When the guys behind the gothic Americana band the Builders and the Butchers decided it was time to start playing shows, they came up with an ingenious idea. Instead of trying to get booked into clubs, they would play outside of clubs. As the Builders' frontman Ryan Sollee explains, "We were thinking, 'Where are there going to be a lot of people?'" For the Oregon-based band's first "show," the guys set up outside a Bob Log III concert on Halloween 2005.
During the band's first year, the Builders almost always played apart from the traditional club system, taking it to the streets for their "guerrilla gigs" or performing at house parties. It seems like an appropriately unconventional route for a band that Sollee says began in a "very, very casual, organic" way.
Sollee moved to Portland from Alaska in 2003 with punk band the Born Losers. But he experienced a seismic shift in his musical thinking after getting introduced to the pre-rock American music of folks like Son House and Leadbelly. Soon he was exploring his fascination with old-time music in a project called the McGovern Goldwater Ticket. In 2005, he played his dark-hued tunes to old Alaska pal Ray Rude and fellow Alaskan ex-pats, Alex Ellis and Harvey Tumbleson.
The guys quickly started performing Sollee's songs with Ellis on acoustic bass, Tumbleson on mandolin and Rude on drums and piano. Paul Seely, a multi-instrumentalist who also played drums (he recently left the band and was replaced by Brandon Hafer), joined soon after. The double-drum lineup creates rhythms that Sollee characterizes as "the most interesting aspect of the band." Combined with the loud/soft interplay of the stringed instruments and Sollee's wild-eyed preacher vocals (somewhat recalling Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano), the Builders' music works up the fervency of a revival-tent sermon.
That the Builders' first live performance was on Halloween seems fitting for a band whose sound has been described as funeral music. But the label has served as inspiration for Sollee. "It gives you a framework of what our songs are about," he admits. "I get into a mode when I'll write four songs about water — weird things like that."
On the band's newly released sophomore effort Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well, the lyrics reference fire, death, blood, the Spanish Civil War and the devil. The repeated use of these dark images ties the tunes together like vines or roots or branches (nature-based imagery also crops up, perhaps an influence from Sollee's one-time job as a biologist).
Salvation, in Sollee's words, is the band's first studio album, since its self-titled debut was recorded in a friend's living room. It was produced by the Decemberists' Chris Funk and mixed by Tucker Martine (Bill Frisell, Mudhoney, Sufjan Stevens), and the Builders found their producer's studio experience invaluable. Funk, who tracked the band down and asked to produce them, wound up, according to Sollee, as a sixth member of the Builders: "He had really great ideas ... steering us in the right direction."
Although Sollee is the band's main songwriter, the Builders have a very collaborative style. Sollee brings in songs to the group with the basic verse/chorus structure and most of the lyrics, and his bandmates add to it. "As a songwriter, you have in your head how you think the song will go," says Sollee. "Usually, the guys will have better ideas that what I have. So I'm very open to suggestions. Funk said that we were pretty brutal, [but] the end result is better."
The young band has already garnered much attention in the vibrant Northwest music scene. Last year, they were named Best New Band by Portland's Willamette Week and Best Live Performers by Seattle's Sound Magazine.
Their concerts retain the lively, spontaneous style of their street-corner days.
"We try to get people involved as much as possible in the show," says Solle. The group brings a big green trunk on tour filled with instruments and weird things they pass out during gigs. He admits that by tour's end, the trunk is about only a quarter full. After one Salt Lake City show, a girl came up to the merch table still holding one of the band's tambourines. When he asked for it back, she refused; however, she did give them $20 to autograph it.
This is the band's first visit to Cleveland, so please leave a good impression and return the instruments.