Kool Kat of the Week: Playing with Scissors, Dreaming of Unspiralled Stairs and Hiding Plastic Spiders with Jeffrey Butzer

Jeffrey Butzer with accordion. Photo credit: Melissa J. Butzer.

Cinematic. Haunting. Minimalist. Unique. Perfect.  All of these words could describe Jeffrey Butzer‘s eclectic sound rendered with such unusual instrument choices as accordion, toy piano and glockenspiel. The motto of his live shows might be “expect the unexpected” in the best possible way, and his previous recordings and videos, solo and with bands The Bicycle Eaters and The Compartmentalists, have attracted praise from Canadian film director Guy Maddin (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD) and film critic Roger Ebert. In other words, if all you know about Jeffrey is his Charlie Brown Christmas tribute show (read our article about it here), you’re in for a real treat at the release party for Jeffrey Butzer and the Bicycle Eaters’ new 7-inch HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS (The Great Big) this Saturday night March 31 at The Earl.

ATLRetro caught up with Jeffrey recently to find out more about HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS, the influence of Spaghetti Western scores and scissors on his unique sound, and what it was like to wake up Roger Ebert in the middle of the night.

Just the title HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS suggests a story behind the music. What’s on it, how did you come to write the songs and is it true it will be on red vinyl?

This might not be as mysterious as a back story as one might want to hear, [but] the title refers to something my wife and I did when we first met. We worked together, and at our job we had a bunch of magnetic spiders that were a promotional item for a film and we would hide them from each other. It is a fond memory of us getting to know each other (13 years ago, now). It is on red vinyl; it looks like a Jolly Rancher.

This is the first release as Jeffrey Butzer and the Bicycle Eaters, these are all songs that I came in with the basic structure and melodies, and they “fixed them up.” Kristin [Jarvis] and Chad [Shivers] are amazing with melodies and counter-melodies. Eric [Balint] is like a secret weapon; he knows just what to and not to do and the right times. And William [J. Brisby] has played bass in almost every project and has never missed one single note. That is not a joke.

What was it like recording with a band and a producer?

It was wonderful. I’ve known Luci, the producer, for a very long time, and he is patient and a perfectionist. He slows me down in a good way. He really excels at everything he tries. He’s an amazing photographer, musician and a great dresser. And recording with a band in the past has been impractical. Normally I multi-track the parts, then bring in other musicians after the fact. On this, it was really nice being able to record with most of us in the room; it added a nice mood to the record.

How did you hook up with Gea who directed the video of Case of Unspiralled Stairs ?

I’ve known her for several years; we are both big film enthusiasts. I liked her artwork and asked her if she wanted to do a video for the record, and thankfully she did and it turned out really great.

So Roger Ebert posts the video for “Case of Unspiralled Stairs” on Facebook and says “I woke up in the middle of the night. Jeffrey Butzer had sent me this. That was the perfect time to view it. My mind was still halfway in dreams.” How cool was that and was that the response you had hoped for from it?

It was very cool! I didn’t really know what to expect. He had never really commented when I sent him videos before. I “know” him through a secret society that he and I are both members of. Along with Ken Keeler (FUTURAMA), Neil Gaiman and Guy Maddin.

Speaking of Guy Maddin, how did you meet him and get him to do alternate cover artwork for HIDING PLASTIC SPIDERS?

I scored a film called BIRDCATCHER that Guy saw, and we sort of became friends. I am going to hang out with him in New York in a couple weeks! I saw the collages that he made, and he agreed to let us use [one of] them as cover art!

When your music is paired with video, it reminds me of a lost 1950s/60s existentialist French film. Can you talk a bit about how film has influenced your sound and visuals?

Film has always been the band’s biggest influence. All the greats: Buster Keaton, Fellini, Bunuel and Penny Marshall… well, maybe not her so much. I think when I first started making music I wanted to sound like certain artists. But as I got older, other mediums began to influence my music more, especially film. The instrumental music that we make is mostly about mood, much like the film style you mentioned. So I think the approach and what we are trying to achieve isn’t that far apart.

Some have heard the influence of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores. Are you a Spaghetti Western fan? What are your favorite films/scores from that genre?

I’m way more into Spaghetti Western music than into the films. There are several I really enjoy. They’re so style-driven that you can really just watch scenes from them isolated from the movie. If I were to name some I like: THE GRAND DUEL and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The other band I’m in The Compartmentalizationalists touches more on the genre than the Bicycle Eaters.

Scissors play a key role in your video for “Lucy 5’s Egg” and I understand you dangle them on stage as well in some of your gigs. Why scissors, and will scissors be part of this week’s show?

I wrote lyrics to a song a really long time ago that had the lines “on a pillar in the sky, a sleeping woman lies, dreaming of the garden of scissors.” I really liked the image. I wrote a screenplay and an album based on that line, and it has sort of stuck as a motif over the years.

An image from the haunting video for "Case of Unspiralled Stairs."

The toy piano, accordion and glockenspiel are unusual instruments for a contemporary musician. What drew you to them?

I like how whimsical they sound together. I never wanted to make music that is old-fashioned or heavily referenced by something from the past. But on the other hand, nostalgia interests me a lot. I first heard toy pianos used a lot by Rob Burger and Margaret Leng Tan.

Why the “Bicycle-Eaters”?

That is a bit of an inside joke. The short version is just that my friend Matt Benard, who plays bass with us, sometimes knows a guy who, in fact…ate a bicycle.

Your gigs are known to include the unexpected, but without giving any big surprises, do you have any special plans for this week’s show at The Earl?

We have a couple OF guest singers and an unusual cover song we are doing. If I tell you anymore, it won’t be unexpected. ZING!

When will your new CD “COLLAPSIBLE” be released and what can you share about it?

I’m not sure. I am hoping for a May release at the Goat Farm. It is a collection of songs played mostly with small arrangements. So far it is just a solo album. I have had a few songs floating around for a while and I record at night after my son goes to sleep. Some are new interpretations of songs I have releases before – only a few though.

I have an odd process. I always set out to make an album with a list of songs in hand. Then when I’m done, as with this one, I cut half of the songs I originally wanted on and record a bunch of new things. For this album, which has between 12-15 songs, I recorded around 35… so far.

What else is up with Jeffrey Butzer? We’ve heard you’ve done some interesting collaborations lately and even dipped into film and theatrical scoring. Any more team-ups planned with Molly Harvey (The Residents)? And aren’t you going to Poland?

Molly and I are planning some shows. Some as a duo and some with a band. Other than that, I’ve got the score for PETER PAN at the Center for Puppetry Arts that starts playing April 5. I am recording a Compartmentalizationalists album with Claire Lodge and Nico from the band Places. Then I am taking a break in June when my second son will be born!  The Poland trip has been put on hold. Hopefully later on we will still go.

 

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22 Responses to “Kool Kat of the Week: Playing with Scissors, Dreaming of Unspiralled Stairs and Hiding Plastic Spiders with Jeffrey Butzer”


  1. marcia
    on Mar 28th, 2012
    @ 3:39 pm

    Jeffrey is a brilliant musician and composer, and he obviously has a great sense of humor. There are so many copycats and wannabes flooding the mainstream market that when you hear music like this, it really makes you enjoy music again. I wish Jeffrey and the Bicycle Eaters great success.


  2. claire
    on Apr 1st, 2012
    @ 10:53 am

    I love that “penny marshall” is a tag on this interview. just sayin’

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