December/January 2022

by Richard Thorne

The Butlers: Getting Back To Basics

by Richard Thorne

The Butlers: Getting Back To Basics

When they got together, mostly in their late teens, The Butlers quickly identified themselves as a surf-rock act with distinct jazz influences. An interesting sound, an arresting look and a touring ethic that translated into a live show which festival crowds lapped up. That start was five years ago now, and those teenage bandmates from Sumner in Christchurch are now in their mid-20s and facing more grown-up issues, among them the joint matters of delivering a sophomore album and where to take their music? As Richard Thorne reports the national lockdowns, friendships, and a welcoming rehearsal space have provided a rockingly good solution to both.

We’re talking because there has been a flurry of activity from The Butlers’ camp late in 2021, with four singles released in quick succession. Together the songs make ‘Side A’ of a forthcoming album titled ’Back To Basics’. Or maybe ‘Basics’. The background chatter is a bit confused, which is it guys?

“That’s a good question,” drummer George Berry answers with a wry grin. “I don’t think we know the answer yet. It’s probably majority ‘Basics’ over ‘Back To Basics’. Brad [King], our guitarist, does most of our design work, and I think it was when we saw a few cover mockups, one was just ’Basics’, and it looked strong.”

There is reason for the ongoing deliberation though, as George explains.

“In our head, it was always ‘Back To Basics’ because we were just trying to go with the flow and just jam a bit more, so this is what’s come out. It is what we’re trying to achieve, going back not just musically, but also in how we treat each other music-wise. Leave all complications aside and just enjoy each other’s company, playing what we want to play. The name sums it up perfectly in that regard.”

Also on the couch for our Zoom meeting is bassist Jordan Kennedy, and both acknowledge The Butlers had gone away from that more simple ethos and the sense of fun that had brought them together in Sumner five years ago, providing the gritty, dynamic surf-rock magic to their first ’proper’ EP release, ’Frederick’s Friends’, and 2019’s self-titled debut album.

“I think it was a lot about just always looking so far ahead, always being so focused on the next thing, and never really appreciating what was going on at that time,“ suggests Jordan. “We were going so, so hard, and that’s the thing… Going Aussie, NZ, Aussie, NZ – making money here but spending it playing in Aussie!”

He’s talking prior to 2020 Covid-19 travel restrictions taking effect, remembering the period with an almost visceral fondness.

“I think that’s the only thing that was keeping us going, being in Aussie and the slum living. When you’re like 24, and you’ve got a house and stuff to worry about, it’s nice to look back on the times when you were 18 and living in a flat with your mates and kind of slumming it.

“So when at 24 and slumming it in Aussie it was really like being back where you still want to be, and with your best friends!

“We went to Aussie three times in eight months when you can usually tour NZ once in 12 months. We just went ballistic!“ expands George. “When we went there it felt like when we played our first gig in Christchurch, we were a completely new country and a sense of starting again from the beginning, I think that’s what kept us going back. By the last time we went to Aussie it was getting really good, we had like 500 in Byron and sold out our first Melbourne show.”

Getting back to the complications being consciously avoided for their new album, Jordan says that for a long while they were writing songs, then ripping them apart.
“Not making them super alternative, but we were obsessed with making them as different as we could, and almost sabotaging ourselves in a way. I do love what we’ve released, but I listen to some of those songs now and I think, ‘Man, those were almost different songs,’ y’know?

“I still love the debut album. That was like the perfect medium of alternative for me, it was like, very moody.”

As he explains, the band were all living in a low rent flat together on The Esplanade in Christchurch’s surfside suburb Sumner. There’s an evident hankering for those early hard/good times.

“It was an absolute shithole, but the best place! All the songs on that album [’The Butlers’] are like a soundtrack of living in that place for me.”

George grins his agreement.
“It was like we were all depressed, and poor, but having the time of our lives… and it’s such an interesting album because that music just represents what was going on.”

“That’s what it always should be about you know?” Jordan continues. “You look back on great bands and nothing else really matters apart from the creation and the performing. When all you can do is just play music in a shed you can either choose to mope around with that reality, or you can choose to have heaps of fun and treat every practice as an opportunity to do all the things you’d never do on stage! Just play with all your heart and soul, and not worry about fucking up or anything.”

“We could have all been gutted at the situation with Covid and just wanted to pack it in, but we actually want to make another record,“ George agrees.

Their ’shed’ is a rental garage, one of dozens using Christchurch’s only storage complex far enough from complaining neighbours to allow band rehearsals. They clearly enjoy the environment with “…about 50 screamo bands”, a rockabilly outfit and “heaps of lone drummers”.

Over their five years together the band have tried to practice twice weekly. In this period of Delta Covid restrictions, they’ve discovered a new sweet spot.

“Recently we’ve been doing a strict Monday,” says Jordan. “Pump the album out over an hour – just getting ready for live gigs. Then on Thursday we have dinner and go to the shed a bit later, have a couple of beers and let loose. That’s when the fun stuff happens!”

He says they were initially intent on making a cohesive sounding album, with really strong tracks.

“We were all listening to stuff like, ’AM’ by Arctic Monkeys a lot, and The Strokes – more rocky stuff and more simple grooves I guess, and decided to just roll with that for ‘Side A’, in a big way. And I love it.”

The early track recordings were done over April/May, with Christchurch’s lockdown extending a planned month’s break. Coming back together a new energy was evident and they went hard, with recording of the ‘Side B’ tracks completed around mid-October.

“It was like we were writing ‘Side A’ again, but it felt a lot more Butlers-y, like more attitude,“ smiles Jordan. “The songs themselves are a bit more free I reckon, we just kind of let rip. Usually me, Walt and George write lots of words and we try to piece it together from that, but this was more like instrumentals first, then finding words for them. We were jamming and writing a lot of music!”

George starts explaining their unusual album release strategy by saying he agrees with what he knows Jordan is about to say, but personally it was about wanting to try something a bit different.

“We’ve seen a couple of bands do it, like Leisure did it in NZ, and I thought it was awesome. The idea that you can bring two pieces of really good content together from different times, and slap them together into an album. I think it’s cool.”

“In this day and age it’s about having more releases too,” is Jordan’s point. “We did approach it in that way at the start, thinking it was cool. But then it’s funny how I think of it now as ‘Side A’ being so structured and a really fun songwriting process, and ‘Side B’ was just this hell process that was so fun. It was so fun! So now the two sides do feel different, almost like two EPs.“

Three singles/videos have been released over two months when we talk; Why Are We Always Waiting in early September, When I’m Back and Trivial at each end of October.

All radio-worthy alternative rock tracks with guitar riffs aplenty. Scheduled for early December release, Night ’n Day may not be the rockiest of the set, but certainly the most sonically experimental. A portent of ‘Side B’ to come maybe?

Releasing multiple singles in a short time frame, plus the cost of videos for each is a tall order for an unsigned band with no current option to tour, or history of funding. Having paid for the recording off their own bat, George explains that to keep costs down they shot four videos at the same time.

“The director Blue Hamel is a good mate of ours from Sumner – he does visuals for like The Weeknd in America! He’s just an incredibly talented guy, and an amazing visionary. We all took the afternoon off work and got in there about 1pm. He said we’d all be done by10, but in the end we got out of there about one in the morning – it took so long!”

Those hasty videos look to have paid dividends with commercial radio play, and all three singles to date entering the NZ Singles charts.

“We’re not trying to write songs for radio,“ claims Jordan, “but we are super proud that one of them has made it on there, just through being something we thought was really good.”

Perhaps as a consequence NZ On Air also signed off on NewMusic Singles funding for Night ’n Day, The Butlers’ first such grant after years of failed applications.

Both describe the band as extremely democratic, which might explain why they haven’t settled for outside management. Singer/guitarist Walt Robberds is now managing the band through his own management and events company The Good Batch. Also on the roster are There’s A Tuesday, The Doll MC, MIM, and Auckland indie-pop act Park Rd. Oh and Goodwill, which is Nomad-singer Will McGillivray’s solo project.

The credits show McGillivray as mix engineer, alongside recording engineer Thom O’Connor and mastering by Olly Harmer, however, McGillivray’s role went further, particularly on the ‘Side A’ songs.

“Will’s been helping us as a producer on this album. ‘Side A’ he did quite a bit of producing on, but then Side B has been a lot more produced by The Butlers,” says Jordan.
They describe the album’s demoing process as being as simple as one condenser microphone set up just outside the storage unit, further revealing that they actually recorded the Side B demos on Walt’s phone!

“They come out good enough for Will, so that’s all that matters,“ Jordan laughs. They’re really finished songs, so what we give to Will is just the first sort of performance recording, to help him make any tweaks he thinks necessary.

“We record live pretty much. George plays with a click track in his ear and we all just play – which is how we’ve been practising, so we’ve been really drilled in. It makes you feel super, I don’t know… proud. Then we get in the studio and all the timing’s change!”

They clearly value McGillivray’s ear, but equally his reluctance to interfere too much, even despite requests that he help out with things like backing vocals.

“We’ve asked him to,” George grins, “What he’s been super helpful for is when opinions are a little bit mixed in the group, he’s helped us make those decisions.”

We’re coming towards the end of our Zoom interview slot and the alert fan/reader will have picked up on the fact that there’s been an evident avoidance of the elephant in the room, or in this case maybe better, the space left by the elephant’s absence.

The Butlers have always had a legendary fifth member in Stingy Hooligan, famous for wearing a mask at all times on stage. Stingy also adds the saxophone and keys to previous recordings, but since both instruments are absent from those ‘Side A’ singles it does beg the question, is Stingy no longer a Butlers member? This is clearly not comfortable ground for either, and they take time to frame an answer. Jordan starts the ball rolling.

“I guess there has been a growing creative difference between some band members. But as I say we are extremely democratic and dearly wanted everyone to have their say, so we all believed in the process.

“But after four or five years we came to realise that there’s no time to waste, and if we were all doing something that we weren’t really satisfied with anymore we knew change had to happen. But it was very heavy on our hearts I think. It still is. Stingy is the most epic human being, and when we toured, what kept us all going was that we are all just the best of friends.”

George takes over.

“Stingy I think (as much for us as for him), offered to step back and have us write the songs, while he moved into more of a session musician role. It was all very civil and after that we started jamming as a four-piece to write the songs, and fell pretty deep in love with the sound that was coming out.

“After that, I think we all knew what was the right thing to do. But then as soon as it got face to face it becomes so personal – it was such a rough night, honestly.”
The interpersonal respect is evident, and the pain this apparently mutual decision brought is clear, to the credit of all The Butlers. Leaving a mate behind, or leaving your mates to go forward, is no easy thing, and it speaks highly of their shared integrity.

In the same vein, they heap praise on lead guitarist Brad King.

“Taking a keyboard and saxophone out of the band is taking a large chunk out of the sound, so I think that put a huge load on Brad’s shoulders,” George observes. “But he just turned that on its head and filled that gap. Brad has improved immensely on guitar to fill that space, he’s really in a zone.”

It helps explain the new sound of The Butlers. Their original jazzy surf-rock badge is no longer at all appropriate, alternative rock is much closer for now with the pendulum heading more towards rock.

“We’ve definitely been writing as indie rock, but when we make another record, which we’re definitely keen to get onto now we’re on this wave, I think it will get more rocky,” says George.

Anyone who has seen The Butlers live will attest that getting the crowd rocking is a skill they have in plenty. During 2021 it seems the band have hit the refresh button, and the result has them getting back to basics.

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