Bernard Butler interview
Bernard Butler is a contrary bastard. Case in point: he professes to have no time for 90s nostalgia, while simultaneously putting together a box-set reissue of The Sound of McAlmont & Butler, a record he made with David McAlmont after acrimoniously leaving Suede in 1994. Not that that’s a problem: drowned out by the more effective attention seekers of Britpop, The Sound Of is a lost gem with far more variety than its juggernaut lead singles, Yes and You Do, might suggest.
On a wider level, though, he reckons he simply owes it to his profession to rebel against the establishment, to be true to yourself, to take no shit. If all that reads a bit like a memetic motivational jpg on the page, well, that’s your problem – and Butler certainly won’t care. Indeed, that pick-headedness is far from an irritation in real life. On the contrary, it’s an inspiration, in the current era of studied retromania, to encounter someone so stubbornly ploughing his own furrow so self-fulfillingly. However, as it transpires, twas ever thus…
The McAlmont & Butler project was originally intended as one single – a seven-inch – of Yes and You Do. No tour, no t-shirts, no press, nothing – that was the whole ethos. It was beautifully pure, arrogantly, stubbornly, suicidally pure – and stupid, frankly, when you look at the rubbish that sold a million copies in ’95. My principle was, “what’s the most pure thing you could do?”, which you could stand up without press, without a video, a tour, any money, without even a sleeve, without a band, without a band name. That was my dream. It was about making it just a sound. Do you like this? Turn it up. Do you not like it? Throw it away.
The landscape at the time was so posturing, so this desire for purity was a massive reaction to all that. With Suede, lots of stuff was shoved in our face that we didn’t ask for at all, and it could be quite vulgar. I was fed up with that stuff, and also felt very guilty with getting that amount of attention: I grew up a Catholic, and I’ll never get rid of that – the Pope is up there [taps his shoulder] all the time, the cunt! – and however far I go away from it, I’ll always have that guilt for being celebrated for basically prancing around with a guitar.
So Yes and You Do were all about what came out of the speakers, as a reaction to the guilt at getting away with it a bit while I was in Suede. And I totally acknowledge that it’s a flawed ambition, but just because you can’t achieve it completely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I thought, what if? In all art, that’s the good thing – what if you do this? If it’s shit, then whatever. At least I tried.
There’s nothing left over from those sessions – we just wrote each song and recorded it. I hate it when bands say “we’ve written 65 songs for our new album”. I’m like, “really? Wow! Have you? What, so you’ve written 55 shit ones? 55 shit songs? What the fuck are you doing?” So no, we wrote then recorded, simple as that. Quite often, David hadn’t heard the song until we were in the studio. It was very instinctive – recorded pretty much live, and then while everyone was still standing there we’d mix it, put it down and go home.
I think what’s interesting about Yes is that people don’t say they like it because they saw us on tour or whatever. Mainly people found it on a tape, or met their husband to it, or shagged someone to it, or told someone to fuck off to it, and that’s it. I’m used to having fans of Suede, for example, talking to me about what they loved about the band, or how Suede defined their teenage years or whatever. But with Yes it’s just about the song, and I think that’s a really nice, pure thing. No one knows about McAlmont & Butler so the song’s liberated from any baggage or context. Every time someone says they like that song, they say, “it made me smile”, or it brightened up my day for three minutes, and that’s just the greatest thing in the world.
We could’ve made a record with four different Yes-like songs on it and filled it all with strings. And you’d listen now and hear a Britpop record of its time and go “ah well, the album’s not as good as the single, is it”. I knew that the record company expectation was for us to do another Yes, but if a record company asks me to do something, I will always do the polar fucking opposite, because that’s my duty as a musician. That’s something that’s missing from musicians today: if they’ve even got a label, they’ll just be like, “I’ll do whatever you want”, which is just so fabulously uncreative and uninteresting.
I have a theory that at the moment everything is all about “success”, and I think we’ve got a really dangerous ethic about success in society: it runs through education, music and the arts, even the Labour leadership contest: who will be the winner? Who will win us the election? Not who do we believe in, or who believes in what they’re saying. And it’s in education too – everything’s about results, about getting to the right university and teachers getting the right amount of grades. But what for? It’s all about winners and losers.
And it’s the same with music. Bands say they want to give their music away to build up a fanbase, to appeal to as many people as possible so they can play to as many people as possible. But I want to hear somebody saying, “all I want to do in my life is make a great record”, and in my generation we did say that. There were several great guitarists, Jonny Greenwood and Graham Coxon, and a whole slew of innovative, fantastic, characterful musicians, who just wanted to make great records. Sure, they got successful or whatever, and that was partly to do with the era, but they also were interesting, ambitious people who weren’t trying just to get on Top Of The Pops. They were trying to make a record that was part of them. We’ve lost that in the last ten years, and in their places we’ve got too many musicians talking about “the business” as if they’re accountants. Musicians talking about A&R, or all this Tidal bollocks, where musicians queue up to sit on a fucking board meeting. I hate all that.
I’ve been asked to rejoin Suede for reunions, but I just wouldn’t feel part of the gang. I get on really well with Brett, and it’s really nice that he asked me to do it, but when he asked me, I just saw a month of listening to those records I made 20-odd years ago and nothing else, and then a month of standing in a rehearsal room playing those same records and then having to go on stage and do it.
And I just thought, whose benefit is this for? It was a Friday night that they were playing [Dog Man Star in full], and on a Friday I’m normally in the Harringay Arms with a couple of friends doing the crossword. And I just thought, where would you rather be? Just put yourself onstage – would you rather be there? And I’d definitely rather be in the Harringay, because I can just see myself on stage and I’d be tense and uncomfortable.
So who would I be doing it for then? Would I be doing it for me? No. I’d be doing it for Suede fans, so… [shrugs] so what? I mean, come on. Would my wife be coming? No, she’d be in the Harringay! Would my friends be there? No, they’d be in the pub too. I couldn’t show my face with my friends if I was like that, going on about the old days.
I mean, you’ve got those musicians who say they’d do everything for and owe everything to their fans, but that’s not true, is it? Suede fans are just people who like music, and so do I. But I don’t expect Neil Young to come to my studio and play guitar, do I? I’m not like, “Right! Where the fuck is Bowie when I need him?!” [laughs]. I find that side of things embarrassing and excruciating. Life as a musician is about the record you’re going to make on Monday, not the one you finished last Friday. When I made those [first two Suede] records, that’s what I thought then, and that’s the way I still feel. And a lot of those people we’re talking about don’t feel that way now. They did feel that way in the 90s, then they gave up. Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker and all those people I used to know at that time, I’m pretty sure any of us would have said that the reason we started to make records was to get rid of Phil Collins and that lot, whose main ambition in life was rolling out the barrel, doing the same old songs, getting out the old hits for the mums and dads. And that’s not something that I want to be part of, so I’m quite happy moving forward – it’s the way I live my odd life.
I’m just not a nostalgia person; I don’t enjoy it. And I admit, yes, that said, I’m reissuing an album from 20 years ago, but only because otherwise I’d have missed the chance: we deliberately didn’t milk The Sound of McAlmont & Butler at the time, remember!
If The Smiths got back together, would I go and watch it? Absolutely not. And I’ve made that clear to every member of The Smiths – ha! I saw them five or six times. I saw the last-ever Smiths concert. I was there. I don’t need to go again. I admit I did see the Stone Roses in Finsbury Park the other year, and took my kids because it was nearby and I knew the tour manager, but we left after two songs because it was so horrible. It was such an ugly scene – 50-year-olds out of control, the sound waffling around, meaningless out-of-tune singing.
I hated the whole experience of it. I thought, you’re just reliving a time that has gone in your lives, and probably wasn’t as good as you’d characterise it now anyway.
I’d rather do a small tour with interesting musicians than play to a shedload of people doing greatest hits tunes. I’m not doing that for the people sitting in front of me, either, though. I’m doing it for me – I’ve got to live my life, I’m not Benny Hill! I’m not a performing seal.
A lot of musicians need adoration, but I’ve got kids. I’ve got a lovely wife. I don’t need it from other people. And I think people get more out of it anyway if you’re like that, because it’s better than going, “Oh I’m just up here to play a song that you like and take your money”.
I mean, If you’d asked me what I’ve been doing for the last five years, and I’d said, “just touring the world playing old Suede songs”? Nah, no thanks. I’ve made eight or nine albums in that time. You mightn't have heard any of them, but as it is, my life is all right. I make records, I go home, I go to the pub. I think I’m quite contented, maybe more than some.