Rogue Man Star

by John Mulvey, New Musical Express
10 January 1998

Suede. McAlmont.The Verve. Going solo.
At last, Bernard Butler tells all.

Feeling persecuted? You've been called a control freak, a madman and a homophobe by your former collaborators. Once, everybody queued up to fete you: the best guitarist of his generation, they said, a creator of magisterial tunes, a wonder-worker with the raw elements of rock'n'roll.
Right now, though, that means f--k all. Right now, you're feeling like a pariah. People are putting the word around London that you're poison, that your gifts are dwarfed by your legendarily nightmarish attitude. Too.. much.. trouble. You never bothered hiding your contempt of the music business. Now, with bitter inevitability, the music business is taking its revenge for your scorn.
But the stories are so all-pervasive, so inveigling, that you're beginning to believe all your bad publicity. You've even asked your manager whether he thinks you should go see a shrink. He tells you not to worry, not to let it eat away at you. But that's easier said than done, isn't it?
Anyway, you get away for a couple of weeks, jet off to New York for a holiday with your wife, Elisa. For a while, you've been wondering what you should do next, and it's crossed your mind that you might not be making music - playing your guitar - for the rest of your life, like you'd always planned it. You love New York, but it has some horrible memories for you, too. Like the time you played there with suede just after your father died, when you were freaking out and unable to deal with the rest of the band, who were expecting you to behave as if nothing had happened. You travelled to the gig with the crew, away from the band, as you had done the whole tour, wandering into the dressing room just a couple of minutes before showtime.
Looking back, you can see you were hitting a dangerous point then, doing strange things, starting the wrong songs just to mess up everyone else. That night, you see the support band and the roadies sat in the wings watching the set, and you realise you'd far rather be with them than with this stupid band. So - what the hell? - you go and join them, sit there playing your stuff while everyone's wondering where the sound's coming from, looking for where the skinny, moody little f--ker's gone. You just felt mad, you reckon now.
Whatever. For two weeks you walk up and down New York, calming down, thing. One night, you're in the hotel room, and your wife gets exasperated and says to you, "Why don't you just do it yourself and shut up?" And, because she's so close to you and, obviously, understands you far better than anyone else, you take in what she says. You think of those nights when you've been at home in Highgate stoned together and you've sung along to favourite records, or when you've gone walking in the morning on Hampstead Heath with more and more tunes ringing in your head. And you realise - and how could you ever have doubted it? - that you don't need anyone else. You can open your mouth, and not give a damn about what kind of frontman you'll be, and just get on with it. It's that simple.

"I understand that there’s baggage, and I understand that it's interesting to people. I've been in Suede and The Verve. Noel Gallagher plays my records. And I like that."
Bernard Butler smiles ruefully and sits back on his sofa. Two-and-a-half years on from his New York epiphany, and all seems well in his guitar-stuffed corner of the universe. Spread around him are records, guitars, cats, satsumas; classic signifiers of rock contentment. Sky News flickers away silently on the TV. The long green box of 'The Pet Sounds Sessions' lies imposingly by the stereo. Pictures of Marc Bolan, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain hunched over his acoustic at the 'Unplugged' session adorn the wall. The lights are gentle and low. No cracked-up, stacked-up, polymorphoursly perverse beautiful ones have ever trashed this place, you can't help thinking.
Good. This, then is where Bernard Butler's tangled path through '90s British rock has brought him. When the history of the music of this fractious decade is written, Butler's name will keep turning up: arch-stylist; scene instigator, but never scenester; flapping-fringed shy boy; the jobbing guitar god who hated the worship. With Suede - as the quietly industrious tunesmith and nemesis of flashboy Brett - he helped revitalise an indie scene that was turning in on itself: brash, urgent, frequently inspired, they were Britpop's John The Baptists. Once that had aborted, with David McAlmont he recorded a handful of songs that reintroduced soul to alternative rock, used every Motown trick in the book, and inadvertently provided the strings'n'big drums blueprint for subsequent massive successes like the Manics' 'Everything Must Go'.
He played live with Teenage Fanclub, Paul Weller, Edwyn Collins, Manic Street Preachers, The Cranberries, Neneh Cherry and, erm, Sparks. He made friends with his hero and role model, Johnny Marr. He recorded songs with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. He even joined The Verve for a week while Nick McCabe was persona non grata. As the CVs of guitarists go, few possess a more auspicious one.
And yet, the accumulated weight of evidence suggests prodigious musical talent comes with a price. After Butler walked away from suede in July 1994, Brett Anderson said of him, "I don't think he ever wanted to be in the band," while drummer Simon Gilbert added, "He hates our guts." Impossible to work with, was the general consensus. Just over a year later, his partnership with McAlmont ended acrimoniously, too, with the singer calling him socially inadequate before asserting: "Brett was a problem because he was flirting with the whole gay thing, and I am the thing. He just doesn't understand someone like me."

"I'm really proud that I sat and played on 'The Drugs Don't Work' in my back room, added little guitar parts, before anyone had ever heard that song."

More trouble than he's worth, by the looks. Then again, while the spurned collaborators queued up to badmouth him, Butler defended himself in an unorthodox way: he didn't say a word. Always uncomfortable with the press - he's barely done an interview since '93 - he let the shit pile up against this door, hunkered down and took care of his own business. Protracted, public, ego-powered slanging matches were never really his style, anyway.
Now, though, a new situation's forced the hermit genius to break cover. A new record, with no-one else involved to obfuscate his vision.'Stay' (as you probably know - it's been all over Radio 1 since way before Christmas) is the essence of Butler distilled; piano, atmosphere and great flurries of guitar wrapped around a simple, nagging tune inflated to quasi-epic proportions; reminiscent a little of Jeff Buckley, as well as the McAlmont-voiced 'You Do' and Suede's finest single, 'Stay Together'. And, for the first time, he sings, with a gentle, unnervingly innocent ad not-half-bad timbre.
It is, inevitable, a mark of a new confidence that's evident in Butler today. Where once there was a tense ball of suspicion and loathing, now he seems warm, relaxed and, crucially, not afraid of talking about the trail of glory and upset that lies in his wake. Starting, of course, with Suede...
"A band is a box," he begins calmly but emphatically, setting out his stall. "But in a box are lots of different things and they don't necessarily go together. It was pretty hard for me."
Anyone who ever encountered Suede Mark One would have told you Bernard Butler was the odd one out, the one who didn't crave the glamour, off on another trip entirely. Some time before Suede's debut album came out, the band were whisked away to Los Angeles by Geffen, anxious to impress and sign them. Back then, American record shops were selling off all their old vinyl cheap and Bernard, uneducated in music much except The Smiths, the Brett-imposed David Bowie and what he now calls "English narrow-mindedness", began his education by buying Neil Young's 'After The Goldrush' for 50 cents. It rapidly became his favourite record. From then on, perhaps, he began pulling ever further away from Brett's vision of the band.

"If it wasn't for Suede I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be eating satsumas in a nice flat in Highgate and have my record. Radio 1 wouldn't have playlisted me six weeks upfront."

"There's always been a lot of spirituality in my music," he says, "and if you took away Brett from the Suede records and you took away some of the awful production there was a lot of spirituality in a bunch of these songs. I mean, 'Breakdown' was my 'Wild Horses', that's what I was doing… I know why that was interesting was because of what he did and I'll never take that away. But it did really screw me up personally and made me feel dishonest as a person around the end of Suede that so much of what I'd done hadn't been earned."
What do you mean by that?
"I just didn't earn it. I wasn't good enough and the records I was making weren't good enough. They were nearly, but not quite, and a lot of it was shoved down people's throats as a big deal. It was really difficult for me because all I cared about was the music, all I cared about was writing the next song. 'Here's my new demo, here's our new song, this'll be our next record!'... 'Ah, but have you seen this? Look at that quote!' I didn't need that kind of stuff. I went out searching when I answered Suede's advert 'cos I wanted to be a musician, I really wanted it."
You used to seem incredibly troubled.
"Yeah, I was troubled, I was really troubled and no-one respected that. A lot of thing went against me for a long time, it's as simple as that I had a bad couple of years."
When your father died?
"Yeah, and that was something that I didn't have any idea how bad it was until two years afterwards. It was madness that I was ever allowed to go on tour with Suede the week after my dad died, 'cos I didn't know what the f--k I was doing. I thought if I didn't go I'd sit at home and think about it, but I was a nutcase for going, and they were nutcases for letting me go ad then turning around and complaining that I wasn't having a great time."
It was around this time, probably, when Bernard starting doubting himself. Even today, you can see a potent and battling combination of confidence and shyness in his character: sure of his own gifts, but reluctant to express himself. Surrounded by people telling him he was wrong when he wanted to expand the band's musical parameters, struggling with a producer (Ed Buller) who he disagreed with over everything, elienated from a band he had nothing in common with something had to crack... Him.
"I don't necessarily think that a nice personality makes a nice record. There's a lot of bastards around that make great records, and that's the one thing that kept me going after Suede, because they trashed me so much personally, saying so much bullshit.
"It was really cowardly to do it when they knew I wouldn't answer back. They knew I'd flip and I did, I pissed off to France 'cos I couldn't hack it. I cried a lot, because it really hurt. I've got a lot of good memories of Brett and it really f--ked me up that I never said goodbye to Simon. The last time I was with Simon we were getting stoned, having a nice time, having a laugh like we always did. Next minute he's saying I should have my head chopped off or something, I should be put down like a dog."
"But I just said to myself, 'They'll get through it, just don't answer back'. You can't answer back when someone's calling you a wanker. What do you say? 'I'm not a wanker! I'm alright!'"
Was anything they said justifiable?
"Yeah, 'course it was."
That you were difficult to work with and wanted your own way?
That you were a control freak?
"No. I wasn't a control freak and never have been."
If you were, you wouldn't have Ed Buller produce the records?
"Right. Exactly. I tried to stop him making 'Stay Together' and then I tried to stop him making 'Dog Man Star'. No-one would let me. So, at the end of the day, that's why I left. There were lots of bad vibes between me and Brett and stuff, but they'd always been there. He was going off in one direction, shooting off as this star, and I was shooting off as this songwriter somewhere else. Unfortunately we were going totally the wrong way.
"At the end of the day, I was with the wrong people: I had the wrong manger, the wrong record company, the wrong road crew, the wrong band... I didn't think the drummer was very good, can you imagine what that was like? Simon Gilbert, the rock star drummer in Suede, I think is very average. Mat Osman: he's not a great bass player, he should've been Jeremy Paxman, he should've been reading the news. He should never have been a bass player 'cos he's just a theorist.
"Those are my biggest problems: standing there with a whole set of ideas about what I wanted the record to sound like and I wasn't allowed to say them. I'd have this great idea about what the hi-hat should do in bar four, but if I said it I'd piss off the drummer. There were times when I remember Simon taking his drums and throwing them down the stairs saying, 'I'm not being told how to play the drums'.
"No-one trusted me. Of course they're gonna call me a control freak because I didn't do what they wanted to do. They said a few things that were probably true about me, mainly that I didn't like what they were doing or what was happening. It was musical: of course I wasn't getting on with Brett, but I wasn't getting on with him two years before that, it didn't make any difference to me. I was f--king obsessed about that 'Dog Man Star' record, about the sound of it, and it just wasn't happening. I'd got so many ideas. I was mad for me, 'cos I wanted to do it so badly, and I couldn't do it, so in the end I left because I didn't want to be associated with a bad record. I mean, song titles like 'We Are The Pigs' - I can't believe I made a record called that."

"I've got no bad feelings for him (McAlmont) 'cos he's just hilarious, he's just so tragic."

Bernard claims he has played 'Dog Man Star' twice. He has just received 'Sci-Fi Lullabies' from Sony (not from Suede, or Nude) and seems unlikely to play that. He is only vaguely aware that music he wrote became a song called 'Killing Of A Flashboy'. And he has not, gleefully not, heard 'Coming Up'.
"One of the greatest moments of the last year or so was when was I heard that record 'Trash'. I was like, thank God, they haven't made a great record. Because they just did what they wanted to do. When we were doing 'Dog Man Star' all they wanted was another 'Metal Mickey', and all I wanted was 'Ohio'. They wanted to be pop stars - and they are pop stars - and make three-minute pop songs, and get into all that glam trash pop culture."
Do you resent what happened to you?
"No. Because if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be eating satsumas in a nice flat in Highgate and have my record. Radio 1 wouldn't have playlisted me six weeks upfront. That wouldn't be happening."

Fair enough, so what next? A project with Jullianne Regan (ex-All About Eve) was mercifully short-lived. Then, with Bernard feeling at his lowest ebb, he was coupled with David McAlmont - a man with a remarkable if sometimes irritatingly flighty voice and a hyped but conspicuously unsuccessful career - and another fame-hungry extrovert to rub our hero up the wrong way. Shit happens. Twice.

"You can't answer back when someone's calling you a wanker. What do you say? 'I'm not a wanker! I'm alright!'"

"When 'Yes' (the first of their two singles) came out, because of the Suede thing, I was obsessed with the fact that if people were gonna like this record it was because of what they heard. That's why I didn't wanna do press at that time - partly because I was standing next to ol' Crazy Dave - which, again, was like, 'Oh f--king hell, what's he gonna say now?' And secondly because I couldn't stop explaining all that Suede stuff."
And then suddenly you're back in the Top Ten...
"But that's because I made a great record and I kept his clothes out of it," he says adamantly. "That would've offset it, and it would've failed if it hadn't been for that."
You forced him to wear suits?
"Yep. He brought out this ridiculous outfit and I'm like, 'Look, David, for f--k's sake, you look shit in it, alright? I'm not saying I look great in my jeans and t-shirt, but you look bollocks in that. And I don't want the music to be offset by people talking about what you're wearing: whether they like it, or they think you're crayzee and wild and flamboyant and a star, or whether 'cos they think you look like a tosser."
"I was very strict about it. It was gonna be two singles and that was the whole point: putting out a great record, not forming a band, not going on tour, not selling T-shirts. I thought it'd be a great pop moment, and I'd be a pop star for 30 seconds. I'm mature enough and I've been through enough to know it means absolutely dick-all to be a pop star when you come home. You can be there for five minutes, be on Top Of The Pops, go down Camden Market and be recognised, and then it means nothing six months later.
"There was a point when I wanted to make an album with him, before 'Yes' came out, and he said, 'No, I've got to make my own record, because that'll be the one that people want to hear from me.' I was quite shattered, 'cos at the time it was my only outlet to make a record and then this guy is rejecting me - what hope have I got?"
"It's not his fault, really. He wants to be a star so much it's tragic, it's the way he's turned out. The way I turned out is unfortunately exactly the other end of the street and I really couldn't give a toss. The thing is, I've got no bad feelings for him 'cos he's just hilarious, he's just so tragic. He used to come round here and he'd say, 'Elisa, do you think many people recognise me? I was standing at the cashpoint and somebody gave me a look.' And she says, 'I think it's that funny hat and blue lipstick you've got on, David.'"
And then he called you homophobic?
"Yeah, which was really upsetting at the time. That's why I made him make a statement. I wasn't trying to humiliate him, I just wanted to make it clear. He didn't mean it, he's just a twat, he knows I'm not homophobic. I rejected him."

Alone again, then, by the end of 1995, But just as his relationship with McAlmont was disintegrating, Butler was, very tentatively, starting to sing.
"It was a very gradual, slow unfolding." He explains. "But the biggest barrier was all these things I grew up with, that singers are… Morrissey. Guitarists are… Johnny Marr. That's just the way I saw it for a long time. I wanted my voice to have as much character I it as I think my guitar playing's got. Right from the start, I've said to myself, OK, I'm never going to put my guitar down, I'm never gonna be Damon or Liam, all that pop star posing.
"I'm just not that naïve about it. I'm a sarky bastard from a sarky family, too f--king cynical to hang out trying to be a rock star. And I can't be doing that posing 'cos I'm second-generation Irish and it's not allowed. If you did it at my school you'd get your head kicked in and the piss ripped out of you. It's just the background I've got. I spent three years coming to terms with why I do things and that it's alright to be me. It's alright to be a boring north London second-generation Irish skinny boy with Catholic guilt and no romanticism about London. I was going to Soho when I was a kid and it wasn't, 'WOW! Let's find these glamorous sexual people', it was, 'Oh, isn't this shit? Can we go to the park now?' I don't know anyone in London who has a Cockney accent."
"But," he stops wounding by asides, "I don't want to get myself into the situation of apologising for not being a frontman 'cos I haven't been onstage yet. And when I do I'll rip the place apart. Watch me go. 'Cos I know I can make mincemeat in the toilet of every other guitar player around."
Initial demos done, he played them to his then-manage in early '96, who wasn't exactly encouraging about his singing. Undeterred, he continued working quietly at home until, in the summer, a call came from The Verve's people.
"It was Richard, it wasn’t The Verve," Bernard corrects. "Richard was making a record that happened to have Simon and Pete playing on it. He'd been told the same thing by Owen Morris ad then by John Leckie: get yourself a guitarist. And they both recommended me. By this time I was going to write my own record but I didn't have it all together. So I waited three weeks for Richard to phone me personally, but there were mad things going on with Richard and Kate and stuff.
"Eventually their manager frongmarched them round here and left the three of them on the doorstep. They came in, gave it all the, 'We're the f--king greatest' - which is not my cup of tea, but is very lovable. Richard skinned up immediately."
"After a few days we were told Noel wanted us to support at Kneboworth - this is before we'd even been in a rehearsal room, we were sitting there getting stoned. So we went to this place in Hertfordshire to rehearse, I drove them out there every day. And it was absolutely amazing for two days. Easily the best band I've ever played with. There were great songs I taped that weren't on the album. We were having a great time: Richard was happy, everyone was happy."
"Then I didn't hear from him for about three days, and then Richard left a message on the answerphone and said, 'I'm really sorry, I can't do it'. I went round to Simon's and said, 'What's going on?'. Simon was nearly in tears, saying, 'I don't know, I don't know what he's f--king playing at'. Then I finally got hold of Richard, and he just basically explained that he had to be doing it himself, proving it to himself. He thought what we were doing was great, but it wasn't exactly what he'd imagined, and he didn't feel comfortable."
"But I'm really glad that I got to play with them. I haven't got any bitterness with them. I'm really proud that I sat and played on 'The Drugs Don't Work' in my back room, added little guitar parts, before anyone had ever heard that song."

Enough false starts and f--k ups already. In October '96 Butler went to France to demo at Mike Hedges' studio, where he'd recorded with McAlmont. He changed manager, to someone who'd never heard a Suede record. He signed to Creation, where even the label's sacred cash cow, ubiquitous Noel Gallagher, paid him respect. And last year he recorded 'People Move On', an album of emotion and virtuosity and quite long songs that, with its simultaneous trad craftsmanship and widescreen ambition, fits perfectly into the musical climate of The Verve, Radiohead and Spirtualized.
"I made it all on my own because I couldn't wait around for people," he says. "I went and just did it, and it turned out great. I've always tried to make records that turn me on, and this is what this record's about. When I started it I was rock bottom. I didn't sit here thinking how famous I am and I'm so genius, this record was like a last gasp or me. I had no conceptions, no expectations.
"I am a moody little f--ker. I've come to terms with that now. But I've come to terms with it through my music, not through people telling me that. I'd think, 'Yeah, but have you heard this? This is the moody little f--ker."
Finally, the moody litter f--ker puts his own album on, programmes the CD to a track called 'Autograph', turns the volume right up, and stands, hugging his cat, while an enormous, blasted blues erupts around him. His eyes close and his head nods along, just fractionally, utterly absorbed, listening intently for mistakes, blown away.
Ten minutes later when it's over, he grins shyly and potters off to make a cup of tea. On his own terms, of course. He has everything his own way, the posing prima donnas and idiot meddlers abandoned long ago. And, if anything goes wrong this time, there'll be no recriminations, because there's no-one left to fall out with.
Ladies and gentlemen, Bernard Butler is a solo artist. It's that simple.

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