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Jon Carin and Richard Butler's 'Richard Butler': Chronicle of a Missing Album

The 2006 album, whose 15th anniversary passed us by quietly last year, remains one of Carin’s greatest collaborations - but met a fleeting existence

The immediate past year marked the 15th anniversary of an eclectic collection of albums: Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Deftones’ Saturday Night Wrist, Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations, Tom Petty’s Highway Companion, and Pearl Jam’s eponymous album, to mention a few. One project whose 15th anniversary seemed to fly under the radar in 2021 - last April, specifically - was Richard Butler’s own eponymous album: his only solo record to date, and an album that Pink Floyd veteran Jon Carin co-created.

The album garnered positive reviews upon its release in 2006 but is nearly impossible to find. popmatters’ Michael Keefe, who reviewed the album favorably, still holds the album in high regard:

“You might not expect this disc to be the result of a collaborative effort, however, the creation of Richard Butler (the album) was the joint effort of two men: Richard Butler and Jon Carin… this album marks [Carin’s] greatest achievement yet, as he recorded every instrument and engineered, mixed, and produced the entire record.”

The project is stylistically different for Butler. There’s an intimacy in his voice that does not manifest frequently in his other projects – a difference noted by The Guardian’s Dave Simpson in his review of the album at the time. Simpson notes that “the first two Psychedelic Furs albums were post-punk pop classics… but their former frontman's solo debut is quite a departure… the famous nicotine rasp now mixing with an almost choirboy croon.”

Keefe credits a lot of this to Carin’s presence in the project: despite Richard Butler being a solo album (technically), the creative stamp of each Butler and Carin is equally pronounced. When I ask Keefe if he sees any hue of Butler’s eponymous project in the work the Psychedelic Furs have done since – whether he sees a sonic evolution from the last Psychedelic Furs album in 1991, to the 2006 Butler piece, and to 2020’s Made of Rain – he’s skeptical. Keefe underscores that Richard Butler is sonically and stylistically on a totally different plane:

“I don't at all. Made of Rain sounds much more like Love Spit Love's albums or the Furs' 2001 single, Alive (For Once in My Lifetime) than it does the Butler solo album. Made of Rain has got more of an alt-rock edge to it, while Richard Butler is spacey and somewhat ethereal. It's a nice outlier in Butler's overall discography, but it doesn't feel like it's connected to a larger through-line.”

Jon Carin walks us through the album’s history:

Ed Lopez-Reyes: How much material did Richard Butler approach you with for this project? Online, I can see at least two references to Broken Aeroplanes being performed live by the Psychedelic Furs in 2004 or earlier. I don't know how accurate that is, but if it was played live, it's a pity there aren't any recordings online. I was curious then, how much material had Butler developed when he approached you about this project and how much did that material change as you worked on the album?

Jon Carin: Richard didn’t approach me formally for the project. We were friends and it just sort of happened. There were no songs written before we started working. A big blank canvas of possibilities. We wrote the songs together, just the two of us. Richard wrote the words and sang to the music I wrote. Face to face. Toe to toe. I played the instruments, sang harmonies, engineered, produced, cooked, and made the coffee. The only exceptions were Second to Second and Milk, which started as poems I then set to music.

The first song we did was called Broken, which didn’t make the record, in 2000. It was re-recorded for the Psychedelic Furs last record, called Made of Rain, but it didn’t make the final running order. We did the original version very quickly after dinner one night, and it was the indicator that we had found a successful working method and that the partnership had legs. This preceded Broken Aeroplanes, which came much later in the project. And we would get together whenever either of us had free time throughout the following years. Next, we did Breathe and worked our way through the others.

ELR: What projects had you worked with Butler on before his self-titled solo album and what other projects have you worked with him on since?

JC: I met Richard in Berlin in 1986 because my dear friend, Chris Kimsey, kindly asked me to play on the Psychedelic Furs record, Midnight to Midnight, which he was producing at Hansa Ton Studios. David Bowie had famously done Heroes there and Chris had produced Killing Joke’s Night Time record there. But I was thrilled because that is where David Sylvian had recorded Brilliant Trees. It was right next to the Berlin Wall directly after Chernobyl. Creepy vibes all around us. We also re-recorded the song Pretty in Pink for the movie of the same name at those Midnight sessions.

I was able to sneak off to Berlin when there was a break from making what would later become Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

Then I played on Richard’s Love Spit Love record Trysome Eatone in 1997. And more recently, I played most of the keyboards on the aforementioned Psychedelic Furs record, Made of Rain, and co-wrote a few on that one.

So, it’s a 35 year relationship over 4 projects.

ELR: How do you (and Butler) approach each thing you collaborate on and what goes into making it sonically distinctive from previous projects? Richard Butler, the 2006 album, is a different sound for Butler - vocally and in terms of the music. Aside from the fact that you and Butler put all the music for this project together, in contrast to other projects where you may have worked with other band members too, e.g., work with the Psychedelic Furs, how do you draw that sonic line? Do you predetermine anything about the sound ahead of time or do you let things evolve organically? Given how unique the album sounds compared to other Butler projects, were there ever points in the production process where you felt "this sounds a bit too much like that previous project [or the other] so we want to go back to the drawing board"?

JC: It sounds different because, essentially, it’s a Butler/Carin solo record. There is only the two of us on it. The vocal sound and style came out of playing and singing together socially at each other’s houses over many, many years. I was really enjoying the tone of Richard’s voice when he sang quietly – or not exactly quietly, just not having to compete with a band’s volume. There was no rasp, which by that time had maybe become a cliché, but there was a wonderful expressive tone in its place.

I tucked that away in my mind, and when we started writing together around 2000 or so, I decided to write on acoustic guitar played softly. He would come up with melodies over the music in a quiet environment and there was that fantastic tone again.

So, the working method I devised was...

1) We would not go into the studio to record a note until the song was 100% complete on only guitar and voice.

2) I would record an acoustic guitar on tape that he would sing live to.

3) I would erase my guitar and just listen to his voice alone and just paint musical colours around it, only keeping elements that accentuated his voice and drew attention to the lyric.

4) The other trick I used was to make his voice sound enormous in his headphones with a U67 mic going through my Telefunken V76 Mic Pre’s and an EAR 660 limiter or RCA BA6A limiter really cranked open. So, if he resorted to singing too loudly, the sound would blow his head off. This created an intimacy I don’t think we have heard with him before or since. Where a whisper becomes a roar.

5) I was so saturated with endless solos that had no context or real reason to be there, so there is a conscious decision to have absolutely no solos on the record at all.

As far as predetermining a sound, no, once I had established a working process, we let that process lead us into a world that was waiting to be discovered and it prevented old habits from creeping in, and it established its own new sound.

ELR: Have you listened to the album in recent years?

JC: For the purpose of this interview, yes. I consistently love it.

ELR: Does it conjure up the same emotions and preoccupations that shaped the music when it was recorded, or do you perceive the music differently today?

JC: It hits me the same way now as it did then because I eliminated any elements that would time stamp it. It is built to go the distance by design. Emotionally and technically. It is hand-made, hand-played, no computers.

ELR: How much did your respective divorces, and the death of both of your fathers, impact the album? What other things do you feel occupied your mind at that time? Some people would find it difficult to work through these type of issues - it would be paralyzing for some of us: is there a way creative people can channel this in the songwriting and composition process and, once you do, how conscious are you of the way it's shaping that process? Do you feel these types of life-changing events impact the work you're doing, sonically?

JC: My father was in a terrible way from his cancer when we started the project, and he finally passed away in September 2003, my daughter had been born February 2002, and then, later in the project, both of us were getting divorced, and Richard’s father died in that period, so it was a dense, tense, deeply troubling, debilitating, depressing yet also strangely absolutely amazing, beautiful period. The best and the worst of times, as they say. And it all fed into the music. And we somehow laughed through it all when we were working. We really had a wonderful time despite the mind-blowing chaos around us. The music became the medicine. As a matter of fact, one of Richard’s art installations was based on big white pills about one foot in diameter, with words on them like “help”, etc. I was trying to coerce him into using the pills as the album cover to illusion the point, but that didn’t happen. Perhaps he will re-release it with that cover concept one day. In 2076.

Also, I can’t tell you precisely why, but Syd Barrett was in the forefront of my mind during the making of this record. I don’t want to make anything more of it, I can’t offer up any explanation. Maybe it was the nature of the work we were doing, or the solitary way I made the record, but he was there in my head. When he died two months after this record’s release, I was hit like a ton of bricks. On a boat in Malta with Roger, deeply upset by the death of a man I’d never met.

ELR: How much did you collaborate on the lyrical work and to what degree do you feel the lyrics reflect your spirits at the time?

JC: My job, regarding lyrics, was only to encourage and be a sounding board, if needed. He is such a truly great evocative lyricist. I would be constantly moved by what he came up with. Obviously, some lyrics had easier births than others.

For example, for Good Days Bad Days, my concept was to play this one guitar phrase from beginning to end, like a musical mantra, with the melody and words evolving over it. Richard immediately started singing the chorus. It was a fantastic moment. Then... nothing.

Every day, he’d arrive to my house to work and the first thing I’d say was "Good Days Bad Days verses?" He’d sheepishly look at me and say, “not yet”.

This went on the entire project, and I wouldn’t let up.

Finally, one day he arrived with a few verses, and I nearly cried at how beautiful they were. It’s still moves me. So sometimes my stubbornness pays off.

ELR: Do you recall when the process of putting this album together started and how long it took? What other competing projects were you managing at the time (since it was on the heels of Live 8 and around the same time David Gilmour's On an Island album was being released and toured)?

JC: Because there was no budget, and I was gifting my time to Richard, the project would get interrupted by life’s surprises large and small. But I had made the decision to be a full-time father for the first four or five years of my daughter’s life, so the record was made in stolen moments of nappy changes, pushing swings, birthday parties, putting formula into milk bottles, play dates, bedtime stories, nursery school runs, etc. For both of us, as Richard had a young daughter at that time, too.

And it did end up running right into the On an Island tour, which was upsetting because it meant I couldn’t promote my own work. In an alternate reality, I was on tour with Richard performing the songs we wrote.

The record was done for a while before his manager shopped it for a label, then there was a nine month wait for the cover art to be finished or something; it all got very silly.

Then zero promotion etc., etc., etc.; you know the drill...

And all I could do was watch the years of hard work evaporate like smoke. It was deeply upsetting, I will admit.

The Guardian thought it was the best record since Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, or something crazy like that.

ELR: Where was the album recorded and how did the location impact the mood - how do you feel where you record an album influences the process and the result?

JC: The album was done at my house. Written in my front room, recorded in my studio in the other room. It impacted us in a good way because I could just get down to it with nobody else around. No engineer, nobody to screw the coffee up. No studio charges.

ELR: What instruments did you use on this: you used one of the guitars you've used on tours with Roger Waters - what else did you use on this project?

JC: It was handmade on real instruments. My blue sparkle 1964 Ludwig drum kit, old synths, new synths, old guitars, basses just whatever I have lying around in my room. Home organs, tape echoes. Instruments and voices fed back through my collection of old Telefunken radios... My ‘64 Gretsch Chet Atkins guitar. The Gibson J-200 is on it a lot... I’d have to go through it track by track. An enormous amount of experimentation and trial and error, just me on my own like some whirling dervish and the buck stopped with me. Without the buck.

ELR: Are there any additional musicians or backing vocalists on any tracks? Any small appearances that would surprise us today?

JC: Literally not a soul on it but me. I played all the instruments, sang all of the backing vocals on Broken Aeroplanes, Nothing’s Wrong, Maybe Someday, Milk, etc... Whatever it took to make a free record for a friend.

ELR: Did you receive any feedback about the finished work before it was released?

JC: One confirming moment was during mastering, the final stage. I had requested to work with Mark Wilder, who was at Sony during that period. I admired his work, he had mastered Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft and quite a bit of the Dylan archival releases. He’s a very talented and thoughtful person. I listened through with him and his advice was to do as little as possible to the mixes, as he loved them as they were.

This confirmed I had gotten the sound right at home, because my studio is not a critical listening environment, it is just a big child’s playground.

So his encouragement, along with James Guthrie’s encouragement, made me feel quite good about the integrity of the work.

ELR: It seems Butler did three solo dates to promote this album: March 20th (Chicago), 25th (New York City), and 26th (Philadelphia). The semi-acoustic performances featured Joshua Lopez and Zak Shaffer on keyboards and guitars. You were on David Gilmour's On An Island tour at the time. Were there any additional dates that you are aware of, and did you and Butler ever discuss a promotional tour for the album?

JC: Richard and I were supposed to do a full tour just the two of us to support it, but the multitude of delays ran out the clock. By then I was committed to Dave’s tour, and I was forced to fold up the tent.

ELR: The album is very difficult to find - it's not on streaming services and it's nearly impossible (if not impossible, usually) - to find for sale in hard copy. The record company that published this album, Koch Records, became Entertainment One Music: has there ever been discussion, that you know of, about making this album available again?

JC: Every year, like clockwork for 13 years, I was excitedly told by his manager that it would be rereleased that year, but it never has been. I made the record to be heard and enjoyed. I actually made it for my daughter so she could hear a little of what her dad was capable of, since quite a few of the more well-known records I’m on have incorrect credits. Here, there’s no place to hide and no one to hide me. So, you can imagine the fact that it is completely unavailable is deeply upsetting to me. I’d rather have had it available for streaming all these years and sacrifice an income just to have it heard. Richard has regularly called me saying how much he adores it, and is desperate for it to be rereleased, so I can only put it down to management. Not much opportunity for a commission.

ELR: Is there any unreleased material from this project?

JC: Outtakes? Hours, and hours, and hours. And hours. So many incredible songs, so many soundscapes, so much experimentation. Like box sets worth.

ELR: On April 18th of last year, the album turned 15 years old. When the album came out it got great reviews and your work on it got great feedback. popmatters labelled it your 'greatest achievement' at the time and gave it a seven rating and a great review. The Guardian gave it four out of five stars and said it was "no coincidence that Butler's contemplative lyrics attempt to make sense of the world and his time of life," calling it "an unexpected triumph." How do you feel the album holds up today?

JC: I agree with all of it. It operates entirely in its own space and time, and it plays by its own set of rules. It moves me.

I love it.

ELR: What is your own view of the lyrics? I know we each perceive songs differently: it seems there's a thread through the 11 tracks that deals with loneliness and our singularity in the universe, and how the twain diminishes us in that vastness and uncertainty of space; it ponders how fast time moves and the inevitability of regret; it is optimistic but evokes nostalgia - it explores the space between that nostalgia and rue... is that description a fair read?

JC: Yes, that nails it. Modern blues.

You can follow Jon Carin’s projects at his official Facebook page. You can follow Richard Butler’s work with the Psychedelic Furs at their official website.

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