Sunday, February 8, 2009

Musical Questions – Earl Butter

(Just a few preliminaries before I turn this over to Earl Butter; the first clip below, “Brand,” is from the Buckets excellent 1996 release on Slow River (it’s called—reasonably enough—the Buckets). The second clip, “Emma June” is from Silo, a cd that’s in progress, & which Earl has been kind enough to let us sample before it’s served, as it were. Silo is made up of 1998 recordings when the original San Francisco line-up of the Buckets was really at its peak, & all of us old Buckets’ fans are looking forward lots to its release—now, here’s Earl):

I was raised in Utica, New York. My mom and dad had a healthy and very eclectic record and 8-track tape collection thanks mostly to the Columbia House
Music Club. Eight 8-tracks for a dollar, or whatever it was. A collection which has, sadly, been lost to time. My sister was the right age to actually be a Beatlemaniac. She sang in church, and I sang in chorus in grade school, but nothing after that. I played trumpet in junior high, and even made it to first seat in the "lower" of the two bands. But I got kicked out for reasons I can't remember. I started to play the guitar and sing and it was fun, especially those first few plateaus, where you get your fingers to play your first chords, and then you learn to change from one chord to the other. Sadly, except for typing, many years later, I think changing from one chord to the other is the last thing I ever really learned. I wanted to write songs but was very unhappy with the results and quit singing and playing all through my undergraduate days. In graduate school I shared an office with this cool guy, Dave Kress. He had a band, they played around. I believe the were called the New American Folk Trio, soon to be called No Such Animal. They were like, new wave, they were great. Someone was leaving and Dave had a trumpet and I could almost play it, and I got in. It was really exciting. He let me do anything I wanted. I got to sing and putter around all sorts of instruments, including keyboards, guitars...all sorts of stuff. I played with him for several years and in a later band with him called the Driveways. We made recordings, played tons of shows. It was really awesome. After that I started writing country-like songs and started a band called the Buckets. I also got a lot of music experience working behind the scenes with Ed's Redeeming Qualities when they were in New England. I came to San Francisco in 1991 where the Ed's crew had reestablished themselves. They pre-gathered a Buckets band for me and I played with them for many years here. It's weird thinking back on it. It really was an exciting time. Since then, I've just been getting older and more tired. Recently Joel Murach has asked me to play guitar and trumpet in his band, the Low Rollers. It's neat. He's such a great songwriter, and such a true, traditional, American singer. I'm proud to be a part of it. Last night we played at a pizza place.

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

My sister was nine in 1963 and she got to live Beatlemania. We had a spare room in our house that we called the Beatle room. I wasn’t allowed in there. It was set up specifically for my sister and her friends to listen to Beatles records. In 1969, when I was six, my parents bought a stereo, and everyday before I went out to play I would listen to one side of a Beatles record. I went through them all that way. I knew I wanted to either be them, or know them, or sing like them….something.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

Several things. The first was that I wanted to write rock and pop songs like all the people I was listening to when I was sixteen. They were all so serious. I wanted to change the world and get out all the pain of my adolescence. The stuff I wrote was awful. Luckily I was smart enough to recognize it, and quit trying. I went through college not playing or writing anything, sad, but resigned to the fact that I was never going to write a song. At some point I had some sort of brush with country music, and it made everything possible for me. For one, I realized they allowed humor without being novelty. Plus, for me, they had a restrictive structure that made things easier. Plus, I had no real influences except Hank Williams and Hee Haw, so I felt like, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” so I couldn’t do anything wrong.

Another serious obstacle I have is not being able to play an instrument. I am really tied to the chords I can play on the guitar. There’s nothing diminished or augmented about any of my songs. I don’t understand the keys. They’re the keys! And I don’t understand them.

The biggest, though, is terrible self-censorship. For years now the “this is stupid” voice has been so loud in my head that I can’t get anything out. This is such a rookie problem, but I’m having trouble getting over it.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

Not really. I learned a long time ago that having a hat makes the difference between seeing an audience and not seeing them. Also, sadly, having clothes I’m comfortable in puts me more at ease. Thus, I’ve been wearing the same clothes on stage for, I don’t know, a long time.

The biggest thing with composing is just knowing that playing the guitar enough will eventually yield some little thing that sounds cool enough to make into a song. Also, the songs you make up while walking around are usually worth the time to run up the stairs and figure out before you lose them.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc? Do you start thinking about arrangements as soon as you’re learning a song you’re going to cover or only after you’ve learned it at a basic level?

It’s all of the above. Most songs I’ve written have come from the guitar, from two or three chords that for some reason, on whatever day it is, sound right to me.

But the first batch of songs I wrote came from lyrics or phrases or titles, and I wrote them like rhymey poems and then put music to them.

Sometimes I hear something else right away, like a fiddle part, or bells or something. And there’s chords and stuff, but the song really hinges on whatever that other part is.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

What a question. Uh….goodness.

I can’t say. It’s the same with any kind of art. It just moves you. It’s can be in the lyrics, like, just a great phrase, something clever, or gut wrenching, or terribly sad. But all those things can go with the notes too, or the arrangement, or the way two instruments sound together, lonesome, or sad, or exhilarating. You know, good songs remind me of being in love when I was younger, or how sweet being sad can be, or how good it feels to feel tough, or let some buried emotions out.

The other thing, for me, is hearing something I haven’t heard before. That’s exciting. Especially if it comes from actively looking around for it.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

There was one time I played up in Albany, CA. And it was this after-market band of Buckets that no one really knew about or was going to see. I was not in the best of shape, and the band was kind of loose, with a newish, but great guitar player playing mostly slide and a pump organ guy up for the first time. I could hear my vocals very clear, and they sounded pretty awful, but good-awful. They seemed to be off in all the right places. And the band seemed loose in all the right places. And the band we were opening for had brought in a bunch of people. It was pouring rain out, and people just seemed to be staring at me, like, what is going on. But, that night, for me, it really all came together.

There were a lot of nights like that with the original Buckets too, especially toward the end. It’s really amazing to feel like you’re in a band that can do no wrong. To go up on stage, for me, and not have to worry about anyone messing up, and, amazingly, to feel like you can’t mess up either. Let me rephrase that, forget about worrying that anyone was going to mess up. After awhile, I would feel confident that each member was not just not mess up, but that were going to soar. To soar! To have an audience be in on that, jeez, it’s just like you dream about when you’re a kid. I remember being in the middle of a song, and trying to check everything that was going on, the sound, the band, the vocals, the audience, and thinking….how can everything be going right all at once….what’re the chances?

When performing how much are you focusing on communcation with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

I used to concentrate on the audience mostly. You have to check them and vary your performance, fit it to their needs. Are they happy? Are they on our side? Do I have to convince them to listen? Do I have to quiet them down, rile them up? Will showing confidence make them feel like they’re in good hands, or will showing a lack of confidence get them to root for us?

Later, though, I lost my confidence completely, so for a long time I just kept my eyes closed or on the floor. More recently I try and keep my eyes open, but I have trouble making eye contact.

As for the other members of the band, it’s always like, how you doing? I got your back, you are not alone up here. Everyone happy? I’m hearing what your doing, and I approve.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

Yes, all of them.

Mostly, I think if I could learn the piano, I would have the key to it all. The key!

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

I listen to this guy, Will Oldham, who used to play under all these other names, Palace, Palace Music etc. He plays under the name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He’s the only artist I’ve listened to in the last ten or so years, that I just wanted to hear everything he puts out. Antony and the Johnsons first album really sounded sort of new to me, like the first time I heard Laurie Anderson. I like this Sufjan Stevens guy a lot, he seems sort of new. This local band, the Trainwreck Riders really have it going on for me, great players, great lyrics, everything. Everything Beck does speaks to me. I saw this band the Bird and the Bee the other night on tv and thought they were really cute. I tend to discover stuff sort of late, I guess, like Sun Kil Moon and M. Ward. I listen to a lot of Neil Young, and Warren Zevon. And these guys, the Bright Light Quartet, they’re on one of these field recording things, a vocal group. They are amazing.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

We are not getting along at the moment. I mean, it’s like we’d been living on opposite sides of the country for years and years, not communicating. And then we got together again, like for a night, really got together again. But, really, music was very young when we got together the first time, and music has realized it is not interested in me anymore.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

My listening history is like this: the Beatles. Also, top forty radio before FM came along. Plus, was a lucky kid because I didn’t simply dismiss my parents’ music. So, I got to hear Harry Belafonte and Herb Alpert, country music, broadway shows, big bands and classical. Then FM happened and I listened to mostly sixties rock stuff. Then, the whole new wave/punk thing happened when I was about 15 or 16. It was awesome. But I also identified with Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits, music I felt was cleaner, somehow had more to do with the heart. Then college radio happened and I got pretty into R.E.M. and the English Beat and stuff. Ooh, and when Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust came out, I got introduced to Neil Young, that’s when I wanted to see if I could write and play again. But by that time I just knew I wanted to listen to all sorts of music, anything and everything, I wanted to hear it.

Lastly and most importantly, I got hit with the country music bug, and I kind of found my niche. The timing was right, for me definitely, and for what was going on in music at the time, too.

I’m really a pretty normal, pop/folk/rock type fan of music. But I consider myself a writer/performer of music that has more to do with country/folk/pop, uh, thing.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

Don’t stop writing a song because it seems stupid, or not good. Write every song that comes to mind and judge it later on. Set no limits on yourself. If you ever think, no, I can’t do that; that means do it.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

What was the secret to your success?

The confidence of youth, and incredible luck with the musicians I associated with.

Thanks Earl! & remember: the Buckets album Sod is available at CDBaby, & you can still pick up their great 1996 Slow Rover release for a reasonable price if you look around. For those who want to listen first (or buy individual songs), check them out on LastFm—& be on the lookout for their upcoming release, Silo. Be sure to check back for upcoming Musical Questions!


  1. most happy to 'meet' earl... passing on earl's advice to t (fictive son) who is once again getting going performing in a band .....

    thanks for the vids ....

  2. Thanks Mouse:

    There's a lot of good advice from the various Musical Questions folks-- best of luck to your son & his bandmates.

  3. I guess fictive son-- but good luck anyhoot


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