October 1st, 2019 – Seattle-based musician Tom Butcher has been making music his whole life, and neither his talent nor his passion show any signs of slowing down. His latest project ORQID is set to hit the ground running with its debut album titled Tenderness, out November 15th, 2019. Between planning the release of his new record gearing up for the synth-enthusiast event ‘Velocity Seattle’ at the Substation coming up on October 5th, Tom’s pretty busy – but we were lucky enough to get to talk to him about what it’s like to be a musician, an artist, and a member of the electronic music community in Seattle.
First off, tell us your name, pronouns, where you’re from, and a little bit about what you do!
Hi there! I’m Tom Butcher, and I use he/him. I grew up in Houston, Texas, which is where I got my start in music. I went through years of piano lessons and singing in school choir, but it was always electronic synthesizer tones that I really wanted to harness and use. I remember I was so excited to land my first job at Little Caesar’s at 15, because finally I could start saving to buy a real synthesizer! Fast forward through engineering college, I moved to Seattle, Washington to pursue a career with software, AI, and audio technology. Through the years I’ve released music on my own label and on other labels both solo as ORQID, Codebase, and X09 and also with acts like Heatsync, Induction, Dahliia, and Signal Corps. In late 2015 I founded a synthesizer store and community-focused business called Patchwerks with my good friend Cindy Reichel. We wanted to build a place that invested in the people who love electronic music and the instruments used to make them, whether they are professionals or just tinkerers. I’m proud of what we’ve been part of catalyzing here in Seattle; it’s extremely rewarding to see our community grow and flourish, and for people in it to learn about the instruments and each other. We’ve seen several people go from a place where they have interest but no knowledge to playing on stage in front of hundreds of people and releasing their own music. I was a successful technology industry leader, but the siren call of working in the studio, developing sounds and songs finally made me steer a different direction. Earlier in 2019 I made a break from the corporate world and am now focusing solely on my musical endeavors, including ORQID and Patchwerks.
What made you pursue music, particularly in the electronic genre? Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
When I was a young child, my dad used to play the piano with me on his lap. I remember even then wanting to be able to play piano like he could. Some of my earliest memories are that desire, and my musical knowledge began with me playing notes together and noticing how the combination of chords and their relationships made me feel. I always want music to make me feel something emotionally, and to me the progressions of chords and how melody can weave its way around them is endlessly fascinating to me. As far as electronics go, I also have an early memory riding in my family’s huge red Oldsmobile listening to the radio. I have no idea what songs I was hearing, but what I do remember is how raw and pure the synthesizer tones were. Those synth lines would cut through straight to my brain, and I had this burning desire to control them for myself. The same songs sometimes had vocoder or talk box in them, and to the 3 or 4 year old me that was the most amazing sound I had ever heard. That interest in those synthesizer tones led me to seek out synthesizer music, and every weekend my grandmother would take my brother and me to the mall. She’d hand us $10 each for us to buy whatever we wanted. Without fail, I spent my $10 on cassette tapes, and I knew at the time to go straight to the “electronic” section at Sound Warehouse. It was tiny! But that was actually a good thing, because it was easy for me to get familiar with the artist names and the album covers that are essentially canon at this point. I remember buying tapes from Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, New Order, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Erasure. When I bought Kraftwerk’s Electric Cafe, I popped it in the deck of my grandmother’s giant wood-sided station wagon, and we both started hearing it for the first time… “BOING… BOOM TSCHAK. BOING…” I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing, but my grandmom smiled and said, “hey, I like this!” She was super cool. I would also ride my bike up to Radio Shack in the summers, and you used to be able to buy lots of different kinds of electronic components there. My dad taught me a little about electronics and soldering, and I slowly built up a set of components I could use to build little sound circuits, like a metronome or a siren. One time I found this analog synth voice chip, which I took home and made all these weird alien noises with. This was about 5th grade I think. My parents thought I had a future in electrical engineering perhaps, and I was dreaming up ways to invent and build synthesizers of my own. I didn’t wind up going that way though, because it became possible to make music entirely on a computer with some synthesizers and a drum machine. That was my entire goal from then on: I need a computer that I can make music with, and I need some synthesizers that sound amazing! The rest is history.
Your project ORQID is releasing its debut album ‘Tenderness’ on November 15th! What should we expect from this record?
Yes, indeed! I am very proud of this record. It’s a project of love from start to finish and very personal for me. I also really wanted the physical manifestation of the album to be as beautiful as the music, so I spent months with my creative partners perfecting it. The music is a hybrid of pop and ambient, with two vocal tracks and four instrumental tracks. I’ve been listening to a lot of drone music as well as old 80’s R&B, like Evelyn Champagne King and Patrice Rushen. I think what came out as I was writing the songs is what would happen if Patrice had a looper pedal and a male singer, perhaps? I don’t claim to play anywhere near her level of skill, but through how much I love the music I’m hoping I can pay tribute at least in some way. The title track, “Tenderness” was inspired by how the world is changing and becoming more hostile in many ways – that, plus I had happened upon the Warp Records artist Kelela’s album Take Me Apart. Her work on that record with Arca’s production is stunning, and I love what they did in the single “Frontline.” There’s a little of that inspiration in “Tenderness”. On “Our Love,” the other vocal track, I had just watched a documentary about Stax Records, and of course writing the track (I co-wrote it with Matthew Bruno) production-wise it had to start with a chunky beat. The song is about longing for a love that has unraveled, and for that urgent longing I went to a looped tone that amplifies in urgency as the story unfolds. Add a little Minimoog bassline and some chords, and what came out is pop ambient with a little funk. The four instrumental tracks span from bubbly modular synthesizer experiments to washes of intensity, ebbing and flowing until the record ends. The vinyl came out looking amazing, too. The press used pink and periwinkle vinyl marbled together, which is gorgeous. It also means that no two pieces of vinyl are the same!
What was the writing process like for ‘Tenderness’? What was it like for you to watch these songs go from ideas to now a finished album?
Like many of my records, Tenderness is the result of writing about what I’m feeling and what I’m seeing around me and also paying tribute to some of the music I love. Relationships that fail are always good soul food to dine on when writing, and that was a source for some of the creativity for me. The title track “Tenderness” was the last one written, and when I finished that one I felt like it was strong enough to anchor an album. “Our Love” was related both in lyrical theme as well as sonically, so those two were the binary star I wanted to build the solar system around. “Melting Heart,” an intense instrumental track was probably the first of these written, and I had used some new synthesizer techniques on that one like the undulating drone chords which I went back to a lot for this period. You can hear that technique in all of the tracks, processed in different ways. That wash of synthesizer chords layered upon itself again and again reaches its climax at the end of the record with “Civilizations,” which production-wise is the most bare of all the songs. I recorded that song in one take as an improvisation, and to me the song is about how personal emotions and relationships when aggregated together with everyone else in the world and those who have ever lived become this vision of inevitability and of grandeur. As advanced as we are in this age, civilization is a mirage, and it’s entirely possible that it will all turn into dust. In making this record, I realized after the songs were complete how personal to me it is, and how much of me is in it. And now, it’s time for me to share it with the world! I’m excited for it to be out there.
Were there any challenges you faced while making this record?
When I was writing and recording, the major challenge I had was time. I had a demanding full-time job as well as a small business (Patchwerks), and on top of that I still had to make time for my music. I got really good at time management, but as a creative person, it’s difficult to have any juice left at the end of a hard day putting in 100%. I don’t typically have a hard time generating ideas, but on the other hand I find I can’t predict when the creative magic will bubble up. So I definitely spent several sessions in the studio looking at this mountain of equipment feeling overwhelmed. On the manufacturing side, I experimented with some new vendors and product packaging. For example, the jacket of the record has a gorgeous photograph (credit to Sean Curtis Patrick) and layered on top of that is “ORQID” in silver foil. Also, I mentioned previously the marbled vinyl which I had never used before either. I worked with my designer (Wes Pearson) to get every little detail right, but in the end neither of us had strong confidence on what the product would really look like. It was a total leap of faith. I’m happy to say that both the jacket and the record itself came out just how I imagined. But for each step along the way there are a myriad of problems that can arise which would delay the project and incur more expense. When I took delivery of the completed vinyl, the man operating the truck got the record boxes onto a pallet jack, pulled the crate to the end of the truck’s lift, and the whole lot nearly fell off the back of the truck. I just about had a heart attack, because that was after all this perfecting every little detail! The pallet jack was literally teetering off the side of the lift about to dump all my precious cargo… thankfully everything arrived just fine, and it looks and sounds amazing to me.
For you, what’s the most rewarding thing about what you do?
I’ll answer in two ways. First, I get no greater thrill in life than being enveloped in a song I love. When I find one, I will listen over and over and over again, sometimes for hours in one sitting. The way those songs make me feel bring me into another world, and I cherish that. So when I make music, I want to make myself feel that, and hopefully when I share my music it can touch others’ lives in some way. Second, I am a strong believer in investing in people and inspiring people. That’s a skill for which I’ve been rewarded well in the business world, and to a large degree that’s what Patchwerks is all about. To that end, I think some of the best ways to inspire people or to get them to think is through art and especially music. Music has the power to bring disparate people together, to unite and bond, and to foment real change against big problems that exist. I think for me making music is my best tool to shape the world and to combat other forces that look to divide and conquer us all.
Has there been a stand-out moment for you as an artist where you felt extremely proud, passionate, excited, or anything like that? Anything that made you think ‘yeah, this is worth it’?
Every time I finish a song, I listen to it basically on repeat, and I love the satisfaction of listening to how all the work came together. So every time I have to say I do feel that sense of satisfaction, and it will always be worth it for me to create, whether others hear my work or not. But one moment does stand out: I had made DIY records with my friends in the late 1990s, and we had some success with them. When I had my Codebase project in full swing, I decided instead of pressing records myself to shop the music around so I could partner with a more established label. And shopping demos to labels can be very demoralizing, just because of how many rejections you get. I learned later that you have to expect rejections, and not because the music is necessarily bad. Labels can have a full roster, or no money, or maybe they just want to go in a different direction than you’re proposing. Well, I had shopped my music around for the debut album to just about every label I could think of, except my #1 top label pick, which was Force Inc. Music Works. So I sent them an unsolicited demo. I remember the exact day I was reading my email and I opened up one from Jon Berry at Force Inc. saying they’d like to sign me! It felt like such a victory, and an unexpected one at that. I’ll admit to thrusting both fists in the air and letting go a hearty “YES!”
Apart from being a musician, you are also involved in Velocity Seattle every year! Can you tell us about that?
Velocity Seattle is coming up for its inaugural event October 5, 2019! Patchwerks is teaming up with our good friends at Modular Seattle to put on the biggest show for synthesizer people this city has ever seen. With Patchwerks, we had been hosting our own branded meetups in Seattle for a couple of years every quarter. Since the past couple of years our local community in Seattle has grown to include more musicians, more companies, more manufacturers, and more organizers we decided to join forces with Modular Seattle to really service that growth and to take our events to the next level. I’m involved, along with other core organizers Bradley Millington and Josh Lim of Modular Seattle as well as Cindy Reichel, my business partner at Patchwerks.
Where did the idea for Velocity Seattle come from, and what do you hope people get from the experience?
Seattle has long had a tradition of synthesizer meetups. Even before Patchwerks started doing them in early 2016, there was a group called the MMTA (Mostly Modular Trade Association) who were a bunch of like-minded builders. They’d host meetups at a local community college, and I just loved going to their events. They decided to discontinue their events, which left a void in the marketplace. Patchwerks wanted to carry that torch forward, which we did while we got our business up and running. At the same time, we’ve seen an exciting gravity attracting more and more people into getting involved. Over the past few years, we’ve had other very capable people start up their own ventures, such as Podular Modcast, Waveform Magazine, Bleeps + Loops, Recovery Effects, Monster Planet, LUSIO, and allotrope ijk. So Velocity Seattle is really about recognizing that we have the horsepower to elevate our events to meet the growing community and take it to the next level. As far as what we’d like people to get from the experience, all I’d say on a personal level is that I hope people are inspired. There’s something very DIY about this electronic music and modular music in particular, which harkens back to the Punk ethos. Anyone can learn how to connect some synthesizers together, and anyone can make some sounds with them. The old exclusionary models of rock stars being inaccessible and a few powerful entities controlling means of production and distribution of music are over. That means if you want to make some music and get people to listen to it, all you need are ideas and some technology to record and distribute it. And the technology has never been more plentiful or cheaper to get started. I also want people to meet other people and to get involved. I remember as a kid I wanted desperately to connect with other music people and synthesizer people. We’re doing this to satisfy that desire and stoke some new desire as well.
What’s the hardest part about helping to plan an event like this? What’s the best part?
From my point of view, the hardest part is just how many moving pieces there are involved. One particularly hard part for us was learning that our venue was not able to accept our strong desire to make the entire event all-ages accessible. That’s how we ran our Pattchwerks events, and we wanted to carry that forward with Velocity. Unfortunately, using a nightclub and bar as a venue brings certain liability concerns for all-ages, and we had to make part of the event 21+ only. That said, the trade show portion of Velocity is in fact all-ages, so we’re happy to be able to do that. And for me, the best part of helping host Velocity is just seeing it all come together. The organizing crew are some of the smartest, most capable people I know, and we also have lots of amazing volunteers. It’s truly a team effort, and seeing what a group of like-minded, driven people can do together is awe-inspiring.
When you’re not being a musician or helping to running Patchwerks?
I’ll have to think on that one! There’s not a lot of time for much else most days. But I will say I love to cook, to ski, and to read. Living in Seattle is sometimes a challenge just because there is so much natural beauty around. I live in an area that has some of the oldest-growth trees growing. Nature’s majesty here is pretty unreal, so the challenge is feeling like I have to soak in as much as I can. I’m not naturally outdoorsy, so sometimes I need to schedule time to unplug and go cycling or find some new magical spot in the mountains.
Do you have any other artistic projects in the works?
I do! I’m already working on the next ORQID record, but before that’s ready I am working on a series of ORQID shows that include not just the music but also an audio-visual component. I’m learning more about video synthesis and how to craft interesting visual messages to accompany the music. So stay tuned for more on that from me.
What’s the #1 reason why everyone should check out ORQID?
Let’s fill the world with love. Let’s harness music to inspire, to bring people together, and to change the things we don’t like. Let’s use music to help people learn empathy and that we’re all in this civilization together. Tenderness is my point of view on filling the world with love.
Any last words you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my story and music as well as Velocity!