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‘A ball team instead of ballplayers’: Butcher Brown’s approach to music making

Dan Webb
Butcher Brown are a talented collective from Richmond, Virginia who perform a hybrid mix of funk, jazz, hip hop and beyond. We spoke to all five members – keyboardist DJ Harrison, drummer Corey Fonville, bassist Andrew Randazzo, trumpeter/saxophonist/MC Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney and guitarist Morgan Burrs – shortly after the release of their latest album, #KingButch, late last year.

How are you guys coping at the moment, given everything that’s happening in the world and especially in your part of the world – there’s wild fires raging on one side of the country, and certainly here in Australia we’re hearing about killings on the streets and in bedrooms. On top of that, there’s a pandemic obviously raging, and it seems the administration seems to be ill-prepared or unwilling to tackle a lot of these issues. I’m just wondering how you guys are personally coping?

DJ Harrison: Yeah, man. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot going on right now (laughs).

Tennishu: Well, I think we just – we just stay in focus and put the album out. Everybody’s been making their own stuff on their own. Everybody’s been keeping projects going, reaching out to other musicians and continuing with projects. So just trying to keep the train moving.

Corey Fonville: Yeah, just putting our energy into the music, you know, individually and as a band, you know, all the stuff that you know, you’re hearing about, you know, we definitely keep our eyes and ears to the streets and we make music to kind of cope with that, I feel like, and also to give some medicine for people to hear during these tough times.

Sure. And how are you all coping with not being able to perform live at the moment?

T: Lots of videos, lots of content.

Andrew Randazzo: Mothership Monday series is really the answer to that, you know? That’s what we started doing. I mean, I don’t know when our first one was, it was probably in March sometime…

CF: Four month tour, yeah.

AR: Exactly. That was it. At least me personally, it kept me sane. It kept me on track and kept me kind of focused, you know what I mean? Cos for what we do, it’s like the bottom dropped out and I know for a lot of people, it was traumatic. But having that like once a week due date was just like, cool. It helped me. It helped me keep my bearings a little bit. I don’t know about y’all, but that definitely, you know, it did it for me, gave me a little structure, a little routine weekly.

You spoke about the routine there and the ability to connect with an audience through the internet. What was the intent behind recording covers as opposed to perhaps releasing original music or jamming?

CF: These are our inspirations. Everything that you’re hearing is inspiration for all five of us. So I think it’s important as a band to let our fans know where we come from and what inspired us. What you’re hearing on these Mondays is stuff that we’ve all individually grown up on. Maybe somebody in the band put another member onto it. Or, I mean, this is just a way to share stuff that we love and also just keep the party going at the same time. But, you know, mainly this is a way to just kind of tell the story of Butcher Brown and what we about.

I guess this isn’t a question that I’d normally ask, but the internet seems quite scant on details. How did the band originally come together?

CF: Okay. I mean, so it was a whole crew of homies and, you know, Virginia Commonwealth University was basically the place that we all met in one way or another, in Richmond, Virginia. And so, you know, Devon and myself, DJ Harrison met in 2006 and then fast forward, I met Andrew Randazzo and they were roommates. And Marcus – Tennishu was also in the mix because he was playing. And so, you know, you had a scene, just different people that play together in Richmond. And so that’s kind of how the band started. Andrew was not the original bassist in the band. It was a guy named Chris Smith who was in the band for a short stint. But we’ve been playing music with Andrew in different situations. So once he joined the band, it wasn’t a big change. We already had worked together in so many different environments. Morgan came in in 2016, after our former guitarist, Keith Askey left the band to move to LA. Morgan had basically been shadowing Keith pretty much through that whole time period while he was still at VCU. So, you know, we kept the unit close, man. The circle is small and you know, we had different branches. And so like, you know, when the time was right, Marcus had already been on a bunch of Brown albums and performed with us live, you know, the perfect fit. And then Morgan, it was perfect timing to bring him in. I would definitely say that we’ve all been inspired by DJ Harrison’s music in one way or another. And so, you know, that kind of was the big source of inspiration. I think that started this band too.

You recently reworked “Rip It Up” by Little Richard for ESPN’s coverage of the NFL. How that came about and what were some of the challenges involved in that particular project?

T: One of the biggest challenges was being remote, with all of the coordinating pieces. We had a lot of people from Concord, but then we were also dealing with people from ESPN. And so it was just tough to get all of those pieces on the same page with the Zoom calls and with the random communications over time and over email. But it was a good process because it just kind of helped us solidify working over the internet, which is something that we’re all going to have to do for a little while now.

DJ: Right.

Morgan Burrs: I mean, funnily enough, like what we were doing with Mothership Mondays was like a big piece of us being prepared to do that because we did cut the record in the studio, but because we were working on Mothership Mondays every week and like getting ideas out and recording it in all of our home studios, we were able to like, kind of get our template of what we were going to do when we actually went to the studio to actually do the record. So I think we were well prepared for it.

AR: We had a Zoom call with ESPN, like the very first time any of us had talked to anybody from their creative team. And I mean, it was less than 24 hours after that call ended that we had like three different demos to give them, you know, because we were just already so in the groove of how do we record a track as a band remotely? It wasn’t even a discussion of how do we make this happen. It was just like, we’ll get you a demo ASAP. We’d been doing it. But I think it’s worth mentioning that one of the challenges that comes with any work like that is just how to realise the vision of people that aren’t musicians, you know, the ESPN team, they’re not speaking to us in musical terms, they’re speaking to us in vibe terms, and it’s like this whole world of doing music for anything like that for television or commercials or movies, it’s, you have to learn how to communicate in non-musical terms and kind of translate this language into sonics, into like, drum beats and basslines, you know what I mean? So that’s a challenge that over time kind of gets easier. You know, it’s kind of just a learned skill, a honed skill, if you will.

I think it’s worth mentioning that one of the challenges that comes with any work like that is just how to realise the vision of people that aren’t musicians…

Well, I note that it would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday this week. Have you guys heard his vision of “Rip It Up”?

DJ: I have not

CF: I’m not hip at all.

He actually released a whole album of covers called Rock ‘n’ Roll. I think he was actually ordered to do it through a court case. He originally resented the fact that he had to do it and then he actually grew to really enjoy it.

AR: What, was his punishment was to record a rock and roll album?

Yeah.

DJ: That’s great. It’s funny, a long time ago, I recorded this one Beatles cover and I’m not sure if everyone has it. “Tomorrow Never Knows” joint, Revolver joint.

CF: Yeah. Yeah. That was amazing. I remember that it was on the site.

DJ: I listened to it today. I’m like trying to like pick it up.

CF: Yeah. I remember this being ridiculous.

DJ: Man. The Beatles, bro.

T: The Beatles took me a long time to get into.

CF: Took me a while.

T: Took me a long time… I was like, I do not get it.

CF: I’m right there too. I was like, how are they the greatest band? You know, I was just like, man.

AR: This shit is not that good.

The Beatles took me a long time to get into.

Review: Butcher Brown – #KingButch

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You’re all obviously involved in different outfits. There’s obviously the DJ Harrison solo project, Corey plays with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, for example. How do you guys decide which songs belong within the Butcher Brown universe when you’re writing?

DJ: The vibe, yeah.

T: The vibe of the song, um, I think we spent a lot of time touring, kind of getting this particular project together. And so that got us real intimate with a lot of different aspects of a lot of the different types of music that we’ve been listening to because one of the things was that the opening slots, we would have to drive… it’s how many hours of listening to music?

CF: We drove across the country, 15 hours.

T: Because of that, we can just kind of feel things out in a way and tell whether or not it’s going to be a thing, you know? And I think that we also are pretty prolific as individuals. And so we have like a stockpile of stuff. So even if we don’t really hit the target, as far as what fits the vibe of the band, we probably will have like a platter of stuff the next time we get together. So we’ll be able to really hone it in. Possibly find the vibe that we couldn’t even see before. That happens a lot too. And then, you know, in the middle of all of that stuff, while we’re checking instruments, checking cables, inputs, and whatnot, there’s always people jamming, always playing something. And so that also spawns creative material. So it’s kind of like, we’ve got three different engines to create things that are inside of the Butcher universe that kind of automatically glue it into what the vibe should be, how we want to move as a unit.

CF: Yeah. I mean, I find interesting how, like, someone could bring an idea and they’ll just play it from Logic or whatever, they’re using whatever DAW and you know, that’ll be the template. And then like once we get a hold of it, you know, we’ll start experimenting in it and it’ll go somewhere different, you know, and everybody in this band is very open to ideas that someone else may have. And allowing it to just go wherever, it can go from a bossa nova into a trap song, which is “Gum In My Mouth”. You know, like we laid down a bossa nova, that was uptempo bossa. We slowed it down with the same chords and then that spawned “Gum In My Mouth”. I think it’s important to keep an open mind like that because something special can come out of it.

I think it’s important to keep an open mind like that because something special can come out of it.

You’re obviously not restricted to any one genre, having explored funk, hip hop, jazz, etc. What’s your guiding philosophy to music making and creativity in general?

AR: Make it feel good. That’s the thing, like Corey mentioned, riding in the van and like everyone playing their music. There’s just lots of genres of music that get played in the van. And it’ll be something that I like that the other cats haven’t heard before that is not something that would normally show up in their rotation. The same could be said about any one of the five of us, or it’s not even about like, “check this out, see if you like it,” it’s like we’re in the van. We need to make some noise. You know what I mean? We need some sound happening and just put something on it doesn’t matter… It’s like, “I didn’t know I liked country music until I heard this”. You know what I mean? I didn’t know. I liked 80s pop until Marcus played this one Flock Of Seagulls or whatever, you know what I mean? That kind of stuff.

CF: I think when you say that, Andrew, I think about, so Dan, like late night drives. You need to stay awake and Andrew loves playing – like he’ll put on some Daft Punk and like, you know, I forgot how killer some of that stuff was. And he turned on Voyager one night and you know, it’s very synthy and like, you know, everything’s kind of, you know, uptempo, four on the floor house. And I was just like, damn, this is some bad stuff. Like, I didn’t appreciate it like I do now, when I was younger, when it came out in high school. So he’s also a source of inspiration, man.

T: That’s the thing. I think that those trips, that late night drive shit and those trips, it allows you to get into the record. You know what I mean? Like you kinda gotta be taught how to listen to records, right? Because it takes like a certain, you have to understand what it took to make it at least on a broad level in order to really understand what you’re even listening for. Because I feel like a lot of times with those records sometimes – especially in like certain musical circles, certain records get overlooked because they’re not as complex in certain ways, but then you look at records from a different standpoint and you kind of find them in that new light of like, “wow, I didn’t realize that this was kind of like this”, you know. And that’s one reason why I love those late night drives is because you get to do that. Like you can go back and listen to all these records that you grew up on and you could really get into the magic of it because the thing you’re doing requires such intense concentration, that there’s nothing to turn your ears on to. Your eyes are already on, your brain’s already on, cos you drive and you’re going like 80 miles an hour down the highway. So let’s just turn your ears on too. And you got music playing, that level of focus when you listening to those records allows you to really get into it and really understand where it’s coming from. I think it was a lot of aural growth going on in that van. You know what I mean? As a whole, just cause everybody was like, getting these records from people that just was a different field and it was just kind of it. But like I said, we all were in some state when we were hearing them. So they affected us a little bit deeper than it would if we were like on a subway on the way to a gig or like driving in the car, you know, it just, I think that it really hit us in a certain way.

AR: And just to bring that back around to what the question was, when we’re in the studio, there’s never a discussion of like, “oh, this is sounding a little too house,” or like, “this is sounding a little too rock,” because we’ve already explored all these genres as listeners. And we know that no matter what the genre, you can feel good. So it’s no limits on a genre when we’re in the studio.

You kinda gotta be taught how to listen to records… you have to understand what it took to make it at least on a broad level in order to really understand what you’re even listening for.

This discussion has just reminded me of a time when I was in high school. Our music teacher asked each of us to bring a different track in and we would have to explain to the class what we liked about the song. It couldn’t be, you know, this song is good or this song is bad, you had to justify your reason for it. So I guess it leads me to my next question. What elements would you say make a good song in your opinion?

CF: Feel? Um, you know, I mean, I’m a drummer, so maybe I’m a little biased, but it starts with the groove man, for real, to me. It’s like, if it don’t feel good, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. So like, it needs to feel good. It needs to be like, you know, a solid foundation there before you can start figuring out everything else, you know? And that’s kind of how we developed Mothership Monday. It starts with the rhythm section. But you know, everybody in his band has a great understanding of rhythm, you know, that we don’t have those problems.

T: Yeah, I don’t really know. I know in like the first five seconds though. The thing that to me, a great record is a record that unapologetically is what it says it is. If it’s a gangster rap record, I want to hear some gunshots. But if this is like, cool jazz, then I want to hear some piano, I want to hear like medium tempos, I want to hear the nice crisp ride cymbal. If it’s gospel, I want to hear the horns and the drums going crazy, I want to hear the synths. I want to hear it be authentically what it is. To me, that’s what makes it good.

In the studio, we kind of approach it like a group of producers… we think about things as a ball team instead of (as) ballplayers.

Given we have the full band here, I thought this would be a good question to ask. How would you describe the dynamic between the band members within the studio? Do you have one primary songwriter? Do you all contribute equally? How do you resolve any issues?

AR: That’s a good question. Um, I’d say DJ is probably the primary songwriter. A lot of the material comes from DJ. But in the studio I feel like everyone’s pretty open-minded. I feel like any kind of demo that gets brought in or any kind of idea that comes to light for the most part, everyone’s pretty much just like, let’s see how we can make this killer. And, um, our process for this past record was very much just let’s make as many amazing tracks as we can. And then we’ll whittle it down and see what makes the cut. Um, but the thing that separates this album from any other album we’ve ever done is that we had an outside producer come in to help us out. Chris Dunn from Concord Records was producer on the album and he was our A&R guy for Concord. So, you know, at least for me, it was really great to have Chris there. And it was kind of a relief sometimes for him to just be like, “no, that’s not working” or like, even though I was disappointed sometimes when he was like, “nah, this track doesn’t work”, because I might really love this one track, it was just like, okay. It wasn’t a decision to be made. I wasn’t troubled by some decision, it wasn’t weighing on me. It was just Chris was there to just “yes” or “no”. So that was really nice. It was like a really efficient, awesome situation to be in. But when it’s just the five of us, the door’s kind of wide open when it comes to things and there’s rarely disagreements because like, even if something comes your way that you don’t really understand, you’re just gonna pivot that shit. You’re just going to spin it and spit it back in your own way that is going to feel good.

DJ: Yeah. I mean, I feel like everyone’s like a sponge and it’s just like, we can all internalise what ideas out on the table with them. We’re still able to put our own spin on it no matter what it is, even if it’s outside of our comfort zone, like we still heard of enough music to contribute to that.

MB: Yeah. I mean, I think when it’s just the five of us, I think more often times than not like, if an idea gets thrown out there, it’s not, I’m rarely ever like, “nah”, it’s usually like, “oh yeah, let’s try it and let’s see if it works” or whatever. And I think that’s an important thing. We’re all open and it just kind of allows us to sonically hear whether stuff works or not. And I mean, as far as like group dynamic in the studio, just like, you know, we’re usually at Devonne’s house where most of us have lived, but all of us spend a lot of time there, so it’s like being at home and it’s a hang above all. It’s not really low stakes, but that’s what we’re like. It’s just like, we’re not here to be stressed out. We’re not here to like, you know, even if we got a job to do, it’s important that our environment is comfortable and stress free and conducive to creating.

T: In the studio, we kind of approach it like a group of producers. In a sense of like, we think about more than just our position. We think about the whole core, you know, we think about things as a ball team instead of (as) ballplayers. So when we have a situation where there could be a potential set up for a disagreement, it never really turns into one because we just kind of see the overall picture of how things go. And we also, I think, as a group, our training as improvisers has trained us to be in an uncomfortable position, you know what I’m saying? Like being an improvisor, that’s the whole thing. When you go in the practice room, you just want to put yourself in an uncomfortable position, right outside of your comfort zone, and then you absorb that. And the next day you do the same thing again, and then your comfort zone just gets bigger and bigger… Being in the studio with Chris was like having somebody who wasn’t us making decisions about our art, which is good because it put us in an uncomfortable position. But it’s also good because he was also there in our environment. You know what I mean? He met us on our level to do it. And so it’s a level of trust that we haven’t really given anybody before with this type of stuff. It allowed us to create something that we haven’t really created before.

Okay. So this is my final question to you all. I’m not sure if you want to answer as a collective group or do you want to answer individually? We ask this in every interview. If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?

T: Wow.

DJ: Madlib.

CF: (laughs)

DJ: And I’m only saying Madlib because everyone else in the band knows who we want to collaborate with, but it’s kind of too far-fetched. So I would just say Madlib.

AR: Freddie Gibbs, right?

T: Yeah. Freddie Gibbs.

CF: D’Angelo.

T: Any medium, right?

AR: Oh, not just music?

Yeah, any medium. You could do photography…

T: I want to do something with Spike Lee. I want Butcher Brown to be soundtrack or something. Yeah, that’d be cool. Like Terence Blanchard and Spike Lee.

DJ: I mean, if we’re talking about any medium, Virgil Abloh?

T: Yeah.

CF: All of that, all of that.

MB: (laughs)

T: Banksy.

CF: Bruce Hornsby.

T: Yeah!

AR: Uh, Elon Musk.

What would you do with Elon?

AR: I don’t know what we would do, but he would definitely be giving us cars.

DJ: (laughs)

CF: “You guys are going to play on the moon.”

MB: Can make a bunch of jets.

AR: He’d be like, “look, you guys are just going to play the funkiest groove and it’s gonna dig a hole underneath the country and we’re going to drive into it.”