Home-town boys Catching up with the Bosstones BY BRETT MILANO Link
THE REAL WORLD: five years after their big hit single and major-label stardom, the Bosstones are still playing hard and drawing the crowds.
If you didn’t know them better, you’d think that the Mighty Mighty Bosstones finally had to knock on wood. At least they’ve been through a couple of years that might seem a little humbling: five years after their big hit single, "The Impression That I Get," they joined the crowd of Boston bands who’ve been dropped by major labels. This after their Y2K album, Pay Attention, failed to match the platinum success of its predecessor, Let’s Face It (both Island/Def Jam). Along the way they lost a key member, guitarist Nate Albert, while another key member, bassist Joe Gittleman, started moonlighting with Avoid One Thing. Now they’re back on an indie label, with one of their better albums, Jackknife to a Swan (Side One Dummy), getting close to zero airplay. But instead of retiring to giant mansions in the country like veteran rock stars, the Bosstones still spend big chunks of time grinding it out on the road.
Fortunately, touring all the time is probably what they’d be doing anyway. That much was clear at this year’s five-night "Hometown Throwdown," a local tradition of sorts that the Bosstones still approach like a big occasion. This year they decked out the Axis stage with Christmas lights, played extra-long sets, pulled in an A-list of punkish opening bands (ranging from hardcore troopers the Unseen to major-label upstarts Damone). At the show I caught, the all-ages Sunday afternoon finale on December 15, they packed in a good two dozen songs ranging from new album tracks to hardcore covers from the early days of Boston punk, like Slapshot’s "What’s at Stake." But the set was most notable for a song they didn’t play: "The Impression That I Get." That was partly luck of the draw, since they’d been shaking up the set list throughout the five-show run — indeed, Gittleman confirms that they played "Impression" at three of the Throwdown shows. But it says something about a band’s priorities when they don’t feel obligated to play their big hit single.
" ‘Impression’ was a good song, and I love to sing it," frontman Dicky Barrett said backstage, chugging a can of Red Bull before the show (his becoming a teetotaler has fueled a number of Bosstones songs, starting with "Don’t Know How To Party"). "Will we ever have another monster hit? I like to think that every song I’ve written could be one. But you have to consider the time — when ‘Impression’ was a hit, Rancid were on the radio and No Doubt were still playing ska. And I’m still doing the same thing I was doing before it was even cool to be a Bosstone — I’m not writing any Limp Bizkit songs, or whatever the hell it takes to get on the radio these days. Maybe the planets will align again, and I’d love it if that happened. But the radio and MTV would have to come back around to my way of thinking."
In Barrett’s view, the Bosstones survived their biggest crisis when Albert jumped ship. He’s since guested with them at local shows, and his new band, the Kickovers, were an opening act at one of this year’s Throwdown gigs. "That was the scariest point in the Bosstones’ history, and we wouldn’t still be here if [new guitarist] Laurence [Katz] wasn’t so good and so dedicated. That’s enough changes for us. What are we gonna have to do next? Get another dancer?"
Reached by phone the day after the show, Gittleman puts their crossover success in perspective. "When it happened, in 1997, I didn’t think it was going to be my new life. I was pretty aware of how fleeting that kind of multi-platinum success can be. I already considered the Bosstones a pretty big success in the seven or eight years leading up to that. To me it started happening when WFNX played ‘Where’d You Go’ and we sold out the Paradise in 1991. We were making a living playing music, and it was already fulfilling. If we got anything from the success of Let’s Face It, it was a sense of what the band’s worth in every city. We’ve gone out and done headlining tours without any radio and still managed to draw numbers in the thousands — I find it really comforting to know that still exists for us. Now that we’ve come off of a major label and settled back into the real world, it’s obvious that as long as it’s still enjoyable for us, and we’re still willing to work hard and put on a good show, then the Bosstones can still exist."
When "Impression" hit and Let’s Face It went platinum, it raised the bar for the Bosstones: they were then expected to continue selling albums in the millions like superstars. In that respect, the follow-up to Let’s Face It, Pay Attention, was both a success and a failure. Early on it sold more than 100,000 copies, which was a huge number for a band who had started their career on the local label Taang!, happy to sell a mere fraction of that number of a single album. But when you compared the disc to Let’s Face It, it was clear that Pay Attention wasn’t going to have a significant commercial impact at retail or on the radio, and that’s not the kind of news that a major label likes to get.
"Hey, if you lined 100,000 people up in your apartment and gave each one of them a CD, you’d think that was a lot of people," says Gittleman. "But our label were looking on the bottom line, and they considered that a failure. The problem is that we had renegotiated our advance, which was pretty large at that point, and we’d spent a lot of money on a video. It was a pretty quick thing for me to readjust my outlook at that point and realize that this one wasn’t going to do what the last one did. That’s cool, and it doesn’t mean it was a bad record.’ "
Now that they’ve landed back on an indie label, the chances of the Bosstones’ equaling the success of "The Impression That I Get" or Let’s Face It are slim at best. And that’s something Gittleman has also come to accept. "We’ve got some great songs," he says, "but it really is a timing thing. How many records ever really get a chance? For instance, I was just listening to that Bullet LaVolta song ‘X-Fire’ [from their 1990 RCA album Swandive]. Now, that song’s fuckin’ unbelievable. So why wasn’t it a hit? There’s just so much great music out there that doesn’t get a chance to connect."
Nevertheless, Gittleman says that the Bosstones’ new life as indie-label artists isn’t really all that different from the way they were living five or six years ago. "During the 10 years we were on Mercury or Island or whatever it became, we never got any tour support. We didn’t need it because we were already making money on the road, and tour support is something that comes out of recoupable funds — in other words, it’s money you’ve got to pay back to the label. That’s why you see all these bands getting MTV play that don’t make any money on the road — they don’t realize that all the money they’ve taken from the label to pay for the big tour buses is coming out of their own pockets."
Despite their unflaggingly positive attitude, the best song on Jackknife to a Swan suggests that the Bosstones aren’t exactly happy about the changes that have taken place over the past decade. "I Want My City Back" points a finger at the disappearance of landmarks that made Boston distinct, as big, generic chain stores have moved in. It’s a song that someone had to write, and one that seemed particularly fitting at this year’s Throwdown, which took place right around the corner from Kenmore Square, where a Blockbuster Video stands where the Rat used to be.
"The one thing I always tell people about that song is, that my dad could have written it back in his day," says Barrett. "It’s always going to look like things are changing. Sure, it breaks my heart to see Kenmore Square the way it is, and to know that the kids will never know how magical that place was. But I’m sure that the same party is still going on somewhere — it’s just going on someplace that we don’t know about. That’s part of what the kids should be doing — making sure the old farts don’t get in."
And that’s a major reason the Throwdown has become a local institution: it’s one place where the young punks and the old farts can find common ground. I saw more than a few parents bring their kids to this year’s all-ages matinee, and the mosh-pit action started bringing back memories of the old all-ages shows at the Channel. Midway through the Sunday show, Gittleman made an announcement that the event was moving back to the Middle East for its 10th anniversary next year — an announcement that seemed to take even Barrett by surprise. There’s also talk of making a DVD during the Throwdown next year, which would be a nice companion to the Bosstones’ 1998 album Live from the Middle East, a disc that commemorated the band’s 1997 Throwdown.
Barrett says that the Hometown Throwdown is still a big highlight of the Bosstones’ year. "They’re the best shows we play all year, and it’s the only time we get to pull out some of these old songs. As clichŽ’d as it sounds, the magic of this is something I truly feel, and I hope it’s something that I always feel. And if that year ever comes when I stop feeling this way — and I hope that’s a long way off — then day five of the Throwdown will also be the final Bosstones show.
Issue Date: January 2 - 9, 2003