Music Interviews

Bernard Butler: “I became like a sponge” – Interview

Bernard Butler

Bernard Butler

Take a look at Bernard Butler’s discography and you will be surprised. Aside from the obvious entries of his huge contribution to Suede (the first two albums) and McAlmont & Butler, along with his own brief solo career, there are many credits as songwriter, producer and, of course, guitarist ranging from James Morrison and Paloma Faith to Ben Watt and The Libertines.

Now, with his involvement in a project to honour the late Bert Jansch in its infancy, the premise for a chat was clear. Asking him for some musical insight, we were not to be disappointed, from the very first question – how did you learn the guitar?

“I played along to records, as simple as that!” he says, matter-of-fact. “I shared a bedroom with my older brother, and he used to record stuff like The Smiths and New Order when he saw them at gigs around the country, and he would come back with tapes. The Smiths did a couple of songs before The Queen Is Dead came out, and by the time it came out I already knew how to play them. I would learn the guitar lines and analyse the multi-layering that Johnny Marr would do in the studio – but he would play it all on one guitar live. Gradually I learned how to accommodate that into my own style.”

TV played its part too. “I would watch shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube, and those groups would be on – and at any bits that I didn’t know, I would freeze frame the picture and see where the guitarist’s fingers went. I think if you take the 10,000 hours theory about people who do creative things, and how the rest of their lives is spent processing the information – well I think I did those 10,000 hours between the ages of 14 and 16. I was lucky at that time because of the amazing groups that were around, but at it’s important to remember they were on the fringe. The Smiths would play just one night at Brixton Academy, and it’s really easy to forget that. It’s also easy to forget that everyone was listening to Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Wham! and all that. I was blessed with an older brother who was exploring these bands, and not just the guitarists but the fantastic songwriters. The Cocteau Twins, they had Robin Guthrie but also Liz Fraser, while there was Morrissey and Ian Curtis of course. All these acts were very underground at the time.”

“If you take the 10,000 hours theory about people who do creative things, and how the rest of their lives is spent processing the information – well I think I did those 10,000 hours between the ages of 14 and 16…” – Bernard Butler

Such intense listening work would surely prove the ideal background for Butler’s evolution into a musical producer of some repute. He agrees to an extent. “The key thing was the fascination of the difference between the live tapes and the recorded material. When they were playing live, New Order would improvise songs and play them in just their bare bones. I just studied it, and it didn’t seem that unusual but I spent my entire time studying and developing a keen ear. When you’re a teenager you do that sort of shit! It was the relationship between the live recordings, which were primitive and raw, and the recorded songs.”

Learning the guitar lines inevitably led to learning the songs themselves. “I learned how to play other people’s songs, and found that I became like a sponge. You absorb all the information, but when you squeeze it out your own style and bits of dirt come out with it. I found that once you’re an adult you then get more confident in your own personality, and you write music as yourself and not who you think you should be. For that obvious reason I don’t play guitar in the same way that Johnny Marr or Bernard Sumner do.”

Butler’s style of guitar playing could be said to complement the vocal lines with which he works as songwriter and producer, but there is much more to his musical work than that. “Often I play a number of instruments, not just the guitar – and as a producer I am often a songwriter too, so I don’t view it as writing guitar lines at all. When I work it is never the case that I would write a guitar line and have someone sing over it, and I’ve never thought about it as just creating guitar lines. I ask myself questions like, ‘What’s the appropriate course of action in this piece of music?’ If I hear something in my head I react more instinctively rather than writing something out.”

In recent years he spent a good deal of time playing with the sadly departed Bert Jansch, and has taken up the mantle on Around The World In 80 Plays, a project where Jansch’s Yamaha LL TransAcoustic guitar will be passed from one musician to another. The musician will spend a few weeks with the instrument, record a piece of music and pass the guitar on. Johnny Marr began the series, followed by Butler, whose video was posted on 3 November, which would have been Jansch’s 75th birthday. He recalls his encounters with Jansch with strong feeling.

 “I went to see him a couple of times in the 1990s, and became interested in his music, but then someone asked me to play in a little documentary with him. I was brought into a little room in his flat, and we said hello, and then immediately started playing – so got to know each other that way. He invited me to play on the Crimson Moon album, and I got to know him and his wife Loren. We chatted and I played along with him. I was hanging out with this amazing person, who was quiet and humble. Peaceful, too, though quite intense. We didn’t have to have a conversation about meeting Bob Dylan and shit like that – he didn’t give a fuck about anything like that! Most people want to talk nostalgia – nostalgia – nostalgia but I got that if you wanted to be that person it wasn’t for him.”

He expands to describe the musical benefits of Jansch’s proximity. “You felt you were sitting with him because he enjoyed your company, and so I played relative to him. He was astonishing on the acoustic guitar but didn’t play electric, so I thought I would do that. He grew up on the blues, and that’s where a lot of his influence came from. When we were playing together I tried to bring out the drama and some of the darkness in what he did. I was just privileged to get to know him, and I found that the nuances in his music became more magnified for me. He was a huge inspiration, and it was so sad that he and his wife Loren both died within a month of each other, it was a heavy thing.”

“I found that the nuances in his music became more magnified for me. He was a huge inspiration.” – Bernard Butler on Bert Jansch

The Bert Jansch Foundation was established on what would have been Bert’s 70th birthday, and Butler is closely involved. “It is run by his sister in law Karen, and his mother in law Geraldine, through a passion for Bert and his wife, and it is especially satisfying because he couldn’t be bothered promoting himself”. Next up in the Around The World in 80 Plays series will be Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, and then “somebody really good, but I don’t want to say who until they’ve got the guitar in their hands”, he says teasingly. “The real beautiful thing about this project though is passing on to people who might not have heard of him, and that’s Bert’s lineage being passed on. That’s what folk music is really all about, passing things down the line by word of mouth, and not copying stuff down while you wear a pipe and Arran jumper!”

As a producer Butler has worked with a wide range of artists and vocal capabilities, from the clarion calls of Brett Anderson for Suede and David McAlmont in McAlmont & Butler, but also with voices as varied as Ben Watt, Paloma Faith and more recently Mull Historical Society, aka Colin MacIntyre. While this illustrates Butler’s versatility it is not a sign of him challenging himself with different vocalists. “I hear music and I like it or don’t like it, simple as that”, he says. “I don’t care if you’re the devil incarnate, if you make a good noise. You can meet people who are very competent but who are like accountants – which is no offence to accountants, but you know what I mean. What makes music and art interesting is personalities, emotions, the ability to make mistakes and the ability to inspire other people’s feelings. Lots of those in the music business are over sensitive. What would you rather I didn’t have insensitivity? I’ve never been scared to show emotion and who I am as a character. I get approached to work with people and the questions I ask straight away are ‘Do I like this?’ ‘Can it move me?’ ‘What can I do with this, is there a piece missing?’ If you can see an opening or someone wants to do something different; that appeals to me. Not ‘Can you do what you did in the 1990s?!’ I was 22 then, now I’m 48 mate, I want to do things differently!”

Butler reveals his most recent project, working with folk singer Sam Lee on his third album. “I think it is a beautiful record,” he enthuses. “He collects folk songs, but he finds a challenging way of interpreting them. He wanted to do something different, and it turned out to be an amazing experience for me. It was a case of throwing myself into work with someone that I didn’t know, not through glasses of wine and dinner for two every night, but by playing music together in a room.”

Lee’s album followed the recently released Mull Historical Society album, where Butler and Colin MacIntyre enjoyed an intense working relationship. “Colin is another good example of someone I didn’t know personally,” he recounts. “I wasn’t really aware of his records, and that’s a good thing for me because it doesn’t blight the experience and means I could start on a blank page. Like Sam he wanted to do something different, and I didn’t want to hear the records. We started in my front room; I played piano and he played guitar and sang the songs. I’d go through the obvious things with him like tempo and key – could we push the key, take him out of his comfort zone? Did we need that particular intro, is that line the core of the song? Should we try this bit in a 6/8 time signature rather than 4/4?”

His approach paid dividends. “We workshopped the songs in this way, so I threw things at him and knew he would say if he didn’t like it. All I was working off was the raw essentials. That’s how we did it and it worked out really well – and I think he’s brilliant. We started out recording it in my front room looking at the cats, and we just said ‘why don’t we record the album here?’ The record has a lot of analogies between the River Thames and the sea between Scotland and Mull, where he comes from, so it made good sense to keep recording in the room where we had started. We started recording at 9am every morning and finished at 3pm when my kids came home – they don’t have a care for that sort of thing! Then at night I would go through to the box room and record stuff really quietly at night, using cheap kids’ instruments like a Spanish guitar, a xylophone, and other quiet instruments that I recorded really gently up until 1 or 2 in the morning.”

He paints a very different rock ‘n’ roll scene to those he must have experienced in his twenties, but Butler clearly took a lot from the experience. “It’s about creating with those restrictions rather than recreating. I’m a shit mandolin player, for instance, so what can I do with it to create something? It was a beautiful way to do it and Colin was great and really thoughtful, and went with it. He gave me a lot of trust and that’s the greatest thing a musician can give to a producer.”

With Butler shortly to give an interview with Dave Haslam at Manchester’s Off The Record festival, he considers what he would like his audience to take away from the conversation. “I think it will be nice to talk about songs and processes, the idea of creation and the variables that I’ve just talked about. Crucially the thing is not to rest on your vision of what somebody is, like the first time you see a great footballer and ten years on they don’t do the same free kick any more. It’s the same as a musician, it’s not just their musical life but life. These things happen to an audience – they grow up and marry, they move house, their friends and family might pass away – and sometimes you can underestimate the effect of all those things on an artist. It would be nice for people to come away with an understanding of how that affects an artist. Why did David Bowie suddenly get Nile Rodgers in, for instance? What’s he doing with him? It’s that understanding of how our lives move together, and if we can talk about that it would be really satisfying.”

Bernard Butler appears in conversation at Off The Record on 16 November 2018 and plays with Mull Historical Society at the Kings Head, Crouch End, on 30 November. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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Bernard Butler: “I became like a sponge” – Interview