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Music Interview: Bernard Butler

Bernard Butler. Image by Bella Keery

“Have you heard the new version of the album?” asks guitarist, award-winning producer and singer-songwriter, Bernard Butler, as we’re chatting over Zoom about his latest project – a four-CD box set reissue of his 1998 solo debut record, People Move On, which includes the original album, a re-recording of it with new vocals and a few guitar embellishments, as well as loads of B-sides, rarities and studio outtakes.

When I tell him I have, that I think the new version sounds great and the new vocals are more ‘lived-in’, he says: “I’ve not spoken to anyone about this – you’re the first – and you’re the first person to have heard it. No one in my house has even heard it. I do things in a very solitary way – it has to work for me, and I don’t like any kind of input. That’s not because I don’t like criticism, but it’s because I don’t like being fed falsely – somebody saying, ‘it’s great’, when I know it’s not.”

He’s got nothing to fear – the new version of People Move On, which is released in November, on Demon Music, is arguably better than the original. Butler’s rerecorded and richer vocals enhance these songs about transience, anxiety, introversion and loneliness, and, musically, the record still stands up well today, thanks to its classic rock and pop influences.

Bernard Butler - Image by Bella Keery

‘You Just Know’, which is an anti-fame song, is a swaggering rocker, with blistering, Neil Young and Crazy Horse-style guitar; the soaring ‘Change of Heart’ sees Butler living out his Glen Campbell ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ fantasy; ‘Not Alone’ is towering Spectoresque pop with lush, dramatic strings; the epic ‘Autograph’, with its heavy psych guitar, Mellotron flute and ‘60s blues-rock-soul vibe recalls Wild Wood-era Paul Weller, the big ballad ‘Stay’ has echoes of George Michael’s ‘Praying For Time’, as well as The Beatles/Lennon, and ‘You Light The Fire’ is a pretty, acoustic folk song, with shades of Nick Drake.

Butler, who is 51, started his career as the guitarist in ‘90s indie-glamsters Suede but left in 1994, and is now arguably better known for his production work and countless and varied collaborations, including David McAlmont, Duffy, Ben Watt, Sharleen Spiteri, Pet Shop Boys, Tricky, Aimee Mann, Edwyn Collins, Neneh Cherry, Bert Jansch, The Pretenders, Kate Nash and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, to name but a few. He is talking to me from Studio 355, his London studio, which is named after his guitar of choice – a 1961 Gibson 355.

On rerecording the vocals, he says: “We’re at a point where you can do anything on your phone or your laptop – what that means for a producer is that there’s really no point being impressed by software or the extraordinary things you can do in a studio.

“Often, I’ll hear a very sophisticated pop record and think ‘that’s amazing – I can probably go on YouTube and work out how to do it in an hour.’ That’s not to put that down, because there are skills involved and it serves the song, but it doesn’t leave me satisfied. Over the last 10 years, because of that situation, I’ve felt increasingly, what is the thread – the purest point of a song? With music, there’s only thing that has DNA and that’s a voice, because it’s a physical thing.”

“[On the new version] I’m mainly singing in the same register, but the tone of my voice is different – it’s not like I’m singing an octave below. When I recorded the album in 1997, I’d never done it before – I was asked to make a record and I just went off and did it. When it came to doing the vocals, I’d never been near a microphone before to sing – I had no idea of technique, or what I wanted to put across in the delivery or the tone of my voice, so I just did anything to get through.

“Looking back, it feels very affected and very cautious, and not truly representative of where I was at the time, but I really like the music and I really like the words. When I came back to sing them in a different way, it felt like they had a different gravitas and they meant something to me today, and what I’m like now – they didn’t start speaking to me about what I was like when I was 27 years old. That was really important.”

For the new version, Butler used the instrumental backing tracks from the original mixes, which he took from the studio DATs and transferred digitally at 96kHz in 24-bit, apart from one song, ‘I’m Tired’, which is a completely new performance – guitar and vocals. He recorded his new vocals at 96kHz in Studio 355 and the mastering was done by George Shilling, who was the album’s original engineer.

“It was really cool to have him involved, as he knew the record so well,” says Butler. “The analogue masters were on 2” tape, but the mixes were done to DATs, which then went to CD, which, of course, remains the best audio reproduction. I love vinyl, and I play it, but people always have a misconception that vinyl is the highest quality. It’s not, because you have to adjust frequencies in order for the audio to fit.”

 

SH: After you left Suede, you collaborated with David McAlmont, in the duo McAlmont and Butler, and then you went solo. What are your memories of that time?

BB: McAlmont and Butler happened about a year after Suede, then People Move On was two years after that. In-between, I was lolloping around Hampstead Heath on my own. During the Britpop period, which is now celebrated, I spent a lot of time retreating and I withdrew. As a young man, I was pretty scared – I didn’t enjoy it. I hated my twenties, and I hated that whole scene that was going on in London. Britpop was brash and in-your-face – it was a very alpha male period. I just wanted to go home and get away from it.

One of the reasons I stayed away from it was because I was a face and name – I didn’t like going out and being pointed at, or people coming up to me and talking to me. I became quite introverted, and I stayed at home an awful lot. I also hated most of the music coming out of that period – it wasn’t what I was listening to, and I didn’t think it would last. I knew it was a cultural moment, but I just didn’t like it. I’d been in one of those kinds of groups, I did it really well and I got out. That’s always my view of everything – do something, be the best at it and get out. It’s like all the great sitcoms or books – get out before it gets too jaded.

Why did you decide to revisit, rerecord and reissue People Move On?

I’ve done a couple of reissues with Demon, and they were asking me for quite a while to do it. I’d always resisted – I’m not a big fan of the whole reissues industry. I like living in the present and doing stuff now – I’m always trying to serve what I do, rather than serve other people. That’s a really important part of what I do, otherwise you would just stop after your first record and live it out forever. Why did I come back to this one? Because I listened to it, and I didn’t like it. I turned it off straight away. I knew instantly how I would feel – I didn’t like the vocals.

So, you hadn’t listened to People Move On much before you started this project?

I don’t listen to any of my music apart from when I’m making it, because when I’m doing it, I’m living it. I’m doing a record at the moment, and it takes you over completely – you’re absorbed by it. I don’t put on my records for pleasure. I’m not going to look in the mirror in the morning either – I’m passed that age.

The second reason for doing this [rerecord People Move On] was that I started going back to all my songs. A couple of years ago, it occurred to me that my music is scattered amongst lots of other artists, as well as myself – it’s in all different places, all different styles and all different arrangements. Most of the people involved have come through my life and then gone. Sometimes you wonder what your role in it all is.

What’s the point of living this life of collecting all this stuff and being involved in all these collaborations? I started thinking about that and if I could find a personal thread through all of my work that connected me with it.

So, to find that thread, I started renting a rehearsal room every Wednesday. I would go there on my own, with just an electric guitar, which was the purest limitation I could find, and I would try and play music that I’d made in the past, from memory, which was specific to a time, a place and an artist. I started thinking ‘was there a song, how would I play it, what were the words and what was the imprint that it left on me?’

So, I tried to remember songs, I fumbled through the words and the chords, and I found myself quite enjoying it. I did that on my own for about 18 months – no one knew I was doing it – and I recorded it on my phone. I’ve had the opportunity to record in some really great and lavish ways, but when you are performing, you’re very much limited to the tools – a guitar and a voice. I realised I had a licence to change melodies and words.

So, what effect did doing that have on you?

I’ve started writing songs again in that style – a new record will be the next thing that happens – and I started enjoying hearing the sound of my voice, which I haven’t before, and Demon asked me [to reissue People Move On], so I jumped at it. I said to them, if I do it, can I get the instrumentals and sing over them? So here we are.

The new CD set is a really nice package and well-presented. There are lots of tracks on it and some new artwork…

I worked really hard on every aspect of it. It’s taken a long time. I’m a fan. I’m the kind of person who buys records like this and looks forward to it. I don’t like it when the reissue industry does things badly – when the group aren’t involved and don’t give a shit. I find that really distressing – particularly with my own work. I don’t want to rip people off and I want my work regarded and presented in the best way possible. I want every aspect of it to be beautiful.

When you’re not working, how do you prefer to listen to music?

If you want to talk hi-fi, I live by my Bowers & Wilkins 702s. They’re in my living room and they’re my go-to speaker. Whenever I’m mixing, I then go downstairs [from the studio] and listen to it at a reasonable level on the Bowers & Wilkins speakers – they’re the gods for me and they tell me what to do. I sit and make notes and then I make changes based on that.

I listen to everything – streaming and vinyl. I tend to listen to certain things on vinyl, like Coltrane or Joni Mitchell, and I have piles of CDs. I’m really happy that people can access music in whichever way is possible.

When I’m making a record, and mixing it, there’s a side of me that wants a hi-fi person to love it and think it sounds beautiful, but, if I’m honest, the bulk of me still wants a piece of music to scream out of a car stereo and make you want to turn it up – that raw energy and excitement. That’s what I always look for.

So, finally, thanks to the new version, are you now happy with People Move On?

I’m really pleased. I listened to it the other day when I got the master of it on CD and I enjoyed it. I’m not uncomfortable with it – I like how my voice is and that’s how it will be from now on. I’m cool with the fact that there was one version made by a 27-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing, and now I’m a 51-year-old man. Shit happens.

Bernard Butler’s People Move On four-CD box set is out now on Demon Music. There is also a two-LP version of the 2021 rerecorded album, featuring new vocals.

bernardbutler.com

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