Subscribe

(Credit: Ben Stanley BBC)

Music

Far Out Meets: Bernard Butler on Britpop, new music and the impulse of creativity

There’s something pleasantly Irish about Bernard Butler. Seated in his office, he is decorated by an exhibition of instruments, the tools he is set to use once this interview is finished. Then there’s his voice: mellifluent, meticulous, yet laced with poetry. And let’s not forget the passion he exudes, which pops its head as we begin discussing his reissue of People Move On, a project that he has poured large amounts of time and creative energy into restoring. So, I decided to ask, is there any Irish in him? “My parents are from Dun Laoghaire,” he replies. “I grew up in north London in an Irish neighbourhood,” he added.

He asks where I’m from (Waterford) before he reminisces about his travels to Dingle, Kerry, the geographical landmark nominally regarded as the island’s inner Shangri-la. Butler’s not the first English born musician to discuss his connection to Ireland: Kevin Rowland and Shane McGowan wrote elegies to the isle in the 1980s; Noel Gallagher has spoken at length about his childhood memories in Mayo; and no less a staple of British pop, Paul McCartney, got married in Co. Monaghan purportedly as a way of paying tribute to his late mother. “Definitely from a certain generation,” Butler agrees. “I don’t know if it’s the case now much, but definitely up to the generation where I was from. Just because of the migration in the sixties, I guess. That was the big thing in the ’60s, and we all ended up in Manchester, Liverpool or North London. Places wherever the trains came into: Holyhead. Growing up, pretty much everyone I knew was Irish.”

Summer, he tells me, was spent in Dun Laoghaire, and he still holds a connection to the place, “Still hundreds of them all over,” he chuckles, but nostalgia doesn’t hold a shadow over him, and he’s anxious to talk about the present, even if it means discussing the importance of his debut album, 20-something years after it was originally presented to the public. “I re-recorded all the vocals [for this re-issue],” he says. “The whole thing. It’s two things: First of all, I gave myself the time to do it, and learn how to do it. Secondly, 22 years: simple as that. We’re all human beings, changing all of the time. Think as musicians, we’re kind of expected to fit in this ‘sort of little’ box, and that we’re supposed to stay in this place forever. That memory for a listener is hard to shift – it’s quite hard to come to terms with, unless the people actually age and grow as musicians.

“That’s also compounded by the fact that an awful lot of musicians, or artists, are in arrested development. [They’re] eternally trying to act like teenagers; that’s always been awkward. But the truth is that we’re evolving, and 22 years has happened to me. What’s happened to you in the last 22 years? Stuff happens, and that affects the way you are, and the way you are, affects the way you speak and think. Your life and everything. All of that is relative when it comes to doing something like singing, relative to words, and not just the physical tonality of it. The creative expression, and delivery of it, is a big part of it.” 

Off camera, he holds a social life that gives him great pleasure, but professionally, he seems best suited to the studio. Describing himself first as a musician, then an artist, he happens upon a tidy descriptor that best explains his process: “I’m a musician, and I pick up any tool I can,” he adds. “If I pick up something, and it inspires me, I try and use it in some way. They’re all tools: piano, keyboards, whatever. I tend to make notes of stuff when I’m in the mode for writing, and I don’t write all the time. When I’m in a mode where I know I’m going to be writing, I take notes of things I read, see on TV, and I make little notes and threads of this stuff. When I go to write, I have all this material. I look at the words, and think ‘What is the musical picture of these words?’ ‘What story will they paint?’”.

Furthering the metaphor, Butler likens producing to painting. “Think of a painting in an art gallery, and you think of the subject as a song, around that you can think of elements like, ‘Is it going to be landscape?’ ‘Are we using watercolours or pencil?’ All those things, and finally you put a frame around it. Then you decide, where is it going to go: In the street? In a gallery? National Gallery?”

Butler blushes when I suggest that he’s one of the finest producers of his generation (simply listen to the bristling, buzzsaw opening of ‘Animal Niterate’, or the soaring vocals that ring out over ‘Yes’ for evidence), suggesting that he largely he sits in “throwing mud on the wall”. He’s kidding around, but does get more serious when he discusses People Move On, a probing, ruminatory album which saw Butler – perhaps best known in 1998 as the guitarist from Suede-tackling lyrics as well as instrumentation – display another level. “I didn’t play the drums, or the strings, but I played most of the rest of People Move On. It’s kind of guitars, keyboards: I built it up that way. I was given the chance by labels to do what I want-carte blanche in the studio. This was a time where I could do what I wanted, and I was allowed to be in a studio, explore and have fun.” 

 “I had a drummer called Makoto, a Japanese guy, who is now dead,” Butler continues. “He died a few years ago, but he was my rock for about twenty years. So, I did everything with him, and he just trusted me, and gave me an enormous amount of faith. We’d just start each song with me playing an acoustic and singing, and a drum track with him. Once we established what the song was, I’d build it up with him. Then, I’d place sections. I’m doing the same thing now, and I do it all the time.” 

Like a painter drawn to the prescience of the moment, Butler feels drawn by humans and their dealings at a juncture in time. He likens his approach-one he continues to this day – to that of a photographer. “Zoning in on who the characters are,” he surmises. “Yeah, I love it.” 

From the lingering ‘Stay’, to the ponderous, pastoral pop of ‘You Light The Fire’, the album exhibits unbridled creativity, laced with splashes of distress and concern. ‘In Vain’ conjures a narrator, lost in the precipice of their failings, ‘Woman I Know’ curates a longing for a person who resides within the vortex of angular, abiding memory. ‘A Change of Heart’, complete with a kaleidoscopic, cinematic coda, furthers the yearning, while the title of ‘I’m Tired’ says it all. One track closes, another begins, but the appetency remains. Does he agree with that? “Yes it is, but I wouldn’t have seen that at the time,” he says, shaking his head as he does so. “It’s a lot to do with yearning for an identity.” 

Yet just as the words pop out of his mouth, he begins to backtrack. “In a way, that’s almost ridiculous, because people have an identity, and we’re all entitled to be who we are. Again, it goes back to the thing I was saying about ‘Not Alone’, which was about trying to establish if it was ok to be myself, because I didn’t feel like it, because of the people I was around in the music industry. It took years to get away from it enough to feel ok to talk in the way I want to. Also, when you’re a young musician, you get to the public eye, people obviously take a capture of who they want you to be, [much in] the same way I take photographs of people I see in the street. I sort of define that glimpse of their identity-of course that’s not their identity, but it’s what I capture. In the same way, any artist is captured by an audience in their view, so when somebody sees me for the first time, or goes to a concert, and that’s the night they got drunk, or fell in love for the first time, it’s that memory that’s attached to the artist. It’s not really what they’re about, but that becomes their identity in other people’s eyes.” 

Reluctant to acquiesce to the music buying public and be a role model, Butler took solace in the songs that were written from his view of the world at large. He’s re-familiarised himself with the lyrics and feelings, carving a more objective picture of the narrative that now serves equal parts memento and mourning. “I really like the title track, I really enjoy singing it now. I love the words and feel of it. Captures the mood of the record. Captures a time in my life when I was about 19, when I used to work in London, working Saturday nights selling newspapers. Selling the Sunday papers, which would arrive on Saturday. You’d sell them on the street, and there was a gang of us who were doing it outside the nightclubs and Tube stations. I used to stand and do that until one or two in the morning, and it was really cold in the winter, and you just had the headphones on, listening to the music. But it was really interesting because you’d see the people coming out of the tube looking whimsical, getting ready to go out, and they’d come back three hours later looking like they were beaten up, or worse for wear. You’d see a lot of characters around London: homeless people, and slightly strange, sinister people. The song is about people watching, moving around, and moving through your life. The transience of people passing by.” 

(Credit: Ben Stanley BBC)

These days, technology has freed musicians from acting as a voice for a generation, “Nobody gives a shit anyway,” Butler giggles. Instead demanding a more customised viewpoint that coincides with the daily activities of the listener. If People Move On doesn’t offer a polemical slant, it compensates by being nakedly confessional, servicing listeners with a distinguished, faintly diaristic account of Butler’s younger life. What the new vocals offer isn’t enhancement, but conviction, and by doing so, help to validate the feelings once deemed unworthy of a movement. “Coming out at a time when alternative music was about not having a focus on image, [the nineties] became incredibly image conscious, and it became incredibly important to play a ‘rock and roll caricature’. I found it cringeworthy-it wasn’t what I’d grown up wanting to do.” 

“When I was given the chance to record the first time around, I said ‘fuck it, I’ll do it,’ and I just didn’t think it through. I didn’t have five years in rehearsal rooms, or a hundred gigs in the backrooms of pubs to learn the craft. [It wasn’t just] to learn the craft technically, but to discover which expression to use. All of us when we go to sing, you can choose the expression, and to assume a character, if you like, just as we do in our lives. When you meet your inlaws, everything might become a little bit more refined, you know? Send me to Dublin, and my accent will start coming on. Everyone assumes a personality, and I didn’t really give myself time to do any of that, or to think about how to deliver it. That’s what’s changed. The reason it worked when I tried to do this, was because luckily I thought I’d written some good songs. I liked the words, and I liked the work enough to deliver with a sense of renewal and a sense of history in my life. I was prepared to do that.”

If the song holds a masterpiece, it’s ‘Not Alone’, a swirling chamber pop piece, cemented with a turbocharged riff and a string quartet, scintillatingly performed and produced with lush abandoned. Regularly compared to Scott Walker, the song embodies triumph, exasperation and naked sincerity in a studio setting. Butler denies the Walker influence, but he agrees that the nineties didn’t lend itself to humility and self-examination. He looks rueful when he says the lyric was ignored amidst the more chorus heavy tracks of his peers. 

“That time of the mid-1990s was very abrasive; very brash in London. It was very alpha male led. It was very in your face about everything, and as a young man, with the background I’d grown up with, I found it pretty hard to cope with, and I found myself branded all of the time. When I look back on it now, I think how regularly the people who knew me quite well, branded me under caricature character traits and criticisms, which I really took to heart, and it really affected me mentally. Now, when I look at it, I would take every single one of them and..” 

He pauses: “I think times have changed, and you are allowed to do that now. At the time, it was things like having a quiet nature, sensitivity. People always said to me all the time, ‘You’re too sensitive-why do you have sensitive all the time?’” 

Disillusioned by the sea change, McAlmont took to perfecting his own output and working with musicians of a similar discipline. “I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of artists since those days, so I kind of went at pains to prove a point of how I could communicate. I just found myself around brash and arrogant people that could not cope with the thought process or being around somebody who had thoughts rather than constant connotations. So, that’s where ‘Not Alone’ comes from. By the way, I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but I can see that now.” 

Furnished in the middle of the Britpop era, a sombre, introspective album was hard to market, and although there are flourishes and triumphant choruses, People Move On is atypical of both its geography and era. Even with the passage of time, the album sticks out from whence it was furnished, and sits more happily with the more contemplative, cerebral tracks that are typical of the 21st century. “At the time I thought [Britpop] was self parody, and I kind of hated the times. I hated my 20s – life got good after that [chuckles]. But an awful lot of people hate their 20s, because you’re constantly trying to work out who you are, or who your friends are. You’re trying to find a job, a career, there’s pressure to get jobs. You’re constantly battling and rubbing shoulders with your peers.” 

More happily, Butler feels the charade ends with your 20s, and people become much nicer, and certainly more relaxed in themselves, feeling that they have finally landed on their own voice. This is a view shared by many in Britain, but he won’t be joining them in raising a toast to what Britpop stood for. “I stayed in,” he explains. “I didn’t go out. I hated all that stuff in London – everyone was taking heroin”. 

Between the “culture mags” and “sexist attitudes”, it’s easy to overlook the flags that were waved with almost religious abandon during Britpop. For someone who was proud of his Irish upbringing, Noel Gallagher was also guilty of pandering to Empirical presentation, and flaunted a Union Jack guitar at Oasis concerts. “I find that really strange,” Butler cackles. “He’s a Gallagher! But each to their own. It certainly wasn’t for me.” He has more time for Johnny Marr, a “huge inspiration”, and praises the composer of ‘This Charming Man’ for treating fans with the respect they undoubtedly deserve. “He’s always followed his nose musically,” Butler confirms. “There’s two great things about him: Firstly, he’s always wanted to learn more about what he does; and two, he’s always wanted to inspire people with what he’s learned.” 

It quickly emerges that Butler is an avid traveller, and enjoys the motion, especially as it helps him piece together a sense of perspective he won’t find by staying mobile. Like McGowan before him, the London in his work is a city of opportunity, grandeur, heartbreak and sincerity, and poses an alternate reflection to the rain-laden fodder that litters the airwaves. “I guess we’re not stuck to British cultural identity, that’s true. We’re not constantly looking for the sort of stereotypes. I think the Irish, obviously, are emigrants and like to travel. Wherever you go across the world, you meet someone who’s Irish, they ask you, ‘Where are you from?’, or ‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ Doesn’t really happen with English people. If I’m abroad, and I hear an English accent, I walk the other way [laughs uproariously]. I think there’s that sense of travelling, and being fascinated by other people, especially the last fifty years among Irish people.” 

“I’ve done a couple of shows in the last couple of weeks, funnily enough,” Butler says. Will he be touring People Move On? “I’m not taking this. This is coming out as a reissue, and that’s brilliant, but I’m not going to sit and play old songs all my life, because that’s just incredibly tedious. I haven’t played live as a solo artist for a very long time; almost since this record came out, actually. So, that’s something I will be doing next year, accompanied by a new record.” 

He won’t divulge any further but as an added tease, he says the working title has an added connection to Ireland. I decide to ask Butler the question interviewers dread, and artists entertain – why is this reissue of interest to the fans? “Why should you buy it, in other words? First of all, the thing about reissues, is that nobody needs to buy it – there are no guns to your heads. I read about people getting very upset about re-issues: ‘They cost too much..’, ‘There’s not enough good stuff..’ I say, ‘Don’t buy it.’ You’ve got it already. I will say this, I put in an extraordinary amount of work into it -months, and months, and months. Re-recording every vocal, and re-mastering that, took a long time. It felt like making another record. But it’s a really beautiful package. Demon, who I work with, have done a fantastic job, and have always supported me in making something that’s really beautiful.”

The set includes an essay from the songwriter, and he similarly gifted Demon a selection of photographs from his personal archives. Yet much as it failed to faze him in the ’90s, Butler remains disinterested in the more corporate elements of the rock industry. “I make records and write songs, because as a musician, it’s your impulsion. You feel compelled to do it. I’m 51 years old, and by this point, I’ve just about discovered that I’m probably going to be doing this now. I don’t think I’ll be doing other stuff. There was a lot of points that I thought, ‘I’ll be a musician, and I’ll do something else..’ But, I’m not doing it [for] slavish praise. I hope people enjoy what I do, I really do, but I hope to put across an interpretation of work, and my own thoughts of the world. It would be a nice thing for people to find pleasure and thoughts from diving inside that interpretation. Really, that’s why I do it.” 

Form, feeling and frame over mass acceptance? Well, I never. Not only is there something Irish about the guitarist, but there’s a touch of the artist about Bernard Butler.

The remastered People Move On is out January 28th.