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Hot Buttered

by Brandon Edmonds / 17.02.2011

What, our own Jesus-faced Guy Buttery on an international Joanna Newsom compilation? It’s a no-brainer after watching his infectious version of “The Book of Right On”. A jaunty, deceptively accomplished (see how he gets that underlying loop going then downplays the conceit by calling it “cheap karaoke”) take that just about matches the offhand emotional loveliness of the original.

All proceeds of the compilation go to Oxfam America’s Pakistani Floods relief fund (some 20 million regular folk have been hit). You can download tracks and donate here. The compilation sees Guy rubbing shoulders with tireless lefty troubadour Billy Bragg and dreamy alt.maestro, Owen Pallett, and many more. Here’s hoping it helps re-build lives and push Buttery towards the kind of recognition he deserves. Mahala sat Guy down and pulled his beard a spell.

So how did this happen Guy? Do you have a kickass international agent? Is his name Ari Gold? Do you have a deal with hipper than thou indie label Drag City?

Basically the curator from Joanna Newsom TV found my YouTube link of “The Book of Right On” and just contacted me directly via my website. I remember being on tour in France when I got the news and being pretty damn stoked. The biggest honour of all is that I feature on the compilation alongside M. Ward who is just the business in my opinion. It may even be safe to say he’s the Lennon of songwriters of our generation. Just putting it out there. It’s also pretty sweet that Joanna has heard my version.

Who the crap is Ari Gold? And no I don’t have a major international deal, but you’re welcome to assist with that Brandon.

You’re on record as liking Newsom a whole lot. What’s the appeal there? Is it her technical facility? The fragility? The voice? You’ve turned your back on your own voice. Has that limited your commercial reach? The voice seems central to popular music – no matter how Autotuned. Does the absence of that lyrical interface help or hurt your bank balance?

Very seldom do the worlds of virtuosity and obscure folk/pop meet. For me Joanna created this union absolutely perfectly. The song, the arrangement, the simplicity, the complexity, her voice. She’s just got it. Upon first listen, I literally rushed out and bought her first two LP’s straight up. I still spin them regularly and would definitely add a copy of “Ys” to my desert island list. I guess she just has a sound that is simultaneously otherworldly and yet extraordinarily familiar to me. In short, her music just pulled me in like a magnet.

Regarding my own voice, I’ve always said that it’s like any other instrument I have no idea how to play. Much like the tuba or the harp for that matter. I might be able to produce a sound, but whether it’ll come across as musical or not, I’m not so sure. I guess my head has also just never really been into song. When I was younger, vocal verses were just musical gaps between the guitar solos. The idea of an acoustic guitar simply on its own always seemed more expressive and dramatic to me. It probably has hurt my bank balance that I don’t sing but certainly way less than if I did actually try to!

Guy Buttery

Have you been to Pakistan? There’s a Marxist approach to ‘natural disasters’ that there’s nothing ‘natural’ about them. The consequences reflect skewered political priorities from poor urban planning to the unequal allocation of social resources. What’s the role of politics in music and vice versa?

I’ve never been to Pakistan. I did however venture into the disputed autonomous regions of Kashmir in India, that certain locals believe is Pakistan, but the map I was following said otherwise. I remember the 52 hour bus drive to get there and vomiting out the window, the two weeks sleeping on a floor in a house boat and a freezing cold bucket of water in the morning in the snow as a “bath”. I suppose it was a pretty character-building experience but a bit one star out of ten really. I would dig to go back and cross the border. My brother spent many weeks in Pakistan, shot some epic footage and spoke very highly of both the landscape and the people.

Political music sounds like an oxymoron to me. Much like military intelligence. Well at least from my perspective. I just wanna rock.

Newsom is kind of an obscure choice as a banner artist. Choosing her work as an attractor for Oxfam surely limits the appeal to pitchfork readers and Japanese design students! Wouldn’t U2 have been a better choice? Or is this a new approach to scoring the ‘hipster buck’? An untapped market.

Perhaps in South Africa Miss Newsom is a bit under the radar, but Stateside and in Europe she’s pretty massive, receiving dozens and dozens of accolades every year for her performances and recordings. I am told that “Versions of Joanna” has already raised US$10 000 in sales which is pretty reasonable giving the nature of the product and the short amount of time it’s been available to the public. All bias kak aside, it really is a smashing tribute compilation.

What did you get out of the exercise? Did you see the Newsom/Oxfam brand as a positive link to your own? Do you honestly care about floods in Pakistan? Don’t we have enough problems at home?

One of the biggest pluses for me concerning this compilation was the nod of approval from a major international label. I believe there were hundreds of Joanna covers out there of which only 21 artists were picked which is pretty balls if you ask me and a huge honour really. Let’s hope a label bites.

Much like the next guy or girl, I don’t like to see people suffer whether they’re from Southern Pakistan or Southern Africa. I felt it was a good cause. That was enough for me.

Guy Buttery

Guitar magazine has called what you do ‘avant-garde world music’. How does that sit with you? I suspect the ‘avant-garde’ part has something to do with your being a white dude (as much as your incredible chops and compositional brilliance). A recent NY Times article on the supposed ‘African invasion’ in ‘indie rock’ suggests the web has lessened the ‘exotica’ factor of African sounds – this stuff is just a click away – but still tries to validate the music as ‘authentic’ because of the ‘gritty’ background of the artists (citing Blk Jks hailing from Soweto). How do you negotiate race and nationality in your work? I know you love KZNatal. Do you feel its ‘grittiness’ makes your music more ‘authentic’? Do you consciously pursue ‘African sounds’ – whatever that might be?

I think it’s pretty safe to say a large part of my work would be considered avant-garde. Tunes like “Renwot” and “Mad Scientist Ritual” head deep into the world of experimental music. My early 20’s were heavily surrounded by the music of Oregon, Ralph Towner, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Steve Reich much of which filtered into my own creative framework.

I wouldn’t say I “pursued” “African sounds” as much as they pursued me! Growing up in KwaZulu, I always heard maskanda at festivals and venues like the Bat Centre in Durban. Dan Patlansky once told me to be very careful what you listen to because it may just rub off. With this in mind, I steer clear of Kenny G but have always had the likes of Sipho Mchunu, Busi Mhlongo, Shiyani Ngcobo and Madala Kunene proudly spinning on the hi-fi.

The ‘authenticity’ of my music and of any music for that matter seems rather trivial to me. Whether it’s a “white dude” playing Hindustani music, a band from New York playing music from Soweto or a Sowetan act rocking out seems unimportant really. It’s simply about the music, isn’t it? ‘Graceland’ happens to be one of the best crossover-pop albums of all time in my opinion. We really are living in a global village and these cultural melting pots and innovative fusions in the music world are way exciting and deeply inspiring to me.
Tell him how much he means to you here.

Guy also sells CDs direct to y’all via Vleisbook.

Venue – Steak & Ale, Shop 5 Botha Avenue Centre, 66 Botha Avenue, Lyttelton
Date & Time – 24th Feb 2011 @ 20:30
Price – R80
Contact – charlene@steakandale.co.za / 012 664 5155

Venue – The Bioscope, 286 Fox Street, Johannesburg
Date & Time – 25th Feb 2011, doors open at 21:00
Price – R80
Contact – info@thebioscope.co.za / 073 284 1372

Venue – Wits Amphitheatre, Wits East Campus, Braamfontein
Date & Time – 26th Feb 2011 at 19:30
Price – R80 (R60 for students) www.strictlytickets.com
Contact – Catherine.Pisanti@wits.ac.za / 011 717 1376

Venue – Pan Dora Art House, 621 Berea Str. , Muckleneuk, Pretoria
Date & Time – 27th Feb 2011, 12pm (lunch), music starts at 14:00
Price – R100
Contact – pandora.art1@gmail.com / 084 851 7096

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