Seminal dream-pop act Butterfly Child is back after a 17 year gap.
Joe Cassidy, the Belfast-born, L.A.-based figure at the centre of Butterfly Child last released an album under the guise in 1998 - Soft Explosives - and a one-off single in 2012, but in the mid-'90s, the outfit were at the vanguard of a new wave of music on Rough Trade Records. Landmarks of the genre - 1993's Onomatopoeia, for example - came from Butterfly Child, before all went quiet at the turn of the millennium. Noise is being made now, however - and lots of it.
Now Cassidy's back with the news of a new record called Futures, and its first single, "Lost In These Machines", which you can hear first on Best Fit.
Cassidy has also spoken to us about the lengthy time away, his motivations for returning, and the enduring legacy of one of the genre's vital bands.
Hi Joe – it’s been a long time since Butterfly Child released an album. Could you tell us what’s changed for you in that time?
When Soft Explosives was released in 1998 I was living in Chicago. The biggest change since then is that I moved to Los Angeles about eight years ago, which was a very difficult decision at the time. Chicago is a city that I love deeply, I have many friends there and the music community is incredibly supportive... but the music business as we knew it was in freefall and I needed to find a new city where I could make money from being a musician. I have been spoilt in that it is virtually the only thing I have ever done in my life creatively/workwise. Los Angeles has many wonderful qualities and quite a few not so positive ones... it is a very different city to any other and a different can of worms. I am older, clearly, and I like the slower pace of life I have here now. I also have a lot of responsibilities these days which is a good thing; I was flying around like a kite in the wind for a while.
You last released a record almost two decades ago – what made you want to come back?
It was a mixture of things. I never stopped making music or playing live for that matter, but I had no interest in just releasing a bunch of songs simply because I had finished them. Soft Explosives was the end of a chapter for me. All the Butterfly Child albums and EPs/singles had a particular tone/feel to them - I felt like I had done everything I wanted to say musically since 1991 in terms of the more abstract stuff, and later on with Soft Explosives, being excited by/more interested in actual songwriting/composition. I had hundreds of songs sitting around after 1998 and recorded many more over the past 17 years, but I guess I didn't feel an urge to pick 12 of them and make another record. Yet. Then a few years ago I started getting calls from a few different labels about doing a Butterfly Child retrospective. The retrospective thing has not happened yet but one of the labels that expressed interest was Dell'Orso which is run by Guy Sirman. Guy and I really hit it off and he asked if I was interested in doing a 7". So we released "No Longer Living In Your Shadow" in 2012 and that really got the ball rolling to actually make another album. If I hadn't met Guy it is possible that a new record would never have seen the light of day. I have an incredible amount of trust and belief in his opinion. In the same way that I did for Geoff Travis at Rough Trade. When you haven't put out something in so long, you need guidance sometimes - and a foil.
How long has this been in motion?
It certainly wasn't an off-the-cuff decision. I am proud of the Butterfly Child back catalogue and I wanted to make sure that if I ever made another album, that it would stand on its own two feet and wasn't just a few songs thrown together. After "No Longer Living In Your Shadow" came out, I started sending Guy songs that I liked that I felt could make a cohesive, heartbreaker of a record. Once we knew that we had a few songs we both loved, I kept writing and slowly over the last three years, and the new album, Futures, really started taking shape.
The press release says “restrictions and singularity” have been the catalyst – can you elaborate?
Ha! I actually can't see that in the press release but maybe I need to drink more coffee... but yes. There is a truth to that statement regardless. Soft Explosives was a very lush record and it was recorded/mixed in a big studio. Since then I have been mainly working and producing out of my own recording studio at my house. These days you can pretty much do anything with Pro Tools etc. if you know what you are doing, but I was attracted to the idea of keeping the equipment and some of the production relatively simple. I found a drum machine at a thrift store which was the same one I used on the H.ark! EPs and the first album Onomatopoeia that I did with Rough Trade. I loved the simplicity of it, so instead of using a bunch of fancy new drum sounds, I started writing new stuff with that drum machine. It was self imposed "restriction" so that I wouldn't get too carried away with all the new gadgets available. It felt nostalgic but, weirdly, also a step forward. I think we can all get too bogged down with too many toys, especially these days. Singularity is really just a case of all the songs fitting a vision. The record is very focused to certain feelings and moods.
What was it like working on a Butterfly Child record entirely by yourself?
It was the only way it could have been made. This is easily my most personal album to date and much of it was recorded late at night. I also had become slightly better as an engineer so I was able to do everything whether it was technically right or wrong. I wish someone else had been able to mix it, but it is what it is, and I think that at least gives the record its own sound. I did have many friends help along the way, whether it was just for some advice about a mix, or bringing them in to record strings, extra vocals, drums etc.
Has your new location had an impact on the feel of the album? Does L.A. breed a different kind of inspiration compared to Belfast?
All four albums have been recorded in vastly different places. I recorded Onomatopoeia in Belfast, The Honeymoon Suite in England/Wales, Soft Explosives in Chicago and Futures in Los Angeles. Each location has lent its own character to the music I feel like making. Los Angeles is a very strange city. There is no center here. It is a big sprawling mess of beauty and ugliness. You have to make plans a week in advance to see friends sometimes because everyone seems to live so far away from each other... it takes a little time to get used to. Los Angeles can make you feel isolated yet euphoric at the same time, and I guess you can hear all that in the new songs.
Are there plans to bring it into a live environment? How will it translate?
It is possible. We shall see how the album is received. I am not in any rush to jump in a van but if there is enough interest, anything is possible. I don't have the same energy I did 20 years ago, and trying to do shows with string quartets etc. can be quite expensive, but I would love to do some shows. Whether they end up being intimate acoustic affairs, or full band performances only time will tell.
Why do you think Butterfly Child still have such a dedicated following?
That is hard to answer. I feel blessed that a bunch of people have continued following the music i have been making since 1991. If anything, i think those that follow Butterfly Child hear honesty and someone who is making music purely for the love of music. Nothing else. I am not at all interested in becoming famous or trying to be/look like a rock star. It is lovely getting messages from people in Japan, Poland, Peru, Brazil, France, Iceland, and so on. It always blows my mind that a little cult band somehow finds its way to all these places.
How does it feel knowing that there are lots of people still appreciating music you made last century?
Last century! Good Lord. That makes me feel old... but it feels good. I think some of the stuff I did in the '90s has held up better than others, but that is inevitable. I am appreciative if anyone even likes one song I have written.
What are you looking forward to doing with Butterfly Child that you couldn’t do 17 years ago?
There are certain things that are easier to do now than 17 years ago. All this new technology has meant that if you want to have a massive string section or a choir of 200 voices then you can make it happen. The only limit is your imagination. There is no ceiling any more, which is fantastic... but that creates its own problems too. Also, I love how the internet puts you in touch with people who love your music from all over the world. That can be really gratifying. That was virtually impossible back in the '90s.
What is your favourite record pre-Soft Explosives? What about post-Soft Explosives?
Not sure if you mean favorite Butterfly Child records or by someone else. If you mean Butterfly child then pre-Soft Explosives would be The Honeymoon Suite. Working with Richie Thomas, Pendle and James Harris on that album was mostly a pure joy. A really enjoyable period in my life. Post would be umm... Futures. A favorite record by another band pre-Soft Explosives would be LowLife by New Order. It just hits me every time; a gorgeous burst of nostalgia. A favorite record by another band post-Soft Explosives would be XTRMNTR by Primal Scream. I love the intensity of that album and the grit of it.
How did you write and record “Lost In These Machines”? Which machines are you lost in?
"Lost In These Machines" was one of the last songs written on the album. I was feeling like we were missing something that had a 'roar' or an edge to it. Something that was powerful yet hopefully fragile at the same time. I had a lyric in my head one evening, "Like the sound of ten thousand jets...", so I grabbed the guitar and started writing a song. It was in a peculiar time signature which I couldn't figure out. So I grabbed the drum machine and it took me about five hours just to get the various time signatures right. Then I added a bunch of guitars (probably too many) and it all just came together. The lyrics literally wrote themselves as soon as I started singing ideas into the microphone. 'Machines' refers to a few things. Obviously there is the notion that we are all glued to the hip these days to computers, phones, every kind of technology. It becomes an overwhelming noise sometimes. 'Machines' also refers to all of us in terms of our brains, our hearts, our physical bodies. Those can be a bit of a trap too.
How do you feel technology has affected music in recent years? For better or worse?
It has had a huge impact. Literally anyone can make music these days on a laptop, or their iPhone for that matter. This is a blessing and a curse. I love the freedom of not always having to go to expensive recording studios anymore, and I love that there are all these kids out there going completely DIY, making crazy sounds, experimenting, literally destroying equipment and following no rules. I love that. That is how wonderful things happen musically.
How does this new album follow on from your previous Butterfly Child work? Is it a natural progression or more a rebirth?
The new album was partly the result of looking back at the body of work that i did in the 90's. I spent a lot of time listening to those records and all the unreleased demos. All that stuff had an influence on the new album. At least sonically for sure. It feels like a natural progression but it also has a few toes dipped in the past. I think this new record is much more about atmosphere and texture than trying to write a great song. I kinda got bored with writing the next "great chorus' and wanted to put out a record that felt big yet intimate. It is a record to be listened to with a bottle of red wine. And i also realized that i had never made an album where my voice was at the forefront. That was an important aspect. I always loved singing but i feel like i have finally started growing into my voice.
Is this a long term revival? Can we expect Butterfly Child to remain for the foreseeable future?
I am working on album number five as we speak. It is definitely more song oriented. As long as I am breathing i will be recording and writing. If there is interest out there from people to hear more music then it will all hopefully be released at some point. As long as I believe in what I am doing 110% with the songs and the music then there will be more to come. I am very critical about my own work, so the only person potentially standing in the way is myself.
What else are you working on?
I am working on a project with Shepard Fairey (the artist), John Goff and Merritt Lear (Butterfly Child/Assassins) called NØISE. The video for that comes out next month and it will be released online etc. I am also working on a second Assassins album which is a band I was in while living in Chicago. We signed to Arista and then went through all the usual big label madness and finally put out an album in 2006. Hopefully we will finish this new album at some point in the next 20 years! Doing a little work with my friends The Webb Brothers on their new record, and obviously trying to find time to write a few more songs for the new Butterfly Child album.
What are your plans for winter?
I will be producing for a few other people and spending as much time in the studio as possible. Then I will be off to Chicago for the holidays for a much needed break. I'm looking forward to being able to wear a jacket or a coat again. Wearing a T-shirt everyday can become exceedingly boring.
Stream "Lost In These Machines" below. Cassidy's first LP as Butterfly Child in 17 years is called Futures, and it will be released 27 November on Dell'Orso.