On his latest, Hamburger Soup, Butler has tried to further squelch his laughabilly half by making the album strictly instrumental, but again — consider the title. He’s still fighting off the ha-ha’s. Looking at the track list on the album still wasn’t enough to convince me this wasn’t just another collection of parodies: “Drooling Idiots,” “Funky Mormon,” and “Mr. Bumpy” to name a few. But once I listened to “Squirrelly,”, another cut off the album, my opinion changed. He calls this music his own genre, Frazz: a mishmash of jazz, folk and rock.
Cox and Butler have known each other since they were both 18. They met at the Edmonton Folk Festival. (Is Edmonton a “Big Festival” I wonder?) I asked him about Butler’s “music versus comedy” conundrum.
“Todd loves to get a response from his audience and he’s a master at soliciting a response,” says Cox. “I think music often takes a little more time to reach the crowd than his [parodies] and he has a bit of a hard time fully trusting his musicianship when he can reach out and grab his crowd faster with a funny bit.
“His comedy routines often overshadow his musicianship,” Cox continues, “But they have also allowed him to maintain a career while living in a fairly isolated place, so I think it’s both a blessing and a curse for him.”
In other words, being funny has paid the bills for Butler. This may seem surprising since much of Butler’s fame has come from working with the CBC and we all know that isn’t going to make anyone rich. But Butler’s main income is from the corporate entertainment circuit, where he puts together shows for conventions and meetings. It’s easy money.
“I customize a few songs for these things,” he explains. I just did the Canadian Association of Engineers. So these big engineering companies – their CEOs and their wives – are having this big conference up in Whistler. I spent about three days working on songs for the engineers: researching their vernacular; what the issues in the industry are and how I can make that funny; talking with them on the phone, finding out who can I pick on in the crowd.”
“That takes priority for sure,” Butler confesses. “That’s my bread and butter. ‘Cause there’s no cheque comin’ in unless I get out there and do something. And I’ve dug myself into — like everyone else — a financial situation that needs to be fed. It’s this monster that’s in the corner that, if I don’t feed it, is going to eat my house.”
That financial monster is the same one that inspired Leslie Mildiner to write Debt, around the time he met Todd in Whistler “I had a tune back then called ‘You Got a Degree,’ Butler recalls. “It’s basically about over qualified people who can’t find jobs in their training. You know, professors pumping gas, that kind of thing.” Mildiner heard the tune and shared his idea for a musical inspired, in part, by his own experience of bankruptcy. They started work together. Mildiner would write a scene and send it to Butler and Butler would write up a tune to go with it.
They performed a workshop version of Debt at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival, with five actors and three musicians. The show was well received, but not well enough. Though Mildiner recorded the performance and worked hard to promote it, there were no takers. In 2007, they tried another line of attack.
“We re-tooled some of it and did a workshop, literally just a reading of the show, and invited a whole bunch of people down to see it,” explains Butler. “We videotaped that as well — made a DVD of it.”
Finally, Firehall decided they wanted to put it on.
Butler admits it was hard to keep excited about Debt’s success when it took so long to be picked up. “It’s frustrating. Almost to the point where I thought, ‘Well, Debt’s not going to happen.’” This was one of the few times in his life that his comedy hadn’t provided instant feedback.
In retrospect, Butler is grateful for the long wait. He’s had a chance to be away from the songs he wrote for Debt and now can take a fresh look at them and give them a final polish.
“Since I found out they were going to re-do the thing in an actual theatre, I’ve been re-visiting all the songs. And I’ve matured as a musician quite a bit in the last 10 years, so I’m just making it a little better. Taking each tune and playing with how I can improve it. Working with the more experience that I have now: on the harmony, the delivery, the timing, and all that.”
This is Butler’s first venture into writing musicals but he likes it enough that he has others in the works and is even considering writing one of his own.
“I’ve been writing notes on the first five years of my touring life. Like when I first got out of high school, playing the northern Alberta bars? Some unbelievable experiences — people just would simply not believe them.
“I saw some things that were so funny and so ridiculous, playing in Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie.” He shakes his head as he recalls, “I remember watching people get knifed — some of the most horrendous violence you could imagine at some of the biker bars.” Sometimes he’d be the act following the strippers. And he slept in some pretty scary places too. “You wouldn’t put a dog in some of the accommodations I was put in.”
And so begins another stream of the Todd Butler consciousness. Will he perfect musicals as skillfully as he has guitar and comedy? Perhaps.
Doug Cox sums it up best when he asks, “What happens when the class clown has a deep, talented artist lurking inside?” Todd Butler.