An Interview with Nick Butcher and Jordan Martins

Nick Butcher and Jordan Martins are cutting a new path through the Chicago creative scene. Both multitalented visual and musical artists – and both with diverse experience in and outside of Chicago – Butcher and Martins can often be found collaborating on new visual/aural experiments, working in tandem to create and improvise new artistic experiences and possibilities. They will be performing at the OFFICE GIRL release party on June 28th at the Book Cellar in Chicago.

Anobium recently sat down to Butcher and Martins to talk music, Chicago, and – implicitly – creative collaboration.

ANOBIUM: Where are you from and how did you get into music-making?

NICK BUTCHER: I’m originally from Dyersburg, Tennessee. A small town near the mighty Mississippi River. I got into making music through first being a huge fan of music as a small kid (radio, etc) and then realizing, oh you can make this stuff your self. I tried out all kinds of instruments, playing in bands with goofy names like Dustworm and Horseface, then eventually discovering electronic music, which has been my main musical interest for the last 15  years.

JORDAN MARTINS: I grew up in Oregon, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and California.  Both my parents were musicians, mostly in the classical and liturgical/church music realm, and I took some piano lessons for a while but I guess it didn’t stick.  I don’t know why, but we had a classical guitar (no one played) in the house and for some reason my sister knew the chords to “I used to love her (but I had to kill her)”, which is a Guns and Roses song that they play on their first two albums.  It’s a simple D-A-G-A song, and I learned it.  When we moved to California when I was 14, I was really bored and lonely, and I started playing that song a lot, I guess that’s how I started playing music.  I eventually played in an “alternative” band called Cobalt Affection with a guy who now makes kids music and I guess is really successful.  I got really into free jazz eventually, and in college I met a bunch of weirdos who turned me onto a whole array of experimental music and at that point I became more interested in all kinds of weird stuff, noise, etc.  I also played in a half-baked “bluegrass/honky tonk via The Grateful Dead” kind of band, faking my way with hastily learned country riffs.

Who are some of your influences (they can be musicians, writers, filmmakers, whoever), and what do you think about citing people as an influence in your own music making?

NB: My initial influences that inspired me to make my own electronic music were Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Their mixture of melody and precise yet erratic percussion completely blew my 18 year old mind. Since then my music has been influenced by everything from painters to saxophone players, and of course electronic musicians. Four Tet, Stephan Mathieu, Phillip Jeck, Jan Jelinek, for example. Most recently my work has been influenced by painter Robert Ryman, German house music, and free jazz. Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, for example. My intention is to squash that all into a tactile electronic pop music, which I generally fail at.

JM: Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot, Javanese Gamelan, Thomas Pynchon, Rudra Veena players in the Dhrupad style, Jack Kirby, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Kurt Schwitters, Charles Mingus, Caetano Veloso, Nuno Canavarro…

I read A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari when I was working on my MFA, and I think that whole experience is still in the back of my brain when I’m making music or visual art.  That was a situation where it wasn’t just that their ideas influenced what I was making, but that their writing was this lexicon for understanding what I was already seeing and thinking about when I was creating things.

I guess I haven’t had to cite influences that often, and it’s difficult to summarize because it’s hard to even discern how and when an influence happens.  Some of my favorite music is by people who thought they were doing one thing and their product sounds nothing like what they were trying to make.  The interference that creeps in can be more important than the actual influence.

Where does music come from?

NB: Music comes from a need to create, communicate, and share on a level that is beyond language.

JM: Hmmmmn…

What is the purpose of music?

NB: To connect

JM: To delight the senses and enrich the soul.  Just kidding, I have no idea.

What are some things you’d like to accomplish in coming years?

NB: I would like to make an album fusing country and dance music, perhaps the two most hated genres in the universe.

JM: I’ve been living in Chicago around 4 years and I’m amazed by the creativity and hustle in the music and arts scenes.  So much of the Chicago ethos is just about making things happen, and I just want to continue to find ways to be involved with that, whether it’s making music/art or organizing and presenting music/art.  I’m looking forward to collaborating with more musicians here, there’s just so much good stuff going on.  I like being a sideman.

What projects are you currently working on?

NB: I just finished up a collaborative album called Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol 1, which pairs my electronic music with song for song solo reinterpretations by Chicago-based free jazz/improvisers Jason Adasiewicz, Jason SteinTim Daisy, Keefe Jackson, Jason Roebke, and Mike Reed. The official release date is May 22nd via the Hometapes label.

JM: On the visual art side of things, I’m finishing up a series of paintings that I’m calling “Ghost Nets” for the time being.  They’re mixed media, mostly intricate collage layers with paint embedded in 5-8 layers of resin.  With that project I’m working with ideas of baroque multiplicities that form when fragments from different visual languages get thrown together. Ghost Nets are these floating masses of renegade net fragments that collect more debris and suffocate fish, but they also create these perverse ecosystems where plankton feed on the stuff that gets trapped in the nets and in turn feed other fish.  That’s been the image in my head with these, nomadic masses of things grafting onto one another and forming new connections.  I have the summer off from teaching, so I’m planning on digging into some new projects as well, still working with collage methods broadly speaking.

On the music side, most of my energy these days is spent as a sideman in my wife’s spacey/woozy country project, Angela James, playing guitar and steel guitar.  She’s finishing up a record and playing a bunch of shows this summer.  It’s a fun project to play in because she’s in part referencing a classic country, Patsy Cline vibe–broken hearted ballads with a sweet delivery–but the band we’ve managed to put together can do some really interesting stuff with it.  Anthony Burton (bass) and Justin Brown (pedal steel) have a pretty solid country background, and Charles Rumback (drums) has a more jazz/experimental background, so we’re really trying to create a lot of texture and ambience around the songs, which in and of themselves are pretty straight forward.

Nick and I are planning on ramping up our duo collaboration as well, and hopefully make a record soon. We’ve played a handful of times in the past 8 months or so, and it’s always been super easy to lock in. There’s just something really complimentary about our setups and the sounds we’re making independently that make it mesh together effortlessly.  When Nick brought up the idea of playing together he was interested in me still playing melodies on the steel guitar, and I really like that aspect of what we’re doing: combining a certain lyrical quality with an abstract-improvisational one.  The repetitive structures that Nick sometimes works with interact well with slow-brewing folk melodies, and we can also shift gears into more deconstructive modes.

I had a large-ensemble project for a while called The Plastic Council that was trying to bridge these two things: combining simple, pretty traditional song structures with open ended improvisation.  We had awesome people playing with us, but I think we didn’t quite crack the code as it were, so I’m hoping to revisit that at some point.  I’m definitely thinking about it in terms of collage, and a lot of my visual work could kind of function as a map of what I had in mind, with people of different abilities and backgrounds grafting their sounds onto the song structures in a loose way that still all somehow coheres into this fragile balance.  As abstract as the idea was, what I learned from our first attempt at it is just how important a simple melody is, and how the song structure itself needed to have both an integrity of its own and an elasticity that allowed it to be tugged on by the improvisations.

I also have stumbled into curating music, with the Relax Attack Jazz series at The Whistler (every Tuesday), and Comfort Music at Comfort Station in Logan Square (every Thursday), which I co-curate with my friend Dan Mohr.  We’re really excited about Comfort Music, and we’re trying to bring cross-sections of different musical communities into this random, intimate space with amazing acoustics.  What I like about Comfort Music is how we’re connecting different scenes and hopefully fomenting some level of cross-pollination.  Right now I’m in the process of planning a similar kind of series that would be focussed on artist talks and lectures, with the idea of presenting speakers coming from different backgrounds and knowledge systems.  I want to have a painter giving a talk on the same night as a military historian, or something like that.

What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?

NB: The people, present and past. I’m eternally inspired by the no nonsense, nose to the grindstone work ethic that permeates the city and it’s creative community.

JM: Staropolska, an amazing polish restaurant in Avondale.  The VIP table is especially inviting in the winter.

The Umbrella Music programming at The Hideout, The Hungry Brain, and The Elastic.  It’s still amazing to me to be able to casually go to a shows where so many of my musical heroes perform regularly.

The view from the Brown Line.

[Come see Nick Butcher and Jordan Martins perform FOR FREE on June 28th at 7:00 p.m. at the Book Cellar in Chicago.]

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