As a tourist in New Orleans, I happened to be exploring one of the city’s famed above-ground cemeteries when I received word from The Builders and The Butchers that they would meet me for an interview before their show later that evening. Wandering between the cement and stone tombs, beneath moss covered trees, set an eerie tone that was an appropriate prequel to the unique Southern gothic style of music I would hear that evening.
The Builders and The Butchers hail from Portland, Oregon but their sound is a distinct mix of the American roots styles - including folk rock, blues, and a bit of bluegrass – that we typically associate with the American South. The banjo, mandolin, melodica, and basically any object that can serve as a percussive or vocal distortion instrument are all part of their musical arsenal. The lyrical themes of their songs are dark and conjure imagery of forsaken places, corruption and injustice, and death and haunting spirits – seemingly channeling the checkered past and tormented ghosts of the South.
Before The Builders and The Butchers took the stage at the House of Blues New Orleans, I sat down with lead vocalist and guitar player, Ryan Sollee, and bass player Alex Ellis. We chatted about the songwriting process, their upcoming album, and life on the road as touring musicians.
AZ: Hey guys! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I want to start off with asking about your story as a band. I know that you are all from Alaska. Did you grow up together?
Alex Ellis: Some of us did. I didn’t really know any of the guys. It was kind of a fluke that we all met up.
Ryan Sollee: Portland seems like a city where a lot of Alaskans migrate. Of all the people I know who have left Alaska, I would say 60-70% ended up in Portland. It’s just a place where Alaskans come because of networks of friends or family that are already there.
AZ: How does the songwriting process happen for this band?
RS: Well, I’ll bring a basic song structure to the band of a verse and chorus, but try to keep it pretty malleable. The record we just finished recording is the first time we had really long, intense practice sessions, where we buckled down and focused on perfecting a live-style recording of an album. Every album we’ve done has used a different recording process.
AZ: There is a real authenticity to your sound; there didn’t seem to be a lot of studio production magic going on. The Salvation album is polished, but it maintains a feel that you were all just in a room playing together.
AE: Well the last record [Salvation is a Deep Dark Well] did for us, I think, have some “studio magic.” Our first album [self-titled] was basically just a few mics in a room, and the album we just finished was basically recorded live.
AZ: And so you have finished recording your third album?
RS: Yeah, a couple of the songs are already mixed, most are unmixed. When we get back to Portland after this tour, we will put the finishing touches on it.
AE: It is the same basic instrumentation that we’ve used before, and the [lyrical] themes are expanded on, so it will be familiar, but not at all an attempt to recreate a previous album. I’m really proud of it.
RS: There is keyboard on this album, more organ and piano sounds, and also more intricate guitar work. We used less string and trumpet sounds than on the previous album. I think the result is less grandiose and more down-home. We didn’t have a lot of outside influence with this one.
AZ: Do you have an estimated release date for the next album?
AE: (turns to Ryan) I was just going to ask you that. Now I’m interviewing you. (laughs)
RS: Probably the fall. But I don’t know. The last time around it took a year to find a label that was interested, and the industry climate seems worse now that it was then. But we are shooting for a fall release.
AZ: Ryan, I read that Johnny Cash and Tom Waits are two of your influences. What about the rest of the band? Does everyone draw from similar musical inspiration?
RS: No, not at all.
AE: We’re all across the board.
RS: I actually am the only one that really, really likes Tom Waits. I think everyone likes Johnny Cash. But the kind of music that everyone listens to is vastly different.
AE: I’m really into Motown right now, and we’ve got a guy that likes electronic music, we’ve got a metal-head, one that likes jammy stuff. We can never agree on road music so everyone just wears earphones.
AZ: How is the current tour treating you?
RS: Well, we had a car wreck just before Austin and had to replace our van, so that of course was not fun. But now we have a better van, so that is the silver lining. And then we played Austin and the show was really great, so we are ready for the rest of the tour to go well. The group of people we are on tour with [headlining band Rx Bandits] is great.
AE: We tend to do tours where we are matched up with different sounding bands [Rx Bandits are a ska-punk band], and that’s OK because there is some crossover between audiences.
RS: Playing for different audiences help with word-of-mouth and getting your music to people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise.
AZ: And you have embraced social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter?
RS: Yeah, somewhat. I still feel a little lukewarm about it. (laughs)
AZ: When you were in Austin, was your show part of South by Southwest?
RS: We were there a few days before the music part really started so, no; we just played a single show. We played SXSW a couple of years ago. It was nice this time to come and play to Austin, and not the flood of outsiders that come for the weekend. It’s almost become like Spring Break.
AZ: I’m interested in the life of a touring musician. What is a typical day like on the road?
AE: It’s hard to set blocks of time aside for yourself. Fortunately, I was able to visit a friend for the whole day yesterday because I wasn’t needed to help out with any stuff with the band, but having that kind of time to yourself is rare. Driving takes up so much time and the club situation is like “hurry up, then wait” – get there early to set up and then wait around until the show starts. So you are a little tethered to the location. You don’t have much choice in food. The only entertainment is beer, but that makes you feel worse the next day. I don’t mean to talk down on it- because it is really fun and this is the choice that we have made, to live this life – but it is not as glamorous as people may think.
RS: I think people may assume, when they see you on stage at a nice venue, that you have hotels and that you may live a lavish lifestyle. But really, nearly every single night on tour we sleep on the floor. We can afford to get a hotel room just one night of the week. That is a luxury, and that’s like a Motel 6.
AZ: What does your summer schedule look like? More tours? Festivals?
RS: It is still up in the air. We are thinking about going to Europe. It depends on whether we can release the last record over in Europe, and if we can, we will tour over there to support it.
AZ: Well, you are set to take the stage in just a little while now. Thank you so much for sitting down and talking to me.
AE: Are you staying to catch the show?
AZ: Yes! Of course! My first Builders show, so I’m looking forward to it!
RS: Thanks, it was nice meeting you. I’m gonna go grab some jambalaya!
The Builders' Live Performance
The Builders and the Butchers play with uncompromising fury and enthusiasm. Throughout the course of their set, I saw band members stomping, clapping, and all participating in back-up vocals. While you could say that the quintet includes a vocalist/guitarist, lead guitarist, bassist, and two percussionists, such categorization would be inaccurate because they all play various instruments. Individuals switched instruments for songs, from banjo to keyboard, or from percussion to mandolin, all demonstrating their versatility as musicians. Sollee has a unique vocal style that may be an acquired taste for some, but his passion and delivery is a perfect match for the lyrical themes of the songs.
I thoroughly enjoyed the set. The only negative that I walked away with was the feeling that – contrary to the enthusiasm Ryan and Alex expressed for being on tour with the Rx Bandits – it might not be a sound strategy to tour with a band that draws such a different audience. Perhaps unique to the show I attended, and the fact that it was an all-ages show, the young crowd did not demonstrate the enthusiasm and attention span that felt the performance deserved. Or perhaps it was the asshole next to me that kept shouting “bring on the metal!” (which was weird because metal was not on the menu that night) that soured my view of the crowd. Still, it was a good turnout, and I do hope that some audience crossover is happening for the Builders on this tour.
Since a video reveals more than I ever could in a few short sentences, I will leave you with this live performance of my personal favorite “Down In This Hole” (not from the New Orleans show). You can purchase their newly released live album, Where the Roots All Grow, on their website from the link below. Thanks again to Ryan and Alex for graciously answering my questions!
Link to purchase studio or live albums by The Builders and The Butchers.