Chris Butler - The Museum Of Me
Chris Butler - The Museum of Me
"It's the hardest thing in pop music to write good, positive, happy songs. It's so easy to go on about death, doom and destruction - cheap emotions. But to do something which leaves you with a feeling of encouragement, that doesn't sound stupid, that is intelligent, is really hard to do" - Chris Butler
From the very first notes of The Museum of Me, it's clear that Chris Butler, the man who brought a jaded world The Waitresses, is up to his old tricks - making the sort of cleverly upbeat, literate music that's sorely missed in today's pop-idle culture.
Well, actually they're new tricks, and fresh tracks; it's just that the CD was recorded on exotic machines. But what Butler's done with this outdated technology would set old Tom Edison spinning at 78 RPM; his back-to-the-future methods have yielded surprisingly modern results. "The 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou?' soundtrack was old tunes recorded with new technology," he points out. "These are new songs recorded with old technology, which flips that idea. And," he continues, "I've always been fascinated by the idea of time travel. When I tried my first antique audio recording ('The Bottom of A Workingman's Beer,' included on The Museum of Me), what went in was modern me, but what came out was a 50-year-old sound...it was as if I'd transported myself back to the mid-20th century!"
Butler believes he's picked up on that part of the zeitgeist dubbed "The New Old" by The New York Times. "There's a trend to reissue cool products from the past," he notes, "reviving moribund brand names, like the "new" Mini Cooper, Danelectro guitars, Eames furniture and Triumph motorcycles. If post-modernism was a crunching together of the best bits from past designs, The New Old is reproducing a design in its original, 'pure' form, but with modern materials. If you want to get really theoretical about it," he adds, "this CD is an exercise in Audio Industrial Design - something I'll define as soon as I can think up a definition!"
Butler began experimenting with obsolete sound-recording techniques seven years ago, utilizing Edison wax cylinders, 1930s home disk-cutters, 1940s wire recorders, and tape machines from the '50s and '60s. He says that, while his efforts may have a certain "geeky, egghead" appeal, it was really more about interacting with the technology. "Let me tell you, when you're trying to keep a 50-year-old wire recorder from blowing up before the end of a take - that's interactive!"
In the mid-90s, he put out a series of analog 45 RPM vinyl singles made in this manner: "Since this was an exercise in old technology, it seemed counter to their spirit to release them on digital CDs. Now, they're sought-after; collector's items." While The Museum of Me collects some of these forays into vintage sound, Butler is adamant that it's no novelty act. "The project is sequenced like a rock record; it is a rock record! The antique audio angle is actually beside the point." Some of the album does, at least superficially, sound like something unearthed from an attic trunk. "Thinking About Them Girls", for example, might be the long-lost lovechild of Rudy Vallee and Big Bill Broonzy, but the breezy "Starved For Summer" (cut as a vinyl 45) could easily become the same sort of seasonal perennial as The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping."
"I'm not a Luddite," Butler explains. "All my projects would not exist if it wasn't for modern digital technology. But I've been employing these techniques in the same way a musician might opt for a Fender Stratocaster over, say, a Gibson Les Paul to meet the sonic requirements of an individual tune. On The Museum of Me, I used different recording formats to bring each song home. For example, take the strings on 'The Idiot Trail' - violins sound terrible when recorded digitally, but analog tape gives them a rich, warm sound."
A quick recap of Butler's career is probably in order here. An alumnus of Ohio's Kent State University, he became a member of Akron's Tin Huey in the late '70s. Butler then created his first imaginary band, which he dubbed The Waitresses. He and a friend invented histories, discographies and press clips, pretty much to amuse themselves. But when the Butler-penned "I Know What Boys Like" was released on a local compilation entitled Bowling Balls From Hell, he found that the song's success meant he had to put together an actual group. The lineup included lead singer Patty Donahue, who died of cancer in 1996, and Television's drummer Billy Ficca. During its brief but exhilarating moment in the sun, The Waitresses also scored with the theme song for TV's Square Pegs (starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Jami Gertz) and that love-comes-to-the-cynical classic, "Christmas Wrapping." The Trouser Press Record Guide declared that "The Waitresses' combination of musical aplomb and lyrical acuity makes the first LP funny, sad and true", and The New Rolling Stone Record Guide commended the "collection of chirpy wise-ass songs, some truly witty...screamingly funny and relatable."
But all good things come to an end, and so it went with The Waitresses after just one album, one EP, a live CD from the "King Biscuit Flower Hour", and a 'Best-Of' compilation. As Butler wrote in the liner notes for the latter release: "Remember when you were little and you were scared of the dark? Well, you were right...there is evil in the night, and it's very easy to become a victim of too much fun. But it's so embarrassing! How could a bunch of stubborn people who refuse to be clich≈Ω stumble smack into a typical show biz crash and burn. Maybe it's because 'that which ye be the most afraid of is guaranteed to happen'...so you can work through it and come out the other side and not be afraid anymore."
Butler spent the rest of that decade doing freelance writing for technical and music magazines, as well as producing artists including Joan Osborne, Freedy Johnston and Scruffy the Cat. He picked up a gig as musical director for a live performance TV series Two Drink Minimum, which was seen on Comedy Central. He also continued to write songs in, as he wryly puts it, "hard-won obscurity". Butler is unusual in the sense that he doesn't need to be signed to a label or use OPM (Other People's Money) in order to realize his muse. "I'm not one to wait around to be given permission to do something," he says. "If I have an idea, no matter how nutty, I go after it." That's how he won his spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for "The World's Longest Pop Song" with The Devil Glitch, a 69-minute opus containing more than 500 verses. (Let's see him perform that one without a teleprompter).
The following year, Butler released a 12-song CD entitled I Feel A Bit Normal Today, which he calls "bent pop"; Pulse deemed it "a work of genius by a master songwriter". And in 2001, Butler went back to his invent-a-group concept with Un Petit Gouter - The Best of Kilopop!, a faux 'greatest-hits' CD by Kilopop!, a Euro-pop confection. "This was such a blast to work on," he recalls. "It was a total inside joke that some writers got, and ran with. Although I take these projects very seriously, they all have an element of fun, and this was the most fun." Butler 'reminisces' about meeting "Furk and Trynka Zhenk in the '60's when I was an AFS student in Bi√¥t, France. I was having a terrible time with the language and culture (so were they...their Finnish, Maltese and Romanian backgrounds didn't prepare them for the impatient French)...I can honestly say that without Kilopop!, there would have been no Waitresses, since I based my group's sound, lyrical slant and presentation 100% on them." He later went on to take a poke at the music industry's famed litigiousness by creating a 'lawsuit' over the CD's release, complete with snippy quotes: "'I've had nothing to do with these people,' Butler commented. 'I don't know who they are, and I don't know why they are doing this to me. The whole thing is one big hoax - I'm being exploited for someone else's gain, and I don't like it one bit."
As he explained back then: "Waitresses songs have been covered by everyone from Jay-Z and Li'l Kim to Vitamin C and The Spice Girls, but I had lots of other orphan songs 'in the can.' Some were commissioned, written or co-written with the express purpose of being pop hits, but for whatever reason, none were ever used. Now - with Kilopop! - I'm covering my own songs! Also," he added without a trace of false humility, "I've always wanted to be a success in Europe!"
In lieu of hitting the big time in Belgium, Butler kept busy in the States by playing drums with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. Then, in 2001, Butler put out Easy Life, accompanied by an 'alt.easylife.cd' of outtakes. The song cycle of 11 tunes and spoken-word recordings was based on the 1970 killings of four students by the National Guard at Kent State University; Butler was at the anti-Vietnam War demonstration where the shootings took place. He wanted to "commemorate the years I spent in Kent, Ohio (1967 - 1978). It was the most exciting, dangerous and creative time of my life...Sometimes you have to wait until you're mature enough, or have lived long enough, in order to capture and articulate your feelings about certain events. A 19-year-old can't do King Lear."
Once Butler got that out of his system, he could go on to curate The Museum of Me. He says he does "have plans to tour behind this record, if the response is positive," although he's still working out how to approximate the sound quality in a live setting. Being ever resourceful, Butler believes he may have found the answer: "When I perform these songs, I'll ask the audience to make crackling and hissing noises...just to get the ambiance right!"