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Saturday summit

Chris Colbourn and Juliana Hatfield reflect on a decade of rocking Boston

by Matt Ashare
photos by Eric Antoniou

Local female vocalist
Juliana Hatfield
Local male vocalist
Chris Colbourn
This year's Best Music Poll finds two local artists who have done as much as anyone to help define the sound and vision of Boston rock over the past decade triumphing in the always competitive categories of Best Male Vocalist and Best Female Vocalist. In fact, it was exactly 10 years ago that Juliana Hatfield emerged as the bass-playing frontwoman of the Blake Babies and bassist Chris Colbourn made his first album with the then Amherst-based trio Buffalo Tom. Since that time, Hatfield, who's currently on an indefinite sabbatical in Los Angeles that will eventually lead her back to Boston, has made her mark as a solo artist, both commercially (back when the alternative nation was at the height of its powers) and artistically (on her tough and tuneful return-to-indie 1998 Zoe/Rounder album Bed). Having weathered the ups and downs of a turbulent decade for "alternative" rock -- including the disappointment of seeing an album she'd spent a year working on (God's Foot) held from release by her former label, Atlantic Records -- Hatfield has settled in as a confident singer/songwriter who's equally at home playing solo acoustic sets and rocking out, as she does on Bed, with the boys in her band.

Meanwhile, singer Chris Colbourn had largely avoided the limelight himself by playing second fiddle in the singer/songwriter department to singer/guitarist Bill Janovitz in Buffalo Tom, a power trio (and now foursome) who have become such consistent hometown heroes that it's easy to forget that they haven't always lived here. It's not that Colbourn hadn't written or sung any Buffalo Tom tunes, it's just that it wasn't until last year that one of his -- "Rachael" -- got picked as a radio single. So it was a rare pleasure this year to give Phoenix readers and WFNX listeners the chance to show their support directly and recognize the talents of a familiar face in Boston rock whose name had yet to appear on a Best Music Poll ballot.

Since Hatfield's and Colbourn's careers have, in many ways, followed parallel trajectories in the '90s -- from underground heroes to mainstream contenders to post-alternative mainstays -- we couldn't pass up the opportunity to get the two of them together for a little chat. And since Hatfield just happened to be back in town recording demos for her next album at Fort Apache Studios when the last of the BMP ballots finally rolled in, the meeting seemed almost meant to be. So, with Colbourn chewing on an apple and Hatfield sipping coffee, the two winners settled down for an hour-long chat in the studio on a recent Saturday morning. Here's some of what they had to say.

Q: So what have the two of you been up to?

Chris: I've been reading a lot of books, which is a good phase to be in.

Juliana: Me too. I've been living in . . . well, I like to say I'm visiting LA. And I brought a closetful of books with me, all the books from my collection that I haven't read. I've decided that I can leave LA once I've read all the books in the closet.

Q: What books?

Juliana: All kinds. Right now I'm reading a Samuel Beckett book called Murphy. And I just finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. That took me a long time.

Q: How about you, Chris?

Chris: I'm reading a book on the guy who was the commandant of the Treblinka death camps. It's a fascinating book. It was written in 1972 by a woman who interviewed him.

Q: As far as your wins in this year's Best Music Poll, Juliana, you've won before, but, Chris, this is your first win as Best Male Vocalist.

Chris: It's funny because it's difficult for me to sing. Or it's been difficult for me to become a singer. I don't sing a lot in rehearsals or anything, so it's a little tough for me. I'm always the guy, when we're recording, that the producer tells to think about talking to a teacher about singing. But we always end up having a conversation about what it is we appreciate in singers, and I'll bring up someone like Tom Waits.

Q: Juliana, you studied voice at Berklee, right?

Juliana: Yeah, but it's taken me this long to really feel confident about singing. I studied voice for the first time at college, and then it took me 10 years to make my voice as strong as I wanted it to be.

Q: I get the sense that people who sing, more often than not, are not comfortable with the way their voices sound.

Juliana: But then again, there are the really great singers who just know how to do it, and I'm so envious of them. I'm not one of those people.

Chris: But I think it's good to be not too comfortable about anything, and to make mistakes. Even when you hear Maria Callas you can tell sometimes that she's struggling and mistakes come out, and that's kind of the charming thing. I always like to hear a voice crack or something, especially in rock. None of the sad singers -- and that's what I like best, the sadder the song the better -- none of them have perfect voices. Like with Chet Baker, you're going to hear his voice go flat or crack or something. It doesn't sound effortless. And that really works.

Q: You've both been playing now for a good decade. In fact, you both emerged around the same time in the late '80s as part of the indie-rock underground, you both benefited commercially from the rise of alternative rock in the '90s, and you've both now had to deal with the post-alternative comedown, where a lot of people are even claiming that rock is dead. Do you feel disappointed or relieved or . . .

Juliana: I don't feel disappointed, and I do think that alternative or whatever gave me a career. In a way it's still sort of sustaining me financially. But I am let down, not by any lack of commercial success, but by the attitude of people in the industry who are so quick to dismiss something that didn't even really exist in the first place. None of us ever called ourselves any label like alternative.

Chris: We've seen so many revivals like ska come and go, and we always felt outside of that stream. So for me, I'm probably just as disappointed now as I was when people really got interested in alternative rock in a commercial way. That seemed totally lame and we were the first ones to say "Oh, this is so stupid" when a car commercial wanted to use our song.

Juliana: But it gave a lot of people a chance to make a living.

Chris: It did help us buy a van. And I never felt the money was evil. But I did think that people were coming to check us out only because we were part of this thing rather than because they'd heard our records and related to the lyrics or something. At least for us, though, I've always felt that that core group of real fans has always been there. That's satisfying. And whether or not there's that extra line around the block at the club in Milwaukee doesn't keep me awake at night.

Juliana: Yeah, because a lot of that was superficial interest anyway . . .

Chris: And they talked a lot during the shows . . .

Juliana: And they'd only get excited for the one song that they knew from the radio.

Q: In other words, you go from feeling like an artist or a musician to feeling like a product.

Juliana: Well, when you're first feeling the interest of a lot of new people who you never expected would have cared -- I was just sort of amused and baffled by it. I wasn't really worried about corruption or anything because I didn't think it was going to last long enough for me to really worry about. I also thought that I had paid my dues so I could afford to enjoy a little success.

Q: That's a good point, because both of you really did have a chance to pay some dues, not in some romantic way, but just in terms of having a career that developed at a comfortable pace.

Juliana: I saw a lot of newer bands getting signed after just a couple of gigs. And they never did get the chance to appreciate what it's like to lug your equipment everywhere and sleep on floors and stuff.

Chris: Yeah, and that's our life. Regardless of whatever our bank accounts were, we were basically on the road looking for places to get coffee and going to bookstores in different towns. That was our life, consistently, whatever the record sales were like. That's just what we did for a long time.

Juliana: Coffee and books.

Chris: Yeah. And you have to be able to appreciate that. Because there's a lot of boring stuff when you're in a band. People want to think it's all rock stardom with sex and drugs. But it was always the same thing. Like, "What are we going to do? We have three hours to kill." Okay, that's two hours for sex and one hour for drugs.

Q: And the rest is coffee and books.

Chris: Yeah, but people don't really want to know that. People don't really want to know what the smell of a club is in the afternoon. Or what it's like knocking on the door to the club when you show up and nobody's there. That's really what rock comes down to. You can have a lot of money in your pocket or not, but you still basically have two choices of places to go to get coffee and maybe a good bookstore.

Q: Through all of that, though, both of you have managed to maintain that core audience Chris was talking about earlier.

Juliana: I feel very blessed to have that at this point. I always did, but now I'm especially grateful because I see that a lot of newer bands don't really have that after their initial mass success, and people just forget about them. I'm glad that didn't happen to me.

Q: It's that syndrome where people go from loving a band one week to saying "I can't believe I ever liked them" the next.

Chris: Yeah, but you have to realize that a lot of the stuff that we're talking about right now only comes up in situations like this. When I've toured with Juliana in the past I've never thought to myself, "Juliana is thinking about her market share or how her record is doing in Florida." She's trying to get through life. Earlier I was talking about finding coffee on tour, but it's also just thinking about your life. I mean, when you turn 25 and you realize that you never got a real job. That's scary. And when people in your band start having babies and you're getting older . . . that's what you think about. Your records go up and down, certain singles sell more than others, and you're aware of that. But you're also thinking about your life.

Q: Did either of you ever worry about alienating certain fans as you became more successful?

Juliana: I can understand that happening, and I can't blame people for feeling that way. Sometimes I've felt that way myself when I was on stage playing. But, it's like, every record that I put out someone has a problem with for one reason or another. Everyone's got an opinion. So you can't really bother worrying what everyone thinks. Hopefully you learn not to care what anyone thinks, and you just continue to do what you do.

Q: Juliana, have you ever had the experience that Chris was talking about in terms of looking at yourself and realizing, "Wow, this is what I'm doing for a career now"?

Juliana: I never questioned it. But then again, I've always been pretty independent and never had to worry about a family or anything like that. But as you get older you do start to have the odd moment of panic when you realize that you're at the point where you can't do anything else and you can't really turn back.

Chris: But it's even little things like . . . we can't have goldfish or dogs. I mean, getting a dog becomes a big decision when you know you're going to be touring for three or four months. I've wanted a dog since my last dog died. But I can't really get one yet. So sometimes it's the smaller things that get to you, not the big career questions. For me, looking back on it, the things that were supposed to be the big payoffs like money or fame, those meant the least. Maybe that's just because I'm the kind of person who naturally questions a good review, but to me the bad reviews always seem totally right. Or even like this thing, the Best Music Poll, it's fun and stuff so I hate to get too serious about it, but I think it's a really bad idea to vote on art. Although I totally understand why people want to do it. Like, I love Cat Power, and I'd love to tell everyone that Cat Power's great.

Juliana: It is better when real people are doing the voting and not some so-called committee of industry-type experts.

Q: So aside from reading books, what do each of you have planned in the near future?

Chris: We're sort of ending a giant part of our career right now because we've always been on the same label -- Beggars Banquet -- and our record contract ended with them this year. So we decided to do a career-retrospective compilation. We might still record with Beggars, but we decided to do this retrospective thing first. It'll be a compilation of a lot of the singles we've done, and that will come out in the fall. And we also have a track on a Jam tribute album with Oasis and the Beastie Boys. We did "Going Underground." I'm not really a Jam guy, but Billy [Buffalo Tom singer Bill Janovitz] really grew up with the Jam. We did this totally different version of it. It was fun to do and it was fun that they liked it. But we've just finished a full year of touring, and Bill's wife just had a baby. So that's a big thing and we're going to try to figure out what to do next.

Q: And how about you, Juliana?

Juliana: I've been recording new material and putting a collection of songs together. I'm not sure where they're all going to end up -- some of them were supposed to be demos -- but I might end up putting out an album kind of soon. Because I almost have enough for a cohesive album. I'm still not on a label, and I'm really enjoying the total freedom of that. So I've been recording as much as I can with total freedom and no one commenting on it. I might put the next album out myself or independently in the next sixth months. I also have a song I did with Evan Dando on the new Gram Parsons tribute album.

Q: And you're looking at your stay in LA as a temporary thing.

Juliana: Yeah, I'm in LA for a while -- I'm not sure how long. But I went out there with the intention of having a change of scenery so that when I do come back here I'll be able to appreciate it more. I was feeling a little stifled here. I just needed some new air and some new people for a while. But I'll be back.

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