Hometown: Portland, Ore.?
Album: Salvation is a Deep Dark Well?
Band Members: Alex Ellis (bass, vocals, percussion), Brendon Hafer (drums, percussion), Ray Rude (drums, keyboards, vocals, percussion), Ryan Sollee (vocals, guitar, percussion), Harvey Tumbleson (mandolin, banjo, guitar, other stringed things, vocals, percussion)
For Fans Of: The Avett Brothers, Bad Livers, Waco Brothers
Nearly everything about Portland-based punkgrass collective The Builders And The Butchers bears the distinct whiff of serendipity. For starters, the quintet of Anchorage, Alaska-area transplants settled in their new hometown almost entirely by happenstance. “I moved here on a whim,” says bassist Alex Ellis over a round of beers at the Night Light Lounge, the band’s favorite Rose City watering hole.
“I just threw all my stuff in a hockey bag, and a week later I was in Portland,” adds multi-instrumentalist Harvey Tumbleson.
“I decided I was going to move, didn’t have a job, was in a band that wasn’t really all that serious,” says frontman Ryan Sollee. “And I was just getting into old Americana music—everyone in this band has a soft spot for that. So we met up and started playing these songs together. It wasn’t planned out or anything. It just happened.”
This collective reliance on instinct, plus a shared belief “happy accidents” and a DIY work ethic that’s equal parts punk and Woody Guthrie, has guided the group’s development from the start. The band’s early live performances often took on the improvisational air of a curbside busking session, in part because of their al fresco rehearsal tendencies. “In the beginning, we didn’t really care if people were listening to us, anyway,” says Tumbleson. “We were practicing one night at Ryan’s apartment and said, ‘Do you just wanna move it outside?’”
Sollee nods in agreement: “It’s so much more fun when you can just play, and have people there with you, no stage, no wall, no distance with the audience.”
The Builders And The Butchers' musical output is something of a Pentecostal throw-down—the musical underpinnings are reminiscent of bluegrass, but the performances are raw and unschooled, with Sollee in particular throwing off a maniacally ecclesiastical sort of energy. Imagine the Violent Femmes with all the goofy irony cast aside, and you’ll get a sense of the dark, sparkling, Leadbelly-like terrain covered by death-fixated epics such as “Bottom of the Lake” and “The Gallows.” Thick with characters who bear more in common with Steinbeck’s dustbowl downtrodden than their contemporary counterparts, the band's songwriting is almost entirely instinctive. “If a song isn’t coming together naturally for us, we’ll scrap it and move on to the next one,” explains Sollee. “If we have to battle with it, then it’s probably not for us.”
Unlike their eponymous 2007 debut (recorded with only two mics in their next-door neighbor’s living room), The Builders And The Butchers’ latest, Salvation is a Deep Dark Well (out now via Gigantic Music) finds the band employing more sophisticated recording techniques courtesy of its producer, fellow bluegrass aficionado and Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk. The result is a bit more polished, but layered vocals contributed by an ad hoc gospel group and Portland's Flash Choir, plus horn charts and sweeping string sections, infuse the tracks with more tent-revival fervor than ever before.
But don't mistake this new professional sheen for the band giving up the exuberant shagginess for which they've become known—rest assured, they won't be featured in Guitar Player any time soon. “We’re all self-taught musicians,” explains Sollee. “So we definitely don’t go by the proper rules.”
“We don’t actually know the rules,” Tumbleson laughs. “We’re just making shit up as we go along.”