Award-winning producer and ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler is now back recording his own music. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.
‘HE’S an incredibly enthusiastic, wide-eyed person about music. He loves to absorb all music and all culture. He’s very knowledge about it. You can discuss things with him. If I said, ‘Let’s make a synthesiser opera tomorrow he’d probably give it a go.”
Bernard Butler, the former Suede guitarist turned Brit Award-winning record producer, seems to have met his musical match in Jackie McKeown . The pair first met when Butler was producing McKeown’s band The 1990s in the mid-part of the last decade and kept in touch. “We used to text each other and I’d say, ‘If you are coming next Tuesday let’s make a record in a day’,” says Butler.
Last year that time finally arrived. McKeown, who was also once in the indie band The Yummy Fur with Alex Kapranos, now of Franz Ferdinand, was at a loose end after the break-up of The 1990s while Butler had become “itchy” after five years of “doing lots of song-writing with pop hopefuls, producing records and happily being used as a musical conduit for lots of people” and yearned to do something for himself.
The catalyst came when Butler broke his leg playing football. Forced to cancel lots of projects while he recuperated, he found solace by buying a second-hand Fender Stratocaster – the type of guitar favoured by the likes of Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Bob Dylan.
“I’d never played a Stratocaster before but I fell in love with it,” he says. “I lay on the sofa with my leg up for six weeks playing guitar on my own.”
The Stratocaster presented not only a change from his trademark Gibson ES-355 semi-acoustic which he’d played on for much of his 20-year career – in Suede, with singer David McAlmont and as a solo artist – but also a challenge.
“It’s like buying a new pair of shoes,” he explains. “You find you can’t wear shoes like that with a dodgy pair of trousers. Before you know it you’re getting your hair cut. One thing leads to another when you’re playing guitar. You’re adjusting the way you play; it leads down different roads.”
Out of all this came the band Trans, with Jackie McKeown, and an entirely new approach to songwriting.
“Basically we get together and we play,” says 43-year-old Butler. “We don’t go into a room with any songs or say ‘which Velvet Underground song are we going to rip off today?’ We go into my studio and the first note we do first time is recorded. There’s no pressure to jump into an incredible riff. We can play for as long as we want and see what happens.” Their only edict is that 43-year-old McKeown’s guitar can be heard through the left channel of the speakers while Butler plays through the right because “that’s where we were standing in the room when we recorded it”. Paul Borchers and Igor Volk make up the rhythm section. They jam for long stretches then review the results. The best bits Butler edits together to form songs.
Trans released one EP, the mesmerising, krautrock-influenced Red, last autumn. This month comes another, Green. To date the project has been remarkably low key.
“If I had a £10m marketing campaign offered me I might go for it but it hasn’t,” says Butler of the band’s profile.
“I don’t like being the centre of attention,” he adds. “That sounds ridiculous for somebody who makes records, but I wanted to make music that I really liked, firstly and foremostly. I don’t want to make music that targeted towards advertising campaigns. We just met up and were making this music for a couple of months before anyone heard it.”
Trans have no ambition to even release an album. Butler’s attracted by the idea of 12-inch vinyl EPs with two songs on each side. “That evolved out of the fact that when we improvise, each session is two or three sections that end at the same time, that’s why they flow together as a record.”
Each EP will be colour-coded, depending on the mood of the sessions and the band design the artwork themselves.
Butler, who has produced records by the likes of Duffy, Edwyn Collins, The Libertines, The Cribs, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Texas, likes the speed he can now work at.
He deplores the tardiness of many modern acts. “When bands make albums nowadays it often takes two or three years before you hear another one. There’s so much production – it feels really lacking in spontaneity. All of these things are part of how stage-managed everything is these days.
“You can strive for perfection in the digital age, putting the vocals perfectly in tune and the drummer perfectly in time, and have beautiful photos. It feels like a pointless pursuit to me.
“We can make an EP this week and turn it around in six weeks. The sleeve design is all our own, we do the photos ourselves and the videos ourselves – they’re done in my studio with a cheap camera. There’s no make-up, no stylist, no director.”
Having seen many thousands of pounds spent on videos over the years, he’s sceptical of “pretentious promo video made to enhance the portfolios of the video director so they can get an advert”.
“Everything in life is a reaction,” he says. “You learn or you make the same mistakes over and over. If you learn, you do something different.
“I would like to think people can be inspired by that to think twice. It’s having the confidence to try something out and do it for yourself, be it making music or writing, films or whatever.”
Trans play at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on March 14 and the Brudenell Social Club on March 15. The Green EP is out on March 10.