Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unnatural Sex Acts: A Candid conversation with Nate Butler


One night when my dad was driving me home from a show, he asked the names of the bands I saw and quickly shuffled the name U.S.A. past him, hoping he wouldn’t ask what it stood for. At the age of fourteen in the pre-internet era, the band’s name had many implications I wasn’t quite aware of yet. I honestly didn’t know what came to mind upon hearing the words Unnatural Sex Acts. My dossier of sexual experiences in 1983 amounted to some leftover Playboy magazines stuffed in a drawer my bother left behind when he enlisted in the Navy.

The first time I saw U.S.A. was when they opened for Kraut and G.B.H. at the Aztlan. The size of the vocalist and bassist along with their brand of angular music was intimidating. Their serious demeanor certainly emitted the vibe that these were the type of dudes you wouldn’t wish to agitate, much less been be caught in a dark alley with.

Over the past six months, bassist Nate Butler and have had a series of conversations. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that he is a no frills kind of guy when it comes to his music. What I admire most about him is his candidness and openness when it came to answering the tough questions I threw his way. Frankly, his responses have been all meat. My sincerest gratitude to Nate for taking the time to be a part of this project.       

In memory of Scott “Deathy” Ray

Nate Butler. Original photo unknown. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina). 
Several years ago Razer gave me a file with fliers of your former bands. The interesting part of that collection was the notes on the reverse side regarding the shows you played: members in the band, the bands you played with, how much money you made, and a short summary of the show. Tell me about your obsession for this sort of note taking.
I dunno really. All I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a rock star and I suppose in some perverse sort of way I thought it was meaningful at the time. As humorous and heartbreaking as some of those notes were it was a very exciting time for me, as was chronicling it.

Nate's notes. Collection of Nate Butler.
When did you realize that you wanted to play music? And how did you end up playing in a punk band?
I've always been into playing music, the School band, yada yada… I remembered my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Henry would meet me an hour before class started in the mornings so I could learn the cello. I was officially too young to join the official school band; I had to be a 4th grader. Funny thing was she was not a musician or a music teacher. She was a wonderful woman and teacher and left a lifelong impression.

What got me into punk was attending a show at the old Pirate Art Space on 23rd and Lawrence St. where the Rok Tots and Broadcasters were playing. Not only was the music raw and cool unlike Van Halen and AC/DC who were the go to rock bands at the time. In the middle of one of the songs an audience member, Louie was fucking with the Tots and the band dropped their instruments mid-song, jumped off the stage and pounded him. Afterwards they went back on-stage and finished the song. I thought that was the coolest Rock'n'Roll thing I had ever seen. I was hooked from then on.

Dave Saull was my neighbor at the time and was taking piano lessons with my sister. He was a cool little guy and I asked him if he wanted to start a Punk band. We recruited my best friend Scott "Death" Ray and U.S.A. was born.

U.S.A. stands for Unnatural Sex Acts, right? Was the band a fan of The Rocky Mountain Oyster, Denver’s classified ad sex newspapers found on the counter of liquor stores in the metro area? Who came up with the name? And for the record, did anyone in the band practice U.S.A.?
Scott Ray and I used to eat a shit ton of LSD and go dancing at the Gay bars. It was the only place we could be all fucked-up on drugs, act weird, and be totally accepted. One night driving home from the bars I just came up with the name Unnatural Sex Acts while we were having an acid fueled conversation. Seemed like a good name for a band.

Yes, both Scott and I were bisexual, practiced any and all forms of kink. I've had HIV for 25+ years to show for my battle scars and reckless sexuality.

Did you find punk accepting of alternative sexual lifestyles? Did you find it easy to be open about your sexuality in the scene? Members of the band A.S.F. were open about their sexuality, is/was it different for males?
No not at all, quite the opposite for males. I think only a couple of people in the scene even knew about our orientation, I could be wrong though. We even wrote a couple of songs aimed at homophobes, and queer bashers (Girls Get Cumfarts Too, and My Blue Dog). Upon the Skins arrival it became even more uptight and homophobic.

Flier collection of Nate Butler.
I only saw U.S.A. a couple of times, the first when you opened for GBH at the Aztlan. You and the vocalist, Scott really stood out mainly because you were big dudes with shaved heads playing something that wasn't quite hardcore thrash. The combo of the two was an intimidating factor nonetheless. What sort of sound was the band going for and what were you listening to at the time?
Dave and I were the main music writers, and I wrote 99% of the lyrics. Mostly what happened with the musical styling’s of U.S.A. was, Dave and I were both strident Zappa listeners and intuitively we'd write this mish-mash of cuisenart sort of genre mixed music. We never really set out to have a "sound" it just happened that way. Pretty sure Mike Patton would have appreciated what we were doing back then.

The GBH show made us seem really aggressive. The more drugs Scott would take, the worse he would sing, and the more the aggression in the act would ramp up to make up for bad singing and forgetting lyrics-my lyrics were pretty wordy and complicated, he always had a hard time with delivery.

With rock star aspirations and careful documentation, I’m surprised you didn’t record and release anything with U.S.A. You did play on the first Happy World EP.
U.S.A. never made it into the studio mostly because of drug use/abuse. I don't think we ever honestly thought we'd record because the audiences didn't care for our music too much so therefore it probably wouldn't have sold. Maybe that's how we perceived it/them at least. Dave and I wanted to record but could never find the time to get everyone with a somewhat sober Scott Ray into the studio. Kinda sad because two of my favorite bands I played with, U.S.A. and FAEX never made a recording. I always felt them musically worthy of recording and releasing some great records.

First Happy World EP 1984. Garage punk from Colorado. The drummer seems to be incredibly young (judging from the cover pic) and the guitar lead in the title number is so lame it's cool, but the songs have entertaining lyrics and plenty of primitive drive and spunk. For fans of unprofessionalism (like me). -Jeff Bale (from Maximum Rocknroll #16, August 1984). Cover courtesy of Trash Is Truth.
Scott had the nickname, Deathy. How did he get that? In talking with a couple of people, they mentioned that they were a little afraid of him. Rumor had it that he often packed a gun. I read about one incident at Flash Flood Art Space in an issue of Nada. The article was titled: The Day Hardcore Died and it described a show your band, Sisters of Sodom played. It sounded like the night involved you, Scott, skinheads, cops, mace, a knife, and a gun. What went down?
Scott was a dyed-in-the-wool bad ass for sure. Also one of the sweetest most giving guys I've ever met. He named himself Death Ray as a stage name. The girls called him Deathy, maybe to piss him off or make him laugh. They named me Nay Nay thinking it'd piss me off. I just thought it was stupid. Jill still calls me Ne Ne (in French accent) because I sew and design patterns etc.

The Flash Flood incident went like this. The Denver Skins were ruining yet again another otherwise friendly show. Dan had some poor scrawny kid in a headlock and was dancing around the pit beating his face. I finally snapped, looked over my shoulder and asked Scott if he had my back. He replied, "Did you even have to ask?” I turned to a couple of other musicians who were standing there and asked the same thing only to be met with blank scared stares. Next time Dan came around I grabbed his victim, threw him out of the way and planted one square in Dan's face. Squared up with him knowing I was gonna essentially get my ass beat because Dan was 6" taller than me (Dan was a towering 6’ 8”) and considerably more muscular. He took a couple of steps back and reached behind his back to grab something. I'm of course thinking it's a gun. Meanwhile the rest of the skins are surrounding me wolf pack style like they always did. That's when my knife came out. Well Danny didn't pull a gun he pulled out a can of mace and sprayed it at me. I ducked and ran out of the way of the mace and into Larimer Street figuring the brawl would ensue in the street. As I turned around I saw Scott pistol whip Dan in the head as he came out the door followed by the rest of the skins. Scott backed-up next to me in the street and leveled his gun at them, which forced them up against the wall still spraying their mace at us, which inevitably blew back in their faces. Scott said something to the effect of, "I have 14 shots in the gun, there are 9 of you, and I don't miss!" This essentially ended the fracas right then and there. One of the skins, Jeff walked up to us and said, "Are we good, is this over?" to which we replied, "Yes.” We left at that time, ditched the firearm, and went home. Apparently Dan walked back into Flashflood and passed out from the pistol whipping. The Cops and an ambulance came and pretty soon the cops were at our house and arrested us on, Brandishing A Weapon charges. So much for it being "good and over." We bonded out that night, set it for trial knowing the skins would never show. The cops never found the weapon in question.

Funny thing. I was at a party a few years back and was talking to a guy who told me a story about this Nate Butler guy who basically saved his life from the skins one night at Flashflood, and how he wished he could go back and thank him. I introduced myself to him then.

Scott and I always carried guns and knives back then. Just stupid testosterone dummy fucks we were.

Nate and Deathy
What was it like walking around Denver with a shaved head, were people intimidate by you and Scott?
Yep, for sure. Which was really stupid because we were both really approachable nice guys as long as you didn't try to start a fight with us.

Scott recently pass away?
Yes, sadly he died on October 30th, 2013 of pancreatic cancer. So heartbreaking because he'd done hard time, was finally completely clean and sober, and had become a very humble and loving man. Death Ray was gone for good, or that's what he told me at least. I had the honor of being by his side through the entire cancer treatment, to death.

I have to put in a little side note here in Scott's and my defense. In the entire time we were involved in the Denver Scene I never saw Scott, or myself get into anything more than minor "pit skirmishes" here and there. The only thing that ever constituted a fight was Flash Flood. I think most of the reasons we seemed so violent/aggressive was Scott's stage act, which was an ACT. It was very verbally aggressive and confrontational for sure. He was also 6' 7" tall, which as you stated.

Aside from Flash Flood, any other wild incidents?
Not so many wild incidents really. Once I remember Anarchy Annie, who I was dating at the time threw some guy against the wall and choked him because he and I were going to square off and fight. I'm sure Annie would have gladly engaged in a fight with the guy, but she was definitely defending me. As she was choking the guy she was telling him, "Don't you fuck with my boyfriend!" It was very sweet and hilarious all at the same time. I think she caught us so off guard that we completely forgot why we wanted to fight in the first place.

Flier collection of Nate Butler.
I get the impression that you were at one point trying to make a go with your music. You even left Denver to go play music in California. What brought that on? What sort of frustrations were you feeling in Denver at the time in playing music?
As I said before, I wanted to be a rock star when I grew up. Denver was and still is the place where musicians come to die. It was hard to keep a cohesive scene intact. Lord knows all of us tried. Top 40 cover bands ruled the roost and still do to this day. I hear it's gotten a little better, but really who the fuck ever came out of Denver besides Firefall? I moved to San Fran thinking I'd be able to find a decent band to play with out there. Sadly, I went from being close to the top of the heap in Denver to just another musician out of millions in the Bay area. So that was pretty much unsuccessful.

After I returned the scene was different…long hairs, alternative metal, and so on. I just kept playing with different bands and different styles of music. I've recorded on 15 albums over my rather dubious career and covered about as many genres. Once I started the clothing company and had my daughter the music fell to the wayside until the late 90's when a buddy and I did a downtempo electronica project called The William Caslon Experience. Alas still no fame and fortune. Most recently I've been playing all sorts of Country, Alt Country, and Americana. I'd like to play some Sludge Metal in the near future. WTF I'm only 53 why the fuck not?

Like others in bands I've interviewed from your generation, you've stated that you dropped out of the punk scene. I have a problem with that statement and when people say that because it is almost dismissive of how the punk attitude, ideology or whatever you want to call it shaped your ideas about the world. I don't think you stopped playing punk, I think perhaps you and others were taking the music to another level and maybe it doesn't sound cookie-cutter punk per say, but the approach and sentiment are definitely there.
Yeah that's a good way to phrase it. I just stopped playing punk music. The ideology is still there and never left. But I always have to factor in that I would not be the person or musician I am today if it weren't for Frank Zappa and he didn't have anything to do with punk.

Flier collection of Nate Butler.
After U.S.A. did you start focusing on Happy World? What made you want to leave that band? Even in Sisters of Sodom, you didn't quite get away form the Shane.
I quit Happy World/Sisters of Sodom to move to the Bay. I loved Shaney and always will. He did not have the heroin problem when I was with the band. Shane and Gant grew up in the same neighborhood as Dave Saull and myself, so it only made sense that Dave would join up with them after I left. They were like our little brothers when we were doing U.S.A. and they needed a bassist so I joined. Gant was maybe 13? I felt like the old dude that scored beer and weed for the little kids when I went to practice. The Sisters was just a fun mutant project with all the brothas and Mark Fucking Thorpe was a fantastic guy to have as a drummer. And there ya go again another highly sexualized band name with a great shtick of a stage story-mostly the Sisters fucking Mike Ness.

The Sisters fucking Mike Ness?
So the back story/stage shtick behind The Sisters (made up by Shane mostly) was: We were a bunch of lesbian sex goddess's sent down from our planet by our ruler Beef Cake to fuck and suck and spread our disease throughout planet earth, and universe. Mike Ness was definitely a topic of our fucking in many rants and songs. I think mostly because he was such a politically conservative guy, and he was short. We all liked Social D's music just fine BTW. In the beginning of every show Shane would tell the story (to music) of The Sister's quest and then we'd all do an improv rap about each band member. That band had kind of an all-star line up of the Denver Punk Scene. We had Shane and Dave from Happy World, and U.S.A. respectively. Mark Thorpe from Bum Kon. Aron Arnold and I ended up doing a couple of bands, XEQ and FAEX.

Shane was always so fun and funny to play with I really loved the time I spent in Happy World and The Sisters of Sodom. He was so raw and spur of the moment in his songwriting and performing, almost a childlike exuberance and enthusiasm. I just heard from him via FaceBook. He's clean and sober and attending college in CA. GO Shaney!!!

In the mid-80's, during your post-punk years, what were you hoping to accomplish musically? It seemed that you started one band after another, did you find it difficult to keep something steady going?
I just wanted to make a career out of music so I was essentially a band whore, meaning I'd play with anyone for any reason. I have the bad hair 80's glam rock videos to prove it. The last band before my kids were born was called FAEX. FAEX was a bunch of fantastically talented musicians from UNC school of jazz, playing John Zorn/Mr. Bungle-esque trash/pop/musical A.D.D. They actually got Westword awards, were packing clubs like 23 Parish and Rock Island and looked like they might have gotten signed until that project imploded for a number of reasons.

Did you feel that U.S.A. was overlooked in the scene? I'm looking through old fanzines and I never really saw an interview and barley any gig reviews.
Well, I think our songwriting approach was too artsy for the punk scene. Razer told me once, "You guys are great but you play too many notes." I think we were also too capitalistic for the punk scene; we wanted to get paid money to play gigs. I also think that Scott would get into drugged out asshole mode and alienate a lot of people. I remember one review Duane Davis wrote about us where he referred to us as, "A band of dubious pedigree." which I thought was a hilarious statement considering punk was supposed to be about freedom of expression not pedigree or fitting into molds.

Special thanks to Ana Medina for proofreading.

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