What do sailors and Southern gothic folk bands have in common? According to the Builders and the Butchers' singer-guitarist, Ryan Sollee, more than it might seem. His group titled its new album Dead Reckoning, after an old nautical term referring to the practice of using speed, time and a fixed position to determine a ship's location. In essence, it means looking back at where you've come from to figure out where you're heading. After five years, three records and a lot of localized success, the Portland five-piece is in the midst of that sort of reflection. What started out as a bunch of guys busking on street corners has grown into a touring juggernaut capable of packing clubs and theaters. It all happened so fast, it'd be easy for any band to lose sight of itself.
It's no wonder, then, that Sollee has spent a lot of time recently brushing up on navigation techniques. And from his perspective, facing down the road is a challenge not wholly dissimilar from that of taking on the open sea.
"Over the last couple of years, I've been reading every book there is about survival at sea," he says via telephone from a tour stop in Memphis. "There are all these instances where a person made it because they knew about dead reckoning, which is an easy way to know where you are and to navigate your way across the ocean. I related it to being in a band, not knowing where you're going and trying to find your way."
True to its title, Dead Reckoning is the result of the Butchers reaching backward in order to chart their next move. Their last album, 2009's Salvation Is a Deep Dark Well, received stellar reviews and brought the band's gallows Americana to a wider national audience, but it was largely a studio creation, put together piece by piece and meticulously layered. As proud as he is of the record, Sollee admits the group found it difficult to translate to the stage, where its caterwauling performances helped it win Willamette Week's Best New Band poll in 2008. So for the follow-up, the band decided to return to the method it took when making its 2007 debut: all live, with few overdubs. Back then, the quintet simply couldn't afford to record any other way, but it captured the foot-stomping immediacy of an act whose earliest gigs involved pulling up to a tiny venue like Mississippi Pizza, playing with little amplification and turning the place into a sweat lodge.
"We wanted to do a stripped-down version of what the band really is," Sollee says. "There are some mistakes, but it's worth it to have that vibe."
If the goal was to bottle the tent-revival energy of a Builders and the Butchers live show in the studio, then Dead Reckoning certainly qualifies as a success. Opening with the uneasy roil of "I Broke the Vein," it's a vivid tumble through the dark, swampy backwoods of an antiquated America where evil always seems to triumph over good. "Black Elevator" recalls the hellish country stomp of first album standout "Bottom of the Lake," with references to fire and brimstone and a bellman sporting a tail and legs made of wood, and the strutting shout-along "Rotten to the Core" describes a world collapsing beneath its own wickedness. Other than pauses for the slow, eerie blues of "Out of the Mountain" and the brief "Blood for You," which isolates Sollee's distressed wail against the clattering junk-shop percussion of drummers Brandon Hafer and Ray Rude, the album is the soundtrack to a party that won't end until the earth stops spinning.
As much as the band looked to its past in creating the record, to promote it the group is going back even further, all the way to its ground zero: the streets of Portland. On Feb. 25, the quintet will spend the day busking outside the local businesses that supported it in the group's formative days. It's a reminder that five years ago, the Butchers didn't necessarily plan to be three albums into a promising career. And as Sollee admits, they're still learning how everything works.
"We don't know much," he says. "It takes making mistakes and going through it to figure it out."
: The Builders and the Butchers play Tuesday, Feb. 15, at Wonder Ballroom. 9 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.