Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Mercury Rising. The Butch Young interview

New Jersey native Butch Young’s debut album Mercury Man is an absolute pop treat brimming with great songs beautifully played and wrapped in a gloriously Beatlesque production awash with enough harmonies and hooks that grab you from the first play and never let go. Butch has one of those warm honey drenched voices and a knack for memorable and charming melodies that make this album a winner to be cherished. Time for us to sit down with this abundantly talented fellow and find out about it’s creation and more.

What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?
I have a memory from kindergarten. It was recess and lots of kids were playing on the asphalt playground. The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” was blaring (mono) from someone’s transistor radio. I was inexplicably filled with manic energy. I didn’t know how to process the joy it was bringing me. I began briskly walking around in concentric circles -- and continued doing so for the duration of the song -- marveling at its melody and pondering its lyrics. The subject matter of love was already fascinating to me -- and this notion of love being “bought” -- with money and/or in exchange for material goods -- was a wholly new concept to me. The singer was unapologetically acknowledging his lack of wealth or worldly goods, essentially saying: “I have nothing fancy nor expensive to offer you – but that’s not what real love is about, anyway.” As a music-loving boy born of somewhat modest means, the experience inspired me on multiple levels.
I have another vivid memory of hearing 'Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” – and getting goose-flesh (horripilation) when he sang the first note of the second verse. What was this otherworldly “eargasm?” Though in this case, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the lyrics, besides a general sense that the singer was wooing some girl. Despite the abstract nature of the words, they seemed to match the music perfectly.
Such was the soundtrack of my first schoolyard crushes.

Which music artists first made you sit up and take notice?
The Beatles, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Zombies. My older sisters had 45s of many great pop songs, which I’d often spin, as well. The Monkees TV show, Beatles cartoons and Partridge Family show were enormously impactful.

When did you start playing an instrument?
I began taking guitar lessons at ten years old. I’d originally asked to play the drums and my dad was eying the Sears catalogue for an affordable set. My mom’s resistance to that level of noise was steadfast, so the guitar became an agreeable-enough compromise. I received lessons from a super-cool dude who lived across the street. He was in a great cover band that played in his basement (with the windows open, thankfully). I have such fond memories of hearing his group rehearse all this great music (including lots of Bread songs + radio hits like “Ride Captain Ride” and “Reflections of my Life”). So there was all this groovy live music filling the immediate neighborhood during the summer – which really inspired me to play myself. I was taught some music theory along with some scales -- playing mostly corny songs through the The Mel Bay method. After a few years of acoustic guitar, my teacher suggested I move on to electric guitar – and so my father (God bless him!) sprang for a Gibson SG and a sweet Fender Twin on my 13th Christmas. We were by no means rich – if even middle class – so I was quite fortunate my dad provided me with a couple of quality guitars, an amp plus lessons between the ages of 10 and 13. I set about learning the guitar solos to such songs as “Shambala” and “Something.”

When did you start writing songs?
At 18 years old. I’d noodled around at songwriting for years before that – but never really finished anything that could structurally be considered a “song.” This is not to say any of them were good songs -- but I was bitten by the songwriting bug and stayed at it.
Were you in any bands?
I was in the 6th grade when I joined my first band, accordingly named “The 6th Sense” with some classmates. I was among the two electric guitar players. We had a drummer but no bass player. We did have a horn section, though – two trumpets and a sax. “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Spinning Wheel” and various Chicago tunes were among the repertoire we played at parties. A great bunch of guys -- and quite capable players for their ages.
I moved out of my house at 19 (for a spell, anyway) to live with a couple of musicians in Lake Hopatcong who were renting some shithole of an apartment. We literally lived on toast for about a month while we wood-shopped some of my tunes along with some of theirs. We wound up bickering over inane things and split up before playing a single show.
Later I formed another band with some local friends in Wayne, NJ. We played some parties.
While in my early-to-mid 20’s my pal Nick Celeste and I formed a Power Pop band called “In Color.” We played some NJ and NY clubs and did some recording.
I’ve been a solo artist since relocating to Los Angeles. Occasionally I enlist some musicians (on an ad hoc basis) such as (primary “Mercury Man” collaborator) Matt Lee and/or Robbie Rist and/or Dramarama’s Mark Englert to accompany me for a local gig or radio show performance. I’ll be doing more of that.

Tell me about some of your previous recording projects.
I’ve always been home-recording my material. I began with some crude multi-tracking by employing a pair of portable tape recorders. Then came the 2-track reel-to-reel, followed by a 4-track machine. Currently I record digitally (on Cubase) in my living room.
When I was 18 or 19, I’d saved some money from my part-time jobs and recorded a few stripped-down (acoustic guitar and voice) demos at a neighborhood recording studio called The Barge. I told my buddy John Easdale about the place and he began making demos there as well. 
While I was a member of “In Color,” we recorded an EP at The Barge and released it on Dramarama’s label, Question Mark Records. Dramarama also recorded an EP at The Barge, along with their first album. Nick Celeste and I contributed backing vocals to their album “Cinema Verite” (on the song “Femme Fatale”).
Soon after, Nick sent some 4 track demos we’d made (of newer songs we’d written) to The Bongos’ Richard Barone. He liked them enough to produce 5 songs for us at yet another local recording studio, Mixolydian. Richard also played and sang on some of those demos.

When Nick grew busier playing with "In Color" producer Richard Barone's solo act, I ventured westward – joining fellow Wayne transplants Dramarama in L.A. I sang some backing vocals on their album “Hi Fi Sci Fi” (joining Dwight Twilley on a song called “Senseless Fun”) – and concurrently recorded my own material with various Dramarama dudes at Hollywood’s Music Box Studios.
Before home-recording the “Mercury Man” album, I’d recorded some of my songs at the home studio of (the late) Rick Rosas (aka: “Rick The Bass Player”). These recordings  were produced by Richard Bosworth (The Knack, Johnny Rivers) and Dramarama’s Chris Carter. Rick played bass with Neil Young and Joe Walsh -- and appeared with Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield in the movie “Ricki and the Flash" in fact, that movie is dedicated to Rick, an uncommonly kind and talented soul. He’s also featured in Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young documentary, “Heart of Gold.” Besides having Rick on bass, I was fortunate to have drummer Phil Jones (Tom Petty), guitarist Berton Averre (The Knack) and backing vocals by Dramarama’s John Easdale and Tom Mullaney along with Edan Everly (Don’s son).
Edan and I co-wrote a few songs and made 4-track demos of them. Around this same time I co-wrote some songs with a mutual friend and music journalist named Ben Fisher -- which were recorded on his ADAT machine in Laurel Canyon.
Subsequently producer/engineer Richard Bosworth and I enlisted Berton Averre again to play on my song, “By Invitation.” I forget which Hollywood studio we used for that.

How did the “Mercury Man” album come together?
I’d been writing and recording digitally (on Cubase) in my living room for quite a while. I had a few dozen songs in various stages of completion. I eventually resolved to fine-tune 10 – 20 of them and release the best of it as an album. I enlisted the help of guitarist/bassist Matt Lee (who played all the electric guitar and two-thirds of the bass lines), bassist/backing vocalist Patric Hayes, drummers Mike Wachs and Daniel Stone -- along with some backing vocal help from Charlene Warren and Kristen Mercado.

How was the recording process?
Recording at home certainly has at least one major upside: No clock ticking, no expense for the actual recording. Though I did modestly compensate some contributors, I certainly benefitted from a lot of friendly good will. Conversely, my very modest and humble array of equipment hardly rivals the home studios belonging to many home recordists I know – let alone a “real” studio. (Though it’s all relative; I imagine some are working with even less than myself in that regard). It would have been wonderful to have had an actual budget with which to apply to a proper recording studio (or even one markedly better than my own), not to mention additional session players and a more proven/capable producer than myself.

How happy are you with the finished album?
Reasonably happy, I suppose. Many compromises were unavoidable -- as my digital recording gear is bare-bones and certainly nothing to write home about (though the few instruments I do own are of good quality). I couldn’t afford to pay as many session players as I’d have liked. The World of Midi allowed for some compromises to be adequately arrived at. There are some instruments I’d have loved to have employed which I don’t happen to own or have free access to. On the other hand, I’ve seen some artists make excellent music on Tascam 4 track machines – so it’s all relative – and I should be careful not make excuses.
I am quite happy with the contributions of the supporting musicians and vocalists who did participate – as well as the mixing and mastering done by Alan Brownstein. I am also pleased with the CD artwork and design assistance I received from (Grammy winner) Rachel Gutek.

Were there songs you didn’t use?
There were many songs (largely fleshed-out recordings) I didn’t use; for a variety of reasons, they didn’t seem to quite fit and/or measure-up. Some may appear on subsequent releases. Some of those demos may be scrapped and begun anew.

What are your favorites on the record?
“Persephone,” “The Fools of May” and “Asteriod.” Though if you ask me again tomorrow, I might cite an entirely different bunch.

How does the song writing process work with you?
Lots of trial and error. Aside from the occasional bursts of inspiration that seem to pretty quickly yield a fully-realized song, much of the time it’s a relentlessly merciless Road To Nowhere: hours spent in vain pursuit of something that never quite comes to satisfying fruition. I expect all writers must accumulate quarries of such detritus in their attempts to sculpt a gem (or anything that glistens) out of all that cold stone.
I typically write the chord progression and melody first -- and subsequently add the lyrics. I’d find it very difficult to do it the other way around – because the melody provides a fixed number of syllables to which the words can be affixed/assigned. The idea of having to make the melody fit an already-fixed number of syllables seems to me a most unwelcome modus operandi.
I’m not usually successful when I sit down with the premeditated intent of writing a song – though there have been some exceptions. It usually happens when I’m abstractly noodling around on guitar or piano with a chord sequence or a riff/figure. Either simultaneously or subsequently, I’ll start singing a snippet of melody (often with nonsensical words that are somehow phonetically suitable). If not actual words, I immediately get a strong sense of what kinds of consonants or vowels seem to fit a given part of the melody. Some songs come pretty quickly, while others require many hours/days/weeks or repetition to find a suitable way of proceeding to the next section of the song.
Once I have a little piece or two that I like (a song-snippet), it becomes very much like completing a puzzle – except the pieces are not visible; they must be intuited using other senses/impulses. I operate with the mindset that (if this song-snippet is any good to begin with) there’s already a way in which this puzzle is supposed to fit together – and it’s my assignment to find it. I guess this sounds a bit pretentious and/or delusional (it’s probably both) but I believe there are at best a very limited number of suitable options (that could result in any song-snippet evolving into a complete song) – and only one option that is the ideal one.
I’ve written 95% of my songs alone -- which would seem the most suitable mode for indulging such notions/delusions. But of course, when co-writing, this mindset must be largely abandoned – because another writer may arrive at an equally (or more) suitable song-section (which manifests how they are convinced the song should best be realized).
The universe -- and music -- are as much governed by order/design (math) as they are by random chaos. A song is (in some ways) a mathematical entity, and (once a Piece-of-the-Whole has been arrived at) it’s the songwriter’s assignment to construct the correct equation. If lyrics (or poems) follow a meter or form (such as a sonnet or haiku) there is a mathematical component present in that aspect of the song, as well.
I tend to see things in mystical terms. Paul McCartney claims he dreamed (at least some of) the melody to “Yesterday.” This sort of anecdote further fuels my perception that the notes (and/or chord progressions) – however simple or complicated – are like low-hanging fruit, somewhere in the ether/subconscious/adjacent-dimension. We’re already (unwittingly) amidst these equations/forms/songs. “There within your reach, if you’re big enough to take it.”
Once I have something approximating a Verse, Chorus, Intro and/or Bridge, I casually/quickly record some scratch tracks of guitar, piano and a very basic drum track. Sometimes I’ll add an additional track of acoustic guitar or piano that demonstrates the melody. Now I can step away from the subjective restraints of proactively performing the song and switch to an objective mode of passive listening. I play it over (and over) again (including while I shower, drive, clean and/or cook), singing along with any phrases that come to mind -- until a light goes off as to what it seems should come next. Even if it’s just a good choice for the first chord of the next section, that can really get the ball rolling.
Once the entire song structure is complete (chord progressions and melodies of the Intro/Verse/Chorus/Bridge) I replay that word-less, bare-bones-demo over-and-over as I endeavor to write the lyrics. Whereas I imagine there only being one ideal way the music meant to go, I sometimes find the lyrics very daunting – because the options seem almost limitless! Nonetheless, the tougher assignment (by a mile) is writing the music. Once I have that, I know I’ll be able to add suitable lyrics -- but good chord progressions and melodies typically prove more elusive.

Are you slow or prolific?
Both. Alternately. I have bursts in which I can write two songs in a day -- and other times when I struggle to write one decent song over two months. I am pretty prolific in terms of stacking up demos of songs (or song-snippets) – and I have more of them than I could ever get around to recording. So even when I’m coping with a bout of writer’s block, I seize the option of further fleshing-out something already written. When I’m stumped in writing the musical aspect, I switch to lyric writing (and vice-versa). Rather than bang my head against the wall for too long on a single song, I find switching around to working on various ones helpful. It’s often extremely challenging to decide which ones are most-worthy of recording. I can be easily swayed by any random opinion(s) -- because I’m constantly second-guessing whether I’ve chosen the best ones to put all that recording work into.

What would you say were your biggest influences?
I guess I should cite the influences that are presumably the most apparent in my sound -- because I love lots of music that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself so obviously in my music. The Beatles, The Monkees, XTC, ELO, Elliott Smith, Tahiti 80, Gilbert O’Sullivan, David Bowie, T. Rex, Beck, The Kinks.

How’s the feedback to the album been so far?
It’s been pretty positive (though not without some fairly warranted critiques of its perceived limitations). I’m grateful to have received a pretty good amount of anecdotal feedback that’s been encouraging. Some reviewers, DJs and other artists I admire seem to like it. I take it all with a big grain of salt, of course. It’s sold more copies than I’d anticipated.

How about you giving us a song-by-song breakdown of all the songs on the album while we are here?
1. Mercury Man:
A vaguely Ziggy Stardust-like story book narrative/faux myth about some kind of messianic super hero; so lonely – and so weary of saving the day.
2. Persephone:
A retelling of the Persephone (Greek) myth. This is one of the relatively rare occasions in which my lyrics “stay on the subject” in a linear way -- as opposed to the usual abstractions I more commonly employ.
3. One Foot In
These lyrics very loosely address tentativeness/indecision/procrastination vis-à-vis mortality and our ultimately inconsequential role in The Big Picture.
4. Dime Store Jesus
When I first arrived at this title, I naively believed no one had ever uttered this bizarre phrase -- whereas it turns out it’s actually “a thing” – like the Dashboard Jesus – which are little religious trinkets/toys. In the context I’d imagined this character, he’s an actual person (probably homeless and/or nuts) who hangs around the discount store, diner and gas station telling people he’s Jesus. He’s harmless enough and naturally in the social orbit of such characters as Sidewalk Caesar (you can easily guess his brand of delusion). On some level I think the Intro/Bridge/Outro section (which is somewhat more serious/pensive in musical and lyrical tone than the other sections of song) is intended to imply: “What if… he really is Jesus…?” That section of the song is meant to stand in contrast to the more flippant/dismissive/humoring tone of the other lyrics and vibe of the song. It’s all very tongue-in cheek (till it’s not).
 5. The Fools of May
I imagined a vaguely Renaissance combo of lute players – a band called “The Fools of May.” They pluck away at wistful songs of unfulfilled love before the main act takes the stage. I may have also had some Tennyson in mind: “In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
6. Child of Nature
Turbulence at home drives the eponymous kid out of the house – seeking solace and discovery in the woods, the lake and the star-filled sky. It’s extremely nostalgic in tone. It may be my only song without a (proper) chorus. I actually had a melody that went over that slide guitar section (which is essentially the chorus section) but later concluded that the sung melody did more harm than good. That “chorus/intro” section starts-out in a minor mode, a bit darker in tone than the sweeter chords that dominate the ‘A’ section of the verse. This contrast (lyrically and chord-wise) in tone was deliberate.
7. Sunday Driver
Another of the relatively rare cases wherein I stay on the same subject lyrically; nothing abstract about these lyrics. I am fully cognizant of the very high Corn Factor in play here. It’s preposterously quaint and silly subject matter – very hard to sing with a straight face -- yet I concluded this was the just sort of topic the melody and chord progression called for.
8. Mohammed on Top of the Mountain
In this case (the opposite of “Dime Store Jesus”), I thought this phrase was “a thing” – as in: when one is “feeling on top of the world” – the euphoric rush of having arrived at the zenith (physically and/or psychotropically) -- to have pushed past all boundaries and fears. I vaguely thought this phrase was somewhere in the religious text. But it’s not. This is not a phrase that others have commonly (if ever) used in any context -- which did not bode well for my lyrics “connecting” with the listener. So, did I change my lyrics – perhaps to something about “Obama” or “your mama”? Hell, no! I liked the phonetics too much to change them for such pedestrian purposes as making sense! (* Note to Jihadists: please don’t behead me -- because I don’t say anything bad about him; your cooperation is greatly appreciated). In my wacky little ditty, the phrase (very abstractly) references drug euphoria. I had a drug dealer in the Hollywood Hills named Mohammed, which further inspired this wordplay. I’d often get some seriously mind-altering substances together with My Drug Buddy and go out on death-and-sleep-defying benders designed to wreak havoc on the rest of my life. I frequently succeeded!

9. Algernon
This one was vaguely inspired by “Flowers for Algernon”- which was very sad story about a developmentally-challenged man (with the IQ of a small child) who’s exposed to an experimental drug (prefaced by an experiment on a mouse named Algernon) which makes him (like Algernon) supremely brilliant. Algernon is flying through his mazes and this lucky man is now a genius. Better yet, he finds the love he’s felt all along for the beautiful scientist (who’s part of the experiment’s team) finally reciprocated. But after some weeks, the effects of the drug/experiment falter, and he loses his smarts and the girl. Algernon devolves back into just another confused mouse in a maze. The sense of melancholy I felt as a boy when I read the book (and saw the movie starring Cliff Robertson) inspired this one. At one point I rewrote the lyrics so that it would much more closely hew to the (fictitious) story of the book/movie – but The Phonetics got lost. Sure, it made much more sense, but linguistically it lost its mojo. It must sound like I’m singing a love song to a man named “Algernon” – but I’d never wreck my song lyrics out of some silly fear of being mistaken for gay.
10. Asteroid
The idea of a randomly-careening asteroid definitely served as a metaphor. It’s loosely about a hard-partying person who’s always flying high on drugs, without regard for other people or responsibilities. The highs are super-high and fun -- but then coming back to “down to earth” (hangover/shame/regret) is the super-low. (Though asteroids don’t actually come back to earth; mea culpa, Neil deGrasse Tyson). I had a very wild drug-buddy/girlfriend once, with whom I recklessly cavorted. At other times (such as the narrator of this song), I’ve been the sober/responsible one -- while someone close to me is flying off the rails. I suppose in this song I’m alternately addressing (a former version of) myself.
11. Wonderful Life
Just an amalgam of imagery involving the joys of life and love and the inevitability of death – and our characteristic tendency not to meaningfully recognize either.
12. Starlit Lullaby
A bedtime story or lullaby, waxing poetic (as elsewhere on the album) on the wonders of nature. It’s also vaguely about the end of a relationship – or death – it’s “goodnight, lights-out.”

Thanks for that Butch and what are your future plans?
I’m working on a follow-up album (of similarly home-recorded material) and planning more live performances. I’m reaching out to other musicians with whom I can collaborate on both fronts.


Anonymous said...


The Time Machine said...

Wonderful interview. Quite insightful and detailed. Great read.