Trans(formation): Bernard Butler talks to Northern Soul
If The Smiths were the great indie band of the ‘80s then Suede set the pace in the next decade.
A key element of their massive success was the melodic guitar playing of Bernard Butler who is now back on the road with his new band Trans after years in the studio twiddling the knobs for big names like Duffy and Texas.
“Computers don’t have personalities so that is one thing you can’t achieve between yourself and a laptop,” says Butler. “When you put four people in a room something happens that is unique, it has to because all human beings are different.
“I wanted to have that feeling of being in a room with people with no direction to see what happens, without any editing and technology in the way, taking the most simple way to make some noise and finding out what we like about it.”
Trans started off after a jokey exchange of texts with former 1990s guitarist Jackie McKeown as they egged each other on to form a band – and Trans was created around improvised, freeform jams.
“We’d play for half an hour at a time, and we did it for couple of days once a month, then we started to listen to what we’d done,” recalls Butler. “Although they are often endless jams we were saying that five minutes there is great, or that minute is amazing, but what would happen if we join them together? Not moving things within what we’d played, but taking whole section of jams and splicing it together with another section. From there we mumbled some words and phrases we mixed in over the top so that’s how it evolved.”
The second time they played, this gang of virtuosi were faced with the ultimate improvisation challenge playing alongside former Can legend Damo Suzuki who has spent the last four decades making it up on the spot.
“We were playing the Shacklewell Arms in London on the Friday and Damo was doing it the next night. Someone asked us to do a session with him, so we said hello to him before and then we just started playing.
“He stands in the audience watching you for a while then jumps on stage, grabs the microphone and start joining in. It’s funny as we played for about half an hour, really freeform, and then we didn’t even speak to him afterwards.”
Meeting the Damo test was an education for Butler who is operating in an area a world away from his partnership with Brett Anderson.
“It made us feel we were capable of doing this because if Suede had been the kind of group that jammed or improvised then it would have been awful,” laughs Butler. “Suede said we’d really never do that which was a good thing as it would never have worked. But with Trans we wanted a blank canvas to see what happens.
“People coming to see Trans will see what we do that night, and it will be something different the next.”
But Butler’s innate ear for a melody means Trans won’t be a tedious drone fest, and he takes inspiration from his hero Johnny Marr.
“If you look at Johnny he is a genius with melody so his music is very uplifting and colourful,” notes Butler. “It means you can be much more dangerous with sound because if you have melody it is easy to make the sound more aggressive or dynamic because you know it will be listenable .
“It’s like with the Velvets where you take Sweet Jane, or a pretty one like Sunday Morning which is played in such a slapdash way, but because the melody is so good that’s what makes it unique.”
Despite a few hits with the honey-voiced David McAlmont, the last few years has seen Butler firmly ensconced in the producer’s chair. But now he is not only on the road with Trans, he is also backing another indie guitar god Ben Watt on his upcoming tour.
“He wanted to stop DJ-ing and I wanted to get out of the studio so we’d met at someone’s house, got talking, then Ben just called me up and said I’d like to play you some songs. It turned out as I’d begun to get Trans together he was writing his solo album, and I love playing live with Ben as it is totally different to Trans as that is my thing, but with Ben I’m his sidekick. He gave me free rein after I’d felt my way round the songs and it’s amazing because he is a brilliant guitarist, and someone I look up to as a musician.”
By Paul Clarke
Bernard Butler returns with Ben Watt at The Greystones Sheffield (April 15), Newcastle Cluny 2 (April 16), Liverpool East Village Arts Club (April 17), Hebden Bridge Trades Club (April 18). For more dates log on here: http://benwatt.com/dates
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