Trans: the anti rock stars see Red with their new EP

Bernard Butler of Suede fame and the Yummy Fur's Jackie McKeown on guitar improv, the trouble with indie rock and avoiding the spotlight

Here's what drew Bernard Butler back to playing in a band. A game of football that resulted in a broken leg. Or perhaps his decision to buy a Fender Stratocaster. Or watching music documentaries on BBC4. Or being fed up of producing artists "who'll literally be saying: 'I've found this bit of Elvis and I'll stick it together with this bit of Roy Orbison, and we'll nick this bit of that.' Fucking hell, I'd rather be in Tesco." Or getting a text from Jackie McKeown, his partner in Trans.

Or all of the above.

Trans sees Butler, one of British music's great guitar heroes of the past 20 years, return to his instrument in a band, with Butler playing in one channel, McKeown in the other. Behind them, recorded in a separate room at Butler's studio in north London, is a rhythm section. It's all improvised, recorded at length, then edited down – hard edits, with big chunks of music lifted and placed next to each other, with minimal overdubs – into manageable chunks, the first four of which have been released as the Red EP on Rough Trade. You might call it droney, or psychedelic, or improvisatory, but Butler and McKeown spend as much time defining what Trans isn't as what it is. Both say the band is about guitar playing: "It was weird that there weren't a lot of people just playing guitar," McKeown says. "People in the studio were cutting up guitars and making them go backwards in terms of the effects, or they were doing indie rock. Nobody seemed to just play guitar. If you watch those BBC4 things, there are guys playing guitars. Actually playing them, using them for what they're for. We wanted to get back to a bit of that."

Ah, BBC4. Back to the Trans founding myth. McKeown's version is the more mundane: the two of them would watch music programmes and text each other about them. One evening, Butler sent McKeown a text that said: "I'm bored. Let's form a band." The band didn't come together for another year, after Butler broke his leg playing football.

At which point we arrive at Butler's version, which is a bit more unusual: "I broke my leg and bought a Strat in the same week," says Butler. "I'd never played a Strat before in my life. Laid on the sofa, cancelled everything I did and within two days … I realised everything I did was rubbish and I hated it. I cancelled everything I was doing with other people and decided I was just going to learn to play a Strat. In guitar terms, that's a big thing, because it's quite an unfashionable guitar." Apparently, Johnny Marr suggested to Butler he must have been having a midlife crisis to want a Strat.

OK, but "in guitar terms", how is playing one instrument different to playing another? Very, it turns out, and in ways people who do not think much about guitars would guess. "It's very different for me," says Butler. "It's got a lot less sustain and you've got to be very precise. But guitars are all about the way they look and what they represent. Who played it before you? Who else had one? If you're any good at guitar, that's the way you look at it. You match your clothes with your guitar, and your shoes and your haircut."

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Trans could hardly be more low-key. Butler was a rock star with Suede, and might now have an inclination to avoid the spotlight. (I am warned before our interview that he will not, under any circumstances, talk about Suede.) McKeown, formerly of Glaswegian indie types the Yummy Fur and the 1990s, has never been famous, but seems just as willing to stay under the radar. When they decided to release their music on Rough Trade, their list of things they didn't want the label to do boiled down to: please don't tell anyone we're making music. "When I read about things, if it's shoved down my throat, I think 'Oh that's uncool,' straight away," Butler says, explaining the extreme lowness of the Trans profile. "I think it's cool that lots of people have been finding out about this quite subtly and not knowing who we are," Butler says. "It's not just about our names. People don't know who's playing guitar or who's doing what."

The pair say there will be none of the normal hoopla associated with being in a band: no albums, just a series of EPs from the 30 hours of music they have recorded together; no big tours, not least because Butler doesn't want to have to miss Arsenal home games because he's on the road; no attempts to write anthems. "I'm not interested in anyone's opinion, really," he says. "I don't want to be put off. I don't want to be frozen to the spot, thinking: is this going to work? It might look different if we'd booked the O2 and started buying cars and signed to Polydor and gone all-out on a press campaign. But we're not doing that."

"To me," McKeown says, turning to Butler, "it's very similar to you playing football on a Thursday night. It's just a thing we do. It's just playing guitar and it's always different. When we finally stand up here and nobody makes any sounds, well, maybe let's call it a day."

"There's no marketing agenda," Butler insists. "I'm really uncomfortable with how much over-information there is with all art forms at the moment, but particularly music. It reduces everything to being really bland and really un-special."

Sitting in the room at Butler's studio where Trans came to life, the two of them make a contrasting pair. Butler, slim as a teenager despite being in his 40s, looks every inch the successful musician, expensively but casually coiffured and dressed. McKeown looks every inch the unsuccessful musician, scruffy and unkempt, and uncannily like Steve Lamacq. Their personalities are also different. Where McKeown jokes and teases, Butler is more circumspect and guarded, and I feel I have to prove I'm not trying to trap him. (After he talks about not wanting Trans to be defined by who's in it, I ask if he's uncomfortable that everybody who writes about them will use the phrase "Bernard Butler's new band". "I'm not that ashamed to be me," he replies, as if I'd suggested he should be embarrassed).

There'll be no tours, perhaps, but there have been gigs. The first, unadvertised, was in the Macbeth pub in east London to an audience McKeown describes as "mad drunk Essex girls on a hen night. And they danced! So you can play 10-minute krautrock trip-out things." The next, just before we meet, was at the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia. And it was not such an edifying experience. "We were thinking everyone was going to be taking loads of drugs – well, not us – and it would be great," Butler says. "But actually it was basically shoegazing, which is why I started in the first place, to get rid of that. There was an awful lot of shit student music, as far as I could hear."

Being critical seems to be a default position for Butler. He mourns the lack of great musicians working today, suggesting we live in a world where "everyone has learned to play every instrument quite averagely". He speaks of artists who come to record with him "who are 20 years younger than me and talk like accountants". But the main target of his criticism is often himself. He says he's done too many things that haven't stood out, and noted that his dissatisfaction with his own work is frequent and intense. He says, perhaps joking, that he'd intended to retire this past Christmas until Geoff Travis of Rough Trade suggested he listen to In a Silent Way by Miles Davis. "I spent a month listening to it, and it's a really important record for me. It's the spirit, the way of editing things and the freedom of making music. These guys are doing what the fuck they want, and we can do that!"

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If the Red EP is the result of Trans doing what they want, then all the better. They're right that the record is a celebration of guitars, though you'd be hard pressed to find a riff or an outrageous solo. Red is more about their guitars, usually in turn but sometimes together, interjecting: splurges of playing over the rhythmic foundations, with snatches of vocals from the two of them. It's dynamic and tense, perhaps because it captures a one-off moment rather than endless sessions. It manages more hits than misses, and there are moments when the musicians' excitement almost leaps from the speakers.

But when you're a middle-aged man, there's more to making music than excitement: there's dignity. "I still want to play guitar," McKeown says, "but I don't know if I want to jump about going 'ba-ba-ba'. So where's a respectable place for somebody in their early 40s? Guitar improv. There's no age limit on that."

"I see things aesthetically," says Butler, "and I like them done in a dignified way. I'm a 42-year-old man. My kids will be reading your article. I don't want to look like a total cock, dad down the disco trying to get on tour again. I'd be embarrassing my son's mates. They'd rip him apart for it."

The Red EP is out now on Rough Trade.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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