"In the Boulder-Denver area, there are so many bands that play fifteen-minute jams," says Paul Massey, vocalist and rhythm guitarist for Boulder's Butlers & Thieves. "But we just want to play three-minute pop songs."
Indeed, those of you in search of a Deadhead vibe and tie-dyed clothing should check out another Boulder group. The Butlers (Massey, vocalist/guitarist Jason Mannell, drummer Kim Risburg and bassist Ross Krutsinger) call Colorado's neo-hippie headquarters home, and between the four of them, they have enough hair to make Bruce Willis drool. But that's where the comparisons between B&T and typical groove combos ends. "Speaking generally and not naming names per se," Massey notes, "Jason and I got together and decided we wanted to be a pop band--a band that was writing pop songs that would fit well on the radio, that would have catchy lyrics or a hook in the melody, and that people would pick up on and really want to hear again."
The musical marriage between Mannell, an Australian who moved to Boulder in 1993 after a seven-year stint in the Sydney club band Buzz, and Massey, a fixture on the local singer-songwriter scene, wasn't consummated overnight. The pair were introduced by a mutual friend who was convinced they'd hit it off instantly. But, Massey recalls, "Jason was clearly not going to be impressed from day one. He was just sitting there with his arms sort of crossed, playing it really cool, and I didn't think much of his attitude." It took several months before they developed an admiration for each other's work and began collaborating in earnest.
Last year the duo recruited a rhythm section by placing ads in area music stores. "In our naivet, we didn't actually try out anybody else" other than Risburg and Krutsinger, Mannell reveals. "Kim and Ross were the first two people who replied, and we just snagged them." Fortunately, the match turned out to be a good one. Risburg, a music major eager to break out of the symphonic circuit, and Krutsinger, a multi-instrumentalist who splits his time between B&T and Ethnic Background, provide a tasteful foundation for the Butlers' superb originals and the vocal interplay of the quartet's founders. Mannell's singing provides the music with a warm and smoky undercurrent, while Massey often pushes his edgy and exuberant tenor beyond the breaking point. "The thing that strikes me about our voices is not only the different registers, but that they sort of complement one another tonally," says Mannell, whose songwriting is the mainstay of B&T's sets. "What mine's missing, he gives to it, and what his is missing, mine gives to it."
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The effect is especially striking on compositions such as "How to Begin" and the Del Amitriesque ballad "The Slow Demise of Love," which contains perhaps the first and only lyrical allusion to Hamlet ever attempted by a Colorado band. The eminently hummable "Not Me" is also highly literate: It focuses on interpersonal compassion and concerns about the environment yet stops short of preaching on either score. Musically, other numbers call to mind vintage Squeeze and the work of Aussie artists such as Crowded House and Midnight Oil. As for the Butlers' subject matter, Mannell insists, "Our songs could be about anything--love, war, coffee, beer. I don't think we're out to push a particular message."
The players aren't nearly so reticent to push themselves. According to Mannell, "I think this next year will be a make-it-or-break-it year for us. We can expect to do a lot of Front Range touring, getting to Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins--that belt of Colorado. I'm a firm believer that you have to have a market to be able to sell your thing to. So I think we need to do some drumming up of a good fan base, for lack of a better word." Once that's accomplished, he goes on to say, the foursome's next goal is to record and release a professional-quality CD.
In the meantime, the Butlers continue to tinker with their sound. Some elements work better than others; for example, the band's live sets occasionally suffer for lack of a more aggressive lead-guitar presence. But thus far, audiences have been receptive. "People are always cheering," Mannell asserts. "People are always putting their names on our mailing list, and nobody's ever said we suck."
Adds Massey, "Not to our faces.