TT with HD: Chris Buhalis
[Ed. note: The songs Big Car Town and Washington mentioned below can be heard on
Chris' MySpace page.
HD: ... no, there aren't any handles, but that was by design ...
CB: ... oh, and you bought that whole drill press just to put that flag in there, didn't you?
HD: [laugh][laugh] Now, I did not buy the drill guide just for the flag, but I have to concede that part of my motivation for festooning the teeter totter with the flag was an opportunity to use the drill guide, because I figured it needed to be perfectly vertical ...
CB: ... theoretically. Although, I dunno, the whole country ought to be flying at half-mast at this point.
HD: Well, let's get on the teeter totter.
CB: You got it! You time these things?
HD: Do I what? Do I time them?
CB: Is this my side?
HD: That's your side. You don't get a choice.
CB: How far back do you go? You adjust, don't you?
HD: See, well, that's why there's no handles ...
CB: ... oh ...
HD: Because the middle point is fixed, unlike your typical playground teeter ...
CB: ... well, you got a drill guide, so you can put holes here, holes here, holes here, and have handles that move around. All you'd have to do is a couple of nuts!
HD: But every time I'd have to be unbolting ... !
CB: ... Yeah! You're going to have to get yourself a socket set!
CB: Now we know what to get you for Christmas.
HD: I'm actually planning for--the next design of the teeter totter, I think, will be adjustable in the middle, so that I can invest a little bit in the comfort on either end. Because I felt like I couldn't really do cut-outs or sculpt things as seats per se, because that would mean you have to sit there, which a handle would entail as well. So anyway. Now let's pause, because I want to take the photograph. Now are you okay with the teeter totter being festooned with the flag?
CB: Oh, I'm alright with it!
HD: But you're not a 'flag-waving' guy, that's a fair statement, right?
CB: Well, I'm not a flag-waver for the sake of waving the flag. But I've taken my hat off for the national anthem my whole life.
HD: Okay. Fair enough. Because I thought, it's Flag Day, and you have to give a nod to Flag Day.
CB: Absolutely. Betsy Ross needs some props.
CB: You got the flag in there?
HD: The flag is in there! [Ed. note: more photography ensues]
CB:You feed your mosquitoes well, that's nice!
HD: Oh, are you getting bothered by 'em?
CB: Nah. Just the ones that are biting me! ... I'm like the 350th person on this thing and it's still working. That's a good sign to a guy like me!
HD: Well, you're exaggerating just a little bit.
CB: Well. I tend to do that.
HD: Do you? Well, let me ask you ask you about your MySpace motto, "Bring 'Em Home." The 'Em is ...
CB: MySpace motto, that's kind of funny. Because I go on MySpace once a week whether I need it or not. Just keeping up with a website is too much.
HD: You were on this morning.
CB: I was on this morning.
HD: I know, because it has that little icon that says 'Online Now!'
CB: So people can catch you in a lie when you're on a teeter totter. I know all about that stuff.
HD: So when you said that a website is too much to keep up with, let me just ask you about that, because the link to your official website from your MySpace page goes to something that's sort of de-funked. There's just directory listing, there's no files there.
CB: My wife was my webmaster--well she still is--but we have a four-year-old daughter, and there are some things that are more important than making sure people know where I'm playing and stuff like that. I'm trying to keep it going.
HD: So you use MySpace then primarily as a way to keep people abreast of you doin's?
CB: That's what it is, yeah. I don't look at it as a social networking tool. Although it's been interesting. Because there's been probably two or three people who got in touch with me that--I dunno, maybe it just made it easier--they probably would have been able to get in touch with me, had they really been thinking about it. But since they just saw me right on there, they got in touch and that was kind of cool. As a tool, things like that are kind of nice. As a way of life, I don't know. I'm not as computer savvy as a lot of people. And I'm okay with that!
HD: So back to the motto. In "Bring 'Em Home", the 'Em is U.S. troops in Iraq?
CB: In Iraq. Bring 'Em Home. That's a song that Pete Seeger wrote during the Vietnam War. I'm in the same union local as Pete. That's just a song that has resonated with me a lot since all this stuff started. And Bruce Springsteen's been singing it. And I started singing it.
HD: Which union local is that?
CB: That's Local 1000. It's a traveling musicians' union. They're based in New York. We're kind of an 'at large' local. It's American Federation of Musicians.
HD: I was a little confused at first, because I was thinking, I didn't realize Pete Seeger was a carpenter. I thought you were alluding to some carpenter's union.
CB: No, I'm actually not a member of the carpenters' union. Remodellers around here, that's not really a pre-requisite.
HD: But you would describe yourself as a carpenter, yes?
CB: I am. That's what I do. That's my day job, I do a lot of sawin' and nailin' and putting kitchens together. Bathrooms, additions, all that kind of stuff.
HD: We'll pause for a second while the sirens go by, because I don't want to try to transcribe over this.
CB: I'm used to sirens actually. When you're a musician, you get used to these kind of things.
HD: I was in the middle of a thought--oh, yeah: remodelling, putting in new kitchens and whatnot. Peter Beal, when he was here, was talking about how when he would do demolitions--back when he used to do that--he would find people's business cards that they had thrown back behind built-in cabinets and whatnot ...
CB: ... oh, yeah ...
HD: ... and he said that he started doing that himself to sort of document who'd done the work. Is that something you do as well?
CB: Well, we often write our names in places. And there's a couple of traditions I really like. I do a lot of wood floors, and one that I really like, this old-timer told me--and we've actually found a couple tearing up floors--people take coins from the year they're putting the floor in, and put them under the floor. So I usually do that. Well, I always do that. So I'll find a 2007 quarter or something and stick it under the floor somewhere.
HD: But there's no other documentation associated with the coin? You just know, Oh, there's no way a coin could have gotten here other than somebody consciously put it there?
CB: Right. You know, though, I'm sure there's some things that get stuck under floors that people don't want talk about.
HD: [laugh] [laugh] Um, yeah, I'm not sure what you mean by that, so I think I'll just let that ...
CB: ... has anybody seen my parakeet? You know, that kind of thing.
HD: On your MySpace page, there's three tunes you have loaded up, and one of them is Washington, from the year 2003.
CB: Yeah, that was recorded a while ago.
HD: See, that's exactly my point: a while ago. Because I looked at the track and it says 2003, and I thought, Wow, that's a long, long time ago, that's four years ago, that's as long as it takes to earn a college degree. And then when I listened through, it dawned on me, of course, that this song was written in response to the current war in Iraq. So it really drove home the point to me that Wow, we've been there an awfully long time at this point.
CB: Yeah, I don't know why I left that on there. It's not really a good career move in a lot of senses. The same reason I have that motto on there. I don't dwell on it 24 hours a day, but I think it's really important that we end this thing and get out of there. And what limited public platform I may have, if someone really wants to see where I'm playing, I don't mind. I've never been much of a fence-sitter on stuff like that. I dunno, that song, we recorded it live at The Ark--I do that Peace Show every year for the Michigan Peaceworks.
HD: That's a recurring show at The Ark?
CB: Yeah, hopefully we've done our last one, but I'm not optimistic. That's the one show I do where the whole point of it is to never have to do the damn thing again, but we always seem to have to do it.
HD: Well, I would say that the mood of the country is definitely in support of getting out, and the trick is to figure out the mechanism for doing it.
CB: Yeah. I'm in favor of a constitution, personally, where we would have a set of laws that our leaders would have to obey and thus eliminate the entire dictator-king thing. But I'm a little ahead in my thinking on some things like this.
HD: Yeah, you're ahead of the curve on that. [laugh] So this is 2007, which means it's been a decade since your CD came out.
CB: This is true!
HD: It's about time for another, don't you think?
CB: Oh, it's been time for a while! Actually, I was ready to go in the studio right when we found out we were pregnant. And it's been great! I'm very happy that I haven't been out chasing the golden ring. I see a lot of people fall prey to trying to make this thing happen--that may or may not happen. Not to limit it, I should have come out with a record a couple of years ago. But I've got the songs ...
HD: ... so there's plenty of material there?
CB: There is. And I've got to get one done this year, because I gave myself a 10-year deadline.
HD: Did you really??
CB: Well, I gave it to myself this year. But I'm more interested in putting out good records than putting out a lot of records. But also it's something that I love and I can't retire from anyway. So there will be a new CD out this year. And it won't all be political songs.
HD: Okay. Will--what's the name of it--Big Car Town be on it?
CB: Big Car Town may or may not be on it. That's one of the ones I'm going to record for it. I mean a lot of these songs have grown in the last few years ...
HD: ... so as you perform them they've matured and taken on a different tone that when you first composed them, or?
CB: Yeah, to a point. But I think anything changes with time. I mean, even the songs that are on my CD, if I sing them now, they have a bit of a different tone, because my life is so different from what it was then.
HD: So you said that Big Car Town may or may not be on the new CD. Why might it not be on there? I'd put in on there.
CB: Well, I'm going to record a bunch of songs, and depending on how I do it--there's been some European labels talking to me about doing something maybe over there. And I may have a producer for this CD--there's a couple of guys I've been talking to.
HD: So there may be other opinions you have to consider?
CB: Yeah. And I'm open to that, because I'd like to get the music out there a little more. You know, and to any fledgling songwriters, if you've got like a mediocre career and you want to kill it, just write some political songs in the middle of a war. That will cut down on your bookings a little bit, but you'll feel better about your life!
HD: So do you feel like there's specific bookings you could have gotten, if you weren't known to be so political?
CB: Well, I can't say that it's held me back at all, really. But it's just more of a different thrust or feeling. Because festivals and things like that kind of shy away from controversy to a point. And I dunno, I look at it more as it sapped my energy. Because I didn't really want to write those songs. I'm not like a political songwriter. I'm not a topical songwriter, although I have a couple of topical songs. But that's not the main thrust of my act. But when you feel so strongly about something, it's kind of hard to avoid writing about that kind of thing. I also feel that's also part of being an artist, because in the middle of the biggest constitutional crisis and this war and hundreds of thousands of people dying, I mean, if you really want to hear a song about how I broke up with my girlfriend, I suppose we could write another one.
CB: But I just felt 'compelled', for lack of a better term, to put these things down. And they're some of the most imagery-free songs I've ever written. They're pretty much just straightforward, right there.
HD: One of the lines from Washington goes something like, 'I agree with Woodie Guthrie, when he says the fascists won't be beat until we go and take their seats.'
CB: 'Til the common workin' people go and take their seats.'
HD: Right. Okay. So you're one of the common working people, you're a carpenter. So are you runnin' for Congress?
CB: Nooo, I'm pretty averse to lying, unless I'm playing poker. Although I could use the health care. [laugh] That's never been something that interested me. I actually have friends who were Congress people. You know, I tease David Bonior about how there's not many folk songs about politicians that are on the good side, but ...
HD: ... wait up, so you hang out with David Bonior??
CB: I have hung out with David Bonior--we're not getting Christmas cards from him or anything. But he's had me do a few gigs for him. He's a good-hearted person.
HD: So he's--who's campaign is he running now?
CB: He's running John Edwards' campaign right now. I haven't talked to him since he started doing that. That's pretty big stuff there. But it seems to me that our biggest problem with our whole election process is that somebody always wins!
HD: Actually, I think our biggest problem is that we've already started. I was honestly confused a couple of weeks ago. I was drifting along thinking, Yeah, we've got a presidential election coming up this November, we must have, because there's this intense media coverage of all the candidates. I was honest-to-god surprised--I forget what it was I was reading--that made it clear to me that we've got another year to go.
CB: Well that's your mistake. You shouldn't read. You should just watch Fox News and they'll tell you everything you need to know.
HD: [laugh] Alright. I wanted to ask you, on the CD that came out 10 years ago, Kenai Dreams, Dream of Kenai?
CB: Kenai /keen eye/ Dreams.
HD: Townes Van Zandt sings on that CD.
CB: He does. Although that's been described as less than singing by some heartless critics.
HD: Well, you know, you can tell it's not him in his very best voice.
HD: But I think that lends some authenticity to it.
CB: Well, that's exactly what Townes sounded like at that point in time. I can vouch for that. I got to know Townes a little bit through The Ark. He played at The Ark. I knew him through his music for years before that. I was thrilled to find out that he was actually alive. And he came to The Ark one time. And you know, it's like if I wanted to be a doctor, I would seek out other surgeons and try to learn from them.
HD: So how did it work out that he appeared on the CD? Did you just say, Hey Townes, I'm recording so how 'bout you sing?
CB: My friend, Hobart Taylor, did. Hobart, who used to live in town here, and who's since moved away. We were friends and he was helping me put my CD together. That was actually the first song we cut for the CD. Townes kind of got me into recording. I'd just been--you know, I lived way out in the country and I was writing songs, and kind of getting by ...
HD: ... around here, out in the country?
CB: Yeah, I was out in the Irish Hills at the time. And, I dunno, I was just writing songs and wasn't really thinking about recording. It seemed like making a record was something that other people did. It wasn't something that you could just go do. But Townes came through The Ark one time, and we hung out and was always very gracious and listened to my songs. We'd stay up all night at the hotel swapping tunes on his guitar. And my friend, who was helping me produce the CD, he produced that track, and he asked Townes. I never woulda--I mean, I was very honored--but I never would have asked him personally.
HD: So that was done at Big Sky?
CB: Yeah, that was done at Big Sky studio. That was back when it was still Al's Audio Diner. It was a different building than it is now. Geoff Michael recorded it. He's an amazing guy. That's the thing with this town. There's so many talent musicians and producers and people who can record, studio engineers. My next CD, I've been talking to people in Texas, I've been talking to people in Holland, but it would be kind of hard to go somewhere else and make a CD at this point.
HD: Because there's so many people around here locally, you mean?
CB: Yeah, I mean there's a lot of great musicians. And songwriters.
HD: So it's not exactly hard then for you to find people to book the Sunday night Old Town Tavern slot?
CB: No, it's hard for me to answer all the email without getting people mad at me. I inherited booking that thing from Chad Williams, he used to do it. He did a great job. But there's only four nights a month that you can actually get a gig there. And honestly, most of them are booked. It's a local pub, and there's a circuit of local people. I try to get as many new people, but there's some weeks I get 15, 20 emails, say from bands from Delaware who want to play, and I mean I understand--I'm on that side of the fence often. I know what it's like to want to get a gig, but you know ...
HD: ... as an out of towner, you mean?
CB: Yeah, it's just when you're trying to get your music out there and you're on the road and trying to get a little gas money together to get to the next town. But at the same time, I've been in town for 20 years now, and I feel a certain responsibility to keeping what is basically one of the last of the local pubs local. There's a lot of home-grown talent here that's just amazing.
HD: So that's basic rule of thumb: local trumps out-of-town?
CB: To a degree. You know, I try to get as many people as I can. I'm sure there are people who are mad at me, but I hope they understand, it's nothing like that. But I also try to keep the bar pretty high. Because it's important that people can go up there on a Sunday night and see good music, because that's what helps build the scene. I always try to explain to people, it's not the kind of place to cut your teeth on.
HD: It's not an open mic type deal.
CB: No. There's a lot of open mics and stuff like that, where you can hone your act and you can learn to entertain an audience for a couple of sets. It's not as easy as it looks! But that's been an interesting experience, because I have somewhat mixed emotions about it. It's really hard for me to say, No, to people. Honestly, someone told me, Man, you're going to see how much bad music there is out there now. Because now you're going to be getting all this stuff. And I do get a lot of CD's, and I do get a lot of stuff, and most of it is really good. There's a lot of people doing great stuff all over. And I just get a kick out of it. I hosted an open mic at the Tap Room for 10 years and people would ask me, Why are you still doing that? But I got to meet all the songwriters when they came to town. When Jim Roll first moved to town, he came in there first and played his songs, and a lot of other people, too. There's a whole community of folks like that. And not everybody's going to get famous, you know?
HD: Right. Not everybody can be famous.
CB: No. Not with Paris Hilton clogging the air waves.
HD: [laugh] So you have played the Old Town many times. As far as just a venue, what do you like about playing the Old Town?
CB: Oh, I like that it's a neighborhood pub. As a songwriter, you look for different things. There's some rooms like The Ark, they're listening rooms, where people are hushed silent, listening to everything you're doing. There's a lot of that in Texas. I play in Texas a lot, where songs are considered such ...
HD: ... there's a certain reverence?
CB: Yeah, it's a cultural difference. It's really a cultural thing. Down there songwriters are revered. They don't look at you like, Did you leave a tip? [laugh] But I like that there's just regular people up there. Especially with our economy now, it's hard to get 15 bucks to go check somebody out who you've never heard before. So I like that there's no cover, and I like that you can go there and talk to your friends. Because in the end, it's the performer's job to grab your attention. So if people are talking, that's fine. I've never had a problem with that kind of thing. Because people come there, some people are there to see you, some people are there to meet their friends, or just stumbled in.
HD: You know, I think I've seen you play only at the Old Town, and at Dylanfest. And I didn't really even realize that you have this whole sort of softer, gentler, side to you.
CB: Oh, musically you mean?
HD: Yeah. That I haven't really noticed at the Old Town, because that's not the kind of place where you can do tunes like that and have them get out to people over the bar noise.
CB: Yeah, not as much. You kind of feel the pulse of the crowd. I've played some mellow stuff at Dylanfest, when we used to do it back when it was Bobfest, when Brian Lillie started it. We were doing them at the Gypsy Cafe and stuff like that. You know I would sing the Chimes of Freedom or something very metaphysical.
HD: So Dylanfest, has that been slotted in for this year?
CB: I don't know. I haven't gotten an email about it, but that does not mean that it's not happening.
HD: It was September last year, it seems to me.
CB: That very well may be. I'm pretty bad with months. I'm almost as bad as I am with years. I thought my CD came out last year!
HD: Well listen, you have anything else on your mind, this fine evening?
CB: Oh, I'm just loving the weather. It's interesting being a dad. We were talking about the CD--it's funny, because I haven't listened to it in a really long time. I don't ...
HD: ... oh, you don't put it on for your four-year-old?
CB: No, I play the guitar. I don't really listen to it. Although I have heard it in the last year. I was at a friend's house and he put it on. He thinks it's pretty funny to put it on when I come over to his house and he's having a party.
HD: But I mean your four-year-old--it's it a boy or a girl?
CB: It's a girl, Zoe, yeah.
HD: You never put it on for her, just to let her listen?
CB: I'm sure she's heard various recordings of mine. I record all the shows that I play. But she really likes to hear the guitar live. Because then she can play her drum with me. And we can really get down.
HD: So does she have a favorite tune of yours?
CB: She actually likes Washington, oddly enough.
HD: Does she really? Does she know the words?
CB: Just the 'Washington' part. She's not as politically savvy as some of your folks. She doesn't get many Henry Kissinger references or anything. But she also has taught me so much. When she was three years old, I took her for a walk and I pointed out that this driveway was bumpy. I said, Zoe, be careful there, the driveway's bumpy. And she just looked at me like, Why do you always say that? I know it's bumpy, I see it's bumpy! And she looked me right in the face and said,
"The road is alllways bumpy, Daddy."
CB: And I thought, you know, I'm not doing everything perfect, but something's getting through there. It's interesting. I will say that the thing I'm proudest of right now is that my daughter has fun in this world, which is all that I would ever wish for my children.
HD: What is fun for Zoe, besides playing the drums with you playing the guitar?
CB: Well, sandbox, she likes to jam on her harmonica, she likes to draw, the sandbox is big ....
HD: ... can she draw a potato?
CB: Well, she can grow a potato.
HD: But can she draw one?
CB: More than likely. She could draw something and show you that it's a potato. You may not see it, but it's a potato.
HD: Because I've been trying to find somebody in this town who's willing to draw me a potato. Potato's are hard to draw.
CB: Well, we'll get you a potato artist. We've just gotta think about it a little more.
HD: Okay, I'm sorry, I interrupted you, what else does Zoe do for fun in this life?
CB: She rides her bike around the cul de sac. She visits her friends. Right now she's visiting her new cousin down in Kentucky, she's having a blast. She's very excited. She told me she's going to tell me how cute he was when she gets back.
HD: So that's where they are right now?
HD: Which might explain why you've got the time to ride the teeter totter?
CB: Well, because it's six o'clock at night, man! I've got to quite working sometime. How long did it take you to get me over here?
HD: Mmmmm, it's been over a year!
CB: Well, you know, I'm sitting here going, Man, why did it take me so long to get here? I don't know. I don't have a good answer for that.
HD: Well, the good thing is, you can always come back, too.
CB: Well, I would appreciate that. This is a nice place to hang out. As far as I can tell, there's no poison ivy around here, which is all I ever worry about.
HD: No. Are you extra allergic to poison ivy?
CB: I only got it once, and it's not something I ever want to get again, so.
HD: As a kid, or?
CB: No, I got it later in life. I thought I never got it, because I'd been around it a bunch of times. So it never occurred to me to look for it.
HD: Leaflets three, let them be.
CB: Yeah, this was before it even leafed. I was pulling out a woman's garden, getting ready to plant a garden and just pulling stuff out. I didn't wear gloves back then and found out exactly how that works.
HD: Oh, if you were pulling out the vine, I think the stuff that's on the vine itself is worse than what's on the leaves.
CB: That would make sense. The old three-inch blisters.
HD: I think I learned that in the boy scouts.
CB: See, my aversion to wearing a uniform didn't pay off, once again.
HD: [laugh] Right, you could have learned those things.
CB: Yeah, well, I learned other things.
HD: So how long were you up in Alaska?
CB: I mean grand total, I was probably there for 8 or 9 months of my life. The first time I went, I went with my friend Doug Selby, who runs Meadowlark Builders in town. We went up right after my 21st birthday. He has a sister who lives up there, and ...
HD: ... did you hitchhike up there?
CB: No, we drove up there. I hitchhiked home. And I hitchhiked all around up there. I just kind of carried my guitar all over, and then I went back the following summer as well. Took the ferry up and hitchhiked all around and hitchhiked back home. And it's a beautiful place, it was a wonderful experience. I was really glad that I did it when I was stupid enough to think that 200 dollars was a lot of money to leave town with.
HD: Is that how much you had in your pocket?
CB: Yeah. My paycheck from Blimpy Burgers. I'm ready to go! I got a guitar and a change of clothes and 200 dollars in cash, Woah!
HD: Did you have any extra guitar strings?
CB: I always have extra guitar strings. That's one thing I don't mess around with. I may pay my mortgage a week late, but I have guitar strings.
HD: Well, listen, thanks for finally coming over to ride.
CB: Well, thanks for having me, Dave. I really appreciate it. And I'd like to come back sooner! When the CD comes out, you know, we'll get back up here. Because I'm going to start this whole PR campaign. That's going to be my new thing.
HD: When you come back you can bring your guitar.
CB: Well, I almost did today, but I didn't know how that would work.
HD: Oh, it'd work great, I think.
CB: I'm going to have to write you--you need a theme song is what you need. The old Teeter Talk song. We'll have to work on that. Do you think there's any money in it?
HD: [laugh] Umm, are you asking me if I'm willing to pay you to write the theme song?
CB: [laugh] Well, I'm asking if anybody is willing to pay me! [laugh]
HD: No, I doubt if there's any money in it. [laugh]
CB: Oh, well. It'll be like the rest of them then. [laugh]
HD: Okay, let's dismount.