Chicago artist Nick Butcher continues to make remarkable contributions to the world of independent cultural production. While dedicated to solo projects as a musician, painter and sculptor, he is also a collaborator and a community builder. Butcher runs the print shop Sonnenzimmer with his girlfriend/partner Nadine Nakanishi. There, the couple works primarily with bands to make limited-edition prints. Butcher and Nakanishi have also established the Chicago Printer’s Guild, the first-ever screen printers collective in Chicago.
This summer marks the fifth anniversary of Butcher’s first album, The Complicated Bicycle. This anniversary, along with the record’s re-release inspired the following interview.
You co-run an independent print shop, paint and make music. Even your records often reflect a representation of both visual and audio material. How do you relate to those different modes of working?
Music was my first love and art is just something I’ve always done. Art comes to me more naturally, it’s easier for me. Music doesn’t, I struggle to get to something that I like and I just can’t force it. It’s something that either happens or it doesn’t. Art is something I can push and like to push, which is necessary because its a huge part of my job. I like the challenges of graphic art. The deadlines, concepts, also bouncing things back and for between my girlfriend and business partner, Nadine Nakanishi. This pushes the work into a completely new realm which is somewhat removed from me.
Do they demand a different kind of thought?
Art and music definitely require different approaches, but ultimately they both come from the same place. Its all about how the sounds or pictures feel. For both, my intuition is the guide. I don’t really have to choose if a project should be visual or audio, because, like I said, with Sonnenzimmer, the visual stuff is more of a job. With my own personal “art” It really just depends on what it is that inspires it. For me there’s always parallel lines running in my head between art and music and I’m constantly thinking about how they could cross.
I know you and Nadine recently exhibited your show, Vorab Fabrik, at The Family Room. How does performing live compare with preparing and having an art show?
Preparing for an art show is much like recording music, in that you are presenting a finished piece. The great thing for me about getting ready for Vorab Fabrik was making the conscious choice to combine my ideas about music and art directly, in a physical space. With art, I’m free of the performance aspect of it all, so there is more room to explore tiny ideas and focus on them. There are elements of that in my live performances, but that usually relies on repetition, which can only get you so far without losing the audience. It was great to combine the two to explore both ideas at once and see what happened in the middle.
Vorab Fabrik by Nadine Nakanishi and Nick Butcher
How would you characterize your experience of performing your music live? Do you have different expectations from recording?
Recording is safe. You have total control at pretty much all time. I like this aspect of it. It allows room to really listen to the smallest details and build things from many different points of view. That said, it’s really easy to fall into patterns. With my live performances, I’m on the spot, everything is improvised, and unlike a lot of improvised music, I’m attempting to build melodic songs, rather than textural and gestural experiments. There are definitely aspects of that in my music, but for the most part they are there to serve the melodies… a counter point to them. So in order to build something from the chaos, I have to be completely alert to everything happening. I really love that part. Just tuning in 100%. It doesn’t always work, but when I truly let go and pay attention, there’s always something there to build on.
The Complicated Bicycle has a distinct relationship with your transition from Tennessee to Chicago, which took place five years ago now. Can you still relate to the original sense of disorientation that inspired the record?
I can definitely still relate to that feeling of just arriving and being overwhelmed with the new surroundings and size of the city– also being overwhelmed with my freedom– not knowing very many people and the head space that all of that allowed. I was kind of a hermit for the first couple of years here, just working on music and art non stop. I was totally in my head all the time. Which had its up sides and downsides. The upside was that I was able to find my voice both visually and musically.
Since then, I’ve settled into the city and surrounded myself with more people. I’m more involved with the art/music community and I’ve opened my practice up a lot to other influences and ways of working. In running a business, that’s totally necessary. Working with clients on projects, collaborating with other artists, the day to day business stuff. Its impossible to totally in my head. Now-a-days I have to focus my art making mind a bit to little bursts or figure out how to curve my immediate interests into the projects we are working on here at Sonnenzimmer. That’s actually the best thing about Sonnenzimmer, our work has room to absorb both Nadine and my interesest and ideas.
To answer the question, I think I’m more confident person now, so no I’m not as disoriented, I know what I want to do and I’m doing it. Now the challenge is making it sustainable, for both Nadine and myself.
This anniversary edition includes excerpts from additional recording sessions of The Complicated Bicycle and another album you recently released, Bee Removal. What made you want to include those pieces here?
The way I make music is by lots of trial and error. Here’s a good example: for the 15 tracks I’ve released over the past 5 years (Those on The Complicated Bicycle and Bee Removal), there was about 2 hours of unused music, sounds, and sketches. While they didn’t work for the records, there were redeeming qualities to some of them. For me, this anniversary edition was a great opportunity to do something with this music. It gives me a chance to get this stuff out of my system as well. Basically, If I never do anything with this music, I’ll sit and tinker with it for eternity, which won’t allow for any new ideas or influences to enter my work.
Also, I thought it would be cool to give something extra, that is potentially useful to people. That’s why all of the music on ”Automatic Music” is royalty free. I’m offering up this music for people to use in their own music, on their videos, or whatever they want to do with it, Because, by the nature of the tracks… some are short 20 second ditties or just textural explorations, they can easily be incorporated into other songs. Its almost like a library of sounds… with a few songs thrown in for good measure. I would love to see someone create something new out of this. Or for something to show up on someone’s video project.
Can you talk briefly about the Chicago Printer’s Guild and what made you start it?
Over the years Nadine and I have meet a ton of great people in the city through printing. Screen printers, letterpress printers, offset printers, etc. We were just talking one night about how we never get to hang out with any of these people outside of the occasional art show, so we thought it would be cool to get everyone together, once a month, just to hang out and share stories, advice, etc.
Our first meeting was at the Hungry Brain about a year ago and since then we’ve gotten pretty organized. We take field trips, coordinate art shows, have monthly meetings, have a board of directors, not for profit status, and 35 active members, with another 20 or so who come around when they can. The whole idea is to foster our individual practices and to make people outside of the community more aware of print culture. Nadine was the real force behind it. She has a knack for getting people together and getting things done.
Do you think there is any relationship between the print community and the music community that is specific to Chicago? How do those world overlap and support one another?
I don’t think the relationship is necessary specific to Chicago, but it is strong. I would say your average musician working in the city knows the value of a screen printed poster. They understand the legacy of such a thing and they go out of their way to commission them for special events, tours, etc. I think musicians appreciate the artistry and technique that goes into printmaking, I think there is a kindred relationship in that respect. Musicians have to work really hard here, and so do printmakers, so there is this bond.