Butcher Brown Discuss Music’s Transformative Power, Their Recent Camden Sessions and Thoughts on the Cross-Pollination Between Jazz and Hip-Hop

— Features — Joshua French

Virginia-based five-piece Butcher Brown defy brief description, thanks to their masterly blend of musical styles and frightening adaptability. A shared appreciation for music originating either side of the Atlantic: contemporary jazz, afrobeat, hip-hop, funk and rock, has galvanized the group, while their work as individual musicians and bandleaders has helped make them the cohesive unit they are whenever they convene. What can be put concisely is how phenomenal their year has been: the band releasing two outstanding records, opening for Kamasi Washington on the US leg of his Heaven and Earth tour and surpassing 100,000 monthly listeners on streaming platforms. Their successes so far are testament to their diligence and dedication, not to mention the kindness of spirit that came across when we spoke to the group this Autumn. We were eager to discuss the music of fellow Virginia native D’Angelo with keys player and producer DJ Harrison, as well as artistic responses to sociopolitical issues, but began with the background to their exceptional new release, Camden Sessions…

Can you tell us a little about the process behind Camden Sessions, the record you recently cut here in the UK? We’ve heard about the direct-to-disc process, how did that come about?

BB: ‘We put that record together when we were overseas last year. We had played at Duc De Lombardes in Paris, and at Paradiso in Amsterdam for the Supersonic Jazz Festival in the days before. We had a few days scheduled in London to do some press and pop up performances so our friend Darrel Sheinman, head of Gearbox records, set up some time for us at the Gearbox HQ. We recorded at Mark Ronson’s studio and fed the performance directly to the Gearbox mastering suite upstairs from the studio. It was a unique experience because, since the album was being recorded direct to vinyl, we had to perform the entire album live, in one take. While unique, because of the way that we’ve recorded at Jellowstone in the past, it wasn’t exactly unfamiliar, but there was still some pressure (sometimes that’s good though, right?)

Much like Live At Vagabond, We didn’t foresee this turning into a record that would be released, but we caught such a vibe in that session, and it turned out so well that we felt it would only be right to release it. What you hear on the record is a blend of what we sound like in both a studio and live setting and is the closest thing to a live in studio performance that Butcher Brown has put out. Working with Darrel, Casper, and Tony Platt was definitely a blast, and we definitely look forward to everyone hearing it.’

Artists such as Keyon Harrold, Robert Glasper and Christian Scott have addressed sociopolitical issues through their recent recorded work. Do you feel compelled to do the same with Butcher Brown’s music? What do you feel is the most important thing for groups to communicate to their audience, given the current social and political climate?

BB: ‘Man, those guys are all our heroes, and we champion them for always using their platform to speak out against injustice. We definitely feel compelled to do the same with our music. Jazz, in particular, has always been a reflection of what goes on in society; that music is so incredible because the struggles that those great musicians dealt with really comes through in the music. Hearing those struggles in the music of the greats coupled with our own individual trials and tribulations allows us to make music that feels good and connect people who may be in different areas of society.

In addition to that, we’d like to think our music also provides people an escape from what goes on in the world. With everything going on recently, staying “woke” and informed can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. There’s so much hate and despair fed to us through the news & social media every day; it’s unhealthy to be consuming that information all of the time, especially at as fast a rate that social media allows. Because of that, we feel it’s also important for people to have a safe haven from all of that. We have some music/collabs coming out in the future that address some of these socio-political issues, and we look forward to creating more of that in the future.’

The lines between jazz and hip-hop appear more blurred than ever, with projects like your live tribute videos helping to illustrate the connection between the genres, and artists like Terrace Martin drifting effortlessly between the two. What are your thoughts on the genre’s connections in today’s musical landscape and do you have intentions to collaborate with any MCs or rap artists going forward?

BB: ‘Fusing genres is always an amazing thing; it allows new creative ideas to come together and form something new. We feel paying homage to the greats is important, but we also feel that it’s important to not be exact copies of them. We want to always take certain characteristics from the legends that we love and combine it with our experiences and ideas and build something fresh and modern.

Jazz and Hip-Hop have always been hand in hand (sampling bridged that gap) so we want to always explore both of those influences. We definitely have a lot of collabs coming up in the future and look to help bridge the gap between as many genres as we can. Stay tuned to that.’

You released your astonishing Live at Vagabond LP last year. What for you is the epitome of the live album and did any favourite live albums inform the way you went about recording yours?

BB: ‘The beautiful thing about live records is that they capture the energy of a live show; It’s a completely different experience from a produced, studio record. Our Richmond shows are always very high energy, and coupling that with a tight, intimate venue like Vagabond made for a crazy night. A big part of any live performance is the energy from the crowd, because the performers feed off of that energy. The energy was crazy that night, and it really comes through in the recording.

We didn’t originally intend to release the recordings as an album, we just wanted to document that night. We had been out on the road a bunch that year, and it had been over 7 months since our last show in Richmond. It was all setting up to be an unforgettable night, and it was! When we listened to the playback, we just knew that we had to release it.

As for some of our favourite live shows…We’ve watched footage/listened to records from James Brown, Bill Withers, Earth Wind & Fire, Mint Condition, Lalah Hathaway, Freddie Gibbs, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and plenty of D’angelo.’

Devonne, the music of fellow Richmond native D’Angelo has had a huge impact on the way you record. Can you tell us how Voodoo has informed your creative process and what it meant to you as a young musician — first hearing that record — to know that its creator hailed from the same city as you?

DJ Harrison: ‘That record has been a part of my life since I was 12 years old. Playing in my mom’s car and around the house, it was one of the first records that sounded like the old records my dad used to have in his collection. That’s when I first got hip to the idea of being derivative – taking ideas from samples and morphing them into your own tracks. We practice this songwriting method to carve out new ideas and structures that relate to past, present, and future. It taught me how to invoke the spiritual feeling in music.’

Marcus, how unusual is it for a musician to play both saxophone and trumpet? Do the techniques differ drastically and were you ever encouraged to settle upon the one instrument?

Marcus: ‘As far as I understand, it is extremely rare. I have spoken with a few people that play [both] but there are not that many of us. The techniques, in my opinion, are getting to the same point from two different places. That point seems to be openness. The more I strengthen my muscles and continue to push myself in a calm, relaxed and calculated way, I can be more open mentally and physically which allows me to move more freely between instruments.’

You recently joined Kamasi Washington on tour. How encouraging has it been to witness the success he has achieved over the past few years? What do you feel the success of an album as grand and uncompromised as The Epic suggests about the music scene and our habits as listeners, today?

BB: ‘As a mainly instrumental group, one of the main things we take away from Kamasi’s trajectory and success is that improvised and instrumental music is very much still alive. Whether you call it jazz, rock, prog, fusion, or funk, it’s still speaking to massive audiences. Kamasi’s success over the past few years is a huge inspiration to up-and-coming bands like us, proving that the sky is really the limit for our type of music.’

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