Interview: Nick Butcher

Chicago artist Nick Butcher remains an incredibly busy creative force. On top of keeping up the art and print studio, Sonnenzimmer, along with his partner Nadine Nakanishi, Butcher is also active in Chicago’s vibrant music scene, with two records complete with self-constructed packaging out on Hometapes. His latest and third effort for Hometapes is like none other. Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol. 1 is a step-by-step process of genre blending and collaborative reinterpretation that sh0wcases Butcher’s beloved Chicago music history and utilizes his signature perception-bending style. The Esoterrorist had the pleasure of speaking to Butcher about the new music project, Sonnenzimmer’s new book, and his introduction to House music.

What initially inspired you to begin the creative process for Bitmaps?

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve been introduced to two genres of music that I had no prior knowledge of: Free Jazz and House music. Both have strong strong strong ties to the city, so it makes sense their influence would eventually grab me. When I arrived here from Tennessee in 2003, I was wrestling with electronic, trying to figure out a way to make it outside of the computer. I stumbled onto a solution for making loop based music in real time with analog equipment. Using a series of tape players equipped with cassette tape loops, I was able to record small snippets of melodies that would then loop into infinity. This offered a ground to create songs out of these bits and pieces material. Through exploring this process, I found that I really enjoyed the improvisational nature of creating music this way. Surprisingly, I found a very receptive group of musicians here in Chicago that were extremely open to this process, most of which came from a jazz background and were very involved in the free jazz/improv scene. Though quite different than the music I was creating, I was blown away by the music these guys and girls were making. It wasn’t noise, it was extremely focused and considered. It definitely wasn’t pop, either. For me I developed a new way of listening to music through exposure to this stuff that would influence me greatly.

My introduction to house music was a slower build. Through the process that I developed for making loop based music with cassette tapes, I became enthralled with repetition and it’s possibilities. I became very interested in how long you could stretch something out before it completely fell apart or you lost your audience. Around the same time, I had the opportunity to visit Hamburg, Germany. Through shear passive traveling I was exposed to some of the best music I’d ever heard. Coffee shops, bars, record shops were all playing a peculiar style of extremely minimal dance music that grabbed my attention immediately. While I’d been interested in electronic music for years at this point, I had usually strayed away from more straight forward dance oriented music… as most that I had heard was too supped up and chessy for my taste, but this stuff was incredible. All the things that had interested me about repetition were working in a full functional force here. This was music stripped to its barest form…. in many ways like free jazz, but on the other side of the spectrum. I spent the next 3 years trying to make sense of it and to figure out what I was actually hearing in Hamburg.

After a ton of online digging…. I finally triangulated the sound that dug its way into my skull. “Deep House” was mostly what I had heard and from there I traced roots back to none other than Chicago’s historic “House” scene of the 80’s.

For me, though I’ve dabbled with both genres in someways with my previous releases, Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol. 1 is my first attempt at formally exploring these genres.

The material on Bitmaps was first gradually released through multiple short-run lathe-cut records, a method that seems to break down the creative process into physical steps. Would you say this method translates into your visual art, or even the new Sonnenzimmer book project?

Nadine and I have a big love of process. The majority of our work at Sonnenzimmer is screen printed, in house, by us. So, this idea of process is inherent to our working method. Art making and music making is much the same. We both love the “working” part, just as much as the finished piece. So finding interesting ways to document that has been a core concern with Sonnenzimmer. We’ve published two small run process-based publications, Field Integration and Formal Additive Programs which both explore processes of image making. Just recently worked with a local Chicago publishing house called 5 x 7 to produce a book called A Painting in 31 Marks, which breaks down the making of a single abstract painting into a mark by mark run through of it’s creation. The same can be said for our current publishing adventure, Warp and Weft: Poster Construction by Sonnenzimmer, which we are currently raising funds for over at Kickstarter. This is a much bigger undertaking, as it’s a large scale book, with much more content that anything we’ve published so far. In the book we’ll be breaking down 30 of our most successful posters to their barest structural make up, a wire frame breakdown, basically. The wirerame will be paired with the completed poster and we’ll use this duality as a spring board to discuss our compositional intentions, historical influences, etc…

So, to music, the idea of bringing music into the mix of our process-based publishing habit was a natural progression. We both really liked the idea of bringing an audience along for the ride of the creation of an album… and then with the finished music, adding another entry point and way of thinking about it, with the improvised interpretations. On a practical side, the release schedule of the Free Jazz Bitmaps lathe-cuts was also a great way to force myself to produce, which was an a huge challenge!

And as for the improvised reinterpretations of your compositions, how did you go about selecting those players?

Jason Adasiewicz, Tim Daisy, Mike Reed, Jason Stein, Keefe Jackson, and Jason Roebke are all extremely active members of the Chicago free jazz scene. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of them over the years, so when we were working through the concept of Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol. 1, these guys were the first to came to mind, luckily they all accepted the challenge. I picked these fellows for a couple of reasons. One, I’m a huge fan of both the playing and ambition of each of them. But, also, Nadine and I were careful to consider the individual instruments, and how they would flow into one another for the B side of the LP. Vibraphone, Marimba, Drums, Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, and Double Bass, seemed like a great mix. Plus, each instrument has roots, of course, in the history of the progression of jazz.

How much further do you plan, or would you like, to take this? How many volumes are on the horizon?

We’d like to publish, at least, through Vol. 3. Ideally, it would keep going for some time, but the reality of these types of projects is that they take a long time and a bunch of effort from lots of people, so three seems a good stopping place. Plus, you can’t call something Vol. 1 unless you plan to do at least two volumes! So we want to surpass that milestone. Ideas for Vol. 2 are being thrown around, but nothing is certain.


-Jared Micah


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