BLURT’S BEST KEPT SECRET #16: Butter

North
Carolina
trio brings together an eclecto-groove
sound that’s equal parts rock, funk, psych, blues, jam and, er, “Gorgan.”

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

As previously announced,
the latest selection in our Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept Secret” series of new or
under-the-radar artists is Butter, from Durham,
NC.  Butter is our 16th BKS, in fact,
since commencing the program back in 2008.

 

“Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”: it might be a
purloined lyric – in this instance, overheard from the rock/funk/jazz trio’s
hepcat anthem “I’ve Got Your Back” – but it’s a pretty good summary of the
combo’s musical prowess. Comprising Tarheel indie scene mainstay Brad Newell on
guitar and vocals (raise your hand if you remember the late, great ‘80s college
rock outfit The Graphic, or Newell’s subsequent band 8-Eyes; he is also a
producer, studio operator and film scorer of considerable note), bassist Ken
Vint and drummer Ryan McKellar, Butter has earned not-undeserved comparisons to
Medeski, Martin and Wood, and word has it that the sonic pulchritude of ‘70s
legend Lee Michaels and jazz virtuoso John Scofield figures heavily in the
group’s toolbox of influences.

 

It is indeed an eclectic vibe the trio puts forth, based on
the tunes we’ve heard to date (an album is in the works, reports Newell). From
the heavy organ-powered bluesadelica of “Pretty” and the slinkysexycool
garage-pop of “Then I Laughed” to the riotous, jammy Prog of “Going, Going
Gone” and the fatback funk of the aforementioned “I’ve Got Your Back,” there’s
more bounce to the ounce being put forth here than is allowed in most jurisdictions.
Oh, and that cool, WTF?!? musical vibe, you ask? Newell’s guitar, we are
advised, “is going through several devices that mix the
guitar sound with a distorted Hammond
organ sound that we call ‘The Gorgan’.”

 

Newell recently settled in for an email interview in which
he outlined the band’s origins, along with some details on his own musical
history as a mainstay on the Tarheel indie scene. Meanwhile, check out the
Butter MySpace page
for additional details as well as song samples. They’re one
of the good ‘uns, trust us.

 

***

 

BLURT: How long have
you been playing music? Key influences or heroes that made you want to pick up
the guitar?

BRAD NEWELL: I’ve been pickin’ for maybe 30-40 years now.
Original “pick up the guitar influencers – Dylan/Donovan/The Byrds/The
Yardbirds. Later “pick up the guitar again and reinvent yourself
influences – Doc Watson/Wes Montgomery/Charlie Byrd/John Martyn/Bill Frisell/Free/Tom
Verlaine, and of course, many more.

 

What was the arc of
the Graphic for you, and how do you remember North Carolina’s so-called “college-rock”
scene of the ‘80s? As I am an NC native myself, it seems like we referred to it
as “Comboland” back in the day…

Playing with the Graphic was a 6-7 year long experience
where I learned to write songs, play in front of an audience, and deal with
record companies and rock star personalities for the first time. Basic musician
life skills. By the time I left the band, I had played with tons of
national acts (Chilton/Vega/Living Color/Durans/P-Furs/Donovan/Belew/etc.), and
well as many great locals (dB’s/Arrogance/X-Teens/Othermothers/etc.), worked
with some great producers (Don Dixon/Brad Hodges), and I’d become a pretty prolific
songwriter – 250 songs by closing, if I remember.

 

How about the years
following the Graphic? In addition to Butter you also operate a record studio,
correct?

I immediately went with another band, 8-EYES, which put
out 3-4 CDs, and played locally as well as in NYC (CBGB) for about 10 years or
so. I also put out a CD of an offshoot band called Orchestra 8, which reflected
my love of orchestral pop (Brian Wilson/Millennium/etc.). I currently have two
studios, one in Durham, one in Greensboro, in which I record other folks as
well as my own stuff. I also play a lot of jazz in my group Workbook as well as
teaching 30-40 people a week on guitar/banjo/mandolin and bass.

 

Tell us a little
about your partners in Butter, Ken and Ryan.

Ken’s played a lot of Prog and fusion, and Ryan’s mainly a
punk rock guy. He’s played with people like Stephen Edgerton (All/Descendents)
before. More to the point, both guys are really good technically, and can deal
with both songforms as well as going out on a limb.

 

The unique
guitar/organ sound you get which you refer to as “The Gorgan”: explain.

Guitar players are usually pretty conservative as far as
sound, and I just felt as far as my own thing, I wanted to do something
different. I found my first guitar synth at a pawn shop really cheap (I think
they thought it was a fuzzbox), and started using it in my jazz group. Because
jazz players know a lot more about chords than most folks, I was able to come
up with things that were a lot more keyboard oriented. When Butter started, the
combination of rock/funk guitar and organ/keyboard sounds caused a new mutation
we like to call “The Gorgan”.

 

How has the band been
received to date? I can imagine a welcoming audience for Butter including
funk/soul fans like me and the progressive/fusion wing – John Scofield, Gov’t Mule,
Medeski Martin & Wood, etc. – of the jamband community, plus the occasional
lapsed ‘60s psych head to boot.

You’re right on about the influences. Some other ones are
Lee Michaels/The Black Keys/Atomic Rooster/The Crazy World of Arthur
Brown/The Big Organ Trio. Some these are sonic/musical influences, and some
influence my songwriting. 

        My past
songwriting was much more pop-rock type stuff, and now I’m sort of going in a
more R&B/blues direction. Locally, we seem to be doing pretty well. We’ve
played a lot of big rooms recently (PourHouse/Southland/Deep South), but I
would really like to do more festival work and opening slots for other
bands. Call us up, we’re cheap!

 

What are your plans
for releasing an album?

We’re about 3/4 through our first CD, so we should have
something out this winter. We’ve been sending out some of our tunes to various
internet radio stations (Crystal Blue/BuzzD/Ruckus Radio/Etc.), and we’ve
gotten a lot of good feedback.

 

Lastly, as a musical
lifer, how do you view the music business today?

Independent seems to be the key word. Sometimes it seems
it’s up to me and my little computer. While there’s a lot of good music out
there, there’s also a lot of dross. All I look for is that somebody is
unique/good at something, be it writing, singing, playing. If you’re not,
why are you up there? 

 

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