The Butler Did It – The Stereo Embers Magazine Interview with Chris Butler

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A description of Chris Butler the artist, from almost any angle, is a little hard to pin down. On the one hand moored to his hard-working midwestern roots and the work ethic that comes with it, on the other an all-out aesthete that has little truck with compromise and absolutely no patience for adhering to what others may expect of him, commercially, musically, artistically. Even as he found success with The Waitresses, the band he founded after idiosyncratic wonder kids Tin Huey ran out of steam, the pop accessibility of that band, that found them with hit singles and enjoying high profile rotation on the still-fledgling MTV, was always tinged with a shadow of the slightly askew, a kind of warped Tin Pan Alley perversity that had me often thinking of them as the American version of early Deaf School, chart-worthy hooks, strong rock pedigree, a delightfully off-kilter pop perspective, all blended together into a deceptively effortless rock radio stew that was sneakingly more than the sum of its parts.

And that spirit of arch creativity hasn’t exactly waned during the subsequent decades, whether it’s been applied to world record-breaking singles, collecting mid-century furniture, or producing records by others. There’s a restlessness resides in the guy that’s made him one of the more essential musicians of the last forty years, and behind that driving impulse is a personal history that itself rather echoes the complicated gist of this profound, profligate, fucked-up, somehow-still-brilliant country of ours. In tandem with the review of the life-encompassing album Easy Life, Stereo Embers thought it time for an in-depth interview with this curiously central figure in the fabric of late 20th C. American rock music. Conducted over many months when time was available, here then, Chris Butler.

Stereo Embers – Easy Life record having such a pronounced autobiographical slant, can we begin at more or less the beginning and cover where you grew up – Cleveland, if I heard right on Easy Life – what it was like back then, if your family was musical / artistic / etc, at what age did becoming a musician seem to take root?

Chris Butler – My dad was in the Air Force up through Korea.  He was a trainer, and mustered out ‘cause he didn’t like jets – too fast.  He was a builder and built a house for us near the Hungarian ghetto (my mom’s side of the family), as well as close enough to the Italians (his side).  Mother was a piano teacher, psychotic, alcoholic.  Father talented, thwarted, abusive.  Out of that Chris Butler, a loner, square peg, congenitally bohemian.  Moved to country suburbia in ’57.  First thing I ever drove was a tractor, a real one not one of those lawn toys.  Was normal until seeing The Who on Shindig – ruined/saved my life.  Played “folk guitar” until then, then HAD to get a set of drums.  High school band was all hot rod juvenile delinquent instrumentals and James Brown covers, with a drift towards British Invasion, if only to  compete with the other HS band that was all about that stuff. Subscribed to Downbeat, listened to “Bringing It All Back Home” everyday after school and pretty much kept to myself.  In Honors English, but remedial math.  Knew I had some writing and musical talent, but did not know what I wanted to do with myself (afraid to do anything with it, really. Being a third generation immigrant kid with Depression and WWII parents I got it drilled into me that security is all that matters), and ended up going to Kent pretty much just to stay out of the army.

SE – Since it ends up being a pretty fateful decision, was going to Kent State something automatic for someone with an artistic bent in Cleveland or was there some specific reason? What year did you get there and how soon after did you get involved in the Numbers Band?

CB – No school would have me (mediocre grades) except a state school, so Kent was close by, cheap and won out.  Met most of my still friends in Lea Terhune’s English class (the priestess I mention in the narration intro to “Davey’s Sister”), went from Pre Med (!) to art, music, literature, film, anthropology bbbbbllllllaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! loved everything and was all over the place!  Kent was a shitty land grant school with an outstanding art department (world class instructors), English profs (Black Mountain poets) and a nationally recognized experimental film maker (Richard Meyers) and significant socio/anthro department (Owen Lovejoy and Olaf Prufer, and the subject of “Millions & Millions”).  Off campus housing, art studios, Northeastern Ohio weekend party town with bars with live music, an audience that demanded original music (how rare is that?), which begat The Numbers Band.  They played at joint called The Kove that also was a stop on the blues circuit so we would see everyone from Hound Dog Taylor to Charlie Musslewhite.  A great entertainment committee brought in Phil Ochs, Alan Kaprow, Buckminster Fuller, Claes Oldenburg, Gary Snyder…on and on.  Wonderful friends, wonderful women, great music, cheap accommodations…then BLAM…it all goes to hell on May 4th.  Was lost in clinical depression for at least 10 years (Easy Life 2?).  Saved by my love for rock ‘n’ roll (a cliché but true).  Bugged Bob Kidney enough until he needed a bass player for 15-60-75 in 1975.  Simply the best, most interesting, most arty gig in NEOhio (and the subject of “Heat Night”).  Met back up with Liam Sternberg in the mid ‘70’s and we started writing songs and recording them.  The Numbers had a record which I did not play on, but that no one really knew or wanted to promote, so I volunteered and learned the record biz by trying to flog it. Copies went to Karin Berg at Electra and Robert Christgau at The Voice, and that opened up NYC to me.

 

[the next two questions came back answered in a single response

SE – Not sure how much you want to share about May 4th – what the atmosphere was like leading up to it, how heavily the tension hung, where you were in relation etc – but it was certainly a pivotal point in the history of American political protest. I remember my own dad – I was 14 – saying something awful along the lines of ‘If those students were there then they deserved it.’ He’s greatly evolved since then, thank goodness, but that one moment was the first time I knew with burning certainty how brainwashed wrong he was, and I think that tragedy had a similar eye-opening, polarizing effect on the country overall. Your thoughts? (And if you care to share your opinion on why that fire-in-the-belly passion for students of a certain age to right flagrant social wrongs has gone soft over the last few decades, feel free)

[and]

 

SE – If lost in clinical depresseion for ten years starting in 1970 you indeed did a pretty decent job of combating it via the power of rock’n’roll. How much was the idiosyncratic nature of Tin Huey’s musical profile a result of a kind of willful escapism away from the bad juju going on outside, how much was just a sort of natural outgrowth from what was happening in the local scene at the time – Tin Huey as a logical, if rapscallious next step on from the Numbers Band – and how much could be ascribed to some kind of aesthetic cussedness native to NE Ohio, seeing as not so far away Devo and Pere Ubu and the Bizzaros were also germinating around that time?

CB – Oh boy – just huge questions.  Whatever college was supposed to be in the ‘60’s-‘70’s, I took it for all it was worth. Blessed with a school that despite its rep as a rumdum teachers school,  I had as close to a world class, European style education in science, the arts and culture as it was possible to get.  Which made you look at the world in high contrast, to think ‘here’s all this great stuff I’m learning, but the world seems to not give two shits about any of it, and there was precious little opportunity to do anything with it unless you did so yourself.’  It was not lost on us that our academics were being allowed the luxury of their scholarly and experimental lives by the grace of a college, and a mediocre one at that.  Not the “ivory tower” business, but more…a space to “be” and create?  But with full knowledge that this was special, and that there was little use for any of this in the outside world.  Which made our alienation complete.  Not only were we/they unemployable, unnecessary and useless to the world of business, which would have been reason enough for years of therapy…we were so unwanted that we were shot at by the über-culture…as if the point of our pointlessness needed to be made unmistakably clear.  And KSU was surround by hostile red neck yobs that reinforced our separateness, and added a dose of hostility.  Really.  So…post shootings, we (and I use the term “we” to include every geek, intellectual, artist and musician in NEOhio) had to sort out how we were gonna navigate earning a living and expressing ourselves.  For me – this task was unbearable emotionally, and I just imploded.  Really badly.  Am talking hospitalization, shock treatments, experimental meds – the whole bit, and none of it doing much good.  I am here simply because I made the conscious decision to live…sounds dramatic, but that’s what it took.  My doctors wrote me off as a loss, at best, and as a person with a lifetime of hard time ahead of me should I not check out by my own hand.  What a fate to face when you are 20 years old.

But, that’s what I decided to do – to live and create and try to thrive – and it was unbelievably difficult.  I do not know how I did it, other than by sheer stubbornness.  And I see that same struggle and anger at being burdened by that task of complete self-invention if one was going to have any kind of an honest life in Pere Ubu thru to DEVO, each solving it in their own wobbly way. And in Tin Huey, too. A little pocket of Akron too-smart kids bonded together by their outsiderness and their love of other things outsider, be it music, literature, the visual arts, etc. I had BOTH the cultural, congenital bohemian issues, and the isolation of severe mental illness.  These dogged/inspired me thru The Waitresses, too: what else is the Patty character than a female version/personification of this desire to make one’s way in the world with some dignity and success on their own terms, but in her case with the added “opposition” of all the gender biases in said über-culture?  And I guess it is still with me, since Easy Life is just another take on, or rather a sketch about, trying to resolve all that alienation in the hopes of finding some peace.

When you talk about your Dad’s reaction to May 4th, well…that’s your personal experience of that clear generational/attitudinal difference in high relief.  You, too, must have had to sort out the great task of what do I do with my life, and myself, but in the context of that WWII-influenced value system? And that task for everyone of our age stole/deflated the energy for world change vs. just managing our lives.  I seethe when I hear some kid knock my generation as having lost the plot – you try to deal with what we had to deal with, buster.  And don’t waste your rage on us – go get the bankers and the polluters and the ignorant and the bigoted.  Your rage is too precious a fuel to squander on generational quibbles.

But that leads one to real despair, doesn’t it?  The force of music as a unifying force has lost its way, everything in every aspect of culture has fragmented and been narrowcast and individually empowered blahblahblah…even the possibility of unified, sustained action (BTW kids, why did YOUR Occupy movement – a real beautiful thing – run out of gas?) seems daunting.  But what applies to both your questions is that I did get caught up in, or believed, or internalized, that it was possible to build a life that had meaning, purpose and comfort from scratch.  And that rock ‘n’ roll was a medium to this.  And that this was a sort of bubble-in-time, mass hysterical delusion that sorta worked.  And that – and I say this with pity – the kids today do not have that – that hope (any hope) going for ‘em.

SE –  It would be great to dig into Tin Huey but before we do that, could you just kind of…discourse on the NEOhio music scene back then in its putative ‘heyday,’ what/who its precursors were, how the attention to it as a ‘scene’ changed it for both good and ill, and whatever other historical perspective you care to bring, and maybe fill us in on what’s happened since and what you might know about what’s happening there now? I recall, when the first stirrings of Devo and Ubu began to infiltrate our ears out in the Bay Area, it was all a bit unexpected, especially the Kent/Akron piece of it.

CB – Well….which “heyday”?  We had Moondog before my time, and Mad Daddy Pete Myers (whom I did listen too) if you want to go back that far. There was always a ghetto jazz and R & B scene.  My first concert was sneaking away to see James Brown at the Cleveland Arena when I was 14 (’64).  There were local hot rod bands (my high school band started as an instrumental/Link Wray/Ventures band), and lots of Italian singer types.  When the British invasion hit, everyone wanted to be a Beatle, which begat teen clubs and sock hops with live bands doing the hits of the day all over the place. Some local hits too: Richard and The Young Lions, The Outsiders, The String-Alongs…and a huge polka scene. There was a nascent boho area around University Circle, with a club called La Cave where I saw Procol Harum, Neil Young, The Youngbloods, The Jeff Beck Group, plus a coffee house where you’d get Josh White, Odetta and even Bill Cosby and other standup comics of the day.  Leo’s Casino had all the Motown acts coming through. Cleveland was a regular stop on all the various circuits – chitlin’ or otherwise – and they didn’t seem to care too much if you were underage.  The local leisure time giveaway was called The Scene (with Dave Thomas a/k/a Crocus Behemoth writing concert and a record reviews).  Jane Scott wrote up everybody who came through town for The Plain Dealer – regardless of whether they deserved ink or not.  As with any other American city, the local bands imitated/became homegrown versions of whatever was happening nationally/internationally.  Beatle clones became Cream clones, etc..

Kent had The Kove, which was a regular stop on the blues circuit (Hound Dog Taylor was a regular).  When FM radio got going, we had the college stations and WMMS, which grew into a monster.  DEVO started as an English project at Kent in the early ‘70s, and their first show was also tied into the film department.  I was playing guitar in an all-black soul revue, driving up to Cleveland on weekends, when a friend from NYC told me about the CBGB scene, and when Sire and Electra released all that first wave of bands, their records bumped Little Feat and whatever funk band was hot off my turntable.  What stuck from these bands was the idea that you could write, could/should do original music – something reinforced by reconnecting with Liam Sternberg about that time, and both of us thinking that we could do what these bands were doing. Add to that urge, the miracle of the Kent bars wanting original music bands, so gloriosky!…there were places to play your stuff.

Both CLE and Kent/Akron had (or rather –  had to make out of necessity) all the D.I.Y elements needed to make things happen: fanzines were started, clubs gave up some week nights to this new kids music, someone heard about someone with an 8-track machine in their basement, someone started a club or booked some dive.  And what’s the legendary story? – that the Rocket From The Tombs guys lured Television to drive to Cleveland?  One of those shows where if everybody who sez they were there were actually there, the attendance would have been in the hundreds vs. the 20-30 who actually came?

Also, as with any other American scene, NEO groups were a minority, maybe played on WMMS at 3 in the morning on Sunday to fulfill some FCC requirement (if at all), and a real cultural rift opened between the local bands and the entrenched cultural gate-keepers (WMMS/The Scene/Belkin Bros, who were concert bookers), and the gap widened when Ubu, Switchboard, DEVO, Tin Huey, et al began to travel to NYC and/or LA and were hugely successful there…but struggled to get any type of major attention on their/our home turf.  There was a growing sense of Me Too/Us Too – ism: why were these major institutions ignoring us?  We were good!  We were popular, too!  What we didn’t get, was that we did not sell Toyotas, whereas Bowie and Springsteen (both CLE breakouts) pulled listeners who bought Toyotas (metaphorically and literally), and we were small-time, fringers.

When the first layer got skimmed off (I left the area in ’79), the scene, in Akron anyway, continued to thrive around a club called The Bank.  BTW – there is a pair of docs done by a local filmmaker Phil Hoffman & PBS affiliate that documents all this reasonably well – both the excitement and the eventual disappointment:

 

 

 

I would go back to Akron and have a ball at The Bank as long as it lasted.  Then one-by-one the Kent clubs had “successful fires”, and the world moved on, finding other forms of entertainment.  Now, I can go to great places in Cleveland like Happy Dog or The Beachland Ballroom and have a great evening of music, both local and national.  But as with everywhere else, the Music Biz has contracted, if not pretty much run its course.

SE – Let’s talk about Tin Huey in slightly more specific terms than yet covered. Contents Dislodged During Shipment was a very strong record, high on eccentricities, virtuosity, quirk and some damn fine songs. I’ve got the usual questions about how it all came together, what made up the multitude of influences that crash together so splendidly on that album, how the six of you managed to corral your no doubt manic youth energies into a single unit (insert Scylla reference here), but I’m just as interested in what impact the band had, both in terms of influence and how it effected the individual members. And where’s it fit in the ‘Chris Butler Story?’ – for instance, how did that first original band (as opposed to being part of the Numbers Band) inform the Waitresses?

CB – Tin Huey was the most creative bunch of people I have ever been associated with.  They were the musical gold standard in NEO…see quotes from David Thomas.  And they were always that way.  There are tapes of them playing a crappy college bar in Kent in the early ‘70’s with different instrumentation and members, and they killed even then.  You can hear The Stooges, and VU in them but they were total originals.  Akron wierdos who liked everything unusual in art, music, film and literature, and threw it into the hopper.  High school must have been hell for them. They would play to two and a half people in one of the floors at JB’s in Kent and I would see them during Numbers Band breaks.  Awed.  By then, they had added Ralph Carney (19 year old sax wonder boy!), Mark Price had switched to bass, and Harvey Gold had started playing keyboards.  I mean…just listen to them live!:

 

When I got kicked out of The Numbers Band for blowing off a rehearsal to have a Waitresses “band” photo taken, I swore that was it…I’d had it with bands.  But then Tin Huey asked me over to jam, and then, oh, within a month or so I was in ‘cause they wanted/needed (?) another writer.  Ralph Carney asked me to join.  They had a house (Mark Price’s) in Akron with an 8-track, and rehearsed everyday. Their circle/brain trust/aesthetic police – Jim Kauffman and Michael Baker – were very smart and inspiring, too.  In a lot of ways, they had a lot going for them. [Aside: did I already tell you the story of how we got signed? If not, I’ll do that in a follow-up].

I think Tin Huey was just wonderful without me. We always seemed to have one too many instruments playing on any given song.  I did write some good songs with them, but they had plenty on their own.  I was turned onto so much good music thru them – I was a blues & jazz & art rock snob, but they turned me onto krautrock and Robert Wyatt and all the Brit nuts. It was mind expanding.  Such good musicians.  But we had no sex appeal/no star quality.  I would joke (and they would not like it much) that “this band could not get laid”.  We had a sense of who we were, but no collective burning will to succeed.  Kind of a sheepish, awkward, smart, funny entity that was easy to overlook.  A typical NEO band, with divergent, majority-of-one musical tastes, forced to play together if they wanted to be in band.  We tried to be a “rock band”, when we should have stood our ground and become something like…I dunno…a Magic Band version of Flaming Lips backing Beck or Little Feat backing Robert Palmer, as well as doing our own stuff. Something like that. We should have asked Warner Bros. to wait, come back in a year or two when we’ve had a chance to sort out what we wanted for ourselves.  Impact of being on a major label?  Not good.  Some of us went weirder.  Did not get what our job was.  I see now what we should have done very clearly, but so it goes.  I loved that band very much, and when we reunited, I had high hopes that our time had come.  Then we lost Mark, and well…that was that.

Contents… was too all over the place. It was a sampler of everything we could do a la ‘60’s records where a band would play all kinds of music and it would still be the same band.  It was painful to make, our demos were better, we should’ve this, we should’ve that. So much hindsight…

What I got from them for Waitresses and everything else I’ve done since was a sense of courage, to just do it, and do it the best you can. Waitresses had a similar lineup – I’d gotten used to hearing/writing for sax and keyboards.  I had come up with “…Boys Like” while in Tin Huey, which every record exec thought was a hit, so I tried to balance TH’s and my outré eclecticism with some sort of commercial reality.  An impossible task, I guess, especially with a singer with a 5-note range, but I think I could have kept it going for a while longer.  To this day, Harvey Gold is the only person I can collaborate with successfully on a regular basis.  I have co-written songs with other people, but with him, we just clicked and it never felt like work.

Tin Huey was the one that got away.

SE – Chris, this has been terrific, amazing really, and I’m left with just one question: Musically, after producing an album of such autobiographical heft, pulling together essentially a lifetime of various strands into a single, epiphanic piece of work, an album one presumes you’ve been aiming at even if obliquely for decades, what’s next? You seem as energized as ever, and I know you’re not going to rest on your laurels, grinding them beneath the runners of your rocking chair, so..any thoughts on the future?

CB – Easy Life is sort of a compilation/sampler of work done over decades. I would hope that a new listener gets that this knucklehead never stopped working post-Waitresses, never went quietly into retirement, never got a real estate license or sold insurance or whatever…and that maybe some of my other stuff will also be of interest and worth a listen. 

I am still very much bursting with things to do.  Harvey Gold and I have resurrected our Half Cleveland Tin Huey spinoff [check that out here – ed], and are gonna focus on fun, shows, fun, releasing a CD (we each have enough stuff in the can to make a fun…did I say fun?…album), and having fun.  I also have a project called “Album” [that’s here – ed] where I take important-to-me songs and deconstruct them and/or shoe-horn in autobiographical bits – that’s gonna continue.  Also, Ralph Carney (Tin Huey’s reed player) and I have been writing songs over the web based on obscure national holidays, inspired by two briefs: 1) there are no silly bands anymore (our working “band” name is Franklin Delano Roosevolt), and 2) I have had good luck with one holiday song, but can’t let National Penguin Awareness Day, or National Salami Appreciation Day go unsung. I’ve also got writing projects going with my partner Elaine Sokoloff, and still want to do spoken word shows with the TMI writer’s workshop in Rosendale, NY [see here – ed].  I play in various ensembles with Ken Butler and Ed Potokar when they need someone to bang-twang on their amazing art/hybrid musical instruments.  And I would love for the wonderful surf band i play drums in  – purplE k’niF – (and where I am currently on strike for better wages and working conditions) to revive itself and start taking itself seriously.   There’s more, but it makes me tired to think about it.  Basically, I am a working class Midwesterner who is just gonna live out my genetic imperative until either I can’t anymore, I start making a fool of myself, or I get hit by a truck.

[feature image of 2012 Numbers Band reunion: Janet Kidney]