By the time The Builders and The Butchers took the stage we all had a band’s worth of beer in us. I visited their MySpace page when I first saw their name on the roster for the upcoming Murder By Death tour, and what I heard persuaded me to show up at Bowery Ballroom when the doors opened that Friday night. I was curious to hear how they would deliver their ghastly blue-grass beats and knew that their live performance would be the determining factor of my fanship. Equally as curious was my desire to see how everyone else responded.
Within seconds, the twang of an acoustic guitar rattled like a cargo train across the Mississippi bayou and we raised our glasses high to welcome it. A voice like a paper cut sprinkled with sugar poured over the crowd to meet the drinks on the ground. My black converse sneakers sliding on the gin soaked floor only made it easier to dance.
I still can’t decide what was the most confusing- the banjo, the washboard, or the fact that it rocked. With forty minutes passed and their set coming to end I found myself completely engrossed in the energy of the audience and the music we were sharing. I swung my hips like a railroad hammer as he sang about his little sister on the tracks.
It wasn’t until the tambourines, the maracas, and the depression style Tympani drum made their way into the crowd from the hands of the lead singer that I could sing along to songs I’d only heard once. So while some of us clapped and some of us danced, the rest of us banged and sang The Butcher’s blues.
There was no doubt that Murder by Death would fail to disappoint this time around. The anticipation began when word first got out that they would be touring with former keyboardist, Vincent Edwards, and playing their second LP, “Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them” in its entirety.
Not that it’s undeserving, but for Murder by Death to sell out Bowery Ballroom is impressive. How far they’ve come from the release of “In Bocca De Lupo” alone is astonishing. We all, as fans, have been faced with this quasi dilemma; the transition from c-list to mainstream underground that makes us wonder how much longer we can enjoy the “GA” stamped in the left hand corner of our tickets.
For some us the experience is bittersweet. Even though we reminisce of the “good old days” as teenagers, seeing our favorite bands at VFW halls and coffee shops, we can’t deny our adult voice as it quietly praises the wet bar and coat check. Parting is sweet sorrow, they say. Especially when it means bidding farewell to ten dollars at the door.
But Murder by Death brought more than surplus ticket sales with them on this tour. They brought The Builders and The Butchers.
I have since purchased their self entitled CD, and it captures the same raw intensity found in their live performance. I did, however, find myself with questions burning to be answered. Who better, I thought, than the brains behind The Builders himself, lead singer/songwriter, Ryan Sollee. He welcomed my inquiries with the same benevolence with which he autographed my tambourine (coolest merch item ever, by the way).
Caroline Frank- I want to start by asking about the song, “Barcelona”. It was not on The Builders and The Butchers and I know quite a few people who are anxious as to when this track will be released? Can fans expect another album anytime in the near future?
Ryan Sollee- The new record titled “Salvation Is A Deep Dark Well” will be released in June of this year, Barcelona will be a track on this record.
CF- After doing a little research I learned that TB &TB is the result of an idea you had with Adrienne Hatkin of Autopilot to start a funeral band. Fantastic! However, I am curious as to where this idea came from? What influenced it?
RS- Adrienne was a member of the Builders when we first started out, originally the idea was to create a band that played funeral dirge music that played unplugged around Portland where ever there were crowds of people, for the bands first year that was what we did. The first builders songs were inspired by this idea, this I think is why the first album has so many sing along parts, during those first shows friends would come and during shows sing along and become part of the band.
CF- And, speaking of influences, what musicians/bands would you attribute to having had the most effect on you? Do you think this is reflected in your music?
RS- I love mining from pre 1950’s America music, old country and blues, bluegrass, as far as contemporary artists, of course Tom Waits first comes to mind. It seems like the Portland scene is really folk driven and there are a lot of bands feeding of each other, but at the same time taking different approaches.
CF- I heard a lot of genres being thrown around in an attempt to label TB&TB. Would you say that there is a certain obscurity to your sound that sparks the confusion or would say that it is simply the absence of soul in modern music? And how would you, as a band, categorize it?
RS- I think there are a lot of bands that are playing with soul, but it also depends on what your definition of soul is, sure there isn’t a modern day Otis Redding, but Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings come pretty damn close, also I think that you can find just as much soul in Bon Iver or TV on the Radio as anything old sounding, it’s just a modern version of it. One of my favorite things about the Builders is that people have a hard time categorizing it, all of my favorite bands can’t be simply described. I don’t think that the sound is very obscure, I actually think its really simple.
CF- You’d mentioned that the original intention of TB&TB was to write “death themed songs”. The macabre imagery is so well executed that I wonder, where do you draw from to write such convincing lyrics?
RS- I went through a major transformation as a song writer about 4 years ago when I stopped writing personal songs and started writing more story songs. I started listening to more narrative songwriters like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Nick Cave and again Tom Waits, it was like a re-awakening, and a whole new source of songwriting material. I also really have related to dark tales, I don’t really know why, but a lot of people are fascinated with dark stories.
CF- From what I read, I understand that there was no initial expectation for the band. In the experience of positive responses, has that perspective changed at all?
RS- That’s the most difficult thing with any band I think is to keep expectations low. Of course when positive things happen you can’t help but feel that the band is moving forward and with that comes expectations, but it’s always important to remember that writing and performing music is a journey and not intended to be kept static, it’s the journey that makes it interesting and that journey will have good times and bad, just like anything else.
CF- Would you say that “mainstream success” is a goal for TB&TB? And, in the same
vein and at the risk of sounding pretentious, do you think the masses could appreciate, or “get”, TB&TB? More important, does that even matter to you, as a band?
RS- That’s interesting, I think that lately a lot of really great bands have had mainstream success, I never would have thought that modest mouse or the shins would’ve become as mainstream as they did, but they did, and you never really know it really just comes down to peoples tastes. I think we are all a little weirded out about even our small level of success and I’m sure if we become more known that will just get weirder.
CF- As I mentioned in my original message, I was very taken by the energy of your live performance- but I was blown away towards the end when you started handing out the instruments. Not only was the idea fun and clever- it really was the ultimate in audience participation, without compromising the band’s performance. It showed the band’s commitment to the audience and made a much stronger statement than asking us to clap along. I was quite impressed by this, and have to ask where the idea came from and what the usual response is to it?
RS- The idea to try an involve the audience really came from the sing along audience participation of the early builders shows. Those were really special shows and we saw people just naturally reacting to the band in a pretty intense way and after we started plugging in and playing bigger shows we wanted to keep the same connection with the audience.
CF- How has the experience been touring with Murder By Death?
RS- This has been the best tour so far. They are really great people and they have amazing fans, we played 8 straight sold out shows and its been amazing. I wish we could always tour with Murder By Death.
“Barcelona” – Salvation Is A Deep Dark Well (unreleased – http://www.myspace.com to listen)
“Black Dresses” – The Builders and The Butchers (2007 – available on i-tunes or http://www.cdbaby.com)
“Red Hands” – The Builders and The Butchers (2007 – available on i-tunes or http://www.cdbaby.com)
“Spanish Death” – The Builders and The Butchers (2007 -available on i-tunes or http://www.cdbaby.com)
Caroline M. Frank