Some albums are recorded in a flurry, others are recorded in a drawn out process. Bilinda Butchers operate in the latter format. Well over six years in the making, the San Francisco dream pop troupe have released their first proper full-length, Heaven, for the divinely perfume scented imprint Orchid Tapes.
An album that works from a concept centered around the tragic story of Ume Nakajima, portrayed by Juri Nakashima, and joined by vocal appearances from Sarah P, Lamp, Harriet Brown; Michal Palmer discussed the arduous development behind his stunning album over a few Anchor Steam IPAs on Potrero Hill in SF. In the months leading up to release, we reminisced over past efforts, chronicling the pathway that sprung from the Away EP and demos to the pearly gateway of Heaven.
[Editor’s Note: Mentions of Craft Spells’ Justin Vallesteros are made frequently. He is a close friend to both the interviewer and Michal Palmer.]
Opener, “Ume”, is both alpha and omega of the album. How was did you go about condensing the arc of the album into one song?
Michal: So the record as a whole is based on a story that was written by myself and my friend Michelle Yoon. It follows this woman, Ume—this is the Edo period in Japan in the late 1860s—and she’s arranged in a marriage to this horrible, horrible, politician. She meets a poet and they want to run away together and there’s a lot of conflict, and they end up deciding they are going to run away, and they get caught, and then she is banished and the last words from her lover is, ‘wait for me, we’ll be together.’
She’s waiting, and waiting, and the guy, she finds out he was murdered, and she decides that her loyalty and faith has brought her to this point, and what she needs to do is meet him in the afterlife. She needs to go to heaven to be with him, so she drowns herself.
The record is set up as a soundtrack, each song represents a different piece of the story. And the first track is sort of the theme song. So you know like in a movie you would have some sort of theme that represents the whole thing as one piece. So “Ume”, represents the happier times she’s remembering obviously. The lyrics are ‘when I dream of you, kiss my cheeks like you used to,’ so obviously this person she’s talking about is gone, but she’s remembering him very fondly. It really is this bright and happy song, but the lyrics are obviously this person is not here any more. It’s a theme that sets up the entire record. [“Ume”] is big and grand, and then when you get into the second track you get into the story from the beginning again. So the first track is all encompassing, it represent the whole thing.
And Juri Nakashima moves the narrative forward, all throughout the album.
Juri is a really close friend. I actually went to Japan and stayed with her on this tiny island called Amami, which is near Okainawa. She speaks English, but we have an artistic… same thing as Justin [Vallesteros] from Craft Spells, it’s an artistic sort of… we get each other. We just understand each other really well. And she’s a poet, she writes poetry, so I knew when I was doing research there, I knew that she was going to be the voice that was going to carry the record, she is Ume.
So she carries the narrative, exactly, she does the poetry for some of the songs and pushes it forward. Some of it’s in Japanese, some in English, all of it in the CD is translated. But when you look at the story, we wrote a synopsis and you can follow the tracks. It all makes sense but you know it’s like a book, like you were saying before, you have to do the research. There’s a lot of depth, but on the surface you can sort of get the idea.
Above the surface you create this three dimensional conundrum with the track “Ume” having the opening pace of Square/ENIX RPGs, or any other animated feature, as it’s kind of done up in that scope.
I’m glad you see that, because Final Fantasy obviously is a big influence. Neon Genesis Evangelion too. There’s a lot of depth, and that was the point, we wanted to make a soundtrack, you know what I mean, it is meant to be listened to in full with the story in context.
Every Bilinda Butchers release has an opening bang in once sense or another, and you keep it going into the second track, and then everything else just rides. Is this an artistic decision?
Everything we have done has been 100 percent intentional. “Only Friends” was the first track on the first EP—yeah, you know, it was natural. I don’t know. The songs were sort of written around the same time, Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams, and naturally sort of fell into place. The second EP was written basically around the same time as the first one, and sort of gained a little bit of traction from the first one, and we were like, ‘oh shit, we really have to kind of do this one.’ So we rented out a studio. We kind of did the whole thing big, and for me it’s a really horrible record because it wasn’t done the way that I wanted to do it. The mix is off. But it was a great learning experience you know, and I think it really set up what we wanted to do with Heaven because it was just wrong.
When we did Heaven, it was very, ‘okay, I know what the worst sort of side of doing a record can be, I know how to do a record wrong and I know what I need to do to, to make sure I do it right.’ I mean, the process of doing Heaven was crazy. I think a lot of people would be like, ‘what the fuck were you guys doing?’ I knew that I had to do it the wrong and sort of against the grain in a lot of people’s eyes, but that was the way that I had to do it to make sure it was correct. And that’s why I’m so proud of it, and that’s why I don’t like some of the early stuff because it was all trial and we had to figure it out. But this record, everything was done intentionally and the way it was supposed to be.
When it comes to the role of nostalgia, both in the songs and song titles, what in your eyes is the key to translating a timeless sound?
Well, this has been a huge conversation throughout making this entire record between me, my band mates Ryan [Wansley] and Adam [Honingford], and the engineer Lukas Untersteiner. I mean it’s always been about history, it’s always been about making something that lasts. Well, maybe I wouldn’t say lasts, because that’s a little pretentious, but making something that is important to music as a whole. It’s not about being fucking famous, about getting fucking PR, or you know making tons of fans, but it’s about making something that is important. People will listen to and say, ‘okay, this is how they did it, cool, they’re not doing what’s happening right now.’ So you know, there was a lot of debate, and I had to do a lot of fighting releasing the record because there was a lot of things we did on it that were… weird, or different, not exactly what you would call, I don’t know, a lot of people might not like it.
But if I can go back to the beginning, when The Radio Dept. released Clinging To a Scheme, they released their first single, “David”. Adam and I heard that song and said, ‘what the fuck are you guys doing? This is ridiculous, this is fucking ridiculous.’ I actually e-mailed one of the members of the band—’cause you can do that on the fuckin’ internet—and he said, ‘hey man, it’s about doing something that’s different, you got to be uncomfortable, you have to make people think about it.’ And I was like, cool, whatever man, ‘make something like, Pet Grief, make something like Lesser Matters.’
I sort of brewed on that, and I really got into that record, and I really started to understand it, and I started to realize that it’s about making something that’s different, making somebody feel uncomfortable, or makes someone say, ‘ I don’t know if I like this, this is weird, like I don’t get it.’ That’s what it’s about. That’s the reaction we’re trying to get. Justin from Craft Spells and I have talked about this a million-fucking-times because the dream pop and indie pop and twee and all that stuff has been stagnant for so fucking long, it’s been in the same pocket and it’s like, fuck man. It’s not that cool anymore. It’s just really not that cool anymore, and Justin and I really want to do something different, and we happened to be doing that apart, and then we kind of met up in the last three-quarters of our records and… anyway… the point is that you got to do something different, and you got to push boundaries, and you have to make music that is going to make people think.
I feel like when you put out The Lovers’ Suicide single, from the cover, and you’re talking about what you and Justin were doing with Japanese aesthetic from 80s experimentalism and to everything else from the cover art to the actual sound and decorum—that seemed to be a real turning point for the ‘Butchers in my mind.
Thank you for noticing. Yeah, I mean that was the sort of jumping off point to making the record because I knew in the beginning that I wanted to make a record based around a soundtrack that was already inline. I was really into Samurai Champloo, really into authors from the nineteenth century in Japan, and really into, you know, the Edo period. So I was like, okay, I got to do a record about this, so The Lovers’ Suicide was written a little after Goodbyes, and I was like okay, this is the beginning of it, we have to do something fucking different. And Ryan had been playing for us, he sort of made the drums what they were, and yeah, if you listen to Goodbyes and them you listen to The Lovers’ Suicide, it’s like, damn, this is heavy, it’s a little bit more mature, and it’s different. And a lot of people didn’t get it, which is cool, because I wouldn’t get it either. But that’s sort of the point, you know, you can’t stay stagnant and all that stuff. But yeah, it was huge, it was very, very different. And the cover art sort of, it was the birth of the concept and the idea for doing Heaven and starting that.
I mean with the whole Japanese narrative having been around since this beginning with “Japan Time” from the very get-go, forward on to now, how has that East meets West ethos been the melding point for that creative zeitgeist?
Well, there is a stereotype in America of Caucasian males obsessing about Japanese culture, Japanese women, ‘yellow fever,’ and all this bullshit. I’ve had to deal with this stuff since I was a kid. Like when I was a kid, anime and all that stuff was coming over here. Pokemon. Sailor Moon. All that shit. Playing video games, and stuff like that.
Both of my parents are Polish, I grew up in a very Polish household. My mom doesn’t speak English. My dad was very Polish too. They were both raised in Poland. So I would go to school and I was brought up in American culture, and I would go home, and it was Polish. So culturally I was a little conflicted, so I really got into my hobbies. I really, really liked cartoons and video games, and all of it happened to be Japanese.
I sort have had this… I don’t’ want to say weird, it was just that I had this connection with it, and it was like man, for some reason, I get it. I felt validated. I felt like happy watching this. As I grew older I met Adam in middle school and he was into a bunch of Japanese bands like Number Girl, Zazen Boys, and all these weird Japanese alternative rock bands. I was able to expand on that after that.
I mean, we live in America, there’s tons of different cultures, and people get really sensitive about cultural re-appropriation, or other cultures mixing, or whatever. I mean it’s just part of my identity. I really feel identified with certain aspects of Japanese culture and certain aspects of Polish culture and certain aspects of American culture.
Your collaborated with Sarah P from Keep Shelly in Athens on “Golden House”. How did that come about? Because your sound is on par to what KSiA were creating in 2013 too in some ways.
Well, with a little bit of background, the first two records were trial periods for this big record. Heaven was the record that I had wanted to make for years. We had demos that had loose interpretations of the story, and in doing that it was a huge issue, because we sort of wrote the songs before we had the story figured out. So “Golden House Pt. 1” was written a long time ago, and it was sort of… I couldn’t sing to it because of the register. It was just sort of in this weird place but I knew it was a really important song because I knew what the lyrics were and I knew how it was going to integrate in the story.
Originally I wanted to have a rap verse on it. We were reaching out to different emcees and that wasn’t working out. The whole thing kind of fell into this weird limbo. It was around then when the whole record was coming together. I was like we got to have a female vocalist. And I sort of sing in a high pitch. I sing sort of like a female because of the music when I was growing up, I was really into that sort of style.
So you chose the Madonna of our era. Indie-early-Madonna!
We were looking at a few different people, and [Sarah P] was introduced to me by a friend… by a good friend Magnus, from Boat Club. It was interesting because throughout this whole record we were always looking for the perfect piece. For some fucking reason, everything happened perfectly. It fell into place. So, it was literally after the announcement that she had left [KSIA], and I was like ‘ohhh shit, okay, I don’t know if this is going to work.’ So I sent her a message, and I said, ‘hey, I’ve been working on this record for three years, I have this song, you have to do it, you are the person,’ and she didn’t get back to me for a week or so. I was like, ‘fuck,’ and we were kind of on a deadline. She finally got back, and she was like, ‘I love the concept, this is exactly what I’m going through right now.’ It literally fell into place. It was fate.
That’s beautiful, and when you get to that point in the album it really carries on the narrative.
It really peaks there because at that point in the record, Ume decides to run away with her lover, and she’s imagining what she’s going to say to her husband because her husband has beaten her. She says, ‘I’m finally free, I don’t have to deal with this any more, I’m running away, I’m breaking the chains, I’m going.’ And Sarah P was going through something emotionally that was resonate with that idea, and though I think her delivery in that song is perfect, you can tell what is going on through the lyrics, you can really feel it.
And then you have tracks like “Shadow Beat” that is almost a return to form for you guys.
You know, I fucking love nü-metal. “Shadow Beat” is a nü-metal song for me. Adam wrote that song and it was originally just an acoustic guitar and him singing vocals. So he sent it to me and I said, ‘okay, I know exactly what’s going to happen. There is going to be a clear, clarity, nice, beautiful, smooth, piece of the music.’ So there are two entities: there is this very nice sort of clean, and quiet, and sad vocal, and synth, and there is this very distorted, fucked up, kind of nü-metal chorus.
[Michael impersonates a scuzzy guitar sound]
I knew that it had to be a high contrast. So doing that song, it was really interesting because creating the disparity between those two worlds was really, really difficult and especially figuring out the best way to do it with the instruments and stuff like that. And then all of a sudden we did one thing and it just worked, it just fucking worked. So that’s probably my favorite song on the record. It’s semi-reminiscent, it’s kind of shoegaze, sort of nü-metal, sort of ambient. I don’t know. It sort of travels over a few scopes. I love that.
Let’s discuss “The River Sumida”. Often we talk about watery elements of music; that whole rock garden, and the falls, is all provided to the listener in one fell swoop.
Interesting, that’s the song where Ume kills herself, drowns herself in “The River Sumida”. It’s interesting because it’s an anti-peak, an anti-climax of the entire record because it’s extremely sad. It resonates with this sort of water because she’s drowning. You can hear the river in the song. It’s really emotional. It encompasses the entire idea because she is thinking about what’s going to happen when they find her in the river and why she did it and the chorus in that song is just, ‘for love, for love.’ It’s not about the outcome. It’s about being true and loyal and having faith in yourself and doing something that you believe in.
And then you have the grand finale when you have all the animated birds and creatures and everything is all surrounding on “Heaven Holds a Place”. It’s ecstatic.
If I can get into the concept of the record a little bit; the record is called Heaven. Growing up my mom lost a son when I was just born and through that it was really hard for her. She became born again and she’s heavily devout. My dad is sort of the opposite—I think he’s agnostic. I honestly don’t even know. With this record I want to present the concept of what we see as a society as what heaven is for us. For me it was finding the love with my girlfriend and partner and friends and my family. Heaven is here on earth. I found it here loving my friends and my family. I don’t know if I necessarily believe in an afterlife or anything, but the point is that it’s where you find happiness and where you find your own personal heaven. With the record and the story the point is that Ume is ill-fated, she is arranged in this marriage…
…with the politician…
Yeah, exactly, she has no control over what she wants to do, or what she wants to be, so she meets this guy, and she runs away, and then she gets caught, and it ends up being a sad story. The point is that in the last part of the record—in “Edo Method”—she realizes, she’s happy that she’s going to killer herself. She’s happy that she’s going to join him in the afterlife because she’s finally going to make the ultimate sacrifice for happiness. In “The River Sumida” it’s really sad because she kills herself, but in “Heaven Holds a Place”—I don’t know if you’ve seen Evangelion—but for Evangelion fans it’s the end of the series where Shinji Ikari finally realizes what’s going on, and it’s very congratulatory. The end is not meant to justify anything, it’s just meant to say that the pursuit of happiness and putting yourself in the position of being loyal and true and having faith in yourself. I’m not condoning suicide here, that’s not the answer. The point is that you have to pursue your happiness, and you have to find what makes you happy. And she did, and she found it through whatever means possible, the end of the record signifies that she did the right thing. Whether she made it there or not is up to whoever’s speculation but she did what she believed in, and that’s what it’s about.
Bilinda Butchers’ Heaven is out now on Orchid Tapes.