FFS Interview: Butcher Boy

Butcher Boy have had quite a year. Their second album React or Die received rave reviews across the board with the Times rock critic Pete Paphides declaring “Butcher Boy have set a standard against which every other release this year must surely be judged”. The band are set to fulfil a long-held ambition this month by performing a live film score to Cocozza film Chick’s Day at Glasgow Film Theatre. Songwriter and frontman John Blain Hunt kindly agreed to answer our questions…

FFS: We loved your latest album React or Die at FFS – and we certainly weren’t the only ones? Were you expecting the brilliant critical reaction you got?

John Blain Hunt: Thank you, I’m really flattered you like it so much! I definitely wouldn’t say we expected the reaction we got – by the time we’d finished recording we’d spent so long listening to the songs that I couldn’t form any type of critical opinion of them any more. As a band, we’re very critical of ourselves and we try to be as brutal as we can in terms of editing, so what I did know is that we put thought into every note and there is care in every word on the record, but it became almost abstract because of that. In the end it was a real relief to put it out and let people who hadn’t been involved in that process hear it. To be honest, some of the reviews have been quite surreal, its odd to think they are about us!

Has there been a noticeable expansion of your fanbase since it was released?

There’s been no wild explosion in our fan base, but what I’ve definitely noticed is that our gigs are different now – rather than people who are just curious coming along, people now come to hear us play because they like our records. It’s a little thing, but it’s satisfying!

You’re streaming the album on your myspace because it went up on filesharing sites. Do you see that as an unavoidable part of the modern music business?

It’s certainly unavoidable – the internet seems so vast that it’s impossible to control it. So, to an extent, it’s something we just have to swallow. But it makes me a little mad to think that the band spent months rehearsing in preparation for our album, and I had to live on beans on toast for weeks to contribute to recording costs, and we spent days agonising over millimetres of movements on the sleeve only for someone to think it’s their right to give away all of that for free.

Your songs have a timeless quality, do you have a fondness for simpler times?

I don’t know about simpler times… I think maybe simpler things. I don’t think it’s particularly unique, but I do value things like politeness and gentleness in people. I try to put that into our records. I want what we do to be beautiful.

There are eight of you in the band, how did you all come together?

It’s been a gradual process! I guess we knuckled down seriously as a band in 2005, and Alison (piano), Aoife (viola), Basil (guitar) and Findlay (drums) were in the band then. Maya replaced Jacqui on cello in 2007 when Jacqui started a family, and Robert replaced Garry on bass last year. Fraser joined last year too, because we needed an extra pair of hands to help out. We pretty much all came together through friendships.

Is everyone involved in the writing and arranging process?

In terms of writing and arranging, I tend to come up with the initial melody and the basic song, and then we’ll work to flesh it out… we might all have ideas for general arrangements, but usually each player makes their own suggestion and then we batter it all out! Once we’re done with that I’ll write the words… I try to get them to fit in like another instrument, but also try to make sure they can stand up on their own.

You get compared to all sorts of people by the music press, including Belle and Sebastian, The Smiths and Tindersticks. How do you feel about those comparisons?

I don’t mind it – I like all of those bands! I was actually just thinking about that at the weekend, and how it doesn’t really matter what anyone says or writes about music… if you love a band, if you really feel something for a song, you’re blessed because it’s such a pure thing. And it’s just churlish to criticise it… the time you spend criticising it is better spent finding something you can love yourself.

What’s the most innaccurate comparison you’ve heard?

Without being specific, we’ve been compared to a few bands I’ve never heard anything by… that’s not to say it’s inaccurate, but I can say with my hand on my heart that it’s not deliberate!

How did you get involved with Glasgow Film Theatre?

I have a hit-list of places I want to play in Glasgow, and the Glasgow Film Theatre has always been very near the top of that list. We had to have a reason to play there though – and so I approached the people at the GFT about performing a live film score and then playing a Butcher Boy set. It was imperative that the event made sense and had a purpose, and that it fitted into the ethos of the GFT. I was delighted that they agreed to let us do it.

Is film a particular interest of the band?

The band are all movie fans… and speaking for myself, I love films as much as I love records.

Why did you choose to score the Cocozza film Chick’s Day?

I first saw the film at the GFT in around 2001 – it was screened as part of a wider programme on Enrico Cocozza. I’d never heard of him or of Chick’s Day before that. Thinking back, I was probably expecting a fairly slight, quaint film on provincial Scottish life from the 1940s and 1950s, but the power of the film left me speechless. It looks utterly modern and initially I found it quite confusing – I suppose you have an idea of what a Scottish film from the 1940s should be, and you expect either Whiskey Galore or something very brash and clipped from a Pathe news reel. I found it genuinely shocking, because it deals with violence and abuse in a matter-of-fact way that is unusual for movies even now. And at the same time, the cinematography is startling, it’s just beautiful. The movie is silent; it felt perfect for us.

Where do you get inspiration for your songs when you’re not scoring films?

Old letters, poetry, Charlie Brown strips, movies, walking around, Glasgow, looking out of the window… I made a blackboard on my birthday and wrote “Let’s Be French Now”, “Every Other Saturday” and “Send Me More Romance” on it and I think about those three phrases every night before I go to bed.

What’s your favourite of all the songs you’ve written? What’s your favourite to perform?

I love playing When I’m Asleep, you feel a part of it when you play it, it feels much bigger than just a collection of instruments… it feels absolutely whole. And my favourite songs tend to be the newest ones… so at the moment my favourite is one of the pieces we’ve written for Chick’s Day… it’s just piano, guitar, cello, violin and viola. It doesn’t have a proper name, but it plays as Chick slowly gets out of bed… it sounds very sleepy.

What bands did you grow up listening to? And do you think they’ve had much influence on the music you write now?

I loved pop music when I was growing up – I still do! I loved Madonna, A-Ha, Madness, all those big pop records. They certainly do have an influence on the music I write now – I do see us as a pop band, and I try to make sure we write with that in mind – nothing wasted!

Are there any up-and-coming bands you would recommend to FFS’s readers?

I think your readers might enjoy a band called the Just Joans… they are from Motherwell and they write really beautiful songs about provincial life – they’re just heartbreaking at times.

HDIF’s website says you sent anonymous poems under the guise of Butcher Boy to local papers. What was the reaction?

The reaction varied from indifference to bemusement! I did it mainly to give me a reason to get from week to week. I had it in my mind that I was doing something positive and good but I imagine that the people on the receiving end saw it differently. Hopefully they’ve forgotten it ever happened.

Do you still write poetry that’s separate from your lyrics?

I do still write poetry that separate from lyrics, though I do sometimes go back to the poems and end up turning them into songs.

You’re playing indietracks after the GFT show. What’ve you got planned for after those?

Once we’ve played Indietracks I’m going to buckle down and write our next record!

Interview: Lynn Roberts