Though they've steadily built a stellar live reputation via stateside opening slots for The Dave Matthews Band and others, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter John Butler and band have had a more star-crossed history in the U.S. record market. Released here a full year after its successful Australian bow and appended with a truncated version of his '02 debut album's
expansive, conscience driven "Betterman," Sunrise
is essentially a second (if well-deserved) attempt to introduce Butler's earthy finger-picking, banjo and slide guitar intrigues to American audiences. While the California-born musician has too easily been lumped together with jam-band icons like Matthews (and, more curiously, breathy pop poseurs like John Mayer), Butler's guitar work has a focused fervor that draws heavily on American roots, be they Appalachian folk, Delta blues or even Southern-fried rock. His lyrics may still revolve tightly around familiar themes of self-revelation and righteous, save-the-Earth/corporate-condemning angst, but the string-haunted "What You Want" and "Bound to Ramble"s hypnotic, Appalachia-by-way-of-the-Outback folk-dirge argue that Butler's messages sometimes aren't half as interesting as the music he frames them in. The gritty, roots-evoking sounds here clearly aren't trying to reinvent the wheel, merely make it spin in Butler's own distinctive groove. --Jerry McCulley
An Interview with John Butler Amazon.com Music Editor, Peter Hilgendorf, got a chance to sit down with John Butler a few hours before his showcase performance at the 2005 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, TX.
Amazon.com: How's South by Southwest going so far?
John Butler: We just got here last night so we're just pacing ourselves and looking forward to playing and happy to be here.
Amazon: I saw Robert Plant's keynote interview yesterday morning and thought it was really good. He had a great self-depricating sense of humor. One story he told was about donating money to stations that promise they never play "Stairway to Heaven" but also play old blues records, which I thought was really quite funny. He spoke about some of his favorite artists--Willie Dixon and Son House and talked about the "blue note" that they all hit. And he how this magical note first occurred to him when he heard Elvis Presley as a kid.
I'm wondering if you think about the "blue note"? And when did that kind of sound first hit you?
John: I haven't listened to many old-school players, I think I listened to a little bit of Mississippi John Hurt, little bit of Son House. I mean I probably listened to their albums like maybe three or four times all the way through and that's maybe about it.
But the blue note factor though is still a very cool thing. I guess what turned me on to that, I think it was probably more Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. The recordings when they got those guys together was sweet, you know?
So like I say, it's kind of one of those beautiful places on the fret bord in the vocal world, you know, where it's just in-between, just the bomb, you know? And some people do better than others, I think I'm just starting to discover it more than anything, you know?
Amazon: And you felt like you've been there? You've hit it?
John: A few times, I don't live there. You know, because I mean specifically what a blue note is, is that kind of, you know, bass note, isn't it?
Amazon: Somewhere in between the third and the fifth?
John: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I've hit a few of those, you know? With conviction. But not a lot, you know, I can't say I've hit a lot of those. As I say, I'm just beginning my relationship to that. And you can't really be thinking a lot to have a relationship with it, I reckon, so you know, I don't think about the blue note very much, I just
It's the art of playing, it's getting to that place where I'm not thinking, and then usually there's a couple that pop up in the process. But you've got to love it when it happens.
Amazon: That's great that you can recognize that something's happening at the moment and something's happening on this recording.
John: Yeah, definitely. It's a beautiful thing.
Amazon: Tell me some of your thoughts on your new record, which is now your third full-length, how is it similar to some of the other things and how is it a departure?
John: Well golly, how is it similar? Gosh, you know, it's just
it's me as usual kind of speaking my mind and my experiences and my stories, you know? That's always going to be a common denominator with everything I do, you know?
I guess it's also a development of some ideas and sounds that I thought really belonged together and really would be a beautiful marriage, like kind of the blues/country/folk/reggae thing? They kind of all sound really good together, I reckon.
I love the reggae beat, you know, a good one job could always go good to a country song, you know? (singing sounds) And they just go right together. So you know, I love those marriages of reggae/blues and reggae and hip-hop, and bits in between, you know? Hillbilly Ska, whatever you want to call it. I like it.
It's on that album, and I really heard things when I was writing songs, and I heard all these things coming to together, it wasn't so much I needed to have a fusion album, it was just that I heard those influences coming together in a way that was really harmonious, and so I really went out to make sure that what was in my head was achieved on disk.
And I worked with some great players then, Nicky Balmer on drums, Michael Barker on percussion, and Shannon Birch on double-bass and electric bass, and they were just awesome! And it's what I'm most proud of, and it's the best album I've ever done, you know? Mind you it's only my third, but it's really
I think some albums you can almost cringe when you listen back to them, and I really enjoy listening to it and I'm really proud of it.
Amazon: I think at times this record is very lush.
John: It's very rich.
Amazon: It really is. And a great number of your contemporaries, be they the North Mississippi Allstars, or even as far out as the White Stripes, or back into Big Head Todd, or back out to the Black Keys, you know, people showing a similar blues influence, throwing in some jammy-reggae style. But, they're not doing much with string arrangements like what you're doing on a song such as "What You Want." I think that's one place on the record where you really kind of set yourself out, and really that song seems really less to me. Talk about what led up to that?
John: Well first, I don't see us as being kind of a blues act, I mean we definitely are roots influenced, but it's like
I mean that song in particular it's really obvious that we don't really pigeon-hole ourselves very much. I mean that song, I heard strings when I wrote it, you know? Like just really lush chords just by themselves, really rich and really
what's the word? Just really somber chords.
And then I heard these strings and so me and the bass player got together and went out to make sure that we could get them on the album. The bass player has played in symphony orchestras, so he had a lot of experience with writing music and arranging it, and I knew what I wanted to hear. So it kind of was a very trial by process, I guess you can say, as far as, you know, things didn't work and we just kind of kept on going until it was the right thing.
And yeah, influenced by, I guess Led Zeppelin, and the Verve, or Coldplay and things like that, just those really wide sounds, you know? Very rich, you know?
So yeah, that's just what I heard. When it comes to an album, I just really, whether we're a trio or whatever, I really feel like, you know, it's about painting the picture, and when the picture's complete then it's complete. It's not about, hey man, we're a trio, we can only have three instruments, that's probably a little bit limiting to me as an artist, you know, who just wants to get out what's in my head, you know? And I love working in a trio.
So yeah, there's lots of lushness on the album, and what I was really proud of as well, that was the first time I've ever arranged a thing, so that was really cool.
Amazon: Well What kind of things are you doing when you take that out live as a trio? You know, are you feeling like you need to kind of focus on being lush? Or are you just letting that be the record when you're performing live?
John: Well Well we
I had an idea of maybe for
to have a Hammond player, so I worked with a Hammond player for awhile. And that was cool for things like "What You Want" which he kind of did the voicings of the strings, but with a Hammond. You know, he could have easily done string sounds, but that wasn't right, not for what we were doing. If you want strings you get strings in, you know?
We did that for awhile and that was cool, but I found it um
he was a great player, I had a lot of fun playing with him, but electronically it was a bit too much competition for the trio. Like my 12-string is very lush and widely harmonic, it has a huge harmonic range, and then it goes through a Marshall as well. So there's all these overtones that are going on, and then you mix that Leslie speaker sound with it, you know, a Hammond, which is extremely much the same way, and I think we were stepping on each other's toes a bit.
Definitely there's things on the album I like to hear, and so if I want to hear them I just sometimes make it happen on my guitar as much as I possibly can, you know? And if I can do a chord and stick in maybe what I heard the strings doing and the voicing in-between chords sort of like that, I try to do it, you know?
And other times you have to go, hey, well that's the album and this is live, you know? And I want to play with the Hammond player or quartet in the corner, you know? So it is what it is.
And there's a beautiful thing that happens with live, which is oral distortion (laughing) which makes things sound really good, you know? When you have overtones of a guitar and cymbals and a double-bass and drums, and they start, you know, reflecting around the room and making your ears virtually distort, it's amazing what kind of padding happens live, you know? Like the padding which is strange, and all those things that are used for it. It's amazing what kind of padding can happen from just the mesh of harmonics, you know? There's still a full sound, it's just a different sound I guess.
Amazon: Talk about what's going on back home? Tell me about some of the shows and what it's like to be John Butler on your turf.
John: Well, it's different than here, you know? I mean we're a lot more well-known over there, and you know, we've paid our dues over there a lot longer. So it's different, you know, we play bigger shows, you know? Get better slots and blah, blah, blah. It's all relative really. We love coming over here and playing small shows, we love intimate shows as well, you know? And it's nice to go with a cocktail kit and a small battery-powered amp and play at a radio-station, we really love doing that! So it's all good, you know?
I love Australia and I love playing there, but I love playing everywhere. We just love sharing our music, that's what made me want to leave my living room, and then leave my town, and then leave my state, and then leave the country, just because you just want to keep on sharing. I still go back to all those places, you know? But yeah
And I have a beautiful family over there, and it's a beautiful country. I am intrinsically linked to that land, I love it. Even though I wasn't born there, it's where my roots are. It's a really beautiful place and it's really nice not to be connected to another country in a lot of ways. The isolation is just a real cool thing, you know? And it also hinders government policy as well, but yeah, it's a beautiful country.
Amazon.com: Who are some of the artists who we should be keeping our eyes on from that part of the world? Who are some of the people who you would like to come over, maybe who you'd like to bring over on a tour the next time you're here? Any secrets you'd like to divulge of the Australian music scene?
John: There are some great acts. The Cat Empire is a great act. Bomba is a great act for the reggae band. A young lady named Missy Higgins, she's doing really well over there, she's got a hit single and is a good musician on top of it, which is a nice change. Powderfinger, you probably have heard of them. They've got this great new album, I don't think it's come out here.
Amazon: Yep, Hollywood Motel was recently released in the U.S.
John: I think that's a great album. And they're a great band, they're great guys. There's a guy named J.V. Rudd who's doing some cool stuff, you know? There's lots of inspiring acts.
Amazon:Let's get back to your record. I won't choose anything in particular here, but I'd like you to tell me about a song or two on the record, you know, pick any one and tell a story of the song.
John: "Bound to Ramble" is a song I'm really proud of for lots of different reasons. For one, because it's really slow, and playing really slow and basic is difficult for me. And I just captured the whole vibe. And that's a story about
I bought a van and I took my first tour out of the state of Western Australia to go on the road with a band called The Waifs.
And I drove across the plains, about three days drive, and then met the guys and played Victoria, all over Victoria and Sydney. And then I drove up to Byron and played a gig up there. And then I drove over the top end, across, up to Darwin, and then across the Brim where I was going to meet my band. So I kind of circumnavigated the whole country. And it was a magical time, you know? I drove across by myself and it was a really beautiful time.
The really interesting thing was, I wrote a song called "Betterman" in between Darwin and Broom. And that was about my ex-lover and how much she taught me, and there's this really letting go process of our relationship in this song. And we'd been apart for a year or so, and I wrote this song as
It was really strange because when I met with the Broom, I met my wife. That's where we met each other and connected and fell in love.
So that's a story about traveling this whole land and meeting my woman, and then this onward journey, this gypsy life that we lead.
Yeah, it's a huge part of my life, I tour all the time, that's what I do. Me and my family go on the road a lot and we're a real team, you know, and I work with my wife, with the business, and stuff... It's a story just about us, me meeting her and me just being on the road with her and I was always on the ramble.
We just nailed that song, that was the song, how that was recorded and how I heard it in my head. Or not even how I heard it in my head, how I heard it in my head, times that the band ended up
how they saw it and what they brought to it, and it's just something I'm really proud of, that we nailed that song.
A great time, you know? That drive and then meeting this woman that I fell in love with, got married and had a baby with, you know? And uh yeah
it's a beautiful thing.
Amazon: So driving from Sydney to Byron Bay to your show in Brisbane and then getting to Darwin, we're not talking about two-hour drives here.
John: No, we're talking about like week drives or something.
Amazon: How are you filling that time? Are you pulling off into little towns and setting up on the corner? Or are you just walking around and checking it out? I mean you love to play, are you bringing it to some of those remote areas of the country?
John: Well at time, no, I was just doing a lot of driving. And I'd stop off at interesting places and I climbed some rocks. I was fortunate to see some beautiful things, you know, up in the northern territory, some beautiful rock paintings, and be in some very sacred places at dusk, you know? And had some really beautiful times, you know?
Stopping by animals on the side of the road that had interesting feathers and that weren't alive anymore and collecting feathers and stuff like that. So yeah, just kind of really sucking up nature and the gifts it had to offer really.
Amazon: So it seems like you probably derive quite a bit of inspiration just from the land and from what's growing and living in Australia.
John: Yeah, I mean the land's really important to me. And beyond the land and beyond the country. The earth is really important to me, you know? It's what made me, you know? Other than my mom, it made me, you know? And it's what
what sustains life on this planet is this whole beautiful thing that's going on, you know? I have a deep respect for it, and an interesting relationship with it that is hard to put into words. But I find I draw a lot of inspiration from it and I find a lot of meaning and a lot of sense I can make, to be watching patterns in the environment in and around me and how that affects my life and how I can make sense of my life through it.
Amazon: Anything that you can point to where you really feel like you had a moment in a particular song that's pulled straight from this feeling?
John: Oh, things like "There'll Come A Time" or "Treat Yo Mama", I mean they're all songs about a relationship, an intrinsic relationship between man and earth, land and environment, and at the same time the overwhelming need to respect that relationship and to
I don't know, what's the right word? Rekindle it, I guess, and also just nurture that relationship. There's a lot of secrets to be learned from there, you know.
So yes, "There'll Come A Time", "Treat Yo Mama" those are the main ones, really. "Company Sin" as well, which is really an Australian kind of song in a lot of ways, you know?
Amazon: A message for the homies?
John: No, not for the homies, but a song that was
a series of stories I've been told by a lot of my aboriginal friends, about sacred land and places to go and places not to go. About tradition and what happens if you do. It's called "humbug", bad luck, or the curse, you know? Humbug? That's a really uniquely Australian story and it uses words like humbug and getting sacked and all these Australian kind of relationships with land and respect of land and respect of culture, and indigenous culture, you know?
Amazon: Do you feel that's part of your mission to inspire listeners to be aware of these things?
John: It's my mission as a human being to just be active and make sure I contribute to this planet in a positive way, and not be another liability. You know, whether that means supporting active groups like the Wilderness Society, or supporting humanitarian groups like Refugee Action Coalition against the mistreatment of refugees in their countries. Or funding certain, you know, actions, whether it be, you know, the Global Rescue Blockade in Tasmania, which is like the world's largest tree-sit done with Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society, and we funded a lot of that, to do that.
So I make sure I stay active as a human being and then I document it with my music. And if through speaking my truth, you know, I feel like I'm adding in some ways to the greater truth.
I think it's a fine line to then go, hey folks, I'm going to tell you what's going on, you don't know what's going on, I'm going to tell you what's going on, so you can be like me and be informed. I think that's really condescending, and it pushes a lot of people away, and it's really rude! Because there are a lot of informed people out there. So all I can do is kind of teach by example, you know? And really just look after what I'm doing, and speak my truth.
And I know just through watching my forefathers in music that, you know, if one person comes from the heart and speaks the truth, and he chooses the morals into this, to their ethics, it speaks usually for a lot of people, you know?
Amazon: That seems like very much a working class thought process--a one-person-at-a-time approach.
John: Yeah, I mean you've got to be pretty grounded, otherwise you just become a flake, you know, and really unrealistic. And you've got to stay active, and it's all about us individuals, you know? All about people-power, and it's about, you know, thinking globally and acting locally and all those other clichés, you know?
Amazon: I have to apologize
this discussion is reminding me of one of my favorite films of all time, an Australian picture called The Castle.
John: (laughs) It's about Mabo, it's about land rights, it's the vibe!
It's just one of the best movies ever! I'm glad you get it.
Amazon: I wanted to end it on that great note
John: I'm glad you got it, because I watch those things sometimes I go, I wonder if Americans would understand this? Because it's pretty kind of inside humor, you know?