[AMERICANA GOTHIC] At the Builders and the Butchers' CD release party earlier this month, the band walked out of Valentine's in the middle of its last song—and most of the audience followed. Around the corner at Voodoo Doughnut, the assembled crowd sang, "Find me, oh find me/ In the air, Lord, in the air," to the late-night doughnut slingers and their patrons. Then it was back to Valentine's for a couple more rounds of the gospel number's chorus—a finish that left everyone feeling like they'd played a part in the good time.
Though the band describes itself as a blues and gospel ensemble, its music comes off more like rock 'n' roll invented during the Great Depression: The Builders' shows are more like revivals than concerts, with audience members clapping, stomping, playing band-distributed tambourines, washboards and Little Tikes tom-toms and, of course, singing along. "I like songs that smack you in the face with the chorus [like] a big baseball bat," says frontman Ryan Sollee. Not surprisingly, Sollee's also the one running around at shows with an old bullhorn.
And the five-piece's slew of instruments doesn't end there: Acoustic bass, mandolin, banjo, organ, trumpet, Sollee's acoustic guitar and two drummers (each focused on a single drum) are joined by occasional accordion and violin—not to mention the instruments in the hands of the audience. "One of my big weaknesses is going in a thrift shop and, any musical instrument that's under $5, I just buy it," Sollee says. "My girlfriend hates it."
All this hoopla wasn't necessarily intended, however. Sollee and former Builder Adrienne Hatkin (of local indie-folk outfit Autopilot) were starting a "funeral music" band, and Sollee started writing songs with a call-and-response core about dead relatives, coal mines and the creepiest bodies of water, lakes. When he played the songs for some fellow Anchorage music-scene transplants, they picked up whatever instruments were around and joined in, and a devoutly acoustic band was born.
But the Builders' initial never-plug-in philosophy has been compromised, as larger crowds have forced the band to amp up and move from the middle of the crowd to the stage. But it's a transition the band's happenstance founding seems to facilitate. In fact, the trademarks of the Builders' stage show—arming the crowd with instruments or taking their last song off down the street—are mostly things the band tried merely as one-time experiments. "I just want to see who we can get to follow us," explains Sollee. By describing the genesis of the Builders' off-kilter finales, Sollee has inadvertently summed up his whole band.