Chris Butler interview
by Jason Gross
Though new wave fans might just remember them for "I Know What Boys Like," New York's Waitresses served many other appetizing dishes than that. Starting out from the ashes of under-rated odd-ball art-pop/rockers Tin Huey, proud Ohio native Chris Butler turned a small project with singer Patty Donahue in the late 70's into a full-time concern as they transplanted themselves into Gotham, rounding up a full band that included Television's drummer and former members of no-wave legends the Contortions. The misunderstood "Boys" (which was only one side of Patty's character that she played as singer) became a surprise hit in '82 and the band followed up with the now-classic holiday tune "Christmas Wrapping" (a rap done even before Run-DMC had a record out) and the theme song for TV show Square Pegs. Sadly, things began to unravel as the bright lights went to Patty's head and Butler couldn't hold the band together, leaving the group busted up only a few years after "Boys" and a grand total of two albums (1982's Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? and 1983's Bruiseology) and an EP in their wake.
Since then, Butler has been a producer, label head and solo artist, crafting among other things, the brilliant, lengthy, record-breaking "Devil's Glitch." Patty went on to work in the record biz before she passed away in 1996 from cancer. Omnivore Recordings is just now putting out Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses, which includes all of the above band music and some rarities thrown in for good measure so that 80's fans can find out what they might have missed otherwise. We recently interrogated Butler about the up's and down's, hi's and low's, main courses, bad meals and greasy-spoon servings swirling around the group.
PSF: What were your ideas for a new band when Tin Huey was winding down?
CB: Honestly? My ideas for a new band were NOT TO BE IN A BAND. I wanted to be just a songwriter. Even before TH, I thought "boy…this band thing is exhausted for me". But TH was immense fun, and probably THE most talented bunch of cats I've every had the pleasure of playing with. But tho we'd run our course and I had moved to NYC, they had really left their mark on me = improvisational players, soloists, left-left field inspirations like Ornette & Robert Wyatt et al. I had also gotten used to writing songs for TH's instrumentation (keyboards & brass), and loved the arrangement possibilities vs. just the traditional guitar/bass/drums. I thought of myself as way beyond that punk-y trope of "two chords = good, three chords = snores. TH was very versatile, hard-working, not afraid to be silly, very accomplished, etc. = a very high bar, so I thought if I was gonna do another band, it would have to be just as multi-dimensional.
PSF: Was the project with Patty Donahue initially a one-off or did you have long-term plans for that?
CB: One-off... or maybe a Three-off? Patty would come on stage when/where Tin Huey played, as an encore treat, and we would don "Waitresses Unite" t-shirts and do the three or so songs that made up the entire Waitresses catalog at the time. It was something fun to do. Nick Nicholas had his Clone Records label, tho, and was doing Akron compilations, so there was an outlet for the few songs that were Waitress-y. Then David Robinson showed up from Stiff, and here was another chance to get something released under the Waitresses name. But my focus was on Tin Huey, The Waitresses being an imaginary "side project" band.
PSF: What attracted you to work with Patty In the first place?
CB: She was game! Kent had a fantastic music scene = a strip of like 8-10 bars, each with a band playing original music = really unique fro the time. And Patty was a Gurl-About-Town, dating the drummer of the band I was in at the time (15-60-75, a/k/a "The Numbers Band"). She was funny and smart, had a wry wit, super-skinny, and was a sorta bright spot on the scene. There was a lot of creativity and energy in Kent – loved it – but I had been there for ten years and that was enough. And inertia had set in – it was tough to rev up to escape velocity. This inertia was also built-in to the scene: Kent was comfy, rent was cheap, etc.. So folks would talk about Big Plans and getting out, but the suction was strong. Then, along came interest in the songs I was writing, but I couldn't get anyone to sing them, or they were wrong, or unmotivated or whatever. It is a true story that I went to our local watering hole at lunchtime in frustration, stood on a chair and announced that I needed a singer for a song... and Patty, piped up (with a few beers to give her courage) and said "I'll do it!"
PSF: Could you talk about how the rest of the band came together? Snagging Billy Ficca from Television was a bit of a coup and you had a pretty varied crew otherwise too.
CB: When Island/Antilles wanted to release " Boys Like" as a single 45, this required a B-side. "Where's the band?," they asked me. I fibbed and said "um…back in Akron?" When I moved to NYC in October '79, I'd asked around re: who was the coolest band in town these days? I was told The Contortions, so I went to Bleecker Bob's and bought their records. I tracked down the musicians thru Pat Place, who was the cashier at the Bleecker St. Cinema. It was really important to me that Pat, Jody Harris, Don Christensen and Dave Hofstra were ALL ex-pat Midwesterners – they came to NYC all fired up and practiced up, and with ideas and a strong work ethic. Donny had a loft with recording equipment and was generous with his time – I recorded demos of my songs there. Ralph Carney (sax on "Boys Like") had moved to NYC, too, and he lead me to Dan Klayman (another Buckeye). Patty was free, so I wired her (true story) my last $50 for bus fare to NYC. This is the unit that recorded "No Guilt". Thru Ralph, I met Mars Williams, who was living in Woodstock and working as Anthony Braxton's copyist. Donny decided to devote his energies to The Raybeats who were just starting up, so I tracked down Billy Ficca, whom I had met when Tin Huey had opened for Television's last shows at The Bottom Line. He was free, so he was the next to join. Then Dave wanted to get more into playing jazz on acoustic bass. Pal Billy Ylitalo saw Tracy on the street carrying a bass gig bag and put us together. Kind of a twisted story, but typical of the reshuffling that was part of the NYC rock/no wave/jazz scene at the time. Very different from my history of 'We Are A Band And We Are Together Thru Think And Thin that is the Midwestern' experience.
PSF: Were you surprised by the success of "I Know What Boys Like"? Were you concerned afterwards that it overshadowed the rest of the band's songs?
CB: Yes. In the context of my tastes for more arty, experimental music, and from the reaction of like-minded peers, the song was easy to dismiss as an anomaly. Yes, again. There was so much more in my head and in the band's potential. All the follow-up songs were a reaction to it, fleshing out a real person/character vs. just describing a cock-teaser. The very 2nd song – "No Guilt" is the perfect example of my back-pedaling, for here we have a woman who is vulnerable, contemplative and just beginning to sense her new-found independence. "Boys Like" is a very angry song, really, and I felt compelled to write a more complete human into existence. Patty/the "character" was a rich, complex person, not just a monochromatic sexy chick.
PSF: What made you interview many women in relation to the first album? How did you incorporate that into your work?
CB: I grew up in a loveless household: lots of loneliness, confusion, hostility... especially from the females in the family. This predisposes you to pondering how do you extract love from the Universe?…or at least the women around you? I wanted to trust women – I wanted a Big Sister who was cool and wise and a survivor – not the basket cases I grew up with. That brings up my problem of idealizing women, but now we're getting too shrinky, so I'll stop there. So... not so much "interviewing" as listening carefully. I'm also historically many women's best girlfriend, because I do like women and I do listen, so I have many female pals. I guess my questions were/are the same as any other hetero male: why won't she love me when I love her?/how can I satisfy my partner? (in all ways, not just sexually)/how do I ask for what I want without being too aggressive?/etc. Then, mentally, flip the roles, and start thinking how a woman would react: What do "I" want?/How do I get these knucklehead men to respect me?/etc. The early `80's were very much a time of strong feminist currents, and I didn't have to look very far to be influenced by that.
PSF: When you were writing, did you have Patty's style or voice in mind? Did that influence your songs?
CB: Sure. Her strengths were her swagger and delivery…tongue in cheek…or tongue in your cheek, if she was feeling frisky. Since her vocal range was limited, I had to rely on her wit rather than her ability to belt out a song. She was very good at this, tho, right up there with the great talkers – Lotte Lenya, Sophie Tucker = what they said mattered more than singing ditties. And there is an old adage about lyrics not mattering in pop songs? Well, they certainly did in our situation. My brief was to make every line funny or poetic or interesting, or at least not embarrassing if quoted!
PSF: "Christmas Wrapping" has been kind of a holiday classic now. How did the song come about?
CB: Here is a piece I wrote on this:
How The Waitresses's "Christmas Wrapping" got 'writ'.
"I can't force songwriting... otherwise the results sound dishonest or contrived. I wait for inspiration. I find that when I'm in a harmonious state, the ideas flow freely. I need to have everything organized. A clean workspace. My favorite pen. One doesn't "write"... one can only make oneself receptive, and the ideas will then flow into your consciousness naturally. The songs write themselves... the `work' is getting yourself out of the way so they can do their thing."
"... so The Stones were in Studio C... mixing I guess... been locked in there for days. We had just finished our all-night session and the sun was coming up. Nice morning, so I thought I'd walk home. Passed a dumpster near 5th Ave., and on top of the garbage was Keith Richard... zonked out on an old mattress. I shook him awake. `Hey Keith,' I asked, `are you okay? Want me to call a taxi to take you home?' `I am home', he growled... and passed out again."
Mike Frondelli is holding court in Studio B at Electric Lady Studios in New York's Greenwich Village. That's Hendrix's old playpen, and Mike is one of their top engineers. People go through their whole musical careers without ever getting to work in such a fantastic environment.
And if it had been under different circumstances, I might've actually enjoyed being there.
It's August, 1981... high summer and a zillion degrees... and my band The Waitresses are recording a Christmas song. There is so much wrong with this picture I'm not sure where to begin complaining. We are toast from too many months on the road, trying to turn "I Know What Boys Like" (our minor hit that would not break through, but also would never go away) into some kind of career with legs. I have no time to write material for a second album, let alone steal a few precious moments to cobble together something about a holiday that I absolutely loathed. I am Super Scrooge - when everyone is getting all misty watching "It's A Wonderful Life", I'm the guy yelling "Jump, George Bailey, jump!" at the TV screen.
This was all Michael Zilkha's idea. We were signed to his Ze Records, and he had come up with the concept of everyone on his roster contributing an original song for a Christmas record. Only Ze was not the home of artists capable of warm, fuzzy holiday sentiments: Michael's tastes ran to the coolly exotic and extremely experimental (like Suicide/Alan Vega, Lydia Lunch, Lizzie Mercier)... a Halloween record, maybe?... or one commemorating that Mexican holiday where they honor the dead? I'd heard his girlfriend Christina's cut—a touching story of two junkies trimming a cactus with their works and some stolen diamond earrings. But I guess that was Michael's vision... it was the Ironic Age, after all.
We had hoped that Michael would forget about the whole thing, but he stayed smitten with this idea, and the next thing I knew he had booked us into Electric Lady and I had three days to come up with something.
Make-it-a-story-about-a-working-girl-too-tired-to-celebrate-the-holiday-too-tired-to-get-"in the spirit"-but-the-spirit-happens-anyway-'cause-that's-the-"magic-of-Christmas"-blah-blah-blah-make-it-non-religeous-think-Dickens-add-a-love-theme-gotta-have-a-love-theme-this-is-pop-music-after-all-crib-some-music-from-another-half-finished-tune-it-will-have-to-do-think-Preston- Sturges-think-O. Henry's "Gift Of The Magi"-gotta-have-a-title-Kurtis-Blow-had-a-song-"Christmas-Rapping"- mine-has-a-wrap-around-plot-that's-tied-up-neat-as-a-ribbon-'round-a-Christmas-gift-call-it- Christmas-Wrapping-a-pun!-puns-are-good-fuck-just-get-it-done-just-get-it-DONE!
And record and mix it in two days. Finish the lyrics on the cab ride over to the studio. Play the band my crappy home demo. Grunt out an idea for a brass part. Call Dave Buck and pray that he's free to add a trumpet. Try to keep my Vox teardrop guitar in tune. Nice Marshall amp. Gee, that Steinway sounds kinda great. Wow... Patty!... nice job!... two takes and she nails the vocal. Hey... this is actually working out okay.
We pulled it off.
And when it's done, it's promptly forgotten, `cause we immediately leave for another three months on the road. Michael Zilkha thinks it's `nice'. That's it... 'nice'. Well, we were the token squares amongst his collection of misfits—ex-pat Midwesterners with a strong Protestant work ethic (and perhaps a slight aroma of... what is that?... ah yes... cow manure?). So what did he expect? Who cares?... we did what he asked, and never mind that he didn't have the $500 for the van since August Darnell had spent $100,000 on Kid Creole & The Coconut's record and live shows.
And then it's November something-th, and we are in Rochester, NY, and I call home and my wife says "you are all over the radio!" and I say "great! "Boys Like" is finally getting some real play" and she says "no... it's that Christmas song."
I love the music business.
PSF: Also, on the same EP (I Could Rule the World If I Only Had The Parts) it appeared on, why did you revisit the Tin Huey (title) song?
CB: We needed a high-energy, rock-ish tune, and I didn't have one. Thankfully, "ICRTWIIOHTP" is fun to play. Also, done because TH's A & R person at Warners - Karin Berg - liked it, and she had been instrumental in getting The Waitresses signed, too = a tip o' the hat. And the song is also a droll statement about being an ambitious, "between albums", middle-level band vs. just being a song about hardware!
PSF: Could you also talk about Square Pegs and how the group got hooked up with that show?
CB: I'm writing an audio story about this, and would rather hold on to that patch of hysterical misery, ok? Basically, the show's creator, Ann Beatts, was a fan of sorts. She asked us to be the musical guest in the pilot, then when we were in LA, she pushed us to write a theme song. I do have to say that the experience solidified all my prejudices against the TV business.
PSF: How did Bruiseology differ from the first record as you saw it? I thought it was actually a stronger, very under-rated album.
CB: I had been forced for the first time in my chaotic, irresponsible life to have a plan for something, in this case, the band. I thought of the Waitresses as a three-album project – a triptych. Act I = meet the band & the character. Act II = our heroine's struggles. Act III = "Patty" triumphant. So Act II was planned as something darker, more introverted. The U.S. was in a recession at the time - this was the era of "Allentown", etc., so I thought dark would work. But you can't time the market, so when the record came out, joy and greed had returned. Oops. I do think the record has some of my best songs, tho.
PSF: 1984 was a tough and crazy year for the band with Patty leaving and returning and then the group breaking up. From your perspective, what was going on and why did all of this happen?
CB: Actually more in '83, I think. Terrible, terrible times. The music biz is hard enough to deal with: throw in people's personal demons, our collective over work, my chronic insecurities about my skills, and an ambitious drive for forcing the music biz to respect and to fund our artistic visions and blam... there's just no way to finesse all this. All props to Patty's courage for doing something she had no background in doing. Hugely anxiety producing for her, but as a natural she did great. But also as a natural, it was very hard for her to give herself credit and accumulate confidence, especially when each new career level requires meeting more and higher demands. Basically, Patty "broke" first during the recording of Bruiseology in England. She had little to do until it was time to do vocals, so she filled the time with excesses. We ran out of time to do her vocals, and the pressure was too much. Off she goes. Later, she hooked up with some bad companions, and a truly sleazeball attorney who played on her vulnerabilities and who tried to convince me to put "the band" on salary and basically stiff them in the classic show biz tradition. I refused. I tried to keep things going with Holly Beth Vincent, but that ended badly when she no-showed at a show at Columbia University. That was it for me, and I began my new career as a fulltime mental patient. I think it took me five years to pull out of a clinical depression. I could not fathom the betrayal, could not deal with an alcoholic and all the irrationality that comes with this disease. I was feminist sensitive, and did all I could to avoid any sort of exploitation – I was not a "Swengali" or ever got "funny with the money" – but I ended up being accused of everything that I'd worked so hard to avoid. I had strove to not be any sort of show biz cliché, but I fell right into the oldest of these: the plot line of A Star Is Born...or perhaps even closer: All About Eve.
PSF: How do you look back on those days with Patty and the band now? What were some high points? How do you think it effected your work afterwards?
CB: I loved the backward masking prank on the I Could Rule The World EP. Great gigs at Perkin's Palace in Pasadena. A crummy little after-party in an unheated space dead of winter Chicago. Having a vehicle for my songs and ideas. What a great bunch of players! - an awesome, accomplished band! I was keenly aware of and super-interested in the woman's movement. I am a hardcore Lefty, and here was this major revolution going on around me and it deserved learning about, aligning oneself with, and incorporating into popular music. I/we were not kids when the band hit – we were adults and all were struggling and determined to live a rich, authentic, creative life. That is a way different brief than just writing pop/teenage courtship songs for money. I believe/d in rock `n' roll (still) as a medium for art, personal and spiritual liberation. All those great old hippie values & promises. Well, I kept going with this. I have/had fun in my work – I love creative pranks, but I write for my age group now. I'm a geezer, so my stuff reflects that too.
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