Ask musicians what they're listening to while making an album, and often you'll find out they've turned to film ― cautious of how others' records may influence their own, or looking for inspiration beyond sound. London O'Connor says he watched muted Bill Murray movies for two weeks straight while writing his debut effort. And there would be no Wu-Tang Clan without the late-70s martial arts classics that played in cheap Times Square cinemas and made a kung-fu fanatic out of a nine-year-old RZA.
The Buttertones bassist Sean Redman was tuning into something a little different while working on Gravedigging, the L.A. five-piece's new album, due tomorrow, March 31. "I was mostly watching the Stray Cat Rock series," Redman tells me of the cult, five-flick outlaw franchise. "It's about Japanese girl gangs, motorcycles, dune buggies. It's from the 70s, so it's got a rock 'n' roll soundtrack with kind of a Western influence, but filtered through Japanese culture." Such varied elements might make the Stray Cat Rock score seem ambitious on paper, but it's precisely these intersecting sounds and styles that make pinky violence an apt reference for The Buttertones.
The band formed in 2012 when Redman met singer-guitarist Richard Araiza and drummer Modesto "Cobi" Cobian studying at a music college in L.A. Shortly after recording their debut album as a trio ― a self-titled, eight track effort steeped in expertly executed surf riffs and rolling percussion ― sax player London Guzman and guitarist Dakota Boettcher joined the roster. As a result, the group's 2015 follow-up, American Brunch, boasts a fuller sound. Those surf elements are blended with garage energy, sweet soul and doo-wop inflections, post-punk precision, and dashes of jazzy melodies. It's a record greater than the sum of its parts. And The Buttertones use movie genres, rather than musical ones, to describe it. On Bandcamp, American Brunch is tagged "horror," "noir," and "western," among other film buff favorites.
The Buttertones is a perfect name for a band that so frictionlessly blends genres and styles. Redman holds his Northwestern roots accountable for his musical upbringing. "Alternative FM radio and 90s grunge was kind of my diet as a youth," he says. Araiza confesses the first album he ever bought was Aaron Carter's 2000 opus Aaron's Party (Come Get It). But these days, he's more influenced by the vocal style of Scott Walker, one third of the mid-60s pop trio The Walker Brothers. "He croons, and sings doomy ballads," says Araiza. "I like Latino trios too, like Los Tres Ases or Los Tres Reyes ― the guitar playing is beautiful." He also shouts out 80s post punk, jazz (he and Cobi have been listening to Art Blakey and Bud Powell records on the road), Björk, and Nicolas Jaar's now defunct Darkside. "We all can relate to certain artists, but we each have our own heroes and holy trinities," Araiza says of his bandmates and their influences. "We're all over the map."
If American Brunch offered a hearty helping of such rich sounds and textures, Gravedigging― the band's first release with L.A. label Innovative Leisure ― refines and strengthens that palate. The group recorded at Jazzcat Studios with producer Jonny Bell, who also fronts Crystal Antlers. "We've never been able to cite our influences that well, and Jonny took the time to dig up some music that he found kind of in the same ballpark as us," Redman explains. The late-50s Brit beat rockers Johnny Kidd and the Pirates were one such band. The Gun Club ― a bluesy cowpunk outfit active in early-80s L.A. ― was another. Lead by Jeffrey Lee Pierce (the former head of a Blondie fan club), The Gun Club featured a rotating lineup of musicians attached to The Cramps and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. "Jonny takes a lot of pride in his work, and doesn't slack off. It was kind of a quick process, and we tried our best not to overthink," says Redman. "Once we heard the tones, it was go."
Boettcher has elsewhere described Gravedigging's sound as "movie music." Fitting, then, that the album's first music video ― for raucous A-side cut "Sadie's a Sadist" ― was shot in the style of a retro outlaw film turned spy thriller, in which the sharp shooting Buttertones square off against an ex-CIA operative, and make quick work with the getaway car. Were Gravedigging actually scoring a movie, the band has some casting suggestions: "Willem Dafoe, Charles Bronson, Bill Murray, Lucy Liu," says Redman. "And throw Winona Ryder in there for good measure."
"Matador," the video i-D premieres today, lacks the campy drama, but is no less cinematic. "In 'Sadie's a Sadist,' we don't play our instruments at all, so we thought we'd give you the visual experience of us playing live with 'Matador,'" says Araiza. "We shot it in a warehouse on a military base in San Pietro; some of us got new gear for it. Throw a little smoke and mirrors in there, and that's pretty much it," he says of the intoxicating flashes of color. "We had lots of fun making it."
The performance-driven video is just a small taste of The Buttertones's positively epic live show ― where the collision of soulful sax and ripping surf riffs comes alive outside of the booth. "Things like tempo and dynamics are always kind of flexible," Redman explains. "It never really happens the same way twice." The Buttertones have shared bills with his former band, Cherry Glazerr, as well as Innovative Leisure labelmate Hanni El Khatib, Shannon and The Clams, The Garden, Kim and the Created, The Frights, and countless others. "There's a sense of friendly competition," says Redman, when asked about the wealth of exciting young rock bands emerging in L.A. "It's not a battle for top billing or anything, but seeing your peers get really great placement or on a huge festival lineup pushes you too. So it's motivation, really. Everyone motivates each other, whether they know it or not."
In a few weeks, The Buttertones will join Sunflower Bean and SadGirl at the inaugural When We Were Young festival ― the nostalgia-soaked fever dream of a generation of emo kids. AFI, Taking Back Sunday, and Alkaline Trio share top billing, but the big headliner is the OG sadboy: Morrissey. But don't expect the band to roll up in HIM t-shirts and white studded belts like they just fleeced a Hot Topic. Even smoother than The Buttertones's sound is its understated vintage style.
"When you're playing in a garage, no one really cares [what you dress like]," Araiza says. To get on the same page, the band hit downtown L.A. for some matching suits. "It's nice, because it's like a uniform that everyone's wearing, like a gang. But we don't want to be like The Wonders," he laughs. Some of the members have gotten more into it, Araiza explains, "buying little chains and stuff for their shoelaces. Who doesn't want to try to look like Alain Delon?"
After When We Were Young, The Buttertones are gunning to play live on the east coast and, hopefully, on the iconic French actor's home turf. Araiza would even like to record another album before the year's out. "I want to keep making as much music as we possibly can, because I feel we've got this window of opportunity, and plenty of music," he explains. "So that's the plan: keep writing and playing and writing and playing until one of us croaks."
'Gravedigging' is out 3/31 on Innovative Leisure Records.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Grace Pickering