Interview

Interview: Bernard Butler on The Sound of McAlmont & Butler

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Songwriter, producer and guitarist Bernard Butler talks to SuperDeluxeEdition about his work with David McAlmont and the Sound of McAlmont & Butler album which was released 20 years ago and has been recently reissued as deluxe edition.


SuperDeluxeEdition: In the post-Suede period, did you have a plan? Did you have anything written on the back of an envelope in terms of your goals or what you wanted to do next?

Bernard Butler: No, I didn’t. No. I mean, I wanted to make this record, so that’s all, really. When I started, when I wrote the music for Yes, that became Yes, it was just a piece of music and the idea was to find somebody to sing on it and put out a seven-inch, it was a sort of idealistic vision of putting out a pop seven-inch with no sleeve, no name, and just an A-side and a B-side, like a juke-box kind of seven-inch, and that was it, without a tour or a plan or anything like that. I mean, that was the kind of principle.

So the bluff for not having a plan, definitely [laughs] put it that way. But with a fancy ideal wrapped around that plan… which didn’t exist [laughs]. And I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing…

SDE: Looking back on it, do you think that was a slightly kind of naïve ideal because the machine of the music industry and the labels were never going to let you get away with doing that?

BB: Yes, of course. I mean, I think anybody who is naïve about the music industry, I’m a fan of. Because I’m not interested in people who go into it… business people and accountants. I find those people are just not very interesting to me. The only interesting stuff is where people just completely sold to their creativity and are prepared to sell themselves to creativity, because that’s the only place… You know, it’s meeting the devil at the crossroads and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got to be prepared to throw yourself down to it rather than just worrying about your fan base and what your manager will think. What will the plugger think this time, you know? What will super deluxe edition think in 20 years’ time? You know, you’ve just got to not worry about any of it.

So I mean I happily admit that, yeah, I was naïve about it but I was also … I wasn’t totally naïve about it. I was aware of all that stuff. I mean, it’s not like I was stupid, I was really aware of it and I was really happy to challenge it. So it was more that, really. I just kind of thought, well, all of that kind of marketing stuff is just bullshit. I’d seen a lot of it with Suede, and doing the press work and stuff, and I just thought, fuck this. If I’m going to make a good record, if people actually really, genuinely think a record is good and it makes them feel great, they’ll get it from the purest aesthetic I can imagine.

So ‘what if’. It was like a ‘what if’. What if we just make the record that’s got no sleeve, no name, no band manifesto, anything. You know, can it still work? Can you win? And the answer is yes. So I can say, yeah, I’m naïve, but we wouldn’t be talking about it 20 years later if it hadn’t worked. So I do feel a sense of vindication over it.

So I wouldn’t say it’s naïve. I mean, I went into it with full knowledge that I was challenging that kind of thing, that kind of system, and at the time it caused an awful lot of trouble because people just … people, even the most creative people and the people who were working on the independent side of it and you thought who were the good guys, were still just like, “no, you can’t do this”.  You know? So people that were working on the independent labels and etc., they were just like, “this is really daft”. But I don’t think it was daft.

SDE: Hut [label The Sound of McAlmont & Butler was released on] they were owned by Virgin, I believe, so even though they were kind of independent-ish, they were still affiliated with a major label.

BB: Yeah, I mean, Hut were all right. I mean, Dave Boyd, the guy who ran Hut, was a good guy and he was fine. I mean, Virgin, the label, suddenly got whiff of it about, you know, it was only when Yes became a hit that Virgin the label got a scent of it and said, “ooh, what’s this”. And then I got brought into this meeting with the Head of Virgin because they wanted to meet me personally, because, basically, the idea was that I’m a stupid musician, right, so what would happen is if he got me in to meet the big chief, he would somehow twist my arm and say, “look, sit down, sonny. Let me explain how these things work in the real world”. And I just said, “great, thanks for explaining that. I’m still not doing it”.

And that’s what happened. And that’s why we did what we did. And we didn’t tour. And part of the reason I didn’t do it is because when we recorded Yes, we recorded Yes before Christmas in 1994 and Virgin sat on it, because they were convinced they wanted to go for David’s big solo career and that’s what they were doing and this was just some kind of little silly little side issue. And they just weren’t really interested in it.

And it went to radio and became a hit. But it didn’t come out until mid-May. So between December, when we delivered it, it was just like it “wasn’t happening with that record?”. So it wasn’t until May that anything happened with it. And it was then that Virgin got involved and said, “actually, sonny, you know, we need to get you out on the road”. And I was like, “actually, mate, you’re not”.

I mean, what I’m trying to say is that in terms of the business terms, it wasn’t naivety. I was definitely putting up a challenge. I mean, you could say it was naïve of me because I could have sold shitloads of records and made lots of money and stuff like that, and that would have been nice. But I do think that part of the appeal of this record, for me, and for other people, is that it’s a little bit hidden and a little bit obtuse for its time.

And I think one of the reasons for that is the way it was dealt with in commercial terms, the aesthetic of it, the way it would be delivered. It wasn’t milked, basically. It wasn’t on every TV advert or orange juice advert and stuff the entire Britpop period. And we weren’t in Loaded [infamous ‘lads’ mag of the era]. And we didn’t make two really bad albums just trying to replicate Yes. I mean, that’s the most important thing that occurred to me when I started being interviewed by this record company years ago, is that it’s really obvious that Yes and You Do are quite different from a lot of the rest of the record, and the kind of predictable thing to say is that, oh, Yes overshadows the rest of it and stuff.

But actually, when you look into it, if you look from the middle out, you start on track six and work outwards, that’s the way I look at it, then you actually find a really eccentric record. And a more eccentric English record than a lot of the so-called eccentric Britpop records were.

SDE: One thing about singles at that time, it was the era of CD1, CD2 and having to deliver loads of extra tracks. Did you see that as a pressure? Because it was great for fans to get all these B-sides and things, but for the artist, obviously, you’ve got to do a lot of writing. You talked about wanting to deliver two songs on either side of a seven-inch single, but you released one single and that ended up being five tracks you had to deliver, or something like that.

BB: Yeah, so what happened was that it was going to be Yes and You Do. And then me and Dave just basically wrote some more things, simple as that. And the record company inevitably wanted to do this thing, put out lots of B-sides. And although I completely disagreed with it in principle at the time, I just thought it would take the piss out of people, really, because it was just the same people buying the same record twice. But, on the other hand, it was a great excuse for me to go in the studio and record. So I just thought, right, you’re just going to pay me to go into the studio and I’ll do that. So yeah, it was a great excuse. So really, if we hadn’t had that CD1 and CD2 thing happening, this record wouldn’t exist.

SDE: That’s right. But also, do you think the fact that you weren’t sitting there trying to create some master plan of an album, and some of these songs you were recording were, effectively, B-sides… Do you think that freed you up a little to have more fun? And tracks like What’s the Excuse This Time? wouldn’t have otherwise maybe made it onto a, in quotes, fully-fledged album.

BB: No, it wouldn’t have been an album this way because when you’re in a group, you write some fast songs, some that you think could be a single. You write the slow ones. And you try and balance an album. And you find your best songs and your live set, and you try and make it into an album and balance it out. Or if you’re writing an album you look at it as a whole. But we didn’t look at it in that way. So you’re absolutely right. It’s because it is much more all over the shop.

So at the time I thought that … we chucked it together at the end of the year, put it out and thought, forget about this now for a bit. And I didn’t think about it for a very long time. And it was only a couple of years ago that I went back and just listened to it and just thought, you know, this is actually a really good album. And if you forget about all of that and now that the time has passed and just listen to it from start to finish, I really enjoyed it as an album.

And that really surprised me. And yeah, you’re right, I mean, if it had been written as an album, we would have tried to write Yes over and over again. Or we’d have had lots of strings. And the other thing is, people talk about…  okay, two myths about the sound of McAlmont and Butler: [one] is that it’s an orchestral record. I’d never recorded an orchestra in my life. Yeah, I’ve been making records for 22 years and I’ve never stood in a room with an orchestra because I can’t afford them. So that’s a complete myth. Secondly, there’s only two songs with strings on them. And Yes has, I think it’s six, a section of six players, and You Do. But they’re the only two that have got any strings on them. So it’s a complete cliché. People grab onto that that it’s symphonic pop and stuff. People see that in Yes, but actually there’s only two songs with any strings in it. So there’s a lot of influences going on. And you’re right that it’s because we were just saying, you know, what should we do today. Let’s do something that’s fun. And then the next day we’d think, well, we did something that was fun; let’s do something miserable. Let’s do something [swampy], which was becoming The Right Thing, and something a bit sort of Iggy pop, Stooges sort of inspired. That was The Debitor.

And when you’ve got a voice like David’s to play with, he only sounds like himself. He doesn’t sound … I mean, this is the other thing, that he sounds like Marvin Gaye because he’s black. Let’s face it, let’s get this out in the open [laughs], you know. Not all black people sound like Marvin Gaye [laughs]. Right? You know? Because at the time it was another thing: “it sounds like Suede with Marvin Gaye singing”. I remember that the NME wrote that and I’m like, no, it doesn’t. It doesn’t sound like Suede and he doesn’t sound like Marvin Gaye. I was in Suede and he’s black. That’s all there is to it. But David sounds very individual and very English, to me, and so you could pull out things that were influences and that I’ve got going round my head and try them out, and you’d know you’d absolutely definitely come up with something quite original and quite different because it would never be a pastiche because of the way his voice sounded. So that was a real joy.

SDE: Presumably it was that voice – that was the real attraction for you?

BB: Yeah, I mean when I met David I saw him play at the Jazz Café and he had a band and he had a drummer called Mako Sakamoto, and Mako was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. And at the time I had Yes going round in my head, or the music for it, and it was just what I was on the hunt for. It was like arriving with a suit and you only had the trousers and you needed the jacket [laughs]. And then he came and turned up with the tie as well.

Mako is the loudest drummer. He came over with this real exuberance, really wonderful human being he is, amazing musician, and the two of them made this noise in the Jazz Café and that’s all I remember is this big sound of his drums – really loud – and David’s voice sort of just filling this room. And I just thought, yeah, well, that’s it. That’s all I need. So it was great. And I’ve played with Mako. Mako’s played in nearly everything I’ve done for 20 years, since then. So I met those two guys on the same night and it was a massive result.

SDE: And I think the story is, you gave David the tape with Yes on it, an instrumental version…

BB: Yes, that’s right.

SDE: I’m interested in how much of the melody that he ended up coming back with, did you have part of that in your head? I mean, did you have to give him a certain amount of briefing or guidance? Or was it totally “just do what you want over the top of this”?

BB: Just do it, just like it, see if you like it. Simple as that. If you like something, dive in. He came round to my flat then a couple of days later and, well, he can tell you what happened in between about his story about how he wrote the words and stuff, which is really fascinating, which is something I didn’t know until recently, actually. But anyway, he came round to my flat a couple of days later and he just had one verse and the chorus, and we sort of moulded, yeah, we jammed out how the melody would go and that. And he only had one verse, and I remember just thinking, oh, we’ve only got one verse but just don’t worry about it. Just sing it twice [laughs].

And it was one of those things, which you often do when you write with people and you say, look, just sing mumbo jumbo, or just sing the same thing twice, and then we’ll worry about it later. Because once you’ve got a tune, once you’ve got a way in and you know what you’re writing then it’s easy to fill in the rest. But we never did. We just left it. So it’s only got one verse and he just sings it again. No one ever notices that [laughs].

SDE: Did working with someone who you didn’t really know very well at that point, offer any advantages?

BB: Most of the time I don’t know people that I work with and I don’t really work with my friends, in that sense. In the sense of people who are already friends. I often become friends with people. But the way it works with music is that you’re brought together for a reason. Like I’ll often meet somebody, like on a day like today – I’m not doing a writing session today – but quite often I’ll be going down to the studio now and I’ll be opening the door to somebody I’ve never seen before. And they’ll be coming in, I’ll make them a cup of tea, and you sit down and within half an hour we’re actually writing a song.

SDE: Well, that sounds quite awkward, in terms of you’ve got to get to know someone quickly and be creative at the same time.

BB: Yeah. I mean, I began an album session last week with a band from New York that I’d never met and they came over from New York on the Saturday, walked into my studio on Monday, and started recording. And that was it. And we came out with, by Friday we came out with three tracks which we all loved, and we were like, ‘wow’, you know. And it is a funny moment because you get to the Friday and you suddenly feel, well, do we know each other now? [laughs]. Who are you anyway? But yeah, I like that. See I like all of those sides of being creative and doing what I do. Because again, it goes to the pure aesthetic of it, of what you’re there for. You’re not there to have dinner together and play golf together and chat socially.

You’re there for what you’ve got inside you to interact, and all the things between your personalities should be what builds that. Your personality should be building social relationships. Your personalities are there to inform the creativity, what can they bring. And you often end up just becoming mates with people. A bit like me and David and stuff. It’s still just like … you know, you get all this stuff … we always … we’re kind of like that McAlmont & Butler cliché number five: “the odd couple”. It’s always said, the odd couple.

Again, I just think that’s because people just see a black gay guy and a white bloke from North London, and they just think, oh, the odd couple. As if that’s fucking weird in London these days. And I still find that really insulting when people say that. I mean, why is that weird? There’re loads of people from all walks of life doing all sorts of things, but people still say, unless I’m standing next to a white, you know, I don’t know, indie-looking sort of person, that somehow it’s odd. I just think those kind of things are just never challenged. And we get a lot of those.

But I mean, yeah, I find it so invigorating when you can meet somebody and you know there’s that fear, you know there’s anxiety, everybody is a bit nervous, and you can disarm it by making some beautiful music. What joy it gives me that at the end of the day when I’m working with somebody, or after a couple of days you throw everything into it and the atmosphere can be electric. Two people in a room, and it’s quite a scary situation. It’s not like, I don’t know, meeting your bank manager or something.

You can come out with something special at the end of the day. And if you walk off and you never see each other, and that happens quite a lot, you’ve still done something. Quite often I’ve made records with people and then not heard from them for five years. And I’m totally comfortable with that.

SDE: With you and David, how did the two-person democracy work? Because it was the two of you. It wasn’t like the project was under just your name and he’s just coming in to do a bit of singing. So how did it work? If he had said “I don’t like the guitar sound on this track”, or whatever, would you have said, bugger off? Or was it both of you just bouncing off each other?

BB: I wouldn’t have done. I wouldn’t have said that. But he didn’t. He just gave me incredible carte blanche. And trust. I mean, what it’s all about in the producer relationship or song writing partnerships is completely about trust, which is exactly what I’m describing. You come into a room with somebody and you have to get their trust straightaway. You have to feel that they listen to the same records as you, without having to list them off. You have to get that feeling that, are we on the same page here or is he just going to start putting something tacky eighties synth on it. Is he going to do something awful I hate? You have to give people the feeling of trust. And with David I just got a lot of trust, straightaway.

And with all the relationships I’ve had that have worked, it’s been like that. You have an incredible rapport, creatively, where they believe that what you put in front of them is made for them. It’s tailor made. And what they give you back is something that they don’t have to feel embarrassed about. They don’t have to feel, oh, my god, is he going to think my voice is a bit shit or that lyric is a bit shit. They have to know at the other end and feel confident. And in that way they’re giving themselves, you’re giving 100%. They don’t have to worry about being cheesy about something. So he just did … he never said anything. Well, very few things. You know, occasionally. I don’t remember many things that he put his foot down about. He just let me get on with it, and I just tried to create an environment for David where he was just a great singer. And that’s all he had to be. Just walk into a room, be surrounded by great musicians, making a really beautiful noise, and that he had a brilliant place in it. And all he had to do was what he’s best at doing.

I mean, there’re very few backing vocals in this record as well. It wasn’t like he had to come in and make his voice sound great by having it backed up with loads of harmonies and stuff like that. Most of the record, it’s just his single voice cut through the middle. And that’s what I really wanted. I wanted it to be that pure Aretha thing, where it’s really pure down the middle, without needing too much elaboration. Lots of it was recorded live.

And at the end of the day, I think, we knew lots of records. He wasn’t spending all day listening to Marvin Gaye any more than I was. I was probably doing that more than him. We both loved the Cocteau Twins, we both loved Talk Talk, we both loved Stevie Wonder, we both loved Dusty Springfield. We loved all these things so it was easy to come to these places without having to reference them because you knew where somebody was.

SDE: You went to France, didn’t you, to work with producer Mike Hedges. How did that come about?

BB: It came about because I met Mike just after I left Suede, because I just got introduced to him and I knew he had this place in France and it sounded amazing. He sent me all these pictures, and not many people were going there. It’s his house, there’s a Chateau in Normandy and it’s this fantastic place. He’d worked at EMI in the ’70s at Abbey Road, and so he’d conned them into buying one of the great EMI REDD desks, which were just basically left out almost in the rain down the corridor, because in the ’80s they were just like, “what is this rubbish?”.

SDE: Everyone wanted digital…

BB: Yes, exactly. And he’d bought one of these really cheap off them, done it up, put it in his studio, and anybody who knew about these things would go, “oh, my god. That’s the desk that Dark Side of the Moon was mixed on”. Or, you know, these fantastic beautiful very simple consoles. And he had all this equipment and he’d put it in this Chateau, and so you basically sat in the front room, the salon, was the control room, with just sofas and lamps, just like any, like a French front room, and the ballroom was the live room. It was fantastic. And in the basement was the drum room. A stone cellar. With this fantastic drum sound, because it’s just a stone cellar.

And so yeah, it was just a great place. And so when we came to do this it was just my first choice to do it. And because Mike was one of those people who wanted to work with me and wanted to get to know me, for whatever reason, and we just hit it off. And I wanted to produce the record but, obviously, I’d never done that before.

SDE: Well, that’s the thing, you see, because my memory was this album was completely self-produced, and that seemed to make sense coming out of the back of the Suede situation, that you’d want to take full control. So I was quite surprised when I realised that you did the singles with Mike.

BB: Yes and You Do were both done with Mike and it was a co-production, and in the sense that I went over there and had all the arrangements, and that’s what you can hear on the demo, which is an extra track [on the deluxe reissue], and that’s what I brought. And that’s what I did at home. And you can hear that that’s the arrangement, the structure, everything. The string part, the drum part, is all on there. And so I gave that to Mike and he was just like, “yeah, this is a hit record, let’s do it”.

And he gave me a lot of faith because in England it wasn’t like that. People round me weren’t saying that. But he was like, “yeah, just come here, this is amazing”. And so we went, it was the obvious choice, and Mike just let me do it. Mike sat in the corner and said, you know, I’d say “I want to do this…” And he said, “it’s okay, go over there and use that”. And he’d sit me at the desk and I’d say “what does this do?”, and he says, “well, turn it and find out”. And then he’d say, “great, I’m going to go and have a cup of tea”, and can you do it now.

And I was like, great. And then he was really great, he just let me do it, you know, in a way that when I’d, you know, the previous couple of studio experiences of mine were being with mixing desks that looked like something out of Blake’s 7  [UK sci-fi TV programme] and they were just very overwhelming. And I was always told to “stand back, son. You stay out of that. It’s none of your business”. So Mike was just very disarming and just said, “yeah, go on, you do that. This is how we do it”. And that was really refreshing for me. And then when it came to vocals he was really experienced with getting great vocals, and that’s when he used to step up to the desk and he’d sit there and he’d talk to David, and he got great vocals out of him. So that was a really brilliant thing.

Yes, it’s a noisy record. Technically, really noisy, really messy. Quite sloppy [laughs]. And it is quite over-the-top, very distorted. And there’re very few people … you have to have experience as a producer…. you have to have either absolutely loads of experience or none whatsoever to make a record like that. Because people who are kind of in the middle want to do things right. And if you’re someone like Mike, you’ve made enough records, you’ve made loads of records through the eighties that were massive sellers and really great records, and you’ve got enough experience and confidence to know that, yeah, I can get away with this, without playing safe. And so that was a great experience for me.

But when we came back, when we did the rest, it was me producing and by that point I came back and thought, right, I know how to do this [laughs]. All I need to do is get a great engineer and go in the room. And that’s what I did. And so I went to RAK Studios, which is where I really wanted to go to RAK Studios when we made Dog Man Star with Suede. But I was told that was out, at the time. The producer, Ed Buller, didn’t want to do that.

So I really wanted to go to RAK, because I heard at RAK it had green carpet on the walls and brown floorboards [laughs], and I thought, this just sounded brilliant. It was like the antidote to the grey industrial looking studio that we were using. And so I was obsessed at going to RAK, and so I went to RAK and it didn’t let me down. And one of the people I met there was Nigel Godrich. And Nigel was just the tape-op, the lowly tape-op making the tea. And Nigel was sort of agitated and he spent all day saying, “I could engineer this, I could do this, you know. I know how all this works”. And so eventually me and Nigel became mates. And he did, he engineered everything from then onwards. And we spent most of that year in and out of RAK just doing different things and had a really great relationship.

SDE: What was success going to look like for you in this period? You talked about having one pure pop single. You eventually had a top ten hit, you went on Top of the Pops. Were you after that, in a way? A bit of a kind of ‘fuck you’ to everyone?

BB: No, I wasn’t. I’m not really like that. No, I’m not. And McAlmont & Butler cliché number six is that Yes is written about Suede or something, which again is really insulting. Someone wrote that review in Uncut recently and said that, 20 years after the event. And I was like, what’s wrong with you? David explains on the video, there’s a video interview on the extras [in the deluxe edition], and he tells you what Yes is written about, who it’s written about. And it is written about this bloke that he’d met. And it’s a really brilliant story and you need to watch that to find out. But I was like, you’ve just reviewed this record and so you clearly haven’t watched the interview because if you had you would have seen the real story, which is much more interesting. I’m not a vitriolic person, I don’t like bitterness. I mean, for those couple of years after Suede, if I wasn’t doing anything I’d just try to sit out of the way of things, because I don’t like being faced with that kind of stuff. It doesn’t interest me. When we made Yes, we made it for Christmas and I thought it was brilliant, and I just thought, “great, that’s all we have to do”. So I mean the rest was a bonus, really.

SDE: Yeah, I guess that’s what I was getting at. So having a big commercial success wasn’t necessarily important for you at that point?

BB: If it was, if it had been, when the label came in and said you’ve got to tour and make another album and stuff like that, I would have gone with it. And I didn’t. I just said, you know what, I’ve done my job. That’s what I came to do. And I’m going to stick with that. And I stuck with my guns over it. And I’m really, really glad I did. I really am. I mean, being able to talk about it in this way is so brilliant, rather than having one of those dreadful Britpop albums that are just meaningless now. You know, the ones with the odd single on it that you kind of remember fondly. But actually you go back to the album and it’s, oh, just horrible.

I was watching that programme the other night, it was on the BBC and it was just like, god, there was song after song that was so shit, you know, so terrible, a guitar band that was just dreadful, out of tune. All really arrogant and really coked up and really full of it, as if they were going to change the world. And actually, the one thing you do is you make a good record before you can do any of that. Because you can’t do it. You can have all the arrogance and the cockiness that you like, but if you haven’t got the songs it’s a waste of time. And so, yeah, I’m really glad we didn’t make one of those records.

SDE: But, even though it’s really good that this album was created because over time CD singles and B-sides tend to get lost and forgotten, was there a bit of you that thought, hang on a second, it’s a bit of a rip-off because we’re just releasing everything we’ve already released on singles?

BB: At the time, it was basically a concession to the label. And it was also mainly because all those CD1s and CD2s would be deleted so it was my way of saying, well, this happens and let’s leave it there. But the label were desperate for an album and I said, well, we’ll put it all together now and that’s it, and you can put that out. But we’re not going to promote it. We didn’t do anything to promote it when it came out.

SDE: But why didn’t you tour, because if you had enjoyed the music so much why didn’t you want to get out on the road and play it?

BB: Because I just didn’t really have a vision for the whole thing at the time, and also, because it just wasn’t about that from the start. And I think we did one show and it was … and even doing this tour at the moment is phenomenally expensive, bringing strings out on tour, bringing a band out, and I just didn’t think it was feasible. And it wasn’t what it was about. I wanted it to remain about that sort of one ‘hit’. Not hit as in hit record, but just like, you know, the blast of music. And to be gone. I just thought there was something cool about it.

And remember I grew up with bands like New Order, who did things like put out a single the same day as the album except that the single wasn’t on the album. And they were constantly doing things like not giving press, not doing interviews and not doing videos, not doing Top of the Pops and all that. And that, you see, when I was growing up, I actually thought all of that was really cool. This is part of the appeal of this band. I loved the fact that I needed to find out more. And it fascinated me. And it made it enduring for me, and just endlessly fascinating.

And I was really into those aesthetics in pop music rather than the big sell. So I don’t know. Those were all the things that I was attracted to at the time. But yeah, you’re right, we should have toured [laughs]. I don’t know. Obviously, I got it wrong. But when you’re 20, when you’re in your young 20s and just having fun doing bonkers things, you just do stuff, don’t you?

SDE: But it sounds like you enjoy the studio environment a lot anyway, just the actual act of being in the studio and creating music. That’s probably more fun maybe than just being on stage and re-creating?

BB: Well, I love being on stage. I love playing, depending on what it is, where I am, obviously [laughs]. But my life has always been about being in the studio. I’ve got a studio and I’m on my way to there now, and I will be all week in there. And that’s what I do every day. So doing the shows is like a bit of a day trip for me, a school trip out to the zoo or something.  I mean, put it this way. When you’re on the stage, you’re replicating songs you’ve already recorded. And you replicate them night after night after night. The same ones. When you’re in the studio, every single day I go into the studio I do something completely new. So today I’m going in there and this afternoon I’m working with Ben Watt. Ben’s doing a new album and he’s bringing a song over he recorded last week and I’m going to add guitar to it. I’ve not heard the song yet and I don’t know what I’m going to play, but it’s going to be on his record, so you’ll hear it. So think about it that way. Last week I was with this group who I’d never met before but recorded three songs. Every single week there’s something new. And that’s really exciting.

SDE: Let’s talk about the actual re-issue of The Sound of McAlmont & Butler then. What are your views on re-issuing albums? Obviously, you were involved in the first two Suede re-issues, so you are clearly not ‘anti’ it in any way. But do you like the concept of creating a big deluxe set or do you think it’s slightly overblown and label-led?

BB: I don’t think, no, it’s not label-led because I mean with this, a label didn’t want to do it, so it took four years to get to this point. And it was on EMI, and EMI wouldn’t reissue it, and then because of the EMI buy-out, it went to Universal. Universal said, yeah, and then after six months said you know what?, we can’t be bothered with this. And that was really disappointing because it took so long to get to that point. And Demon were obviously specialists in this and Demon just were desperate to do it. They knew about it, they’d researched it and the people there were brilliant. And it’s been a great experience, probably one of my favourite record company experiences. And I’ve seen a lot of them.

Being with Demon, working with a couple of people really closely on this project, and just the respect they’ve given me about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to go about it. I mean, I just wanted to make it something that people would love. We deliberately made it not a box because we’ve all got those boxes at home, I’ve got loads of them, and you get them and it’s, “wow, it’s amazing”. And you get it all out on the first day and go through all the extra tracks and stuff, and then you pack it back into that box and it goes on the shelf. And you never get it out again. And it always occurred to me that, you know, I should get that box out but I’m not going to be bothered because you have to lift the lid off and it’s a bit of a mess, you know. I don’t know. And so they came up with the idea of a photo wallet, like an album, a photo album, so it looks like a book, like a coffee table book or something, or something you’d have on top of your record collection that you can just open and flip open. And so I really love that. And yeah, we spent a lot of time, I spent a lot of time getting together photography, tracking down people on Facebook. I just went on Facebook and found all these people that worked on the record that I hadn’t seen in years and said, “hi, you remember me?” [laughs]. Do you remember anything about making this record? And everybody came out and was really happy to just say something about it. So it’s nice. I think that’s nice. I got David to write about it, because I think David’s a brilliant writer and so I think he enjoyed it.

SDE: But you’re quite comfortable in terms of letting people hear the demos and the like? I know some artists are very controlling, they don’t want any of that stuff.

BB: Yeah, well, I mean I am controlling, of course [laughs]. Some of it, I mean … because for example when we did the Suede one, they wanted every demo out and I just said, you know what, some of this is shit. It’s just unlistenable. And I don’t want it to go out. I didn’t want it. So there’s loads of that stuff that I’ve said, no, I’m not doing that. Because it was just for the sake of it. For the sake of somebody having a little rummage through your drawers and say, oh, look at those, and then putting them back again. I just thought, no. I wanted it to be something that you’d listen to.

So I think everything on there is something you would listen to. The demos, for Yes, I think, are really important because they show the lineage of where it came from, sort of a timeline of me writing it once and then me doing a demo with David singing on it, and then, eventually, the real thing. And so I think that’s cool because people love the song and I just wanted to see how it worked out.

There weren’t many demos for the rest of the record because we just went straight in the studio and recorded. So that’s why there aren’t many demos. I thought it was really important to have the Jools Holland TV appearance on it because people always remember that and people always went on about seeing us do that and it was really exciting appearing.

SDE: What about the original single version of Don’t Call it Soul and How About You. Does that mean that they might have been singles at some point?

BB: No, what happened is they basically are the demos, because they were recorded really quickly at my flat on my own, and then we stuck them on the original CD1 and CD2. And then when we came to do the album, Nigel was like, “oh, they sound a bit shit, don’t they? You know, you should do them again. I can make them sound better” [laughs]. And he was right. So we went into Nigel’s little studio and we mixed them together and made them sound better.

SDE: So they’re the same recordings, in effect, just different mixes?

BB: I think Don’t Call it Soul had a different vocal on it. Yeah, I think that’s a different vocal. I can’t remember but it sounds to me like a different performance. But there’re a couple of extra things on it.

SDE: I was a bit shocked by that remix of Yes. When did that come about?

BB: That was just the record company again just saying, oh, we should get a remix. We should get a remix of Yes by whoever’s hot at the time. And so I just said, me and Nigel just said, “no, fuck it, we’ll do it”. And so they paid for me and Nigel to go into RAK for two days [laughs] do what we wanted – and neither of us know anything about dance music. And we just did that. I found it again and I think it was quite funny.

SDE: Did that ever actually come out?

BB: No [laughs]. No, because they said, thanks, lads, but I don’t see this going down in Ibiza or wherever… No, it didn’t come out and I just thought, well, it’s there. I think it was quite funny but yeah, I can’t see it disturbing the club charts.

But I like it, I’m glad we did it – the re-issue. I mean, part of it was, the reason why we did it is because you can get it on Amazon for 1p, this album, and the sleeve is strong and stuff. And I just thought it was a bit of a travesty to sort of devalue the whole thing. And so I think it’s really nice that it’s out there. I think the package is, there’s a lot, you know, on the CD version that is like under £10, you know, for what you get on it, I think, is really great.

SDE: And the good thing is, for the big version, you’re not having to spend 50 quid to get all the demos and all the bits and bobs, so it’s quite nicely split.

BB: I think so. I mean, I hope so. I’ve not had anybody complain about it. I know lots of people complained about the Suede ones, and I really took note of that and what people didn’t like and liked and stuff.

SDE: What did people complain about on the Suede ones?

BB: Well, they just complained about little things being taken off or the quality not being good enough, or the demos –  things not being included and stuff like that, which is a bit daft because you can only fit on what you can fit on. But I just took note of it all because I’d really wanted it to be something that people loved. Why wouldn’t I? And also you do it once, I’m not going to do this again, so I’m just hoping this is it now.

SDE: Talking about reissues, will The Tears album ever get reissued, do you think, at some point in the future?

BB: Oh, I don’t know. I can’t imagine there’s any demand for it [laughs] Well, I love the songs in it. If I did, I’d mix it again. I was never happy with the mix of it. It was always a bit too testosteroned and I was never happy with it. And about three or four years ago I spent a week, I just felt, fuck it, I’m going to do this, it was really on my brain, and I mixed the whole thing again, on my own, in my own studio…

SDE: There you go, you’ve got the bonus disc already!

BB: And I’ve done that. And yes, I’ve got that already, I did that, and it sounds much better. And I sent it to Brett and he was like, and he loved it. And he said “that’s great, what a great record”. And I was like, yeah, it was a really good record. I think we both agreed as well that we had so much pressure around us at that time, so much pressure that was so horrible about just basically….”just call it Suede, just call it Suede. Go and play Suede songs. Go on!”. And we’re like, no, we’re not. I mean, it was a bit like the McAlmont and Butler situation where it was like, look, we’re not going to. We’re not going to be that sad and, you know. We’re just not going to. You know, you’ve got to have some integrity, somewhere. I think the songs we chose were the wrong songs for the album. I think there were better songs on the B-sides, as always, and we could have made a better … compiled it better, you know, and not gone so over the top with the arrangements. But I think the songs were good. Some great songs. Yeah. But I’m very happy with it and I love him and I love what we’ve done, and we both do, so that’s all that matters.

SDE: Yeah. Well, I’m sure Demon would be interested if you ever put that together…

BB: Yeah, one of these days. But you know what, it takes so much time. It takes so much time up doing these things and you’ve got to kind of do something today, really.


Thanks go to Bernard Butler who was talking to Paul Sinclair for SuperDeluxeEdition. The McAlmont & Butler reissue is out now and the band are playing a short UK tour this week.

An interview with David McAlmont will follow later this week.

mcalmont

5-disc deluxe book edition

via Official Store

via Amazon

2CD+DVD Edition

3-disc_soundof

track_listing

Disc: 1 (CD)
1. Yes [full version]
2. What’s The Excuse This Time?
3. The Right Thing
4. Although
5. Don’t Call It Soul
6. Disappointment / Interval
7. The Debitor
8. How About You?
9. Tonight
10. You’ll Lose A Good Thing
11. You Do [full length version]

Disc: 2 (CD)
1. Yes [demo]
2. Yes [four track demo]
3. Yes [instrumental]
4. You Do [demo]
5. You Do [mix 1]
6. Don’t Call It Soul [demo]
7. Don’t Call It Soul [original single version]*
8. How About You? [original single version]*
9. Tonight [Oompah demo]
10. You Do [BBC Radio 1 Simon Mayo session, 17.10.95]
11. Walk On [BBC Radio 1 Simon Mayo session, 17.10.95]
12. Tonight (Overnight)
13. What’s The Excuse This Time? [2015 remix]
14. Yes [Bernard Butler & Nigel Godrich 1995 remix]
15. The Argument

Disc: 3 (DVD)
1. Yes (Promo Video)
2. You Do (Promo Video)
3. Yes [Top Of The Pops, 18.5.95]
4. Yes [Top Of The Pops, 25.5.95]
5. You Do [Later… With Jools Holland, 10.6.95]
6. You Do [Top Of The Pops, 2.11.95]
7. David McAlmont and Bernard Butler discuss the making of the album
8. Don’t Call It Soul [live acoustic 2015]
9. How About You [live acoustic 2015]
10. You Do [live acoustic 2015]

Disc: 4 (180g vinyl) * deluxe book set only
1. Yes [full version]
2. What’s The Excuse This Time?
3. The Right Thing
4. Although
5. Don’t Call It Soul
6. Disappointment / Interval
7. The Debitor
8. How About You?
9. Tonight
10. You’ll Lose A Good Thing
11. You Do [full length version]

Disc: 5 (180g vinyl) *deluxe book set only
1. Yes
2. You Do
3. Yes [demo]
4. You Do [demo]

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24 responses to Interview: Bernard Butler on The Sound of McAlmont & Butler

  1. Nibs says:

    Ahh…. the art of the B side…. its not like Bernard didn’t know how to put quality tracks out as B sides when he was in Suede.

  2. LeoThoughtCloud says:

    Holy guacamole! Get that Deluxe tears LP out NOW!!!!!

  3. Paul English says:

    Is the 7″ version of Yes not included?

    I know it’s on Now 32 anyway…..

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      No it’s not. Bernard hates the edits, apparently.

      • Chris Brown says:

        I can understand him as far as ‘You Do’ is concerned, but even at the time I thought of the edit version of ‘Yes’ as the definitive one and the album version as a sort of behind-the-scenes extra.
        In any case I have to have the edit of ‘You Do’ on my MP3 player because of that stupid hidden track at the end of the album. Is that still there on the reissue.

  4. Bruce says:

    Fantastic interview, Paul! This one will be hard to top

  5. gogandmagog says:

    Great interview, very good questions, I laughed a lot, very nice person, there are some youtube videos where he shows guitar licks (Animal Nitrate is one) that evidence his sense of humor.

    Just this year I bought The Tears one and his 90’s solo albums (People Move On, Friends & Lovers). The first solo one is absolutely fantastic, long tracks, very catchy, warm.
    All of them deserves SDE…and then maybe you could get another interview!!!
    cheers!!!

  6. Joe says:

    Great interview, really revealing. Well done.

    One thing I’ve not heard mentioned at all during this round of interviews for TSOM&B is how McAlmont and Butler briefly fell out during the 90s. I think it happened shortly after the release of You Do in October ’95.

    It all played out in the news pages of the NME, with a new statement or story each week for a short while. If I remember correctly, Bernard said some negative things about working with David. David then suggested that Bernard might have been a bit homophobic, because he’d been in a band (Suede) where the singer was a bit camp (“a bisexual who’s never had a homosexual experience” etc), but he [David] actually was the real thing.

    I think McAlmont did retract the suggestion of homophobia, and they publicly drew a line under it, but that was the end of their collaboration until Bring It Back in 2002. My guess is they were just young and mouthing off. I can understand them not wanting to rake over it again, but I’d really like to hear their perspective on the exchange after all this time, and whether it was one of the reasons they didn’t make an album of all-new songs in 1995.

    • Michael L says:

      Joe, I remember all that playing out too. I guess it’s something they’d rather leave in the past and talk about the music instead. It’s an interesting point about the tension maybe precluding an album of all new material at the time, but the way the project played out (artistically) at the time was the way Bernard wanted it.

      Very interesting interview, Paul. Bernard was a bit of a guitar hero to me in my teens. Even went as far as trying to emulate the hairstyle on the front of his first solo album!

      Thought the chat about how if they’d set out to make an album from the start there’s a chance it’d have been “Yes” and “You Do” x5 or 6. That’s certainly what people would have expected and wanted at the time, including me. I never took to the album as a whole at the time, but listening back all these years later I appreciate the diversity more.

      7 years between the first two albums. Next year is 14 since the second. Wikipedia mentions a partially-done third album. It’s time.

  7. Peter Stark says:

    Hi Paul,

    Great Interview !

    Just a bit of feedback for the label, tried to buy either version from HMV &
    Head in Belfast, neither had it or had it on order !

    Looks like its back to Amazon

    Peter

  8. Andreas says:

    Like Johnny Marr, it does seem like a waste of talent when these artists restlessly jump form project to project without growing in any particular one. Should he have gone back to Suede? Possibly not, but his chemistry with Anderson is undeniable, and the Tears was a great album.

    David is also a wondering spirit, whose diversity has made it hard to pigeon hole or market him in any particular genre. Amazing vocalist. Love to see what he’s up to.

    Did see McAlmont & Butler on the ‘bring it back’ tour at Shepherds Bush – loved it!

    • Stan Butler says:

      Brett Anderson’s solo albums are much better than “Here Come The Tears”, which has some decent songs but is horribly produced.

  9. guy says:

    all i want is this album on vinyl, wish they did a vinyl only release too.

  10. Jim says:

    Saw them last night. It was superb. Fat Larry’s Band cover and all. Didn’t buyThe Sound Of… Deluxe at the merch stall though £20 they were asking for it.

  11. Andrew Richards says:

    Excellent interview, thank you!

  12. chdx says:

    I do thank you too for this amazing interview!
    Can’t wait to read McAlmont’s side of the story…

  13. Eamonn says:

    Great depth to the interview and he seemed to enjoy talking about it all.

    I wonder what he did leave off the Suede re-issues that was ”unlistenable”. Demos of High Rising, Whipsnade and The Big Time (which apparently exist) would have been great. Judging by his comments on box-structured deluxe editions and how he’d taken feedback on reactions to the Suede reissues, I imagine he agrees that the DMS super-deluxe was a let-down.

  14. Rob Dickinson says:

    Cracking interview, Bernard Butler is the best guitarist I’ve ever seen. As regards the Suede reissues, I was really disappointed that some perfectly good early demos of unreleased stuff weren’t included (She’s A layabout, We Believe In Showbiz…) & don’t understand the omission of Wonderful, Sometimes, Be My God & Art, as all three are (in my opinion) really good.

  15. Paul fraser says:

    A great interview. He’s quite the chatty man, isn’t he? Wonderful to get behind the scenes and into his head a little. Now the NME is so poorly written, it’s good to read something with substance, like this. If you ever get to interview Bowie, I’m carrying your bag for you.

  16. space75gr says:

    Thank you for that great interview. The Sound of McAlmont & Butler and especially “Yes” were another example of Butler’s genious. Now if only we could have a deluxe edition of “Here Comes The Tears” i would be in paradise! An almost lost masterpiece (ok, quite).

  17. Pingback:David McAlmont on The Sound of McAlmont & Butler 20 years on | superdeluxeedition

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