butterflies of love interview
(29th April 2000)
How to know the Butterflies of Love. It's emblazoned across the front cover of their album, but whether as a summary of the contents or a problem requiring a solution it's not apparent. In the absence of supporting evidence elsewhere on the sleeve, other than stylish soft-focus black and white photography and a longish list of contributors, the only way to find out seemed to be to track the band down and ask them. This I did, at Nottingham's Boat Club on the last date of their recent two-week tour, sitting on the bank of the River Trent as the sun set and the police carried away the corpse of a recently-murdered swan in a black plastic bin-liner.
Wind back a couple of hours. After sound-checking, the Butterflies were standing on the Boat Club's balcony watching the detritus of modern life float past on the river and the last straggling Nottingham Forest fans vacate the adjacent stadium when 4 or 5 youths ran along the river front and came across a swan which they stoned to death before legging it. Sean Price, on whose Fortuna Pop label the Butterflies reside, fearlessly pursued them armed only with a camera and the police were called. As a prelude to being interviewed, it ranks pretty low, and probably explains the rather blank look that greeted my opening salvo of: You've probably been asked a thousand times already, but how do you know the Butterflies of Love?
The ensuing denials: of ever having heard the question before, of having suspected such a question might ever arise when they chose the album title and of ever having considered how one might begin to know the Butterflies of Love, were so convincing that, even accounting for the swan death aftershock, it was obvious that if I wanted any kind of route to the inside of the Butterflies' minds, I'd have to draw the map myself. So I did.
How to know the Butterflies of Love
There are, so the song says, only three steps to Heaven. You'll need more than this to understand these Lepidopteran L'amour, though. Five, by my count, will just about do it.
1. Listen to their records
The Butterflies of Love are essentially two: Jeffrey Greene and Daniel Greene. They are not related, although this is a common, and understandable, misconception... until the pair of them are seen side-by-side, that is. Jeff is tall, dark, gangly, tousled of hair and reclined of posture and attitude. Daniel is shorter, lighter, stockier, quieter and a little more serious. Together they write songs that seem to be chiselled from the monolithic body of classic American guitar pop with the panache and the craftsmanship of Galaxie 500 or prime period REM or Big Star. Songs full of yearning, of unrequited desire, of strange feelings and stranger situations, of drinking, of sadness and of sorrow. Songs that will move you, that will drift around you, that will transport you and infect you, that will instil in you romance and charm, that will be old friends in no time at all and that will float into mind at odd moments: "you make me feel that I could rob a bank" ("Rob a bank").
2. Appreciate their craft
If you were to make a tape of everything the Butterflies have released in the five or so years of their recording existence ("We were the Butterflies of Love before [that]. People said it lacked focus Perhaps we were just messing around"), without repeating any of the tracks that have been available more than once, you would only just be able to fill one side of a C90. If there's a "humorous" sticker above their mixing desk it probably reads You don't have to be slow to work here, but ah forget it... In fact, everything released so far, except for current two-tracker "Wintertime Queen," was recorded over the same two-year period between 1996 and 1998. "Wintertime Queen" is a relatively new track, dating as it does from only the beginning of last year.
So they don't work quickly? "All the original guitar parts were done quickly but the overdubbing and finishing took a long time." A long time being two years for just under 50 minutes of music. There can be no doubt that it was worth it, though. The depth in the songs will keep you coming back time and again. As we said in the album review: "Every one of the 12 tracks... is a sliver of soul extracted not with the swift slice of a surgical scalpel but with a blunt and rusty hacksaw... each of the songs is a gemstone cut so that the fire inside shines out, but reflects more back in." I've never had a band stand in front of me whilst reading my review of their album. It's an unnerving experience, especially when one of them looks like Jeff Goldblum and you get the feeling he might well turn into, if not The Fly, then The Butterfly. Luckily they love the review: "The last line is beautiful."
It takes something special to make songs like these, songs that tear out something of the songwriter and present it not ragged and bleeding, although there's no shortage of cutting, adrenaline-rush moments, but exquisitely modelled. I likened the process to that of a sculptor carving a piece of art. Sketching out a rough design and then spending a great deal of time looking at the grain of the rock for the perfect place to hit to achieve the desired result. Stepping back to survey the work so far, interpreting every angle, chipping a little off here and there, but never with haste. With persuasion, Daniel and Jeff eventually agree to the idea of slow development with a lot of evaluation, but don't like the sculpture metaphor: "We're not as precious as that... we give everyone else input." Mike on keyboards adds a lot of groove, "He's got more groove than we have" and producer Mark Mulcahy "will come up with a vocal melody line that we'd never have thought of." Not a lot of the writing is done in the studio, just the arranging: "I write the songs in the kitchen, or the shower, or the bathroom where the acoustics are good. Or I'll get a melody in my head and be singing it all day" (Jeff). And are the songs at all autobiographical? "The songs just appear. But getting them finished..."
All that time in the studio must leave them a lot of time to reflect on song titles but they tend to prefer simple, often single-word titles, especially adjectives such as "Wild," "Serious," "Horrible" and "Complicated." Are these words that they feel describe them? "Song titles are just a way to communicate the next song to each other on the stage" (Daniel.) In fact, they're quite easy-going about the titles: "They're the thing we have most control over so we don't mind giving some of it away." (Jeff)
That's about all the control they're prepared to give away, though. They're currently label-less in the States at the moment because "we want to stay out of the music business. We want to own our songs and people keep trying to buy us out-we don't want that" (Daniel). The first single, "Rob a Bank," came out on Coffeehouse Records, run by Mark Mulcahy (ex-Miracle Legion: "Mark Mulcahy has got his own unique vocal style, unmistakable, so that's why the comparisons [to Miracle Legion] are understandable"-Jeff) but he's off "doing his own solo thing" at the moment. There's no outside input on the beautiful sleeves either: Jeffrey designs them using friend Michael Ackerman's photos. "The new one looks amazing... I sent a copy to a friend in New York who was upset that "complicated" [the b-side] was printed over their face!"
If there's one quote that sums up their approach to making records, though, it's this: "when you make a record, you want to make the best record you possibly can."
3. Understand their muse
From the records you might expect to find them a pair of morose, reclusive men but it's not the case. In fact, it's hard to get a word in edgeways at times: "We're known for talking more than playing during our sets" (Jeff). Also from the records, you might get the impression that this is a band who devote much time and energy to the demon drink. "We're not alcoholics. We just like to get into the mood. It's the last night of the tour. We don't hide vodka bottles in the toilet.." (Daniel) This doesn't make them antisocial: "we've noticed that kidspeopleour age are a lot more sociable over here. I mean, we like to talk to people but over here people spend all night talking and drinking in pubs where we'll just stay home... More productive, though." It's true.
They're much more complex than the records and their complicated stories would have you believe: "I'd like to do a compilation of prison songs... but there's no room for the creative process [in prison] because there are only enough instruments for, like, eight people to be in the band and they only get to play once a week... There's a Lynyrd Skynyrd band, a Latino band and all these rappers who just brag." Jeff teaches art in a local prison. Would he like to do a Johnny Cash and record a live album in a prison? "I keep the two sides of my life separate... but I would love to play in prison, yeah." Daniel is a Justice of the Peace (he is licensed to perform marriage ceremonies) and teaches "7-13 year-olds in a Jewish school. I teach everything except Judaism... which is odd because my degree is in Judaism." He revels for a moment in the irony...
In the album review, Robots... suggested that they were anally-retentive about their record collections... "I am an obsessive! It's in the nature of what I do..." (Jeff, he is also a museum curator) "... I bought a mint copy of [Syd Barrett's] "Madcap Laughs" and, where all the other new vinyl leans this way [motions] against the amplifier, I've got this one facing out so I can see it when I walk in." Daniel gets off a little lighter: "I've got a Virgin Prunes LP tacked up on my wall. Tacked through the plastic, not the sleeve!"
They're not above talking themselves up either. Their publishing company Big Bower is so named for a reason. "Big Bower is the trump card. It means we're the trump, we've got the songs to trump all other bands." (Jeff)
4. Experience them live
A few nights earlier at a gig in London, their already brief 30-minute set ("We like to play a couple of sets, so we can get warmed up," Daniel) had been shortened further by technical problems, snapped strings and the strength of the weed cadged from a member of the Freed Unit. Tonight, no such travails, aside from the effects of the never-empty can of strong lager Jeff seems to have permanently attached to the end of this arm. The other night's problems resulted in a snarling Butterflies of Love; the lack of snarl-ups here produce a relaxed swagger and the feeling that, for both them and the audience, anything goes. Anything in this case being what started out as the usual introduction to the band (which no American group seems able to resist) and ended up as a roll-call of every member of tour supports Airport Girl and The Chemistry Experiment and even Where It's At Is Where You Are honcho John Jervis who they "pushed off the top of a building" the night before in Sheffield. But you can forgive them this indulgence on the last night of the tour. You'd forgive them anything at all, including the sound mixed by Dr Mud who forsakes all instruments in favour of the piano and turns microphones on and off at random (making Daniel's apparently greedy double microphone option more understandable as he switches back and forth between them during the set.) And you do forgive them taking the piss when they recount the cygnicide incident, calling the swans "the property of the Queen."
From the resonant somnolence of opener "Leaving When I'm Done Drinking" (the song that should end every gig) through to the agitated and high-pitched drawling of "Wild," the suicidal slow-motion throbbing and weary chorus of "Rob a bank" or "Floating"'s amped-up trash psychedelia, the Butterflies shrug their way through a set laden with East Coast guitar hooks that the likes of Buffalo Tom can only dream of these days. Quite apart from the fact that they're only a 5-piece on tour and couldn't possible recreate the perfection of their recordings, they embrace the opportunity musicians have above other artists to reinvent, revise, rework and redraft their repertoire for each audience. Tonight the audience and band are both up for it, so every song is whipped out, blasted through and carelessly discarded in the knowledge that there's plenty more where that one came from.
A half-hearted exit results in an immediate encore in which the bank rip through a couple more songs before leaving us with anticipation, expectation and hunger all unsated. Perfect.
5. Undertake correspondence with them
The final step of the path to fulfilment, and certainly the most difficult. I had a copy of the Coffeehouse single waay back in 1996. I loved it and wrote to the band to tell them so. Twice. I'm still waiting for a reply. At the end of this interview I swapped addresses with Daniel who, as he was writing, said "I'll just put my email address on here and I promise I'll write back if you email me." When I later looked under the Bs, there was no email address. No address means no mail and no mail means no need to reply. They did get my first letter though, or so they say: "We framed your letter and looked at it every day..."
Even when Sean at Fortuna Pop, who also got "Rob a Bank" on Coffeehouse, wrote to them asking if he could put their records out over here they didn't reply: "We love mail, but we're very slow. We put everything into the music." Which is some excuse, I suppose. It's not that they don't care either, their first ever fan letter was "signed your biggest fan, so far. Jeff: "I carried that around in my head for a week." So you can touch them, you can get inside their heads and their hearts, but it will be difficult and you'll need a lot of patience and persistence. But at least you've got some decent records to listen to while you wait.
That's it then. You've now listened to the records, appreciated the craft therein, reflected on the Butterfly motivation, experienced the band live and extracted a reply from them by post. You truly do know the Butterflies of Love. But wait, there's one final piece, one more, shall we say, twist: "The album is little packages, little nuggets of information. Little ways into what the Butterflies are about." But can you ever know the Butterflies of Love? "No."
Contact: PO Box 8501, New Haven, CT 06531, USA or www.thebutterfliesoflove.net
home : reviews : interviews : live : features : shop : search: contact