Over the course of three excellent albums, including their new eponymous double-disc set, Black Owls have incorporated vintage influences into their singular sound. As manifested in David Butler’s wildly expressive vocals and Ed Shuttleworth’s alternately sinewy and chunky guitar lines, the Granville, Ohio, group draws inspiration from the ’70s like a blood transfusion, gaining life and strength from The Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and Roxy Music, while infusing that Glam-era bombast with the razor sharp Punk of Television, Talking Heads and The Voidoids.
But the Owls — featuring local lights Brandon Losacker (The Stapletons) on guitar and Brian Kitzmiller (Sparrow Bellows, Ray’s Music Exchange) on drums — didn’t pilfer inspiration through an older brother’s record collection.
They’ve burned plenty of calendars and witnessed the ’70s firsthand, so the band’s incredible output results from palpable chemistry and a long musical history.
“We’re getting approached by tour companies and labels and we’re fucking old,” says Butler, who once doubled as the Owls’ drummer. “We’re old enough to be wise enough to understand that we don’t know our place in this world. But we’re in it for the long haul. We want to be here in 15 years, like Guided By Voices, saying, ‘It’s always been about the music for us.’ ”
Butler abandoned musical pursuits in 1988 after the demise of his band Joe Kafka but met Shuttleworth — who he’d known in Columbus through his work with Ronald Koal — in 1992 and they maintained a long friendship. At Butler’s New Year’s Eve party in 2006, he, Shuttleworth and mutual friend/guitarist Mike Brewer (ex-Nancy, The National’s seed band) started talking collaboration.
“We were like, ‘We should get together and fuck around,’ ” Butler says. “That was literally the birth of the band. We did a little home recording, then we hooked up with John Chinn at Central City in Columbus and put out our first album. We were having too much fun to let it be a sideline thing.”
Brewer moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., after the Owls’ debut, 2008’s Lightning Made Us Who We Are, and Butler and Shuttleworth installed bassist Alan Beavers for their follow-up, 2010’s June ’71. When the Owls played 2010’s MidPoint, they vacillated between part-time drummers and having Butler at the kit.
Kitzmiller saw the Owls that year, introduced himself and Sparrow Bellows and the Owls subsequently played Columbus together. Kitzmiller offered his services and ultimately played with both bands for nearly a year — his first Owls gig was at 2011’s Nelsonville Festival; at last year’s MidPoint, Kitzmiller drummed with Sparrow Bellows and the Owls on the same night. Ric Hickey’s move to California earlier this year meant Kitzmiller could concentrate on the Owls.
“I was weirded out because it was like, ‘I’m going to come in and it’s just going to be different,’ and it isn’t. It’s better, not just because of my playing but because of everybody feeling a little looser,” says Kitzmiller. “And maybe because Dave’s not running a marathon. I don’t know how he did it.”
The Owls’ new album has been in process so long that Kitzmiller only appears on two tracks, “Dearly Deflowered” and “Butterfly,” but he and Losacker will be integral parts of the Owls’ fourth album, already in the works with Brian Olive at the console. In the meantime, the quintet is having a blast recasting new songs that were largely conceived and executed by the core trio.
“That’s what Ed and I call the tyranny of the original,” Butler says. “We always wanted to capture the energy of our demos, so we recorded direct to ProTools. In the last two years, those 25 songs are the culmination of us finding our voice. Seventy percent of the songs are literally the only take. A big chunk of the album is a bridge between the new Black Owls and the old Black Owls, where Ed and I are writing and putting in what we know, and turning it over to Alan and saying, ‘Here, add bass to this.’ So the eponymous album is where Ed and I are still chasing the impetus of the tyranny of the original.”
The Black Owls were slated to play the Bunbury Music Festival on the Cincinnati riverfront in July, but were washed out in the weekend’s one solid rain. It was spectacularly disappointing, and yet the Owls have been through so much, with all their bands, that any setback is minor in perspective.
“It proved the band’s mettle, because everyone was really cool,” Butler says. “You have to look and laugh. It’s making us a better band. We can deal with this, we’re still the Black Owls, this is what we do and love, this isn’t some dour sign from God — ‘Stop doing this!’ — it is what it is.
“Nobody died. We sat in the beer tent and drank. It was one of those drink-through-it moments.”
Bunbury was a galvanizing moment for Black Owls. They’re blissfully happy with their place in the Rock firmament but focused on any potential brass ring within reach.
“We brought Brian in, that was a well-served plan, and Brandon has served us tenfold; he’s been amazing in bringing so much texture to what we do. They’re making us so much better,” Butler says. “I can’t tell you how perfect it is. For a guy who’s been in this business for 30 years, it really is. I don’t throw that around lightly, I’ve been in it too long to even give a shit, but it’s true.
“We’re friends first and a band second, and that goes a long way.”
THE BLACK OWLS perform at MPMF.12 Friday, Sept. 28 at 11:15 p.m. at Main Event.