Creating His Own Sound: An Interview With John Butcher

Photo by Sean Kelly

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John Butcher’s LP series with Ni Vu Ni Connu has been eye-opening and enthralling. Working with an incredible array of artists such as Sophie Agnel, Tony Buck, Magda Mayas, Liz Allbee, Gino Robair, and so many more, he’s crafted something enigmatic and engaging. Though the project is ongoing, the five albums so far work together to not only showcase the inimitable talent and approach of these artists, but with Butcher as the throughline, also create a larger narrative. Considering how great the first releases in the series are, I am excited for the next installments.

Each album can be streamed through Bandcamp and purchased via Ni Vu Ni Connu. John Butcher can be reached through his website.

Before getting into the recent series of collaborative records, I want to go a lot further back and talk about your first memories and experiences with music. What are some of the first things you remember hearing when you were younger that made a lasting impression?

I was 8 or 9 when the Beatles were suddenly all over the radio. I got caught up in the excitement and loved their music. It prompted my mother to get a record player and start buying the hits. But most of my rather disorganized listening was fed by the radio. In my teenage years two shows, in particular, were important – John Peel’s (Beefheart, Incredible String Band, Lol Coxhill, etc), and Mike Raven’s (a well-informed blues show – the early rural music, from the 20/30s, got to me the most). I’d imagine these were quite common gateways into other worlds for those of us growing up in the suburbs in the 60s and early 70s.

As I started going to gigs I discovered the UK jazz scene. Players like Stan Tracey, John Surman, and the South Africans who came over as the Blue Notes. At the same time, I was delving into Stockhausen, the composed Euro “avant guard” and electronic music.

I remember reading somewhere that you taught yourself to play saxophone. Did you have any experience playing music before that? What was the impetus for teaching yourself?

I had school classical piano lessons from around 14. To give you an idea of the attitudes back then… I was playing a 12-bar blues one lunchtime with my brother (a bass player) when our music teacher came in and said… “If I hear you playing like this again I’ll stop your lessons and not let you use the school’s instruments.”

When I went to University it wasn’t so easy to play with other people as a pianist. So I got the saxophone and bought a tuition book. Chris Burn, a trumpeter, helped me a bit with breathing, and I started playing in whatever I could. The University wind band, my own avant rock group, and a few jazz-based groups. So it was a means of getting to play with people. And by then there were a lot of saxophonists I loved. Parker, Lester Young, Kirk, Coltrane, an ever-growing list.

Collaboration has obviously always been a major part of your creative work from the beginning and the late John Russell was one of your earliest collaborators. Can you tell me a little bit about how you and John met and what it was about playing with him that you remember most?

In ‘83 I started going to Phil Wachsmann’s improvisation workshops at Morley College where I met Phil Durrant. He’d played with John Russell for some years and invited me to a session at John’s house. I hadn’t met John before. I didn’t quite realize, but it was an audition, of sorts. We played, then they went off to the kitchen to confer, came back and told me I’d got the job. The trio worked for 15 years.

John approached every concert with the attitude that it was important, whether there were 5 people or 100 there. That unique time together, musicians and audience, had to mean something.

One last thing before talking about the LPs – another regular collaborator in recent years has been Rhodri Davies, who is one of my favorite artists in the world and I feel like you all often bring out different sides in each other’s musical repertoire, if you will. I hear a lot of sounds and ideas on those records that I’m never expecting. Anyway, how did you and Rhodri first start working together? Are any future projects together in the works?

I first heard Rhodri around 1997 (he’s 15 years younger than me) and Chris Burn and I invited him and Mark Wastell to join “Ensemble” for a recording and some concerts. They were a “new” generation on the London scene, developing their own ideas. 

Our first duo was in 2000, which came out on Emanem, and we’ve mainly worked in duo since. Early on we seemed to have a bit of a push-pull relationship in trying to find ways to play together. Almost a clash of aesthetics. Sometimes it was quite awkward but it was a fruitful challenge and has led to some areas we wouldn’t have discovered working separately.

The pandemic and Rhodri’s family commitments have got in the way of collaborating recently … but he’s one of my favorite artists, so it’s long-term – but a bit on hold now.

Alright, to start with the Ni Vu Ni Connu records, how and when did the idea for this series of LPs first come about? I have to imagine it was quite a lengthy undertaking…

Ni Vu Ni Connu is run by Antoine Prum and was initially a film production company. I met him in 2013 when he was making a film on the UK improvising scene.

They began releasing records and, in 2018, Antoine came to a concert of mine in Berlin and, unexpectedly and very generously, asked me if I’d be interested in making an LP series for them. Over the next year, we talked about how to go about it, and he suggested a weekend of concerts in Berlin (where he lives) – a mix of Berlin-based musicians and my colleagues around the world.

What was the decision-making process like to come up with what ensembles and sessions would be included? Were these all recorded specifically for this series?

Antoine gave me free rein in choosing the players, although we discussed the options and practicalities. For the ausland weekend, the duo and two trios were combinations that I’d worked with before – albeit not very often. And, apart from half a CD with Vellum, we hadn’t recorded anything.

I also wanted to include a completely new group, with Berlin musicians, which was the quartet. I hadn’t played with Ignaz [Shick] or even met Marta [Zapparoli] before. For choosing this group I asked a few people for suggestions and did a little YouTube research although these videos aren’t a great way to hear people you don’t know. They’re a very blunt tool. I wouldn’t be happy if people only had an impression of my music from YouTube clips.

Anyway, I was lucky that everyone I wanted to join this project was available.

I mentioned to Antoine that I had two concerts with Burkhard [Beins] and Werner [Dafeldecker] coming up a couple of months before the ausland program, so he suggested recording them and adding another LP to the series.

So yes, everything was specifically recorded for the series.

The ausland LPs are the complete concerts, unedited. I think knowing, when you play, that you just have 40-50 mins to effectively make a record creates a very beneficial energy – on top of the one you generally get from playing to an audience. That said, once the music started I tried to put all thoughts of the recording out of my mind.

Only Induction was edited, choosing a part from each of the two shows so it would fit an LP.

All above photos by Cristina Marx / Photomusix

Of the many things I love about the records, maybe the thing I appreciate most is that each lineup is so different and unique and it allows us to hear so many different aspects of your playing. How did you go about assembling these groups to showcase such a wide array of sounds and styles? What sort of considerations did you make? And what were the biggest challenges in putting all of this together?

In improvisation, I like to hear the musician on the end of the instrument. I don’t mean in an egotistical, chest-beating sort of way. It can be very subtle and aware of the more self-less musics, á la Cage – something of a paradox, I suppose. But generally, I’m looking for players who have developed a personal music and approach to playing. Something that genuinely feels their own. So when you chose to work with artists like that it’s inbuilt that each combination will have a unique dynamic and sound world.

At ausland, I wanted the distinctive qualities to emerge naturally from the combinations (duo, trio, or quartet already involve different ways of listening and responding). I didn’t want to pre-program great aesthetic jumps from set to set, certainly not in my own playing. Keeping one’s own voice but with the willingness and flexibility to adapt to your co-creators’ music is the key.

The challenge for me, playing in two groups a night, was to not feel like a “guest” in each combination. I had to believe in each configuration as a special entity. Then, on the one hand, I wanted to trust the musical process of deciding in the moment without a particular agenda (vital for collective improvising), and on the other to keep an ear (mixing body parts …) on, and a memory of, the shape of the four sets.

How/what I played (and heard) in one set should affect my work in subsequent sets. As all the music was being released, I wanted the entirety to make musical sense – to have an accumulative effect. Basically, it meant paying attention at both the small and large scale – which is what we should all be doing anyway.

And lastly, what is coming up next for you during the rest of 2022?

Well – the LP series will continue… I’ve recorded with Angharad Davies, Pat Thomas, and Mark Sanders for one, and there are plans for a duo with John Edwards.

Next month I’m recording solo in a giant water tower near Copenhagen for an LP on Cejero (who released the LP with Rhodri). It’s a chance to continue my work in non-concert, unusual locations/acoustics.

Also recording with Polwechsel + Magda Mayas and Olaf Rupp – for a box set of Polwechsel + guests planned for ni vu ni Connu next year.

Have separate concerts with 3 of the Ni Vu groups: Vellum, The Quartet, and Beins/Dafeldecker.

And playing on Eddie Prevost’s 80th birthday celebration at Cafe Oto

I’m close to finishing the mix of a 14-piece group commissioned from last year’s HCMF – which will also be released – somewhere or other.

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