Christopher Butler: The Veteran Cleveland Rocker And Waitresses Founder Has Still Got It "Togehter!"

Former Waitresses Founder Releases New CD, "Got It Togehter"

CLEVELAND, OHIO – Songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, visual artist, Christopher Butler, may not be a household name to most outside the Ohio music scene, but has played a significant role in music and art spanning some 40 years. “I was born and lived in Cleveland, before moving to Kent in 1967 for college,” Butler told Standing Room Only in an exclusive interview. “I stayed in Kent until 1977, then I moved to Tin Huey’s band house in Akron.”

Article by Joe Milliken * Lead photo by Deane Nattles. Remaining photos courtesy of Christopher Butler/Beth Becker.

Butler might be best known for conceptualizing The Waitresses, a fictional band best known for the 80s hit singles “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas Wrapping.” However, this was really just the tip of the iceberg for Butler, who’s musical projects and influence are far more reaching than simply a radio-friendly (and one of this writer’s favorite) Christmas song. Butler was a major player in what is now considered the influential 70s Cleveland/Akron/Kent music and art scene along with the likes of Mark Mothersbaugh and Devo, Chrissie Hynde and Jack Rabbit, the aforementioned Tin Huey, The Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels, Pere Ubu, Rachel Sweet and 15 – 16 – 75 (The Numbers Band.)

“My first band was at summer camp in New Hampshire called The Levis, and I played ‘drums’ on a chair and drummer’s practice pad and our guitarist, played a beautiful Gibson J-45 with a pick-up plugged into a film projector speaker! The first song I ever played with them was “Run Chicken Run” by Link Wray.

"My high school band was The Disciples and there were two competitive bands in our school, the rich kid’s band with good gear and played the British Invasion stuff, while our band had homemade speaker cabinets and played R & B, hot rod and juvenile delinquent music. We had a sax player and a black lead singer – integrated bands were rare at that time and we played the usual teen clubs, but also played gigs ‘downtown,’ quite an education for a white kid from the ‘burbs.’”

After high school (1967) Butler attended Kent State university and immersed himself in the music, arts and film scene. Overall, the experience was a creative and happy one, however, Butler was also smack-dab in the middle of the infamous Kent Ohio National Guard shootings, which has had a lasting effect on him. “May 4 is the single defining moment of my life,” Chris explained. “When one gets hit with a major trauma causing PTSD, it stays with you and colors everything what follows forever.

“I wanted to record something about the event for years, but just never felt ready. Though May 4 was horrible, the time before the murders was wonderful and I loved being a young arty kid surrounded by smart, creative people. That is what I expressed in my CD, Easy Life (released in 2014), and that time period is still inspiring and when I want to write a song that exalts creativity and freedom, that’s where I ‘go psychologically.’”

Overall, Butler fondly remembers a fantastic experience during his time at Kent State. “Kent had great film, English and Art departments and we had a world-class independent filmmaker, Richard Myers, as our film professor and all us Boho kids were extras in his films and I even had a few close-ups! Art and poetry were everywhere and the KSU events committee brought in everyone from Phil Ochs to Alan Kaprow.”

Musically during this time, Butler played rhythm guitar in a blues band called City Limits. “City Limits was sort of The Numbers Band farm team, led by Bob Kidney’s younger brother, Jack, and I played guitar. Then, Jack joined his brother and they’re still playing together 48 years later, and they kill it every night... amazing!”

As mentioned, Butler found himself entrenched in the Cleveland/Akron/Kent music scene, but could he sense something special or groundbreaking was happening? “It was enormous fun but a small, tight scene. It wasn’t so much ground breaking but defiant because we were largely ignored by the local media and radio stations, which also gave us an enormous amount of freedom since no one cared what you were doing. I learned how to write songs and record using 8-track machines in basements."

Butler was in The Numbers Band from 1975 to 1978, which was a demanding, full-time commitment, and then reconnected with friend Liam Steinberg, a guitarist in an Elvis impersonator’s band. Chris and Liam started writing songs together but had no vehicle for their songs and no spare time to play them. “So, we invented two imaginary bands – The Waitresses and Jane Aire & The Belvederes,” Butler said.

“I started a fanzine called Blank to ‘publicize’ the bands’ exploits, as well as promote all the cool art and music that was going on around Kent that the media was mostly ignoring. I wrote "Boys Like” when I was in Tin Huey and it sat around until I moved to New York City in 1979 and got a record deal. The label needed a B-side and they asked where my band was, so I fibbed and said they were back in Ohio. Patty (Donahue) came to New York City and we put a real band together.

Into the 80s Butler became more interested in songwriting and producing, as opposed to playing in bands. “I got pretty good at knowing my way around a recording studio, thanks to Mark Price and Rick Dailey having 8-track machines back in Akron, and I just wanted to be a songwriter – no more bands. Then I started getting calls to ‘come ‘round to people’s recording sessions.’ I started collecting good instruments and microphones and was getting calls to produce – New York City was vibrant! I worked with a bunch of avant garde, quirky bands such as Dizzy & The Ramilars, Art, The Mind Control Salsa Orchestra, The Holy Sheets with Mars Williams, Ralph Carney and Mark Kramer."

In 1982, Butler wrote and The Waitresses recorded the theme song for the cult television sitcom Square Pegs, after being invited by former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts. The band also appeared in the premiere episode as a band performing “I Know What Boys Like” at a school dance. In the end, however, the band was forced to sign off the publishing rights to the theme song and never received proper credit. “It was basically a saga of 48 hours with no sleep, high-pressure songwriting, and then ultimate betrayal.”

In the 90s Butler wrote what is now in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “longest pop song,” a little ditty called “The Devil Glitch,” which originally had a breakdown ending of 12 verses – that eventually turned into over 500! “I had played the song for my pal, Nick Berry, apologizing for it being too long, but we eventually concluded that the problem was that it wasn’t too long – but too short! I kept writing verses, recorded them with an acoustic guitar and started passing out five-minute chunks to people around the world to finish the backing tracks. The engineer glued them together and the song grew and grew to over five hours long. It’s still too short, though, I want it to go on for days and days and we’re still looking for contributors."

After releasing I Feel A Bit Normal Today on his own Future Fossil Records label in 1997, Butler also released The Best of Kilopop, which he dubbed the “fictional, second best band in Europe.” “The origins of Kilopop is a result of being asked to write songs for some pretty well-known artists and with the demand they needed something immediately. So, I would accept the challenge, but none of these songs would ever get used. So, what to do with all these songs? Since I’d always fantasized about being successful in Europe so I could move there, I invented a fictional European band that did have hit records! So, my good friend and graphic genius, Keith Allison, ran with the idea and created a backstory and history of the ‘band’... it’s really funny and smart.”

Chris is also a talented visual artist, creating and contributing to various conceptual projects through the years including the “Klondike: International Fluxes Group Show” at Cal Arts, a 300-foot wall space exhibition at the prestigious art institute. “That was so much fun! My friend, Allen Bukoff, is a research psychologist and artist interested in the Fluxus movement of the mid-60s. Allen rented a gallery at Cal Arts and sold one foot of gallery space for anyone to do whatever they wanted!”

Currently, Butler is quite busy with his music, art and film projects. “This is a great time in my life as I’m working on new songs, I’ve made two short films, and am about to head to England where a documentary is being made about my “Christmas Wrapping” song, which is more popular there than here in America.”

Butler also just released his latest CD on November 14, Got It Togehter, (yes, purposely spelled differently) his first disc of new music since 2014’s Easy Life. The disc features a multitude of styles, vibes and unique perspectives from a songwriter who has experienced a lot, including a couple stories from my interview with Chris that are not included in this very article. “Got It Togehter is the other half of an audio diptych. If Easy Life was me as a student, Got It Togehter is me as an adult. I wanted to write songs that were for my demographic, that captured our experiences but still ‘rocked.’

“I play most of the instruments, with inspired contributions from Marc Paige and Taylor Macintosh (reeds), and backing vocals by Taylor, Harvey Gold, Friday Mike Wilkenson, who are all members of our current band Half Cleveland. Some of the tracks have been in the can for years, while others are fresh and new! Although it’s not the best marketing approach, I’ve joked that no one under the age of 40 should bother with this record, because they haven’t lived enough and won’t get most of the references or audio inspirations.” Well, perhaps if you have an “old soul” you can still qualify.
(Editor's note: Please see my review of Got It Togehter in the review section)