It’s a whole different experience tapping into the perspective of the “Opening Band,” which is what buttercup are up to with their brand-new single. Part of that perspective is unique, to say the least. You’re certainly part of the show, but many attendees want you to get it over with to get to the headliner. The song is a thought experiment, questioning what it must be like to be an opening act for a prevalent act and having a large, impatient crowd of concertgoers just wanting you to wrap it up.
The truth is, being the opening act is vital to the success and failure of being in a band, and it’s an experience that cannot be overlooked, which is similar to the approach buttercup took with their gigs. Even when the chips are down, and nothing is going your way, it’s essential to take a moment and rejoice at the gift of being able to get up on a stage and play music with your best friends. If the ship is going to go down, you may as well be in it together, right?
The Texas-based trio is currently finalizing their latest album, Grand Marais. Scheduled for release on July 14th via Bedlamb Records, the album is a collection of previously unreleased tracks recorded over three productive days back in early 2014. The band decided to shelve these songs and sit on them for nearly a decade now because they viewed them as being too raw and not polished enough to put out.
Why now decide to formally release them? Well, they didn’t seem appropriate to release nearly a decade ago, but these songs happened to age well, and they now feel like they fit within this strange time we are living in. The album name comes from a small town in Northern Minnesota, very close to the Canadian border, where lead singer Erik Sanden spent a lot of time growing up with his grandparents. Grand Marais means “large swamp,” a title that seemed to fit, thanks to their obscure lyrical content.
To discuss this new single and what’s currently up with the band, we connected with buttercup in conjunction with this premiere to catch up a little bit on the goings on with the band.
What prompted you to write this song? What inspired it? What is its message?
Erik Sanden: “I’ve had lots of experience as an opening band. It’s a delicate sword to balance, you want to play well, but you don’t want to outshine the main act, which will cause you to lose the gig (we’ve done this a couple of times). I suppose I wanted to access that exhilarating feeling of a young band huddled together in the garage, thrilled and terrified at their chance to get in front of a huge crowd.
But I’ve also witnessed bands suffer the wrath of an unsympathetic crowd. I once wrote a non-fiction piece about a show I went to where Beat Happening, a really special band, was assaulted by a crowd in LA when they opened for Fugazi. This was one of the most awful, and in retrospective, inspiring things I’ve witnessed. The song is for the courage of bands like Beat Happening.”
Joe Reyes: “As Erik can do so well, this subject is attacked head-on, and when a band is up against the wall, lashing back can be, even if ineffective, a cathartic, team-building moment. It’s this conceit that makes the intro’s lone acoustic guitar even more plaintive and the lyric more pronounced.”
Odie: “Getting the opportunity to be the opener for a famous performer is a dream come true for a local band. Your hair, attire, the music, everything must be in perfect harmony so that the question is popped, ‘Will you go on tour with us?’ Or better yet: ‘We’d like to sign you to our label!’ Spoiler alert: it rarely happens. Regardless, our message is always love.”
How did this song come together when you wrote it? What was the songwriting process like?
Odie: “Much like the lion’s share of our songs, Erik brought in the skeleton of this song. It was a cute zygote. Joe and I co-parent, and collectively we can kind of already see what our new one is supposed to look like; we just assemble it the best we can with love, without egos.”
Sanden: “We were playing with a minimal setup without drums when our original drummer quit the band. ‘Opening Band’ was a revelation, that we could create something rhythmically powerful without a formal drum kit. Once we had the lyrics, the rest flowed quickly.”
Reyes: “It was decided early on that the rhythm should be a San Antonio classic; the fast chuggie (palm-muted chords played quickly), which even on an acoustic guitar will work. Just ask Tenacious D. (Full disclosure: we did not think consciously of the D while recording this record despite our admiration and respect.)”
This is an extremely “stripped back” album, instrumentation-wise. How do you feel the minimalist nature of this album affected this song and its sound? Do you think the message is more impactful with the words in the forefront?
Sanden: “I do. I think the song starts so small, and then it roars in the refrain. But even when it’s roaring, it’s unsettling. There is a tension that comes from the minimalist undergirding; it’s rawer, it’s more exposed, more punk-rock. This is where the form meets the lyric.”
Reyes: “(Producer) Danny Reisch carves out sonic landscapes like no other mixer today, and that’s a huge part of how a song, with just two instruments in a studio, can roar like a band in an arena. His George Martin-like presence made recording this record far more joyous than it may sound on the recording, and he helped find just the right balance of light and dark for each song.”
Odie: “At the core of everything is its essence; either it is good or it isn’t. Adding distorted guitars to a poorly written/structured song does not make it better. Conversely, a great song is virtually indestructible (‘Diamonds and Rust’ by Joan Baez/Judas Priest), and the ‘less is more’ attitude taken on this record absolutely makes an extremely powerful musical impact and makes it lyrically more compelling.”
Speaking of the message, what do you hope listeners get from hearing the song? What message do you hope it conveys?
Reyes: “For listeners who’ve never played in bands, there might be a revelation or two of how it actually feels opening for big acts, but the song circles back at the end from death to birth, and we all emerge, ‘free.’ I feel that’s what’s really at the song’s heart: the freedom art can deliver.”
Odie: “This song is the essence of what our band is, what we represent, and what we can accomplish by morphing into one entity while on stage. We drink from the same ‘Consensus Chalice’ and ‘Loving Cup.’ That’s the message we send through our songs. The message is CUP: Compassion. Understanding. Patience.”
Sanden: “Ultimately, I hope it conveys the camaraderie that can exist in a band. Recently, I was at SXSW playing and watching show after show. I’ve discovered that my new favourite thing to do is watch bands set up. I can read in their body language and the way they help each other (or don’t) if they are a band of true friends. When you stumble on it, it’s thrilling to see in real time. I saw the singer of Mercury Rev tell his bass player that he loved him. Wow.”
What is coming up next for buttercup?
Odie: “Erik is constantly writing, so we are constantly recording, refining our harmonies, and are perpetually pregnant with ideas for shows and finding ways to give birth to them.”
Sanden: “Like Odie said, we have new songs that are rapidly forming a new groovy sound. We also have a spoken-word record that’s either veering off into a fresh new direction or into the ditch. We are going to record an album live in front of an audience. We are about to embark on our second tour this month. We are older but taking more risks than ever. It’s exciting.”
Reyes: “Yes, we are always writing and recording, having purchased the means to produce our own music from opening for all those bands. Ha ha! There is always something brewing organically among the three of us. It never stops. It just morphs into shows, recordings, tours, performance ideas, video concepts, or collaborations with our other artist friends. And coffee. Lots of coffee.”
Grand Marais Track Listing:
1. Cry Sailor Cry
2. Opening Band
4. Let It Drop
5. Morrissey for Company
6. It’s a Laugh
7. Enter Sanden
8. Catastrophe Beauty Mark
9. I Love You
10. I Can’t
04/21 – Communion, San Antonio, TX (live record show #1)
04/22 – Communion, San Antonio, TX (live record show #2)
04/29 – King William Fair, San Antonio, TX
06/22 – The Lonesome Rose, San Antonio, TX*
06/23 – The Parish, Austin, TX*
06/24 – Sons of Hermann Hall, Dallas, TX*
(* indicates shows with Salim Nourallah, Marty Willson-Piper, and The Deathray Davies)