic emotional scene while avoiding obvious era signifiers, they would do well to reach for “Taillights Fade.” It’s maximum drama with minimum baggage.
Buffalo Tom are roughly analogous to other somewhat overlooked artists such as Judee Sill or the Dream Syndicate; not the most prominent artists of their time, but a hidden treat for someone that falls in love with an era’s music and wants to dig a little deeper. If they do, they’ll find scores of poetic, ingratiating rock songs that can stand proudly on a playlist next to Weezer and Guided By Voices. Anyone who cares enough to know who they are thinks well of them, and Janovitz suspects he might hear a bit of their influence on younger artists like Japandroids and Speedy Ortiz — both of whom he loves. Buffalo Tom have carved out a place for themselves, and these days, that’s enough for him. But there was a time when that wasn’t the case.
“Oh man, I can tell you all the bands that opened up for us: Smashing Pumpkins. Hole. Pearl Jam opened up before us on a bill,” he says. At first, Buffalo Tom started with relatively modest ambitions. Then Nirvana happened. “It was on our third album, and we were going to the same places they had just been, and people were going, ‘Oh my god, we’re seeing the future of rock ‘n’ roll.’ They had thousands of people lined up in the streets for a club that holds 500.”
After the success of Nevermind, record labels and MTV were scrambling to find the next hot alternative rock hitmakers, and Buffalo Tom got caught up in the frenzy. They appeared in the influential magazine Sassy, cameoed on My So-Called Life and closed out the final episode of The Jon Stewart Show in 1995. They received light MTV and specialty radio play, but never quite entered mass rotation. “There was a really cool, exciting moment where we felt like rock stars for a while.”
For better and for worse, it would seem. For most of their ’90s heyday, Buffalo Tom were signed to the influential indie label Beggars Banquet. At the label’s request, the band agreed to open for the extremely popular group Live (then enjoying massive success for their album Throwing Copper). “Even the things that I knew at the time were wrong, they were wrong for the right reasons. In my mind, I thought, ‘This is not what I want to be doing. This is a careerism thing. I’m placating the label,'” he says, adding that he was worried that if the band refused to take the gig, then their next album might not get a proper promotional push or even released at all. “At the time, I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? This is not what we want the band to be.’
“But you don’t look at life like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have done that.’ If you do, something’s wrong,” he says. Even the strangest moments are as amusing to him now as they were disorienting back then. “We opened up for the Goo Goo Dolls in the last year of the ’90s. We were playing in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to a bunch of 13-year-old girls. Like, ‘Why am I even doing this? Would Nick Cave do this?'”
We opened up for the Goo Goo Dolls in the last year of the ’90s. We were playing in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to a bunch of 13-year-old girls. Like, ‘Why am I even doing this? Would Nick Cave do this?’
After a “false start” with A&M Records, Buffalo Tom signed with Polydor Records, part of the Universal Music Group, and worked with Teenage Fanclub producer David Bianco for their keyboard heavy, pop-leaning album Smitten. “We had put it all on the line,” says Janovitz.
The album was released in the fall of 1998, just as Universal was acquired by the beverage company Seagram’s in a corporate merger. Scores of label employees lost their jobs, hundreds of artists were dropped as a result, and the company was in disarray. “There was no promotion whatsoever. It just died on the vine.”
Deflated, the band decided to take a break for a while, and Janovitz started a family and began pursuing a solo career. “All of a sudden you’re 10-plus years into it, and you’re wondering, ‘What am I doing? Why am I looking at this as a career?’ All these other people were moving up in their jobs or having kids, so we took a break at that point.” Eventually, he decided to stop being a full-time musician.
“I’m downplaying it, but I went through a real identity crisis stopping Buffalo Tom. I hate to just say it, but 9/11 was when my solo record came out, and it was apparent that everything was changing. Everybody was depressed,” he says. “I remember sitting in my friends’ apartment in the Village on October 2001, saying, ‘You know what, I think I’m just gonna do real estate.’ I went home, got online, went to this office in Midtown, took a test, and by the end of October I was a real estate agent. For a while, it was just a way to make a living and get me to the next project, but it’s been 16 years.”
Though he has a “normal” job, Janovitz — a ringer for actor Damian Lewis — fits right in with the college kids and creative types gathered at the cafe. There’s not a trace of bitterness in his voice during our conversation. He mainly seems to quietly marvel that Buffalo Tom ever happened at all — though it took a long time to arrive at that place of acceptance.
Janovitz says he never resented anyone their success, but also says that a lot of the ’90s was given over to wondering, “When is it our turn?” He spent a lot of time after putting the band on pause, thinking, “‘Maybe if you had just given it more time or just doubled down…’ Like at that time that we stopped, Wilco were just sort of on their way up. It was roughly the same audience; maybe if we had just stayed out on the road…” He trails off for a second. “But I don’t know, man, we were really burnt out. I think we would have ended up killing each other.”
I remember sitting in my friends’ apartment in the Village on October 2001, saying, ‘You know what, I think I’m just gonna do real estate.’ I went home, got online, went to this office in Midtown, took a test, and by the end of October I was a real estate agent. It’s been 16 years.
Not only is Janovitz surprisingly open about why Buffalo Tom never connected on the same level as some of his peers, he brings the subject up himself. “I can give you theories why I think we weren’t bigger. I think our lyrics are opaque, but we’re not like Pavement with opaque music. A lot of our music was very emotional, but it wasn’t really direct songwriting. There really wasn’t a compelling frontman. It was faceless and nerdy, but not ‘nerdy cool,’ like Weezer. It was a bunch of things that were never quite right,” he says. “I wish I could blame a press agent or a manager or a label. But I think we were given an ample shot.
“Ultimately, I can’t complain too much,” he adds. “I always wanted to be respected more than rich. I wanted people to really like our music. I wanted to touch people. I wanted people to understand. I wanted people to hold us up like I hold up my heroes.”
Though the band took a break, they never broke up. They will reissue their third album, Let Me Come Over, in May and embark on a brief tour behind it. And not wanting “to be an oldies act,” Buffalo Tom released albums in 2007 and 2011, and are currently working on a new album with producer Dave Minehan, who played guitar in the recent Replacements reunion tour. “I don’t know, you always feel like when you’re working on it that it’s great; otherwise, you wouldn’t be working on it. I think people that like Buffalo Tom will really like it.” They’ve partnered with Pledge Music to fund the album. “It gets fans involved who really want to be involved. A lot of our fans are people with money now. Their kids are in college, and they don’t need babysitters anymore, so they come out,” he says. “In 2007, it was tough. People were still coming out, but it was people who are our age who need babysitters, and the logistics of that are hard.”
Janovitz spent years relieved to be out of the tour-record-worry-repeat grind of the music industry and thankful that he could be home with his wife and two children (“Domestic happiness was where I was at”) while simultaneously mourning the end of his rock star life. (He says the only time either of his children, who don’t even watch My So-Called Life, ever thought he was cool was when he took his daughter to see Death Cab For Cutie and Ben Gibbard dedicated a song to him.) But these days he’s let that go, and is proud of what his band accomplished.
“Listen, I’m 50 years old, going to play these big halls in Europe. We could go to Chicago and play to 1000 people. In New York we sold out Bowery Ballroom,” he says. “This is 30 years after we started. If you had told me in my 30s when I was struggling that be patient, you’re still going to be doing this when you’re 50, and you might have to work a day job, that would be fine. I would accept that. Because there are a lot of bands that we toured with that I don’t know what they’re doing. Some of them are not alive. And I’ve had a family and stayed home with my kids.
“I was complaining back then all the time. I wasn’t good at accepting shit,” he says. “Wise Bill now is much different than Bill who was 28 years old.”
Boston Stands was headlined by New York-based Nada Surf, but it was the recently reunited Belly that got the most enthusiastic response of the night. Their set ended with an arena-sized new song titled “Shiny One” that, unexpectedly enough, recalled Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and early Jane’s Addiction. They ripped through fan favorites such as “Gepetto” and “Now They’ll Sleep” with confidence, sounding unapologetically like themselves, drawing the entire audience into their singular dreamworld.
In their dressing room a few hours before the show, the members of Belly — singer/guitarist Tanya Donelly, guitarist Tom Gorman, and his brother, drummer Chris Gorman — said that for a long time they had resisted getting back together. (The band’s bassist Gail Greenwood arrived at the venue after the interview had been concluded.)
“It was just one of those things that always rattled around in the back of your head. ‘What if we did it? Would it be fun? Would it not be fun?'” says Chris Gorman. “Every once in a while, something would come around where it’s the 20th anniversary of this or that.” He makes a bit of a shrugging motion. “And then you’re like, ‘Oh no, forget it.'”
Credit: Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
In February of last year, Chris started an e-mail thread with the other members of the group. “‘Would you be interested? Is this stupid?’ And I think everyone was like, ‘No, this isn’t stupid. Let’s see what happens.’ Then we just started rehearsing. We were back in Gail’s basement 25 years later.”
When it’s pointed out that his band and Buffalo Tom are in the same position where after being fallow for many years, they’re suddenly working on new music and enjoying renewed interest, Tom Garson theorizes, “I think it has something to do with everybody’s age, unfortunately. You kind of reach a point in your life where you have time, for the first time in a long time, to even consider doing something like this,” he says. “Tanya and I both have kids, so that’s a big factor. But also you’re starting to go down the black slope of…”
Everyone in the dressing room starts laughing as Tom fails to finish his thought, and then Donelly jumps in. “There’s a little bit of now or never.”
Tom nods and picks the thread back up. “I think that fuels things to a certain degree. You wonder if you’re still relevant, and if you can still do these things. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Donelly co-founded the literary college-rock touchstone Throwing Muses with her stepsister Kristin Hersh. She left that band after the release of their 1991 breakthrough album, The Real Ramona. She later co-founded the Breeders as a side-project with Pixies bassist Kim Deal, and left that project after the release of their first album, Pod.
When she formed Belly, it was seen at the time as her stepping into the spotlight after more than a decade of supporting magnetic frontwomen. Released during the height of the alt-rock oil rush, their 1993 debut album Star established Belly as a highly singular band, merging snaking ’90s basslines and head-in-the-clouds guitar bliss into dream pop for the masses. Donelly’s impressionistic lyrics, which often explored ideas of childhood innocence and abstract ideas of femininity, complemented the fantastical feel of the music. Of all the songs released in the ’90s that employed the metaphor of having the rotting corpse of a dog strapped to your back as a stand-in for an unliftable emotional burden, “Slow Dog” was certainly the best.
When alternative rock started to go mainstream, one of the concerns the old guard of critics and fans had was whether the artists that helped create the left-of-the-dial culture would get their just rewards. Some, like Bob Mould and Kim Deal, did. Others didn’t. Donelly did and then some, largely thanks to “Feed The Tree,” one of the most unexpected pop hits of the ’90s, which reached #1 on the Modern Rock Tracks and snuck onto pop radio. A cluster of hypnotic guitar shards, a circular bassline, and Donelly’s impassioned critiques (you might not have understood exactly what the lines “Keep your head up boy/ when you’re talking to me/ and be there when I feed the tree,” meant, but somehow you got it), the song blew Belly up in a way they weren’t quite prepared for.
After original bassist Fred Abong left, Belly recruited local metalhead Gail Greenwood, and went on a co-headlining tour with a young group called Radiohead; Thom Yorke would sometimes join Belly onstage to duet on their song “Untogether.”
Both bands had experienced sudden, massive success based on one hit song, and were struggling to find their footing. “There was a point when the audience was all hollering for ‘Feed The Tree,’ and I don’t have anything in common with a big portion of the audience, which was really kind of weird,” says Tom Gorman.
“OK, here’s the part of our audience that likes these songs, and I understand those people,” he continues. “This is their favorite song or this is their favorite song. Then there’s this big chunk and they just want the hit. That’s all they really want. There is this whole contingent where it’s like, ‘How do they like us?'”
There was a point when the audience was all hollering for ‘Feed The Tree,’ and I don’t have anything in common with a big portion of the audience, which was really kind of weird.
Donelly nods. “There was friction between those two very different sets,” she says. “I know Ed O’Brien from Radiohead used to call our tour the ‘Feed The Creep’ tour.” She says she loves the song now, and didn’t quite get sick of it then, but, “I got to a point where I wouldn’t say I resented it, but I definitely felt that it’s too bad that there’s not a night where we can maybe not play that one. Take a break from that.” Star went on to lodge a few more rock radio hits, and Belly was nominated for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album Grammys in 1994.
Because of her short stature, high, sweet voice, and tendency to use nonlinear poetic imagery (and also because of lazy sexism) nearly every write-up of Belly in the ’90s referred to Donelly as a pixie, sprite, or fairy; a 1994 SPIN profile revolved around how tired she was of people thinking she was cute. (She was second only to Tori Amos in terms of having to deal with this singular problem.) For Belly’s 1995 follow-up album, King (produced by Rolling Stones/the Who producer Glyn Johns), Donelly both doubled down on the otherworldly vibe (as evidenced by lead single “Now They’ll Sleep”) and bulked up to an arena-sized powerhouse designed to drown out the smug, dismissive takes. While the album had a bit of a reputation for a while as the sort of thing you can always find at the used CD store, King is a hidden gem of the time, a monstrous slab of mesmerizing guitar fire. (This leveling up was presaged by the band quite unexpectedly delivering the hardest-rocking contribution to the 1993 compilation album Stone Free: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix. There was a tribute album to something or another every week back then, but their blazing run through of “Are You Experienced?” was bizarre and fantastic.)
King got good reviews and lodged a few rock radio singles, but didn’t produce anything on the level of “Feed The Tree.” But the pre-release hype was so strong that, in one of most “only in the ’90s moments” possible, Belly landed on the cover of Rolling Stone.
“It was surreal,” Donelly says of their fast-rising success. “But we were working a lot. I think that kept our perception somewhat in our bubble. Those moments, are, I don’t know…”
Chris Gorman jumps in as she gathers her thoughts: “…kind of mindblowing, but hard to appreciate it when it’s happening so fast. Every day is like, ‘OK, we’re gonna leave Glastonbury to go to an even more mammoth festival in Germany. There’s Lenny Kravitz and Michael Stipe. B.B. King is walking around,” he says. “After a while, it does just become a surreal parade of things that are so far beyond your expectations, that it’s hard to place it into a reality context.”
I know Ed O’Brien from Radiohead used to call our tour the ‘Feed The Creep’ tour. I got to a point where I wouldn’t say I resented it, but I definitely felt that it’s too bad that there’s not a night where we can maybe not play that one.
The band downplays the idea that King not living up to Star was a deflating experience (“It did well, just not relative to King,” says Donelly), but readily cop to being beyond burnt out while touring the album. Talking to them about those days, it’s apparent that the success wasn’t all that fun for them. “We didn’t know that you can say no. We didn’t know that you could say, ‘OK, that was five days in a row, we need a day off,'” Tom Gorman says. “We heard other bands did that, and we were like, ‘You can do that? You’re allowed to take two days off in the middle of a tour?'”
At the time, the band members were too young to advocate for their sanity or pace themselves. “You do hear when you’re at that age that some artists turned down such and such, and you’re like, ‘What? Are they out of their fucking mind?'” Chris Gorman says. “Then, of course, 20 years later that’s the band that’s probably still going.”
Belly broke up the year after King was released, and in retrospect, everyone wishes they’d had the foresight to just take a break instead. “But nobody thinks that way when you’re 23 or 25,” Chris Gorman says. Greenwood went on to play with L7 and Moby, while the Gorman brothers auditioned for other acts before eventually starting a photography studio in New York. Donelly started a solo career with her 1997 album, Lovesongs For Underdogs, but quickly realized she was losing her appetite for the music business.
“The first solo record kind of broke me, not to be dramatic. But I don’t want to be the only person and the only name. By the end of that tour, I wanted to be done doing it,” she says. “I don’t want to try to be a star anymore.”
Donelly and her husband Dean Fisher, a Boston musician who played bass with Juliana Hatfield, began a family, and her creative output slowed down; she wouldn’t release another album until 2002. “I got to the point where I said, ‘This is part of my life, but it’s not my life,'” she says. “‘I’m going to have kids and have a second job that I love.'” But she never quit entirely. At least, not on purpose. “I started to feel like I am always going to do this, that if you write music, then you always tend to do it. Even if no one is ever listening.” She trained to become a doula and “might have retired without knowing it,” from the music industry after releasing the Swan Song Series EPs a few years ago. “Goodbye, cruel world.”
Donelly and Greenwood started hanging out again, and the rest of the band kept indirectly in touch. (“Our families are extremely close,” she says.) Finally, it seemed like the time had come to play a few shows. Maybe people would still care? “Everything that I did afterward, there was not one interview I did where someone didn’t ask if we weren’t going to get back together,” Donelly says. “I’ve known that there has always been somewhat of an interest.” Still, the band was surprised when their website crashed as soon as the reunion was announced. (Also, as soon as they started touring again, they began dealing with confused tweets from fans who believed they had bought tickets to their shows, only to discover they had in fact purchased tickets for a show by a Canadian rapper that also uses the name Belly.)
Belly (the band) have decided to eschew the festival circuit in lieu of focusing on new work. Using the funds they earned from touring, they’re self-producing their new album, recording at the members’ home studios. They’re eyeing a fall release, and will make the decision as to whether to work with a label or go it alone once the album is finished. And yes, they’re considering sticking with the brand of using a four-letter synonym for “superior” as an album title. (“We have a couple of ideas,” Donelly says. For the record, I suggested Boss.)
“I think it’s going to be really great. I think it is the most collaborative thing we have done, where every single song, everyone has written on,” Donelly says of the new album. “Every song is kind of its own thing.”
When asked how they think the decades apart will have changed their sound, Tom Gorman says that so far the new songs are “not the same, but it is also not radically different either. There are elements that are definitely Belly elements. We took at least one of those elements and went somewhere with it on each song. There are plenty of threads that tie together. It’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, they came out with an EDM record.'”
Donelly adds, “I feel like it is going to be more lush and layered than anything we’ve done before. That might be the most notable difference.”
During their first go-round as Belly, the members worried that if they said no to an opportunity or wanted to take a break from touring for any amount of time, they would “never be able to do it again,” says Chris Gorman. This time around, their goal is to return to the earlier, happier days before they ground away their joy. “Part of our whole vibe in getting back together was that we don’t want this to get out of hand. We don’t want this to be beyond our ability to control. We want to be able to say no. We want to be able to say yes,” he says. “We’ll do something spontaneous. Play songs that we’ve never played before, mix up, and be weird. That restored so much of the fun of being a band.”
Belly are happily past the point in life where they are going to stress out about how their new album will fare in the marketplace. Reuniting and working on the new album, it seems, has largely been a way of restoring familial bonds, both between the members and with their audience. Having seen success at its most extreme, their goal is simply to reconnect.
“The only pressure that we have is on ourselves, and I already think (the album) is as good as we imagined it to be,” Chris says. “I’m already happy with it.”
Donelly looks over and smiles at him. “I feel the same way.”
“Hey, I’m here,” Juliana Hatfield says as she walks into the dressing room. She looks over at the members of Belly, and appears stunned for a moment. Then the “Hello”s and “So nice to see you”s begin to flow.
When we have our interview a little while later in the same dressing room, one of the first things Hatfield mentions is, “That moment was a blast from the past, because I haven’t seen the Belly boys in literally 20 years,” she says. “It feels like I was on tour with them yesterday. It’s kind of a mindfuck when that happens, and you realize time has gone by so quickly.”
The Gorman brothers are a bit of an outlier. Hatfield sees Donelly and her husband “around,” she says. “I went to high school with Dean, he and I go way back. I see Bill around, I see Evan from time to time. There’s a thread that keeps going. I think Boston is a pretty small city, and all of us playing tonight all know each other. It’s a small town.”
She grew up in a small Massachusetts town named Duxbury, “halfway between Boston and Cape Cod,” she says. “I desperately wanted to get out of my town. I was into music, and no one in my town knew who the Replacements were or who X was, so I felt really alone. I wanted to find people who shared my aspirations.”
She moved to Boston to attend Boston University and transferred after one semester to attend Berklee College Of Music, desperate to join a band. But the problem was, “I was very shy, pathologically shy. I didn’t know how to talk to people.” She was so shy, she says, that she couldn’t even bring herself to eat in her college cafeteria, much less talk to the “jazz snobs and heavy metal-ers and R&B singers” that populated the student body. “I felt surrounded by people who were alien to me.”
Most artists aren’t fortunate enough to have a good origin story, a “Keith Richards and Mick Jagger meeting at a train stop while carrying instruments and records” moment, or a “seeing the Sex Pistols and then starting Joy Division” revelation. Or at least, they’re not canny enough to notice and mythologize this call-to-destiny moment. Hatfield had one of the best of her generation, and it would be miserly not to include it here.
John Strohm and Freda Love were the coolest couple on campus. Hatfield noticed them around, “and they just seemed like kindred spirits,” she says. “One day they followed me up to my dorm room and knocked on the door. ‘Hi, I’m John, this is Freda. We need a singer for our band. Would you want to join our band?’
“And that’s how it started. They literally knocked on my door and saved my life.”
Making their debut with 1987’s Nicely, Nicely, the Blake Babies released three albums of open-hearted guitar pop before Hatfield went solo with the release of her 1992 album, Hey Babe. She’s remained highly prolific since then; it’s rare for her to go more than two years without either a solo release or a band project.
“I think it makes sense that somebody who has a hard time connecting in real life wants to connect some other way,” she says, trying to explain why she felt driven to perform while also feeling too shy to talk to anyone. “It’s almost easier to be onstage singing to people than connecting face to face. There’s a distance. It’s safer.”
Hatfield seems willing and even (in her own way) eager to talk about anything, though it’s clear that opening up about herself is never going to be something she loves. She spends our hourlong conversation staring at her knees, occasionally crossing and recrossing her legs.
After a few seconds, she circles back around. “I’m really conflicted about it. I have this compulsion to want to do it, but I feel like I’m not good enough at it. I want to be a better performer, but I don’t want to front. I want the energy to be real, but some nights I don’t feel like I fit in that role very well, but I think there’s a place for what I do,” she says, and then takes a moment to think. “There are people who want me to be somebody else or want me to be different. It took a long time for me to accept the way I am.”
Her set that night will eschew her most popular singles in favor a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” with Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws, as well as two new songs from her upcoming album Pussycat, out this Friday. She was a little nervous about playing tonight, as she hadn’t toured in a few years and was worried she was out of practice. But Ed Valauskas is an old friend she’s played with many times; he’ll sit in with her on bass tonight. Plus, this seemed like an appropriate night to try out some new songs, and she wanted to help.
Friends of hers asked her if she wanted to participate in the Women’s March On Washington that took place a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. She ended up taking a different approach to dealing with the horror she saw.
“It’s so bizarre and hard to believe and disgusting and horrifying, and I had to say something. These songs started coming out of me. Instead of going to D.C., I made this album,” she says. “Usually, I’m pushing myself to make songs, but this one wrote itself. The songs wanted me to make them.”
As soon as I utter the words “Donald Trump” in my follow-up question, she politely cuts me off. “I don’t want to even bring him into it. It’s not just him. The ‘pussy grab’ leaked audio tape, I think that really mobilized and radicalized millions and millions of women. It really, really struck me, really hard. It really, really opened up something in me that had been…”
Her shoulders begin to tighten and her words become pointed and faster.
“I have a lot of anti-sexism songs, I have a lot of anger about sexism and misogyny, but when this man who was about to become President, this man in a powerful position was saying these things — and we know men say these things in private — but to hear him say them, it was just so horrifying,” she says, her words accelerating. “It brought back all of these horrible memories. It’s not just him; it’s people who agree with him, people who laugh about it. It brought me back to childhood, being bullied and teased when I was a child all the way up to the last person I dated.”
Credit: Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
Pussycat was recorded and mixed in 12 and a half days. Hatfield self-produced it and played every instrument except for drums. Hatfield says she’s never been happier with the sound she’s gotten on an album. “I think I really nailed it.” It is a fiery and powerful work, worth checking out even if you lost track of her some time ago. Hatfield fights her way through the madness of the world with lacerating guitars and ingratiating melodies, wondering how the optimistic utopia of the ’90s she once inadvertently embodied died so horribly. She empowers survivors with “Touch You Again,” skewers you-know-who with “Kellyanne,” and in a two-for-one deal, uses Trump’s words from the above-mentioned leaked audio to tear into Bill Cosby in “When You’re A Star.” And before anyone accuses her of cashing in on a moment or suddenly getting woke, she stresses that this is nothing new to her.
From the beginning of her career, she’s been responding to current events and exploring the contradictions and hazards of modern femininity. “A Dame With A Rod,” from her major-label debut Become What You Are, is about murdering a rapist; the Blake Babies song “Cesspool” is about murdering a polluter. “Feed Me” and “Ugly” (“I’m ugly with a capital U/ And I don’t need a mirror to see that it’s true”) dealt with body issues during a time when they were rarely talked about in society. “Supermodel” and “Rider” were an eyeroll at ridiculous portrayals of women. And then there is the Blake Babies’ hall of famer “I’m Not Your Mother,” a song that diagnosed and destroyed what society now calls “fuckbois” three decades early. For her actions, she managed to avoid being lumped in the riot-grrrl movement or within the myriad (and often condescending) “Women In Rock” trend pieces that continually sprang up in the ’90s. She has mixed feelings about this.
“I didn’t fit that mold. I’ve been writing these feminist songs since the beginning, but I wouldn’t call them feminist, because I didn’t want to be lumped in with any group, ever,” she says. “I wanted to be seen as a lone wolf, but I might have shot myself in the foot. I tried so hard to distance myself from anything labeled ‘woman’ or ‘feminist.’ But I was the most hardcore feminist of them all.
“I was trying very hard,” she continues. “I covered up my body; I didn’t want to be flaunting my body. Until the Blake Babies broke up, I didn’t wear any make-up. This was deliberate; I didn’t want to be seen as trying to exploit my looks or my body or my sexuality or any of that stuff.”
Hatfield hit the mainstream with 1993’s Become What You Are — credited to the Juliana Hatfield Three — which featured Fisher on bass. The almost painfully innocent love song “Spin The Bottle” and the head-rush ode to female role models, “My Sister,” made her an MTV star and a hero to a generation of girls that didn’t always see a place for themselves in the alt-rock boom.
With that rise came a level of exposure she wasn’t prepared for, as well as a great deal of prurient interest that was uncalled for then and would, one hopes, get an editor fired today. She offhandedly told Interview that she hadn’t had sexual intercourse, and this factoid appeared heavily in nearly every write-up of her ever since. Rumors continually flew about whether she and frequent collaborator Evan Dando ever dated. (This sort of thing plagues her to this day, but she’s learned to have fun with it.) The headline for her 1994 SPIN cover story was “Like A Virgin: Juliana Hatfield Gives It Up.”
“You’ve been dealing with sexism in the industry for a long time,” I say. “I looked back at some of the pieces written about you in the ’90s…”
“Ugh,” she says. “Ugh.”
“So many of the pieces about you wouldn’t even talk about your songwriting…”
“It was about whether you were dating Evan Dando or…”
She leans into my tape recorder. “Ugh.”
“Sorry,” I say. “I just wanted to get your perspective on it now.”
She waves her hand a little. “I’m rolling my eyes right now. About what you’re saying,” she says. “It just made me say stupid things, because I was so annoyed by the whole line of questioning. I just made myself look like an idiot. It’s just so frustrating. All that I ever wanted was respect from people.”
I ask her if she thinks she ever got that. “Yeah, I definitely do. I wanted that more than I wanted commercial success. So I feel successful,” she says. “But there will always be people out there who will belittle me, because I’m a woman or [because of] my girlish sounding voice, or because I’m quote-unquote cute. Or was.”
In one of the most You Had To Be There moments of the Clinton years, Hatfield guest-starred on the short-lived TV touchstone My So-Called Life as a homeless girl who is also an angel. (It was an unusual episode.) Hatfield, who had never acted, was originally just asked to write a Christmas song similar to Joni Mitchell’s “River,” but then afterward the producers asked her to play a character.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like, ‘Why did they hire me? I don’t know how to act. I’m so bad at this! Agh!’ But the director really kind of coached me along, and the actors were all really nice to me. If they think this is working…” She grimaces a bit.
“I still can’t watch it, I think I’m so bad,” she says. “To me, it’s horrifying to look at myself in it, but people seem to really like it, so I’m happy for them. And I like the song.”
Hatfield had a hard time dealing with the sudden attention. She hated photo shoots, dealing with questions about her personal life, or talking about “Women in Rock.” Looking back, she says, “I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, I felt like I was thrust into this world I wasn’t prepared for,” she says. “I was just playing my little songs. I mean, I wanted to be heard. Hearing my songs on the radio was always really exciting, but I was never very comfortable promoting myself. I’ve since learned how to say no. But there were a lot of things I said no to, but I didn’t have any finesse in how I said no. I think I came across as very grumpy and surly.”
Hatfield and her label had high hopes for her Become follow-up, 1995’s Only Everything. The single “Universal Heart-Beat” did well on rock radio, but like her friends in Belly, the album didn’t have the same mainstream impact.
“I thought the album was good, and everyone was going to love it, and it didn’t do as well. But it’s so funny talking about this stuff; I’m so far beyond that now. I’m so stoic, I never look back on anything consciously,” she says. “I just bottled everything up and buried it and plowed forward.” Things came to a head with her label after the A&R man who signed her left and the remaining executives declined to release the Only follow-up she recorded, God’s Foot.
“I was like, ‘Atlantic, they’re ignoring me, they’re putting everything into Jewel now, so fuck them. I don’t need them, let me go,'” she says. “I went through this charade where I went to the president of the label and I begged him to let me go, so they let me go. I could claim that I quit, that I wasn’t fired. But the end result was the same.”
She says the stress of dealing with her declining record sales and an inattentive label exacerbated an eating disorder that developed once she started dealing with media attention. “It’s a rite of passage for American girls,” she says, and a way for her to maintain control when everything in her life felt out of control.
I was like, ‘Atlantic, they’re ignoring me, they’re putting everything into Jewel now, so fuck them. I don’t need them, let me go,’ I went through this charade where I went to the president of the label and I begged him to let me go.
“My anxiety was manifesting itself in days of binging and days of starving. I was depressed and anxious at the same time. If I had been inclined to alcoholism or drug addition, I would have been doing that, but I was using food,” she says. “It was just making things worse, because eating tons and tons of sugar would mess with my mood, so I was really irritable and sluggish. I think a lot of the reason I was miserable was because I was abusing the chemicals in my brain. I was abusing my body. That was a nightmare that I was dealing with privately. I wasn’t telling anyone about it.
“It went on for a very long time, and then later, the binging stopped and I became anorexic. [This was] right around the time I was dropped from Atlantic, and I got really skinny,” she says. “When you’re restricting food, you’re trying to control something in your life. But it’s a cycle. What happened to me wasn’t causing that stuff; it was all working together. My emotional problems were the root cause of my anxiety, and I was trying to deal with it by numbing myself with food, and that wasn’t working.”
She stressed that her struggle “wasn’t as bad as some people get,” but nevertheless, she started having “weird” health problems, including night sweats and irregular heart beats. Her doctors tested her for lymphoma, which she didn’t have. “I’m 5’7, and weight-wise the lowest it ever got was 100 pounds, and that’s pretty skinny,” she says. “I was just so weak and tired all the time.” Eight years ago, the person she was dating urged her to seek treatment. “I kind of did it for him, and he disappeared, and I stayed in it for myself,” she says. “Insurance paid for 10 days, and I was set free. I was glad, because that was all I needed. They basically make you eat six times a day, so you put on weight and then get back on track.” She also saw a therapist to work through some of her other issues, and is much happier now. “I was a miserable mess back then when I was having quote-unquote success,” she says. “But I’m not anymore.”
A self-described “work horse,” Hatfield has never taken a break from the music industry, and since leaving Atlantic Records, she’s often managed to release an album a year, be it something under her own name, a Blake Babies reunion album, something from Minor Alps (her band with Matthew Caws), Some Girls (her group with Freda Love and songwriter Heidi Gluck), or the I Don’t Cares (her recent collaboration with childhood hero Paul Westerberg of the Replacements). Some were issued through indie names like Barsuk, others were crowdfunded and released via her label Ye Olde Records. She also released a memoir, When I Grow Up, in 2008.
“I don’t know where it comes from. There are records I make where I don’t tour or promote them at all,” she says. “It’s a compulsion.”
She went to art school for a year at the School Of The Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston and considered getting a Master Of Fine Arts degree from Brown, “but I didn’t want to get into that much debt in my 40s.” She worked in record stores and at Au Bon Pain when she was young, but since becoming a professional musician, she’s never done anything else for money. “I have this fantasy of being a copy editor. I’m really great at spelling. Or a librarian,” she says. “I do envy people who go to the office every day, in the way that I’m sure office workers envy what I do.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I think about it. Bill sells real estate. From what I hear, he’s good at it. But he’s a really social and gregarious guy, he’s probably a great salesman,” she says. “He’s great to talk to. But I couldn’t do that. I’m too much of a weirdo.”
At this point, Juliana Hatfield is just too Juliana Hatfield to be anything other than herself. It’s a blessing and a curse. As with any other highly prolific artist who always, at least, hits a standard of quality, it can become difficult to convince the ever-distracted buying public that this particular collection of sharply observed and finely crafted songs is the one to pay attention to. Even if the songs are impassioned and very timely, it lacks the narrative hook of a comeback or a reunion.
I never wanted to get married and have kids. I never thought I would have a straight job or a family. I always felt like I was on my own, and always would be on my own. Music just helped me feel less alone in the world.
“It’s very easy to overlook me, because I never really went away. It’s hard to sell me. I don’t care. Why would I care? What can I do at this point? I’ve been doing this so long. Some flukey thing could happen. I could have a ‘Walk On The Wild Side,'” she says, referring to Lou Reed’s unexpected, relatively belated hit. She then shuffles her legs. “It could happen. Probably won’t. Something could hit if the timing were right. But I’m not planning on it.”
Hatfield’s work helped set the template for what we often think of as “’90s rock,” with a reliance on elastic bass lines that hug the composition, sweet and sad harmonies, guitar fuzz that feels as warm as a thrift store sweater and lyrics that ping-pong between unguarded emotionalism and cutting wit. Her influence can be seen on young artists across the gender spectrum; Shamir covered the Blake Babies song “Rain” on his new surprise album, Hope, immediately after discovering the band.
“There are people who haven’t even discovered me yet, and will. Someone in high school and has never even heard of my music, but will hear something,” she says. “The odds are, if I keep doing this for long enough, something will happen.” She shrugs. “But maybe not. I’m kind of a fatalist. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen is whatever happens or doesn’t happen.”
And this is OK. Such is the life of a lifer.
“I never wanted to get married and have kids. I never thought I would have a straight job or a family. I always knew I was not like other people,” she says. “I always felt like an outsider. I never felt like I wanted the things that other people wanted. I always felt like I was on my own, and always would be on my own. Music just helped me feel less alone in the world.”
The dressing room after the benefit show was filled with old friends and smiles of relief. I didn’t want to ask anyone how they were feeling, as it was obvious something had gone down that night and I was just lucky enough to be there. Best not to intrude.
There was a time when the people in that room had the dream, and it didn’t make any of them very happy. This night they got to have a smaller version of that dream again. A better one, too. A more realistic one. But they got to see something else as well– that their efforts weren’t vain or forgotten, that the pieces of themselves they put out decades ago didn’t go unnoticed. As they drank their free beers and caught up, they seemed content.
Time moved on, but what they did meant something. Then. And now.