Ramshackle Southern-roots gospel stomp rock is the most fitting way to encapsulate the sound of The Builders And The Butchers, but let’s not forget about the elemental fucking soul of it all; the timeless essence of authenticity that lifts them clear from the bottomless pit of folky acoustic jam bands. A perfect example is Red Hands from last year’s eponymous debut- the groove current is arresting, but frontman Ryan Sollee doesn’t need to scream to get the passion across. The understated sneer of fugitive rebellion, with just a hint of that oh-shit-I’m-in-deep-now feeling, shines through with convincing authenticity:
It’s harder livin’ on the lam / a stranger’s blood is on my hands / We were caught red-handed / across the county line / but I’ll take my chances on the lam / I’m not doin’ time…
With the right eyes, a person could easily see the Cold War Kids huddled around this one, frantically taking notes.
Their live show is raucous and magnetic, an uptempo affair of sonic hypnotics and unconventional instrumentation ranging from megaphones to styrofoam swim tubes and oil funnels. They’ve been known to distribute assorted toy instruments to their audience, inviting them to play along, but this aint no gimmick band. The rawness calls back to their punk roots, while the atmosphere is much more Tom Waits than Fugazi.
The Portland-bred group recently finished their second album, and we caught up with Sollee to discuss the band’s beginnings, stealing music and the art of storytelling in a song.
Antiquiet: I just saw a few clips from the show you guys played with the Portland Cello Project in Oregon…
Ryan Sollee: Yeah, that was really fun. Basically, a lot of local bands have worked with the Cello Project, and it’s usually a really good show. It’s a different audience that would come out and see a local show, maybe a little bit older. It’s a great feeling to win over a new audience.
Antiquiet: How did things get off the ground with Builders And The Butchers?
Ryan Sollee: Basically we started playing in our living rooms, playing a few songs, and we decided we wanted to have a band that was really darkly themed. The first year of the band’s existence, we played all acoustically, and we’d just show up at places, set up in the middle of the room and just play. And as more people started to come… once you’ve got around 50 people or so at your shows, nobody can really hear the band anymore if you’re just acoustic. So we started plugging in little by little. Like this girl passed us a microphone, then we started actually using amps, and so it was very slow in coming, the band being what it is now. It wasn’t ever supposed to be like that originally, it was all kind of like a side project at first, it wasn’t a serious band, but it just kind of progressed and became something else, and we were happy with it so we kept things rolling. But it’s definitely the most organic band I’ve ever been in in terms of the progresion of the band.
Antiquiet: I’ve been trying to explain your sound to other people… how do you feel about a referential connection to the Saddle Creek movement, with less of an emo edge?
Ryan Sollee: Some of that stuff I’d say we’re more in line with, like… jeez I’m horrible with the names of these bands. There’s a band with one of the guys from Cursive, an acoustic folk project… if anything, we’re closest aligned with that.
Antiquiet: There’s an old blues, gospel essence to a lot of your material that gives your music a more timeless character. Is there a specific motivation behind that?
Ryan Sollee: We’re all into old gospel music, old blues and folk, anything dealing with the beginnings of those styles of music is what we’ve been into, but not necessarily- I mean, we all love the music, but we’re not a Christian band, we’re not trying to give you some kind of religious message. We’re just trying to capture that… what could I call it…
Ryan Sollee: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. A lot of contemporary Christian music is overly cheesy- It lacks that feeling. Old Christian music, old gospel really had heart and soul, and actually got its hands dirty.
Antiquiet: Are you still on Bladen County Records?
Ryan Sollee: Our first record is, but we’re kind of shopping the new one around… It just depends on where the best deal comes from. We’ve had several labels look at us, and we’re kind of in the process of finding out where our next home will be.
Antiquiet: It’s an interesting climate now in the industry, how do you feel, being in this position?
Ryan Sollee: With what the industry’s gone through in the last month, signing with a label’s not what it used to be. It used to be that you’d have to get signed, and that was it. That was the only way to attain any real kind of success. But it’s not that way anymore, no way. You can build a fan base from touring and do just fine, just touring, and not have to worry about record sales if people are getting good exposure to your music and they enjoy it. If people are ripping your music that’s fine, as long as they’re coming out to see you. It used to be that you’d tour to promote a record, and now you’re putting out songs to promote your tour. It’s an interesting shift. It’s a great time to be in a band, but it’s a horrible time to be a record label.
Record labels want to sign bands that are going to sell, and if it’s not a sure thing these days, they’re out the door. It’s much different than it was 10, 20 years ago. It’s not bad for bands, you just have to attack it in a different way. You have to be okay with not being home so much (laughs). But really. It’s all about touring now.
Antiquiet: That’s how things used to be, before the record industry. But labels still aren’t looking at the iTunes or Amazon model with an open mind.
Ryan Sollee: If I’ve learned anything, it’s to go for the better deal instead of the better label when you’re trying to put an album out. Cause at the end of the day, that label stature isn’t going to feed your kids. If you can make the fanbase by touring, you can do it right.
Antiquiet: When you can sample songs before you by them, nobody’s going to be spending $18 on an album on the strength of one single these days.
Ryan Sollee: Oh hell no. It’s different and fun, but it’s also frustrating, cause you don’t want to get in the wrong boat. You just have to do your homework. The internet can only be a positive thing as far as exposure goes. We’ll play wherever, and we always hear stories about people finding out about us through either MySpace or their some other place on the internet. That was never available before, so it’s enabled a lot of people to get exposure in ways they never could have before. But there are always gonna be people, especially industry people who say it’s not a good thing because people are downloading free music, but for a good band it’s the greatest thing there is. It’s been great to us.
Antiquiet: Your live shows are known for being high-energy and interactive.
Ryan Sollee: From the band’s beginning, from playing unplugged on the floor… it just erases that wall between you and the audience. Translating that now to an actual stage, we’re looking to erase that as much as we can from the first song of the show. To me, the best artists make everybody a part of the show at least a little bit. They make people feel like they’re a part of something special.
Antiquiet: Are there any bands you take cues from?
Ryan Sollee: We toured with The Helio Sequence for a bit, we did five dates in California with those guys, and they’ve created their thing very organically and slowly, and now they’re doing really well. Keeping it small and not getting caught up in anything but being a band and playing shows and really doing what you do really well.
Back in the day, Fugazi was like the flagship of DIY bands, and I think an entire scene really grew from that. People started believing that they could do it on their own. There’s a lot of cool bands out there doing it on their own now, and that seems to be a good way to keep a career going- if you get a shitload of press and build up expectations really quickly, there’s a much greater chance you’re going to fizzle out. But if you build that strong foundation on your own, nobody’s going to take that away from you.
Antiquiet: Where do you pull your inspiration from when you sit down to write?
Ryan Sollee: Whenever I’m feeling a little bit… dry, I guess, I go back to people who tell stories through songs. Like the way Johnny Cash could do it, or Tom Waits, and the imagery there is amazing. You could put a picture in somebody’s mind, and I’m in love with that idea. But aside from that, I try to write something that, if it sticks in my head for a few days, I know I’ve got something good- unless it’s just too terrible to forget (laughs). I think a lot of artists forget about how contagious a melody can be. Or a hook. They’re too afraid to be vulnerable.
Antiquiet: Well, you can embrace that vulnerability with a passion or you can run from it and stick to what’s safe. When there’s real soul to the music, though, you can’t help but give yourself to it. It’s take it or leave it- there’s no middle ground.
Ryan Sollee: Exactly.
Antiquiet: A lot of people made some stellar careers out of riding that middle-ground though, going through the motions.
Ryan Sollee: Totally. Unfortunately, yeah. It’s a sad fact.
Antiquiet: What do you say to a kid who’s trying to put a song together but doesn’t really know how?
Ryan Sollee: Song editing is important, being able to take the pieces apart and work on the strength of each piece. Ruminate with it a little bit, and if something bothers you in a song, don’t just stick with it. I just to just write songs and was like ‘whatever’. But you can always do better.
I think a lot of it also comes from finding your voice. As a singer that’s really important, to find a place you can sing from that’s captivating. But it comes down to pushing yourself to a point where you’re uncomfortable- that’s how you grow.
Antiquiet: What’s the rest of 2008 looking like for the band?
Ryan Sollee: We’re gonna go on a couple tours this fall, more full US tours this time. There’s no dates set but I think we’re probably gonna play CMJ, too, so that’s cool. We finished our record just recently and they’re probably not going to release it until early next year.
Antiquiet: What does it sound like?
Ryan Sollee: We had help with it from a guy named Chris Funk, who plays guitar in the Decemberists- [he] helped us with producing it, and he took our game to a much higher level. We recorded it in an actual studio this time instead of in our friend’s living room. So it’s a little bit more hi-fi, I guess, but it’s a lot more developed in terms of instrumentation. There’s just a lot more going on.
Antiquiet: Any guests this time around?
Ryan Sollee: We brought the Portland Cello Choir in for one of the songs, and they just did what they did at the show we did with ’em. It’s a little bit more epic in places, but it’s not so… like the first record was a lot more stomp n’ grind the whole way through, kinda ramshackle, and there’s songs that are like that on this one, but it just goes in a lot more different places. It was really fun to make, and we made it really quickly. It just felt like a really organic process, and we’re excited to get it out.
The Builders And The Butchers are playing @ Spaceland in Los Angeles tomorrow night, followed by shows in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. Get more tour details and hear more of their music on their MySpace.