The Builders and The Butchers cross borders and genres
Portland is a city whose name is practically synonymous with indie music—particularly the alternative folk scene. Conversely, Alaska is synonymous with … Sarah Palin?
In 2003 Ryan Sollee moved from Alaska to Portland with his band at the time, a punk rock outfit known as The Born Losers. With the dissolution of that project, and with the advantage of friendships forged in a cultural music hub, eventually came The Builders and The Butchers, Sollee’s current band coming to The Crepe Place on Sunday, Jan. 17. “I was (in Portland) a few years while my old band was winding down,” says Sollee, “and The Builders and The Butchers started out of that period.”
However, despite its frontman’s punk rock roots, The Builders and The Butchers—whose lineup is rounded out by Alex Ellis on acoustic bass, Harvey Tumbleson on the mandolin and banjo, Paul Seely providing percussion and trumpet, Ray Rude adding additional percussion, “and friends”—takes its cues from decidedly non-punk genres. “A lot of the band’s influences are in pre-1950s American music,” says Sollee, who claims he’s also inspired by storytelling songs along the lines of Johnny Cash. “I’ve always been drawn to Spanish music,” he says, naming Calexico as a parallel. “I enjoy writing every song like an American epic, to switch it up. Big drums. An epic, sweeping sound.”
In fact, the band does feature two percussionists on many songs to provide that epic tenor. “Our percussionists share one deconstructed drum kit,” describes Sollee. “Ray didn’t know what to play at first, so we put a bass drum in front of him and it went from there.” The effect makes for a big sound, but also contributes to the visual imagery Sollee associates with his music, including recent material which he describes as a “poor, desolate desert.”
Though The Builders and The Butchers may have eclectic influences, at no time does their genre-hopping feel the least bit contrived. “Our writing process really isn’t that thought out,” the songwriter explains. “It’s less direct, more organic.” Rather, he says that his musical evolution seems more a result of simply growing up.
But instead of abandoning his roots completely, Sollee has incorporated his punk past into his current gig. In addition to its Americana, blues, and Tex-Mex predilections, the band has a bent similar to that of post-punksters Murder By Death. In fact, Murder By Death specifically selected The Builders and the Butchers to join them on a U.S. tour in early 2009. “The (Murder By Death’s) tour manager had also managed a band we toured with before, so he suggested they check us out, and eventually they asked us to tour with them,” remembers Sollee. “It was an amazing tour, our favorite so far.”
And also very much like Murder By Death, each of The Builders and The Butchers’ two releases—2008’s self-titled album, and 2009’s Salvation is a Deep Dark Well—have very bizarre, but intriguing, cover art featuring abstract images of death and decay. “Our covers were done by an old friend named Lucas Ketner, and our first record even won an award in some arts magazine,” says a non-specific Sollee. “We just send him the songs and tell him to draw whatever [he can] think of.”
The Builders and The Butchers are currently doing an arduous jaunt throughout California which reflects the difficulties of ‘making it’ in the current music business climate. Despite the physical hardships of being in a band, Sollee says stoicly, “It doesn’t always make sense, but you get what you can get.”
The Builders and The Butchers perform with A Dark and Stormy Night at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $7. For more information, call 429-6994.