Black Owls walk an exceedingly difficult line in this age of blown-out internet self-promotion: they are mysterious and accessible at the same time. From their brooding, severe-looking album covers to their strange and foreboding videos, their media presence is stark and moody. Their music sounds like a party, but maybe a party that's gone off the rails with too many (of the wrong kind of) drugs. Black Owls thrive in this environment: they only rock harder as the room starts spinning.
The band is playing this year's Bunbury Music Festival during Saturday's schedule. If you haven't had the chance to check Black Owls out in the years they've been haunting the southern-to-mid Ohioan region, you owe it to yourself to block out that time during the festival. I recently spoke to lead singer David Butler about the beginnings and leanings of the band.
Can you tell me a bit about how the band started?
Ed Shuttleworth and I live in Granville, Ohio. That’s where we started the band in 2007 with another friend of ours, Mike Brewer, who started a Cincinnati band called Nancy which later went on to become the National.
We all played in different bands in the 80s. I had walked away from it for several years. Then we got back together with these guys in Granville and started the band. Now we’ve expanded and we’re actually heavily weighted towards Cincinnati, because three guys in the band [now] are Cincinnatians. Now we’re outnumbered. We have two practice spaces: one in Granville and one in Cincinnati. We actually share the Cincinnati practice space with Wussy.
What was the reason for leaving and coming back to music?
I had a band in Columbus in the 80s called Joe Kafka. We were a lo-fi, Guided by Voices kind of band. I moved to Kansas City in 1989 and I just kind of left that world behind. It wasn’t tainted or anything. I got into my art career more - I’m a graphic designer as well. It’s surprising, now that I’ve been with Black Owls for a few years. Now that I’m back into [music] I can’t imagine not doing it.
Do you do all the graphic design for Black Owls? I really like how the album covers and all the artwork on your website seems to have a constant aesthetic.
Yeah, that’s a big part of the fun for me; tying the visual language of the band to the music itself. That’s something that I’ve done for other people; it’s just a natural progression for me since it’s something that I do anyway. It’s a great benefit to have that cohesive vision. Giving people a visual representation of what you’re going to sound like helps to promote and sell your band without people having to hear the first note - they’re intrigued by the visual imagery. That’s something that’s really important in the computer age, too. On the internet, people are glazing across things and you have to have a really distinctive voice to be able to stand out.
The thing I like about Black Owls' vibe is how everything is dark and severe. "Goth" is probably the wrong term . . .
We’re a darkly optimistic band. We don’t write sappy lyrics . . . we don’t write love songs, necessarily. The songs aren’t super-heavy . . . it’s not Black Sabbath and it’s not goth. There’s a heaviness to some of the structures of the songs, but the lyrics are all kind of these cautionary tales of excess. I write about things I find intriguing, I don’t necessarily write about things that are pertinent about what we’re doing. That would quickly become old hat . . . in my opinion. You kind of have to create this weird world with imaginary tales of things gone wrong. It’s probably more Edgar Allen Poe than it is Black Sabbath.
We call our band “Mennonite glam rock.” Obviously it’s not, but it’s kind of this Midwestern take on David Bowie, MC5, and the Stooges. We live in Amish country, as well, so that helps.
I remember seeing pictures on your website some months ago that looked like mugshots of several young Mennonite men glaring into the camera. I think it was on your "About" page, as if this was a picture of the band. But obviously, I was like, "These can't be the guys in the band, right?" Is there an element of misdirection here?
[Laughs] We’re not poster-children. We’re all guys in our 30’s and 40’s. We’re not a young, glamorous band. When people hear [our record] and then come see [us live] they say, "These can’t be the guys!" Especially me! If you heard me sing the song “Glorious in Black” and then saw me walking down the street you definitely would not put that together at all. You’re expecting a tall, long-haired, crazy-looking dude, and you get this guy who looks like a dentist!
Mystery is leaving rock n’ roll as the internet exposes everything. I like this idea that there are no pictures of the band. “We should go see these guys, I don’t even know what they look like.” . . . [we want to] capture some of that lost mystery. You can’t imagine Led Zeppelin making a Facebook post . . . you can’t imagine the Doors tweeting.
Between your LPs and EPs, Black Owls have come out with, on average, one new record a year since 2008. You must write and record a lot.
Ed and I are really prolific. We’re constantly writing new songs and we have our own recording studio, so that helps.
Our fourth [LP] is called <i>Wild Children</i>, and it’ll be released in July, hopefully before Bunbury. We were in the studio last night putting the finishing touches on it. Hopefully we’ll have physical discs before Bunbury, but it’ll be online far before that, probably by the middle of June.
Do you think the fact that you've had years of experience and history with music gives you an advantage? Would you have been able to make something as dark and mature as Black Owls when you were younger?
The type of lyrics that I write are not totally dissimilar from what I wrote in the 80s, but the type of music that I write is fairly different. I think my sensibility to have this weird, hellish, Midwestern, Mennonite, dark, sardonic sense of humor has always been there, but I have to have the right people around who also understand that and learn the right balance to what you’re doing. Ed and I have talked about this: this is kind of the band we’ve been waiting for our whole lives. Bands are marriages, you’ve got to have the relationship where everyone on board has the same sensibility.
We still practice the album idea. We like songs, but we love to make albums. We can’t unwrap our stupid heads around that. “Let’s put out a single!” “No, no, we have to put out an album!” [laughs] Which is probably dumb in this market, and our last album was a double album, so it was twice as stupid. But that’s who we are and that’s what we do and people appreciate it..
I read an interview years ago with Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, who was criticized early on for putting out really long records with TONS of songs. He basically said that he just included all the songs he thought were good and that he neither expected nor required that listeners try to consume it all at once. The songs would be there whenever the listener wanted to hear them.
Absolutely. It’s a different world than when we were coming up with vinyl. The whole concept of vinyl is you put the needle on at the beginning of the record and it was a pain in the ass to pick the needle up and put it down in the middle of the record to hear the song in the middle. Nowadays, everything is all digital, so with the miniscule touch of your finger you can skip to the 12th song on the record and just listen to that.
Certainly we don’t expect everybody to sit and listen to the whole album. On <i>June 71</i>, a lot of people’s favorite song was the last song, “Shipwrecked.” We knew people were just going online and listening to that song, or “Glorious in Black.” That’s perfectly great. It’s fun to put out an album and see what people pick out as their version of a single, the one that really resonates with them. It’s really fascinating.
We had a song called “Broken” off our last album that was picked up for a teaser trailer for a movie called <i><a href="http://www.ofbyforfilm.com/">Of By Four</a></i>. It’s a political documentary. I never really thought about the lyrics pertaining to the broken structure of our political system and the two-party politics, and that’s what this movie is about. But when you see this trailer and you hear our music behind it, you say “Wow, that’s super powerful,” because the lyrics pertain completely to what they’re talking about. It wasn’t a relevant thought in my mind at the time, but when it’s put together like that it’s like, “Oh my God, this is perfect.”
You know you’ve <i>created</i> something if, when someone else sees it, they see it in this entirely different light and it goes forth into this other vehicle. They’re interviewing Dan Rather about corruption in politics, and I’m like, “I’m singing backup to Dan Rather! That’s really cool.”
Eachnotesecure.com is contributing to CincyMusic.com to help preview artists performing at the Bunbury Music Festival. John Crowell began writing for Each Note Secure in 2009. He writes interviews and live reviews. Because he likes things that are weird for the sake of being weird, he is Each Note Secure’s resident aggressively unpleasant music enthusiast. When not on the internet, John enjoys drinking banana daiquiris.