WHEN THE BUILDERS and the Butchers first appeared on the stages, basements, and street corners of Portland, they were a jittery live wire of charming imperfection. There was the wide-eyed ginger behind the mic, the pair of contrasting drummers, and the mandolin player who looked like he got lost on the way to Ozzfest. The earliest days of the Builders and the Butchers were a glorious mess that reached a cacophonous peak when tambourines and other percussion instruments spilled from the hands of the exhausted performers (oftentimes the sweat-soaked crowd wound up in possession of more instruments than the band itself). While the size of their sweaty following has grown, the local act has changed little since those early days.
Since their inception five years back, the Builders and the Butchers have perfected a stylized, rough and tumble sound cobbled together by a handful of mangled influences (bluegrass, country, and oddly enough, punk rock), which result in equal parts funeral marching band and steampunk junkyard ensemble. Building on the momentum of their 2007 self-titled debut, and its 2009 follow-up, Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well, the band earned a reputation for delivering raucous live shows the world over (including their nearly Hasselhoffian level of popularity in Germany). Yet it still wasn't enough to keep the Builders and the Butchers from getting caught up in the messy gears of the music industry.
While hunkered in the studio for full-length number three, Dead Reckoning, the band's New York-based label Gigantic Music (the Walkmen, the Rumble Strips) had the purse strings cut. "They had a guy helping fund the label, an investor, and he pulled out of the project," explains Builders' frontman Ryan Sollee. In lieu of letting the dust settle on the album, which was recorded this time last year, the band released Dead Reckoning overseas in the winter of 2010, months before settling on a domestic release date with their new label, Portland's Badman Recording (Lovers, Starfucker).
"It just fell into place. We could go release it [in Germany] then tour, and then release it in the States and tour. It actually worked really well." Sollee continues, "As things go, it seems like that's just becoming normal. Sometimes it takes a year and a half to get released... it's a lesson that we didn't know going into this, but it's something we're learning. It makes you light a fire under your ass to always be writing."
The benefit of this songwriting spree is the robust Dead Reckoning, a recording that builds upon the band's previous output and showcases Sollee's ability to litter the liner notes with downtrodden protagonists and other lively characters. Colossal opening track "I Broke the Vein" is the album equivalent of starting a concert with your encore material (like Springsteen opening a show with "Born to Run"), as the song's heroic chorus lays the groundwork for the remaining 11 songs. Lead single "Lullaby" is anchored by a mighty start/stop rhythm and Sollee's nasally delivery of the lines: "Making pennies for a living ain't no kind of living/So killing is better than living if you are alone." No strangers of playing for pennies, the band plans to celebrate the new album with a localized busking "tour" on February 25, where they'll play—rain or shine (most likely rain)—eight Portland locations in less than eight hours.
Beyond the lyrical life cycles that litter Dead Reckoning—there is plenty of "end of days" proselytizing throughout—the Builders and the Butchers firmly grasp the sheer fragility of what they do. "This is not something that's going to last forever," says Sollee. "I definitely will be playing music forever, but just to be able to do this now is amazing."