Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Butterfly Effect - Observer article, April 11, 2000

(Note: In advance of the upcoming blog post for the Butterfly Effect CD, Those Lights We Call Stars, it seemed appropriate to revisit an article that bears some significance to the specific time period in which that album was created. This piece tells the tale of the Butterfly Effect, relates a little of the history of the South Bend/Notre Dame music scene, and arguably hearkens to the end of the "Power 90s." The article ran 9 years ago to the day that this blog post is being published.)

"Forever keeps getting shorter" for campus band

Scene offers an in-depth perspective on the life of the Butterfly Effect and the individuals within it. The band's future, as the quote from their album says, is forever getting shorter. They will be playing their last show on April 15.

by John Huston

The stairs leading down to the basement of the Hive are precariously old and worn. One step in particular wobbles a little too much for comfort, especially if you are going back down after refilling your cup of beer at one of the monthly parties held there.

Tonight's party is hot, as parties here usually are. The stone walls are wet and the room is dark — lit only by some Christmas lights dangling above the band at the far end of the room. The stone walls bounce the grinding music, making it even louder and more ear-splitting.

Tonight's performance by the Butterfly Effect is typical. When the local band first started playing live shows, singer/guitarist Doug McEachern screamed so hard that by the fourth song his voice was a harsh grumble, barely able to hit the right notes. It didn't matter, though. Butterfly Effect songs have always had more to do with feeling than with tunefulness.

Tonight, the Butterfly Effect plays another energetic and emotional set. Those lucky enough to be in the basement stand, watch and listen. A girl in a long skirt dances by herself off to one side. A few people even know the band's lyrics and sing along. Each song's end is met with approval from the observers. It's not just polite clapping. It's a sincere thank you for sincere music.

Although Doug has learned restraint in the two years since that first show, Butterfly Effect performances never lack intensity. Doug — a shy, awkward and nerdish looking fellow during the day — transforms into a firecracker of punk angst during performances. Drummer Vinny Carrasco bounces around behind the drum set, singing along with Doug, while bassist Ron Garcia sways back and forth with his feet firmly planted, concentrating on perfectly laying down each song's foundation.

Most of the Butterfly Effect's performances are here in the basement of the Hive — otherwise known as Ron's house — about a mile east of the Notre Dame campus. It developed the nickname because of the basement's cave-like appearance. The combination of three dollars for beer and three or four bands is usually inviting enough to attract 75-100 people.

Most people don't dance at Butterfly Effect shows. The kind of motion the band coaxes out of an audience is at most a bobbing head to keep time or a gentle sway in rhythm with the music — as gentle as a butterfly flapping its wings...

chaos theory

The term "butterfly effect" comes from scientist Edward Lorenz's Chaos Theory. It states that a small force, like the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the United States, can result in a large reaction, like a tidal wave or a tornado halfway across the planet.

The Butterfly Effect, (the band) is likewise, a small force. They have never been seen in performance by more than 200 people at a time, and occasionally they have been seen by as few as four. They made only 100 copies of their self-released first album, Now Everybody.

The difference between this band and the countless others in the country is that the Butterfly Effect could truly cause a large reaction. Through the swirling, distorted tones of Doug's guitar comes true music. Vinny says there is a basic difference between most small-time bands and the bigger, more popular ones. "It's usually just more honest," he says of small bands. "And if you're a musician you can hear that."

Singer/guitarist Doug McEachern explains his fascination with chaos theory this way: "It's just kinda neat how all the little decisions and actions you make add up and make big changes over time, which is really what the butterfly effect scientifically means — sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Or if you just slightly vary the input of a complicated system, you get wildly different results."

Both McEachern, 25, and bassist Ron Garcia, 24, are math and science nuts. They both majored in engineering at Notre Dame, where they first met — Doug was in mechanical engineering and Ron was in electrical engineering. "The band name preceded Vinny," Garcia says. Drummer Vinny Carraso, 26, is the lone liberal arts major, concentrating in political science during his undergraduate time at Notre Dame.

Although McEachern says, "our songs would be the same no matter what we were called," the title is still an apt one.

setting the stage for memory's play
— "Morgan Returns East," Now Everybody

Doug McEachern spends most of his mornings working as an assistant manager of Lula's — a coffee and sandwich shop near campus that he describes as "decidedly eccentric." When he first applied for a job there, he was rejected. But once he got his foot in the door, he worked his way up to his current position. The lights at Lula's are dim, the walls are covered with local artists' work and soft jazz provides the ultra-hip background soundtrack.

Notre Dame isn't known for its diversity, especially in regard to artistic people. Few Notre Dame students start bands, and they generally don't like bands that write their own music. "I kinda lucked into meeting a bunch, this whole group of people, the first weekend, the freshman orientation weekend, who were all into punk and whatnot," Doug said.

Then, an event helped direct his focus: Chisel.

"At the end of October there was this 'farewell to Bush' party, right before Election Day. It was just kind of a preliminary celebration of Bush being voted out," Doug tells. Campus bands Grope for Luna, the Sister Chain and Chisel were scheduled to play outside at the Fieldhouse Mall. Doug didn't know much about any of them.

He watched Grope for Luna for a while, then walked across North Quad to eat dinner at the dining hall. When he came back, he saw some of the Sister Chain set and wasn't impressed. Unenthused, he went up to his third floor room in Cavanaugh Hall, which is adjacent to where the bands were playing. "I just heard that distorted harmonic sound. 'Sounds like someone tuning... Sounds like a punk-style band tuning.' So I went down and it was Chisel and I was all, 'yyyeeeaaahhh!' "

Chisel was a very popular indie-rock campus band that played original material. They were the inspiration for countless other similar-minded campus bands at the time and the backbone of the local scene. If it weren't for Chisel, the Butterfly Effect might not exist.

the storyteller killed the scientist
— "Science Killed the Storyteller," Now Everybody

Although he graduated from Notre Dame in January 1997 with a mechanical engineering degree, Doug is intent on never using his engineering training. Writing fiction, not music, is his main interest nowadays. He cites authors like Raymond Carver, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway as some of his favorites. In fact, the upcoming Butterfly Effect CD, Those Lights We Call Stars, borrows its title from a Carver poem.

He has self-published a 'zine, called "a boy & his," sporadically since December 1995. In it he writes autobiographical poetry and stories. The material is strikingly honest and open. It's almost like he's selling his diary for 50 cents a pop to anyone interested enough to read it.

His lyrics, too, read like a diary. "I think lyrics are key to the music I listen to... I tend to connect mostly to the lyrics in music." Doug refers to Carver when he says that "good art is more than just self-expression, it's communication... where you are not only getting across how you feel, you are getting it across so well that the other person understands and feels something too."

Ron puts that notion another way. "Music is a way to communicate... feelings, thoughts... while everyone doesn't get them exactly as you sent them out, they still get some insight."

Ironically, as the Butterfly Effect prepares to record its follow-up album, the band's imminent breakup looms in the near future.

"I'm just ready to leave South Bend," McEachern explains. "I've been here for seven-and-a-half years."

Vinny looks forward to leaving South Bend too, someday, but he generally holds South Bend in higher regard than most. "If you really want to, you can start something here. Something good can happen here that doesn't exist yet. I think I'd rather do that than go somewhere where there's already a lot of cool stuff going on."

The biggest problem for Doug is that his girlfriend lives in Portland, Oregon. That's the main reason why he's moving there in April. He says he wants to "have a somewhat settled life for a little while, at least with Meghan, instead of two years of living 2,000 miles apart."

rich and extravagant lifestyles

For the past two years Doug has been using his engineering degree to make sandwiches and coffee at Lula's and deliver pizzas for Pizza Hut. He doesn't have health insurance but there's a clinic downtown where he gets dental checkups for $5. He is still paying off school loans. Vinny works for a local center that helps children with disabilities. Ron is still going to school.

So how do the members of the Butterfly Effect afford their rich, extravagant lifestyles?

"Don't ask me questions about money. That's boring... I make very little," Vinny says.

"We don't live rich, extravagant lifestyles!" Doug emphatically adds.

"Yeah, hardly," Vinny agrees. "I've never even eaten at the LaSalle Grill! I dated a couple waitresses, but I never got to eat there."

Money is no big deal for this trio, though. Happiness comes from other things for them.

"I like my life very much. It's largely in my own control," says Doug.

Vinny agrees. "I enjoy my life, it's interesting."

Not even the possibility of a potential record contract or tour would change Doug's mind about moving away from South Bend and abandoning the Butterfly Effect, he says. "It's not what I really want to do right now... I couldn't be in a full-time touring band... It's not worth it to me to deal with that right now."

"Would you like to be in a full-time touring band?" I ask Vinny.

"Yeah, I'd go on tour and play for crowds of 15 every night, sure!" he responds.

Doug bursts into laughter at Vinny's sarcasm. "I really want to go though," he continues. "I really wish the Butterfly Effect could have gone on more outings. I think it's the best band that I've been in. I would have liked to tour around."

All of a sudden, Doug is silent. He realizes that Vinny wasn't being sarcastic — he really wouldn't mind playing for crowds of 15 people, if the strength of the music made it worthwhile.

"I wish I was in a position where I could focus on promoting and getting shows." Vinny says. "Since I don't, there's no point in pouting about it. It's pretty good, what we are. I'm happy with it."

"There've been times," says Ron, "where I would have been very excited to tour with the Butterfly Effect... The idea of touring with a band and meeting new faces would be great."

is our message getting through?
— "The Idiots Dance," Now Everybody

"You're the old man of the group," Doug says suddenly to Vinny.

"I am? I am, aren't I!" he responds.

Vinny, like Doug, has played in his fair share of bands in the past and currently plays with three other groups besides the Butterfly Effect: a backing group for a gospel choir, a jam-oriented band called Driftwood and an African dance group.

In fact, if you ask Vinny to name his favorite band, he responds with a Who's Who list of past and present local bands.

Except for Slint, all the bands he says he listens to are products of Notre Dame — Pinch Point, Chisel, Sweep the Leg Johnny, Cod in Salsa and Umphrey's McGee. It reinforces his belief that music on the local level is often more honest and direct than larger bands' music, which is, often times, written with the main goal of making money.

"All rock music, my mom would say, is basically the same," Vinny explains.

What would he say?

"It's way different to me."

the last ones standing
— "Last One Standing," Now Everybody

"I guess you can say that I'm throwing in the towel," Ron says. For the past five years, he has played an important role in the music scene at Notre Dame. He and Doug throw Hive parties at his house almost monthly and allow local bands to play alongside larger, touring bands who stop by from time to time — bands like Braid, Sweep the Leg Johnny, Lynx, Kind of Like Spitting and others. Ron used to be the chief engineer at WVFI, the campus rock radio station where Doug and other fans of indie music made friends. Ron still periodically runs the soundboard for various on-campus concerts, such as AcoustiCafe. He also owns $3,000 to $4,000 of recording equipment that he uses to record local bands.

Ron, who is usually more humble than necessary, even acknowledges his important role in the scene. "If we hadn't been throwing shows and having people play in our basement, let alone writing music, I think things wouldn't be the same as they are now."

But steadily, since the three boys of Chisel graduated, things have started to dwindle. "There were more bands... at least more bands that played music with similar intent as ours... it seems like that whole aspect of my time here is beginning to fade away," Ron said.

Who will take over and nourish a semblance of a music scene at Notre Dame next year? Ron doesn't have the answer. But the message is clear — anyone can do it; they just need the motivation. Ron cites one of Doug's former bands, emiLy, as an example. A French record label somehow heard them through the underground grapevine and released an emiLy CD. "You don't have to have a lot of capital resources... if you can get a guitar and a four track, a little time and some energy, you can create music that can be heard around the planet. It makes you wonder how far-reaching things could be."

But in a non-arts oriented community like Notre Dame, it's a hard task to pull off. Hive shows have recently become known as cheap keg parties instead of musical events. "It's frustrating when people aren't as into the music," says Ron. "They're too into the beer to go down and get into the original music."

the door falls shut
— "The Door Falling Shut," Now Everybody

"Somewhere we've learned a lesson all too well / that only in others is genius found," Doug sings sarcastically in "The New Gods of the Underground." "The truth is we are generally far, far greater than we let ourselves admit."

There is no better example than the Butterfly Effect to illustrate Doug's point. It's not necessary to travel to Chicago or listen to the radio to find good art or, more to the point, good music. As Vinny says, good things can be started in places like South Bend — or anywhere, for that matter. True, unadulterated, passionate and important music can often be found only on the extremely local level.

But it's hard to find people who really understand the importance of music. Maybe that's what has held this band back. Doug McEachern doesn't write songs to "get chicks" or so his band can play for free beer on the weekends. He doesn't wear any unusual clothing onstage; the band isn't his runway for a rock 'n roll fashion statement.

For him, music is "healing through expression," as he sings in "Every Day a Sad Song." By putting his heart on stage, on CD or on paper, he quiets the demons inside himself. He allows others to participate in the healing process, as well. "In a way I'd still be happy playing at home, playing up in my bedroom by myself with a guitar," Doug says, "and I'd enjoy it, have fun playing music and writing music... It's nice when people like music but it's something really special when someone thinks it's important."

Helping yourself is one thing, but impacting other peoples' lives is when music stops being merely words and sounds and becomes a source of energy and inspiration. Maybe the Butterfly Effect will never perform again after April 15, 2000, but maybe they have affected someone in one of those small basement shows at the Hive or any of the other places they played.

A small action, such as a person playing a short set of songs in a basement in South Bend, could cause a huge reaction many years down the road. The next Nirvana may well be inspired by the Butterfly Effect. And the world may never even know.

Originally published in the April 11, 2000 edition of the Observer.


And as far as the party, here is what Doug posted on the old Butterfly Effect website:

We did, contrary to popular rumor and the hardiest efforts of the South Bend police department, manage to play one last show, commencing at about 2 in the morning on Sunday April 16th (in that gray area where Saturday is becoming Sunday but doesn't really feel like it, especially not if you've been drinking, eating, partying, and listening to music since about 6 o'clock on Saturday evening), and playing until about 3. All our favorites, plus a few new bits. One new song, "Killing This Town." One-third of a Transoms cover, "Anywhere to Be," tacked on to the end of "Every Day a Sad Song." And two songs from Doug's old bands Spoonfed ("(structural)") and The Cuba Five ("Saroyan"). And a few improvised numbers from Ron and Vinny. Three such numbers to be exact, one for each time that Doug broke a string. Our apologies to anyone who came out for for the show and did not get to see us. Like many great parties, this one assumed a life of its own and was no longer entirely in our control.


Afterword: Looking back after nine years

Vinny: "John, that was as cool an article as I've ever read about any kind of music. I'm honored that it happened to be about a band I was in. It reminded me about why music is so important to me. I still find myself in three different projects, so sometimes I'm too busy moving forward to reflect on why I'm doing it in the first place. Thanks again!"

Ron: "I really appreciate being able to read that article so many years removed. It marks a significant period in my own development and some of my proudest moments."

Doug: "Last March, one of my students sent me an email to let me know he had found this article. He asked me to send him an mp3 of "Every Day a Sad Song" and said 'I wont spread it among the school but it was hilarious how they explained you to be -"a shy, awkward and nerdish looking fellow during the day - transforms into a firecracker of punk angst during performances." Well im not stalking you, i just thought i would like to be able to listen to some of the songs.' Oh, for the anonymity of life before Google."

John: "That makes me really happy you guys still like that piece. I re-read it and was surprised there weren't more cringe-worthy parts on my behalf. Seeing the Butterfly Effect is still among my favorite college memories."

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