Will Murphy chats to Belfast born, LA based Joe Cassidy of seminal 90’s dream pop act Butterfly Child about releasing his latest record – his first since 1997 – John Peel and discussing Northern Irish politics with Scott Walker.
Hi Joe! How has it been getting back into the releasing an album routine?
It’s been really weird. I don’t know how much you know about what I did because it’s all old news, but I haven’t put out a Butterfly Child record since 1997. It wasn’t like I stopped making music though. I’ve been working on multiple other things with a bunch of bands. I had a side project called Assassins that did a few shows, and then L.A. Reid from Arista [Records] signed us. We literally played like four shows and we got this huge record deal back in the early 2000s. But then that became a complete nightmare because you’re dealing with major labels and all that nonsense. So it wasn’t like that there wasn’t stuff happening. If I did anything it was more on the quiet side though.
I didn’t mind that because Butterfly Child, even though it’s the worst name in the world, was something I cared about. I believed in the music. Although I was working on multiple things since the last album, I never felt like there was a point where it made sense, whether it was because of a lack of label interest or what have you. But at some point later I decided I was going to put out a record, I just didn’t know what it was going to be. And when Dell’Orso [records] came on board we just clicked. I had about 300 songs in my pocket so it was about deciding what kind of record we wanted to make and during that process we bonded over what it was going to be.
In the intervening years, when you were working with those other bands was it ever in the back of your mind that you were writing Butterfly Child songs?
No, because it evolved. Something that happened for me, especially since I’ve been out in the States, is that people say “Oh, you know how to put a song together”. So I’ve been brought in to work on a film, a commercial or working with another record label who have a band who need songs. I’ve been knocking out tracks every single day because in my opinion, especially if you’re Irish, you like working hard and you’re trying to say something, that’s what you do for your day job. So I’ve been knocking out songs on a daily basis for the last twenty years. It’s one of those things where you’re writing for other people, and it doesn’t matter if you’re writing for Taylor Swift or some idiot who lives down the street. You’re always working hard.
How do you find writing for other bands?
It’s definitely weird because I’m a control freak, there is no question about that. It’s one of those things, where sometimes it’s a good experience and sometimes it’s a bad experience. But, at the end of the day, I know how to dial down my emotional connection to a song and sometimes say “okay, this song is going to be something else entirely and it’s not really mine anymore”.
The new record, Futures, sounds great. “Lost In These Machines” is just fantastic, it hits on what Kevin Shields tried to recapture a few years back but couldn’t.
Why thank you. I partied with Kevin quite a few times and he’s done remarkable music over the years. The thing is Butterfly Child is a very small, cult band; we’re not going to change anybody’s life. But that was one of the last songs we did for the record, and I wasn’t thinking about My Bloody Valentine or any of those “Dream Pop” things that are being thrown around the press right now. I never saw myself as part of that movement, but if you use reverb you’re either going to be “Dream Pop” or “Shoe Gaze”. The track came out at the very end of the writing process and I felt like the record needed something like that on there. But it might have been better had Kevin done a mix of it.
Might have taken him about six years to get it done though with his tweaks.
Well probably seventeen years knowing him.
You added that track late in the process, and with the other 300 tracks, did you find it difficult to cut them down or did you know immediately that these have to be on the record?
It was pretty straightforward. I’m 46 years old now and there was this point about not putting out a record for 18 years, I just had this thing where I’m an older person and I don’t want to put out the cute Phil Spector pop record that I’ve got in my back pocket. I want to say something that is meaningful to me right now; the ones that connected with me at this time. Even though there were all these songs flying around, I probably only gave the label about 40 tracks that I was possibly looking at and we very quickly found a mood to the record that made sense.
In relation to mood, what were you listening to during process? What albums intentionally or unintentionally imbued their mark into the sound?
This is a classic thing. In the last week or so I’ve been asked by all these magazines to give my Top Ten of the year. And I’ve got no fucking clue. I don’t really pay attention to a lot of new music. You’ll see a notification about a band on Facebook or a blog and you’ll listen and then move onto the next thing without thinking; everything has become so vapid. So everything I was listening to while making Futures will seem kind of strange: Taylor Swift’s 1989, Frank Sinatra from the 60s, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ella Fitzgerald, New Order and The Police. That’s the kind of stuff I was into. Oh and also Scott Walker. The whole album is like a torch song record so I was listening to a lot of albums where you have these amazing singers whose vocals were up there and present and the music was kind of in the background.
Like Bisch Bosh? Walker is just incredible.
He’s the most amazing guy. I had this unbelievable experience – and this isn’t me doing the classic L.A. talking crap – I was working on the mastering for the second Butterfly Child record back in the 90s, probably 1995. We took a break from mastering. It was at Metropolis in London and we went down to grab some dinner. So we are downstairs and the mastering engineer recognizes this gentlemen, who was just sitting there with a cap on. He was like “Come meet my friend” and I sit down, we start talking and this guy’s name was Scott. I have no idea who he is and I’m talking away to him. He was very interested in my take on the politics in Northern Ireland and we sat there having dinner and making conversation for, I’d say an hour and a half. In the end, he goes “Hey, wanna go to up the studio to hear what I’m working on?” and I say “Yeah, that’s cool”. So while we’re walking up the mastering engineer taps me on the back and goes “Do you realize that is Scott Walker?” And it turns out they were mixing Tilt. I almost fainted. I had no idea I was talking to Scott Walker for like an hour and half.
It must have been insane hearing Tilt in that stage.
Exactly. Scott Walker turns around to me and says “Do you think that bass tone is too loud” and my mouth is like wide open.
Scott is a such full on presence and someone who you could very easily obsess over. To go back to something you mentioned earlier, how interchangeable and vapid listening to music is. I’m wondering what are your views on streaming and the digital consumption of music?
I use those things, because I’m trying to check out new things every so often. But I don’t get it. I’m very much the same kid I was when I was 10 and I was going out to buy “Message in a Bottle” or when I was 15 going out to buy Aikea-Guinea by the Cocteau Twins. I want to have the physical product. But that’s just way the it is. There is this whole new generation there and they consume music and media in a completely different way than I do. I respect that but I stick to my guns. It’s one of those reasons, which is super dumb, why on the new record – it’s so pretentious – I deliberately labeled it side 1 and side 2, even on the CD because it is a body of work. I think if you take one song from this record it misses the point. I think that is the problem with what we’re all dealing with these days, where we listen to one track from someone like Kanye. I don’t think people are trying to make actual albums or trying to make an actual statement. There is so much fluff out there and I know people will say “There is a lot of fluff out there, but there is probably a lot of fluff on the Butterfly Child record”. I don’t care though. I believe in it all.
You mentioned that you were working on films and commercials. What kind of films have you been working on?
Oh a ton of indie stuff out in L.A.. The strange thing about this whole new record is that I’ve got a friend who is a screenwriter in L.A. who was working on a film called “Warrior”. What happened was they got in touch with me and they said that there was this track that The National had performed in Paris that was on Youtube and that they’d like something like that as a theme throughout the movie. I listened to the song and I thought “That’s weird, that sounds like a track I wrote back in literally 1987/1988”. So I got the original demo, started working on it. For a bunch of different reasons, it didn’t happen with the film but this track, which didn’t really have lyrics yet, I sent it to a couple of people and they said I should put it out. That song, “No Longer Living In Your Shadow”, was the eight minute track on the album and that’s how the record started. It’s just one of those things. I’ve been working on a bunch of different documentaries and my day job is ‘I’m a writer for hire’. If people have a problem or they need a track at the last minute, they usually call me and I’ll knock something out in like five minutes or dig into my library and that is just how it works.
Do you prefer writing for films?
It’s a different thing. I obviously prefer writing what I’d call “normal music” which is like you pick a track or work something out on a synthesizer or you bring in a bunch of people and you create this thing that doesn’t have any directive from anybody else, you’re just making a pure statement. That’s what I do with Butterfly Child; if you don’t like it, go fuck yourself, this is the music I want to make. But on the other side, when I’m doing things for commercials, film, documentary or even TV work, then it’s this very different thing. You still want to do a good job but you understand that number one, you’re getting paid and it’s fun, but number two you have deal with certain constraints. Somebody might be telling you can to make it sound more like Sigur Ros or Phoenix or, God forbid, Mumford and Sons, it’s a different thing. It’s like you’ve got a day job and then there is the other side. I remember my mother told me when I was five and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was playing on the radio in our kitchen in Belfast. She told me that I was listening to the song and I started humming a different melody. She said “What are you doing?” and I said “I’m humming what I think the melody should be”. That says a lot right there, I’ve always been a brat and very opinionated. Trying to rewrite Bohemian Rhapsody at five says it all.
Fair bit of gall from you there. To tangent, since Butterfly Child are such a cult band did the idea of hopping aboard the anniversary show bandwagon appeal to you? Did something like that tease you back into doing the band again?
Definitely not. It’s funny because a lot of weird stuff happened. I put out Soft Explosives [Butterfly Child’s 3rd album and the last before the hiatus] in 1997, I was in Chicago working with a lot of bands like Tortoise and I was doing a bunch of shows. I was working on the concept of another record but I think some bands are kind of locked into this routine. I get it, you’ve got to make an income. But they’ll make a record, they’ll tour, they’ll make another record, they’ll tour and so on. That was never part of my thing. When I got Soft Explosives done, I felt like what I was interested in was kinda wrapped up. Soft Explosives had some really interesting songs and it’s doing the big string thing and even though I was writing all these things afterwards which I thought were pretty special, I didn’t think there was a body of work there that I wanted to stand behind. It doesn’t matter if it takes 5 years or 18 years, it took a while for somebody to come in on board which was what Dell’Orso and Guy were like. “Hey, we want to help you define what your next record is”. I’ve been working by myself for a long time and unless you’ve got a foil to go through all the stuff that you’ve got sitting there…it’s difficult to help you decide what kind of record that you want to make. It certainly wasn’t about coming out of retirement. If anything I’ve worked more in the last decade than I ever did back in the 90s. It was one of those things that the right time came up. Obviously, there was interest because I was getting calls from various record labels asking if I wanted to do a retrospective or get the John Peel sessions out. It was one of those things where it all happened at the right time. Some older songs started making sense with the newer ones and it felt like this is the right time to get out a new album.
You mentioned John Peel there and it’s been about 11 years since he died. Do you remember that day?
Oh God, yes. I loved him to death. I was listening to the John Peel show probably since I was a ten year old. I was one of those kids, armed with cassettes tapes, recording the whole show. Three of us back in Belfast were really tuned into that stuff so we’d be recording him, listening back and finding out what we liked and what we didn’t like. But he had such a unique voice and such a huge influence on so many bands. He was also one of the warmest sweethearts you’d ever meet. He was like God to me, way more than even someone like Scott Walker. I feel like Peel was such a wonderful brain and he was spreading so much different music whether from Soweto to the Undertones. Anything you can think of he was there and I remember when we put out the very first Butterfly Child EP in 1991 and I got a call from our PR girl who said “John Peel is playing your stuff tonight”. I ran home so I could tape it and I get home and I’m listening to it and he puts on my song and then a minute later he calls me and i end up talking to him for five minutes. He was that kind of guy, no B.S. with him. He was with you 110%. He was awesome.
Do you feel there is anyone who could even partially fill the void he left?
Who can fill in for John Peel? Nobody. That’s impossible. There are some people out there who are trying but those days are gone. How radio changed and how fractured things are where we once had five million people all tuning into the same thing. It’s like how back in the 1970s and 80s in Ireland and the UK, there was this shared experience like a “Blackadder” and that is what John Peel had; a bunch of people who’d all lock into one show. That doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s impossible to keep that up.
Our central shared experiences now are something like what happened in Paris, where it is just so terrible.
On that note, did you hear about the Eagles Of Death Metal releasing the rights to ‘I Love You All The Time’ to let people cover it for free provided they donate the proceeds to the victims fund? Maybe a cover for a new EP?
That’s fantastic. The only problem I have is that we’re doing another Butterfly Child EP for January. Stephen Hague, who did some of the New Order stuff, he did a mix of one of the tracks on the album and I’m currently writing three more tracks for the EP but if I get them done in enough time before Christmas, I might do an Eagles of Death Metal cover. It is obviously a great cause.
You mentioned that you’re doing the new EP, what is the future for Butterfly Child?
It’s one of those things. It’s always been kind of this quiet thing that a few people in Poland, Brazil, Ireland and God knows where are into. It’s very much a cult thing and I don’t mind that. At the minute, I am working on the fifth album, it’s very different to Futures. Actually since that record came out, and this is something I’m very surprised by, there have been a lot of offers coming in about doing some festivals in Europe next Summer or maybe doing some tours. It’s interesting because I’m one of those guys who likes working in a recording studio and doesn’t care so much for the live thing of going “Hey look at me” and all that rubbish. No matter what happens with the Futures album I think there is going to be at least one more record which is going to be fun. The other thing I’m doing now is that, finally after 20 years, Sony are going to put out the second album online and we’ll be doing a lot remasters for all the old records, EPs and singles. There is a lot of Butterfly Child happening. It’s small potatoes but it’s fun.
Going back to your older work, how do find listening back to what you wrote when you were so young? Do you listen back and think “Oh I could have done X there or put a theremin solo there”?
Well that’s inevitable. I had a friend talking to me yesterday about a song that was on one of the EPs for Dedicated [records] and he was complaining that it didn’t have enough low end. But I’ve got enough experience to realize that I’m actually pretty happy with all of the albums and singles, in terms of how old I was at the time. I think Onomatopoeia was a solid record for what it was, when I was a young kid and this goes all the ways up to the Futures. There were a couple of missteps on some the EPs but those things are inevitable. My whole thing is I’m always trying to think about tomorrow and the next song. I don’t want to do a George Lucas and go back and add more guitars and harmonies to some B-Side that I felt was weak. You have to let it go. You should get it remastered and get it cleaned up a little bit, but I’m not interested in going back and reviving things. That’s pointless to me.
If you’ll forgive me for asking this, what records, gun to the head situation, would say best describe you certain points in your life?
I would say Low-Life by New Order, early sixties Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra and Dave Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive.