Q Magazine

Chris Butler Remembers Former Bandmate Mars Williams: 'He Was Equal Parts Charming and a Knucklehead...and Unbelievably Talented'

"I worked really hard to keep him interested [in The Waitresses], because he was so good that he'd get bored easily."

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Source: Ominvore

The Waitresses, still anxiously waiting for their tip

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When saxophonist Mars Williams died on November 20 of periampullary cancer, both fans and artists around the world immediately mourned the loss to the music community and remembered his work as a member of The Waitresses and The Psychedelic Furs as well as such jazz groups as Liquid Soul. In the wake of Williams' passing, Q reached out to the sax player's former bandmate, Chris Butler of The Waitresses, and asked if he'd be up for reminiscing a bit about the time he spent with Williams. A few days later, Butler hopped on the phone and offered some fond memories of his fallen former colleague.

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Source: Mega

Mars Williams performs with The Psychedelic Furs at Concorde 2 on September 7, 2017

First of all, I appreciate you being willing to hop on the phone and reminisce about Mars. I didn't mean to intrude on your grief when I dropped you a line, but I thought you might actually enjoy the opportunity when you felt up to it.

Oh, no, no, no. Thank you! I'm feeling better, and I keep getting little memories popping up of this guy. He was equal parts charming and a knucklehead...and unbelievably talented, right? For a short-statured person, he leaves a huge hole. He just leaves a big hole, and I'm so fortunate to have known him. There are four amazing lead players that I've had the good fortune to be a part of. There's Ralph Carney, Mars, Terry Hynde - Chrissie's older brother here in Akron - and Don Davis. It was all part of that Creative Music Studio bunch in New York, and they're each just totally unique and just brilliant. Man, that they crossed my path... That's just a gift.

What was the origin story of you and Mars? Because I know that he was part of the initial lineup of The Waitresses when you put together a proper band.

Well, yeah, I moved to New York in '79, and this kind of came together sometime in the summer of '80. I had initially wanted Ralph Carney [on saxophone], and Ralph kind of hemmed and hawed, and he wanted to do more of a jazz thing, or a Ralphie thing. [Laughs.] But he said, "I know this guy, he's up at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, and his name's Mark Williams." And I got in touch, I went up to Woodstock, and he was in this little cabin. There was a little room, and the room was in a circle, with music stands and orchestral manuscript paper encircling him, because he was the copyist for Anthony Braxton, who was working on a symphony, doing it with a calligraphy pen and India ink - pre-computer, right? - and these gigantic charts. Because Anthony Braxton... If you look at the back of his records, the song titles are mathematical formulas!

And I'm up there with my hat in hand saying, "Hey, you wanna join this little unknown pop band in New York?" [Laughs.] Outclassed! And then he said two things. "First off, my name is Mars, not Mark. And secondly, yeah, I like rock 'n' roll, I'll play in your band." And he could be infuriating. He was always late, and then he'd always have some wonderful excuse, this highly imaginative excuse. He was a clown, and with chops galore. We had a pretty good time in our band, and he influenced me in so many ways.

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I had surrounded myself with really, really great musicians, and I'm very in the middle, skill-wise, as a writer, and I was scared sh*tless that they would be bored and leave. Because Mars was of the jazz musician's mentality. You know, when Miles [Davis] would put a band together, they'd play some shows and do Miles' chart, and maybe make a record, and then they'd go their separate ways, and individual people would start their own bands, or they'd move on to their next gig. And Mars was in that mentality. Although he liked [The Waitresses] and we had fun, I knew that he always had an eye on the next main chance, and I worked my ass off to write things that would keep him interested. He had oodles of solo time. [Laughs.]

He did a lot of prank stuff. He had a Tibetan monk horn on one song. He's as wild as any reed player should be, and a different kind of funny than Ralph Carney. Ralph was poly-instrumental on any field of any instrument and a clown and goofy. Mars was specifically with reeds. I mean, he could play other instruments, but he was focusing on just the reeds, and he was magnificent on them. And as an arranger and an idea guy and all of that, he was just sensational. So I worked really hard to keep him interested, because he was so good that he'd get bored easily. So I tried tricky chord changes and big, extended chords where he could find, y'know, not your normal rock 'n' roll notes to play a part, just to try and keep him in the band. And, man, I never understood it, but, boy, could he pull women. [Laughs.] I don't know whether or not you want to say that...

Sure, why not?

Well, whatever. I mean, he was a girl in every port...and that's often why he was late! [Laughs.] Let's just say that. But he had a great sense of humor. I'd look over, and he's got squeaky toys! He'd be playing with squeaky toys onstage!

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The band was a long time forming, but I was in that circle with three of those four horn players I mentioned earlier, plus Dave Buck and Mark Kramer, a.k.a. Kramer. I'd play bass, and we'd put together some crazy outfit and play a couple of shows and then change the name and come out with something else. It was great fun to be in that circle. I remember one of these was The Mind Control Salsa Orchestra. [Laughs.] And what we did was, we played Mexican Revolution songs and other goofy Latin stuff, and there were two requirements to be in the band: 1) we will not rehearse, and 2) you must be drunk at the show. And people would get their chart or whatever, and we'd say, "Okay, here's the date."

And I remember one at Max's Kansas City, and Mars shows up in a yellow mariachi suit resplendent with little red pom-poms up and down the seams and a big sombrero. And we blew the doors off that place! People's jaws were dropping. There was no applause, it was just, "What the f*** is this?" It was so much fun playing Mexican Revolution songs at a million miles an hour....and then, poof, we're gone! We'd do one or two shows with that, and then it would reconfigure behind someone else. But that's not the rock 'n' roll band model. The joke is, once you get really good photographs of your band, somebody quits. [Laughs.] So I was hoping that Mars would stick around...and he did, thankfully.

We stayed in touch afterwards. With some of the members I didn't, but Mars I did. He could be counted on for incredible ideas and skill and to be very entertaining as a performer. Just give him lots of room. A lot of times we'd transition between songs, and we'd be, like, "Mars, you take as long as you want, do whatever you want." And he'd do every kind of trick imaginable with huge skill. He could hold a note for a year. [Laughs.] We'd be waiting around, and he's just blowing that one note for maybe five minutes! It was a scream.

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Obviously, when it comes to Waitresses songs, people know the hits, but are there any songs that you'd advise people to check out as a spotlight for Mars' work?

Well, I came up with the bare bones for "Christmas Wrapping," I had the progression and the "da-da DAH DAH, da-da DAH DAH." and I had the initial bassline, but everything else was, "Okay, you guys go with it." And Mars got his friend Dave Buck on trumpet, and...I know we double-tracked everything. He played tenor, alto, and soprano, and he orchestrated it. I'm actually playing "Christmas Wrapping" with a band here in town, and in the break part between verses, no one can get it. Billy and Mars... It drops a sixteenth note every time it goes around, but it winds up on the one. And that was pretty magical. Somewhere out there is a whole pile of lost sixteenth notes that he's responsible for. [Laughs.]

He also helped with the arrangement for the song "Bruiseology." I had a completely different arrangement, and he moved the sax to the front. And we were trying to make a single, and the version I came up with was not a single. But we worked at it, and he had a lot to do with that arrangement. It still wasn't a single. [Laughs.] But just to have him in the room made you a better player, because you began to think like him and/or be benefited by his skill and knowledge and chops.

When the Waitresses ended, Mars jumped straight into The Psychedelic Furs. I presume you weren't surprised to see him land on his feet.

Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. For a number of reasons. First off, he was a working musician, and it was a regular gig, and it afforded him to be able to do all his real outside, experimental stuff. It kept the lights on. And he was damned good at that band. The parts that he played were definitely not at all what he was capable of, but he had a good time and he made the rent, and they loved him, and the audiences loved him.

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But that's the nature of the professional musician: to keep working. He was always finding something to do. We all were, because the Waitresses thing was not going to last forever. It had its limitations. I had hoped that we would've stayed together for at least three records, and then we would've had a launching pad and/or a meal ticket you could come back to, so we could all go off and do other stuff. Patty [Donahue] was more than capable of being a film actresses, and Mars and Billy [Ficca] and Tracy [Wormworth] were monsters on their instruments, and they would definitely want to play with other people, and that's fine. But I had my vision of what I wanted our band to be, which was met, but it didn't last. I had shot for three records, because I thought it would establish us all as entities, and hopefully me as a writer and producer, and then people could go do what they want to do, and then we could come back in a year and do some more of this. But it didn't happen. It wasn't meant to be.

Still, you made your mark. That's something.

Yeah, not bad for a band that was only together for three years!

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