Bernard Butler performing at Bowery Ballroom, NYC
KB: Tell me how the experience of being a vocalist/guitarist differs from that of being a guitarist performing next to a vocalist.
BB: Oh, I don't know. People keep asking me about what it's like being a front person. These things haven't crossed my mind at all. The idea of weather I'm standing stage center or the left...or the back. It doesn't worry me where. I've got my eyes closed most of the time anyway, so I could be anywhere. (laughs)
No, but it did take a while when I first started making records as a vocalist to see myself as a front-person. That was important to me. I had the record companies come down and just psyched myself up to sing. Most people get years being in a band and traveling...you know, it's playing all the really bad pubs and loud rehearsal rooms, and they have lots of experience that way and I never had that apprenticeship. Aside from that, the only other thing that supports me is the lyrical side. That's something I've never had to express. I've never thought about expressing before. So that's a great thing that I've discovered.
KB: So it's opened a whole new area of expression for you...
BB: It has. I never would have expected that at all. And it, um, makes me wonder what's next. There's something lined up for me in the year 2002. Sousaphone or...
BB: Harp. I'd love to learn harp. That's great.
KB: Has singing changed, at all, the way you write music?
BB: Yeah. I changed at the same time. It was kind of a joint thing. I didn't start singing and then change the way I was doing things. I started to change the way I was doing things about two years ago. There were a lot of groups in England that were using a style that I'd been using for a few years. Songwriting was almost like using children's building blocks, where you've got different colors, a verse a bridge and a chorus. You arrange them in certain ways and you have duplicates of each one. And I used to work like that all the time and I used to think about my songs that way - structure them in a very disciplined way. And I kind of felt that I was heading towards a self-parody. I could see the end of all the possibilities. I could see all the possibilities being used up. And I didn't like that. Most importantly, I could see other groups doing that and I didn't like their records. I thought, if that's what I do and I don't like these records when I listen to them, then I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to do something that I'm not interested in. Instead of turning on the tape and writing stuff from 9 to 5 every day, which is what I used to do - just write songs all day - I would just leave myself and not write songs on a schedule.
That's what I do now. When the moment comes - it might take weeks - but when it does I've got a microphone, one acoustic guitar and a DAT player, and I just sing into that, and let it all come out in a very undisciplined way. And let anything I'm feeling come out. Then listen back to the rewinds. If I find a good bit in the rewind I'll double that. I'll take it from there. Then I'll take it to the next step. It's very improvisational. It great cause it means I come up with different structures. And that's the way the lyrics started to happen as well. This was the same time that I was starting to sing because, um, that's how the lyrics came out really. I didn't sit down to write songs about anything, you know, I didn't have a list of issues to write about. (laughs) When these songs started coming out, then afterwards, once I'd written them out, then I started thinking,'wow, I know what I'm talking about', I could see what this was about. It was really cathartic. It was wonderful.
KB: Can you describe where and how you were inspired to write particular songs?
BB: I wrote Not Alone in a hotel room in Paris. About half of the songs for the record had been recorded. I went to Paris with my wife - we were having a little break sort of thing. I knew I had all of these songs that I wanted to write, as I said, with different structures. I felt that I've achieved that. I felt that I've achieved something that other people weren't doing. I just woke up really early one morning and had MTV on, and I was watching all of these crap pop records. And I just sat there and thought to myself,'I could do this better than these people'. You know and I thought I just had one last shot at pop music (laughs). That sort of three minute pop music, ya know, pure pop. And so I went and recorded Not Alone there and then, yeah.
KB: About the songs. Who are the subjects?
BB: You and me.
KB: People in general?
BB: Well, some of them are and some of them aren't .
KB: Are there any in particular that have special meaning about certain individuals?
BB: Yeah, I don't really want to go into it...
KB: ..it's more of a private thing...
BB: ..well, it's not so much of a private thing. It's more that as soon as it becomes a specific issue, people stop relating to it. And I want people to relate to it themselves. I don't want people to say that it's about 'so and so' that I know.
KB: It's not a documentary, it's more of an emotional thing.
BB: Yeah, it's more of an emotional thing because a lot of things are very universal and very vague feelings, which we all feel. That's the point of it. They're very varied as well. I wouldn't want it to be specific. But they're generally about people in my family. And people I've met. In People Move On, the people in that are about...I used to do this job in London selling newspapers, and it's about people I used to meet there. There are these guys that go around selling roses. They go into restaurants with these really horrible roses. They try and get you to buy one for your girlfriend and you think, " I'm not going to give her that. She'll dump me." (laughs) There was this one guy that I remember, he had a hunch back and really long hair that was kind of dreading as well. He was just the most hideous man that you've ever seen in your life. And he would follow girls down the street - mostly tourists - trying to chat them up, and it was just so depressing.
KB: You see all that.
BB: You see it all. And there's a guy with a sandwich board in London, he got a wooden board over the back of him and the front of him saying,'thou must repent,' and' lentils will save you and meat is evil,' and stuff like that. And he used to walk up and down with it. I met a lot of funny people.
KB: Did any songs go through significant changes in the recording process? Did they start out one way and end up on the CD completely different?
BB: Probably, yeah. Let me think. Well when I went in to record, everything was acoustic and it was all in my head. I didn't do any demos or anything, so I wasn't sure what was going to happen. But I thought that was good. That really turned me on not knowing quite what I was going to do cause I knew that once I was in the studio and I had all of the songs, I'd have all of the instruments lined up and I could do whatever I wanted. And then when I finished the record I started playing them acoustically again and started listening to them acoustically after the event, and suddenly realized how much they had changed. That was really good.
There are a few songs that I wish in a way that I had recorded acoustically, and I might at some point. I'd like to. They're not, like, muting every instrument aside from the acoustic guitar and the vocal. They are completely different renditions. Dynamically and in other ways. So I'd like to do a couple of them in that way.'Woman I Know' is a good one because it's almost country/blues when I play it live, acoustically. On the record it's very graceful and a completely different kind of thing.'Not Alone', I really like acoustically. I'd love to do a recording of that. I really like that way it's so small and it's a very story-telling kind of thing.
GM: OK. I might as well be the first to bring this up. It's a dirty five-letter word. It starts with S and ends with E.
BB: It's not a dirty five-letter word at all. It's a band called Suede that I'm very proud that I was in and I wish people would stop treating me as if I wish I was never in Suede. I made great records with Suede and they're a great group. I'm very proud of that and there's no big deal about it.
GM: The British press is always....
BB: Yeah, but I've never said that. It's one of the many questions that I face, day in and day out. It's kind of second hand information, but you never find the guy who said it in the first place. That's what always worries me. There's someone out there and he's got a list of theories on me.
GM: Alright, well let's talk about the songwriting. It's interesting, now that your solo work is out, to compare your work to the B sides that were recently released on Sci-fi Lullabies. When we listened to Suede 3 or 4 years ago we always wondered which parts did Bernard write, what's his impact. I hear similarities between some of the B sides and your solo work...the slow-boiled beginnings followed by a nice and sweet long intro... were those your elements?
BB: Well, I wrote all of the music when I was in Suede. So, yeah, it was all me. (laughs)
GM: Well, the more brooding works such as High Rising...
BB: Yeah, High Rising I was really, really into at the time. There were no drums on that so I did percussion and everything myself.
GM: Was that your reaction to what Suede was becoming popular as?
BB: Well, I was just challenging...yeah, but in a musical way. Just like I'm doing now. I'm playing these songs acoustically because it's being represented in a different way and that turns me on. Yeah, at that time in Suede I was obsessed with challenging the music. Challenging the way people saw the group. I never invented this glam rock tag. I was never interested in any glam rock band, whatsoever. It meant nothing to me, ever. So I was always interested in making classical music. That's what I thought Suede was. I always thought it was great pop music, but there was also a classical element to it that I was really into. So the songs on High Rising, yeah, it was just me challenging my own songwriting and trying to do something different. I think they stand up, you know.
GM: When reviewed here in the States some of the strongest material, as quoted in various magazines, was indeed the slower stuff, the darker stuff because it seemed like there was musical progression.
BB: Yeah, well that's what I was trying to do all the time. That's what I was trying to do when I left the group. That's why I left, you know. There you go.
KB: When did you make the decision that you were going to make a solo CD and be the vocalist.
BB: I made one decision when I was in New York, the end of '95. I came here - we had a little break. A little holiday in the heat wave. Like an Englishman does, comes to New York in July in the heat wave and wonders why there's no one else on the street. We were the only two people in Central Park. (laughs) But we had a great time. We had an amazing time and came to a lot of conclusions. Basically my wife just told me to shut up and go make a record, which is the best thing I could ever be told. But it took another six month, probably took another year until I was even doing it, cause I was doing other things with other people. It was just something I kind of kept in the back of my mind. I was singing at the time anyway. It was just a matter of realizing, this is ok for you to do that, and needing someone to tell me,'what are you worried about. Why don't you just do this,' you know. It wasn't planned in any way, really it was just an accident. I just found myself singing around the house. Singing along to records and then singing along to my own little tunes. Then once I started recording things, words were coming out, and I was thinking,' I might be able to do this,' worrying about whether I could write one song. And then I realized that that was what I've always felt about music as well. I've always felt that every time I write a song it's the last one I'll ever write. So putting myself on the line like that, I realized there was a lot in common. It took me a long period of time, very naturally. It's no big story really. It was a very organic thing. Now I can't not see the possibility of singing on my records.
Here are the rest of the questions, the answers to which will be posted soon.
Do you have any formal music instruction?
Who would you say were your early influences - who inspired you to be a musician?
How about more recent influences - is there anyone in particular that you've taken note of?
What would you say is your favorite CD of all time?
When did you make the decision to do a solo CD and be the vocalist. When were you sure that this was something you were definitely going to do?
You've played with a number of noteworthy artists; Bryan Ferry, Teenage Fanclub, Manic Street Preachers, McAlmont, The Verve, Thom Yorke, and others. Can you comment on the experience of working with each?
What did you take away from the whole Suede experience?
What sustained you during that difficult last tour of America with Suede?
What past musician would you have liked to have the opportunity to collaborate with?
What current artist or group would you like to work with as a one-off?
Do you read your press and, if so, what is your general outlook towards press.
What is the most bazaar or incorrect thing that was reported about you?
What was the strangest fan experience that you have had.
How do you manage being a new dad while touring to support the CD?
Tell me about the video for Stay. What is the meaning of lying in the middle of the road?
What is the personal significance of the grim reaper and the angel?
Where was the video filmed and how long did it take to make?
Any stories about events that took place on the set?
What is the best thing that someone could possibly say about your music?
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
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