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"Out on a Whim:
This Fresno-bred music man spins songs that pull you in."


by Don Mayhew
The Fresno Bee, October 2000

Nate Butler is dressed for success.
The Fresno musician is wearing his "'Seinfeld' poet shirt" -- a white number with big, balloony sleeves -- dark shoes and knee-length pants with white stockings pulled up over his calves. His blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail.

Imagine the Father of Our Country went to visit Alice in Wonderland, and you're close.

Except there's no rabbit, no Cheshire Cat and no ruthless Queen of Hearts. This ain't no tea party. Butler is inside the Tower District nightclub Starline on a weeknight, rehearsing his Suede Mouse Trio. Nobody will lose a head tonight.

Slowly, the band chugs to life, warming up with blues chord changes and lyrics that tell the dirty little story of sound checks at clubs nationwide: "One, two. One, two."

Butler stands in the middle of the stage behind his keyboard, arms akimbo, a stern look on his face that belies the mischief in his heart.

As the rehearsal progresses, jokes flow freely, as do weird exchanges between the band and the sound booth. Someone says, "I need a little bit of Jeff in my monitor." This is considered a perfectly normal request. No one bats an eye.

Butler sets the jovial tone, rehearsing his introductions as well as his songs. He says to the mostly empty room about "I Hate Menthols" that, "Actually, I believe in freedom for all cigarettes."

Someone in the band jumps in: "But not as cartoon characters."

Butler grins, and the band leans into the song's refrain. The music, like much of what Butler is composing these days, is tenaciously theatrical.

He calls it "cabaret rock." Lots of pauses. Guitar and keyboard wail, full of '70s flourishes, sort of a Styx-meets-Supertramp-styled assault. Butler belts intimate stories of romantic entanglement and balancing a rock 'n' roll lifestyle with quirky domesticity.

"His music is a perfect reflection of who he is, very whimsical and flamboyant," says Rich McCulley, who plays guitar in the trio. "He's always entertaining you, even in conversation."

"He has a real ironic way of putting his lyrics into something catchy -- a whole life story in three minutes," says bassist Dave Norris, a former member of the Suede Mouse Trio who has played with Butler on and off for 15 years. "He steps into character -- it's just amazing how many characters he has. He's got a lot in his catalog."

No kidding. If all the world's a stage, Butler, 35, is making the most of it.

Besides the Suede Mouse Trio, Butler plays in the tribute band The Beetles and McCulley's rock band. Throughout the year, Butler also plays piano Friday nights at Yoshino Japanese Restaurant.

The Suede Mouse Trio is on hiatus until January while Butler, as he has the past seven years, performs a Christmas play for several thousand schoolchildren at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum.

Butler performs other children's theater. He also does storytelling. He manages about a dozen MP3.com "radio stations" that play music recorded exclusively by local musicians. He also is a comic book artist and has several ideas he'd like to turn into musicals.

His theatrics extend beyond his many public projects. If you call and get his answering machine, you might hear a little song or a "COPS" satire that doubles as a promotional tool for his Web site (www.natebutler.com).

Oh, yeah -- and leave a message after the beep.

"He's almost like a pirate poet," says Donny Marvin, who drums in the Suede Mouse Trio. "Whenever he sees my wife, he'll go up and kiss her hand."

Butler's fondness for the grand romantic gesture is tempered by an adventurous, almost twisted, sense of whimsy. His signature parting line these days, lifted from the musical "Into the Woods," is "It'll be fun -- you'll see."

Whether it's a boast, a threat or a promise is hard to say.

Butler's Yoshino gigs are a mix of show tunes, standards and surprises. He'll play Beethoven and Led Zeppelin back to back, or sneak in the theme song from "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (he's a big fan of the show) between "My Favorite Things" and "If I Only Had a Brain."

He plans to wed Cindy Schoonmaker of Fresno next spring, in a "mass parade wedding with goofy costumes," Butler says.

How did someone who grew up in a conventional household (dad's a lawyer, mom's an office manager) in a conventional town (Fresno) learn to appreciate the value of breaking traditions?

Butler says it's not so much breaking traditions as giving them a spin.

"I'm the kind of guy who gets a thrill walking on the same pavement in San Francisco that Jack Kerouac walked," Butler says.

But he believes touchstones are for leaping from.

"I liked being a kid," he says. "It's kind of a cliche, what they say about artists and the child within. But I'm always looking for something to turn me on. If you're going to do things for kids, you have to look for ways to make it fresh and exciting. I try to tell them, 'It's a great, big world out there -- go out and taste it.'"

Butler began playing in Fresno bands about 15 years ago, moving through experimental pop, jam-band grooves, alternative rock and Beatles covers.

Fresno left an imprint.

"When I grew up, it was sort of in a mellow suburbia," Butler says. "It wasn't urban, but it wasn't a small town, either. I grew up idealistic. I wasn't sheltered, but there wasn't a crime problem in the city then. There was no danger of being hit by bullets as part of a drug deal."

The security Butler felt allowed him to explore the freedom rock 'n' roll always seems to promise. Those early days were exciting, filled with the usual camaraderie and occasional excesses, he says.

But as Butler gets older, he's more protective of his down time. He's as fond of spending an afternoon watching old movies alone as he is getting up in front of an audience.

"It's all about youth," Butler says. "Until I was 22 or 23, I was like, 'Sure, drop by anytime.' [Now] I don't even have a drinking glass for friends. I don't have company."

His latest songs reflect the changes in his life. In one sense, he says, he's come full circle, creating songs that swim outside the pull of the mainstream.

But he also says, "My songs are better now. You learn a lot in 15-20 years of writing music. My songs are much better crafted, like a chair. You need a good chorus, a good verse, a good rhythm. Good songwriting is like craftsmanship."

He knows his cabaret rock is a tough sell.

"I'm not trying to sound like anything or anyone else," Butler says. "It isn't dance music. It's like theater, each song is a character piece. It's for adults. It's not angry. I have no traditional love songs. It's hard to market."

The critical success and small but devoted audiences of Ben Folds Five and Elliott Smith give Butler hope.

"My music is funny, it's quirky, it's melodic," Butler says.

It's also challenging, according to the Suede Mousers. Back at Starline, they run through a nine-song set a second time, trying to iron some of the wrinkles out.

"Playing his music is more like playing in an orchestra," Suede Mouse guitarist Jeff Fetters says. "Every instrument has its own defined part."

McCulley agrees: "There's no room for sleeping in this band. Nate's songs don't stay in one place. Most pop-rock has far fewer chord changes. You'll stay put, and the melody will move over it. But if you've ever watched theater music, even jazz, the chords move around as much as the melody. Nate's music often does that. But as complex as it is, it's catchy."

Marvin says Butler can be demanding.

"He's all business," Marvin says. "When you're rehearsing with Nate, you better be prepared. If you're in the same place you were the week before, he'll let you know."
But that doesn't mean he's all business all the time. A moment of mirth is never far off. When Norris and Fetters get into a mock disagreement, Butler intercedes.

"Boys, boys," Butler says, grinning. "This is my show."

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