Interview: The Buttercream Gang returns with ‘Oh Brother’, abum release show at Brick and Mortar Friday, 12/7/12
December 5, 2012
Written by Jason Shane
The Buttercream Gang – Napa-based slingers of Afro-Caribbean-tinged indie rock – released their fourth album Oh Brother in November via their own imprint Pitted Records, and now the band is celebrating with a party at Brick and Mortar this Friday, December 7th. Oh Brother finds a band coming into its own sonically, with the three founding members – Bobby Renz, Robinson Kuntz, and Peter Davies – seamlessly alternating vocal duties and rotating through instrumental obligations, while incorporating unique additions from a bevy of guest musicians.
Stream or buy ‘Oh Brother’ (via Bandcamp):
Renz, Kuntz, and Davies were kind enough to answer a handful of questions over email – to give our readers a peek into the world of The Buttercream Gang, including their “Musical Chairs”-esque instrumental rotation, the recording of Oh Brother, and their upcoming companion EP Oh Sister. Check it out:
The Bay Bridged: The Buttercream Gang’s new album Oh Brother dropped back on November 13th. How has the response been so far?
Davies: The response has been really good. I wouldn’t say that the response has been huge, but compared to our past albums it has been. For us, every album release is a relatively quiet affair. Self-promotion has never really been our forte, which in some ways has meant that we’ve focused more on the music, which has been nice; but the flip side of that has been that we aren’t the worlds best salesmen, and not necessarily for lack of want. But it was very heart-warming to hear the kind words of both critics and friends regarding the release of our first single “Couch Games” off of Oh Brother. We are definitely trying to up our game this year though as far as getting our name out there and all that boring stuff.
TBB: The three of you grew up in Napa and have played together as a band since 2003. How has each band member’s role morphed over those nine years, and how has the band’s overall sound progressed as a result?
Davies: Well we’ve definitely become stronger musicians. The main difference is that our roles have become more and more malleable. With each album we’ve each taken on a larger variety of roles both instrumentally and in regards to songwriting. This album is a first where we’ve all contributed lead vocals, so there is more of a variety in that regard. While creating this album we also had access to more musicians (Max Bonick being one of them). In the past, when playing live we would switch up instruments mid-song, but now we are able to fill out the sound and really represent the songs in a way that closely resembles the lushness of the recordings. As time has gone on it’s gotten more and more awkward to refer to Bob as the guitarist, and Rob as the drummer. I catch myself a lot and end up either offering a convoluted explanation of our roles or just simplifying it and referring to them as my bandmates. Although I felt like I contributed less than ever before (due to a new relationship and getting my teaching credential), the other guys totally stepped it up and filled that void. Not exactly a morale boost for myself, but it resulted in some really great work. There were all these different elements, the building of our practice space two years ago, my intense schooling, and Bob breaking his ankle, that really helped precipitate an interesting change for us.
TBB: One addition to the band’s sound that stands front-and-center on Oh Brother is the prominent use of horns – both tenor and baritone sax, as well as trumpet – bolstering the complexity of the Afro-Caribbean vibe that already existed in your music, and giving the album, at times, a real Rhythm of the Saints feel. What spurred the decision to inject this serious dose of brass into the recording process?
Renz: We’ve always been fond of good horns, whether it’s Fela Kuti, Thomas Mapfumo, Lee Perry, Otis Redding, Charles Mingus, or Eddie Palmieri, just to name a handful. Naturally, we wanted that sound also. While writing the songs for Drumalley, I bought a cheap alto saxophone on craigslist, followed shortly by a cheap tenor, and figured out how to play some simple horn lines for those songs. We’d come up with stuff to do with just a tenor and alto and I’d play all the saxophones live and on the recordings. We were still a three-piece at that time so we had to juggle instruments and sacrifice the fullness of the sound live. So we invited Alex Garcia, our sax man, and Max Bonick, our epic utility man, to come play with us at our 2011 release show and it opened up many more opportunities. So that dovetailed into the writing and recording process and we were able to incorporate a stronger, more dynamic horn section knowing we had guys available who could make it possible. Alex then connected us with Brendan [Buss, a saxophonist] and Cayce [Carnahan, a trumpeteer], we arranged all the parts, Max charted them out for us, and they came into the studio in one day and knocked out ALL the horns on the album. It was one of the most fun days I’ve had recording, watching stellar musicians bring to life a sound, until that point, we hadn’t quite been able to completely capture.
TBB: How else do you see the new record differing from earlier efforts like Polite Men and Drumalley?
Kuntz: The songwriting is tighter and more succinct, we have made an effort to write songs that are memorable even after you have left the our show. We have always felt we were a pretty good live band, but what we have tried to do this time is make something that people will carry on with them after the show, something with more staying power, something you can whistle while walking down the hall.
I think Oh Brother is a more complete record than we have ever done. We really tried to make it work from beginning to end, we tried to inject a record-long “flow” of sorts, to give it a character of it’s own.
This album I think represents us coming into our own as songwriters. On Oh Brother and Oh Sister, the three of us have started to collaborate more on songwriting and trying to get the feeling right. The three of us wrote songs together and also pitched in songs individually to have them changed for the better. We have gotten better at taking advantage of our different musical personalities and creating interesting mixtures between them.
TBB: You recorded part of Oh Brother with Jonah Strauss at Oakland’s Shipwreck Studio, and the record was mixed by Patrick Brown at Different Fur here in San Francisco. How did you meet Jonah and Patrick, and what was it like working with the two of them?
Renz: We met Jonah when we recorded Polite Men, which he recorded and mixed entirely. We were talking to different engineers before starting that album and his name was recommended so we went with him and it was a great fit for us. We really like the big live room, all of his cool old school equipment, and he’s also just a genuine, fun, creative guy to work with that we had a great chemistry with while working on Polite Men. So when deciding how we were practically going to record some 20 songs in one go, we decided we were going to partially record the albums with him and partially at our own small Pitted Studio in Napa. We did drums, bass, some keys, some guitars, and some vocals at Shipwreck and the rest at our spot. Jonah was super helpful in giving us advice on recording our stuff at home and it definitely helped in keeping things efficient. In contrast to Polite Men, recording Oh Brother was a much more time sensitive issue, so efficiency was HUGE and Jonah was superb in working super hard to help us get everything done on time. I think we set a Shipwreck record for him in tracking drums for 19 songs in 2 days…pretty sure we got some bass done on that second day too.
I was introduced to Patrick through a friend who knew him through, at that time, The Morning Benders, now POP ETC. From there, we got talking and he, to my surprise, already knew Polite Men, liked the album and was really enthusiastic about working with us, which was really inspiring. After starting to record everything on July 5th, we gave him 19 songs and a plethora of references and influences on August 2nd. After a couple weeks of him getting things started, we got into the studio and we had a great time working there. We were pretty excited to work in such a cool studio with a long history. It was obviously no easy task trying to mix 19 songs in one project but he and Sean Paulson, our mixing assistant, put in some serious hard work and we got everything done by late September. Aside from being a really fun and talented guy to work with, Patrick was one of the most supportive people we’ve met in this industry so far. He really has been instrumental in connecting us with good people and helping us get this record done. The best part is you can tell it’s just out of love for the community of musicians he encounters and…I think he just really loves making records.
TBB: “Couch Games”, the album’s first single, is an spellbinding, ethereal island jam. Can you tell us a little about the writing and recording of that track?
Renz: While injured with a serious fracture dislocation of my ankle from skating two days before Christmas, I really had nothing I could do other than lay on the couch. I had just gotten an Apogee One interface before the injury so I was lucky enough to be able to work on music while laid up. This was the first groove I came up with after the injury in January and I named it “Couch Games” because I had discovered my new way of entertaining myself while I was stuck on the couch. It was literally just like a 30-second loop of that main groove and I brought it to practice a couple weeks later when I was feeling better enough to play with the guys and they dug it. Pete came back one practice with the lyrics and a melody and we worked it out together until it became a complete song. “Boomerang”, the second line style song, was originally a melody I had for an intro, but it became its own thing and then Rob came up with the idea for the harp intro. Conveniently, he lives next door to a harpist, so it was easy to get that tracked. Patrick then worked his magic with the effects and it became this awesome dream-like intro that totally works with the whole ebb and flow vibe of the song. We could have changed the name to fit the lyrics more but I was too attached to what this song did for my morale during that injury.
TBB: Your Facebook profile now lists two additional band members, mult-instrumentalist Max Bonick and saxophonist Alex Garcia, who both joined you during the recording sessions for Oh Brother. Are these two gentlemen now full-time “Polite Men,” and will we see them or any other guest artists at your album release show at Brick and Mortar on December 7th?
Renz: Max and Alex came on board the Buttercream wagon for our album release show in 2011. Since then, we haven’t been able to live without them. Pete, Rob, and I deal with all the business, management, writing, organizing, and anything other than actually playing the music. Max and Alex are definitely full-time when it comes to playing live shows. It’d be hard to say where our music would be without the addition of them to our set up. They’re two genuine guys who work hard and are just down for the cause of playing great music. They can play any style and it’s really fun to have them with us. They will both be joining us for the album release on December 7th. In addition to them Alex Scammon, who we met through Alex Garcia, will also be joining us on stage that night on baritone saxophone and he is also another awesome musician who is a pleasure to work with.
TBB: Your last three albums, as well as solo work by Robinson and Bobby, have been released on your own label Pitted Records. How did the label come about, and what do you see in its future?
Kuntz: The label is a way to put all of our side projects, and not-so-side-projects, under the same umbrella and to hopefully create a little community around. I have always really envied musical collectives like Elephant 6 who record and play on each others’ albums, and cross-pollinate themselves musically. It seemed like so much fun. So this is a way of supporting a common project between all of us that involves us as individuals but also hopefully creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts. I think we know that we will be making music together for a long time, and this is a way to solidify that and to also make sure we keep making music under different guises. My EP, Alone But Not By Myself, will be released after Oh Sister, maybe in April or something. Bobby has a few great sounding tracks that he is working on and he will be doing an EP. Pete and I have a electronic-dance side project called Cowabunga which will have stuff next year as well. We will also be releasing some Buttercream Gang singles and another EP called Hungry Deal. We come up with an idea for a side-project like every week but we only get around to the ones that really matter.
TBB: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming EP Oh Sister – what is its relation to the similarly-named Oh Brother, and what should we expect to hear?
Kuntz: Oh Sister is a set of six songs that were written and recorded at the same time as Oh Brother. We had this complete overload of songs, like 19 or 20 songs at one point, and we discussed a bunch of different ways to release them. We eventually settled on a full-length with a little sister EP. Oh Sister and Oh Brother have different personalities. Oh Brother is more optimistic and gregarious, while Oh Sister is a little more obscure and mercurial. Oh Sister is also has a more rock-soul vibe to it, it has more guitar-driven rock songs and is a little more “garage” at times. Oh Brother is a feel-good dance party with close friends, Oh Sister is more like an introspective/energetic-drive-through-the-woods-at-night-by-yourself. They have different vibes, but can still be considered part of the same “family” of songs.
TBB: What can we expect next from The Buttercream Gang – more studio work, or do you plan on hitting the road sometime soon?
Davies: Well, for the first time in a long time we actually have the open schedules to play SXSW which has been on our radar of things to do for these last couple years, so it’s looking like we’ll venture out into those parts. Lots more shows this next year! We’re almost always working on new material. We don’t really take breaks from that. Sometimes we try to write before recording, like “Okay guys, lets put a lid on it and focus on perfecting our performances for when we enter the studio,” but we never fully stop. Right now we’re (mostly Rob and Bob) working on a EP that we’re giving out to those that donated to our Kickstarter page. Some of them we’ve written since we wrapped up recording Oh Brother and Oh Sister, a few of them are tied to past songs or periods of writing. It’s nice to be able to record when there is less pressure on the quality of the finished product. Once that’s done the pressure will really be off, regarding songwriting, and we’ll be able to get back to working at a slightly more leisurely and natural pace.