Butcher Boy - Butcher Boy:React Or Die:Track by Track
Bill Cummings 15/03/2009
Glaswegian act Butcher Boy came to our attention in 2007, with the release of their first album "Profit in Your Poetry".
It was a real treat, a excellently realised indie folk pop album, full of literate, heartfelt lyrics about wistful memories: it's tender, organically produced sound drew favourable comparisons in my own mind: "Think early Belle and Sebastian haunted by a real past, the precise poetic pop of the Smiths tinged with a heavy Glaswegian sensibility. Think the tunes of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions matched to the intimacy of Arab Strap, most of all think wonderfully dark pop music, for nights out or those long dark midnights spent alone by your turntable, reading the inlay, and submersing yourself in the sound."
They followed this up with the single "18th Emergency" later that year, a stately ballad it was like being allowed to read someone's secret diary entry, each line consumed with poetic heart tugging imagery that conjures up moments in time, lovers lost and real kitchen sink drama.
Their new album "React or Die" is preceded by a single "Carve a Pattern" which you can download here(from the folks at Stereogum):
Butcher Boy- Carve A Pattern
It reflects a progression a more buffed up, musically expressive sound that still bares the emotional brevity, and bittersweet vocals at the heart of Butcher Boy. We caught up with their lead singer/lyricist John Blain Hunt (who is also the famed DJ behind the National Pop League nights) for an exclusive insight into each of the tracks that make up their second work "React Or Die."
Butcher Boy's "React Or Die" Track By Track
WHEN I'M ASLEEP
I wrote the main melody one Sunday night after watching The Dream Life of Angels on BBC2. Rue des Cascades by Yann Tiersen is over the closing credits, and the film has an incredibly savage and sad ending. I could barely speak the day after watching it. The final frame is still and calm
but it is heaving with regret. It's like a sob caught in your chest, grief.
Originally, the song was a duet with a completely different vocal melody but when Maya joined the band I went back to it and worked on a stronger cello line, something to suit Maya's style of playing which is very confident and strident. The rest of the song fell into place around the cello. I watched
The Dream Life of Angels again and I re-wrote the lyrics to read like a nursery rhyme.
Basil plays ten mandolin tracks on three mandolins at the end. Brian, the engineer, said that the last "I never feel..." was a Leo Sayer moment, which I'm quite proud of.
I love playing this live - it breathes and it feels very powerful.
CARVE A PATTERN
I bought a rattly old piano in 2003 and I came up with the melody for "Carve A Pattern" the day I got it - I don't think I ever wrote anything else on that piano. Butcher Boy aren't really a band for jamming but we used to rehearse this song a lot, just because it was such good fun to play. I've
got a ten-minute long recording of us playing it in my old front room and by the end of the song we were hamming it up so much it's like the finale of a Broadway musical.
This was always going to be the most pop song on the record -I wanted it to be really sharp and snappy. The last chord originally rang out for twenty seconds, like A Day In The Life, and there are lots of little nods to different songs I love in it. Brian said that the backing vocals in the chorus are like Satellite Of Love but I think they're more like Mr Sandman by the Chordettes. They're both odd and unsettling songs though; either one is good enough for me.
YOU'RE ONLY CRYING FOR YOURSELF
I distinctly remember humming the melody for this one afternoon while we were recording our first record. There seemed to a big leap between the verse and the chorus melodies and I originally thought it could be a call and response song.
This song was pieced together in the studio much more than the others. We ended up trying to lighten it a lot, as it had ended up sounding very ominous and serious. We swapped from upright piano to Rhodes and chopped out a lot of the strings.
I used to see a man busking on saxophone around Glasgow a lot and, for a while, I harboured a fantasy I would ask him in to play some chops and then open up with a solo at the end. We never did it, but I maintain it would've worked! We had a whistle signalling the end section too, which was meant to be a little nod to Felicity but we decided to cut it.
We used Brian's Moog for the end section - the overall feel of the song was meant to be like Del Shannon's Runaway and we were trying to get close to that high organ sound.
ANYTHING OTHER THAN KIND
This was, mostly, a really old song I wrote at the end of 1998 called Sugar Shock, but we changed a lot of the arrangement and the vocal melody and lyrics are different.
I wrote it when I was living in Sheffield. I had the attic room and you could see for thirty miles out of the window - it was really magical. I used to write songs on an old keyboard called an ARP Quartet - it was very limited and unreliable but had a really beautiful, gentle piano tone. Everything came out sounding like it was recorded in the woods.
I wrote the words to this sitting in Queens Park. The music is very gentle and so I wanted to unsteady it a little. I'm happy that it can read as a piece of prose - it sits beside "There Is No-One Who Can Tell You Where You've Been" from our first record.
Alison plays piano strings on this, and Alison, Basil and I wrote the oboe part together one Sunday morning... the song really needed an oboe! It sounds like woodcuts to me, and ink, and a very heavy sky.
THIS KISS WILL MARRY US
We were going to call the album this - it's like an unwritten Burns poem.
This is another old song - I recorded a version of it at Ca Va in 2001 along with I Know Who You Could Be (which was on Profit In Your Poetry) and two songs we've not released yet called Juicy Fruit and Mouchette. Again, the ARP was a key part in writing it - originally, the little piano riff repeated over and over again. I recorded the first demo on Halloween 2001 and I've got lovely memories of that.
We recorded the sea sounds at Irvine beach on New Year's Day, 2008 - we got about 15 minutes worth, inciting the seagulls with a goat's cheese tart. I also wanted to get the sounds of sails slapping against masts but, strangely, all the boats were out of the harbour that day.
The introduction to This Kiss Will Marry Us was originally another old song- one I'd forgotten about and found going through cassettes when I was moving house. I used to catalogue the songs I wrote but this one had no title or date - I think it was from the same times as When I'm Asleep though, when I was trying to write sea shanties on melodica.
Alison plays the piano strings again, and the Rhodes too... I wanted it have the feeling of uneasiness you get from the gentler songs on the Assault On Precinct 13 soundtrack, which are warm and incredibly cold and detached at the same time. That's how the song feels to me - being aware of the structure and purpose of emotion but not knowing how it works at all.
A BETTER GHOST
Musically this was, by far, the easiest song to write for the record - the whole song fell into place in about five minutes. I was watching the 2007 Scottish Cup Final in the house with my pal Iain at the time, and we'd got sandwiches and coffee and cake from a place called Espresso, which is one of my favourite places to eat. I was probably feeling pretty happy and satisfied.
The lyric to this one is my favourite on the record - I wanted to use the phrase "a better ghost" for ages but couldn't exactly work out what it would mean. It came eventually though... I remember reading that birds can flock and fly in formation because they have magnets in their bones. I don't know if that's true or not but I liked the idea.
We made a video for this song with our pals Keith and Allison. There is a real feeling of tenderness between them in the video which I really love. The song tries to be tender, but stoic too.
I can barely play piano and Alison and I more or less got here by trial and error and me humming everything. There is a chord change in the instrumental section that's consciously All Of My Heart by ABC and the general feel I was hoping for was Vince Guaraldi.
This is definitely the most complicated song for us to play! Findlay is an incredible drummer - we're constantly in awe of how quickly he can pick things up, interpret them, and then make them entirely his own. We ended up with a samba current all the way through this, blocks, congas... I was playing a guitar rhythm I'd cribbed off the Miracles and Basil is playing this really beautiful, bluesy little riff... It's on our agenda now to learn how to actually play it together.
The cornet players from Kings Park Brass Band play on the second half of this song - when we'd completed the instrumental I couldn't quite believe we'd come up with it all.
WHY I LIKE BABIES
This is another old song - I wrote it in the summer of 2000. It's changed a little musically since then, but oddly for me the lyrics are pretty much intact. I like the line "I watch with tired eyes as you seduce yourself" -that's the mood for the song.
As a band we were actually playing this before much of the material for our first record was finished, but we struggled to get it to hang together properly. We tweaked the drums though - it's got a little stutter and roll from The Train From Kansas City by the Shangri Las in there now - and it suddenly worked.
Originally, the song started with guitar and vocals but we worked on a different introduction... We wanted it to sound like the Carpenters. Basil's guitar makes it more Candy Says... and we managed to get some use out of the studio Mellotron in the middle eight.
We gave the clock we used at the end of this song to Ulla, who did all the artwork for the record.
I wrote this, as Sparks, in about 1999 in a batch of about six songs in two weeks. Originally it was a real rant - I couldn't get the words out fast enough. We started working on it again when we were on tour in October 2007 and actually got round to sound checking it a few times.
I rewrote the words last summer. I always found the sound of Sunday Bells quite ominous - they remind me of being little and having the quilt pulled up to my eyes.
Basil's guitar reminds me of Don't Fear The Reaper; the Hammond reminds me of I Will Die With My Head In Flames; Findlay's drumming is as precise as disco and we put in a deliberate little nod to Blue Monday going into the last verse.
REACT OR DIE
Again, this song was written and pretty much ready before "Profit In Your Poetry" but I wanted to save it for a second album.
The song started out as a poem I'd written about a Diane Arbus photograph. It was of a couple of married kids in Washington Park Square in New York...
They were babies, but furious and utterly defiant to the camera. The poem was more about how I imagined that type of person.
I wrote it when I was on holiday in Philadelphia in 2005. I had a rare moment on that holiday - it was Halloween and I was walking. It was warm, I was just off the campus at Penn University. It was about 4pm and the sun had started to drop and suddenly the angle of the light and the shadows on the building opposite was perfect. It was so beautiful and still and it literally felt I had spent my whole life waiting for that moment. And it felt like the end of something... it's not explicitly connected, but because I was working on this song at the time, this song reminds me of that moment. It's apt that it's the last song on the record.
When the brass band come in it's meant to sound like the lights of miners' hard hats appearing over the hill. Alison arranged that little piece and it brings a lump to my throat.
I really enjoy songs that are less than two minutes long.
React Or Die is out in the UK on the 6th of April 09 via smashing indie/club imprint How Does It Feel To Be Loved? The album comes with a 16 page booklet and liner notes by John Blain Hunt.
"A Better Ghost" will be the second single, out 23/03/09.