Haley Butters of Absinthe Father has been running DIY spaces since they were 16. “It was really time consuming,” they admit, “and probably not the smartest thing for me to be doing at sixteen, but it really shaped me as a person.” Now, Butters continues to be invested in the transformative possibilities of DIY spaces. “I’m trying to make sure that people don’t go down the path I went down when I was a kid,” they say, “but [that they] still have access to music.”
Butters is about as multi-disciplinary as it gets, though they’re reticent about their own talents. They’re thoughtful, funny, and clearly well versed in both accessibility strategies and music making. “A habit I have,” they explain, is that “I think about what I want to say, and then I go through every single possible way it could be interpreted, and I try to make sure it comes across as clearly and as intentionally as possible.” They’re scrappy, too–when they tell me about their production process, I’m surprised to learn how much of their DIY music they truly do themselves. And as we talk in a Columbus café, the snow mellowing into slush outside the windows, I’m happy to settle into a conversation which expands beyond their own musical output to include questions we both have about ethics and intentionality, and what it takes to make a safe space safer.
2018 is off to a good start for Butters. Along with their January 1st release, SP/IT – a split EP between Absinthe Father and Ness Lake, the band for which Butters plays bass – they started recording a new six-song EP, played shows in both Pittsburgh and Yellow Springs, and, after advocating for a friend abused by Ian Graham of Cheap Girls, got blocked by Jeff Rosenstock on Twitter (Haley and their friend have attempted, since last summer, to have Rosenstock withdraw his support of Cheap Girls; he released the now-defunct band’s first two LPs via his Quote Unquote imprint before accusations came to light but has not made a statement on his relationship to them in the aftermath of the accusations against Graham). “It was sick,” they tell me. “Two days into 2018 – blocked!”
On SP/IT, Butters’ work as Absinthe Father is dreamy and expansive; their voice sinking into guitar sounds which vary from airy to biting, inviting to cosmic. But when I ask Butters how they achieved the mix on the EP, they laugh. “This is gonna reveal all my trade secrets,” they tell me. “I open garage band, put it like ten yards away from me, press record, run to my bed, and I just play straight through.”
In truth, this is an over-simplified version of Butters’ method, which is more purposeful than they initially admit. Though they don’t put their music through post-production, Butters curates their sound with guitar pedals, in addition to manipulating sound and tone with distance and volume. On the split, they opted for three different recording techniques, highlighting, they tell me, that “you can make music, record music, and be successful (whatever that means) no matter what level you’re at, [and] no matter what equipment you’re using.”
“Absence,” the first song on the EP, was recorded with the method described above. For the second track (“a little nervous energy is perfectly normal and nothing to freak out about haley”) however, Butters changed their approach. “I have a little i-rig, which is a quarter-inch adapter,” they explain, “and then a little dongle that [I] put in [my] iPhone. So I played the guitar through that into garage band, and then I played that recording out loud and sang [live] to record my vocals.” Lastly, “Marco’s Song,” a Ness Lake cover, was recorded professionally at Daily Grind in Columbus. But, says Butters, the EP “shows you don’t have to make the fancy equipment, because I like ‘Absence’ more than anything, and it’s the least done-up one.”
When Butters talks about the split EP, it’s clear how much they admire their peers in Ness Lake. “[Chandler and I] push each other a lot to create things every day. I’ll give him a challenge – like, write a song about your cat,” Butters laughs. They continue: “He doesn’t actually have a cat. He has like, a tarantula. It’s named Rodeo.” And Butters’ support of their peers expands beyond the tarantula, and beyond their friends in Ness Lake: they gush about their roommates in Columbus duo Queer Kevin, and when I ask about bands they’re excited about, they nearly squeal. “Oh god,” they tell me, “this is where I can go off.”
This investment is a testament not only to the way Butters approaches collaboration, but to their position in the music community as a whole. These days, they balance recording, touring, and managing with running Middle Earth, one of Columbus’ only all ages spaces. “I’m super into getting queer youth involved in scenes really early, because we don’t make things very accessible to people who are younger,” they tell me. But still, they say, “I wish I could do more. I’m not doing as much as I can, especially when it comes to people of color – in our scene, they’re virtually non-existent. To be the only one – and I pass as white – that’s not enough.”
In Columbus, Butters has seen a lack of attention to safety within music spaces. At the last hardcore show they went to, they tell me, they were kicked in the head and projectile vomited. Nobody came to help. To them, that level of carelessness is unacceptable. “When it comes to the way I run my space,” they say, “I want to make sure that the first thing I say is: ‘Hey, my name is Haley. I use they/them pronouns – come introduce yourself to me.’ That way people know they can feel comfortable talking to me.” If guests can’t donate money for artists, Butters gets them involved by putting them to work: telling people where the bathroom is, checking in to make sure that everyone feels safe, or completing smaller jobs, like recycling – all of the “little teeny things that people don’t think about,” they say. Butters has other tricks to make their shows more accessible too: providing time between sets for the audience to go outside and take a break, and handing out ear plugs. “I know it used to be punk to not wear earplugs,” they say, but “2018: it’s the year of the earplug.”
Butters also has strategies for intercepting “rambunctious” guests. “You can’t let that slide out of fear from [that person] lashing out,” they say. “You just have to nip it in the bud and make sure that everyone around them is ok – but also, that that person is ok.” They continue, laughing: “Assholes are still people.”
Despite this attention to detail, Butters is aware that not everybody feels comfortable at DIY shows. “I can do my best to put together a diverse bill,” they say, “and still, there will be almost all white people there. Inclusion is only half of the problem. I think that finding out why POC don’t feel safe, [and] what we can do to improve – [things] like that that people don’t think about.”
“We all just need to do better,” Butters tells me. “I don’t know the answers. I know the problems, but I don’t know the solutions. I wish I did.” One way Butters is striving to do better is by joining friends in organizing a nationwide group of non-men interested in developing better ways to curate safe and accessible spaces. “We’re saying do-it-together, instead of do-it-yourself,” they say. Another is by continuing to book bands that might not be highlighted in other settings: groups made up of trans and queer folks, POC, and people harmed by misogyny. Still, Butters notes, they can’t do it all alone. They know that often, a band will choose to book with other promoters – even if they know about Butters’ work.
“I understand, completely, wanting to make money,” they tell me. “I think that musicians should be paid. I understand wanting to have a good turn-out, and a good show.” But, they continue, “assuming that a white dude is going to curate that better than a non-man is not only fucked up, it’s wrong. If you are an artist, and you give [a] white dude your resources – your social capital, your time, and the opportunity to curate a bill, and book a space, and learn those skills – they just move up.” Butters sighs. “It’s so incredibly performative,” they say. “Everyone wants to support non-men. Everyone wants to support people of color… until it’s time to actually do it.”
While DIY scenes can be a refuge, especially for youth who may have little access to community spaces or familial stability, they aren’t exempt from the structures of power which dictate access and wealth within the United States. Abuse often runs rampant, and in a space where so many hold identities oppressed by the state, naming that abuse can be tricky. “Nobody wants to face backlash,” Butters notes. “Nobody wants to be the person who called out this big artist [with] a lot of social capital. Nobody wants to go through that, and get dragged on twitter […] but everyone’s thinking it. So why do we continue to support it? Why do we continue to let it happen?”
Precarious social and financial positions only add to the fear of being dragged. And, Butters points out, folks don’t want to feel “demonized” for confronting members of their own community – especially if those members aren’t cis-het white men. “In the DIY sphere, when somebody is called out, they’ll use language, or their friends will, to protect them and make it seem like they’re super woke.” And when people don’t take responsibility for harm caused, it’s the survivors of that harm that suffer. “People can be shitty,” Butters says. “Queer people can be shitty, women can be shitty, non-binary people can be shitty, people of color can be shitty… and it’s up to us to hold them to a standard.”
Alongside their continued push for accessible spaces in Columbus, in the coming year Butters looks forward to making more music. Frankly, they tell me, it helps them stay alive. “There are certain feelings, and emotions, and words that I don’t know how to accurately say, and sometimes you can’t say things,” they explain. “I don’t want to make another person feel bad. And if I can put those feelings and words and thoughts into a song […] I have more creative control to make sure that what I’m trying to say is conveyed accurately.” And Butters wants everyone in their life to know that they, too, can pick up an instrument.
“Anyone can make music,” they insist. “You don’t have to be rock god, finger tapping on a telecaster with a capo…you can do anything and somebody out there will enjoy it.”