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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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