Morrissey, You Owe Erik Sanden An Apology
Buttercup releases the video for their song Acting Thru Music this weekend, Saturday, January 20, at the Tobin Center for The Performing Arts in San Antonio. The video was shot last year in the wake of the release of Battle of Flowers, the album that is home to the song. Released in April to a wildly wide reception at The Empire Theatre in San Antonio and a couple of pre-release shows the day before at Superfly’s Lone Star Emporium in San Marcos and The Sidewinder in Austin, the band brought to their Centex fans a musicated wave of feel good.
For those of you new to the band, Buttercup is guitarist Joe Reyes, bassist odie, and singer Erik Sanden, with a rotating cast of drummers and other accomplished sidemen. Battle of Flowers features the Navaira brothers Diego and Emilio, who serve to help loudify Buttercup’s heaviest album yet.
Fair warning: this is a stream-of-consciousness meander through the topography of Buttercup. It, by virtue of its subject, will slide laterally, and not be restricted to a single time signature. We are celebrating this Saturday’s Tobin event, which is sure to happen on the same high plateau upon which the Empire show still resides (just waiting for the video cherry).
The first song of The Sidewinder set was Let It Drop, one of a number of songs Buttercup has absorbed from one of its splinters, Grand Marais (the name derived from Sanden’s Minnesota roots — his grandfather’s cabin in the woods a short ways out from the northern shore of Lake Superior). Sanden likes to say the song is about “crying in your beer with extreme accuracy.”
GM was traditionally the most scripted version of their act. At times they still perform “the Grand Marais set” with the three of them dressed in black, following a relatively brief, strict set list with no speaking between songs and some songs with very staccato vocalizations — all accompanied by a board-room easel and oversized pad inscribed with black marker messages correspondent to various points in the set. In November 2015, as part of San Antonio’s annual event, Luminaria, they played a version of this set in front of a silent video of the band projected on an outdoor wall perforated by holes, remnants of the drum set components cut from it by artist Chris Sauter (also responsible for the Revolver-esque cover of Battle of Flowers). The drums were assembled behind the trio and silent in the way that only sheetrock can be as the music crackled and fissured in the evening chill. It was geological, a better boat for Shackleton.
Anyway, back in Austin, the set was punctuated from the floor by Hawk, an opportune dancer in black with shiny appointments. Sanden had worn a silver lamé scarf throughout the set, at one point anointing Reyes with it, and afterwards outside on the street Hawk wanted to acquire it, was rebuffed, but offered a word after hearing that Buttercup is known for its Audience Of One series, in which they play a song for one person at a time — “In that case, one would be an audient,” he said.
Slomo Drags opened. Front man Jackson Albrecht, whose Eraserhead pompidour and glasses gave off a demented Buddy Holly look (though the analogy breaks down at his guitar, a ’62 Jazzmaster, Olympic White), brought his high-pitched voice and reckless manner, sharpening the edges well played by the band. I got there three songs from the end of their set, but heard enough to say with certainty that they, like Buttercup, bring it to have fun. The sweat testified further and Albrecht confirmed with, “Woooo, my chicken fingers got wet.”
My tires were fairly blistered too. Earlier in the evening I’d been in San Marcos, at Superfly’s, a well-stocked vinyl palace (sadly now closed) owned by longtime Buttercup pal, Richard Skanse. There they performed some “six o’clock rock,” as coined by Joe Reyes, who in this scenario played bass, odie being for the afternoon AWOL. Afterwards I had to head back to San Antonio briefly before ripping back north to the Austin gig. Same for Buttercup — Reyes, Sanden and drummer-for-the-three-shows Jason Garner had been in Austin before the Superfly’s performance, playing live on Laurie Gallardo’s KUTX studio show.
The ninth and second to last song of their set at Superfly’s was Acting Thru Music, the centerpiece of the new album and the frame through which the new video is shot. It is pretty much a fair summation of the band’s aesthetic, and one of only two songs that were played at all three venues for the album release. Acting Thru Music is an existential levitation, a kind of rising above the mortal surface via the bond of making music with others; a dream of how to live in the face of disappointment; a locked-hands agreement with the larger self to carry on. It found some kind of genesis when Sanden had an epiphanic experience a number of years ago with the Judy Garland biopic, Me and My Shadows: A Family Portrait. In the song, voices send up a self-directing prayer, a request for strength, perhaps delivered to the spirit of Sanden’s woodworker grandfather, “let me sing like turning a wood ring.”
The other thrice-played number was Henry B. Gonzales, a great example of the band’s community engagement. This is so central to what they’re about that it has become a thread through a number of songs and performances, notably Los Spurs (San Antonio Love Song), and most recently, Timmy Reed, a phantasmagoric account of a dream about a character with the body of Tim Duncan and the head of Lou Reed. Songs like this, with an ongoing riff suspending the moment (always with unseen interventions from where-ever), allowing a platform for improvisational actions and manners that appear in a great variety, rendering each live show a unique experience.
The story in Los Spurs begins in 1970, three years before the Dallas Chaparrals headed south and became the San Antonio Spurs, so the setting is already misplaced, giving off the whiff of myth. Also, according to the timeline given in the song 68 Playmate — “but alas at the time i was only negative three,” Sanden was negative one in 1970, so that misplacement begets a distance which has the potential to increase the mythic portion. It gets bigger and anyone caught up in it never appears to reach the horizon. So it’s an A-minor western in which the Chaparrals have “blown in” to town.
Then, three decades later:
in the war in the court
it’s past overtime and the blood is running high
as barry arcs a shot from well behind the line
it races to the rim, hesitates and then goes in
we all go in eventually
we all get high
we all shoot out the lights eventually
eventually we burn out brighter in San Antonio
That shot was made by Brent Barry, who came to the Spurs in 2004, during the early days of Buttercup, and was on hand at the Acting Thru Music video shoot in the Empire Theatre several weeks after last April’s live show. He’s on the drums for the shoot, which will turn out to require quite a number of takes. Halfway through, Sanden gets on the mic with “full disclosure… Brent Barry is not a drummer.” Barry is behind the drums in a t-shirt imprinted with a face that looks out through one eye behind a single-lens eye glass. The drums have been lowered to emphasize his 6’7” frame and he’s wearing glasses of the same style as those worn by the cyclopean dude on his shirt. As the passes with the camera pile up, he quickly becomes a lot better on the drums.
The Superfly set featured five songs from the new album, starting off with Champagne From Spain, one of the band’s many love songs, followed by Consensus Chalice, a well-known Buttercup approach to the unattainable. Next up a cover of the Silver Jews’ graveyard stakeout, New Orleans, with Sanden’s suitably garage guitar solos brought into fair play by Reyes’ subtle reminders on the high end of the bass. Alcohol, a Buttercup standard was next, apparently the only way out of New Orleans. “It’s a beautiful day to be alive. Or even dead,” says Sanden. “What do you want, soft or rock?” Without hesitation, Richard Skanse says “Henry B. Gonzales.” And so off they go building a scaffold of AC/DC chords to support the story of Henry B. Gonzales, who famously filibustered a segregation bill in 1957, when Sanden was negative 14. Three of the next five songs are from the new album, next to a cover of Sammy Hagar Weekend and closing with “something from Hot Love” (a previous album), as requested by Jason Garner. Johnny Appleseed ends with a 19-dip staggered-chord staircase with Reyes finalizing the last dip via a three-point landing as the head of his bass touches the floor.
The shows at Superfly’s and The Sidewinder turned out to be fore-tastes of what was to come at The Empire. Reyes speaks of playing to the size of the situation. Suffice it to to say they know how to play big.
The Empire Saturday Night is packed, the buildup for the event has been nothing less than grand — kind of against the grain of the Buttercup moniker, which they typify as “feeble.” It’s a non-confrontational band name; not even clever. It’s kind. It embraces geekdom:
i went shopping at the salvation army store
looking for some hip duds maybe I could make that retro grade
buy a pair of bellbottom pants and a polyester shirt
it was yellow tag day but nothing would fit
and i still look like i shop at the gap
But after 14 years they’ve genuinely achieved epic proportions in San Antonio. They are much more like everybody’s anything than “everybody’s everything,” capable of any anything that might be. Don’t be surprised if they do a 5 a.m. show at the convenience store near your house and invite you to come via Western Union.
The Empire evening begins wacky with four guys who don’t really know the song doing a version of Cold To Me, a song from the first Buttercup album, Sick Yellow Flower. All four of them are musicians — Michael Carrillo as Reyes, Garret T. Capps as Sanden, Aidan Faye as odie, and Chris Madden as Jason Garner. These guys could have easily learned the song, so the point of the charade may be in how far Buttercup has come since the early days of Grackle Mondays at The Wiggle Room (they were never as “bad” as this band). But off-the-wall stuff is never a surprise in the architecture of Buttercup. The story goes that when Reyes was first about to be in the band the thing that sealed the deal was a game of alternative pool at Taco Land in which he sent a cue ball into a trash can with a nothing-but-net shot from across the room.
The night is lit, costumed, choreographed, staged and subsequently destroyed. odie has arranged the four familiar Samsonite suitcases with LOVE cut into them. They have light bulbs inside, but they aren’t the only things that seem lit from within. The setlist is a variation on the previous two, with additions: In Spain, Let It Drop, Epithalamium, Consensus Chalice, Gud Gurls, Acting Thru Music, You’ll Just Have To Wait, Flowers and Elephants, Downslide, Open On/Shut Off, How To Think More About Sex, Johnny Appleseedand Henry B. Gonzalez. Similar set, but there seems to be a scale change.
It all unfolds just as it should, each song building on the one before — the boys are eating their moment and having it too.
When it comes time for Acting Thru Music, Sanden introduces it by dedicating it to his sister Laura, “someone who gets me, we have the same madness.” By the time Reyes and Sanden are standing guitar-to-guitar for the double lead in Acting Thru Music, the band is coming off like Wishbone Ash — it’s flat-out unabashed rock. “On. And on,” they sing. “Acting thru music.” High-register chords count off the footsteps of eternity. “Dying inside.” In a way, it’s an update on The Tears of A Clown.
After another song Sanden leaves the stage. odie and Reyes switch off on their featured songs, Flowers and Elephants and Downslide. It’s a moment to inhale and regather, as the two of them shine out from the stage like headlights in the dark. The two of them have set up a feeling of presence so that when the band plays How To Think More About Sex, the lyric “on that hill” comes lit by the sun.
Nearing the end of the set, Johnny Appleseed lazes along like you’d expect a song called Johnny Appleseed to… until it comes to the place about two and half minutes in when the chorus winds up like a trebuchet engine and hurls “OOOOOHHHHHH! Wee-eeew,” a chorus that blows a blizzard over the last verse of the song leading to these spoken words: “so when I look out on that golden orchard I can almost taste the snow.” Tonight the structure is no different, it’s just that everything is at 11, and just as the chorus starts up a confetti cannon blasts the audience with thousands of pieces of ribbon; dancers erupt onto the stage and everyone in the place is standing or jumping. Nine months later I’m still finding this confetti in my coat pockets.
The band then wastes no time in converting that energy into a stadium worthy version of Henry B. as hundreds pour into a sea of joy just in front of the stage.
And that’s how it ends.
Except that it doesn’t.
The phone rings stage left. Sanden answers. It’s his mom. They talk about this and that. A chihuahua named Fluffy is mentioned. Someone in the audience says, “Is there really a chihuahua named Fluffy?” Sanden has to put his mom on hold to take a call from Morrissey, who has phoned to apologize for cancelling his San Antonio show for the third time in six months.
Here’s the thing: San Antonio is full of Morrissey fans. They are legion, but I know of no greater Morrissey obsessive than Erik Sanden.
John Dufilho’s band Clifffs closes out the night, just tearing it up. Their last song, Life, has but one lyric, endlessly repeated, “just gettin’ started.” It’s a perfect moment of grinning punk minimalism and a perfect closing, but something still seems to be floating in the air, as if all the confetti has not settled. The stage is torn apart, but suddenly in the midst of the detritus everybody is there for 68 Playmate to end things on a really high note. There are a lot of people on stage. None of them look like they shop at The Gap.
Finally, Reyes and Sanden play an unplugged Egypt, a personal favorite, on the edge of the stage, ending with Sanden somersaulting backwards over a pedal board and Reyes collapsing.
Regardless of which moniker they play under — Buttercup, Grand Marais or Demitasse (when Reyes & Sanden go it as a twosome) — the sense of a panoramic embrace of the city of San Antonio is key to the reciprocal champion-hug they have felt from their many fans. It’s an ever widening circle of love really: Sanden sparks something passionate in a stylishly casual way, Reyes and odie contribute a generosity of spirit (not even talking about their musical skills) that honestly makes the band a force for good in the world. “You’re right to serve,” as it says on the Battle of Flowers album jacket next to the usual “all rights reserved.”
Two weeks later, on April 28, Demitasse plays at the 502 in north San Antonio, bringing out several new songs after outstanding sets by D.T. Buffkin & band and Adam Torres. It’s game four of the Spurs vs. the Grizzlies in Round One of the playoffs, which is on TVs behind the bar and in a side room. Reyes begins an impromptu improvisation: “You can’t compete with The Spurs.” I’m rhyming to myself “who do you think you are the Psychedelic Furs.” Five songs later they play The Ghost In You. I’ve heard them play it before — so that unconscious memory was sewn into my mind, but I didn’t know it was on the set list. Tended to make the whole evening unfold like a seamless extended moment.
One of the new songs was introduced by Sanden as a prayer for his father. Half a minute in, something with the game happened causing people to shout and Sanden brought the song to a halt, feeling that things were going wrong. But Reyes coaxed the moment back into the song, Sanden picked it back up, and the song, momentarily unconscious, came to.
October 27, 2017, Demitasse plays for Jack Massing’s opening at the Bale Creek Allen Gallery in Austin. In addition to their set, they’ve prepared some songs to celebrate the life of Gord Downie, a figure of heroic proportions for a pre-Buttercup band, Evergreen (Sanden, odie, Jamie Roadman, Charley Roadman, Kevin Higginbotham). Higginbotham is there with his son Finnegan. Once the Tragically Hip songs begin, Higginbotham joins Demitasse first, then Finnegan, then all of them at once — an extraordinary moment of connection crossing personal histories and generations.
Buttercup plays at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio on Sat., Jan. 20, 2018 at 8 p.m.
Photos: Ramin Samandari; Video still: Matt Buikema