Though we tend to throw the word around so frequently it risks losing meaning, I admit that the idea I most associate with The Bilinda Butchers is nostalgia. I’ve experienced my fair share of it over the years, but the exact definition of the word has always eluded me, despite my ongoing penchant for sentimentality and of course, my perpetual fascination with music’s ability to administer the feeling in beautifully inexplicable ways.
I focused on nostalgia for class earlier this month, and as I was attempting to describe the specific sensation in the opening paragraph of my assignment, I noticed that my particular relationship with nostalgia has always been incredibly visceral – I referred to it in my writing as being akin to the breathless shock of suddenly plunging into ice water, the feeling of someone punching me in the gut with no warning, no remorse; I realized that for me, nostalgia has never been warm, soft, or fuzzy. But strangely enough, I still love it – listening to The Bilinda Butchers’ “Tulips,” for instance, always makes me feel like I’m helplessly gasping for air, but it’s still one of my absolute favorite dream pop songs ever made.
“Why do you feel that way though?,” my friend asked me when I told her.
I was quiet for a moment before I could think of an answer that would make any sort of sense. “I don’t know,” I started. “Maybe it’s nice for a little bit, but before my body can ultimately register it as positive, I think about how I can never return to whatever memory it is that I’m imagining. And then before I know it, it turns into nausea.”
My friend turned to look at me. “That’s really sad,” she said, a concerned lilt in her voice.
“Is it?” I replied with a surprised chuckle. “I’ve never really thought of it that way.”
And I honestly don’t. In fact, I cherish the feeling and all of its (subjectively) visceral side effects, the way in which it forces me, quite literally, to stop for a moment and reassess my place within the chaos of the world, to appreciate what I’ve experienced in my life thus far, to have newfound hope for the future in making new memories. I’m always quick to recommend The Bilinda Butchers for this very reason – for this punch in the gut, this ice water shock, this idea of briefly succumbing to something breathless and fleeting that it turns into a full body experience.
This third installment of KWAV Revisited is in conjunction with Spirit Goth’s October 2019 release of their fantastic cassette club, which will be a re-release of The Bilinda Butchers’ 2011 EP Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams (more about the club will be below). I will mainly be discussing this album as well as their 2012 EP Goodbyes (as both are on perpetual rotation for yours truly).
Michal Kepsky and Adam Honingford have been writing and creating music together since they were around fifteen years old, initially bonding over a shared love of shoegaze and, as you can probably discern from the band name, My Bloody Valentine. Along with the shoegaze and dream pop influences from MBV and bands like The Radio Dept. and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, there was also the love of video game soundtracks and bossa nova that had a hand in the BB’s wonderfully unique sound, always somewhere between the jagged and the whimsical, the sharp and vulnerable. In this sense, however, Regret, Love, Guilt, Dreams – which Kepsky entirely wrote and recorded on his own – comes with a disclaimer, as he has admitted he is obviously not the same person today as he as when it was written over eight years ago. It’s an album partially fueled – even if by unintentional means – by teenage angst and yearning, by emotions flowing out so fast there is that conscious need to make sense of them.
There’s also the heavy, continuous theme of cinema within their discography that makes itself known in gorgeously subtle ways within these two EPs; In fact, Kepsky mentioned in a 2010 interview that he treats every song as a singular scene in a movie of his own design, all dwelling on moments within the darker, more painful complexities of the human condition – and, perhaps most of all, the feelings that come with being deep within the throes of loneliness, in both its physical and emotional variations. They want you to engage with their music in this manner, to picture something happening, preferably something that deals with love or, to converge with the aforementioned themes, perhaps more with the lack thereof.
“Boyfriend” falls in the former category, where Kepsky falls into a lovesick trance, imagining the softer possibilities that could come with being in a relationship, the honeymoon phase. He explains amidst dreamlike, shimmering synth that he and his girl “could stop by the hills with trees,” that he’ll “pick a flower in the summer breeze/ And I’ll ask [her] to be my baby.” His voice grows more sincere as the track flows forward as if he is accepting the daydreams as cold fact, the guitar piercing directly through the haze after the last verse to symbolize his conviction.
These daydreams are just that, however – daydreams, fantastical thought, ultimately hollow dreams that you can’t will into being reality. “Tulips” retells the same story in a way that represents real life, which is ironic, considering it is the most lush, fantastical song on the album, as well as one of the most cinematic. The synth elicits a handful of mental images – a roughly pulled back harp string perpetually oscillating throughout the entire song, a crystal pendulum careening from foreground to background, ocean waves that crash into shore over and over – and yet, all seem to be appropriate to soundtrack a song essentially referring to an epiphany: After realizing the girl never gave a shit about him, that same summer day has a sun that now “shines in a different way,” and the flower he picked is no longer an object of love, considering there are thousands of similar ones “all around.” He’s no longer infatuated, he “feels okay.” Despite the emotional detachment and despondent apathy within the lyrics, the synth pulses, swells, and shudders with a deeper, painfully unrequited sense of adoration, his heart a cup overflowing with love but nowhere to transfer its contents. There’s a tension within the this repeated synth that’s absolutely breathtaking, the constantly growing wall of sound almost like a facade to mask the vulnerability threatening to flow out. It was never real; He asks the void “where do I go now? No one loves me.”
There’s also a lot of R,L,G,D that deals with the themes of friendship: “Careless Teens” shows a sense of disappointment for the friends you’ve perhaps placed too much faith into and have departed with a piece of your being, while opener “All My Friends” shows the appreciation for the ones that have stayed and added something divine to your life. Kepsky and Honingford know the latter especially well, given their years of friendship and collaboration that has now surpassed a decade:
“Adam and I have an interesting relationship – it’s hard to describe as just a best friend. There are a lot of ups and downs. With any love that is the best kind. The up are the happiest times in my life and the downs bring us close to tears, but our bond is unbreakable at this point. We’ve been through so much that we always gravitate back to each other no matter how long we haven’t seen each other.”
In that vein, The Bilinda Butchers’ 2012 follow up Goodbyes includes tracks from both Kepsky and Honingford, resulting in a wonderfully varied collection that plays like a full LP. There’s the exhilarating soundscape that is “Crystal Tears,” where jagged synth and echoed percussion pulse and radiate, the soundtrack to a video game inside your own subconscious. The imagery within the lyrics are fantastical but with a shard of darkness lodged within them, the protagonist of this tale of betrayal and lovesickness explaining he is “bleeding loving tears/ purple crystals from my eyes,” that “crystal raindrops haunt me,” cutting through the “smoke of lies, death and fear.” At the bridge, Kepsky’s voice has been reduced to a hollow whisper, but within it still exists the last sliver of infatuation: “Lover of mine/ You said your love’s a different kind.” The instrumentals surge in like the triumphant music after beating a final boss, the anxious escape from a building on fire. It’s up to you to decide, however, whether he makes it out or not.
“Half Open” is stunning in every sense of the word; The synth floats past like a cool summer breeze, the delicate droplets of water echoing gorgeously at the bridge, evoking a sense of clarity, of soft introspection, despite the swaths of wistfulness that follow immediately after. The track flows seamlessly into “Little Leaf,” which, unlike the majority of their discography, involves acoustic instrumentation. These soft, yet strangely jagged and visceral strums of guitar, as well as Kepsky’s vivid and near three-dimensional vocals, results in a near tangible sense of raw vulnerability within the track, especially when placed adjacent to the narrative.
“Little Leaf” is like a cathartic fever dream, an enamored hallucination directly emitted from the consciousness and hung like a silk sheet in front of the eyes, screening on loop against it a film of what could have been, or, just as easily what has been left behind and is now inherently and perpetually yearned for, desired. And what I ultimately adore about the Bilinda Butchers is that the dreams and desires they portray within their songs are realistic, ultimately attainable – in “Little Leaf” they are of honest love, a happy home, a child who is gifted with two parents that love them unconditionally (“You pick him up/ Hush baby/ Mommy and daddy love you very much/ These words resonate for days”). The instrumentals swell and gather in the second half, vocals reassuring “‘cause in your face, I see our place/ Warm and cozy, hold me/ Honey, honey.” Kepsky draws out these last two words slowly, thoughtfully, to the point where they aren’t hollow terms of endearment, but breathlessly representative of something real, worthy of holding onto. He is self-aware, ending in his admitting that “when you call through the screen/ I pretend like I’m in that dream,” and “I forget that you’re miles away.”
Whenever I listen to The Bilinda Butchers, I find myself within and without in this exact manner, so viciously in tune with my own emotions that I detach from reality for a moment, in order to truly appreciate and continue to understand the images their music elicits; I miss everyone in my life all at once, I miss parts of myself, I miss who I used to be. Like Kepsky repeats in “Tulips,” “I feel it all around from a distant time.”
And while nostalgia for me might not be the same as nostalgia for you – and I truly hope it’s not, I hope it’s warm and fuzzy – I will always consider the ice water shock a gorgeous reminder of the capacity for emotion, of the human condition and all its intricacies.
ABOUT SPIRIT GOTH AND CASSETTE CLUB:
Spirit Goth is an excellent lo-fi pop label based in New York, representing stellar indie artists including Vansire, High Sunn, and Sports Coach. They began their subscription service Cassette Club back in January 2019, which features limited edition (and often exclusive) presses of lo-fi dream pop and bedroom pop albums and EPs every single month, shipping worldwide. Releases in the past have included Ruby Haunt’s Blue Hour, Frankie Cosmos’s Covers, as well as Rarities, a collection of beats and remixes from Vansire’s Josh Augustin.
If you join, you’ll get entry into one of the best clubs around, and, most importantly, the knowledge that you’ll be supporting amazing, hard-working indie artists as well as a wonderful indie record label.
You can visit Spirit Goth here, and get more info on Cassette Club here.