Butter is the kind of band you want to hear in the quiet of an old, dimly lit, wood-floor bar. It might be storming outside, but inside it's best if it's not much louder than clinking glasses and voices just above a whisper. Yet the local band's songs are populated with big, dark landscapes: images of roaring bonfires, collapsing houses, and falling skies mix with creeping minor chords, haunting vocals, and deep cello. They could be a metal band for all that apocalyptic imagery and titles such as "Skeletor" and "Cracker Bone," but the six-piece folk group has more delicate sensibilities—a ghostliness that is easily drowned out by drunken crowds, despite everyone's good intentions.
"We're not that danceable," says Hermina Harold, who plays guitar and fronts the band with keyboardist Lisena Brown. "And in Missoula you pretty much only play bars. It's hard to find the places where you feel like you're being listened to. But I'm fine with it." She laughs. "I'm used to playing where no one's listening."
Butter began in 2007, in the solitude of a laundry room. Brown and Harold had met through mutual musician friends during frequent evening jam sessions. They had both been in and out of three or four different bands, each playing backup and singing—Brown, most notably, still plays keyboard for Wartime Blues. But they both wanted to be lead singers.
"We have entirely different voices," says Brown. "We went down into the laundry room in my old house, which had amazing acoustics, and we sang with a guitar." The first song they sang was Feist's "The Park," and afterward, they began writing their own.
The singers built the band piece-by-piece over the next few years, first adding cellist Bethany Joyce of Wartime Blues, then bassist Maria Kendra, and, finally, rounding it out with more Wartime Blues musicians—Martin McCain on drums and Jesse Netzloff on electric guitar. And with so many shared members, it only seemed practical that Butter and Wartime Blues would tour together. Last summer all 11 musicians hit the road (one van, one Subaru) and drove 36 hours straight to Madison for the first show, looping down to Chicago, Louisville, and up through St. Louis and Kansas City.
It was Chicago that made the most lasting impression on the bands. At a Milwaukee Street bar called The Whistler, they were treated to a surprisingly thoughtful crowd. "It was the first time on tour we looked out and the audience wasn't chugging beer and yelling over each other," says Brown. "Everyone was really tuned in."
In addition, the bands ended up playing with a Chicago group called Moss Garvey, whose lineup includes guitarist Leroy Bach of Wilco and Iron & Wine fame.
"We kept looking at this guy and we were like, 'Why does he look so familiar?' and we realized it was Leroy Bach," says Brown. "And when we were up there playing he was listening closely to both Butter and Wartime."
Bach invited the bands to play at his house the next night for a private party with him and his friends. And it wasn't just any house, says Brown. The living room—full of instruments, low lighting, and art—regularly sees intimate shows from Wilco, Bonnie Prince Billy and other alt-country and folk artists—all musicians who benefit from listeners who really do listen.
"Of course we were all a little star-struck to begin with," says Brown. "And then they also just ended up being really great people and we ended up hanging out there for hours after we played."
In the fall, Bach's roommate, Blaine Boyles, flew out to Missoula to record Wartime Blues. It was also a coup for Butter: Boyles recorded Butter's cover of "The Park"—that first song Brown and Harold sang in the laundry room.
But Butter's new album, Removable Beast, has plenty of local flavor: It was recorded at Club Shmed Studio in town and the cover art is by local artist Andy Smetanka, showing the dark silhouette of a giant bee pulling a person in an old-fashioned carriage through a mountainous countryside.
The co-songwriters admit they're slow at writing (and busy with other projects) so the nine tracks on the album constitute their entire catalog since their inception. That pace may change; they already have three songs in the works—one of which they'll debut at their upcoming CD release show.
Most of Butter's songs stem from the vivid apocalyptic dreams the two singers say they each have on a regular basis. But the duo has been collecting more fodder for future songs. On a recent spring trip to the stark Montana Hi-Line, Harold, Brown, and a handful of other artists spent a few days exploring a vast prairie full of fossils, old teepee rings, and crumbling cemeteries. For Harold and Brown, it was a visual counterpart to their sound and lyrics.
"On every horizon you see forever," says Brown. "It has a residual energy, maybe because people don't tread on that land very much and it's easier for things to stick around. It gave me the sense of being able to wipe my slate clean and then fill it with everything there. It almost seems like nothing's out there—but it's so full."
Butter plays a CD release show at the Top Hat Friday, April 29, at 6 PM for the bar's family-friendly night. $5.