IMAGE: Nilina Mason–Campbell
WHO: Ryan Sollee, Paul Seely, Harvey Tumbleson, Alex Ellis and Ray Rude.
WHAT: String- and percussion-laden gothic Americana.
SOUNDS LIKE: A demon-possessed Southern Baptist preacher leading a requiem at a swamp-set, barn-burning hoedown.
YEAR FORMED: 2005, on Halloween
MOST LIKELY TO BE FOUND: Drinking PBRs at the Night Light Lounge, rocking street corners and bus stops or recording in decrepit Portland churches with members of the Decemberists.
VOTER QUOTE: “The first time I saw the Builders and the Butchers was about a year ago at one of those free afternoon back-patio shows at Rontoms. There were these intense storm clouds above us, and we all knew that it would POUR any second. As soon as they started playing, big fat drops came comin’ down—a warm spring rain. Thunder was crashing, lightning flashing off to the east like a high desert storm. The more soaked all of our bodies became, the louder the chorus of wailing voices became—a religious fervor set in. The crowd flailed around, dancing, shouting along to the chorus, ‘When it rains!’ Truly a rock-’n’-roll baptism.”
—Caroline Julia Buchalter, Mississippi Studios booker
In Alaska, you either get wasted or you get creative. In the case of Alaskan transplants the Builders and the Butchers, the latter’s begun to pay off. “You have blistering cold and 24-hour darkness,” says drummer Ray Rude of winters in Anchorage. “You just sit inside.” “There’s just a lot of really crazy people up there,” agrees frontman Ryan Sollee—whose own brand of craziness, which includes berating audiences through an old bullhorn, has earned the Builders and the Butchers a fanatical local following.
But Sollee’s music hasn’t always been so well received here. When he moved to Portland in the fall of ’03, his post-punk outfit the Born Losers went from playing to hundreds in Anchorage to scraping up crowds of 30 here—if they were lucky. The fiery-haired singer, whose close-set eyes and pointed voice make everything he says degrees more intense, quickly realized the Losers were “very run-of-the-mill.” “Moving to any big city from a small place, is…awful,” he says. “[You think], ‘Everybody in my small town loves it, so people who are really into cool music will like it, too.’ Well, not really.”
But people do like the Builders and the Butchers. A lot. “I feel like a lot of our success is owed to Portland being really accepting of strange things,” Rude explains. “People have gotten so sick of seeing the same style of band.”
Sollee, who recently quit his day job as a Columbia River fish biologist to focus on the band, pens songs on such macabre subjects as bloody-handed murder, coal mines, lake-bottom burials and vampires. Though he claims Portland winters are “like a step less depressing than [those in] Anchorage,” the just-turned-30-year-old hasn’t had any trouble continuing to unearth dismal themes. On “Ten Miles Wide,” for instance, he sings, “You’ve got to bury, bury/ Bury your dying mother/ Bury your dying mother/ In the ground, ground, ground.” And the subject matter doesn’t get much sunnier from there.
But Sollee’s maniacal stage presence—not to mention live antics like passing out tambourines, washboards and Little Tikes tom-toms to the crowd—breathes such life into his creepy words that crowds can’t help but sing along. He assaults listeners with what Rude aptly describes as a “force-you-to-listen-to-me kind of voice.” And the band—rounded out by Salem native Paul Seely (trumpet, percussion), Harvey Tumbleson (mandolin, banjo) and bassist Alexander Ellis—backs Sollee’s revivalist fervor with stomping rhythms, rustic string arrangements and shouted backing vocals—all brought to a rolling boil.
The full package has proven positively rousing: At the March 2007 CD release show for the Builders’ self-titled debut, they abandoned downtown venue Valentine’s altogether, leading the crowd right into the street where everyone sang, “Find me, oh find me/ In the air, Lord, in the air,” to random passersby and Voodoo Doughnut patrons. A congregation was born.
But despite Sollee’s reputation as an ecclesiastical band leader, the group’s leery of being pegged as religious—or gimmicky. Over PBRs at the Night Light Lounge, bassist Ellis, who bears a slight resemblance to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, says, “I don’t like to think of us as a religious band…but I think we might get mistaken.” Sollee chimes in: “We’re not praising any specific thing, let’s just say that.”
What the Builders are doing is creating a mood of redemption. “If you listen to old Depression-era bluegrass and blues music,” says Sollee, “[the themes are] actually the same.” And just as the Builders—who drop influences like David Bowie and R. Kelly as easily as American bluesman Leadbelly—embolden listeners to experience a sweet rock-’n’-roll release, gospel music has been giving Americans hope for centuries. Decemberist Chris Funk, who’s producing the band’s sophomore follow-up, says they recorded a few songs in a “burned-out Masonic temple” with a live gospel choir: “It was killer.”
Because the Builders originally began busking unplugged on street corners, outside proper venues and in bus-stop shelters—where there was “no wall,” as Sollee puts it, between them and their audience—they all agree when Ellis says, “I really like playing when you’re eye-to-eye with the audience.” Rude puts it even better: “Or inside the audience, just people making music for people.” That casual approach, which includes considering too much practice an “Achilles’ heel,” according to Tumbleson, defines pretty much everything the band does.
But their trial-by-fire nature doesn’t translate to cockiness. Sollee even says he considers himself “the worst guitar player in the room at all times.” “All the people I go to for inspiration don’t have classically good voices,” he adds. “None of ’em. But they’re all voices I absolutely love—because they’re weird.” Bundled up on the Night Light’s outdoor patio, Rude tells Sollee: “I applaud your weirdness.” So, apparently, does Portland.
MEDIABehind the scenes in the studio:
"Bottom of the Lake," Self-titled (Bladen County Records):
SEE IT: The Builders and the Butchers play WW’s Best New Band showcase Saturday, May 10, at Berbati’s. 9 pm. Free. 21+. Website: myspace.com/thebuildersandthebutchers