Butch Willis and the Infinite Weirdness
photo by John Heyn, from the Teenbeat site
by Kevin Chesser
I haven't been myself for some time now. I go through my day, wandering streets and shifting lenses inside my mind. I look longingly into the space between the wall and the fridge. I play my guitar out of tune. I am in a perpetual daze, searching for something both ambiguous in gravity and mass. But lately, I've been again and again tracing the beginning of this phase back to the past winter, when, tucked away in a modest basement apartment in Takoma Park, MD, a friend of mine first showed me the music of Butch Willis & the Rocks. So that we may take this journey together, I invite you to the watch the video below.
Live in the studio, 1985
Something about it – maybe the show's host, Mr. Rock & Roll, clad in a ski mask, and eating a bag of potato chips as he introduces the band, or the bassist standing atop a square platform who is really riding some sort of wave, rattled something loose in the deeper recesses of my consciousness. Butch Willis, dressed in an ill-fitting white dress shirt, skin tight, neon-blue pants, massive platform shoes, sunglasses, and sporting a DEFCON 1 mullet, leads his motley (though sincere) backing band through two songs of profound and disquieting weirdness. His trembling hands and thick Maryland drawl make him inscrutable, but somehow still, completely relatable. Al Breon's ‘throat guitar' (the man chopping at his throat to produce a warbling noise) nearly overshadows the actual lead guitar player.
It's a strange and disjointed aural attack, on its surface influenced by the standard canon of ‘60's & ‘70's era hard and classic rock. But the unsteadiness and unnatural procession of the band's music makes it sound strangely foreign, apropos of something unseen. The rhythms are labored and oddly devoid of syncopation. The lead guitarist is obviously taking his licks very seriously, but several shots of the drummer, Joe Lee, (of beloved DC area record store Joe's Record Paradise) reveal some percolating discomfort. Breon's warped throat chopping fills out the gaps between nearly each line and verse, with little regard to the movement of the rest of the band. Rhythm guitarist Dean Evangilista goes largely unnoticed throughout the first song, but produces some truly atmospheric sounds on a synthesizer during the second (Dean later went on to play with bizarre DC punkers No Trend). Willis's vocals are off-pitch, nasal, and primitive, but undeniably genuine in feeling. “The Girl's On My Mind" features a spoken word interlude from Butch that is not entirely unlike the kind of monologue one might hear on a classic country record:
“Well believe it or not people, one day I woke up and had this feeling that my girl was looking for me! So I went looking for my girl. And I found nothing. Nothing but streets and roads," he shouts.
A minute or so later, it becomes obvious that the fog machine is out of control. During the last minute of the performance, drummer Joe Lee tires of the equipment malfunction and dramatically storms out, as the last squawks of throat guitar and synthesizer dissipate, enveloped in a thick, blinding haze.
Butch Willis acapella, live 1996
It's an absolutely marvelous piece of ephemera both visually and sonically. The studio is a patchwork of gray walls, crooked posters, an American flag hung directly above the drum-kit, and a couple of televisions stacked on top of each other, one on, one off. The jarring, off-kilter sounds of Butch & his band could not fit more perfectly in this studio, filtered through classic public television film stock. But these colors, sights, and sounds are actually far from ephemeral; rather, they are the wet dreams of many contemporary artists.
The resurgence of interest in many of the grainy aesthetics of the ‘70's & ‘80's isn't hard to find. People are craving the flavor of analog. Digital has become too powerful. It's become both an indispensable and alienating force. Take, for instance, Ariel Pink, whose drugged-up outsider persona and homemade dream pop records full of armpit farting drew the attention of Animal Collective, landed him on their label, Paw Tracks, and subsequently earned him a massive cult following.
John Maus has also gained quite a bit of popularity through similar endeavors, though with a distinctly cleaner and radio-ready vibe.
The dated sounds of ‘70's/'80's electro-music, as well as the look of early music videos, public television, and VHS tapes have also been revisited in a disturbing capacity by wildly popular Adult Swim comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is known for being one of cable's most disturbing and aggressively weird programs, and has brought some public attention to the work of singer and puppeteer, David Liebe Hart. Hart's ineffectuality as a ventriloquist, abrasive singing, and straight-faced, didactic tone is pure comic joy, but like Willis, his shtick begs the eternal question of self-awareness. What's the intent? Do these artists understand where they fit in on the spectrum of art? Or, is it even possible to create such effective strangeness if the artist is going about it ironically?
I'm tempted to just end this article right now, to be quite honest. There's that part of me that's saying: entertain me and I don't care if you're a certified lunatic or a master scam artist of irony. If an artist is good at being weird, why should I care how they personally regard their own creations?
But it's true that much of the draw of artists like Willis is inherent in their own self-unawareness. The idea that someone could set out to make music in hopes of garnering mainstream success and end up with something that is essentially the opposite poses a host of fascinating questions about the nature of art and the human psyche.
Within this stratum of musicians however, I can think of few other artists whose sincerity in approach and rawness are as engaging. Butch's presence is vulnerable and extremely human. Fellow outsiders like Wesley Willis and Gordon Thomas had this same vulnerable quality to them, but neither Willis's obscene comedy nor Thomas's bumbling smooth-jazz utterances pack the same kind of genuine emotional punch that Butch's songs do.
And likewise, the outsider-ish antics of guys like R. Stevie Moore and Butch's former roommate, Root Boy Slim, possess just a little bit too much calculated weirdness to get under one's skin the way that Butch's music can.
R. Stevie Moore
Root Boy Slim
Despite a life marked by obscurity, substance abuse, and mental illness, Butch's contributions to rock and roll have not gone completely unnoticed – along with being interviewed and documented by Heavy Metal Parking lot director Jeff Krulik, nearly a dozen of his albums are available through Teen-Beat records, a label that's also released work by Gastr Del Sol, Bratmobile, and Stereolab.
Butch Willis interview
Butch's truth in the telling of his own story, made rough by unconventionality and tempered with an oddball sensitivity, makes him a stand-out amongst outsider artists. His thoughts on rock and roll, summed up here from an interview with Phil Milstein, say it all:
PM: So this is your true calling, then?
BW: I think it is. I think of rock and roll as the new church. I thought about that years ago.
PM: What do you mean by that?
BW: In other words, I think it talks about what's real, as far as, like, you can wish and get it no matter what it is, anybody can do this unless there's something really pressing you by the karma or something, karma really getting down on you and won't let you have what you want, but most people, if they wish for something, they get it.
For more about Butch Willis, see his page at Teen-Beat
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