Buttercup embraces the SA heat with a perfect summer-pop collection
Two years ago, Buttercup made a decision that required local music aficionados to figure out what to do with their Monday nights. The group decided to scale back the regularity of their Grackle Mundy shows at the Wiggle Room, reliably unpredictable gatherings that found the band attempting such daredevil stunts as writing and performing songs on command, and playing a series of short sets for two people at a time.
|Buttercup members Joe Reyes, Erik Sanden, a Jamie Roadman effigy, and Odie camp out at the McNay.|
Beloved as those shows have become, the band cut back for an important reason. As singer-guitarist Erik Sanden puts it, “We couldn’t catch up to the songs we were writing.” For a band as prolific as Buttercup (with gifted songwriters in Sanden, guitarist Joe Reyes, and bassist Odie), with a penchant for rich, intricate arrangements that take time to evolve, the concern was a real one.
Over the last two years, the band has consistently rehearsed twice a week on new material, and the full flowering of this labor can be heard on Hot Love, Buttercup’s sophomore release, and an audible leap beyond last year’s excellent Sick Yellow Flower. Working, by necessity, in piecemeal fashion, most often at makeshift home studios, the band somehow crafted a pop kaleidoscope that’s whimsical, melancholy, silly, and cerebral. Most pop music that aspires to be artsy is no fun, while most pop music that aspires to be fun is neither. Hot Love is one of those rare achievements that hits all the right pleasure buttons, while challenging your preconceptions.
A key difference between Hot Love and Sick Yellow Flower is that the new album showcases more upbeat material, such as the gloriously rocking “National Spelling Bee Contest,” the Turtles-meet-the-Flaming-Lips spirit of the title song (a conflicted ode to a new summer of love), and the relentless drive of “Contagious.” The band members say they attempted some of this material on Sick Yellow Flower, but were not yet able to capture their more rocking side on tape.
“I think with the first record it was right for us to go with the songs that were softer,” Sanden says. “We were able to do that better at that time. I think we drank way too much coffee on that first recording. The songs that we played fast, we played ’em like Muppet-Baby fast. It was horrible. It was like everybody was racing to the end of the song to see which instrument would cross the line first.”
The band began Hot Love by laying down Jamie Roadman’s drums at Salmon Peak Studios, ultimately adding some vocals when they realized that one of the studio’s mikes had been used by Elvis Presley. From there, they and producer Mark Rubenstein recorded the rest of the album’s basic tracks at Reyes’ house, and took Rubenstein’s gear to Sanden’s home for overdubs, which included layers of glockenspiel, horns, strings from members of the San Antonio Symphony, and even a jazzy flute solo from Rob Hardt on the bossa-nova-cum-rock track, “We’re Easy.” Finally, after Rubenstein moved into a new house, they took the sessions there for what Reyes calls “the last few sprinkles” of the album.
During the tracking at his house, Sanden says he was “deathly paranoid that somebody was going to break in with $20,000 worth of gear in my house. So I grabbed a giant tree and jammed it so the door wouldn’t open to downstairs. You’d come down the stairs, and there was a tree trunk there.”
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Buttercup doesn’t shy away from introducing new words to the pop lexicon, and one of the album’s highlights, “National Spelling Bee Contest” is almost certainly the first American rock song to include “bellatrice” (an archaic term for “warrior woman”) on a lyric sheet.
“My girlfriend Saleta had recorded some of the spelling-bee contests,” Sanden says. “She likes to sit me in front of the television set and force me to watch stuff, to broaden my horizons. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably only watch basketball games, and have nothing at all to write about.
“There was one girl in the contest who had dark hair, huge glasses, and a little, tiny mosquito face. She was maybe 9-years-old. She looked exactly how Saleta used to look when she was young. She was cute as a button, but doing these strange moves like practicing by spelling into her hands and writing these fantastic motions in the air. Totally intense and strange. It seemed more like a war for this girl than anything.”
Reyes likes to say that the more successful a band becomes, the harder it has to work, and he believes that Buttercup’s strong work ethic over the last two years has elevated the band from a run-of-the-mill rock ensemble with good songs into something truly distinctive.
“We had to do this TV taping yesterday in Austin and Jamie’s out of town, so we decided to do it on banjo, ukelele, and Erik on this really rickety ’50s guitar,” Reyes says. “And normally we would have been like, ‘What are we going to do without Jamie?’ Now we can take those kind of performances and do them in stride, and have fun with it. We can reach that point, where you just sort of lose yourself in the song, much more easily now.”
In keeping with the band’s dedication to art for art’s sake, they choose to see the limited opportunities of the San Antonio music scene as a potential asset. “It’s a great place to incubate,” Reyes says. “If you have what I consider our goal, just to create good music, what a great environment: It’s cheap, you can afford to live here, and afford to spend more time doing what you really like.”
“It takes a special kind of mind to actually embrace the lameness of this town,” Odie adds. “It is very special. It’s all we have and that’s what we have to deal with, so you just make the best of the bowl of poo-poo that you have. You add milk, make it more palatable.”