5 minutes alone: Bernard Butler

The ex-Suede guitarist and studio savant reflects

5 minutes alone Bernard Butler
(Image: © John Cheves)

Celebrating 20 years of McAlmont & Butler, the one-time Suede hero tells us about stolen guitars, violent playing and the giants of Britpop…

I got my first real six-string…

"My first guitar was a Kay electric. I saw one recently in a shop, and to their absolute shame, it was on sale for about 700 quid as, like, a 'vintage guitar'.

"Which it clearly isn't. It's probably the worst thing I've ever played. It had a tremolo arm, and when you touched it, the top string broke. The action was about an inch off the 12th fret.

I guess I'm lucky to be part of that [Britpop] era. There were three or four players who were really exceptional

"When I was 14, my brothers clubbed together to buy this guitar for £20, and they basically gave it to me and said, 'You learn it, then show us'. The Smiths had just come into my life, so Johnny Marr was the most obvious person stood in front of me, and he was such a standout guitar player."

You could be mine…

"I remember seeing Johnny on The Tube in 1984 with a red 355. I just zoned in. I saw this red thing and just thought, 'My God, that's beautiful'. He stopped playing it soon afterwards, which was cool, because I thought, if I ever got to be in a group, that would be my guitar.

"When we were making the first Suede album in 1992, [guitar collector] Phil Harris took me off to Beckenham and got me a 355. But then it was stolen on tour in Toronto, so that was a bit of a bugger.

"Now, I'd be calling the police and going mental. But because I was young, I didn't give a shit. I was just like, 'Oh, that's a shame, let's get another'. Two days later, I found one in LA, and that's the one I've still got."

Living on the edge…

"My guitar playing in Suede was emotional. I was young, and the couple of years before anyone became aware of Suede were quite emotionally charged, and it all came out in both me and Brett [Anderson].

"We both had the attitude that you should stand on the edge of the cliff and be prepared to fall at any point. We thought that's what great people did. That was the kind of music we wanted to make."

Sound and vision…

"I'm proud of the guitar playing on The Sound Of McAlmont & Butler. I guess it was the first thing I'd done outside Suede, and it had different sounds, different avenues, and it's obviously a joy when any guitar player does that.

"The whole thing about McAlmont & Butler was this sort of pure aesthetic of a pop record, where nothing got in the way. With something like Yes, I just wanted to make the most beautiful, absolute, fuck-you piece of noise that came out of the speaker, with key changes and over-the-top drums and emotional playing.

"That was the kind of drive behind it. I just wanted this noise to come out of the speaker and lift you."

Golden years…

"I guess I'm lucky to be part of that [Britpop] era. There were three or four players who were really exceptional. The ones from that post-Smiths era are John Squire, of course, who's just a phenomenal, virtuoso guitar player, Jonny Greenwood and Graham Coxon. But with a lot of those records around 1995, there's an awful lot of rubbish.

"I still think there's such allure to somebody who can make a sound with such a primitive instrument. It's just a block of wood with some metal wire across it, and yet it still just absolutely fucking thrills you, the minute it happens.

"Even with all the technology we have, and everything you've got in your phone now to make music, if somebody can play an electric guitar, people still love it. You don't really have to do a great deal for people to be like, 'Whoa'."

The Sound Of McAlmont & Butler: 20 Year Deluxe Remaster (CD/DVD/LP) is released 25 September on Edsel Records

The magazine for serious players
Subscribe and save today