Posted on Tuesday 28th February 2023 at 16:00 by Gigantic Tickets
Butler, Blake, Grant unites the considerable talents of Bernard Butler (also known as the former guitarist of Suede), Love and Money frontman James Grant and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub fame.
The power trio play stripped down acoustic reworkings of their most famous material with a few fan favourites, deep cuts and even a few surprise covers chucked in for good measure. With no bass, drums or any other accompaniment, familiar songs become transformed into something new, allowing both the artists and fans alike to enjoy classic material anew.
They take over spectacular former Islington church Union Chapel for a very special show at the end of this week. Taking place on Friday 3rd of March, you can look forward to an intimate experience, enjoying performances from three of the most influential indie guitarists of all time! CLICK HERE to book your tickets with Gigantic.
We caught up with James Grant and Bernard Butler ahead of the show to talk about how they met and began this unique band, what it’s like playing each other’s songs and their own individual projects for the year.
How did this team up come about?
James Grant: “It was at Celtic connections festival in Scotland, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to do a show. And I said that I would but quite fancy doing that kind of songwriter’s circle type thing. And then he got back and said, “What about Norman?” I said “Cool”. And then 10 minutes later, he said “What about Bernard?”. And I said “cool.” If those guys want to hang out me and vice versa, then that's all good. It's just through mutual friends. Bernard knows Stephen (Lironi) and Claire (Grogan) from Altered Images. That's how it came about."
"I think the thing was, speaking to Bernard and Norman, I've seen a few songwriter circle things and they can be quite po-faced. And also, if you're not participating, you have to look really sincere. And the other person's like doing their tune, you need to look moved, and stuff. And then none of us are very good at that kind of thing."
"So, I think we felt that we'd rather chip in and see if we could create some kind of alchemy within the framework. It happened really naturally. We only had two gigs to start with, but we went to the boozer, and we decided we wanted to do more. It's really, it's that simple."
Were there any moments of interpretation, or did the whole thing glue straight away?
JG: “It was really natural”
Bernard Butler: “It was in the bar afterwards. Where it just felt like; “Well that kind of worked!” And here we are having a pint, and if you can get that far with musicians, then you're waiting for a start.”
JG: “I think the thing was having a laugh as well, you know, that that was a big part of it, and actually just being comfortable with just being mates. You know, like hanging out and having a laugh, playing tunes. When we were in rehearsal, initially, it just felt like something good was happening. And I think I think we all sensed that, like, we made a good noise together. And we were having a good time, and we just wanted to do more.”
Have there been any challenges to reworking the arrangements? Or has somebody pulled something out of another’s song that the writer hadn’t heard or thought of before?
JG: “I'm not sure. But when we were doing things, I think you're conscious that you don't want to tread on other people's toes and there is some mutual respect going on. And you try and find your place within it, without being all over it. And so, we're all finding our way but it's a pretty mellow thing."
"You would do something and then maybe glance over. It’s like “Tell me if this is shite”, you know? But that didn't happen too often. We would sometimes mellow things out and sometimes the opposite. But it all felt really natural, and visceral I suppose."
BB: "I didn't make the assumption that anybody knew the insides of the recordings of the songs that I'd made, from my ones, I didn't want to assume that anybody knew them. I just thought maybe you probably know me and that's all. And that, for me is always a massive advantage."
"You can go into a room of musicians and say “You need to know my song, and you need to know the parts.” Or you can flip it. Actually, that's a huge advantage. Because suddenly, you're starting with something that I've already done. And then if you put the bare bones of it down, what happens to it? And so, you can let it go and I think we all did that a little bit."
"From my perspective, with my ones, being able to play something and let it evolve, and say (I’m thinking) “Well, they missed the little turnaround there, where it was only two beats in the bar”. But actually, that was quite good. And that's fine this time, you know, and letting those things happen is, is a real joy. Because if you're really playing songs, you've had for years and played before, there's kind of no point in just doing them over and over, verbatim."
"The format, in case you didn't know, it's just the three of us playing guitars. So, there's no drums, or bass or a band, there's no strings, we're all singing. The only difference I play electric generally, it's just turned out that way."
"All you have is on a song is the lyrics, the melody, and a kind of a chord structure. But if we creep away from the chords, all the basics within the mechanics of the song, when I see that happening to my ones, I'm pretty happy. It feels like “What could happen here? That's completely different!” And that's, that's, that's the joy of it. You really hope that the audience who might know the song, appreciate that as well, because that's really important that they're in for that experience."
"We've all been making records and writing songs for a long time. So, it's really important at this point in your lives, just trying to challenge yourself and find something new and find new ways of turning yourself on. You know, if you don't turn yourself on, then you don't turn the crowd on."
It’s nice hearing you both use words like “Joy”, “Alchemy” and “Challenges” and that must be something so exciting to experience at this point of your careers. But does it ever trigger an element of competitiveness between the three of you?
BB: "It’s vicious! Especially when Norman's there, I mean, he's not right now so we can slag him off. And he's a what, what piece of work he is when he gets going. Oh my god, the fire in his belly… No!"
Hah! So, no friendly rivalry then?
BB: "Collaboration is what it says it is, it works because you work together, not against each other. And so that's always a kind of a little bit of a rock and roll myth, or the idea of working against each other to make it better but I'm telling you, it's bullshit! I really hate that idea, that narrative of competing to the audience (which) sucks it up. It's not true!"
"Collaboration is when you work together, and you contribute, and one person rubs off the other person and the other person responds in a positive way. And that works with all of us. And that works from when we're in the rehearsal room trying to work out a little arrangements for these songs, which always come together really quickly."
JG: “We're all at a certain age, we're kind of done hanging out with dicks. You know, you don't really have any time to do that anymore. You just want to have a good time. Play tunes, and when it feels good, you just go with it."
Have you tried writing any new material together?
BB: "Bernard does one of the tunes he did on his and Jessie (Buckley)'s record. like a new tune. Most of them are songs that if individual fans knew our material they will know. But I feel the same way as Bernard, that when we were playing my tunes, I didn't assume that everybody knew them. Within what we were doing, I would maybe think, there's a new song that I'm doing, I'd like to hear what Bernard and Norman would do on that. Just because of the noise we're making, I think this would work."
"There's a good thing vocally going on between the three of us a nice harmony thing, that's a big part of what we're doing. I think it's a beautiful thing, to sing with people. And that and that way, it's just it's a lot of fun.”
Because it’s just the three of you, vocals, and acoustic guitars; do your shows tend to be quite an intimate affair?
JG: “I think the songs are, but we have a laugh. It’s not a kind of up ourselves thing, you know, we're all pretty self-deprecating, really and we try and have a laugh."
"Norman's obviously a big part of that. It’s about patter, it's different every night. Things happen. And we're like that. You can't set your watch by it. If you come and see the show twice, it will be different. It might be the same tunes, but it will be different.”
Union Chapel is a particularly special venue. What have been your favourite memories or experiences being there?
JG: “I only played it for the first-time last year. I really loved it, I have to say. It does seem like a magical venue. It's very photogenic. These days when you get photos back after shows, you know, fan’s cameras are so good. It looked amazing. I wasn't so aware of that when I was on stage. It's a cool place to play!”
BB: "We have played there several times (with) David McAlmont with McAlmont & Butler, and that was in 2015. And we hadn't played for like, I don't know, 10 years or something. And we did a show just a one-off show there. That was a really great night.”
Despite being so well established, are there any moments when you feel just that little bit out of your depth? Is that where the creative spark comes from?
JG: “I guess, these things happen from time to time. But, speaking for myself, I feel like when I'm making music, it exists in another planet. I'm so out of touch with everything, modern music in general. I can only see it as a good thing."
"I suppose, I'm an old guy, that's how I view myself. I feel like my music’s distanced from things. And I think when you make music, sometimes thinking that way is helpful. Trying to create your own sphere where things happen and you're not afraid to maybe take chances or whatever, and you're not really influenced by anything else. Can't say that's been my mantra through for forty years of making music, but kinda is now.”
So, you’ve got to a stage where you know exactly what you’re doing?
JG: “I wouldn't say I know exactly what I'm doing that that kind of changes. Making records, personally, I find that experience quite hard. It's a time of self-criticism. But I think I find that if I can live with things for a period, and I still like them, then that's a good thing.”
And Bernard, what do you feel is your greatest challenge when writing a song?
BB: "I think it’s visualising it. Imagining yourself performing it, making it into something unique. I guess it depends on if I'm on my own, or who I'm with. My things, it’s always just a carousel of different people really. And that's the joy of it, really. So, I've been working on something for the last couple of months, which is very challenging music and quite unusual. And around really, really, really, awe inspiring people and musicians."
"Like James, I don't work at all in the radio world or anything. I listen to Radio 3, and sport radio, and that's all that's all I listen to. I don't listen to anything, I don't try and take part at all, in any kind of contemporary space. That's not just because I'm old even though I am. It's because I really like the feeling that I'm not influenced. I just don't like feeling like I'm in that trying to compete with, I don't know, some indie rock band or something or some pop star or something I just don't know. I like the feeling of being with whoever, whatever I've got to work with, whoever I'm with, what can you do. That's great being influenced by them."
"I've gone from that (project) which nearly ended on Friday. And now I'm I woke up today and I'm super looking forward to this (Union Chapel gig) because this is kind of the polar opposite, musically, and that's the joy for me that I'm going to go into. I just can't wait to do this this week. So really, the challenge for me is the next couple of days because I'm in London and them two are going to be practising without me. And I'm going to be doing my own thing trying to work out some things. I think by the time I get to this stage and the soundcheck on Thursday, the first show, I'm gonna be really looking forward to it."
"One thing I like about this is I find it really comfortable, and I know that sounds like I'm not challenging myself enough, but I spend enough time on my tiptoes musically. When I get to go out with these two guys, I feel really relaxed and I really enjoy the night, I feel like I'm almost in the audience sometimes. I feel like I can sort of sit back a little bit. I don't want to feel like that's giving myself a day off but after this amount of time I feel like I deserve a fucking day off!"
"I looked down the setlist, this is my favourite thing with this show, I look down because the way we do it is; James normally starts, then Norman and then I do a song and we go around like this, but we all sing on each other's, and play on each other's. So when you look down the setlist I'm thinking “Oh there’s a good one coming up and it's not mine! Next one is really good and it's nothing to do with me. I just have to sing and play the guitar and it's just gonna be enjoyable!” So, I feel that that side of that side of things I really enjoy these days because I go through enough trauma in my in my music, in what I’ve done. So, I really, actually, really right now, I really need to do this for a month.”
Any plans to write and record with McAlmont any time soon?
BB: "No, I don't think so. I love David, he’s a friend and stuff. I feel like the line is drawn. Our drummer Mako (Makoto Sakamoto) died a few years ago, and Mako, he was like my real friend, my real soulmate. And he was kind of like the third person in the thing. And when he went, I just felt like that's kind of it."
"I don't know, maybe we will one day, but I feel happy. We did some really good things and that's cool. Great. Let's celebrate that and say, that was nice. David's got his own record at the moment with Sean (Dickson) from Soup Dragons and he's doing that, great on him. We've always had that mentality that do something and then don't do it we can't be arsed and so very, very happy that we can just say we did some good things. And that was that, that was part of our life. Now, we're in a different place."
What have you both got planned for 2023?
JG: “I just want to try and get a record done and that's it. And yeah, we’ll see what happens, that’s all. Music for me, that's my life. It's everything I do."
"And coming back to what Bernard was saying about the show and all that; I think when we started it, from my point of view, I was I was more interested in other people's songs than I was my own. I think maybe the three of us were a bit like that, because I play my own songs all the time. It's more (exciting) I'm participating in finding your spot within something like “Yes”, for example, is just, it's a, it's a really cool thing, you know?”
BB: "After this, I'm doing I'm recording an Irish band, which is totally different. And then I'm doing some shows on my own and I haven't done that for a while. I want to see how that feels. And then I'll make decide what to do next. Unfortunately, I wish I had a salary and stuff, it doesn't work like that. It's never-ending scary thing of being a musician that I don't know what will happened. But you get to a point where you think you feel, you start to feel confident that when you see gaps, you think something will probably happen. And it's normally when you see those gaps that something quite, you know, unusual or unexpected happens and it's normally for a really good reason.”
JG: “I think when you're a musician, you live your life not really knowing where your next fiver is gonna come from. I mean, it’s still exactly the same as it was when I was 18. You’re still never really sure if you’ve fucked up.”
Hah! Have you got any messages to fans to make sure you do have another fiver coming your way?
BB: "The funny thing about this we've made we've made no records; this is the first time we've ever spoken about this and – I don't think we have any fans! I don't know why anyone's coming!"
JG: “Come and be our fans! Try us out!”
BB: "I hope it’s kind of word of mouth. We seem to have loads of people coming and it seems to be word of mouth that people know it's a good night out. I hope that the buzz is it's quite three quite random people to put together and sometimes that's just what happens. If you just go with it and have a really open book in your mind about what can happen with music and putting people together then something really unique can happen, something nice can happen. And it's probably a good sport to watch take place."
03/03 Butler, Blake, Grant – Union Chapel, London