To accuse Guy Buttery of quietly plying his trade would be an understatement. Over the last few years Buttery has carved out a career playing his “strange guitar music” that has included performances in front of the Prince of Bahrain and inclusion on a compilation of Joanna Newsom covers alongside luminaries of folk such as M. Ward and Billy Bragg. This month sees the vinyl release of Buttery’s To Disappear in Place being launched at Theatre In The District in Cape Town this Saturday night. For him, it is a way of recognizing independence within the industry, to develop his music and distribute it in ways that fit with him and his personality, by ultimately going the indie route. We spoke to Guy Buttery about the inclusion of guest vocalists on his work for the first time and the sounds that landscapes make.
Mahala: So is the new album vinyl only?
Guy Buttery: At this stage, yeah. We had some many outtakes, B-sides and leftovers and demo stuff from the last record and we thought well bru, let’s do something with it. So we were quite keen on the idea, both of us [Record Label – Erased Records – owner Steven Hawes] being full on vinyl junkies, we were quite keen on just a vinyl release and that’s it and the album kind of lives and dies in those 300 copies.
It can’t be a very lucrative business model.
Not at all. No, no, no. That wasn’t the plan. I mean, we were just keen to churn out a vinyl. No one in this country is really doing it and I’ve been collecting records for like fifteen years. Maybe it was a bit self-indulgent but the response has been pretty awesome. People that are into vinyl are really keen and a lot of guys that aren’t really collectors or necessarily into LPs, are just like ‘what a cool innovative concept’. The support has been awesome. Despite the on-going change in the industry, vinyl records have remained a sought after product to serious music fundis, DJs and album collectors. If anything, with the rise and rise of digital music, the vinyl has become a sort of antidote symbol for those that value the tangible embodiment of hard copy albums. LP sales have increased where CD sales have dropped, probably because they represent authenticity to fans.
But it’s also interesting that you’re using some vocals on the album that you don’t have on the other albums and not a lot of people are going to get to hear those tracks.
Well, it’s available on digital download for people who are keen to go that route. The album is essentially a whole bunch of stuff that was meant to go on the last record but then we ran out of time, the album had to go to print and we thought ‘oh well, we’ll do it next time.’ But then these tracks were already complete and we really enjoyed them. A lot of the outtakes and alternative versions I preferred anyway, you know. Chris (Letcher of van der Want/Letcher and Urban Creep) laid down the vocals and I was like ‘fuck let’s just use it. I’m digging it’.
The vocals on the album are not exactly lyrics-based, you use the vocals more as instruments.
Yeah, exactly. That was the concept. I didn’t have any lyrical content so Chris and Madala Kunenewho also sings and plays Jewish Harp on the vinyl, wrote the lyrics and then Chris just laid the lyrics on top, and I was like, they work. There are conflicting stories within the lyrics. But, like you say it’s used more as an instrument than for some sort of poetic content.
Do you feel like your songs tell stories at all?
Well, completely hey, but that’s kind of the beauty of instrumental music; it’s open to everyone’s suggestions and interpretations. People will come up to me after a show and they’ll say ‘wow that song really felt like that experience I had’ and it’s not like a lyric handed to you a silver platter, it’s really wide open and I dig that about music with no words, the way you can search your own emotion or create a new emotion. I think it’s pretty diverse.
In my personal experience instrumental music is much more immersive watching it live as opposed to listening to it recorded.
Well I suppose that depends. I grew up on a lot of instrumental music as well, even listening to 60’s rock and folk stuff, to me the guitar solos were kind of trapped between the vocals. I was way more interested in what the musicians had to say from an instrumental point of view. It’s an interesting question I guess because it really depends on the listener. Some people find it difficult to listen to instrumental music; they don’t know what to take from it. For me, growing up performing and listening to that kind of stuff; I find it’s like performance art to some people. Often you never have any real understanding of what it’s about but it’s up to your interpretation I guess which is kind of beautiful.
So you’re touring this album and you’ve got the two guests on the track. Are you doing different guests in different cities?
In PE and East London I had Nibs van der Spuy play some shows with me and I carried on playing with some other guys and yeah, it’s been kind of a mixed bag. And yeah, obviously having the guest spots in Durban, I’ll have Madala and in Cape Town I’ll have Andrew James and Gary Thomas. So kind of like Tom Delonge, moving around.
When you play live it often feels spontaneous, how much do you improvise?
Quite a bit. I try to keep it interesting for the audience and for myself. Because I perform so often I try and keep a lot of space for improvisation. I try and stretch it as much as I can so every night is kind of different. Sometime it derails too but I think it’s a cool way for me to feel real and in the moment.
So if instrumental music is open to interpretation, do the tracks themselves have a particular meaning to you?
Yeah, I’d say so and it changes as well. Sometimes they breathe in different spaces. There were a few tracks on the previous album that I played live for a long time and they still mean something different to me every time I perform them. Sometimes I have a very specific story in my head but they could mean anything to others. I try not to worry so much about where they come from me because sometimes that shadow casts a specific meaning on a piece and that’s not really where my head’s at. I dig people to put their own words or story to the pieces. Including myself.
Do you think it will be fair to say what you’re trying to say with the songs is for people to have their own experience?
Pretty much. I think you’ll find a lot of people will share a similar experience, there’ll be a similar theme or mood in a song, it’s either quite obvious or quite foreign in its characteristics. But I think that’s great. I’ve been playing a new tune recently and there’s currently no title for the song so I’ve been saying to the audience ‘hey, if you guys have any suggestions put them forward’ and every night people have been coming up with surprisingly different ideas and saying what it means to them and it’s been quite interesting. A lot of them will have like a broad general idea or pick up on a similar theme and say the song is about motion or it’s about travelling or some kind of movement and I can relate to that but then some people will come up with a whole different way out story altogether and I’ll be like ‘jeez, I never saw that at all but that’s interesting’. I don’t think it has to be too academic; it can just be ‘hey, that’s what I felt. That’s how I feel’.
The point of making a thing is to make the thing and the moment you start trying to describe it you defeat the purpose. Your music doesn’t have that layer or music and it’s often hard to describe the experience, do you find that that limits your appeal or your ability to get your music out to people?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I never really think about those things. I find that once I’ve created something often I forget the space I was in when I created it and how it came about. A lot of my pieces are loosely inspired by this province (KwaZulu-Natal). I have quite a strong relationship with the place and a lot of people pick up on that and that’s great. I think they feel that ‘hey this is really coming from that part of South Africa’ and it really represents that landscape or those people and I think that’s really cool but if people say ‘hey that could belong to the East or that could be Appalachian folk music or Celtic music’ I say hey that’s great too. The way it’s interpreted, you never know when you do a live show, some people walk in and out and have had completely different experiences. But like I said, I don’t really think about how it “limits my appeal” or anything.
On one of the tracks you do the Maskandi sound but you’ve reinterpreted it slightly, do you find that that takes people by surprise?
I suppose it’s what I’ve always been doing since I got into the whole guitar scene. I think I’ve always enjoyed exploring sounds and I think sometimes in a way that’s quite a healthy thing. Because you don’t become confined to one particular genre. You know what I’m saying? I dabble in those sounds because I hear them or I experience them or I feel them or I’ve been listening to a lot of Maskanda or I’ve been spending a lot of time in certain parts of the province. I suppose that’s the joy of any sort of World Music you encounter; it has a particular feel or definition of landscape in its culture. I think it’s interesting that sometimes those sounds are explored in different avenues. It might be a Maskanda frame but it might be used in a more melancholic sort of groove. It’s really just an experiment I guess and sometimes you experience new emotions and new ideas, so that’s kind of my headspace.
It’s interesting how a landscape can inspire sound.
Sometimes that can become cliché or corny but it can also become like rooted and very real, like the landscape is the music or the music is the landscape.
Yeah, I think it’s kind of beautiful. It can be kind of corny sometimes but from the headspace that I’m coming from it feels very real to me and feels like ‘Yes, this is where I am from’. It’s like when I was in India listening to the classical music I completely understood the difference between the Northern Classical Hindustani music and the Southern Classical Carnatic music and maybe it was because I was there and I was really thinking about it but it made sense to me that those sounds came from those specific areas. When I go to Cape Town and I hear Goema it’s like ‘yes, this feels like it’s in the right place’.
I find it very interesting how a landscape and its individuals will generate unique sounds and musical forms or something very defined to a certain culture, setting or its people. I’ve always been intrigued by this. More often than not, people living in the 21st century have a slightly less defined cultural background. I definitely have. So my inspiration is unconsciously mixed. Perhaps by default and perhaps because I’ve travelled a fair bit to exotic places and tried to immerse myself into their music and culture. But for me, KwaZulu is such a mixed bag culturally and its landscape is so ridiculously diverse. I guess it’s probably the root of my fascination for Maskanda and sitar based music. What’s even more interesting to me is a kind of mash up of all these genres which I’ve tried to discover, create and communicate over the last decade. Come to think of it, in all of these musical worlds, there’s still so much more to explore.
*Check out Guy Buttery’s Cape Town Album Launch CT on the 19th of November at Theatre in the District, 106 Chapel Street, Woodstock, Cape Town. It starts at 20:30, entrance is R60. Contact 083 2705592 for details and to order copies of the hand numbered LP please email firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook.