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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.

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