Q&A - Butterfly Child
Butterfly Child release 'A Shot In The Dark' remixed from the album Futures by Stephen Hague.
Listen to the song here.
Q. Hello Joe. First of all, the lead track on this E.P has been mixed by Stephen Hague. Tell us how you first met Stephen and what his prior works meant to you?
A. Around 2001, I started a side project called Assassins which was really just about taking a step away from the Butterfly Child style of writing and production. Lots of brattish programming/ electronics, sweetness, grit, noisy guitars and some pretty vocal harmonies on top. We had no intentions really other than having some fun making music but I guess it turned out that the 80's were coming back with a vengeance and within five seconds (literally) we were signed to Arista. We had pretty much produced a whole album before the big money came in but L.A. Reid wanted us to bring in another person to co-produce with and see where things landed as it were. Stephen's name came up early in discussions with the label and so we met up with him, Bob Ezrin and a host of others. Instead of just picking someone due to chemistry or their resume, I asked all the potential co-producers to do an arrangement/ mix of a new song we were working on and Stephen blew us away with what he did. So we picked him as a collaborator and ended up spending a couple of months in Woodstock at his studio. Fun, creative times.
Stephen and I stayed in touch over the years and when he heard the new Butterfly Child album, Futures he asked me if I was interested in letting him have a stab at a different version of A Shot In The Dark. Clearly I was not going to say no to that and I couldn't send him the audio files quick enough. I think he did a lovely job. It is a bit mellower than my original version and I love that Stephen played bass guitar on his version as he is a wee bit bit of a genius on the old four string.
Obviously I was well aware of Stephens production work with New Order, Pet Shop Boys and a million others but the first time I remember hearing his work was on Malcolm McLaren's Madam Butterfly around 1984 which I loved. I bought the single and saw Stephens name on it and thought it would be a good idea to see what else he did in the future. Then my younger brother became obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys album Please around 1986 which Stephen worked on. I heard someone with a great ear for detail, wonderful arrangement skills and literally zero interest in sonic/instrumentation clutter.
Stephen just has great taste and he gets what he wants by being soft spoken and calm rather than screaming from the rafters. And how he managed to pull Regret together for New Order during that insane period deserves an award in itself.
Q. If you had to choose between West End Girls and True Faith it would be?
A. Weirdly, I was never a huge Pet Shop Boys fan but I really respected what they were doing. Obviously West End Girls is a classic. And Truth Faith didn't really do anything for me when I first heard it. In fact it was the first New Order record that I didn't run to the record store to buy the day it came out. But it has snuck up on me more and more over the years like a long lost friend. So. Truth Faith it is.
Q. Stephen as you mentioned has historical associations with Malcolm McLaren and PIL. Did punk have any resonance with you as a youth in Belfast?
A. Without question. I was still pretty young when the punk thing happened but I remember when I was around eight years old realising that all the punks seemed to be kind to us kids whereas a lot of the mods and skinheads would slap us around or spit on us. I didn't know what punk was of course. I just thought that it was something that you became when you were a little older. I remembered seeing the older kids at school walking around with PIL or CRASS or Stiff Little Fingers etc drawn on their canvas schoolbags and wondered what on earth it all meant. Then I listened to the John Peel show for the first time when i was around 10 years old. And it all hit home. I loved some of what i was hearing but by 1980 it was more of the post punk thing - Joy Division, Magazine, Wire etc. That stuff resonated more with me i guess because it was right when i was really getting into music and it just all felt so mysterious and from another planet. And I could play Atmosphere loud and my mother wouldn't complain.
Q. Come the early eighties the charts were in the UK dominated by 'synth' bands often disregarded as throwaway. But a number of them combined an element similar to one you have harboured. Romantic torch songs bitten by disoriented experimentation. The Associates. Soft Cell. The Human League. Was the contrast between clinical machine and forlorn suitor an early influence on your songwriting?
A. Hard to tell really. The key thing with so many of those bands from the 80's was that the actual song writing was often superb. And quite sophisticated from a composition point of view. Martin Gore for example wrote some amazing songs in the 80's. I never listen to those bands and hear the "clinical machine". Kraftwerk et al had already seeped into my brain as a young lad and I just thought that drum machines, sequencers and keyboards/samplers were wonderful tools for making music. Whether beautiful or abrasive.
Before Butterfly Child I had played in a few bands both with drum machines and drummers. And at that stage I was primarily playing bass so I was very in tune with what the drums/ drum machines were doing. I had a few bad experiences with drummers live and sadly there is not a knob on their forehead to turn them down. Whereas with a drum machine...voila! For me initially working with drum machines was more to do with having control over what was happening in the programming and probably because it was easier for us to rehearse in my bedroom. By the time I started doing the initial Butterfly Child records, even though we could have got a drummer in, I just wanted to use drum machines, synths etc mixed in with the acoustic guitars and so on. It still all managed to sound quite intimate. By the time we signed to Dedicated/ BMG, the drum machine had largely been left in the attic because Richie Thomas had joined the band. But Richie is a uniquely brilliant drummer. The drum machine didn't stand a chance.
Q. The beginning of Butterfly Child in terms of releases are bound always with AR Kane and My Bloody Valentine. When did you hear either band and did you at the time regard them as a rebellion in sound? What they did sounds very taken for granted for now. But at the time.
A. I was making a record in Manchester with a different band in 1987 and one morning I went down to Piccadilly Records to see if anything new that was interesting had come in. In one of the aisles i noticed this 12" that looked like it had come from another planet. I thought it much be on 4AD because the artwork (Vaughan Oliver) was so damn cool. An exotic topless girl on the front cover and when you looked at the reverse side you saw that she was holding a huge knife. The EP seemed to be called Lollita and the name of the "artist" on the cover was A.R.Kane. Again. Even the name seemed like it came from a different world. Is it a lady? A man? Or a band?
I bought it and within seconds of putting it on the turntable i was in love. It was like nothing i had heard before. It just felt like it was taking music into new territory. Oozing out of the speakers. Half formed yet sounding like music that had been hiding in a cave for a million years. But I didn't hear it as a rebellion of sound as such. The sound of it just gave me goose bumps. I just loved the mixture of the chaotic guitars/ sonics and the beautiful chord structures all mixed in and around Alex unique voice.
Like almost everyone, I loved some of the My Bloody Valentine records/ singles. Obviously A.R.Kane were an influence on Butterfly Child and my real music career started once i made a couple of EP's with them. But i never heard or hear anyone mention My Bloody Valentine in the same breath as Butterfly child. Other than the Irish connection. I don't really hear the influence sonically at all.
I saw MBV at the Brixton Academy at the end of the Loveless tour and my eardrums have never been the same since. Loudest thing i ever heard or will hear. I remember sitting at the bar with Liz Frazer of the Cocteaus who was laughing hysterically at how loud it all was. You couldn't escape it. It was so loud that you couldn't think straight. They probably sold out of t-shirts that night because everyones brains were melted.
I guess that is the true definition of a "rebellion of sound".
Q. Your initial E.Ps and the subsequent album on Rough Trade - despite Gary's involvement - seemed to be one man affairs. Solitary ruminations and longings. This was made more acute by the use of drum machine patterns. Was this just a matter of circumstance or do you prefer working alone?
A. I think I work best alone but that is more to do with enjoying chipping away at that big block of stone till something forms that I love musically. And I like doing that most when there are not others peering over my shoulder. I like that intimacy and discovering something on your own. But I love working with others too.
Obviously I was driving the bus on the initial releases but Rudy produced the Toothfairy EP and the Eucalyptus EP on H.ark! and he was there for every second of those recordings/ mixes other than when I did the drum programming at home. He brought so much wisdom and experience to those first songs.
And Gary was there for the most part when i made the Ghetto Speak EP and the Onomatopoeia album on Rough Trade because we had set up a studio at his house with Rough Trade money to get the ball rolling on a few releases. And he was a better engineer than I was back then. And everything was done manually of course with the mixing from an 8 track with a simple mixer other than all the sequencing I had done at home. If we didn't have four hands those two records would have been a disaster.
Q. With the move to Dedicated did you think there might be a chance to break into the mainstream? Did you ever have ambitions to be on TOTPs? There were a lot of major label subsidiaries at the time like Hut at Virgin who were breaking artists into the charts. The sound of The Honeymoon Suite is broad, the instruments a lot more traditional, the vocals higher in the mix. Also it is less introverted, more throw everything at the carriage before midnight comes. There's undoubtedly confidence there.
A. The funny thing is that I thought I was writing very accessible pop music from the get go. Albeit put through a weird blender of the Irish tongue mixed in with a bizarre and varied record collection of influences, youth and reckless abandon. And who wouldn't have wanted to be on TOTP's? I had no shame if any of it ever went mainstream but I think that I was completely unaware of how unconventional some of the arrangements were etc along with the production, lyrics and a singing style that especially then was hard to keep tied around a specific melody or to the ground. And I have never been one for compromise to put it mildly. Which doesn't help a la mainstream.
I remember writing Passion Is The Only Fruit. We ended up debuting it for a Peel session and talks had already started with Rough Trade and other labels to do a new record deal after the Onomatopoeia album came out. I remember thinking Passion Is The Only Fruit was about the catchiest thing I could ever hope to write at the time and I asked Geoff Travis (Rough Trade boss) at a meeting if he thought it could be a hit. Whatever that means. Geoff sensibly said "Maybe. It depends".
But at that time Rough Trade were having further financial issues and I probably dumbly thought that since we were getting other offers, that maybe with that current line up (myself, Pendle, James Harris and Richie Thomas) that we could really do something with a relatively "stable" indie with BMG support. It didn't quite work out that way. But. In all fairness to Doug D'Arcy at Dedicated, he let me make the record I wanted to make. Even though it effectively ended the deal there and then. I remember Doug and I arguing about the last track on The Honeymoon Suite album, I Shall Hear In Heaven. Clearly it is a love song. The end of the record. Very simple. Three chords, a vocal and a string quartet. Obviously the title is a reference to the alleged last words of Beethoven on his deathbed. So I thought, I have sang enough and said enough on this album. I have said my piece and I am off into the ether. The strings can take over the last few minutes of the song. Because you know, I have died and gone to heaven happy in a sense, I thought that it was kinda obvious. But everyone at the label was like "do a quick fade out after you stop singing". Um. No. But right there is why Butterfly Child never became anything close to mainstream. The musical universe going on in my head just doesn't quite translate to the masses.
But yes. I was very confident at that time. In the same way that I am now. I believe in what I do. I guess the older I have got, I know that all that matters is that the music is not a product. Not that it ever was. It is pure reflection of what I want to be hearing. And it is not tainted by an attempt to get the right snare sound or a lyric that makes sense to middle America. It is me. And I will live and die by that whether it sells three copies or 12 million.
Q. The Beautiful Girls from the third album Soft Explosives ' perfectly represents the Butterfly Child sound. It is soporific, elegant, eloquent, and resolute in its lack of shame to abandon everything for one night.
A. Well. Maybe the later era sound for sure. Before the Soft Explosives record, Butterfly Child had been all over the place in terms of sound/songs/sonics. Electronic, spaced out, noisy, ambient, acoustic esque. Depends on the record. But I guess from Soft Explosives on things have sort of settled into the thing that The Beautiful Girls has. Maybe just because I am older and I just know what I do best or what comes to me most naturally.
I wrote The Beautiful Girls one night in London in 1995. I had just gone through a traumatic break up and found myself surrounded by all these wonderful, supportive, beautiful women of all shapes and sizes. They helped a lot to get me through the trenches of a bizarre time.
I just came home one night, picked up the guitar and the song came out as a complete thing in about seven minutes. Including the lyrics. That is when you know you have a good one. When they come that quickly.
Abandoning everything for one night is one of the keys to embracing life. Otherwise you are going to regret a few things on your deathbed.
Image credit: Rickett & Sones.