7th Annual Yule Benefit: Interview with The Builders and The Butchers

photo by Kyle Johnson

photo by Kyle Johnson

On Saturday, December 12, KEXP presents the 7th annual Yule Benefit with a great lineup including two bands from Seattle and two from Portland: hometown heroes The Cave Singers and Grand Hallway, and representing the Rose City, The Thermals and a band we were blown away by at our broadcast from Musicfest Northwest this past September, The Builders and the Butchers.

Probably easiest to describe as “gothic Americana,” The Builders and The Butchers have once again managed to make death, darkness and even the devil seem attractive. With the release of their second album, Salvation Is A Deep Dark Well, the band has refined its bone-chilling sound, while staying true to the grave-digging melodies and possessed preacher vocals of their self-titled debut. Since escaping the subzero Alaskan terrain between 2002 and 2005 to play Portland’s sopping streets, the five transplanted country boys have collected numerous awards and embarked on several national tours, all the while holding onto their souls. And with two critically acclaimed albums under their belts, it’s about time The Builders embark on a European tour, which they’re knee-deep in right now. Frontman Ryan Sollee was kind enough to take the time to chat it up while extremely sick and on tour in Deutschland.

How’s it going over there in Germany? Are you getting a different vibe on the Euro-side or are you finding that audiences and fans are pretty much the same everywhere?

This is our first Euro tour and honestly it’s been interesting. The crowds have been amazing and the response excellent. On average the German crowds are better than the U.S., but there are places in the U.S. that are pretty untouchable. The vibe from Europe is that people are really excited about new music and the fans seem dedicated and very appreciative. Also, the catering is unbelievable! We are served a gourmet meal every night backstage.

Speaking of vibes, Salvation is a Deep Dark Well is definitely more refined and a little less raw than your debut album. How are fans reacting to it?

We were afraid folks who liked the first record wouldn’t like Salvation, and there are folks out there who are purists and who like the raw sound of the first record. But, the reaction to Salvation has been positive overall.

It’s been 3 or 4 years since you guys were playing on Portland’s rainy streets and busking in front of venues. Now you’re playing across the states and seas, and have already picked up some awards. How do you feel about your rapid success? Are you still in the honey-moon stage of it all does it all, or does it seem normal now?

Actually, this Halloween the band celebrated its four-year anniversary. With success no matter how great or small, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and realize that no matter what, it will continue to take a lot of hard work and time on the road to make this all work. Touring as much as we do quickly takes you out of the “honeymoon” stage of the band, but every day I try to tell myself that I am one of the luckiest people I know to be able to do this for a living.

Going back to the past, of all places, why move to peaceful Portland? I understand it’s a breeding ground for upcoming folk, indie and even Western-inspired bands. But still, nothing as deep and dark as The Builders?

You’re right. Portland is pretty peaceful, but there is a great current of music constantly flowing everywhere all around you. It’s great how bands get inspired by other bands and everyone keeps getting better. There are so many bands, that if they lived anywhere else, would be the best band in that town. But, because they live in Portland, they are just another band. As far as writing or inspiration for The Builders, the songs come from stories that often times are far removed from the immediate setting that I live in. That being said, winters in Portland can be pretty depressing, so maybe a bit of our band’s darkness comes from that.

I know you said you were a punk rock child growing up, and you only truly got into American Roots when you moved to Portland. What shifted inside of you or influenced you to start playing this dark, pseudo-Southern music?

As I moved into my late 20s, I found that I was just kind of naturally listening to less and less punk rock, which is a pretty natural thing as you get older. A lot of my friends in Portland were listening to old American music. To me, it had the same immediacy as punk rock, but with more captivating subject matters. I also started reading a lot of “southern gothic” literature. There’s some great stories behind struggles to survive, and a lot of joy as well.

You guys are known for your “trunk of percussion,” which is filled with random real and toy instruments. What’s currently in it and what does it bring to your performances?

Every tour folks steal a couple of things at every show, so when we get back we only have a few toys left, so we have to restock. I have a friend who lives near Seattle and does a lot of thrift store shopping who keeps us pretty stocked up.

What is your song writing process like? Still developing songs mainly live or at rehearsal?

I’ve always written the main skeleton of the song at home: the words, melody and main structure. I try to stay very open minded about where the song goes once I introduce it to the band because they have better ideas than I do usually. We like to get a song basically down in practice, but there are little changes live that can happen that we will adopt. I would say it’s rare that a song stays the same the first time we play it live.

Is there a favorite song you guys play, one in particular that just possesses you and brings you together as a band? Can you explain what happens on stage?

It’s different for every member of the band. My favorite tends to be whatever the newest song is. Right now it’s a song called, “Black Elevator,” which ends with a really fun musical part which then transitions into “Black Dresses”.

I read that you’re a bit guilty of getting stuck on the same topics for a while. Do you think you guys are going to stick to this heaven and hell, dark and light, good and evil sort of theme (both vocally and musically) that’s got you where you’re at today? Or, do you want to eventually mix it up and explore different themes?

I think as an artist you have to move forward and try different themes and approaches. The trick is not trying to be too conscious of it. I think that these topics are broad enough to keep it interesting: look at how many songs there are about love. The trick for me is to change the language and look at these topics from other angles.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen or experienced at a show or during a tour?

Driving through a three-hour lightning storm in the Midwest.

When you’re not playing gigs, what do you do for fun in Portland?

Checking out a show with my wife. Fishing and or camping with friends.

I’ve been dying to ask you, do you consider yourself more of a builder or butcher in regards to music, life, whatever?

Definitely equal parts. Not to get to philosophical, it seems like people destroy what they create.

What’s next? Working on a new album?

Gonna use December to write and January to tour, and hopefully go in and record in the spring.

Make sure to catch The Builders and The Butchers at the 7th annual Yule Benefit on Saturday, December 12 at Nuemos before they head down to Portland. Tickets are on sale now at Moe Bar, select QFC stores, and Rudy’s Barbershops for $20 advanced and $22 day-of-show. Tickets are also available with a service charge at Ticketswest.com. The event is 21 and over, and doors open at 8 p.m.

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