Technically speaking, the Builders and the Butchers have never been an Anchorage band. But given all the bands that have left Alaska to better their chances of success, the definition of "local band" sometimes gets a little fuzzy here. For examples, see Portugal. The Man, the Hoons or the scattered personnel in 36 Crazyfists. So while Anchorage's claim on the Builders might be tenuous, the band's shows still manage to feel a bit like a homecoming.
Frontman Ryan Sollee cut his musical teeth here in the punk band the Born Losers before the group relocated to Portland, Ore., a decade ago. The Losers ground it out for a few years before folding, with Sollee moving in a different direction with his new band. (The Born Losers recently reunited for a one-off show in Portland, and Sollee said there are plans to record a new album in February.)
The Builders and the Butchers were born in the streets as a busking folk group, and over the course of five full-lengths they've honed a dark Americana sound that props up tales of bloodlust and humankind doing terrible things -- a country/Western-ish framework of murder ballads and Southern Gothic grit. But the Builders flipped the script a bit on last year's "Western Medicine," which takes the band's hallmarks and dresses them up with cinematic flourishes (there's still plenty of blood).
"Every record is a reaction to the last record," Sollee said over the phone from his home in Portland. "The last record, we went in trying to do it really stripped down. That record captures that energy, but it's lacking in some of the production, so with this album we just really wanted to go for it on the production."
Songs like "Ceceil" also forgo some of the group's more hoedown-flavored tendencies in favor of something closer to classic rock. The album cover even looks more like a Jethro Tull record this time around.
"What ended up happening with 'Western Medicine' was I had an album written, and that was right around the time we got a new bass player and drummer (Willy Kunkle and Justin Baier, respectively). We started writing it and going through the process and the songs just weren't clicking," explained Sollee. "I went back to the drawing board and rewrote several of the songs with the new people's styles in mind, and they come from more of a rock world. It's more heavy riffs and more rock songs and playing to people's strengths instead of trying to fit it into a classic Builders and Butchers sound or what we've been doing before."
While what they've done before has enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic -- they're touring Europe again later this year -- Sollee said that the days of piling into the van are probably over now that he and multi-instrumentalist Harvey Tumbleson are fathers. "It makes it a lot harder to go out and be a road dog," he explained. "We did that for four years and it was amazing and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but it's a lifestyle that does wear your body down after a while."
But the Anchorage shows make for a good excuse to visit his family, even if Sollee has no intention of coming back for good.
"I will always love Alaska and visiting, but I'm really happy to have made Portland my home," he said. "I made my life here and had a lot of musical success that I don't think I would have had in Alaska. And the winters get too long for me -- people talk about the winters being hard here, and I'm like, 'C'mon...'"
By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent