Richmond's Butcher Brown Makes NPR Tiny Desk Concerts Debut
Last week, jazz band Butcher Brown made their NPR Tiny Desk debut. It was the latest breakthrough for the Richmond-based musicians after the coronavirus pandemic forced them to rethink their trajectory.
Known for their eclectic and futuristic fusion of ‘70s funk, jazz and hip-hop, Butcher Brown has been playing together for almost 10 years, touring nationally and releasing multiple albums. In March 2020, they were set for a second headlining European tour, followed by a residency in Japan.
The tour was a sign that they were on their way to an even bigger global audience. And then, the world stopped.
As the coronavirus pandemic began, countries tried to halt its spread with travel restrictions that put an end to touring.
With lockdowns in place, and live performances banned to prevent aerosol transmission of the virus, artists around the world struggled. And while some may have seen all this and thought Butcher Brown had no escape, the band saw it as an opportunity to redefine themselves.
“We were kind of chasing yesterday's model before the pandemic. We were very tour heavy and doing very traditional band stuff,” said Marcus Tenney, a reeds/brass player and MC also known as Tennishu. “But the pandemic forced us to do more of our stuff, which is what anybody wants to see. They want to see who we are. They don't want to see us do what somebody did yesterday.”
For Tenney, whose wife is a nurse practitioner, the pandemic caused him to briefly question the relevance of his work.
“You see what type of craziness they’re going through, [doctors and nurses are] literally at war right now,” he said. “I started looking at my instruments and my music and being like, ‘Yo, this music really doing something for somebody?’”
When the pandemic first started shutting down venues and forcing everyone into quarantine, guitarist Morgan Burrs was getting most of his inspiration from touring and meeting new fans. He felt his creative process would be negatively affected.
“For me, at the start of it, it was definitely bizarre because none of that stuff was there,” he said. “So I was like ‘Dang, I ain't really trying to play guitar right now.’”
But getting back into the studio with the band and making new music quickly put any worries of burnout or complacency to rest, especially because of the impending release of their new album, “#KingButch,” in September 2020.
To keep up with and produce a steady stream of content for their fans, the band started a weekly video series called “Mothership Mondays” in which they post covers of songs like “All I Do Is Think of You” by the Jackson 5, but with sound, style and creativity authentic to the music and spirit of Butcher Brown.
“We started just making and dropping those every week, all in house and between that and the studio time we were doing that's sort of where I started to get a lot of my inspiration from,” Burrs said. “For the rest of us, it kind of gave us something on the schedule every week and kind of kept us busy with doing stuff.”
Being out of his comfort zone and forced to think creatively pushed him to take risks and try new ideas.
“It sucks not being able to play shows, but I think there's definitely something that comes out with being thrown into the fire, which is kind of like what every every musician kind of had to deal with,” Burrs said.
Andrew Randazzo, a bassist and one of three founding members, agreed. Sitting the pandemic out and not making music wasn’t an option.
“We’re not the kind of group that would have been able to just like sit on our palms through all this, you know what I mean,” Randazzo said. “I thrive on productivity, as do all of us, so I think I would’ve lost my mind if we were like ‘Well guess we can’t do any shows.’ We had to do something.”
DJ Harrison, keys, producer, and engineer, founded the band with Randazzo and drummer Corey Fonville in 2012, with Tenney and Burrs joining later.
Although they can’t hold in-person shows, the five musicians have continued live stream performances. Tenney said they’ve had to think about how to keep their momentum going.
“It put us in a mind frame where we're literally gonna open the box on all the mechanisms that we use to make Butcher Brown happen,” Tenney said.
One of the ways they’ve increased their profile was their Tiny Desk debut, although the pandemic impacted that, too. Instead of performing on the famed Tiny Desk Concert stage in Washington, D.C., they recorded in the town where their adventure started.
“Even though it materialized in a different way because it's an at home Tiny Desk, it definitely still means a lot,” Burrs said. “It's just it is dope to have made it happen and dope to like, you know, kind of do it with this squad of people.”
They recorded their performance at The Hof Garden, a restaurant in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition neighborhood where, prior to the 2020 shutdown, bands would play on a rooftop overlooking the city.
Over the past 10 years, the band says the local music scene has come a long way.
“I remember being in Richmond where opportunities like that didn't come,” Tenney said. “They would ask you if you were from New York, and if you said no, they wouldn't email you back. Especially for jazz music. And so I feel like not only Butcher Brown has been trying to get on this for a while, but also I feel like Richmond has been trying to get on this as well.”
Tenney moved to Richmond with his family when he was eight years old. And now as an adult with a full fledged career in the music industry, he looks back fondly on the journey, and says they owe the city a lot.
“We couldn't do this in any other city,” he said. “It’s like a whole movement type thing where it's like we're gonna play this music, but the music is an effort to bring attention to the city that let us make all this news. So it's a deep connection going on between Richmond and Butcher Brown.”
While the future of the industry remains murky, Butcher Brown plans on releasing more music throughout the year and touring their album as soon as they can. They also plan on starting Mothership Mondays again soon after a recent hiatus.
As COVID-19 restrictions have eased, Butcher Brown has resumed local live performances. They say it’s a good opportunity for local fans to connect before they can go back to touring.
“What we're working on right now is figuring out what post-COVID scene is going to be for us,” Randazzo said. “Again, we released a record during the pandemic so we’re gonna tour that.”
Randazzo and the band wants fans to know that no matter where they are, there’s a lot to look forward to in the coming months.
Right now, that includes a June 25 performance during “Friday Cheers,” Richmond’s longest running summer concert series. And more yet to come.
“You’re definitely going to be seeing a lot of us in 2021, going even further into ‘22 and ‘23 and beyond,” Randazzo said. “It's about to be open season on all y'all.”