Syd Butler likes to call himself a “self-taught musician.” But as part of the 8G Band—the nimble, indie-rock-leaning house band for NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers—Butler says that he gets to go to music school every day. “We write between eight and 12 original pieces of music for each show, and we have two and a half hours to do it,” he explains. “Every day it’s something new. If that doesn’t force your musical muscles to develop quickly, I don’t know what will.”
Along with keyboardist Eli Janney, guitarists Seth Jabour and Marnie Stern, and drummer–bandleader Fred Armisen, Butler gets a chance to celebrate his musical roots night after night on a national stage. “NBC lets us alone, and I think that benefits them and us,” laughs Butler, who had previously gained renown in the post-hardcore group Les Savy Fav. “I think NBC’s attitude is, ‘If the band does its job well and isn’t too obnoxious, it’s all good.’ So we play what we want, but we also take pride in our musicianship and songcraft. We kind of float in this nebulous world of not taking attention away from the show, but we also bring attention to ourselves when the moment is ripe.”
Armisen’s busy acting career frequently takes him away from the show, and for a time, Kimberly Thompson assumed the 8G drummer’s throne. When she left, the band began inviting guest drummers to sit in. The notable names include Chad Smith, Patrick Carney, Kenny Aronoff, Nicko McBrain, Vinnie Colaiuta, Matt Sorum, Brann Dailor, and Abe Laboriel Jr. “I never thought I’d be able to play with so many amazing drummers. As a bassist, it’s exciting and challenging, because I’m forced to change patterns and rethink my approach. It’s like somebody hands me a Rubik’s Cube and says, ‘Okay, find a new way to solve it.’ I don’t have the luxury of being in a rut, and that’s fun.”
You came up in the D.C. punk scene. Is that the first music that excited you?
[Laughs.] Not at all. Funnily enough, I became fascinated with the bass at the age of seven. I was obsessed with Kiss and Gene Simmons, and my neighbor was obsessed with Paul Stanley. We picked up brooms and pretended we were in Kiss. I held the broom really low, too. All of my bass idols played with their basses low—Gene, Paul Simonon from the Clash, Sid Vicious. I just loved that swaggering image.
What came next for you?
In high school I put down the broom and started playing a real bass. I became just as obsessed with the Dischord D.C. scene and saw bands like Fugazi and A Right To Spring. I was inspired by bassists who approached the instruments their own way. [Fugazi’s] Joe Lally was so tight; he was never flamboyant or a show-off. He kept things down in the pocket all the time.
You’re a Fender Precision Player. Is that the “real bass” you started on?
I started on a Washburn, but it fell apart after a month. My one and only bass, the true love of my life, is a 1964 P-Bass that I got in high school. It’s lasted through two fires and many years of touring. It’s like my appendage. I have a Badass bridge on it. It hurt to remove the original bridge, but it was broken.
What about the P-Bass appeals to you so much—the sound? The feel? That your heroes played it?
All of the above. I loved its midrange punch. It was different from a Ricken-backer or a Gibson Grabber. It was warm but not too “dubby.” The P-Bass going through an Ampeg just sounded amazing to me.
You say you’re self-taught. You didn’t take lessons at all?
No lessons, although I would bug Joe Lally for pointers. He taught me some basics, and I just stared at him the whole time, like, “You’re the coolest.” But I’m mostly self-taught. I can’t really read music. I will say, though, that this job has taught me the benefits of playing music every day. People in music schools probably don’t play as much music as we do.
You play with a pick. Do you ever use your fingers?
I’ve always been a pick player. I admire people who can play with their fingers, but I always liked that sort of crisp pick sound—that is, it works for me. But I always seem to listen to players who use their fingers. Go figure.
Let’s talk about some of the drummers you’ve played with on the show—the rotating drummer’s chair.
I’ve played with so many great ones, and they really keep me on my toes. When Abe Laboriel Jr. came in for two weeks, he changed my life. That man is unbelievable, and he’s also the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. He came in and played in a way that was healing, like in The Matrix. I could feel things slow down, and that helped me learn to anticipate what he was doing. Without trying to be one, he was a great teacher.
How about Chad Smith?
Like Abe, Chad changed everything for me, and I can go to my grave thanking them for that. I was a little nervous when he came in. I don’t slap and pop; there’s no way I could emulate Flea. But Chad put me at ease right away. He’s such a good communicator, and he gets right in the pocket. He gives you so much confidence—he lets you fail, because he has your back. He’d be like, “Do what you want; I’ll make it jazzy.” He was just so good at anticipating my moves.
What about Vinnie Colaiuta?
Oh, my God … Vinnie. When I heard he was coming in, I was like, “Are you kidding me?” It was wild—he walked in, big smile on his face, and then he sat down and started playing. Everybody just stopped and watched. It was like, “Holy shit! We’re playing with the grandmaster.” When you play with a guy like that, he makes your job so easy. He drives the music all by himself.
There have been so many others; I think we’ve played with 50 different drummers in the last four years. I have a lot of fondness for Jeremy Gara from Arcade Fire; he lets you feel comfortable and confident. Brann Dailor from Mastodon—he’s fantastic. Fabrizio Moretti from the Strokes was brilliant. I was shocked how good a drummer he was. He reminded me of those old Motown guys.
You play your one and only P-Bass on the show. Do you have a backup?
I have one, a 1972 P-Bass. But usually I’m playing the one I bought when I was in the 11th grade. I like to keep things simple.
Les Savy Fav, Let’s Stay Friends [2007, French-kiss], Root for Ruin [2010, Frenchkiss]
Basses 1964 Fender Precision Bass, 1972 Fender Precision
Rig Ampeg AVT head, Ampeg SVT 8x10 cabinet
Effects None (“I loved my vintage Sovtek distortion pedal. It was stolen in Lubbock, Texas. The thief is going to hell.”)
Strings GHS Bass Boomers M3045 (.045–.105)
Picks Dunlop yellow