Interview: The Builders and the Butchers
The fact that indie-roots band The Builders and the Butchers hails from Portland may not be anything to write home about. That its members are originally from Alaska thickens the story a bit. That it formed in Portland, its members having known each other only casually—if at all—in Alaska adds an unusual twist; or so thought this lower-48er.
I was wrong. Apparently the Alaska/Portland connection is a strong one and the band’s origin story is rooted more in practicality than divine convergence. The indie capital of the universe’s siren call of art, culture and affordability carries north as well as south. Turns out Portland is full of Alaskans.
“For the last dozen years there’s been a huge influx of people from Alaska to Portland,” says the Builders and the Butchers songwriter and frontman Ryan Sollee. “It has all the opportunities of a big city, but it’s affordable to live and there’s a community of bands and other musicians to play with.”
Even without a Dark Crystal moment, there is something that rings true about the Builders & the Butchers. In a sea of indie bands, these guys stand out as something authentic and rugged. The music is gritty and unpretentious, like a battered old record on a lonely night. The band members wear thick, layered clothing and boots, not as a statement of style, but because that’s what you wear when it’s snowing sideways and -30 degrees out.
Musically, the Builders & the Butchers’ genealogy is anomalous. The band is based in the north, but its songs have an unmistakable southern gothic feel to them. The music is dark and spooky, the lyrics tell tales of addiction, decrepit families and the omnipresence of good and evil. Sollee’s delivery, full of hoots, shouts and hollers has the feel of a deep-woods, Pentecostal preacher. His personas range from soft and deliberate troubadour, to wild-man story-teller, slinging fear, hellfire and snake oil. This is no happy-go-lucky, indie-pop parade. These are tales told through the eye of an undertaker and the heart of a litterateur.
“People are always saying that I remind them of Cormac McCarthy,” says Sollee. “So I finally read some of his books this year and wrote like 15 songs. It’s easier for me to step out and write a fictional thing rather than something that’s personal,” he adds. “I have a totally different life than these songs.”
On its latest release, entitled Dead Reckoning, the band took an old-school approach to recording, laying everything down live, with minimal overdubs. For an outfit that got its start playing guerrilla-style on the streets outside of shows, the recording method made sense stylistically as well as logistically.
“I love the philosophy. All the bands from the ‘60s that I love recorded in that way,” says Sollee, “and frankly, it’s just easier to record that way. You just set everything up and play the song.”
The band is not locked in to being lo-fi forever, though. Sollee and company have plans for the next album to be “really fleshed out, with a lot of elements to it.”
Though frequently compared to Portland-based, indie royalty the Decemberists, the comparison strikes me as lazy. There are stylistic similarities between the two bands, but the underlying tone of the Builders’ music as well as the approach to playing it dissolves the notion of the band being a knock-off.
“A lot of people would almost describe us as a punk band of roots music,” says Sollee. “We don’t really know how to play those instruments, we just play them in a style that feels right. The Decemberists are a great band and great people,” he continues, “but if you were to listen to the records side by side you’d hear that ours is a more stripped-down vibe. Plus,” he adds with a laugh, “they all know how to play their instruments.”
“I don’t know any music theory whatsoever,” he continues. “I’m interested in writing songs that are simple that people can have a human connection with.”