About this time a year ago, The Builders and the Butchers were opening a string of dates for Portugal. The Man, a band with whom they share more than a few biographical similarities. The members in each band grew up in Alaska, relocated to Portland, Ore., and years later found themselves touring together in Europe.
One difference, though, The Builders and the Butchers were formed in Portland rather than Alaska. Frontman Ryan Sollee moved there in 2003 with his old band, the loud and brash punk band Born Losers. That band kicked around in the Anchorage music scene for three years before its ambitions led them out of town. Sollee explained over the phone from his home in Portland that the band didn't feel like its goals would pan out in Anchorage.
"The band wanted to do more and couldn't, being from Alaska," he said. "You can't tour easily. You can't put out records easily. Everything's harder."
Those things didn't come easily right away in Portland either. "We built up a small fan base but never got enough traction to really get on the road and tour viably on our own," Sollee said.
Eventually the band fizzled out, as membership and interests changed over time.
"I noticed one day that by far the loudest thing I was listening to was the band I was playing in."
The band he's playing in these days started as a ramshackle street ensemble, playing rustic roots music and paying tribute to old America.
"Moving to Portland, there was a lot of folkier music that people were playing. It's kind of a big part of the scene here," Sollee said. "That really resonated with me, so then I started writing songs that were sort of more along those lines."
Throw a few more former Alaskans in the mix - Ray Rude, Alex Ellis, Harvey Tumbleson and Paul Seely, each playing various permutations of mandolins, guitars, banjos, horns and an array of percussion instruments -- and you've got The Builders and the Butchers.
While the origins were more impulsive than orchestrated, over time the focus of the band became a lyrical one. Songs were built around a line or a story idea and grew from there.
When asked about lyrical inspiration, Sollee's first few answers had nothing to do with music. He listed fairy tales and fables and cited an interest in stories that are universal throughout generations. The underlying religious ideas in old gospel and bluegrass music play a big part too.
"If you really listen to it, it's singing about the devil and God in a very unabashed, no-strings-attached way," Sollee said. "I frankly don't know what I believe in that whole thing, but I do love the concept of really pure good and really pure evil and that dichotomy and how we find ourselves somewhere in the middle."
The band released its self-titled debut in 2007, and it caught the attention of Decemberist guitarist and fellow Portland resident Chris Funk. Funk's critically lauded band has long been noted for its sprawling, literate and folk-inspired songs, and the guitarist offered to record and produce the Builders' next album.
Funk's network of session musicians and studio savvy added a theatrical quality to the band's sound. But even as that nudged the band a bit closer to its producer's sound, the Builders still go for a more Southern Gothic feel than a Victorian one.
The resulting album, "Salvation is a Deep Dark Well," captures a band almost obsessed with death and personal demons, all channeled through a nostalgic sentiment. It also captured a band in transition. Where it had once stuck to the streets, the band eventually moved to floors, then stages -- each step marking the band's growing notoriety. In 2008, "Willamette Week" in Portland named the Builders the best live band in the city.
"The live show was becoming a thing where we couldn't just play on the floor anymore because there were frankly just too many people to play to and you can't make it loud enough, so we had to change the idea of the band," Sollee said.
Given the band's reputation, releasing a live record seemed like a logical move. "Where the Roots all Grow" came out earlier this year. While it may seem sparse compared to Funk's treatment on the previous album, it captures the energy of the band doing what it does best. It's an idea the band memberes carried with them into the recording sessions for its next album, "Dead Reckoning," which will be released stateside in February. For those sessions, the band recorded most of its parts live in the studio rather than each instrument individually.
And if the title wasn't a giveaway, the band is staying the course thematically.
"It's still pretty death-y," Sollee said. "Maybe a little bit more personal about experiences and not just fictional stories, but just a little."
The new record dropped in Europe earlier this month, a strategy based partly on the success the band found opening for Portugal. The Man. A couple weeks after their homecoming this weekend, the Builders and the Butchers will find themselves on the other side of the Atlantic again -- this time on their own European tour.
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