National Folk Festival Interview: The Button Collective

Button Collective
Image Courtesy of The Button Collective

Since moving to Sydney from Lismore a year ago The Button Collective have become an integral part of the local folk scene. With The National Folk Festival looming this weekend and The Button Collective on the lineup officially for the first time we took the opportunity to chat to Brodie Buttons (lead vocals, guitar, mandolin) and Kwinton Trembath (piano accordion, vocals) about the band and the year they’ve had in the “big smoke”.

Gareth Hugh Evans: The fact that The National Folk Festival is this weekend means it’s been a year since I first met you guys. I remember seeing you at a gig and then recommending that you head to The National for Easter. I didn’t expect you to follow my advice but lo and behold I turned up and saw you busking there. And you obviously enjoyed it because you’re on the official lineup this year.

Kwinton Trembath: We only moved to Sydney around this time last year. We found a place and then within a couple of weeks we were playing a lot of gigs but we had the weekends off. So we were like “f**k it, let’s got to The National“. So we jumped in the van, drove down and had a great time busking there.

GHE: You guys were everywhere last year. When I convince someone to come to The National I’m always worried that they’re not going to think it’s cool. It’s not like other festivals where there’s these huge international names playing. But obviously you guys got the most out of The National last year because you were in the session bars, you were watching music, you were busking – and that’s paid off because you’re back there again this year. Did you guys play any blackboards last year?

KT: Yeah, we played a few blackboards in the cold of the night, very late. Just had a few of the diehards chilling out with us.

GHE: So it’s been a year since you guys moved from Lismore to Sydney. Reflecting back are you happy you made that decision?

Brodie Buttons: For sure. The folk scene here is amazing. Where we were before in Lismore, if we played three or four gigs a week we’d flood the market in one week and have to wait six months to play any more gigs. Here we can do it as much as we want. And the bands around Sydney in the folk scene have been really supportive, giving us gigs or contacts. It’s amazing.

GHE: And on the days you guys don’t have gigs your out busking or at jams…

KT: Or going to other people’s gigs. That’s the thing – wanting to play so many gigs has kind of backfired for us because we’re always missing other people’s great lineups.

GHE: The lineup that I see you play the most with is the two of you and Jake Pember on bass. Is that the lineup you’re taking with you to The National?

KT: We’ll have our fiddle player and our banjo player with us at The National. That’s the full Button Collective five piece. Our banjo player also plays a mean mouth harp. He lives in Lismore because he’s got a wife and a child and responsibilities there. Whenever we’ve got a festival where we can afford to fly him down we do. The fiddle player as well lives in Lismore, teaches at a Steiner school there.

BB: When we play as a three-piece that’s our skeleton crew.

GHE: So the size of the band and the make up of the band depends not just on whether they can make it down from Lismore but also the size of the show.

KT: Absolutely. If we could we’d get them to come to every gig.

BB: It’s probably hard to be more exciting than having a kid or teaching kids.

GHE: Exactly! Playing footstomping folk music is just not a priority when you put those things in the mix.

KT: but we’re very excited about playing with our banjo player Ben Wilson. He writes amazing music himself and he adds a lot to the energy of the performance when we play with him.

GHE: I’ve seen you guys a lot over the last year and I feel like I’ve seen you get really tight as a three piece. The harmonies are sounding amazing. I love the kick-drum. I guess there’s nothing like playing live several times a week to tighten up as a band.

BB: Totally. We thought that by moving in together we’d be rehearsing every day. But all it means is that we’re not band mates now, we’re housemates. So our rehearsals have become the three gigs we play a week at least. So we’ve gotten very good at playing gigs. We could be tighter if we rehearsed more but I think this way is a little more fun.

GHE: There’s nothing like rehearsing in front of a crowd and working out whether a harmony or a break is going to actually hit or not.

KT: When we first started the band there was almost seven of us. Stripping it back due to moving to Sydney and playing as a three-piece, you realise that you need to do a bit more to make the song really sound full and make the lineup suit the song. Jake is tapping the bass as the snare hits and I’ve started playing kick drum. It’s working well.

BB: I feel like parts of songs that we would have figured out through rehearsal we’ve sort of gone the long hard way around it by doing it organically. By playing it live enough we realise subconsciously that something’s not working.

KT: Trial and error’s a big thing. Often we’ll play the songs at different tempos three or four nights throughout the week and one of those nights will go off and the crowd pumping. Then subconsciously we’ll play at that tempo just because we know that that’s where it works.

GHE: Are there certain venues around Sydney where you feel like you can experiment a bit more?

BB: I find the best one for that is The Wild Rover. There’s always a good mixture of some people paying attention and other people not. It usually depends on sets: the first set everyone’s talking over you so you play a bunch of loud songs to try and get their attention; second set some people are paying attention and that’s just a normal gig; and by the third one the room’s pretty much empty cos everyone’s gone home – there’s one or two people left and it’s super intimate and lovely. That’s the place that we’ve made most of our songs what they are.

KT: I agree with that. Surprisingly the more people are interested and invested in how you’re playing, the more you improvise because you play off how they’re reacting. Sometimes there’ll be a song where usually there’ll be a part where you want to bring it back and have a quiet moment but everybody will be up and dancing so you’ll change the song to suit the people. Especially at The Corridor, people get really into it. Whether they’re up dancing or watching intently we change the song to sort of suit the moment.

GHE: One of the other things I love about you guys is the amount of energy you bring to each show, even if you’ve only got a handful of people in the audience. And I think that energy has informed your success in Sydney – venues want to have you back. Playing every gig like it’s the most important gig is a way to get venues and punters on side.

KT: The way we started was busking. Busking in Lismore, half the time there’s no one on the street so you’re just playing to no one at all. And you’re still having as good a time as if there were a crowd around you. It’s all about enjoying the music yourself.

BB: It also comes down to only knowing five chords. So you have to yell and be angry and passionate enough that people don’t notice [laughs]

GHE: And the influences you very obviously wearing on your songwriting sleeve – Australian bush music, Irish ballads and even bluegrass – also lends it self to that high energy as well.

KT: We’re definitely into a lot of the Irish tunes. But one of the main things that Brodie and I listen to and comment on is the lyrical content of music. And I think that’s something that I really resonate with with our songs.

GHE: I feel like a lot of your originals sound like Irish ballads or Australian bush ballads. There’s a very obvious linear link from that kind of music to the stuff that you guys write and play.

BB: I grew up going to a lot of folk dances. It was traditional Irish music and bush poetry so I learnt to like words and Irish music together.

GHE: What’s the next plan for you guys after The National Folk Festival?

BB: More festivals. But we’re also quite excited to release an EP and an album shortly. We have it almost all finished. I’m very excited because I feel like it’s the one good thing that I’ve done in my life. I’m excited for people to hear it.

GHE: Nice! Where abouts did you record?

BB: We recorded the EP at a farm house up in Lismore which was a lot of fun. And the engineer we worked with was so good to work with that we took him down to Green Cape Lighthouse [to record] the album. And that was so good – we were just in a little shack next to the lighthouse. And I just found out as well that there’s a story around Green Cape Lighthouse where there was a shipwreck full of gold miners from early Australian gold pioneering days. Apparently there’s a lot of gold buried underneath Green Cap Lighthouse. And I want to go back there some day … with a shovel.

KT: We’ll be putting out the EP before the album. The EP will be around a single called “The Lonesome Sea” which is a song that we wrote while sailing. We were at Falls Festival last year and in the camp ground we ran into a whole lot of people who go sailing with this old man. It was his birthday, I think it was his 70th birthday. We came on board as sailors but they smuggled our instruments on board and once we were out to sea we brought our instruments out and played for this old man. And he loved it! He’s traveled the world and loves music. And since then we’ve gone sailing with him every month or two months because he’s trying to develop a crew so that he can start doing trips to islands. One of those trips Brodie forgot to pack a lunch – he was complaining about being hungry and we couldn’t stand to listen to it any more so he went off with his mandolin to the back of the bought and wrote “The Lonesome Sea” about …

BB: Sailors starving [laughs]

KT: And that’s going to be the name of the EP. It’s going to be The Lonesome Sea.

GHE: Do you guys have any stories that don’t start with “So we met these random people and they said you should do this and we said yes”?

BB: It’s all about taking up opportunities. It’s the biggest think I’ve learnt since meeting Kwinton and Jake – it’s very easy to be boring and stay at home but nothing happens. You have to fight it and go out – the moment that you do something interesting is when you have an amazing story to tell.

KT: One of the absolute highlights of The National last year was that we were busking and this French Gypsy man ran up to us with his harmonica and just starting playing. I don’t think he even had the right key of harmonica at the time.

BB: [laughs] No he didn’t!

KT: But it sounded amazing because of the energy that he had. He played with us for a few hours, we made a whole lot of coin, spent it all on beer, got to know the guys and spent the rest of the festival with him. Had the greatest time. He came back to Sydney with us and busked with us for another week or two and then he went on his journey again. He’s probably doing that in more folk festivals overseas. He was an inspiring dude because now we can aspire to be the people that find those opportunities and makes amazing stuff happen.

GHE: I hope that at this year’s National you come away with more amazing stories.

1 Comment

  1. April 3, 2015 at 06:01

    […] “The folk scene here is amazing. Where we were before in Lismore, if we played three or four gigs a week we’d flood the market in one week and have to wait six months to play any more gigs. Here we can do it as much as we want. And the bands around Sydney in the folk scene have been really supportive, giving us gigs or contacts. It’s amazing” – The Button Collective chat to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]

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