Have Guitar
Will Travel

by David Canvanagh, Q Magazine
Q 113 Febuary 1996

Which is bad news if you're Suede. Or McAlmont. Or, indeed, any of those artistes fortunate enough to have enjoyed a sprinkling of Bernard Butler's fretular fairy dust. Pondering of his next departure, the "difficult" axe-minister tells David Cavanagh, "A lot of people will think I'm a bit of a villain.."

Who is Bernard Butler? Many have wondered. Many would like to know. An implausible hate figure he makes. A magnet for unsavoury conjecture he is. An untouchable cry-baby in person. This, at the start of 1996, is Bernard Butler reputation. And who'd have it?
First and foremost, he is a blues guitarist - but not of the B.B. King heritage. Butler's livid, tensed sound has its roots in North London and Hertfordshire; in strict Jesuit schooling and a teenage life that sounds as lonely as it was grimly suburban. In 1989, aged 19, he answered an ad in NME and joined Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Justine Frishmann in a band that became Suede. He wrote all the music, seemed a nice enough guy, but but by late 1993 he had secured twin reputations: as Britain's most brilliant young guitar player and its most Godawfully difficult bloke to be stuck in a room with. When he left Suede, in JUne 1994, before their second album was even completed, they didn't sound sorry to see him go.
In the ensuing weeks, he made a low-key trip to France to collaborate with Julianne Regan, the former singer of All About Eve. Relations between the two broke down before a note had been recorded. Meanwhile, to Butler's lasting disbelief, Suede replaced him with a Dorset teenager, Richard Oakes, who had written Butler fan mail and could play his songs note for note. It was all getting a bit weird. Butler returned from France to the Highgate basement flat he shared with his wife Elisa. (They had married quietly during the recording of the second Suede album. Arriving back at the studio the nest day, Butler was denied entry. "And that wads the end of it," he says.) The Butlers holed out in Highgate, changed their phone number and ceased going out. They were tied up in legalities. Bernard, briefly disillusioned with music, considered getting a job in a supermarket. In his back room studio, he began work on a song to take his mind off things.
"Life was so chaotic and insane and depressing," he laughs, groaning. "I just wanted to cheer myself up. I really did."
He envisaged a big, happy song with a loud, healthy message. It would pack a whomping great beat and have loads of lush strings. It needed a singer. Enter, flamboyantly, David McAlmont - black, gay and blessed with star quality - who added lyrics, a breathtaking falsetto and a title: Yes. Yes was recorded in France at Christmas 1994, with Butler playing guitars, bass and keyboards. He produced it himself. It became a number 8 hit single in June and was many people's song of '95.
The follow up, recorded concurrently, was a massive, heartsick ballad called You Do. (Butler had actually written it for Suede, but they'd turned it down.) The McAlmont & Butler partnership was pottering towards an already agreed conclusion when, in an interview to promote You Do, McAlmont strongly implied that his collaborator was an anti-social, homophobic grouch. Despite a retraction from McAlmont the following week, a marvellous little chapter in modern music had ended sourly. It's a New Year. Where now for Bernard Butler? And what is it with him and vocalists?
"And what have I done with the bodies?" he sighs. "I know, I know."

On a chilly Monday morning in Highgate, a skinny geezer in a turtleneck ferries two cups of tea and a packet of biscuits into the living room of his basement flat, sticks on a CD of Blood On The Tracks in the background and sits down at the table. Bernard Butler is doing his first and last Q interview.
"If you do want to know about me, " he says, sounding a little sceptical, "you can find every bit of me, you know - every mood I go through - on the records, in the music, in my guitar playing. That's what the blues players were there for. And now - 30, 40 years later - I think that's what I'm there for as well."
In the event, Bernard Butler answers questions for oever four hours, during the course of which he makes many cups of tea and reveals a neat line in self-deprecating humour. An unpretentious 25-year-old with a fondness for vegetarian curries, cats and Neil Young, he is quick to stress that he believes that music has powerful healing qualities. He himself plays the guitar with often startling emotions, much of it residual rage of a teenager who found the world shallow and hostile. Even his ansaphone message consists of him playing some formidably spiky axe.
It's been said of Butler - usually fondly - that he "speaks" through his guitar, Its accompanied him to ,more than one radio talk-show in the past. Today, sure enough, he soon picks up an acoustic guitar and holds it close to him as he talks. Recalling some turning point in his life, he will elaborate with a melancholy phrase on the guitar, or a purposeful flourish, or a fatalistic little trill.
"I still find that a lot of people think I'm a bit of a villain," he says. "I'm supposed to be scared of what's said about me. People are always coming up to me in the street and saying (look of concern), Are you all right? Are you sure? I've heard terrible rumours about me: that I just got out of rehab, that I make my music on heroin. I've never got involved in that shit."
He's much happier talking about the new friends and allies he's made in the past 18 months: his manager, Geoff Travis; his great hero, Johnny Marr, who rang to wish him well when he left Suede; Hopper, a London-based band whose debut album Butler is currently producing; and Edwyn Collins, who came along during the immediate post-Suede period, bringing bottles of wine and helpful advice. "A very decent man," says Butler admiringly. Edwyn's single A Girl Like You entered the charts just as Yes was leaving.
"It was real justice for both of us," Butler reckons. "We were both making these bizarre, amateurish records in a very sloppy manner. He'd made his for 10 grand, so I was like, I'm going to do mine for even less. In the end I didn't, but I did it for as cheap as humanly possible. I'm sick of this attitude of money, money, money."
In a veiled sideswipe at his former band, he continues with withering sarcasm: "Hey man, let's get a taxi. Hey man, instead of buying a nice guitar that we can keep and get really into and it'll be ours, why don't be hire a rack of Pultec EQs for, like, six months, man, and then give them all back at the end, so it'll be a complete waste of money, yeah?" He shakes his head. "Fuck off."
With a quick sigh he checks himself.
"It's difficult to talk about Suede, because I'm still probably not clear about it, and I can't remember a lot of it, and I wouldn't want to think Suede is my life so far. I think now that what happened before Suede is more important in my life."

"Life was so chaotic and insane and depressing. I just wanted to cheer myself up. I really did."

He was born 1970 in Stanford Hill, north London, the third son of devout Catholics. Studying violin for six years, and piano for six months, he abandoned music lessons when they became too restricting. He picked up a guitar at 13 and learned by playing along to Johnny Marr.
"It was a great game," he says merrily. "Get the new Smiths record. 'Fucking hell! The guitar on it!' Just... fantastic. I was a kid at the time and I didn't know anybody. I didn't have friends, particularly. I went to a rugby-playing Jesuit boys school full of Level 42 fans. Same old story (Laughs). Morrissey and Marr were custom-built for me."
His family moved to Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, which he remembers as being "full of kids with XR3s, short spiky haircuts with footballers' locks down the back, all the girls and all the money. I didn't know anybody there and I hated it." Aged 14, he formed his first band, Slowdive (no relation to the Creation lot), with his brothers. Aside from the odd cover version of Boys Don't Cry and Hand In Glove, all the music was written by Bernard. (one song would later end up on the first Suede album, rearranged and titled Animal Lover). Slowdive didn't last long.
"I split the band up, of course," he laughs, adding wryly, "I left!"
He spent the next few years in his bedroom studying guitar. He describes a pretty intolerable mid-teen existence: friendless; Walkman on the bus to school; taunted for being underweight (he still is, a bit) and fey-looking, living in fear of the sadistic games teacher; the headmaster who kept a picture of Thatcher on his office wall; working on the cheese counter in Potters Bar Sainsbury's; getting the train up to the West End every Saturday to graze dreamily at all the guitars in Denmark Street.
"In those days," he recalls, accompanying himself on acoustic, "my dreams were pretty much all that got me off. To have a nice place, a little studio, a car... and a woman, which evaded me for many years (unhappy twang)..."
Enrolling at London's Queen Mary College to study History - he'd be thrown out after a year for failing his exams - he already had "millions" of songs written and was regularly inserting, and replying to, adverts in the Musicians Wanted columns. Always rejected ("They'd go, Yeah, you're good, but you're note quite right"), he worked at Ryman the stationers in Tottenham Court Road for a year, becoming "and expert on paper clips". Then one day he saw an ad by two guys seeking musicians into Lloyd Cole and the Pet Shop Boys. It was Brett Anderson and Mat Osman.
"They were very cool," he remembers, "very in-their-own-world. And I wasn't."
The Johnny Marr freak had developed into a much different guitarist to his hero: vivid and open, compulsive, prone to emotional vibrato, beserk tremolo and featherlight triplets. Accepted by his as-yet-unnamed band, the 19-year-old Bernard offered them his stockpile of songs and they said no thanks.
"They'd say, Aw, no, don't like that one. So I'd just give them back six months later and it would be, Great song, let's do it! I'd play all sorts of games. You have to, you know."
By the time Suede began gigging in earnest, they were playing an Anderson/Butler set list.
"Brett basically came around to it very slowly," says Butler uneasily. "Very closed in, he is. Very difficult to get at. It took a long time for him to trust me and trust my music."
It was unfashionable music and a lot of it was strange, beautiful and deathly slow (Sleeping Pills, Where The Pigs Don't Fly, Pantomime Horse). Suede's hits were trashy glam celebrations (Metal Mickey, Animal Nitrate), but a significant amount of the music Butler was offering them was in waltz time or in profoundly melancholic mental health. High Rising, possibly the group's finest moment, was also its saddest with Butler pumping away on a harmonium too desolate even for Nico at her most bleak. Anderson's lyrics tailored the music perfectly and gave it landscape and manifesto, but the two men never really became friends. And Butler can't imagine playing any of those songs again.
"I wouldn't say I'm sad... I don't have any desire to play them. But, on the other hand, I don't like that attitude of 'no regrets'. I remember good times, I remember bad times. I'm not embarrassed to say it all went wrong."
Indeed, he was already worried that life in Suede-time might be a shade too slow for him even as the firs album was charting at Number 1 in 1993. He recalls writing music constantly at the time, and being irritated by distractions that would arise in Suede interviews: sexuality, drug-taking and David Bowie.
On an American tour later that year, Butler distanced himself from the rest of the band. Grieving over the recent death of his father, and having a bad tour, he refused to travel with Suede in taxis or on aeroplanes, preferring instead to go by coach with the crew.
"Those gigs were just ridiculous," he winces. "I'd turn up at twenty-five past nine and be on stafe at half-past. Walk in; stick on that fucking red shirt; out we went. I was walking out of the venues before the audiences some nights."
The tour's final show (in New York) was fraught with bad humour - if undeniably spectacular to watch - as Anderson lashed out at everything in his path while Butler, visibly straying close to his mental limit, played line after line of spitting rage and violence. He performed the final song with a bouquet of flowers jammed sideways between his teeth, stripped to the waist, offered the audience a sardonic Corporal Jones salute, a sickly grin and was gone.
"Insane," he shudders.
"But my old man had just died and there was some serious shit going down at the time. I was just getting cornered by people - record company, management - saying, Why don't you like Brett? He's nice. I just wanted to go home."
Increasingly deemed unbearable by everybody in the Suede camp - these days his only kind word is for bassist Mat Osman - he spent the first half of 1994 in silence and bad temper, planning a masterpiece. Dog Man Star was that masterpiece for many listeners, but Butler can't listen to it. He wishes he'd been allowed to produce it.
"I don't know what people think of me," he says now. "Most people who make music in an intense way have got an element of self-destruction in them, I suppose. Sometimes when I've been on stage I've found myself quite shocking. I've been surprised by the side of me that comes out. I don't really like that side. I like what it sounds like," he allows, "but I'm frightened about what it means."

"I don't believe everybody has to steal from the past to go forward. That's an easy way out. I've always tried a little bit harder."

The McAlmont & Butler singles (and the round-up LP of A-sides and B-sides, The Sound Of McAlmont & Butler) show Butler to be a producer uncannily in tune with a variety of grand sonic techniques - Motown, Memphis, Jimmy Page - as well as a guitar player on such a roll that no ski-slope on earth could accommodate him. He has a lot of confidence; he is starting to talk of classic records and plenty of them.
"if you were asking me of what I think he's capable of," says Jeremy Pearce of Sony Records, the label that has signed Butler to a solo deal, "I think he could be the next Phil Spector."
Wow, man, slow down. But could he be right? After all, the glorious swell of Yes was the very first song Butler ever produced. What's his 29th single going to sound like? And could the Good Lord actually have surreptitiously put the soul of the hottest new soul producer of 1996 in the skinny body of a misunderstood Smiths fan from Potters Bar?
"I don't know a great deal about those (soul) records," he says, slightly deflating the theory. "I get Greatest Hits and stuff like that. But they do blow me away. I got a Four Tops Greatest Hits the other day and you only have to hear the intros. The intros are as good as the songs! (Sings first few bars of Reach Out I'll Be There) I'm fascinated by intros; I make a point of it on my records."
This year will see him put some kind of band together. There will be an album for Sony, but neither Sony nor Butler himself know what it will consist of. Plugging his red Gibon into a battered Selmer amp, he debuts two new instrumental pieces at considerable volume. The first is a bloodcurling waltz in the style of Link Wray busking Little Wing, with lashings of tremolo and an unexpected chord at every turn. The second is a quite unbelievable tornado of tremolo and arpeggios, like Neil Young circa Ohio, only more pissed-off. Laughing, Butler sets down the Gibson and returns to his seat. "I've got tons of stuff," he says coyly.
He also appears as a guest on the new Aimee Mann record, on the new Sparks album and on an imminent collaboration by Tim Booth (of James) and Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti.
"I just want to work," he says. "I want a band, but they have to be very versatile, hard workers, people with a lot of trust. I'm not very good at expressing myself sometimes, so people don't tend to trust me until they hear it coming out of the speakers."
And would he consider the sky his limit?
"Well, I'm hopefully one of the few English people who hasn't blown it in America," he grins. "I really think I've got a future there, and I want to have. I want to make records that cross over to so many people. And I'd like to make a record in New York. That's a big dream of mine."
"I don't believe in the end of rock 'n' roll and that everything's gone retro and everybody has to steal from the past to go forward. That's an easy way out. I've always tried a little bit harder, I feel. I'm trying to find a new way of getting somewhere.
"And this year I've started to believe in fate. Bad things are supposed to happen, I think. Maybe if I'd had a list of girlfriends, I wouldn't have found somebody who I want to spend the rest of my life with. Maybe I wouldn't have relied so heavily on music. I didn't talk very much for a number of years, you know. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I just had sound."

I'll Get You, Butler!
The CV-so-far of Britain's most in-demand guitar god

Julianna Regan
Reputedly ill-starred demo session conducted sur le continent. Came to abrupt halt when former All About Evestress accused Butler of possessing diabolical tendencies, to which guitarist retorded: "I'm not the anti-Christ, I'm Bernard."

Bryan Ferry
Following in footsteps of Johnny Marr and Terry Bickers (ex House Of Love), Bernard invited to "lay down" guitar track to Bry's version of John Lennon's Whatever Gets You Thru The Night. As yet unheard.

Edwyn Collins
Co-wrote, produced and played on B-sides of If You Could Love Me single, Hope and Despair and Insider Dealing. Recorded at Butler's home studio, Bernie's Buttons. Always up for a bit of "live action" eith bequiffed friend.

Aimee Mann
Co-wrote and played on Sugar Coated and played on It's All Over Now, both from her latest album, I'm With Stupid.

Recorded two backing tracks, Change and a "Stooges-esque" Beat The Clock, which, following vocal tracks recorded by Mael brothers in America and subsequently mixed by Butler in Blighty, will appear on Sparks tribute album to be released later in year. Also remixed Sparks's (When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing, retitled Bernard Butler's Fashionable World Of Fashion Remix.

David McAlmont
Always considered a temporary arrangement; two singles mushroomed into album project at record company's behest.

Eddi Reader
Plays on three tracks on Scottish siren's forthcoming album.

Neneh Cherry
Contributes "an unmacho anti-solo" to the Febuary-pencilled single, Woman.

Project X
Due for '96, Butler is loath to talk about next collaboration with someone "very famous and renowned for being extremely difficult to work with". (Sound familiar?")

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