One-on-One with Tyler Butler

Tyler Butler//Photo: Sandy Smith
Tyler Butler//Photo: Sandy Smith

by Michael Thomas

“I saw a harpist last night,” says Tyler Butler. “You expect an ethereal quality to a harp. But it was a harp player who had a DJ in the band. Like, Linkin Harp.”

Butler and I both burst into laughter. He had just made up the joke on the spot.

“I always say I got signed to a rap label. That’s why I’m so quick. I feel the beat of the street.” He laughs.

Technically, Old Ugly Co. was a rap label when it started, populated with the likes of The Joe, Mitchmatic and Mikey Maybe. But Tyler Butler is far from a rap artist.

Butler was born in Halifax. When he was two years old, his parents and he moved to the Arctic, where they lived for six years. “My parents were young and had some school debt and they essentially got jobs that paid a little more and were basically rent-free,” Butler says. “So they saw an opportunity there and are adventurous people and decided to bring their young family up there.”

“I took this Canadian literature course in my degree where I really started to engage with some of the memories I have that don’t stand out as unusual,” Butler continues. “But how wild those places are. You’d miss school for a week because there was a wolf pack in town, or you just couldn’t leave the house for ten days every winter because it was so cold. We saw a polar bear on our front lawn. But it’s just totally normal, it was part of living up there. I didn’t have memories of cows, or even trees for that matter. Like, a tree was exotic. So when we’d come down south to visit relatives, very normal things would be completely radical to me.”

Unlike many musicians interviewed here, Butler didn’t start writing and making music until his late teens. Until then he had never picked up an instrument. While not the catalyst to his music-making, Butler recalls seeing an Arcade Fire set when he was 17 as the show that really got him excited about making music.

“I just remember having my hands in the air the whole time, screaming,” Butler says. “I’ve been chasing that high at shows ever since.”

When Butler finally picked up a guitar, it didn’t take long for him to get going. “I kind of just took to it right away, played guitar all the time and started writing songs right away,” he says. “That’s kind of how I taught myself: put a bunch of chords together, put some words over it and, whether it’s good or not, practise the hell out of it.”

It’s a few years later now, and Butler has released a full-length, Winter King, and an EP, Violence. Each has a story behind it.

Winter King came about during a particularly brutal Edmonton winter.

“The winter leading into 2011 was freezing, it was completely devastating,” he says. “Plans were cancelled. It was kind of this experience where for months, everyone really weighed the value of going outside. It’s like, ‘I can go to the bar, or I could stay alone inside and not go outside.’ So within that, I was recording in my apartment, spending some time alone, it was very dark.

“I was inventing these sorts of narratives I drew from a bunch of reading I was doing of a bunch of different mythologies. Some Scandinavian mythologies, some sort of local mythologies, like around the river valley and stuff. So I took all these different things and set them in Edmonton. I commented, I feel, on the winter itself and personified, but also drawing, in a very Canadian way, from all these landed mythologies. Like taking different cultures and blending them together into one narrative, that’s sort of a proposed, ‘Maybe this is what it means to live like this.’ In this horrible way that no one should ever choose.”

Violence, on the other hand, Butler calls “less thematic than Winter King,” though there’s still a common thread in the EP’s songs.

“All of the characters of Violence are hardworking and a little haunted, I suppose. Since I suppose “Violence in the North Saskatchewan” is just him murdering a dude. But he feels really bad about, he really does. Yeah, for me Violence was about that working man sort of character,” he says. “I did this writing back in school where I felt that violence was sort of a universal communicator. That you don’t need language to communicate through violence. So some of these more repressed characters express themselves through violence a little bit. Like “Violence in the North Saskatchewan”; there’s no dialogue. He murders a guy, and there’s a reason for it, and it’s explained. But the way that he is sort of haunted by that afterwards says ‘Maybe there’s another way to deal with this problem. Maybe she didn’t want to be with you.'”

It’s clear, then that Butler is a bit of a purist when it comes to making an album. It leads him to make a bold statement: “I don’t believe in albums anymore. I think digital music has made the 8-12 song album obsolete. It’s more to me about creating a category of songs; that could be two songs or 20 songs. They just have to fit together, there has to be a reason to buy that album, or buy that collection of songs.”

Butler, then, is railing against what he calls “the traditional album,” one that has two or three singles that are heavily promoted plus a bunch of other songs.

Aside from his own music, Butler has been close with Edmonton label Old Ugly Co. and its recently-created imprint, Cabin Songs. While Old Ugly has always been a mixture of any genre of music, so long as the act is around Edmonton, the Cabin Songs imprint is solely based on folk and country music. The label promotes songs by Butler, Mike Tod and Nick Everett.

“I have a venue where I could be applying my efforts, more to just folk music, which is what I do,” Butler says. “But it’s nice to still have that connection to Old Ugly, because we’ve all been playing music together since we started.”

Butler is also happy with his home base of Edmonton.

“People are starting to take more pride in being from Edmonton,” he says. “Every now and then a blog finally mentions that Purity Ring is from Edmonton and not Toronto…I know it’s cooler to be from Halifax and Montreal, but they are from Edmonton. I’ve played shows with those guys. Like, Sean [Nicholas] Savage is from Edmonton, and he’s been in Montreal for ages now. Mac DeMarco’s from Edmonton. It’s cool to see people say ‘Yeah, I’m from Edmonton.'”

Part of what he sees as a surge in Edmonton pride comes from the city’s scene coming together. “We have a bar called Wunderbar that came around, and it gave a place that wasn’t trying to just make money off our shows. They’re just great dudes, they love local music.

“You found this effect where, before Wunderbar, you’d have the punks in one bar, the folkies were at a café. Now they’re in one place and they’re playing shows together. And they’re realizing ‘Man, I really love drinking beer with you. You’re really cool.’ So you actually get a scene, and not just a bunch of musicians playing music for each other.”

Unsurprisingly, the future will see Tyler Butler writing more songs, both for his solo work and for a band he’s just started at home.

“I need to write again,” he says. “I’ve got that itch.”

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