Smooth Like Butterby Righard Kapp / 25.09.2009
The thing about Guy Buttery, for me, has always been the insouciance of his virtuosity. His mastery of his instrument is evident not so much in the complexity of what he plays, but in his physical understanding of the guitar, the way he can get harmonics and overtones to ring with the most nonchalant of gestures. I’ve often said that my copy of Songs from the Cane Field, purchased after that first jaw-dropping performance I saw at the Armchair Theatre in 2005, is the one album I’ve lent to more people than any other.So much has happened since then. Whilst I’ve made I point of seeing him play live whenever I can, it’s sobering to realise that it’s been four years since Songs from the Cane Field came out and while Guy has certainly not been idle, what with touring Europe, New York and Australia in the intervening years, it’s been a long time wait for his new album, Fox Hill Lane. I had the rare pleasure of hearing the album for the first time in the presence of the man himself, in his flat in Kalk Bay, chatting to him about his recent exploits while he cooked supper.
RK: You’ve been touring around the country for the last few weeks, launching your new album. Has it been good?
GB: Yes, it was definitely the most successful tour I’ve ever had. I had my best show in Durban ever; Johannesburg was really awesome as well. I also played Salt Rock and Lynden in Pretoria, Pietermaritzburg, Richards Bay, Southbroom on the South Coast; all over the place. Also, it felt like people really were quite keen for a new album.
RK: Well it’s been some time, hasn’t it?
GB: It’s been four years, yes, that just kind of slipped by, you know? I started making this record over a year ago, in July 2008. We started actually recording it, laid half of the guitar tracks down, and then it took a year to take some time out of our touring schedule to actually book it and say “OK, let’s finish this record”. But yes, it kind of gives you a new energy to have a finished record behind you, you feel keen to go out and play the new songs, so it’s been great.
RK: Do you also feel this urge to write new material now that you’ve seen an album through to the end?
GB: Yes, in a way. I mean, composing doesn’t come very easily to me, but I find it strange, because the music I’m writing now is definitely simpler. In a certain way, there’s nothing more hypnotic than just two chords repeating – Van Morrison does it all the time, and that’s why I love him. He’ll have two major sevenths, back to back, for 10 minutes, it’s like a mantra. Madala Kunene’s like that and a lot of what Derek Gripper does is like that as well. He often does these small motifs with these alternating bass notes. Have you heard his new album (Kai Kai)? It’s so good hey.
RK: Ah, I haven’t yet. I missed his launch gig because I was playing in Wellington that night. But I’ve been following his music for some years now.
GB: It’s so good hey; he’s called it his most ‘guitaristic’ album, in the sense of using his guitar as a…like…
RK: ..as a sound source?
GB: Exactly, and pushing that in a compositional sense. It’s a great album, I think it’s his best.
RK: Well, on a certain level, that is something I’ve always associated with your playing.
GB: Essentially…I don’t know if this is an egotistical thing or more of a philosophical thing, but I don’t really want to be seen as a guitarist as such…I wouldn’t want someone to watch me play and think “Wow, he really knows how to play guitar”. I’d like people to think “Wow, he really writes nice music”.
RK: Well, again, something I’ve always taken from you is that you put your skill at the service of the music, rather than as an end in itself.
GB: Exactly, while you can’t deny that there’s a lot of exploration going on in terms of sounds that you can get from the instrument, I’m hoping that it’s working, you know? I’m hoping that these sounds are actually adding to the composition in a textural sense.
RK: Do you feel that the new album is more of a compositional exercise than before?
GB: Well, yes, and no. I think a lot of what’s on this album is more concerned with song forms, as opposed to composition that might meander and go certain places and come back when they need to. I was much more interested in investigating almost a verse-chorus type structure. It’s something I’ve never done. Like this song (Burnside), it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, like a sloppy, dirty Zulu maskanda vibe. The other important thing on this album is the collaborations. It’s not that it’s a band album, it’s still essentially a guitar album. The guitar’s still way in front and the songs translate when I play them on my own live, but I felt that I had all these awesome musicians at my disposal as it were, and they were all keen to play on the record, like Syd Kitchen, Madala Kunene, Tony Cox, Dan Patlansky, Nibs van der Spuy, Andy Turrell, Piers Faccini, Ronen Skillen and Martin Wolfgaard. It’s almost as if you write songs with certain people in mind. It was just like, now is the time in my life that I have these songs that have room for more collaborative involvement, why not just do it? I’ve done the solo guitar thing; what did Miles Davis say… when he released Bitches Brew, someone asked him why he doesn’t do an album like In a Silent Way or Kind of Blue again, and he said; ”cos I’ve already done that, why would I want to do it again?”.
Well, I don’t feel this album is as big a departure as Bitches Brew was, but it’s definitely a departure in some sense. I definitely feel it’s my lightest album on a certain level, you know? The previous one is a very intense record, it has a lot of dissonance.
RK: Yes, the thing that keeps striking me about SFTCF is how disarmingly gorgeous it is, and yet, VERY experimental.
GB: I used to listen to a lot of experimental music, and I still do, but these days, in my old age, I’m much more into straight ahead, just, good songs, you know? Like what Joanna Newsom, Fionn Regan and James Yorkston are doing, where it’s down to a couple of great chords and a great melody and narrative. That’s got a lot of appeal to me, it’s very human.
And these new songs are very from a specific headspace, you know, it’s very much a testament of its time. Quite a lot of it was written in a very serene space, living on the coast of Kwazulu Natal, with this wonderful woman in my life, surfing everyday…there was nothing wrong, nothing to be angsty or dissonant about. I had a vegetable patch and a pet mongoose. It’s also much more of a world music album, whereas the previous albums had elements of that in it, on this album it’s much more overt. It’s quite diverse, as much of it was written while I was travelling the world, and when I’m writing it’s always very much influenced by the landscape. But I do feel that there’s a theme of sorts running throughout.
RK: I’m really interested in how you got to be touring around the world in the last couple of years, did you book that yourself?
GB: Some of it, like the Australia trip and the one to the States happened through (former record label) Sheer, but all the Italian tours, the UK and Irish tours, was kind of put together on my own steam.
RK: Do you find that to be an exasperating process? Do you find managing yourself to come quite naturally?
GB: No, it’s quite a process hey. I find it can be quite taxing. Essentially 2% of what I do is perform, the other 98% is practising and working behind the computer getting gigs, which is a bit unfortunate. I’d like to have a manager, but it’d have to be someone who really understands the tiny details of what I do, and at this stage, you know, I’ve done it for so long that it comes naturally.
RK: But booking tours overseas must be a mission?
GB: It is. This last one I did in the UK, it was 25 gigs, I mean, that’s a lot, but it took me over a year to put that all together. Whereas this current tour of South Africa, 10 gigs, took me two weeks to put together. But I love touring South Africa. I love the people, and just the ease of not having to take all these flights across all these continents.
RK: But the experience of playing overseas, did that have any impact on you?
GB: Definitely…it definitely made me up my game a little bit. I mean, you get to these guitar festivals and, it’s pretty serious business, you know? I’ve always been slighty sloppy, I mean it’s just a part of my sound, I’ve come to accept that, but some of these hotshot guitar players I’ve heard of all my life are just so clean and precise. I mean I’ve always been very tone-conscious, less so about being clean, and I think I’ve become a hell of a lot cleaner over the last few months. I mean, fingerstyle is not the kind of genre that allows for too much slop, it’s not like rock where you can just cut loose, it does require a level of precision and discipline.
RK: You’re also no longer with Sheer?
GB: Yes, that was a mutual decision. I mean those guys are so sincere and passionate about what they do, but for an artist like myself…I mean last year I sold 40 albums through retail channels, whereas on tour, I’ll sell that many at one gig on some nights. So it was actually they who said to me “Listen, being on Sheer might not be in your best interest financially”.
RK: So you’re handling everything yourself now?
GB: Yes, with the help of Howard (Butcher, from the Peace of Eden recording studio) who covered the printing costs and distributes to some retailers, and then I’m just selling the albums online, and at gigs. I mean, it’s quite a lot to man, on your own, to do all the marketing, performing, composing, distribution, everything yourself. But, essentially, that’s what I do. I’m just this weird fingerstyle dude, no-one’s going to be jumping on me with million rand marketing budgets or whatever.
But it’s good, I’m happy, and it’s great to be working with someone like Howard, he’s so on it, such a sussed dude, and he’s very much in the same headspace; very much “Keep it independent and keep it real”.
We carry on chatting for a stupid amount of time, about BLK JKS, our mutual admiration for Chris Letcher, guitarists like Ralph Towner and Fred Frith, the Newspace Theater as a venue (where I’d had my own album launch in June), how he got into playing the guitar and came to make a career out of it. Eventually it becomes time to move on, and my parting question is whether everything has turned out the way he has hoped.
GB: It’s kind of strange, someone interviewed me this week and asked me, “You’re 25, you’ve done this and that, what is it you want to achieve with your music?” and when I thought about it, I realised that all the things I’d wanted to do when I was a teenager – I mean I’d always wanted to play in the States, always wanted to tour Italy, always wanted to check out Australia, and always wanted to play with all these guitar heroes of mine at these guitar festivals and world music festivals – all these things I’d kind of fulfilled in a way.
RK: Well, I suppose that opens up some space for new challenges?
GB: Yes, definitely, it’s time to set up a whole new to-do list.
Guy Buttery performs live around Cape Town this weekend to launch Fox Hill Lane: At the Melting Pot in Muizenberg on Fri 25 Sept, Monkey Valley in Noordhoek on Sat 26 and the Newspace Theater in Long Str on Sun 27 Sept.
Images courtesy and © Jaco Minnaar