‘I’m going to drag Americana into the future, kicking and screaming…’

Brighton-based singer-songwriter M.Butterfly (aka Martyn Lewis) describes himself as a ‘sadcore Americana artist’, but his latest single, Bughunt – available as a limited edition, lathe-cut 7in on the indie label Eyeless – is a departure from his usual sound. It’s harsh and abrasive – an industrial blues protest song, with distorted, howling vocals and a clanking rhythm. For a singer of sad country music, it’s a very angry record…

To listen to the track, click here.

“It is quite abrasive, but hopefully under all the noise and drum machines, you’ll hear the heart of an angry country-blues song,” he says.

“It was written on guitar, but I found playing it that way was restricting me. The song is more rhythmic than melodic – when I perform it live, I sing it a cappella, with handclaps and foot stomps.

“When I came to record it, I started with the drum machine beat and fed it through some effects pedals to dirty it up. I knew I’d have to treat the rest of it the same and it came out like a Nine Inch Nails song! It was a lot of fun to do.”

The song has a political message – he describes it as: “a warning to the world on the dangers of fascism.”

Elaborating on this, he says: “I guess it’s a reaction to our times, as all protest songs are. I think extreme views are creeping back into the spotlight, and people only need to look the other way for it to become centre stage. We must stay vigilant and challenge this sort of thing when we see it.”

He adds: “The title of the song comes from something Private Hudson says in James Cameron’s film Aliens: “Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?”

“He delivers the line with such disdain and malaise – almost annoyance. It’s exactly how I feel about seeing far-right groups rising up in the UK. How is this happening? What the f*** is going on? Don’t we have better things to do than to deal with these idiots?”

Q&A

Do you play and record everything yourself? What’s your set-up like?

M.Butterfly: I usually play everything myself and record to a four-track tape recorder. When I started making music in the early Noughties, you could buy a brand new Tascam for about 50 quid, since digital was the new thing – that made it the cheapest option for recording at home.

What sound are you aiming for with your records? They’re lo-fi, stripped-down, intimate and raw…

M.B: I went to college and became enthralled with digital production, but over time I felt lost in the endless possibilities of digital. I had no idea when a song was finished, because you could always add more or take it away.

I went back to tape because I found I really thrived in the limitations of it. Everything has to be considered – sounds have to be found and captured, performances have to be complete, and that really works for me. That raw and lo-fi sound just comes with my preference for minimalism and restraint.

Your first album – 2017’s M.Butterfly I – had synths on it, as well as guitars, but your second album, M.Butterfly II, from last year, was largely more guitar-based, with slide and banjo, too. Is the sound of Bughunt representative of the musical direction you’re heading in next?

M.B: Bughunt is actually one song from a little family of harsher, more industrial songs. I also have another family of songs that sound great just on the acoustic guitar, with no other accompaniment.

I’m hoping I’ll settle on something in the middle – noisy and droney, but also acoustic and vulnerable. I’m writing about masculinity a lot at the moment, men’s mental health and the problems with machismo.

I have a song called The Sacred Art of the Wedding DJ, and another called Last English Elephant – they are both about masculinity.

Picture by Bryony Bird

You describe yourself as a singer of slow and very sad Americana, with outsider influences. Can you elaborate on that?

M.B: I like just about every genre of music. I’m convinced that every genre has at least one album you’ll like in it. I find myself drawn to country and Americana because of the emphasis on lyrical content and the simplicity of the music, but in that simplicity I think there is space to push it a bit, and bring in sounds and influences that you wouldn’t expect to hear.

I like music that is distorted and messy and I like music that is sparse and tiny. I like hip-hop beats and I like theatrical post-rock. I want to bring all of that into the space that country songwriting provides.

You don’t really fit into the country / Americana scene, do you? Are you happy about that?

M.B: It’s an odd thing really. I both love and hate being a bit of a sore thumb in the country scene. I’d love to be accepted into it and be a part of such a loving community – one that can have an audience as quiet as death one moment, and then laughing with rapture the next.

I’d love to be in a community where you know your lyrics are going to be listened to and loved. On the other side of that, I don’t want to have to follow the rules and well-worn paths to get there. I kind of want to bring whatever I like with me and have it be accepted.

I’ve had differing results so far. At times I’m told I’m too moody, or don’t have enough fiddle, etc. Other times I’m just told I’m too country sounding, and in the wrong place.

What is for certain though is that I’m not going to give up, and I’m going to drag Americana into the future, kicking and screaming. I’m going to play the AMA (Americana Music Association) UK showcase with a synthesiser and drum machine, I promise you!

I’d love to be signed to a label like Loose, I think they’d know what to do with me and they’d also take a chance on someone who doesn’t want to just regurgitate the country music canon.

‘I’m going to play the Americana Music Association (AMA) UK showcase with a synthesiser and drum machine, I promise you!’

Who or what are your main influences – musical or otherwise…

M.B: That’s so hard… trying to find the main threads of what I am. I love Townes Van Zandt – I think he was the greatest songwriter who ever lived. I love Low – what they are able to do with minimalism is unmatched, and they are also the most beautiful sounding band in the world.

PJ Harvey is a huge influence, with her disregard for trends and her artistic endeavour – she’s always done her own thing. Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, King Crimson, Gillian Welch, Earl Sweatshirt, Sparklehorse, Vic Chesnutt, Jason Molina… I’m going to try and avoid just reeling off a list of my favourite artists, as we’d be here forever.

I love hip-hop. I like the rhythms and how it’s complex and simple at the same time – a beat and a vocal, but both are difficult to get right.

Outside of music I love Hideo Kojima – the video game developer. I think he’s an artist before anything else and he’s used video games like an artist uses a canvas – it’s something you live rather than play.

I love the films of modern directors like Ari Aster and Yorgos Lanthimos – they are like moving poetry. It’s unbelievable. I love authors and poets like Sylvia Plath, JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, Alan Moore and Yukio Mishima.

Lyrics are the part of songwriting I take the most seriously. I write every song about something, I don’t really buy in to the idea of vague lyrics that people attach their own meaning to, I want everything to have a story to it, even if it seems unclear at first.

My favourite lyricists are Richey Edwards [Manic Street Preachers], Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen and David Berman of the Silver Jews. Emmylou Harris is a f***ing poet and never seems to get enough credit for it. Nina Simone is an astounding lyricist and she had the voice to match the ugliness she was singing about – just listen to Four Women or Mississippi Goddamn.

I have a lot of love for pop music, I love what Billie Eilish is doing – it’s so minimal and sparse and her voice is otherworldly. I love Beyoncé – her last record, Lemonade, was just phenomenal. I think pop artists get a lot of flack for not contributing enough to the music, but you need to think of someone like Beyoncé or Rihanna as film directors. They may not actually be behind the camera, or writing the script, but they’re choosing the people who are, and they’re making it all work together. They are in charge of every decision and I think the end result speaks for itself and can be seen alongside any record by Bob Dylan.

One of my favourite songs of yours is Flowers from Hell, which is from your second album, M.Butterfly II. It’s a simple, dark country song. What can you tell me about it? The title resonates with me, as my blog is called Say It With Garage Flowers, which takes its name from a country song I wrote with a friend…

MB: Flowers from Hell is about the late bisexual porn star Jon Vincent. I found him to be a fascinating man – his life seemed to be a series of wonderful moments ruined by something awful. He battled relentless drug addiction and originally wanted to be a baseball player, but his dreams were shattered when he was arrested for carrying drugs and was kicked off the team. It’s like the dream was always just out of reach for him – sure you can have some flowers, but they’re from Hell…

Bury The Living, also from your last album, is a beautiful, sad and haunting song. Where did that come from?

The main inspiration for the song was seeing a photo of a child refugee, who who washed up on a beach. The song is about the despair I feel for the human race. Everyone alive today could become a refugee, the chances may be low, but it could happen to absolutely anyone.

Looking at the lengths people go to escape a situation, what would you do? Would you cram yourself into a fuel tank on a boat to save a loved one? Would you cling to the underside of a lorry just for a taste of freedom? Everyone has a line that they would cross, and they don’t often have any say in it. Ultimately the song comes from my love of the world, and my frustration at the way we treat each other.

Can we expect a third album from you soon? M.Butterfly III?

M.B: I’m actually working on an album with a band – The Glass Saint Country Apparition Band. It’s a semi-improvised country noise outfit. The songs are long and noisy and the lyrics are dark. It’s an awful lot of fun to make a racket with some like-minded musicians.

Sam Collins, who played the slide guitar on Bury the Living, is one of the members. The album is being recorded slowly, on digital, would you believe. We just finished off the drums the other day. All of the songs swing in and out of time. It sounds like a beautiful mess.

As for M. Butterfly, I have so many songs and so many ideas, so there will absolutely be M.Butterfly III, but I have no idea when.

Tom House, who produced my first two albums, no longer lives in Brighton, so I’d need to find a new producer who gets my sound and what I’m trying to do. I’ve done some bits on my own, but I can get quite lost. I’d much rather have another person to play stuff to and have them say:”This is great, you are the best songwriter in the world,” or: “Get the f*** away from me!”

‘I’m working on an album with The Glass Saint Country Apparition Band. It’s a semi-improvised country noise outfit. The songs are long and noisy and the lyrics are dark’

You’re based in Brighton. How is it living and playing there? Do you get involved in the local scene?

M.B: I often gig in Brighton and I absolutely love the scene here. I’ve managed to get involved with the underground, more experimental part of the scene. I’m always surprised that my music goes down so well when I’m sandwiched between two post-rock bands.

I’ve learned the obvious truth that people are never what you perceive them to be, people are open-minded and just because they look like a goth or indie kid or whatever doesn’t mean they don’t like hip-hop, or country.

Brighton is expensive as hell to live in, and there are a lot of sayers and not many doers, but I love it and I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life here. The sea is the ultimate healer and we could all do with some healing.

What are your plans for the rest of this year?

M.B: I’d really like to finish the album with The Glass Saint Country Apparition Band, and I’d really like to have another M. Butterfly release ready too. One thing I am determined to do is release a small ‘zine of the lyrics from my first two albums. I’ve had so many people ask for them and I think it would be a nice little project to do. I’m proud of those lyrics and I’d love to see them in a physical format.

Finally, what music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?

M.B: I love Earthen Sea, who is a sort of ambient electronic guy. The album An Act of Love is great. I’ve just broken through with Tangerine Dream, I’m loving a live album they have called Logos. It has a section of music that they wrote for a film called The Keep, which is how I got into them. I revisited Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe recently – it’s a hell of a comeback, with such wonderful textures.

Dr. Octagon, otherwise known as Kool Keith, has been a more recent obsession. The album Dr. Octagonecologyst is like nothing else. It’s hip-hop, but it’s messy and weird and the lyrics are like some bizarre theatre performance. My partner hates it and won’t be in the room with me when I listen to it.

Bughunt by M.Butterfly will be available soon as a limited edition, lathe-cut 7in single on the indie label Eyeless.

For more information, visit:

https://eyelessrecords.bandcamp.com/

https://mbutterfly.bandcamp.com/

‘I’ve been having these really vivid dreams about a post-apocalyptic town…’

Three years ago, West Country singer-songwriter Alex Lipinski released his second album, Alex.

One of our favourite records of 2017, it was a collection of stripped-down, raw and bluesy, autobiographical songs, recorded in Berlin with Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and it reminded us of Bob Dylan singing The La’s.

Now he’s back with not one, but three new singles! Jigsaw is a haunting ballad – imagine Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game crossed with classic ’70s Neil Young; Everyday is a cover version of a Buddy Holly song – Alex has slowed it down and added some gorgeous, Richard Hawley-style, twangy guitar – and Hurricane is a re-recorded, full-band version of one of the standout tracks from his last album, with a jangly 12-string sound, organ and a wailing, Springsteen-esque sax solo.

In an exclusive interview, we sat down with Alex for a chat to get the lowdown on his new songs, and find out how his next album, which is being recorded this year, is shaping up. He also found time to tell us about his crazy dreams and a scary mushroom trip he once had…

Q&A

Hi Alex. How are you doing? The last time we spoke was in 2017, after the release of your last album, Alex. What have you been up to since then?

Alex Lipinski: I’m good, thanks. I’ve pretty much been playing all over the UK and writing songs since we last spoke. I’ve played a bunch of festivals, which were great. More recently, I’ve been playing some shows with Matt Owens (Noah and the Whale), which have been fun.

Late last year, you released a new single – Jigsaw. It reminds us of Chris Isaak and vintage Neil Young…

AL:I wrote most of Jigsaw one morning at my friend’s house, in Washington D.C, where she was living at the time. I picked up a guitar that was lying around and the chords and melody instantly came out – it’s always nice when it happens that way. I actually heard Neil Young’s Harvest-era drums in my head when I was picturing how I wanted it to sound.

The song is accompanied by a mysterious video, in which you walk around a deserted coastal town, bury a briefcase on the beach, get picked up in a car and bump into a strange masked character. What does it all mean and where did you film it?

AL: The idea for the video stemmed from a mushroom trip I had at some point over the past couple of years – Hawaiian cubensis mushrooms, to be precise. I was in the middle of the trip and going through a bit of an ordeal. I can laugh now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time.

The scenario I was in kept repeating itself – I was stuck inside this loop and couldn’t work out how to break out of it. With the video, I wanted to make something weird.

Around the same time I had the idea for the story, I had watched The Wickerman, so that may have had some influence. The video was filmed around Sand Bay Beach in Weston-super-Mare. We had quite a few confused and concerned stares from dog walkers and nosy neighbours when myself and my nephew, who was wearing a rubber rabbit mask, were digging and burying a suitcase! I don’t think anyone called the police. The large white building is a psychiatric hospital. The video was shot completely on an iPhone 11 Pro.

Your new single is a cover of Buddy Holly’s Everyday – you’ve slowed it down and the guitars have a Richard Hawley feel…

AL: Everyday came about from a jam at a soundcheck. I had been playing around with the song previously, slowing it right down – almost crooner-style.

Graham Nicholls, the lead guitarist, was setting up and he had this Richard Hawley- style tremolo sound he was trying out, so I started singing and playing the song and he joined in. Adam, my brother, sings the other main vocal on the recording, so it gives it that Everly Brothers feel. It was the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, so we thought it would be a fitting tribute to release the song as close as we could to that date, to mark the occasion.

There’s another new single on the way soon – a re-recorded, full-band version of Hurricane, from your last album. It has a much bigger sound than the original, with jangly guitar, Springsteen-like sax and some organ….

AL: The new version of Hurricane is how I actually heard the song when I first wrote it. I had this upbeat, 12-string Byrds/Big Star sound in my head. It wasn’t until I slowed it down and lowered the key at a gig, almost by accident, that I decided to record that version on my last album. I wanted this big Clarence Clemons/Bobby Keys-style tenor sax solo during the instrumental.

‘The new version of Hurricane is how I heard the song when I first wrote it. I had this upbeat, 12-string Byrds/Big Star sound in my head’

We recorded the new songs at Canyon Sound Studios, in Bristol. Nic Dover, who runs the studio and engineered the sessions, is also a great sax player, so he stepped up and nailed it in two takes. The latest recordings act as a kind of bridge between the last album, which is completely stripped-down, and the next album, which will be recorded with the full band.

Let’s talk about your next album. Is it written? If so, when do you plan to record it and release it?

AL: The next album is written, but there’s always new songs that are being added to it, so it’s a case of working out which direction I want to take it. I’ll be recording it this year and, hopefully, it will be out by the end of 2020, however it may be an early 2021 release. Making a body of work to be proud of is more important to me than trying to rush it out.

You made the last album with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, at his studio in Berlin. Any ideas about how you’re going to record the new one? Who are you going to work with?

AL: Working with Anton in Berlin was a great experience. He’s a ridiculously talented guy and also a great person. The album was completely stripped-down – the songs were presented in their raw, skeletal form and recorded live.

Myself and Adam [on guitar] were set-up facing each other, almost in a circle, with a bunch of mics around us and a giant RCA ribbon mic in the middle –  the same microphone they used to use on the old Frank Sinatra recordings.

‘The next album will be heading in a different direction. There are elements of blues, soul, Americana, power-pop, ’60s psych and country’ 

Adam was kind of learning the songs as we went along – I’m left-handed and he’s right-handed, so it was easy for him to see which chords I was playing. In eight hours we had the main nucleus of the record done.

The next album will be heading in a different direction, as I’ll be recording it with my band. The singles that are coming out were recorded at Canyon Sound in Bristol, with Nic Dover, and he’s also great and easy to work with. He has a great ear and the studio has great gear. So we’ll see what’s possible and figure it out.

What’s going to influence the sound of the new album?  

AI: Recording with the full band immediately gives the music a new direction and approach. There are elements of blues, soul, Americana, power-pop, ’60s psych and  country –  all these small glimpses of influences that seep out and merge together. That’s down to each individual player who brings something to the band.

Jon Whitfield (drummer) is a top jazz player, so he has his style, which allows us to take a song dynamically wherever we want it to go. Paul Quinn (keys/organ) and Graham Nicholls (lead guitar/lap steel) are both great players that sprinkle their magic dust, giving each song what it needs and, more importantly, knowing when to allow the song space where it needs it. And myself and Adam have been singing and playing together since we were teenagers, so we have this weird brotherly connection and understanding. So everything gels nicely.

Lyrically, the next record is going to be slightly less autobiographical than that last album, which was quite a personal record. I’ve tried to make things slightly more ambiguous, leaving it up to the listener to think for themselves, and not spelling it out.

Some of the songs could mean various things for different people and I guess that’s the beauty of creating something.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, it’s highly unlikely to not have been affected by what’s been going on politically in the UK, and if what’s been going on doesn’t make you angry, then you haven’t been paying attention. So I guess parts of that anger and frustration have slipped into some of the lyrical content.

Some of the themes also stem from dreams I’ve had over the past couple of years. I’ve been having these really vivid dreams, which are centred around a kind of post-apocalyptic town that feels both alien and familiar at the same time. A kind of blend of the future and nostalgia, and the line between reality and fantasy. I have absolutely no idea why I’ve been having these dreams, but I’m keeping a note of them.

‘The next record is going to be slightly less autobiographical than the last album, which was quite personal. I’ve tried to make things slightly more ambiguous’

What music are you listening to at the moment – new and old? Did you have a favourite album of last year?

AL: I’ve been listening to Townes Van Zandt quite a lot recently, especially the Live at the Old Quarter album. It’s a great live recording from 1973. The audience is crammed into this tiny venue. You can hear the cash till and the beer glasses – you can almost smell the sweat and cigarette smoke coming off the record.  It reminds me of the 12 Bar Club, on Denmark Street in London, where I used to play a lot. Full of character and characters, and a great jukebox. Sadly developers moved in and the venue is no more, but it used to be a magical place.

I’ve also been listening to Gene Clark’s No Other album, which was re-released at the end of last year, and Andy Shauf’s latest record [Neon Skyline], which I’m enjoying.

There were some great albums that came out last year. I thought Michael Kiwanuka’s record [Kiwanuka] was a masterpiece. Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars was great – Moonlight Motel  is one of the best songs he’s written over the past few years. I loved Wilco’s Ode To Joy. The Purple Mountains album [Purple Mountains] was amazing and also tragic, due to the circumstances. I loved Devendra Banhart’s Ma and I thought  Bill Callahan’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest was beautiful.

I played Son Volt’s Union a lot. I also really enjoyed Sharon Van Etten’s last album, Remind Me Tomorrow. I saw her live at the Green Man Festival last August and she blew me away. Her song Seventeen, from the latest album, is a killer.

What are your plans for the year ahead? 

AL: The plan for this year is to record the new album. I also want to play live as much as possible. Since the last album was released, I’ve been playing all over the UK and in Europe, and, even now, people are still discovering the record, which is great. So I’ll be playing shows, both solo and with the band.

Last year I helped my sister arrange and put on a series of gigs to raise money for the Save The Children Yemen Crisis Appeal. The first set of gigs were ‘Songs of Dylan’ – we invited a bunch of local, and not so local, artists to perform a couple of Dylan songs each. The first gig was in Hebden Bridge, and we also arranged concerts in Bath and Bristol. We’ve had some great musicians come and play at those shows and the response has been amazing – we’ve managed to raise over £2,000 so far. We’ve also hosted  ‘Songs of Simon & Garfunkel’ and ‘Songs of Joni Mitchell’ concerts in Hebden Bridge, too. The situation in Yemen is horrific and we’ll be arranging more Songs For Yemen gigs this year, with a big one in London being planned in the coming months.

‘If you’re in Bristol, you should make a visit to Friendly Records – it’s a great independent record shop and it’s got its own bar. What more do you want?’

I’ve also started a night in Bristol with my friend James Maclucas. It’s called Wolfmoon. It’s an evening doused in the spirit of the New York coffee houses of the 1960s, set in the intimate setting of Friendly Records Bar, on North Street. Three artists play a 30-minute set, completely unplugged. There are guest DJs and plenty of ale on tap. The next one is on Thursday February 27.

If you’re in Bristol, you should make a visit to Friendly Records – it’s a great independent record shop and it’s got its own bar. What more do you want? I haven’t been paid to say that by the way…

Jigsaw and Everyday by Alex Lipinksi are out now on A Recordings. Hurricane will be released on March 20.

Alex plays The Water Rats, London, on February 12, with Matt Owens (Noah and the Whale) and Sadie Jemmett. Tickets are available here. 

http://alexlipinski.co.uk/

Twitter: @alexlipinski1

Instagram: @alexlipinskli1