Late night television has undergone a slow evolution, but what it’s achieved in the past five years in terms of revitalizing itself for a younger audience has been revolutionary. With all due respect to Conan O’Brien’s years as the underdogger for the college crowd, it was with Jimmy Fallon’s rise as his Late Night successor that ushered in a new era, most particularly with his in house band, the Roots. Pre-established and culturally relevant, it was an unprecedented move that seemed crazy at the time, and absolutely genius now.
When Seth Meyers took over the Late Night job last year, Fred Armisen took the gig as show bandleader and quickly assembled a group that broke even more ground – the 8G BAND, which consisted entirely of indie rock veterans. One of the first people called up was Frenchkiss head honcho and Les Savy Fav bassist, Syd Butler. It was a whirlwind hiring process which found Butler dropped into position quicker than he had time to even process it. Now a year in, he’s happier than he’s ever been and part of one of the most unique late night groups in television history.
We caught up recently with Syd on the phone and discussed the ins-and-outs of the band, how he got there, as well as touching on the overcomplicating of being in a band in 2015.
NT: Tell me how you got started in the 8G Band?
SB: It happened very quickly. I was in Los Angeles, and I got a call from Fred Armisen, and it was basically like, “Who should we get to be in the new Late Show with Seth Myers band?” And I was thinking the only reason he was even asking me at the time was because of my connections at Frenchkiss. I threw out my bandmate Seth DeBoer’s name, into the group pool, and he said, “Alright, that’s a great idea,” and then we hung up. Then I got a call a couple days later, from one of the show’s producers, and he was like, “Great, we’ll see you on Tuesday.” And I was like, “First of all, I have a job. I run a company called Frenchkiss, and I live in Los Angeles.” And he was like, “I don’t care. I’ll see you on Tuesday.” So after multiple conversations with my wife and peers, I flew a plane in to New York and on Tuesday, [and] we worked on the opening theme and the closing theme. On Wednesday, we had drum rehearsals. Thursday we had more rehearsals, and on Friday we picked the drummer, and the following week, we had our first test show. I hadn’t met Seth Myers, I hadn’t met the music produce. And then Seth Myers came out and we did our first test show, and he was like, “I like these guys,” and then they took a picture of us and released it. So from the time I went from 30 Rock to my house, when I got out of the subway, it was mental. I had 30 messages on my phone. People were furious that I didn’t tell them about it or bring them in to the band. And other people were like “Oh my god, this is amazing.” But yeah, some of those people haven’t even talked to me since. It was pretty defining. People were like, “Why’d they pick you?!”
NT: I remember the lead-in being very quick. The band was announced and it felt like the show was premiering just a week later.
SB: Yeah, I think everyone had an idea of how they wanted the show to go before I was involved. How I remember, someone from the higher-ups was like, “Lets not do it like The Charlie Rose Show. Let’s get a band. We need music, and we need something that Seth can relate to. And at one point they kicked around having a DJ. Everything is hyper considered and I think Fred was like, “Why don’t we get a cool indie band.” It really happened in a three-day period. It’s been a year now, but I feel like we now get it.
NT: Well one thing that’s pretty interesting is that it never seemed like a realistic idea – to me at least. When the announcement came that the band would feature Fred, you, Seth DeBoer, and later Marnie Stern for instance – I remember thinking, “How are they going to do this? All of these people are so busy with other things.” You’ve made that work though since there’s been a lot of substitute members going in and out. Can you tell me about the scheduling of the players and how that works?
SB: I think I’m the only one who has played every show, which is really funny. I’m really kind of glad you asked me about this stuff – my mother was watching the show, and she asked, “Who actually is in the 8G Band? …Is it just you?” [Laughs] And I think for a while they’ve just been trying to figure it out. They needed Fred, and then when Fred left [to film Portlandia], they were like “Well, who are we going to get in to get interest going?” And then Seth [DeBoer], his wife delivered twin boys, so he left for a couple weeks on paternity leave, and then Kim [Thompson] the drummer went on tour with her band. And then Eli [Janney], I think he’s missed one day due to a personal matter. The show is very supportive of like, “Hey, I’m gonna go do this other thing.” And it’s like, “See you next week.”
NT: That’s what’s so cool about it. It has a loose structure.
SB: I overheard Fred say this one time, and I’m paraphrasing, but…the Roots are a band. They existed before they got the job on The Tonight Show. So Fred wanted to sort of promote the indie rock genre. In our dressing room, we have [a list] of all the people who have played with us, like Eleanor [Friedberger], J. Mascis. He is sort of promoting the idea of this community, this collective of people existing today who have toured their asses off, and get it. And it’s totally fun. Like the Roots are on Jimmy Fallon, and they go on tour, but they’re the Roots. And what we’re promoting when the band gets together, we’re promoting the idea of this amazing community that has lasted for [over] 20 years.
NT: Who runs the band when Fred is away?
SB: There [are] many producers on the show, and there’s a music one. Eric Leiderman – he’s in charge of us. Obviously, he has a lot of other things to work on. But one of his duties is to make sure that we fill our time and all that kind of stuff. So Fred and Eric are in charge of the band and the direction, and sound and all those things. When Fred is gone, it’s me and Eli, I would guess. Eli is sort of the older, wiser one, and his producing roots really help in this situation because we have to write the songs for the day in a short period of time. The songs really aren’t repeated, so we go to work at about noon and we’re done at about 2:30. A year ago, we’d spend about 6 hours working on the songs for the day. And now we can bang it out in 2-and-a-half hours.
NT: So there are no covers?
SB: 99% are all originals. Sometimes when people come on the show, like Eleanor, we’ll do one of her songs because it’s cleared with her publishing, but if there’s no celebrity or other rocker playing with us, then we have to play original songs for that day.
NT: How did Eleanor become a frequent player?
SB: She’s our go-to sub. Everyone in the band loves her. Whenever we’re like “Who should we get?” for a week, she would always be at the top. Seth and I had worked with her on a lot of side projects.
NT: In other news with you, what is going on with Les Savy Fav?
SB: Well the Fav – we’re basically doing our hiatus-y thing right now. We started working on an EP. The demoes are actually all done, and they’re sitting on a shelf. We just have to find time to go into a studio and record those properly. But right now as I got this job, Seth has been at the show. And then Tim [Harrington] has been doing these kids books, And Harrison [Haynes] is in North Carolina with his family. Les Savy Fav has such a weird idea from day one [laughs]. And it’s been really amazing and amazing and amazing, and frustrating and frustrating and frustrating. We’ve never wanted to be this Rock Band…we always cared about playing music for each other. And it pissed off a lot of people and there were times where we could have been more of a “band,” and then there were times where we were really grateful that we weren’t. I sometimes see these bands come on the show and they have these big entourages and they have all this stuff. And they complain like, “Oh, it’s so expensive and we’re so in debt.” And it’s like, you’re doing this wrong.
NT: Yeah I mean, it seems to be this trend now of bands kind of losing site of how econo you can be doing things.
SB: Yeah, I can give you an example: There was this band, the Districts that were on the show last night. They came on the show, they brought their one instrument, and they played their stuff, and they were amazing. I was really impressed. Then you have other bands who come on and they’ve got like eight guitars. And for the band, you’re waiting six hours, because you’re waiting for sound check, you’re waiting for lighting. Like why did you have your guitar tech to the show? I mean you’re not up there doing interviews. It’s like bring your guitar, plug it in, turn it on, play your song. Some bands come with all their gear and it’s like, why are you going to do that?
NT: How has Frenchkiss been since you joined the 8G Band?
SB: We did a merge with the Orchard, our distributor which made my life that much easier. Now we have a team of people that are really focused. It’s actually better because now I have a bigger network of people that I can boss around. And before it was me and Paul [Hanly] and just an intern. But now we have a whole team of people. Now that Frenchkiss has been incorporated into the Orchard, the staff is about 250 people. I have a small team there of like eight. It’s good because Paul can delegate responsibility rather than taking it all on himself. For years I was just like, “Okay Paul, I’m going to go on tour. Take care of this, bye!” But now he knows exactly where I am. I work at 30 Rock from 12 to 2. I then log on the computer and work from 2 to 5 at an office in 30 Rock, then I do rehearsal, and then the show. So the only thing this job has prevented me from doing is having really long lunches with lawyers. Which is one of the things I hated the most about running a record label.
NT: Oh wow, it’s amazing how everything just seemed to fall into place and the two worlds can co-exist.
SB: Every day I have to pinch myself – I am literally one of the luckiest people I have ever met. I look around and am like, “I can’t believe my life.” The 8G Band. It’s been amazing to be a part of it as a musician. It’s like someone giving you a Rubick’s Cube and gives you every day a new puzzle. If you were to [tell] me a year ago, that I would be writing 8 original pieces of music a day and playing them on television, I would have thought you were on crack cocaine. So to be able to go to work, write songs with – I mean I’ve known Eli Janney since I was 14 years old. I’ve known Seth Deboer since he was 18, and I’ve know Friend for 15 years. To be working every day with friends who understand my vernacular so well – it’s just an amazing gift.
Interview by Doug Bleggi