Bill Cummings 10/04/2007
Glaswegian Five piece Butcher Boy, first came to my attention earlier this year when we stumbled across their wonderous debut single "Girls Make Me Sick." Their subsequent first album "Profit in Your Poetry" (released on smashing indie imprint/club How Does It Feel To Be Loved?)was a real treat, a brilliantly realised indie folk pop album, full of literate, heartfelt lyrics about their pasts: it drew favourable comparisons in my own mind to the likes of The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Arab Strap, and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. We caught up exclusively with Butcher Boy frontman and legendary National Pop League DJ, John Blain Hunt: for the band's first indepth interview.
How are you?
"A little tired, but sitting in on a quiet Saturday night, so not too disappointed by that."
How did Butcher Boy first form? Where did you find the other members? What roles do they play in the band?
"The band fell into place over the course of a couple of years. I recorded some songs by myself in 2001 and met our cellist Jacqui through that - I had gone to the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow with an advert looking for string players. I met our bass player Garry in 2002 - he came to one of my club nights and very kindly brought me back some Tootsie Rolls from a holiday and so he was in without question. I've known Basil and Findlay for ages, we've been friends for a long time. And again I'd known Alison for a while, through friends again. Aoife, who played viola on the record, was a friend of Jacqui's. Jacqui had a baby a couple of weeks ago and we've been trying out new cellists over the past few months… for our next record we're going to work with Maya… she's just finishing up at the RSAMD. She's a fantastic cellist, really inspiring."
Where are you all from?
"We mostly live in Glasgow… Basil lives in a town called Irvine just outside Glasgow. That's where I grew up. Findlay is from Ardrossan in Ayrshire but he lives in Stourbridge. It makes rehearsing a little difficult so we always make the best use of the time we have."
Where does the name Butcher Boy come from?
"It's from a few different places… I used to daydream about playing in bands but I wouldn't get much beyond the band names and the song titles. I remember watching Dad's Army once and feeling almost heartbroken by a fleeting appearance by Jonesy's delivery boy Raymond. He seemed such a good lad, pedaling around Walmington-on-Sea on his bike. I thought Raymond would be good… but there was already a band called Raymonde, but he was the butcher boy, and I liked how that sounded. I also thought Arbuckle would be an interesting name, after Fatty Arbuckle. I suppose I liked the idea of a sweet sounding name that had a slightly sinister undercurrent. Fatty Arbuckle's first film was called The Butcher Boy. But the name is mainly from Patrick McCabe's book The Butcher Boy. I read that when I was 19 and was dumbstruck by it… so tender and so appallingly cruel and black at the same time. The film of it was great too."
When did you start writing lyrics?
"Only when I started to write songs.I never learned to play guitar until I was relatively old, maybe 19 or 20. I wrote a lot, but I never really tried to write poetry. I started writing songs seriously when I was 22.I only learned to play guitar because I wanted to write songs… I can barely play anything else."
What were/are your top five favourite records to play at the National Pop League?
"That's really tough! If I was to choose favourites, they'd be the ones that mean the most to me and the ones that I associate with my favourite memories of the NPL. So I think I would firstly go for Love Goes On! By The Go Betweens… which is so incredibly uplifting and romantic and hopeful and sounds utterly amazing loud. It makes my heart burst to see people dancing to it. I'd also go for So It Goes by Nick Lowe and Don't Fear The Reaper by The Blue Oyster Cult… I really enjoy dancing to them. Can We Start Again? by Tindersticks is another. Can I have a tie for fifth place with Grey Streets by Felt and Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions?"
What was it like to see some of the regulars go on to form successful bands (Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura etc.)?
"The first NPL was in 2001 so both of those bands were well in their stride before the Pop League. It's a privilege to have them come, to be honest. And they're very gracious about their records being played."
Your sound is often compared to the likes of the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian, do you think there's a sensibility you share with these bands or are they simply an influence upon you?
"The thing I admired about both Belle and Sebastian and The Smiths was that they lived entirely in their own worlds. I really like the idea of bands existing like that, with their own vocabulary… the first Smiths record, I think, completely stands alone like that, it's such an odd, dusty, bookish place and I found, when I was younger, that I would get lost in that. And so I suppose I've wanted to try and create that myself for my band, I've wanted to create a place that was gentle and soft and strived for something beautiful. I didn't want to feel embarrassed about that."
Your press release mentions some of your influences outside of music, (books by George Orwell and Charles Schulz films by Bill Douglas and Robert Bresson) do you think it's important for bands to mention their other cultural influences?
"I feel it's important in the context of our band, because the world in which it exists is specific. George Orwell is important because I really admire how concisely he wrote, and his economy with words, and the clipped, clinical brutality of his words too.
"Peanuts strips can genuinely move me to tears they're so perfect. And the Bill Douglas Trilogy is a huge influence on how I write… more than other songwriters, really… because it really matches how I think about things and how I see things. I feel honoured to live in a world where that film exists, honoured that someone went to the heartache of making it so I could share it. Those things are really important to me, and
to my idea of the band… so it feels important to talk about it when talking about our record. I don't think it's that importantly generally for bands to discuss cultural influences, they don't make a better band."
What was the first Butcher Boy gig like?
"It was in a pub in Kilmarnock in December 1998. We were a three-piece, it was me and my pals Andy and Susan. I remember sitting down getting ready to sing and realising that this was something completely new, something I had never done before, and that I had no idea if something utterly terrible would happen to my body with the nerves. I made a pamphlet up to hand out to everyone there, it was a big list of things that I liked, stuff like cornflakes and cold milk. I was half-way through singing a song called Being Happy Being Dirty and the woman came out from behind the bar and told me to sing louder."
Do you think playing live the ultimate communication between artist and audience?
"We've not really played live enough to fully understand it. It might just be my slightly stilted view on things, but I think a record is a pretty impeccable form of communication. You can analyse it and roll it around and make it what you want. I'm not a fan of going to live shows generally. Having said that, we played a gig last night in Glasgow and I really, really enjoyed it… I enjoyed being able to shade the songs and being able to have them breathe. I think though, I more enjoy the idea of someone poring over our sleeve and drawing their own conclusions."
How did your relationship with the label/ zine/ night "How Does It Feel To be Loved?" begin?
"When I started doing the Pop League it didn't feel like that were many indie clubs in Britain… I'd live in Sheffield for a few years and went to a club there called Offbeat which was genuinely life-altering for me… Chris and Gill who run it are so passionate about the music and are so caring about the people who come to the club… I came back to Glasgow and I couldn't understand why there was nothing like that, everything seemed faceless. I thought maybe I was just not cool enough to know about it but I looked and looked and
there was just nothing there.I wanted to have a club that had the same spirit I felt at Offbeat, something really passionate and heartfelt. So I started the NPL and was completely surprised it took off - I'm still constantly surprised by it, I am really flattered and honoured that people come. Ian Watson started How Does It Feel To Be Loved? a few months after I started NPL and from what I'd read about it, and from what I'd read about Ian, I knew that it had a similar ethos to what I was trying to do with the Pop League. My pal Iain is a HDIF regular, and the first time I ever went down was to surprise Iain… I loved the club. I got talking to Ian and guest DJed a couple of times, and when the band recorded a demo last year I sent Ian a copy, hoping he might play it at the club. Ian really liked it it, and told me he was starting a label, and offered to put out an album for us. I can't believe how lucky we were to be honest."
There seems to be a timeless sound to your record, how long did it take you to shape the songs into their final form?
"I'd written a lot of songs over a five or six year period, and since the band formed properly in 2005 we'd rehearsed twenty or so of them… we picked the twelve that were probably closest to being fully formed to record but it wasn't really until the last month or so before recording that we nailed the arrangements. I'd lived with the songs for such a long time though that I had a very clear idea of how I wanted them to sound. We had a definite policy that we wanted our record to sound fresh but that we didn't want to do anything faddish and have it ruined by that a couple of years later. "
What records were you listening to when you were
making the album?
I was trying my best not to listen to anything! I didn't want to be unduly influenced.
Would it be fair to say that your album is mainly based upon memories and ghosts from the past?
"Yep - I'm an incurable nostalgist. I can't help finding regret very romantic."
What do you mean when you talk about the songs being about "power-cuts and candles" did you have any bad bed-sit living experiences?
That's my idea of a good thing! I like the idea of calmness and quiet… I like the idea of getting away from the hum of electricity. That was actually a very specific reference… one Christmas a few years ago I was staying at my mum and dad's house and there was a three day power-cut… no heating… and I would go to bed with a hat on, wearing all my clothes, and read by candlelight… and that was one of my favourite ever Christmases. I never lived in a bed-sit or anything… I shared houses when I was a student but I never had to do much worse than clean the grill pan of sausage fat
when I wanted to make a piece of toast.That used to drive me nuts.
I've read since I reviewed the record that the title song from your album "Profit In Your Poetry" is an attempt to encapsulate what the purpose of the band had come to be. How would you sum up that purpose?
"The song is about believing in the beauty you can create. It doesn't matter if no-one else ever reads your poetry, the main thing is you do it. It's a really difficult thing to do… it makes you tender and vulnerable… but there is such fulfillment in it, I believe. That's how I feel about the band. "
What's your first single "Girls Make Me Sick" about? They don't always make you nauseous do they?
"Not at all! That song is written from a female perspective, mainly… I had the title years ago, way before I ever wrote the song. My girlfriend at thetime gave me a book called Love On The Dole by a writer called Walter Greenwood… it seemed really near the knuckle for its time, it was about a mill worker getting his girlfriend pregnant, it was written in the 1930s. The language was so vital and brutal. One of the chapters was called Girls Make Him Sick, and I thought that was such a funny, curt phrase… so I said to my girlfriend that we should write an album together and call it that. Everything I wrote after that was for this imaginary album. I wrote a short story a little later called Curdle, and I chipped away at it for a while, and that eventually became Girls Make Me Sick. There used to be more lyrics in it… the extra lyrics maybe made it a little clearer, but I like the fact it's ambiguous and that there is room for interpretation in it. I thought if I called it something like Girls Make You Sick it would be a bit pious, as if I was trying to appear incredibly sensitive. I suppose generally it's about believing in yourself, and not having to rely on attention for validation. You don't need anyone to tell you you're beautiful."
Will there be another single taken from the album?
"There won't be… our next single will be a song called Juicy Fruit and that will be on our next album.
We'd call "Butcher Boy great indie, like what they use to make..." Do you think you stand apart from any scenes or movements currently being championed by the mainstream music press?
"I don't know if we stand apart… but I know that I do not want to feel pressured to be a part of something we're not. There is a very basic premis for the band - we want to make something beautiful and lasting. We don't have any other agendas… we're all grown adults with jobs and responsibilities and it seems almost too ridiculous for me to think about scenes. It's a beautiful evening and the birds are singing and I'm going to go out and get coffee in a minute or two and that's perfect to me… I'm not going to spoil it by worrying about how I'm going to brush my hair!"
What are your future plans?
"We're playing three shows in three days next week, in Sheffield, Manchester and London… we've never done that before, so it'll be interesting to see how we come out the other side… after that we're going to work on arrangements for the next record. I've got ten songs for the album and we're going to fill them out over the summer. We'll be ready to record by the end of the year, and the record will be out early next year."
Thank you for your time.
Butcher Boy's debut album "Profit In Your Poetry" is out now on How Does It Feel To Be Loved? They also play a special show at the Luminaire this Friday, April 13th.