With his Little Helpers label, Butane has been pushing deep, underground house sounds since 2009
Currently based in San Francisco, Little Helpers is one of those labels whose name might not mean much to casual music buyers, but that attracts fanatical devotion from a loyal fanbase. Since 2009, the label has put out a constant stream of releases that, while they cover a range of house and techno territory, have one thing in common.
Where some labels are all about the big hits and guaranteed floorfillers, Little Helpers' logic has always been to head in the opposite direction. To consciously eschew the peaktime bangers and singalong anthems, and instead concentrate on tracks with a bit more musical substance – the kind of tracks that might never have their "15 minutes, but that instead sit in DJs' boxes for years, forming the backbone of DJ sets in which the hits come and go. Deeper shizzle, basically.
And right now the label are on something of a roll – as is label co-owner Butane, known in real life as Andrew Rasse. He's got an EP with regular collaborator Riko Forinson, Sorry For Everything, landing on Monday (15 June) on his other label Extrasketch, and another (Little Helpers 367) coming on Little Helpers on 7 July, both of which follow his recent collaboration with Barem (Little Helpers 364, April) and his album Odysseys with Andras Toth (May).
So now seemed like a good time to grab him for a chat and find out a bit more…
You're from Missouri originally, lived in Berlin for a while before moving back to the US and you're currently based in San Francisco… is that correct? And if so, how did you end up there, because I believe you were in New Jersey for a while?
"That's mostly correct. I grew up and attended university in Missouri, roughly halfway between Kansas City and St Louis. Moved to Berlin and lived there from 2006-2011, then moved back to the US and lived in the NYC area – not New Jersey – until 2015. And now I've been in San Francisco for a bit over five years."
In a 2016 interview you described Little Helpers as "a label that only released B-sides… afterhours and warm-up jams". Does that description still hold?
"I don't know... kind of?! I still like to think of our music as on the deeper end of the spectrum, and we do love B-side type tunes: those super-contemporary, sound-of-now tracks that get played by DJs for a few weeks and then go into the dustbin don't really interest me. But I don't want this ethos to be overly limiting for the label: if it's good, it's good. I just have a soft spot for timeless music."
Looking at the label's back catalogue, I notice the release schedule has slowed a little, with 20-30 EPs a year in 2018 and 2019 compared to 50 a year in the mid-2010s. Why's that?
"I've tried to be pickier in what I sign to the label the last couple of years. Maybe our style has evolved a bit, too: slightly more musical, more involved arrangements. I'm looking for high-level, professional productions that stand the test of time, and probably turning down a lot of stuff we would have signed a few years ago.
"Plus I have my other label and my own musical projects, so I'm trying to balance my time."
As an aside… the whole catalogue is listed on Discogs! Was that a deliberate move on your part? Because it's always the first place I'll look for information about a label and I'm amazed more labels don't make the effort…
"Yes, this is deliberate. We're old school vinyl DJs, and a bit OCD about our label being properly catalogued! Sean takes care of making sure our Discogs is up to date."
Everything seems to be on YouTube, too. Which is interesting, because that means what you've got is a very underground label in terms of the sound, but clearly with a fair amount of effort put into marketing/promoting it. Is that the key to the label's impressive longevity, do you think?
"You'd be surprised how little energy actually goes into this. With modern distribution tools, putting your releases up on Soundcloud, YouTube and Discogs is really the minimum of back-end work you should be doing if you're running a serious label. We don't really even consider this marketing/promotion, just standard office work."
You also own/run Extrasketch, and there's Alphahouse as well (or used to be?). So tell us a bit about the other labels and how they differ(ed) from Little Helpers…
"I closed Alphahouse shortly after I moved to San Francisco. After so many years, the label seemed to be lacking direction and had strayed from its original mission, so I wanted to do something fresh. Enter Extrasketch, which I launched purely as a vanity label. It's an outlet for my own productions, both solo and collaborative. Having two labels seems to be my sweet spot."
Your next two releases are both collabs with Riko Forinson… how did the two of you first hook up, and what is it you like about working together particularly?
"I love working with Riko, we have a natural synergy in the studio, but believe it or not we've never met in person. It's a truly modern musical affair! He pushes me in certain directions and I push him in others, and that's what good collaborations should be about.
"Riko has recorded several solo EPs for Little Helpers, and he proposed a collaboration between us. I thought, 'Sure, why not, let's see what happens'. Fast-forward a couple years and we've written nearly 100 tracks together! I'm holding back a lot of really great material that we'll continue to release when the time is right."
If you had to review the two upcoming releases for iDJ, how would you describe them? One sentence per track…
"Oof, that's a tough one! I've always taken the 'you tell me' approach to my music – I make the music and put it out, and then other people judge it, classify it, whatever. But okay, I'll give it a shot…
"Extrasketch 018 - Fully actualized deep house for smokey sleazy post-Covid lounges.
"Little Helpers 367 - High-test grooves and ethereal musical stylings creating magic on mature dancefloors."
On a more personal note, I know you spent some time in jail at one point, and also had a brush with serious illness. What are you comfortable telling us about those episodes, and how do you think they've shaped your outlook on life… and/or the music you make?
"Damn, that escalated quickly, ha ha! Yeah it's no big secret (I think?) that I got into some trouble with the law in my younger days, and then had some health issues that contributed to my decision to leave Berlin. All better now, though!
"I guess on a macro level this has made me more... calm. I've seen some shit, man. Maybe these experiences have hardened me a bit, maybe that's just age or maturity, but I think having gone through some pretty trying experiences in my life, I'm fairly stoic in the face of chaos. And there seems to be a lot of chaos."
You've spoken in the past about how one day you'll hang up your headphones and open a restaurant or wine business… as you approach 40, does that day start to look nearer, or are you quite happy where you are right now?
"Yes, that's still a dream of mine, to retire gracefully into a small cafe kitchen or wine cellar. But I'm just 40 now, and I still feel young, so I think those days are a bit farther down the road. And given the condition of the world right at this moment – rising fascism, global pandemic – I feel like studio life is probably not so bad! I'm on a roll making music, and I'm happy to be able to push this current dream for at least a few more years.
"Hopefully soon the world will have resumed at least some level of normalcy. There's a lot of work to do, but if we can beat this virus and elect some decent leaders, see some stability take hold in the world, maybe I'll put down roots. That's the trick – those are relatively stationary lifestyles and I've always been free to move. That's a fairly big paradigm shift for me, but I can see it happening someday…hopefully!"
Finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"There is a lot of social and racial injustice in the world, and in particular the United States is seeing massive upheaval right now from people trying to right these persistent wrongs. People are pissed off, and rightly so – everyone's had enough. We need to stand up in solidarity with our marginalized brothers and sisters from all walks of life and demand change. Speak out. Organize. And most importantly, VOTE!"
Words: Russell Deeks
Butane & Riko Forinson's Sorry For Everything EP is out on Extrasketch on 15 June, with Little Helpers 367 to follow on Little Helpers on 7 July