Thinking About A Friend: Bernard Butler Interviewed

On the improvisatory philosophy of Trans...

Pure, blissful creation.

Bernard Butler first crossed paths with Jackie McKeown in the early '00s. Asked to produce the Glasgow artist’s then-current venture 1990s (remember this?), the guitarist threw himself into the role: challenging, probing the group, with the experiment resulting in two full-length sets of maverick art-rock.

Thankfully, they stayed in touch. “We always said we’d do something, just for a laugh,” former Suede man Butler explains. “It came about from us wanting to get together and play guitar together at the same time. That was our plan. We didn’t intend to form a group or anything, or do anything at all, really – certainly not make a record. He came down to London, I said we should get in a room and mess about.”

Recruiting a few friends, the pair embarked on lengthy sessions where they simply made music. Freed from any constraints, the two friends were able to channel their energies in the loosest manner possible – ultimately forming their new group, Trans, alongside two further members, Igor Volk and Paul Borchers. “We don’t use references,” Butler insists. “We never use musical reference points, we never sit around listening to records. I think all the stuff we’re talking about is stuff that we have inherently just learned over the years, that’s just the way we think about things and that’s why we just get on. I think from the start we knew that the character of what we did together would complement and be in tune with each other. It was just about whether or not we’d do anything interesting from that.”

Recording everything, Butler would then sift through the epic jam sessions to find moments of clarity, of unexpected vision, to string together into something more coherent. “It’s all set up so I just press record and then pick up the guitar and we play, as everything is recorded,” he explains. “Every time we play, we record everything. That’s where a lot of the music comes from. On the record, everything has come from improvisations. I mean, everything. Everything you hear, to varying degrees.”

A long, potentially laborious task, Butler quickly found that this cut ‘n’ paste, mosaic-like method of composition was enormously freeing, resulting in all manner of unexpected sounds and combinations.

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"We’re just four musicians who have made records before, trying to challenge ourselves..."

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“All sorts of dynamics would change, and that’s what we really like about it,” he enthuses. “The fact that it’s very human, and it’s just whatever happened that day. It’s whatever happened and it was never going to happen again. We wanted to show what happens when four people go in a room. What really happens.” He snorts, before adding: “Not what happens when four people think about it, do an interview, write a song and then go in and spend four months with a producer and cut it all up in Pro Tools and do it with a click track, or whatever. I’d done all of those things, and it’s all great and I’ve made a lot of those records, but they don’t interest me anymore. I really wanted to go in a room and say, this is what actually happened. What you’re listening to is what actually happened on that day. Nothing else happened.”

Of course, not everything Trans recorded is worthy of public consumption, as Butler readily admits. “There’s lots of shit on there as well, obviously... un-useable nonsense!” he laughs. “That’s why it’s so diverse – we’re just trying to see what happens. We’re just four musicians who have made records before, trying to challenge ourselves. Saying: ‘I wonder what happens if we just go in a room without a song and just play something?’ An awful lot of people you would say that to would be terrified. They’d say: ‘What do you mean? Play what?’ It’s hard to explain that. You have to have the right people to get that.”

Starting slowly, Trans initially released their debut EP last year with scant information supplied about the musicians behind it. Live shows, too, were sporadic, with the band deliberately deciding to play tiny venues. “We’re trying to point people to the music at all times,” Butler says. “We’re not trying to point them to a fussy video, or a photo, or a video session, all that kind of rubbish. We’re just trying to point them at all times to just hear the music, to be intrigued by it. My favourite records, my favourite groups, are people that I’m intrigued by.”

“They’re not things that I’ve had shoved in my face for months on end,” he continues. “My favourite things are things that somebody you like will tell you about, or you’ll just hear out of the blue and you’ll try and search for. I wanted people to discover it in that way, because that’s the way I like hearing things myself.”

Colour-coding each release, Trans are aiming to build up a small yet unique catalogue, objects to be treasured by fans. “We’re colour coding them and that becomes a reference, the sleeve design essentially becomes the same for everyone and the colours can change. The design can subtly change, but they see it as the same thing. Basically, when we started thinking about releasing things, we wanted to look back in a year’s time and see a pile of records on the shelf and that each one would have a great spine and we would know what was on it and just start collecting like that, as EPs.”

Recorded live in the studio with no aim, no clear end in sight, the work Trans have offered thus far is an unexpectedly fresh ode to the guitar. Not in an endless Clapton blues-worship sense, of course, but something rather more challenging, more visceral and with more personality. “I think [Jackie and I are] both frustrated guitar players,” he insists. “I mean, this country’s sort of got a lack of great guitar players at the moment, or great records that are genuine. I hate the guitar record thing, because then you get ‘guitar groups’, that sort of thing. That suggests some sort of dodgy indie band. Whenever you get that coming along, actually they’re fairly shit anyway. They’re just typical skinny boys with skinny jeans and a guitar, but actually not doing anything very interesting.”

Finishing, Butler looks back on his own formative influences, the people who first inspired him to pick up the guitar. “I think there’s something with the sound of a guitar when it has a personality and a voice of its own, something the great guitar players always had. From Mick Ronson to Tom Verlaine to the great guitarists of the '90s, where I was lucky enough to be part of that period where there were three, four people who were really good and what they did lasted and made quite an impact.”

“I think since that period there’s been almost nobody,” he reflects. “I think we’ve forgotten what happens if you’ve got one person in a room who really knows how to play guitar, standing next to a drum kit and there’s nobody with a clear idea, nobody timing it, just making a noise. It’s the most straightforward, bare thing you can think of. It’s unbeatable.”

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Trans' new EP, 'Green', is out now.

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