Ryan Sollee is not the typical American rock star. Born and raised in the cold, moose-populated environs of Alaska, the former punk rocker, marine biologist, and four of his best friends have traveled the long way around on their journey to pop success. Playing in the streets for attention, rooming in each other’s apartments as they balance professional and musical interests in dreary Portland–their hometown)– they have conquered the folk scene, block by excruciating block. Several years later, the quintet called The Builder and the Butchers has infested the minds of critics and fans alike with their unique take on the Southern gothic music of the Depression era, getting billing from venues as far away as San Francisco and close as your nearest internet port.
Racket Magazine’s own John Winn caught up with the ginger haired virtuoso. In a surprisingly short interview, Sollee discusses the band’s newfound fame, their collaborations with goth musician Amanda Palmer, and…salmon.
John Winn: Tell us how it feels to be receiving attention after so many years busking and playing?
Ryan Sollee: You know, it is interesting. It feels good. It’s kind of one of those funny things where music and art is always interesting as far as levels as you hit and there’s always the next thing. But its super satisfying to play somewhere really random and people come out who are fans. That’s the best feeling.
JW: Did you imagine any of this happening when you were in Alaska?
RS: No. I mean, we were there, and we didn’t realize how it would be- being in a band that is actually a working band when you’re living in Alaska. I don’t think anybody realizes until they do it.
JW: What does your email inbox look like now? Is the ratio of fan to personal mail 10 to 1 or something?
RS: As far as like, fans, we don’t- we get a lot of fan emails through MySpace. But we do have a band email where all the band business is gone through. But that’s gotten really intense. It’s like, “Holy shit, where does this come from? “[Laughs]
JW: So you have experience with fan mail?
RS: Say that again?
JW: Do you have experience with fan mail?
RS: No. We get all our fan mail through, like, a lot of people will email us through MySpace, or we have an email list people can get on, and that’s just us being able to send them stuff and reply. And also on our website, people can read comments, kind of set up like a blog.
JW: Your band’s style has been described as “Southern gothic.” How does that mesh with the rest of the folk scene in Seattle? I mean, are there bands doing the same thing?
RS: Yeah. We’re actually out of Portland. But it’s funny, how, like, everyone here has a different kind of take on what they’re doing with acoustic instruments. And there aren’t a lot of bands that sound like us, but every band is super unique, but they’re all using acoustic instruments, maybe playing an older style of music.
JW: Do you get the urge sometimes to sneak in songs from your Born Loser days? Like, when you’re doing set lists?
RS: No. They’re totally, stylistically and everything, it’s like polar opposites. For an example of that, a couple of years ago, there were some friends of ours who were in a band in Seattle and they covered a couple of Born Loser songs and wanted me to sing on them and it was hard for me to do that again. I was pretty far removed from that.
JW: Do you have any nostalgia from that time?
RS: Definitely, definitely. It was a lot more- it’s hard to, you know, it’s really nice to play in a band that does not have a lot of expectation and not a lot riding on it. It’s just a lot of relief. You’re just playing it because you enjoy the [unintelligible] and now that we’re all kind of wrapped in a band, it just changes things. It can’t help but change things.
JW: Some have accused the band of being too “gimmicky.” What is your reaction to that?
RS: I think that any band- you can say that about any band that has a live show that has something you can latch on to. For example, the band I used to be in opened for the Jesus Lizards and David Yao would crawl on people and pee on the stage and some people would call that gimmicky, but I would call that awesome. So I think anything that a band does that’s striking live you can say is gimmicky. It’s all in how you categorize it.
JW: In addition to being a musician, you’ve also been a marine biologist. How did you juggle your professional and musical career in Alaska?
RS: Well, in Alaska, there is a lot more, you know, you can’t do a lot with your band, you can’t tour and you can put out records but they’re only going to be available in Alaska because it’s so separated [from the mainland]. So the time there, it was really easy to balance both. In Portland, it’s a lot more difficult because I was doing biology while I was with this band and so it’s really, really difficult to balance when you’re putting a lot of energy in this band while you’re working in a 40 hour a week job that required you to travel out of town a lot.
JW: So you had to give up one or the other?
RS: Right, right, so last February, about a year and a half ago, I quit my biology and since then I’ve been touring with the band.
JW: Are you still on good terms with your co-workers?
RS: Oh sure, sure. They understand. It’s funny, they call me a lot and it’s almost like they want to live vicariously [laughs]. But it’s a lot more meager as far as finances go.
JW: Do you see a lot of similarities between you’re marine biology and what you’re doing now? Like, are there any life lessons that you took from that that you are applying to your musical career?
RS: I don’t know about life lessons. Definitely a lot of the imagery for the songs comes from my working outside a lot and having a lot of peace and quiet to actually think about songs. So it’s actually been more of a challenge to find that writing tack and find that peace and quiet to actually find time to write about songs. But not a lot of life lessons. I can’t imagine two more different things to do as far as careers.
JW: You’ve played sets with Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. What is that like collaborating with her?
RS: It was really, really interesting. Our styles are obviously really different, but her fans are amazing. They are music lovers, and they love her, and they love anyone who is involved with her, and so it’s really great. We got that love every night when we played and unbelievably good responses that surprisingly- because like, music styles, people weren’t going there to see us so it was nice to get that response. And there isn’t a harder working musician. She is unbelievably devoted to her fans and she’s always working.
JW: Would you consider collaborating with her? Like, on an album or something?
RS: I’m not sure if we would mesh that way. I’d love to play more shows with her. But as far as bands go and musicians, she’s so far removed from what we do. There are a lot of other bands that are quicker to collaborate with us than her.
JW: So you are on two different tracks.
RS: Yes, I think, definitely. Total love and respect for what she does.
JW: Just an off-ball question. Have you picked a costume for Halloween?
RS: Not yet, but we have found out we’re going to be in Houston, Texas that night. So, I’d have to figure out something to take on the road or pick up something on the way.
JW: Have you thought of dressing up as a fish?
RS: I could- I’ve never done that. I’ve toyed with that from time to time but I’ve never gone there.
JW: It was nice talking to you Ryan.
–Interview by John Winn