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The Butterflies of Love

By Richard Martin

APRIL 10, 2000:  When the Butterflies of Love printed up copies of their first single, they did what any British band would do -- sent it to John Peel and prayed for a miracle. The BBC radio legend apparently approved of "Rob a Bank," a plodding, romantic, charmingly sinister song with a protagonist who offers to commit felonies for his intended. Peel played it on the air and the public fell for it; fans sent letters to this new band pledging devotion. The only catch was that they had to spring for airmail stamps, because, despite all appearances to the contrary, the Butterflies of Love aren't British. They're from Connecticut.

On the phone from New Haven during his first interview for an American publication, vocalist/guitarist Jeffrey Greene happily relives the band's unorthodox breakthrough. He and his mates reveled in the fan mail, he says, firing off a thank-you letter to Peel that the DJ subsequently read on the air. Offers from British labels followed, and the Butterflies, perhaps drunk from the attention, signed to the least attractive of the bidders -- Fortuna Pop. The label's previous release had been from an oddball one-man band called Taking Pictures, whose song featured a fractured-sounding vocalist shrieking his way through the debut single "Falling Angel." The Americans were charmed.

There'd be no riding of coattails for the Butterflies of Love, but Greene insists that instant fame and fortune weren't part of the game plan: "We're not playing music for money." The band's co-founder, guitarist Dan Greene (no relation), elaborates: "We're not Mariah Carey. We weren't in it for the fame, but the idea that you could have a fan base in another country made it so we didn't have to care about what happened here."

Nothing much has happened on this side of the Atlantic, even in the wake of the mid-February release of the band's full-length debut, How To Know (Secret 7). The album's appearance in England last November brought a flood of praise in the UK press -- Melody Maker called the Butterflies "the best new band in America" -- with critics rightfully placing them in a lineage of eloquent, arty, skewed rock bands that starts with the Velvet Underground, continues through to R.E.M., the Feelies, and Galaxie 500, then moves on to Pavement and Sebadoh and to contemporary contenders like Wheat, Creeper Lagoon, and Sparklehorse.

The bands on this list are American too, so it's worth noting that these Connecticut Yankees have one musical foot planted in King Arthur's court. Jeffrey will only cop to the usual "I listened to the Beatles as a kid" explanation, and he notes that he learned guitar from Dan, who taught him to play Feelies songs while they attended college together in upstate New York. But his delivery, teetering between morose and snotty, verges on the attitudinal British aesthetic. And the Butterflies have range, with rambling, New Zealand-style pop gems like "Mt. Everest," "Floating," and "Wild" nestled in among an array of sad waltzes and hypnotic jingles; you could equate them with Brits like the Smiths or Belle and Sebastian. This type of band doesn't emerge out of nowhere very often, and it hardly ever comes from Connecticut.

Jeffrey Greene gives much of the credit to the backing musicians on the album. Bassist Peter Jackson Whitney and organist Scott Amore round out the full-time line-up; drummer Neil O'Brien joined after the dissolution of his old crew, the Van Pelt. Co-producer Mark Mulcahy, who filled the drum seat for much of the recording, is also a New Haven native who has found an audience in the UK, as a solo artist and with the Miracle Legion, while remaining relatively unknown at home. "He's the greatest singer on the planet," Jeffrey pronounces. "I'm serious."

Both Greenes admit that their acceptance in Britain has made them less enthusiastic about trying to break in at home -- thus they've limited their live shows to New York's tristate area, where they're more likely to play to respectable-sized crowds. It's become something of an in-joke; Jeffrey notes that his only Boston appearance wasn't as a musician but as a guest speaker at a New England Foundation for the Arts conference. He lectured on his work as a coordinator of art exhibits at prisons, "playing" the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge. "I got a three-night stand."

This month, the Butterflies of Love return to the UK for a grueling tour, with 15 shows and two radio tapings in 15 days. Then they'll come back to New Haven to lay the foundation for a follow-up to How To Know and to keep at their day jobs: while Jeffrey attempts to enlighten prisoners, Dan will be teaching math and science to students at a school for Orthodox Jews.

They'll also try to fulfill their goal of landing gigs in Massachusetts, in part because both Greenes are avid Red Sox fans. Dan, a native of Worcester, lets on that Jeffrey's most prominent wall decoration is a life-size poster of Nomar Garciaparra. Of course, if they don't have any luck in Boston, the Butterflies of Love can redouble their efforts abroad, where they'll at least get to bask in other cultures.

"It's cool to be aliens anywhere," Jeffrey says. "If you're going to tour, it's better to tour Sweden than upstate New York."

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