The Chip Butters Story

Story by Davin Steadman, Photos by Todd Hobert

When Chip Butters was a teenager, contemplating his prospects and future in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, he was torn. He longed to contribute to the sounds of a musical world he had discovered listening to Led Zeppelin records on his giant 1970’s headphones, and he struggled with the temptation of studying for the priesthood, which spelled leaving behind so much of the secular music that he loved. But Chip Butters did have a calling. He was going to spend his life lending a hand to his fellow man. Whether it was serving the church of Rock & Roll, or delivering sermons each Sunday, Butters was on a spiritual journey. He made a choice. He became a recording engineer.

Today Chip Butters serves his community by owning and operating a state of the art recording studio, which he has brilliantly integrated into an impressive showcase venue, just 25 miles north of Seattle. The venue side of this 4000 square foot gem, tucked below the streets of Everett, WA, is called The Rec Room. The recording side of this operation, Chip fondly calls ButtersSound Studios. Coming down the stairs into The Rec Room feels a bit like sneaking into the Bat Cave and finding a speakeasy. This seems like the place a guy like Chip Butters was meant to be, but getting from Detroit to his self created music haven was an adventure full of the unexpected. Maybe the moral of the story is that sometimes if you listen carefully, you can actually hear one door opening just as the one in front of you closes. That’s exactly what this recording engineer and hard working dreamer from Detroit did.

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In 1997, after apprenticing in his hometown at two notable Detroit studios, Chip Butters got wanderlust. On a whim, he gambled his future on a gig as an intern at the world famous Robert Lang Studios, site of Nirvana’s final recording session and the starting point of endless platinum albums that have changed the ebb and flow of Rock & Roll. Putting his faith in destiny, Chip packed everything he could into his family’s old 1978 Custom Cruiser and moved right into the studio in Shoreline, WA where he slept for the next two months, and worked round the clock for the next three years, moving up to chief engineer along the way.

After building his resume and sharpening his skills working on projects with household names such as Alice In Chains, Duff McKagan, and Eddie Vedder, Chip got an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. A wealthy Seattle investor came to him with the means to resurrect the long forgotten Columbia City Theater. The plan was to build a top studio from scratch within the theater and then reopen the landmark to the public. It meant restoring the attractive venue to its Prohibition era glory. Full disclosure, when I first ran into Chip in 2006, he was producing my first album with The Staxx Brothers. By then he had already transformed the Columbia City Theater from its last life as a private raver paradise, painstakingly creating a polished and productive facility that served its community. Before he left Columbia City in 2010, he played an unheralded role in changing the face and spirit of that entire up and coming neighborhood, fondly known as the most ethnically diverse zip code in Seattle. One particular morning, I opened the back door to the alley after an all night session (Chip didn’t bother to wake me as he pushed on through till sunrise arranging horn parts for me on piano.) As I stumbled bleary eyed into the dawn, a garbage man greeted me, telling me with enormous pride that his own brother had recorded there with Chip. He told me it meant a great deal to have a place like this available here, then with a wink and a nod emptied the garbage can and went about his day.

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For 10 years Chip kept the Columbia City Studio and Theater running almost round the clock, working sometimes 18 hour days, nearly 7 days a week. It was a juggle to even watch, for it wasn’t unusual to have Chip leave you for a moment to study his latest mix, while he ran upstairs to run sound for a sold out burlesque show or trapeze act.

During the downturn of the music industry and the economy in general, the ownership of the theater and its recording studio changed hands a few times. In the end Chip was the odd man out, left with no other choice but to leave behind the theater he rebuilt and turn his eyes north for a chance to start over again. On April 1, 2010, he came to Everett, WA. Pete Sikov, the man who owned the real estate where Columbia City Theater is located, gave Chip a chance to work his magic again, this time under his own name and sole ownership. He had seen what Chip could do first hand and had no doubt that with the love of another blue collar community and an understanding landlord, this kid from Detroit might be able to do for downtown Everett what the Columbia City Theater had done for its own neighborhood.

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Every recording studio I’ve ever visited, from a college apartment with a closet converted into a vocal booth, to a multi million dollar facility with platinum records lining the hallway, has somehow been a blend of a church, a laboratory, and a lounge. The Rec Room is an exceptional blend. Its concert seating includes black leather couches. A mural overlooks the stage and the stage itself is leopard print. On the opposite end is Chip’s new control room, and his treasured digital console from Columbia City. It’s here, that past midnight marks the end of another 18 hour day: recording a new band, hosting a concert, often a clinic, or even a church service on Sunday. That’s when Chip can come up his back stairs and climb up the fire escape overlooking the freight trains that slice through town day and night. He can look up at the stars and be thankful. Thankful that the universe and this community has given him the opportunity to serve them each day.

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