A Couple of Questions with Chris Butler
ALSO: Chris Butler was featured in our The Best Albums You've (Probably) Never Heard feature.
For those just learning about Easy Life now, can you give a nutshell summary of your career prior to its release?
Okay, let’s see. I went to Kent State University, where I played in a lot of blues bands. I joined a wonderful band called 15-60-75, which is just celebrating its 40th anniversary as a unit, then I joined a band called Tin Huey from Akron. We got signed to Warner Brothers for one glorious flop. They gave us money to go away, which was very nice. I took my cut and moved to New York in 1979. I had a couple of songs that I’d written under the fake band name called the Waitresses, and I was able to get them released on a division of Island. They asked me, “Where’s your band?” I said, “Er, um, um, er…in Ohio?” I scrambled, put a band together, and we lasted three years on Polygram… and I seem to have screwed up because, instead of being a one-hit wonder, I’m actually a two-half-hits wonder…which I guess adds up to one hit. But, anyway, there’s “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas Wrapping.” So I keep writing against all common sense and keep playing…I play drums in a bunch of bands…but I definitely keep on writing. Some prose writing and, uh, reportage. And, recently, I could be heard on “All Things Considered” on NPR over last Christmas, telling the story of how I bought the guitar back that I played on “Christmas Wrapping.” So, y’know, I’m staying busy.
Do you recall any anecdotes from the recording of the album?
Oh, yeah! It was great fun to do some of the songs really old style, where you get, like, fourteen or fifteen musicians in a studio and do the whole thing live, with minimum overdubs. Particularly, the song “Easy Life” is that way; it’s a full Phil Spector-ish production, with two six-string basses and three guitar players and back-up singers and…just tons and tons of people. It was, of course, an engineer’s nightmare, because engineers are used to doing one thing at a time in this day, but that was great, great fun. Getting to record all of my pals is always fun. And getting to finally address the Kent State business…because the whole thing is sort of loosely based on the things going on in my life on April 30th, 1970. I was at Kent when the shootings took place, and the guy I was with was killed, and I thought it would be interesting to make a record that talked about life was like before that life-changing experience. If there’s kind of a high concept for this record, that’s it.
Did you expect it to have a better commercial reception than it did?
Interesting point: what commercial reception? (Laughs) At the time, I had another CD I was flogging called Kilopop! – another fake band, this one a fake European pop band – but the radio stations that played it, I gave them CD-Rs of this thing called Easy Life, ‘cause I had all this material but I just kept working and working. There were only 50 of these made, so my question to you would’ve been, “Who the hell has heard this to include it, since there were so few copies released?” But then you told me that it was Jason (Thompson), and I was, like, oh, okay! (Writer’s note: Thompson and Butler have maintained a correspondence and friendship over the years.) But, yeah, it was never actually commercially released, so there ain’t no disappointment! But the other thing is that this version (that’s been nominated) is that it’s actually a double CD, which is even rarer! I only made, like, ten copies of those! The other disc has outtakes, different versions, cover songs, since people had covered some of the songs on the first disc already, different mixes…it’s a whole other 13 or 14 songs! But I never had any intention of commercially releasing it, so, therefore, no disappointment.
Are you pleased to find that it still maintains enough of a following to make its way into this piece?
Well, I’m pleased that Jason still thinks it’s a damned fine album! I have to tell you, I hadn’t listened to this since…maybe since it was released! But I just drove from the New York City area to Ohio, which is where I get to finally catch up on my listening, and I played it for myself, and there’s enough distance between and it for me to wonder, “Who the hell is this guy?” And the other thing is, I was surprised. It’s pretty fucking good! I would buy this record if I heard it on the radio. I thought, “It’s not bad at all!” So I dunno, maybe I should press it up and release it as a real thing. It doesn’t suck. It definitely doesn’t suck.
What are you doing now?
Everything I can! I play drums in a surf band with other guys from Ohio who’ve all moved to New York. We don’t sing; it’s all instrumental, which means we don’t need no stinkin’ PA, which is great, great, great, great fun. I am playing in Ohio with the Tin Huey band, which we have reformed, and we have various sub-groups; when someone comes to town, we all kind of reconfigure and back up the Tin Huey member who’s booked the gig, so that’s kind of a rotating gig schedule. I’m working on yet another CD and I’m trying to finish it up; I’m about three-quarters done. I’ve been writing theme songs for documentary films, one of which is coming out in Canada on The History Channel; it’s very convoluted, so I won’t try to explain what that’s about, but there’s a good chance that it might be shown in the United States, too. And I managed to get that one thing on NPR, which was a huge thrill, and they’ve kind of said, “You got any more ideas there, kid?” So I’m gonna try and follow up on that. Otherwise, it’s writing and playing and playing and writing. That’s just what I do.
Check out Chris Butler's official site for more info.