Interview: Brock Butler Talks ‘Perpetual Groove,’ Staying On The Golden Path & More
Much has been made of the 13 years that have passed since Tool released their last studio album, 10,000 Days yet there is a jam scene act that has gone a similar amount of time since their last LP. Perpetual Groove’s classic lineup of guitarist Brock Butler, keyboardist Matt McDonald, bassist Adam Perry and drummer Albert Suttle issued LIVELOVEDIE in 2007 and while a different lineup put out Heal in 2009, the quartet is finally ready to unveil their first full-length record of the ‘10s.
Perpetual Groove, out tomorrow via Harmonized Records, is a collection of seven songs that mark a huge evolution for the band. The four-piece spent more time putting this new album together than they did all of their other albums combined. In the 12 years since Live Love Die was released, the quartet weathered a number of storms that included the departure of McDonald (who returned in 2012) and a two-year hiatus that was brought on in large part by Butler’s substance abuse issues.
In 2015, PGroove returned to the stage and have slowly but surely rebuilt their fanbase and created new ones thanks in large part to their dynamic live performances. Yet it took a long time until the band was ready to make an LP. Perpetual Groove incorporates influences such as Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam while still keeping the classic sound and emotion-laden songwriting that separates the group from the pack. JamBase recently spoke with Butler about the current status of Perpetual Groove, the band, and the creation of Perpetual Groove, the album, the role producer Jason Kingsland played in the making of the record as well as other topics.
JamBase: Now that we’re unbelievably four years into the latest phase of Perpetual Groove, how do you fight the fatigue and elements that led to the issues that you had before the hiatus?
Brock Butler: To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure how I even survived all the many many years before things got gnarly to the point of where there were problems. I’m finding that my most basic lifestyle choices … a lot of it involves routine. I get excited now when I stay at different hotels and look at their fitness center because I get up and exercise. Thinking back to right before the hiatus, that’s just a hilarious thing to picture.
And then that comes along with “what do you do the night before at shows?” As I get older, I’m 39 years old now and I quit drinking soft drinks, which was pretty much my only source of fluids for most of my life. If I was thirsty, I wanted a Coca-Cola and if some water came my way then I might have some but that was the last option.
So just all of these things, you know, some lower back issues which I still kind of flirt with having lower back pain sometimes. But, I’m amazed at the difference of when you’re not feeling things through a lens of external chemicals as it were, just kind of the natural endorphins and the buzz that I get from waking up and then once I exercise I always feel better and glad that I did it. I’m also mentally I’m staring down the barrel at 40 and having the desire to want to feel better.
JB: And what about the fans and friends that you’ve encountered over the years who you know might not be on the same path? Does it involve staying away from them and the partying aspect?
BB: No, over the four years [since the hiatus ended] I’ve found myself in different situations. The first year we would fly out to Denver and do two nights in Denver and that was the run of shows. Now, our tour schedule is starting to look an actual tour. Over these years we’ve toyed around with the business model, and not just for me but for Matt and Adam, they both have their wives and kids at home and everybody’s got stuff going on. So just trying to find just the right balance of getting out there and playing and working smarter, not harder. So a lot of that takes care of itself in that my mindset used to be when the show is over, “Where’s the late night happening? What’s the next thing?” But now after we play, I might go out or something, but not something that keeps me out until 5 a.m. and gets me back to a hotel bed I don’t use.
I think I’ll always like to kind of walk around before we play and say hi to people. That’s always been a favorite added bonus to being a traveling musician. Take yours and my friendship for example. I like walking out and around and having friends where if I got delayed or stuck at an airport in most of the major hubs in this country, there’s at least one or two people that I can call and I wouldn’t be sleeping at the airport necessarily. So there’s way more healthy-minded and great friends and even if they still partake in whatever party favors or good times, I think everybody is just happy to see that I’m living right and I think it’s evident both in my appearance and encounters with me as a person but also the performance on stage.
There really hasn’t been anything where someone has done a quick handshake and all of a sudden I’m holding. It’s getting to a point where just naturally by wanting to go back to the hotel and avoiding certain environments it makes it pretty easy to not get caught in those situations.
JB: Stay on the golden path if you will?
BB: Yeah, precisely.
JB: You love playing late night solo sets as the sun is coming up for people who really appreciate the music. It’s not like a party scene, for instance on Jam Cruise it’s generally like 20 people gathered around, but the hours are crazy. Let’s say you’ll start at 4 a.m. and go until 8 a.m. Do you run into that situation and does it cause any issues?
BB: You know, I can draw a parallel to that. My sister passed away in October and I went and played my acoustic in her hospital room. We had just played The National in Richmond and she ended up being in the VCU Critical Care Unit, and it was half a mile away from the venue. So after we finished playing our show, I walked over there and played from midnight to about 6 a.m. when the shift change happened with the nurses. So I played for my mom, for my sister and a couple of nurses and played hour after hour. It’s more than just my pleasure making music. I’m actually starting to look at going back to school to get certified to be a musical therapist practitioner.
How this relates to playing all night is that this wasn’t Jam Cruise, this wasn’t a joyous situation. But I didn’t feel tired and my stamina for playing seems to be even better because I am taking care of myself in general. Take the Jam Cruise example of playing from 4 to 8 a.m., if that circumstance would happen again it might not be quite the marathon of hours, or who knows instead of playing through from the night before, I might wake up at 6 a.m. I might wake up and play at the start of my day, which would be the flip side of the old situation.
It Starts Where It Ends
JB: How do you see the songs from Perpetual Groove the album fitting into the repertoire of Perpetual Groove the band?
BB: Having a couple of songs that don’t focus on the blistering guitar solo or what have you … having a couple of tunes that are more minimalist and a little bit more vibey when it comes to guitar, I think will work nicely.
We’ve learned that simply because all four of us have our main instruments, it doesn’t mean that we all need to have a part that we’re simultaneously playing. Sometimes that power chord is 10 fold more effective if we have people wait for it and then when it hits it gives it a bit more … I don’t know exactly how to describe it. But just the effectiveness of introducing different tones and just a more minimalist approach, certainly compared to previous albums.
I think that would be a nice change sonically in the shows. To change the tone colors and the moods and to stimulate people’s eardrums in different ways because if it’s just one guitar solo for too long, everyone might get into a nice trance with it and it’s awesome, but sometimes it’s just that sweet spot of changing it up.
Things that I like about Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails when I see them in concert is that over the years the longer or the bigger their catalogs get, they become more versatile. So you’ve got one song that’s got a bunch of guitars and another that’s all vibraphones and a bunch of pianos and strings. Peter Gabriel’s another example where one song where it’s very much just him singing and atmospheric stuff and then when Tony Levin drops this bomb with his bass and it’s like kaboom!
Now, there’s going to be an acoustic on stage at the shows not because we’re going to be doing acoustic sets, but because it’s just a nice little shift. I think it’s part of the reason too that I have the baritone electric for “Teakwood Betz” and those kind of songs and I’ve got the lap steel and different guitars up there. It’s part of the same thought process of what I’m describing that by changing up the tones of the guitars you’re using, it makes things more interesting. Kind of like Wilco and Tom Petty being able to change between rock songs and more roots material. Hopefully it will be a nice gear. If we’ve had a four-gear shift kind of vehicle so far, hopefully this will give us an added fifth gear.
JB: Speaking of all those gears and how they come together on a nightly basis, how is a typical PGroove setlist put together these days?
BB: Matt usually is the first one because he’s proactive, as he’s always been. So we have on our phones in the notes section, he’ll he’ll start typing in a couple of song ideas and usually that’s a catalyst. We’ll start adding and see how it goes.
And of course, if I’m out or any of us see people in the crowd — depending on the nature of the request — if it’s a reasonable enough thing like “My wife and I met because of this song,” I know what it’s like to get the songs you’ve been chasing and it’s such an amazing feeling to get as an audience member, I try to be as accommodating as possible.
And so that you know, there’s bits of it for everything. There’s external factors to it and we try to vibe on the room a little bit and sometimes to that end we’re not in big theaters and we find ourselves in bar and club situations and certain songs need a physical space to at least sound the way in my mind that I hope they’d sound. For instance, if Pearl Jam was doing “Alive” at a small basement bar in Savannah it wouldn’t have that soaring aspiration to be arena rock. And conversely, some songs are really great in that small club settings like “Casa,” while “Mr. Transistor” is best in a big booming room.
As far as the setlists, I don’t think there’s going to be a major shift. Some of these songs we built from the ground up in the studio as opposed to fleshing out the ideas over time on the road. I think maybe in time they’ll go into a sandwich, like “this song goes into this,” but I think they’ll be very much standalone at least at first while we get comfortable. There’s a few [of the new songs] that we’ve been rehearsing pretty much the way they are on the record but we’ve found points that we’re excited to jam out.
While there are some songs that might seem drastically different, I think the most crucial part of the recipe, of the heart of this band, are still on this album. An example I think of and I’m not a hater is Mumford & Sons. I really like their album Sigh No More and we crossed paths a number of times over the years. I thought the hipster, suspenders and kick drum acoustic thing is what I thought they were all about as people. And then a few years later, they had a new album come out and were on Saturday Night Live and they come out and they’re all wearing black t-shirts with gel in their hair and playing electric instruments. It made me retroactively wonder if they were being disingenuous or if it was contrived. Was it like a group of people deciding they want to be a Seattle grunge band and all going out and buying flannel?
So when we made this album, we didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, we want to be this kind of band.” Having Jason Kingsland as producer certainly helped make any transition in the sound organic.
JB: How did you select Jason to produce the album and what was his role?
BB: Adam and Jason had become friends and that’s how he entered our orbit. He’s worked with a lot of bands that I like such as Band Of Horses in particular. It was cool to have someone with his experience to draw from and perspective. The best example I can give is the song “Part Three.” We spent a year making this album. In July of last summer we were working on that tune and I’m just loving it. In the studio, Fidelitorium has these great old keyboards and fun unusual things that wouldn’t be very practical on the road but it was really cool to get to choose all these different sounds. I was stoked on how that song was taking shape, I was really happy with the lyrics. I had arrived at a point where I would’ve said, “yeah, I can’t really imagine what more we might do with this song.” In that span of time, life happens, my sister Erin passing away had a lot of profound shake me by the shoulders kinds of things.
So I went back and at this point now all the instrument tracking was done. It put a little delay in the recording because I had to leave the studio a day and a half early to go home to the funeral in Virginia. It steered things to this point where when I met with Kingsland again to get the lyrics and things once and for all buttoned up. I had this idea of changing just this one line in the song. And he said, “Oh man, that’s great. I like that a lot.” About an hour later, I come back in and said, “Don’t hate me but you might have just inspired me to issue a real challenge. Quite a lot has happened from July until now, would you agree?” And I said, “Oh yeah, obviously.” And he said, “And just the one line switched there seems like a spark, just showing the changes of perspective when something so significant like that happens. How would you feel about taking a pad and paper and I’m going to give you the track again with no lyrics on it?” So he wanted me to take it back to the drawing board and take a whole new swing at the song.
In a matter of two hours, some things were in the original path of the song, but then just with a couple of flips and slight changes here and there it because real cathartic. If I was happy with it before, I felt it reached its full potential now and that was all thanks to him and his motivation to push that maybe it’s not quite done yet. I was already happy with the song, but he was able to see something in that one little exchange that got the gears turning. There were tons of examples like that.
Somethings worked and somethings didn’t. There was one where he deliberately detuned my lap steel and that didn’t work too well for me (laughs). He wanted to see what would happen if we got a punk or more gnarly tone. But David Gilmour is the reason I ever got a lap steel to begin with because I wore the ‘Pulse’ VHS out and watched “High Hopes” and said, “What is that contraption?” A few times Kingsland said to me “can you do it less pretty? It’s too pretty!” and I said, “I’m trying man!” And especially on that instrument of all instruments — on a standard six-string I’m sure I can bend it a little bit and dig in there, but my whole approach on lap steel has always been trying to get to that rich, shimmering, blissful perfection which is how I view that instrument in my head. Yet that’s to his credit, that’s why you bring in a producer to hopefully challenge you.
I would say 99% of it were things that maybe even at the time I may have hid my frustrations with things like, “I just don’t know. This doesn’t seem right. There’s this thing I do and this is not that thing.” But I was always delighted with the end result when he pushed us to excel.
JB: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did the decision come to follow up the EP you did a few years back with a full-length album? What was the genesis of Perpetual Groove the album?
BB: I would say that we knew we wanted to make an album. Really get in and do it and have a physical thing to release. I must say it’s a strange thing that yeah, we did The Familiar Stare EP and I love that EP but we made it but at the same time it doesn’t exist because there’s no physical copies.
Now, I’ve listened to this album on vinyl and everything. We did “Paper Dolls” as a single and video but it’s something that just exists strictly in the digital streaming realm. I love that material but if we were to count it up, we took as much time making this album as all of the other ones combined. We knew that we wanted to afford ourselves time and that’s why we did the Kickstarter campaign with it.
I think this is something that we wanted to do in the natural order, the obvious order. The sequence is first, we did the reunion shows. Is everyone getting along? Yes, everyone’s not only getting along, we’re getting reacquainted and making amends on certain things — well, that’s my part, that’s all I’m speaking to here — then I stayed at Adam’s house and Matt’s house and I feel that over time the friendships are all better than they’ve ever been. I think that’s an important part. If you’re going to go into a studio for a couple of weeks and really even if you’re on the best of terms, if you have a creative sparring session and butting heads a little bit that’s one thing. But if there’s personal baggage and you put yourself into close quarters with people that’s another.
Our friendships and relationships are improved across the board. Everyone’s getting along and the love is back into it. Obviously, the hiatus and all that stuff really rested, a wealth of it, on my needing to get myself together and on a better path. I’d like to think that having that time was useful for everyone to get some time off the road and access what had gone on in our lives. As best I can tell, every person in this band seems to be living happier and in healthier ways.
So first we do weekend shows and then we start doing a whole week of shows and then we go to the studio to record the EP. It was the equivalent of dipping our toes in and checking the temperature for everything we were doing as a band and knowing that we wanted to make a proper album. That all worked in tandem with the more we get out and play together and the better our general relationships are all just kind of goes into the music being made.
Everyone thought that we were ready to go to the next level of recommitment to the group and how much of it do we want to have it in our lives? We could’ve just kept doing some destination-based things like two nights at Brooklyn Bowl, two nights in Denver, two nights here and two nights there. We could have continued to play the songs that we love and that would have been nice but I think that we all really want to see it be all it could be and this album is a direct representation of that.
JB: Where did the sessions for PGroove the album take place?
BB: This is certainly the time we’ve recorded in different states or even different locations. We started at Fidelitorium in North Carolina. The guy who owns the studio, his name is Mitch Easter. If you bring up his name in circles in Athens, he’s worked with R.E.M. and B-52s. He’s an old school type of guy. He has this beautiful little spot there and then there’s a house which you can walk across the lawn and then there’s the studio. So the idea was to get ourselves out of the city. There was never any notion of “Okay guys, we’re knocking off for the day. I’m going to see this band at a bar.” I think at most maybe a couple of us at different points went out to the movies and that was just to avoid cabin fever. But for the most part we were all completely submerged in the process so it didn’t matter how late we went. We’d all either end a late night or start the day with a communal breakfast.
JB: When you were at the studio in North Carolina were you writing the material or did you have the songs you wanted to record?
BB: Actually, let me take a jump back here because I skipped a big part of the process. We were at another studio in Atlanta, but for this one we just wanted to get a big demo list of song ideas. Adam had a couple and I had a few and then we all got together and worked on them. So there’s some recordings of demos where nothing is polished or perfect. I think it’s entirely possible that out of eight or nine demo songs there’s only one of them, “A Retro,” for which the album version sounds anything like the demo version. What we had from those demo sessions is very different from what turned out to be the album
We probably spent the amount of time on those demos that we did on tracking Sweet Oblivious Antidote just to give you a comparison. Just those demos where one out of the nine ended up on the album. There were some other little bits and pieces of songs [that made it into other songs] so not all of them were completely dismissed. It was kind of like taking a car and using it for parts.
JB: That’s how a lot of bands do it.
BB: But that was a new experience for us. We’ve worked with producers and things like that before but it can’t be overstated, at least as far as I’m concerned, that whatever decision making process Jason Kingsland uses and does in taking the part that catches his attention, I feel like we’ve ended up with a very lovely hot rod indeed.
JB: Was Jason there from North Carolina onwards?
BB: The first time I met him was when he stopped by where we were recording these demos. There was one song that we were working on and without actually literally spelling it out that this is what was happening, he was feeling us out. If he had come in there and said, “What do you think about trying it like this?” if somebody had been a big jerk about it and said, “No, this is the way we do it” he might have said, “I can’t go in there and be an engineer to someone who isn’t open to input.” But the vibe was immediately a great one. So there’s two versions of this one demo and you could hear what we were working on and then the next take after he had given us some ideas and direction it seemed like we got along really well right off the start. And then we met up in North Carolina for the real deal tracking.
”Eventually” and “A Retro” were the two tracks that went from the Atlanta demo making process to North Carolina to the album. We did all the tracking at Fidelatorium and then really a big part of that studio was having access to all these nifty wonky old keyboards and the live room for the drums. And once those things were tracked we didn’t need to go to North Carolina again for weeks and weeks. Certain things like amps and guitars and of course vocals, those can be done at different places. So, we came back to Atlanta with the framework or the bones of the album. Then, we continued to work on it there.
During that session is when I had to leave for my sister’s funeral. It doesn’t sound like a lot but it was a day and a half. And the reason I say a day and a half because even though I was in there working that morning, it’s not very easy to really get lost in the art when you’re looking at the clock to make sure you call that Uber on time to get to the plane to get to the service. So even that half day’s worth of work, I can’t really say how much my mind and attention were as focused as I would prefer them to be. At the same time, I think it’s worth mentioning, the day before there are certain parts of this record now that I will hear something that I know was recorded in these couple of days when all of this was going on. As sad and tragic as the circumstances were, it cost an awful lot for some of those lyrics and certain things to exist, I didn’t really have to channel the emotion. It was pretty raw. I was glad to have that work to do at that time because if I was just sitting around … being able to channel grief and things like that constructively into art and music is just about the healthiest way to go about that sort of stuff.
JB: It reminds me of the situation with Trey Anastasio and the making of Ghosts Of The Forest.
BB: Oh yeah, reading his description of that and being there with his buddy (Chris “CCott” Cottrell) as he was passing away and talking about the nature of their friendship, there’s definitely a lot of things I find relatable. Anastasio and I seem to have a few things in common.
This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
JB: You made the decision to put out Perpetual Groove on vinyl, can you tell us about that?
BB: It couldn’t have been a more thrilling experience to hear it on vinyl. I learned a lot about the process of vinyls being made. I would have made this case even before the process, but I think analog sounds better than digital. It all sounds fine on digital formats and other mediums, but there’s just something about it on vinyl. I feel like I’m in the physical space with the drums. I don’t know the science behind it necessarily, but the physicality of the music being cut into vinyl, there’s no substitution for the needle hitting the vinyl.
JB: Why did you decide to self title this record?
BB: We were kicking around ideas and none of the songs really felt, at least to me, like they had the album title in them. I don’t know, Scott. It just kind of feels right.
JB: It is now 2019. Putting out albums has changed a lot since the release of your last album. What are some of the ways that you guys are trying to make the album stand out from the pack?
BB: I know that we’re going to be more proactive and focused in getting it out there. I think we’re going to leave no stone unturned or no path unexplored in that respect. It’s always been a hope of mine that [music from the album] will get used in a cool movie or television show.
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