We don't need another hero: Interview: Bernard Butler
'It's hard for men to say "Hey, I cry, I'm sensitive, I want to look after my baby". But I see that as positive.' Admirable sentiments from 'The Neil Young of the Nineties'. But it's not very rock 'n' roll, now is it?
Sunday 05 April 1998
"That was a very nice statement, but I said to him at the time, 'This'll follow me round the world', and it has done." Butler, though, is secretly chuffed. Neil Young, along with artists like Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Tim Jardin, is one of his heroes. But while his album, People Move On, echoes the early Seventies cool rock singer/songwriting era in its heartfelt sentiment and warm, melodic approach, Butler stresses that it isn't a "retro record".
The Spector-esque blast of his epic single "Stay" (which went to No 12 earlier this year), along with touches of modern psychedelia and manic strings, show that he is just as addicted to hell-raising pop. While his vocal may be a bit thin at times (he admits there is room for development), the pop production is assured, the songs, particularly the bluesy, infernally catchy "Autograph", memorable.
It has taken a while for 27 year old Butler to get here. Though a musician's musician and hailed by many as a "genius" guitarist, he has been dogged by that "difficult": touchy, rude, arrogant, won't talk to anyone apart from guitar magazines. He left Suede in 1994 amid acrimonious circumstances - "We had wonderful moments of triumph and I do believe we made some important records, but I felt it was a sterile, cold, commercial situation, one which troubled me. It didn't trouble them, which was a problem," he recalls. Then 18 months later he parted company with vocalist David McAlmont after they had a superhit with the song "Yes". McAlmont accused him of homophobia, but the truth is more that Butler, precociously talented and self-sufficient, preferred to go solo. "I always feel a bit in my own world when I play, even when I'm in a group," he muses.
It took a raft of collaborations - knocking about with Paul Weller on stage, playing with The Verve, recording with Thom and Johnny from Radiohead and finally REM's Michael Stipe, before Butler locked himself into the studio with a hundred instruments and for the first time in his life, sang his own songs. "This album has been a natural development. There was no brave realisation, I didn't wake up one morning to thinking it was a new dawn. This is just growing up for me. That's all I've done. I've grown up."
With his skinny frame and boyish air, Butler seems very young to be married with a two-month old son. He met Elisa, when they were students at Queen Mary College, and they wed in 1994 at the height-of Suede's fame. Elisa has always accompanied him on tour, and apart from doing some work at a community theatre in Barnet, has put her career on hold. "She's sacrificed a lot for me," he says without a trace of guilt, "I ended up relying on her."
Surveying his music with a ferocious single-minded intensity, it's hardly surprising that Butler has no truck with the laddish bluster of rock 'n' roll. He is bemused by the fans who approached him in HMV the other day when he was carrying his little boy in a sling. "It was weird. I suppose it was my fault going into HMV on Oxford Street the week before my record's out, but I got funny looks. People were coming up to me saying, 'Is that yours?'"
Presumably Butler was expected to be the rude rebel. "Yes, in the Nineties we're still fascinated by the cartoon motifs associated with rock 'n' roll," Butler declares in a typically passionate rant. "It's part of this post-Loaded era that has taught us to be irresponsible about our emotions. It's been quite hard for men to say, 'Hey, I fucked it up, I cry, I messed up, I can be sensitive. It doesn't mean I'm some kind of wuss, I don't want to be sick in a gutter. I want to look after my baby. I'm proud to be married to a strong woman for the rest of my life'. I see that as positive. Those who say it's cool to be irresponsible lads are coked-up thirtysomethings who're running scared."
Butler has always been resistant to peer pressure. Born in Stamford Hill, the youngest of three brothers, Butler went to a strict Jesuit school in Enfield where the headmaster had pictures of Maggie Thatcher and the Queen in his office, and the boys were encouraged to join the TA. "I found that very bizarre, a Catholic school where they marched around the playground with rifles." It was there that he took up violin, but felt limited by the English classical approach, "In England, playing violin at school is regarded as cissy, but when I went to Ireland I was the greatest thing on earth. You didn't play the violin there, you played the fiddle."
Some time in his teens, he gave it up to concentrate on rock guitar. His older brother sold bootlegs, following bands like the Smiths and New Order around night after night. Butler would obsessively listen to those bootleg tapes, they were his musical education. He would get scratch bands together and play the local hall, developing the visceral, wired guitar style that became his trademark. Then at 19 he dropped out of the hlstory degree he had started at Queen Mary's to throw in his lot with a fledgling band called Suede. Success came comparatively quickly and for Butler, almost too easily, "I felt I didn't deserve anything I got," he recalls. "And yet I was working hard on ideas that weren't bearing fruit."
Much of Butler's solo work has been inspired by his father, an Irish immigrant who worked in an Everready battery factory for 30 years before dying of cancer. "My dad used to sing in Dublin bars in his early twenties, and I never found out about that till afterwards. After he died a couple or years ago, I was lonely and quite lost, I didn't understand his life and how that related to me. He would work nine-to-five, come home, have a can of lager and watch TV. That was all he did. That was my dad's pleasure - war films and John Wayne and country music. He was sweet and quiet and dreamed of stuff and had opinions on everything that no one ever listened to. Then I was struck how this business is full of idiots, averagely talented musicians who use their gobs to get somewhere when they've got no grasp of basic human emotion."
Butler may occasionally sound over-confident and smug, but, unfashionable though it is, in person Butler has a likeable sincerity, a directness that is disarming. And he is right, the music industry is full of people who lionise bad behaviour. Arrogance is good for business, after all. But whether Butler will become the Neil Young of the Nineties, only luck and longevity will tell.
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