A chat with Richard Butler
ALSO: Check out Bullz-Eye's review of Butler's self-titled solo album.
As front man for the Psychedelic Furs, Richard Butler made a permanent mark on the music world with his instantly recognizable voice, which was – and is – dark and melancholy but always full of emotion. Butler branched off from the Furs to record two albums with his new band, Love Spit Love, but they’ve been on indefinite hiatus since 1997’s Trysome Eatone; since then, the Furs have reunited and toured the world and elsewhere, but 2006 finds Butler finally getting around to recording his first-ever solo album, a self-titled affair on Koch Records. Recently, Butler took time to chat with Bullz-Eye about all facets of his career, including his foray into the art world, as well as the degree of domesticity he’s found over the years.
Bullz-Eye: So how are you doing today?
Richard Butler: Very well! It’s actually sunny outside, which is nice.
BE: Are you at home?
BE: Are you still living in New York?
RB: Yeah. New York State, not City.
BE: Right. We have actually talked and met once before…and you might remember it, because I had told you a story about my wife had a ring that she needed to have re-blessed.
RB: (Several moments silence) For your sake, I should say I remember that. (Laughs)
BE: It was the Boathouse in Norfolk, VA, where we met you…
RB: It was where? The Boathouse in Norfolk?
BE: Right. She had seen you play years before at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk (in July of 1987)…I think the Call opened…
RB: Oh, my goodness…!
BE: (Laughs) She and her friend Michele had front row seats, she touched you, you touched her ring, and from then on they referred to it as “the Richard Butler ring.”
RB: (Bursts into laughter)
BE: And when we heard we were going to see you at the Boathouse, Michele – who had since moved to California – found the ring, mailed it to us, and we brought it with us so that you could re-bless it.
RB: (Continues laughing) When was that?
BE: Just a few years ago. Maybe three or four years ago…?
RB: Now, were we with (Echo and) the Bunnymen on that tour?
BE: No, it was just you guys. Well, I’m sure there must’ve been an opening act, but I don’t know who it was. You were definitely headlining, anyway. We were getting ready to go on our honeymoon to the U.K., and you suggested that we go to the Tate Gallery in London.
RB: (Excitedly) Oh, did you go…?
BE: Well, unfortunately, we weren’t able to get there. That was our biggest regret, actually, because we didn’t want to let Richard Butler down.
BE: But it’s definitely on the top of our list for our next trip!
RB: Well, I haven’t been yet, but I keep hearing about it, and hearing that it’s a great space and all that sort of stuff.
BE: And I didn’t realize until just recently that you were an artist yourself! I know you had an exhibition at the Van Brundt Gallery.
RB: Oh, I’ve had several exhibitions!
BE: How long have you been painting?
RB: Well, I trained as a painter a long time ago, at the Epsom School of Art (now known as Surrey Institute of Art & Design University College), and, when the Psychedelic Furs kind of took off, I put it on the back burner a bit. But I sort of got re-obsessed with it about ten years ago and now I’m pretty much painting full-time.
BE: Excellent. Well, I know that reports of your first-ever solo album always seem to be greatly exaggerated. There were lots of reports that one was imminent, but then a Love Spit Love album came out instead or the Furs went on tour…but I see it’s finally coming out. So I guess it’s been in the works for quite some time…!
RB: (Laughs) Well, there’s always been…I think it was around the time of Forever Now when I first came up with the idea of wanting to do a solo album, and it just never sort of happened. And, this time, it sort of fell together quite…haphazardly, in a strange way. I’d written some songs, I didn’t know what they were going to be for – whether they were going to be Psychedelic Furs songs or what they were going to be for – and I wanted to record different versions of them. So I started working with Jon Carin, who’d been a friend for years, and we started recording these songs, and he said, “This should be a solo record.” And, then, we wrote a couple of songs ourselves, and they took off in a completely different direction, so we just sort of followed that direction and...there you have it.
BE: Something I noticed is that, even on first listen, it manages to sound like a Richard Butler album without immediately sounding reminiscent of either the Furs or Love Spit Love.
RB: Yeah, well…that’s what we’d hoped for! (Laughs) In fact, the one song on the record that does sound like something I’ve done before is “Broken Aeroplanes,” which sounds like it could’ve been either the Furs or Love Spit Love. And Koch Records, that was their first choice for the single.
BE: Of course!
RB: And I said, “No, no, it should be something that’s more representative of the record.” And that’s how we settled on “Good Days, Bad Days.”
BE: The album’s got kind of an ambient feel at times.
RB: Yeah. Yeah, basically, all the songs were written…well, pretty much exclusively…on acoustic guitar, believe it or not. And then we’d put an acoustic guitar version down, and then Jon would put a lot of ambient keyboards around it. As often as not, we’d pull out the acoustic guitar, but it’s still in a lot of them, and we’d build a musical landscape around it.
BE: It’s lush, but it’s airy.
BE: There you go. There’s a quote for the press clippings.
RB: (Laughs) “Lush but airy.”
BE: Yeah. You can keep that. No charge.
RB: (Laughs) Thanks!
BE: Have you thought about a second single yet, or do you think Koch is going to insist on “Broken Aeroplanes” this time around?
RB: No. I haven’t even thought about it. But if there is one, I’d like to hope that they’d go with “Breathe.”
BE: I know you’re going to do a solo tour to support the record as well.
BE: Are you already anticipating that people will still scream for the Furs songs, anyway?
RB: (Laughs) Uh, I don’t know…but, you know, there will be some. I expected a lot of that when I toured with Love Spit Love, and there was surprisingly little of it, funnily enough…which I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing!
BE: I’d say it’s a good thing. It means they’re coming to see you…not necessarily what you may have done in the past, but you specifically.
RB: Hmmm. Good. Well, thanks again! (Laughs)
BE: But, of course, that having been said, I know the Furs are still a going concern and that you’re still touring around.
RB: Yes, but it’s feeling a little weird and has for a little while, because I feel badly about not having made a new record with the Furs. It’s a bit like... (distastefully) …a greatest-hits tour or something. And I know John (Ashton) and Tim (Butler) both have been frustrated with that aspect of it, and we need to get a new record out there.
BE: I got really excited when the new track, “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime),” was put on the live album (2001’s Beautiful Chaos), and I kept waiting for a new full-length studio album…but it hasn’t shown. But I love that song, and that’s why I was so excited.
RB: Oh, thanks!
BE: In fact, it was a highlight of the live set when we saw you, before you’d even recorded it.
RB: Oh, thanks. That was a bitch to sing! (Laughs) But I’m glad you enjoyed it!
BE: As far as Love Spit Love, do you think you’ll ever re-visit that? Are you and (the band’s guitarist) Richard Fortus still buddies?
RB: Oh, yeah! I was hoping he could be playing guitar when I did the solo tour. He may, in fact, be able to…but he’s got commitments as well. He may have to be in Germany. He’s seeing if he can reschedule it.
BE: Who’s he playing with these days? I know he gets around.
RB: (Hesitates) Uh…he plays with Nena. (Giggles) Of “99 Luftballoons” fame.
BE: I understand she’s still very big in Germany.
RB: Oh, huge! (Writer’s note: He’s not kidding. She’s released something like twenty albums in Germany since her one hit here in the States.) And, you know, he periodically plays with Guns ‘N’ Roses.
BE: I had heard that. I just wasn’t sure if he was still with them or not; that line-up seems to revolve more than Spinal Tap’s drummers. Are you looking forward to going out on this solo jaunt?
RB: Yes! And that term is exactly what it is. It’s not a huge tour. It’s about…I guess three weeks.
BE: I think the closest you get to me in Virginia is…geez, it may be New Jersey. You’re not playing in Washington, DC, are you?
RB: Um…no, I don’t think so. How close it that to you?
BE: Well, I’m in Chesapeake, VA, so that’s about three and half hours away from DC, which puts me at about eight hours away from New York...so I don’t think that’s going to be doable, unfortunately.
RB: (Sadly) Oh. Sorry about that.
BE: Well, I won’t take it personally. Oh, about the Furs, I was going to observe that I think it’s very impressive that, as I was looking over your dates from the tail end of 2005, you can go from playing alongside Death Cab for Cutie and Hot Hot Heat to, a couple of weeks later, playing with Berlin and the English Beat. I mean, you transcend the ‘80s tag and can play alongside the modern day groups as well. I think that’s very impressive; a lot of bands can’t pull that off.
RB: I’m not sure we can! (Laughs) No, I’m kidding.
BE: Do you get a lot of bands giving you the old “we’re not worthy” routine and bowing before you when you pass by?
RB: No. Well, I never really spend much time noticing. They’re very strange, those radio station-sponsored shows that have a group of dissimilar bands, because, I mean, the bands don’t really get to hang out. I did get to see Muse when we played with them in Seattle. I watched their set and stopped by to tell them that I thought their set was great. I think that guy is so talented, their guitarist (Matthew Bellamy).
BE: Who was that again?
RB: Muse. Have you heard their record?
BE: No, I haven’t. (Writer’s note: Yes, I have. I’m just an idiot. Keep reading and you’ll see why.)
RB: Oh, you should check it out! It’s like a cross between Radiohead and Queen…if you can imagine that!
BE: How do you spell that? N-E-W-S?
RB: No, no. M-U-S-E.
BE: Oh, okay. (Realization strikes) Oh, MUSE! Yes, I have heard them…and they are very good.
RB: Oh, they’re brilliant!
BE: In fact, my friend (and editor) David loves them.
RB: Yeah, I think they’re good. Well, tell David hi! (Laughs) (Hello yourself, Richard. –Ed.)
BE: Well, actually, David wanted me to tell you something. When he was in college, one of his greatest dreams, as for the best cover songs ever, would’ve been to hear the Psychedelic Furs cover “How Soon Is Now?” So you made his dream come true when Love Spit Love covered it.
BE: I’d expect you get as many people coming up to you and telling you that they love that song because of it being the theme to “Charmed” as anything.
RB: No, because we’ve never played it live.
RB: Yeah. My manager suggested it lots of times, but I’ve always declined. (Chuckles) But it was quite accidental how that came about. A guy – I forget his name – the music supervisor for a movie, and I’m not sure that wasn’t called “Charmed” as well…
BE: No, wait, I know that one, because I’ve got it. It’s “The Craft.”
RB: “The Craft”! Yeah! And he came and said, “Would you like to do a cover of the Smiths song?” And I said, “Well, yeah, but…I love the song, but I’m not sure how much I can make it my own.” Because their version is so definitive, and they’re so great on it. And without that… (Pauses, then does a very passable impression of Johnny Marr’s immortal riff from the song) …that weird sound, it’s not much. So you have to do that. And then all you have to do is, basically, hope you can sound different enough from Morrissey…
BE: …which I think you pull off…
RB: …while singing one of his melodies! (Laughs) But I loved doing it, and I love the version. And, quite accidentally, I guess they decided…was it Fox? No, Warner Brothers. They decided to do kind of a TV series more or less based around the movie, and they wanted that to be the theme tune. So it was just luck, really.
BE: With the new album, how long did it take you to record it once you actually sat down and started it?
RB: Oh, about a year and a half. But it was a very lackadaisical way of working.
BE: And I guess it was as your schedule allowed, too, with the Furs touring.
RB: Yeah. Plus, Jon lives in the city, and I’d have to leave by 3 PM to go pick up my daughter from school.
BE: You’re so domestic!
RB: And we often didn’t start ‘til 10!
BE: Well, no need to work yourself to death over it.
RB: Yeah, and it was nice. When I’d put my daughter to bed at night, I’d sit at the computer and write lyrics. And it was also nice that we didn’t have the pressure of record companies breathing down our necks; it was done at our own speed, basically. And, so, it was good to work on. It was fun.
BE: It’s funny, but when you mentioned your daughter, it reminded me of when I spoke to Ian McCulloch a few years ago. It just seems odd to me that, from my perspective, you’re musicians who I’ve put on a pedestal for so many years…and, yet, here you are, completely normal people. Who knew?
RB: (Laughs) Who’d’ve thunk it? Does he have a daughter as well, then?
BE: He does. When we were talking, he had to put me on hold, and when he came back, he said, “It was one of me daughter’s friends. I don’t even know why I click over anymore!”
RB: (Laughs) That’s great!
BE: Well, I think that just about does it, but it’s been really great talking to you again.
RB: Oh, you, too! And I’ll tell you what: let me give you my email address. If you have any other questions that you forgot to ask…
BE: Hey, that’s great. And I’m notorious for doing that, too. I’ll be transcribing an interview and go, “Argh! How could I forget to ask that?!?”
Butler laughs, then gives me his email address, which I follow not only with thanks but with the assurance he will almost certainly get mail from me…and, indeed, he does.
BE: Listening to my tape of the interview and to our conversation about you and Ian, it made me think of two other things I’d wanted to ask: First, how does it feel to be viewed as more or less an "elder statesman" of the post-punk movement? I guess what I mean is, the sound of a lot of bands from your "graduating class," as it were, of the British music scene…the Furs, the Bunnymen, and, particularly lately, Gang of Four…are being revisited by many new artists. Do you just more or less keep doing what you're doing and try to take it in stride...? And, lastly, do you think people are surprised to find that Richard Butler, a man whose singing has always had a melancholy tinge to even his upbeat lyrics, is actually a very cheery fellow who -- at least based on our conversation -- is ready to laugh at the drop of a hat?
RB: Will, I find it quite a shock to be getting older at all, never mind being described as an ‘elder statesman’! When I hear it said, I feel rather flattered…and then forget all about it! As for the humour, there is quite a lot of it in the songs, albeit dark. I do find a lot of reasons to laugh at our everyday lives, though…!