Bernard Butler : In depth interview with former Suede man who turned into one of the best producers of his generation
Bernard Butler was the guitar player from Suede who defined their early sound when they burst onto the scene in the mid nineties. He left the band and blossomed into a top producer with a CV that reads like pure pop brilliance. In this interview he tells us what he’s up to now and how he made that transition from guitarist to key producer…
What are working on at the moment Bernard?
I’m working with a band called Teleman who are on Moshi Moshi and we’re working on an album and they have a single out called Cristina which came out in January, I’m very excited about the album and their single is getting some airplay on BBC 6 Music quite a bit and a lot of people are loving the single at the moment. There’s a guy called Daley who I’m working with from Manchester and the sound is electronic and quite soulful. I’ve also worked on some songs for Texas’ new album.
In the past you have worked with a lot of new artists and you’ve also worked with experienced artists like Bert Jansch, How does it vary between working with a blank canvas and with working with an experienced artist?
I think everyone is quite nervy, if you’ve been working for 50 years, you will still get nervy the first time you work with somebody. I always pretend hat I’m not gallivanting through it when really I’m shitting it as well. You have to show a bit of confidence. I’ve never met two artists that are the same. I believe that music is personality, it doesn’t matter how many times you find the same format, same instruments etc. It’s about whether you allow yourself to be exposed and so that you can express your personality.
Has the transition from band member to producer given you a headstart with your approach as to what aspiring bands would like at their disposal in the studio?
I always used to get frustrated waiting for the engineers to set up and in Suede, we could wait for hours for them to try different set ups. Once you have waited for four or five hours the moment can be gone. Your mum is never going to listen to a song on the radio and say nice mic technique. It is very important to use the artist’s energy and hunger and to get on with it early in the sessions. I really learnt this from being a musician. Everything is set up ready to go and record. It’s also nice to work with new bands and they might bring a Squire guitar in and I’ll say “There’s a Fender there or have you tried using one of these”. It’s a nice way to help new artists. All the musicians that were my heroes really helped me. I ended up meeting Johnny Marr and Edwyn Collins and I became friends with were really good to me. I remember Edwyn coming over when I was in a tiny bedroom studio and he brought some mics and compressors down and I didn’t even know what they were, I asked him what they were and he said just plug them in and see and give them a go. I got a lot of help and was very fortunate to have the support around me.
Do you miss being in a band and touring?
No, I don’t miss touring. I’ve had young children for the past 15 years and I can’t see how musicians go away when they have children, it’s just something that I wouldn’t do. I don’t want to regret it in years to come. Band wise, I’m always doing things and I’m working on something at the moment but can’t really say much at the moment. To be honest, I’ve never seen a difference between a solo artist, hip-hop guy, band, producer or drum machine, I think that’s because I have varied tastes. I don’t really make that division. I enjoy doing varied things musically and I wouldn’t want to be in a band for 30 years. I would miss making music but there hasn’t been a day since I was 13 that I haven’t. so that’s like a 130 years now!! I do feel sometimes that people sympathise with me and say “Do you miss being in a band?” and feel sorry for me but I say look I’m lucky, people have been in bands for 30 years on the road and that’s all they do. So you just want to make music with the same 3 or 4 people, no one else and play the same songs to the same people all of your life and pretty much nothing else. And people say that I’m unlucky!! I’ve worked with hundreds of different people and I’ve played in the studio, on TV and on tour and people still feel sorry for me that I’m not in a band, I find that extraordinary.
Does it broaden your horizons to work with a variety of artists instead of working with the same people then?
I would encourage anyone who is young to look at music in a holistic way and to make music in whichever way makes you comfortable. It’s not like having a girlfriend having to be loyal, if I see someone that I would like to work with; I normally just go for it. Working with the same people and being in the same routines. Routines and comfort zones are bad for music. Everyone hates bands that have made boring albums for 40 years and go on and on and on. I always tend to be excited by albums by artists that you just don’t know what they are going to do next.
What bands do excite you and turn you on and express the element of spontaneity?
I’m listening to a lot of Miles Davis and I love Field Music’s album from last year. I also love the Warm Digits. But generally, I listen to what I’m working on at the moment but I can’t really talk about it at the moment. You’re only as interesting as your next record. I was really excited when the new David Bowie song came out and I thought that the song was incredibly beautiful and it was a rarity that someone who basically invented every genre of music and reinvented music quite a few times to come up with something with just guitar, bass, drums and piano and a beautiful voice. It’s not reinvented the wheel or found a new time signature from out of space. It’s just a beautiful song.
Who were the guitarists that inspired you to start playing the guitar?
Johnny Marr, Roddy Frame, Robin Guthrie and Cocteau Twins around ‘84 and a lot of the guitarists around that time. I was spoilt at the time and generally it was guitarists that played something which was generally termed alternative rock but had the term indie because they were mainly on independent labels. They were largely ignored at the time. People forget that The Smith’s biggest gig was one night at Brixton Academy. People always forget that. They never had a number one single and the only single A-listed at Radio 1 was “Panic” which had the chorus “Hang the DJ”. They were never plastered over billboards. I used to go into HMV after school and just check the racks and that was the only way for me to find if there was a new material by The Smiths or New Order. You may not have found out otherwise.
Was it nerve-wracking when you met Johnny Marr, as he is one of your heroes?
He is a very nice guy. He is bit of a magpie and he is an inspiration with how he jumps from project to project. I can’t think of anything worse than there being 16 Smiths albums. It wouldn’t be the same now and I enjoy listening to them albums over and over again. I haven’t stopped listening to them since I was fourteen. The Smiths were my everything and meant much more to me than The Beatles will ever mean to me. Johnny is forever changing. What he is doing at the moment is great, what he did in The Cribs was great, What he did in Modest Mouse was great. That has been my major inspiration. I haven’t done it in the same way as Johnny but just the idea of flitting between things and not getting worried about it. He is a lot more mobile than me and loves travelling but we have the same sort of character. There are not many 49 year olds that can be inspiring to 14 year olds the way he is. Johnny is a greatest guitarist and he is technically accomplished and he also multilayered guitar parts with John Porter and Stephen Street in The Smiths.
How did you find playing live as the only guitarist in Suede? There were a lot of multilayered tracks with Suede including Animal Nitrate.
It was really simple. I was lucky enough to see The Smiths on their “The Queen is Dead” tour and I saw two or three of their gigs. They turned from being a delicate light thing into being a rock monster and it was the greatest show I’ve ever seen. It was when they were a five-piece and Craig Gannon and the just looked like The Stones at their peak. The guitar was quiet in the mix and clean sounding and they sounded beautiful. He learned how to play the whole part by being very rhythmic and turned it up. I was 16 and after thought wow so that’s how he done that. I went home and learnt how to do the same thing. There is a light is a perfect example of this. I wanted to do the same with Suede when I started.
How did you come to meet David McAlmont?
When I left Suede, the first thing I wrote was what became Yes just as an instrumental and I wrote this with a drum machine and string sampler. I had it all sorted out but didn’t know who was going to sing on it. A couple of people nearly sung on it but never did. Geoff Travis (Rough Trade) said you’ve got to meet David and this normally meant that he wanted to me to work with someone and David was fantastic with the vocals.
What was the inspiration behind the record?
It was a really dark time for me. It was the summer of 1994 and I had just left Suede and my life was falling apart and it was horrible. When you leave a band everything is connected to it like friends. When you leave one in a bad way, you end up on your own. You also didn’t have a label and all of the things you grow accustomed to in a band. I just wanted to write joyful music in the summer and I’d just been writing on Dog Man Star for the previous six months so that was tough as well. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield and Motown. I wanted to write something very Bacharach/David type of thing with plenty of key changes and strings and a big baseline and that was a big inspiration. I gave the tape to David after meeting him and he had the words done after a couple of days and when we met up he said that he only had one verse so we just repeated the verse. He was perfect and we recorded it in two days in France and I did the overdubs myself. The song means a lot to people.
You talk about Dusty Springfield, Duffy has been compared to her, did you enjoy working on her debut album and did you anticipate the success that Duffy would have with Rockferry?
I didn’t see that coming. I did all of the stuff with her, we did it in my bedroom and we did it all there and we were working on and off for three years. Rockferry was the very first song we wrote and we wrote it within an hour of our first day. For the next three years we did work endlessly and we did 6 or 7 songs for the album and she was also working with other people. At the end we pulled it together at the end with a compilations of the best songs. We had no idea what was going to happen. She was a real fizzbomb and a effervescent person and got quite happy and I got the feeling that behind the smile, there was quite a nervy and a lot of nervous energy. I always liked her and it was a crazy time. We didn’t expect it to escalate the way it did.
Were you disappointed not to be involved with the second record?
No, because I chose not to be. She was doing it in a different way. We did a few things around the time she was going to start to record the second album and I just said you’re writing about being famous here and when we met we was writing about Rockferry, this tiny place that she related to but went onto become an 8 million selling record. I had a feeling that it just wasn’t right and I just let it go. She did the second record her own way and she sort of live by the sword, die by the sword in a way for that album. It was a hard time for her and there was no way of following that album up and it was incredibly hard. I always wanted to get out when I felt that the record wasn’t going to be as good. This was the same with Suede. I really like her and I’m protective of her and people are to quick to knock her down after her second record.
What would you say your proudest moment in music has been so far?
Probably Yes because of the situation I was in and the dark days as well as it being a great piece of music. I remember going to Ally Pally on Bonfire Night and there would be fireworks each year and at the end there would be a finale and normally there would be a piece of classical music like Prokofiev or something. One year I was with my kids there and Yes was the song at the finale and for those three minutes that made people happy which made me very proud.