The Builders and the Butchers' third full-length LP, Dead Reckoning, contains lots of talk of physical calamities and destruction by wind, water, and fire. There's not much optimism in Ryan Sollee's storytelling as he explores the darker side of human nature. He explores these themes while he's fishing around the beautiful city of Portland, where he lives. The solitary act of fishing begs for solemn contemplation (at least it does for me, since I never catch anything). Sollee doesn't do any writing here; it's where the well of inspiration fills as he sits quietly. The writing comes later in a process that he calls "subconscious." It's also worth noting that Sollee used to be a biologist, and the creative process often had its genesis during his many walks in the woods.
The Builders and the Butchers are touring now in support of Dead Reckoning (Badman Recording Co.), which I reviewed in the Washington Post. Read my interview with Ryan Sollee about his creative process after the video.
It's funny that you ask, because I don't consider myself an artist in any other medium. But I gobble up certain types of literature. That's where a lot of my songs come from. Leading up to writing Dead Reckoning, and for the past year, I have not been able to stop reading survival stories, where people are at the end of the line and in total desperation and yet they somehow pull through. That's really interesting to me.
I love Southern Gothic literature, like Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Carson McCullers, that are about family relationships and tension, including racial tension. I love grey characters and sympathizing with the bad guy.
Why do you think you are drawn to that?
I have no idea. Growing up, I read a lot of horror novels. I love the imagery and I think it's interesting when people are put in desperate situations. You see their true nature. I like getting to the bottom of that.
How do you think growing up in Alaska affected your songwriting?
There are extreme people up there. That's all you can say about them. Whatever they are doing, there's little middle ground. And you have extreme summers and dark winters. It's a recipe for things like bipolar disorder and alcoholism, all these things that aren't positive. I consider my songs to be little stories, and I think they reflect that environment.
When you are actually writing, what role do your surroundings play?
I do need distance from whatever I'm writing about, though it's possible to write a song in ten minutes that just pours out of me at any moment. One thing I will say is that I can't write on the road at all. You'd think it would be an inspirational place with so many fantastic experiences. But I need quiet, and I usually can't write when I'm in the grips of whatever is happening.
What's your ideal writing environment, then?
Right now I'm home, and it's the middle of the day. That's prime time for writing. But I have been known to get up at 4am and write for hours. For a long time I thought songwriting just consisted of times when I could write and times when I couldn't. But then I realized that when your brain is open, that's the time to sit down and get all your ideas out because it's a passing moment. It doesn't happen very often.
Do you do a lot of freewriting?
Not really. Where the songs come form is a seed, like a line or a hook or a melody. The songs grow around that seed. I never sit down to write a song about a certain topic. The songs usually write themselves.
That's interesting that you don't start with a topic, considering so many songs are narratives. How do you get those ideas?
I really don't know. Generally the Builders and the Butchers' stuff doesn't feel personal. I think about our place in the past, and I like to channel that. What would it be like to live here during another time, for example. I write a line, then wonder what it means. I just wrote two new songs and realized afterwards that they were both about a prison break. I had no idea what they were about until they were about 90% done. Then I tweaked the lyrics. Writing is really a subconscious thing for me.
Speaking of the subconscious, do songs ever come to you either while you are sleeping or about to fall asleep?
Absolutely. I'll wake up humming something then record it quickly. Or I'll wake up with a line and jot it down. Actually, when I first started this band I was a fish biologist and spent a lot of time walking in the woods. A lot of the imagery on our first record came from that subconsciously.
It seems that you take in so much of your environment, either visually or aurally. Do you seek inspiration actively?
I do and I don't. I always want to finish the book I'm reading and devour the next one. But I never think it's going to turn into a song. It just does.
I sit down with a line, and that has a melody to it in a certain key. Then I pick up a guitar and build the chorus around that. I'll think about what that chorus means, then add lines that tell a story. It's the magic moment when the music and words come together.
Next I think about how to make it more interesting, which begins the editing process where I take things out and add parts. Then I might change the tempo. I tend to have simple ideas and melodies.
You usually start with a line. That's pretty unique.
The line is sung, so there usually is a melody first. I try to find a line that I like that goes along with that melody. It takes a melody to inspire words.
Do you ever think about when and where you get your best writing done?
Laughs. I'm really scattered, so I rarely have time to sit and reflect about what works. I'm chronically busy, but what works is that whenever I have a minute, I pick up a guitar and start writing. Whenever I have a break to write, I'm manic in my intensity to get things done.
Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
Not at all. I am an undisciplined writer and even more undisciplined musician. I think it grinds on my band that I'm not better. Laughs. Every time I sit down with the purpose of writing a song, it's garbage.
What's your editing process like?
I think that one bad line can ruin a song. I'm really careful. A lot of times a song will be 99% done and one line won't sit well with me, so I'll just stare at it until it I get a good line. Editing is important, but overediting is worse. It's important for me to finish a song and not take too long on it because it's hard to get back to the original place, the core of what you were talking about, when you are so far from the starting point. There are exceptions though; I wrote the majority of "I Broke the Vein" four years ago, but I just couldn't get the tempo right. So I shelved it. Then I played it for one of the guys and he loved it.
Regarding your penchant for telling stories in your songs, I think it's quite a talent to tell a story in such a short time.
Well, I think the crutch you lean on is the music. If the music sounds like the words, it doesn't take that many words to put you in the place because the music puts you there already. The words and music act like friends. With all my favorite songwriters, their best songs are their story songs. I am not a fan of heart-on-your-sleeve love songs. It's so hard to do and not sound overwrought. Story songs are easier to write. Laughs.
What's the easiest part and hardest part of your writing process?
The easiest part is the subconscious part, when a line just comes to me. But that's also hard because I don't know when it's going to come. The hardest part is the feel of the song. I have words and music, but the tempo and movement often don't sit right with me. I just rewrote two songs that I didn't like; I changed the tempo and it made all the difference.
Do you ever get writer's block?
Not really. I mean, I might wake up one day and realize I haven't written a song in four months, then I'll write four or five in a month. I'm never consciously thinking about writing a song, so I never think about being blocked.
Are there any places you like to go when you write?
In the summer, I fish a lot. It's quiet and relaxing, and I focus on just one thing. It's so simple. You can't do anything else. That helps me. The songs don't come then, but being in that boat really clears my head.
When you compose, are you a computer guy or pen and paper guy?
On the last record, I struggled with the writing process more than before. I wrote all those songs on the computer. And since it came out, I've written probably twenty new songs just using a pad and paper. That's my way now. I'm constantly crossing out, rewriting, stuff like that, making little notes and arrows. You have to see all the original words that you wrote and crossed out to see where the song came from.
What's your ideal emotion to get the best writing done?
I used to say that you couldn't be totally happy and write a song, but I don't believe that anymore. I'm now the happiest I've ever been in my adult life, and I'm writing a lot of songs. I don't think you have to be sad, just maybe not having a great day.
The problem with writing songs when you are sad is that it's easy to descend into cliched, overwrought writing. But maybe that shouldn't matter if you're writing for yourself.
My grandmother recently passed away. I wrote a song about her passing when I knew she didn't have a lot of time left. I played it for my mother, and she suggested I play it for my grandmother. I was writing about her death, but after the fact there was no way I would have been able to do that. I wrote that for myself. I would never write that for the Builders and the Butchers. When people write songs for their band and say that they are writing just for themselves, I don't know that they are being totally honest. It's just not possible to do that, because you're always aware that others are listening.
*photo by Peter Blanchard