Tooth & Nail’s Latest Cover Boy

Meet the 25-year-old, Grammy-nominated Seattleite you’ve never heard of, at the local label that gets no respect (in town anyway).

Rural Appalachia is not generally regarded as a breeding ground for the arts, but it was in a house on a hillside in the West Virginia woods that Jordan Butcher cut his teeth as a rock-'n'-roll designer. As a teenager, Butcher had advantages: a good eye, access to a PC his father had built, and a high-school teacher willing to let him take as much time as he wanted to learn the ins and outs of the design software normally used by the school's yearbook staff. He also had plenty of friends forming bands."There were bands like xAbsolute Powerx, Waiting for Midnight, Gitch, the Ashleys," he recalls. "Most of the bands were punk and hardcore bands. West Virginia has a lot of that."West Virginia is a far cry from Butcher's current home, Seattle, and planets away from Los Angeles, where he's headed next week. Matter of fact, when I met him for coffee one soggy December afternoon, he had just bought his plane tickets. "It finally sunk in," he said. "I was like...wow, I'm nominated. I have a reason to go now."He's referring to the Grammy Awards ceremony; he's been nominated in the category of Best Boxed or Limited Edition Packaging. The 25-year-old is one of two in-house designers for Seattle-based Tooth & Nail Records, a successful indie label that's been home to MxPx, The Juliana Theory, P.O.D., Starflyer 59, and more recently the hugely popular faith-based metal band Underoath, whose box set Lost in the Sound of Separation (of which only 5,000 were printed) Butcher designed and was subsequently nominated for.Butcher is understandably excited by the recognition. For one thing, nominees in his category were all selected by other designers, which to Butcher means he must be doing something right to win the favor of his peers. Moreover, he's in company with some serious heavies in the biz, including Gary Burden, a 45-year album-design veteran nominated for his work on Neil Young's massive, dizzying Archives, Vol. 1.Just being nominated is blowing Butcher's mind. It's something he never thought would happen."Um...yeah," he says, laughing. "It still kinda feels weird."Sure, that sounds like the tired cliché trucked out every year in acceptance speeches by self-obsessed celebrities making efforts to appear humble. But when you're from a small town in West Virginia, like Butcher, the very idea that you might grow up to design album art seems like another reality.Working for Tooth & Nail, as it happens, does not give you much in the way of hipster clout around here. "Seattle is the only city where Tooth & Nail doesn't have a following. We're about to have our 16th anniversary as a label, and I can guarantee there won't be a Tooth & Nail flag flying from the top of the Space Needle," Butcher says, referring to Sub Pop's 20th-anniversary promotional coup.Founded by Brandon Ebel in 1993, the label, despite selling millions of records, is often given the stink-eye by local press, often for its openly Christian leanings. "That's a black eye, for sure," says Butcher. This is of course something of a head-scratcher, since books by the insanely Catholic Flannery O'Connor and albums by the God-fearing Johnny Cash and even Bonnie "Prince" Billy are hipster status symbols. But Butcher adds that the musical styles repped on T&N's roster are not in line with our KEXP-obsessed, indie-loving sect. Instead of bearded folkies and ironic electronica, Tooth & Nail mostly traffics in punk, emo, ska, and metal groups, several of which align themselves with some form of Christianity.But the truth is, for sheltered kids raised in the church, as Butcher was, Tooth & Nail often offers their first exposure to those musical styles, resulting in a loyal fan base: the army of "Tooth & Nail kids" across the U.S. buying records simply because they bear the T&N stamp."I don't think you can overstate Tooth & Nail's place in Christian music," says Andrew Beaujon, author of Body Piercing Saved My Life, an exploration of Christian youth-music culture. "The interesting thing about that label is how it operates in a couple different verticals—the namesake label dominates Christian alternative, plus there's Solid State for the punk and hardcore releases and BEC for the mainstream Nashville stuff. I don't think there's any way you can say Brandon Ebel isn't a genius. As to what accounts for its fan base, I think like Sub Pop in the '90s or Dischord in the '80s, the name Tooth & Nail stands for a certain level of quality."Though Seattle hipsters (a relative term, sure, but you know whom I'm referring to) wrinkle their noses at the label, Tooth & Nail is nonetheless a powerhouse in the biz. Six Tooth & Nail releases have been certified gold (for sales of 500,000 or more copies), and the label had its highest Billboard charting ever when Underoath's Define the Great Line debuted at #2 in 2006. Commercially, Tooth & Nail is nearly neck-and-neck with Sub Pop, which has had two records go platinum and two gold, and has one strong Billboard debut under its belt (The Shins' Wincing the Night Away debuted at #1 on Jan. 1, 2007).That said, like Sub Pop, Tooth & Nail also invests a lot of money and energy into making sure its records look good, which is what attracted Butcher to the label. And the music, of course."I had a friend from church and his mom had bought him an MxPx cassette tape," says Butcher of his introduction to the label and to punk rock overall. "My friend didn't like it, so he gave it to me, and I was, like, 'Dude, this is so fast! This is awesome!'" After learning MxPx's home was Tooth & Nail, Butcher naturally began exploring the label's catalog, ordering several CDs via mail order. The music was good and the covers were good, which was when Butcher realized that the essence of good album design is matching the artwork to the jams inside. The two elements should be inseparable, he says.Butcher was born and raised in Buckhannon, a pretty little river town of about 7,000 that nearly leads the state in underage drinking, drug use, theft, trespassing, assault, and methamphetamine production. In Buckhannon, Butcher says, if you don't work for a coal company, chances are you're unemployed or work at the Wal-Mart. But Butcher is proud to point out that Buckhannon was home to Charley Harper, the modern graphic illustrator whose stylized work influenced Andy Warhol and Todd Oldham.Says Butcher: "I think me and Charley Harper are the only two people from around there that do any kind of art."Buckhannon, however small and rural, is also home to West Virginia Wesleyan College, which allowed Butcher to be exposed to some alternative culture as a teenager. He recalls that the college was a tour stop for the Goo Goo Dolls and New Radicals in the 1990s. But, proud as he is of being a native West Virginian, he also knew at a young age that he had to get the hell out."I realized I wanted to do art for a living," he says. "And if I wanted to make decals to put on the back of pickup trucks that say 'Ain't Skeered' and stuff like that, then there might've been some kind of future for me there. But otherwise..."After designing posters for his friends' bands throughout high school, Butcher was given an invitation out of West Virginia in 2005. Knowing there was more to life than Buckhannon, he e-mailed Tooth & Nail's design team and another Seattle-based design company called Squad, a name Butcher recognized from a handful of T&N releases, about an internship. Though he never heard from T&N, Squad told Butcher that if he came to Seattle, they'd take him on as a summer intern. His internship turned into a paid position, which he held for a year before T&N contacted him through a friend of a friend. "I got a call from Ryan {T&N designer Ryan Clark], and he said, 'Would you be interested in working here? I need someone.' And I was just like, 'Holy crap!'"He was hired as a production designer in 2006. Despite being so green, he couldn't have asked for better influences to work beside: Tooth & Nail's in-house design team has been nominated in Grammy design categories for four years in a row. Butcher's nomination is the fifth. 2010 has also brought T&N its first musical Grammy nomination, for Jeremy Camp's Speaking Louder Than Before, in the Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album category. (For the record, Sub Pop also has one Grammy to its name: Flight of the Conchords' The Distant Future won Best Comedy Album in 2008.)"I'd say Jordan's strong points often lie in the simple details," says Clark. "He has a way of designing just enough and not too much, which is very appreciated in a ever-growing world of overdesigned mush.""When I'm designing," says Butcher, "I try and think of the band looking at the artwork and seeing their soul in it, the soul of their music. When I go in to do a record, I want it to evoke some kind of emotion. It should enhance the music. I think bands like Sigur Ros do that really well with their artwork. It's not my thing, necessarily, but when I look at their artwork and listen to the music, I'm like, 'This all totally makes sense.'"When Butcher thinks of his Grammy nomination, he can't help but feel lucky, especially when he considers his roots."A lot of my friends back there [in West Virginia] are still just...doing whatever," he says. "I wonder, like, why was it different for me...y'know? I don't know, I try not to think about it too much."music@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus