The Unlikely Return of Big Butter, Mike and Tim Biskup's Experimental Music Duo

Big Butter performs inside "The Box" at the Standard Hollywood
Big Butter performs inside "The Box" at the Standard Hollywood
Photo by Isaac Simpson

Normally, a young female model sits in the glass box behind the check-in desk at the Standard Hollywood. But right now it’s occupied by two men in their mid forties. Instead of reclining sexily, Tim and Mike Biskup are scratching away a thin layer of opaque white paint that covers the walls of the box, revealing themselves playing music inside.

Their band, Big Butter, just released A Step Felt in Full, their first album since 1990, and this hybrid box performance “feels like a perfect way to launch ourselves into people’s consciousness.”

The truth, however, is that Mike is the brother being launched.

The Biskups grew up in Santa Monica and later Woodland Hills. Both parents came from old California families. Their father was a draftsman.

One day a drunk driver missed a stop sign and drove into their kitchen. “Mom was already thinking about moving to the country,” says Mike, with a laugh. “After that she was like, that’s it! We’re leaving.”

The family moved to Clovis, a tiny town near Fresno, and started raising llamas. Even before the move, when Tim was only nine and Mike seven, they made art together, spending their days drawing and building models. In Clovis, they began collaborating on music too, mostly out of sheer boredom.

“I hated it out there,” says Tim, “In L.A., punk rock and skateboarding was just starting to enter my consciousness. Then all of sudden it was like the thing to talk about was hunting and foraging.”

Mike, who was seven, felt differently. “I loved it. Finally it was peaceful and quiet and pretty.”

The move marked the beginning of their musical collaboration, but also a larger divergence. Tim became an angry outcast, the ignored middle child. He went to punk shows, where he would illustrate shirts with a Sharpie and sell them, and formed his own band called Festival of Pain.

Mike, the youngest of three, was the golden child, the baby of the family. He was more pragmatic, and more inclined towards the mainstream.

“There’s always been this balance between us,” says Tim, “I was into Throbbing Gristle and Nurse With Wound, really noisy, abrasive stuff. Mike was more into The Beach Boys.”

“Not The Beach Boys,” Mike corrects him. “But like The Beatles and Neil Young. Basically classic rock.”

The two found common ground with Big Butter, which, led by Tim, leaned far towards the experimental. Their early influences were Devo, The Residents and Nurse With Wound. They played shows around Clovis and released four LPs. Once they played a conceptual show called “Ask the Oracle” from inside a refrigerator box.

Tim went to art school to pursue a career as a modernist painter, while Mike, who loved art but was convinced it was a dead end, went to UC Santa Cruz. Though they still occasionally made music together at family gatherings, Big Butter, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.

After years honing his craft as a painter, Tim stumbled backwards into major success by starting Burning Bush Art Auctions, an event in Atwater Village that became huge in the L.A. art scene around 1999-2000.

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Meanwhile, Mike married, had three children, and began homesteading near Fresno. He then moved his family to Port Townsend, Washington, where he worked non-art related jobs. “I’ve always loved making music, making art, but I never thought about showing it to anybody,” says Mike. “Or selling it.”

So Tim was the weirdo art guy with great business sense, while Mike was the mainstream one who kept his work to himself.

Eventually, however, Mike couldn’t deny his artistic nature any longer.

“I started selling some software online and doing music and art here and there, and then I got really sick of that, and realized I needed to live my life. I talked to Tim and my brother and my dad at our monthly meeting. They really helped me and supported me. I left my computer job and just started painting every day.”

That was 2012. When Tim heard the news that Mike was finally taking the plunge once and for all, he was ecstatic. It meant the rebirth of Big Butter.

A Step Felt in Full maintains the duo's experimental edge, infusing tracks with found sounds like fireworks on a beach in Washington, the destroyed speaker from the inside of a novelty balloon, and the laughter of two women overheard at a thrift shop. But it also reflects the brothers’ balance — noisy but melodic, appealing yet somehow uncompromising.

Tim and Mike are both realistic about piggybacking on Tim’s fame as an artist. Their first show since reuniting in 2012 was in Berlin, at a conference where Tim was a guest speaker.

The show in the box at the Standard was their first major appearance stateside. The tour will continue with several hybrid music/art shows at Slow Culture in Highland Park.

It all amounts to an extended coming out party for Mike — who, at 44, has finally become an artist. 

“The title, A Step Felt in Full, is basically a battle cry for the way we make art and music,” says Tim. “Whatever you’re going to do, commit to it and do it completely. Do it absolutely the way that you feel like you should do it, and don’t compromise.”

Big Butter: A Step Felt in Full, art and music by Tim and Mike Biskup, opens Friday, Feb. 20 at Slow Culture and runs until March 20. More info here.


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