FOREWORD: Environmentally friendly, politically-charged Aussie, John Butler, is a post-hippie jam band freak whose ’04 album, Sunrise Over Sea, enlarged his overseas audience to the point where he headlined small US clubs and opened for O.A.R. at Manhattan’s spacious Hammerstein Theatre. Though he has since cut off his trademark dreadlocks, Butler’s Trio remains active on the grassroots level, releasing ‘08s funkier Grand National to good reviews.
Concocting a tasty stew mingling plaintive Celtic-Gypsy folk, crude backwoods acoustical leanings, rustic Blues, downbeat reggae, and cosmopolitan hip-hop, the John Butler Trio manage to coalesce these ostensibly disparate styles without becoming tritely hackneyed. Intricately pleating open-tuned 11-string guitar, lap steel, and banjo into indefatigably expansive arrangements with the greatest of ease, John Butler’s eager admixture encourages open-ended spontaneity and multitudinous instrumental exchanges.
Born in the barren farmlands outside Los Angeles to a Greek-Bulgarian mother and Anglo father, Butler’s family headed south to San Diego before immigrating to Australia in 1976. Firstly imbibing ‘80s new wave Goth, the dread-locked sandy-haired 29-year-old Aussie-American began busking the streets of Fremantle by the ‘90s, selling DIY Celtic-Indian instrumental cassette, Searching for Heritage, to a few thousand early fans. After ‘01s official debut, Three, and ‘03s fittingly live retrospective, Living, Butler enlisted two new musical partners and decidedly condensed the enduringly elliptical escapism of yore for ‘04s prudently trimmed Sunrise Over Sea, his most variegated set yet. The only time he drops neoteric reductionist impulses comes during 10-minute closer, “Sometimes,” where its quietly frail calmness implodes halfway, as murky organ, amped-up guitar, and loud drums override the initial fretless upright bass elasticity until once again slipping into spellbinding ethereality.
Feeling more comfortable with his newfangled trio, Butler’s recruits, reggae percussionist brother-in-law Nicky Bomba and bassist Shannon Birchall, obligingly relinquished Three’s esoteric ephemera for more incisive constructions. At their most contemporaneously pliable, the indelible “Betterman” and, to a lesser extent, the empathetic redemption, “Seeing Angels,” fit alongside workings by nu-folk idol John Mayer and cagey Americana codger Chris Whitley. Butler’s flexible baritone bobs and weaves through the percolating “Company Sin,” resoundingly relishing social relevance in the mode of Dave Matthews. Funky soul strutter “Zebra” brings Cajun clatter to an irresistible groove and, somewhat inversely, orchestrated strings embellish the supremely grandiose “What You Want.” Circular banjo solidifies the entrancing mantra, “Born To Ramble.”
Though stateside customers may only be familiar with introductory 6-song EP, What You Want, containing auspiciously ominous 9-11 anthem “Something’s Gotta Give,” slippery slide-saddled sliver “Pickapart,” and the Beatles downcast psych sloth “Across The Universe,” the full length masterstroke, Sunrise Over Sea, will doubtlessly garner serious attention.
Hopefully, Butler will gain the same wide-screen exposure fellow Down Under denizens Men At Work and Midnight Oil received in their ‘80s apex.
Opening for mighty jam band O.A.R. at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom post-Thanksgiving, the conquering trio’s mesmerizing overtures clustered synchronal rhythms inside distended guitar-latticed labyrinths with casual aplomb. Seated to the right of the stage, Butler assiduously strummed acoustic, frequently adding strikingly electrifying slide radiance to sumptuous ancillary passages. Busybody Bomba strenuously slammed skins, keeping the crowd enthralled with an avalanche of mammoth solos as Birchall dug bass chords deep into the fusillade. At the conclusion, Butler and Birchall broke out bongos and the sagacious threesome created a truly hypnotic tribal tuft.
Who were your formative influences?
JOHN BUTLER: I listened to the Cure and Smiths as a kid, then got into Jane’s Addiction and the Beastie Boys, Soundgarden and Tool. Then recently, I got heavily into Bob Marley. I think Gillian Welch is amazing. She opened my eyes to roots-based Country.
Someone claimed the earthy acoustic number, “Damned To Hell,” was ‘a tip of the hat to Gillian Welch’s Appalachian folk revival.’
She’s so inspirational. When I first heard her, I thought, “This is something I’m going to have to investigate.” Her music resonates inside me like any good soul music would, whether by Gillian or Aretha Franklin. It comes from a pure place.
“Treat Yo Mama” seems to come out of the Chicago Blues tradition originated by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
The slide guitar always had its roots in Country, Blues, and Hawaiian music. It’s just never been commercially successful. Because of the homogenized popular music scene, what makes it to radio is debris instead of the fine cream. But there’s a huge Blues scene in Australia, believe it or not. It’s an amazing scene with some awesome players, covering a range from Mississippi John Hurt to recent artists. One big influence has been singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeff Lang, who taught me how to mix guitar playing with songwriting.
On the other hand, “Betterman” may be your most accessible song, as its vocalizing and easygoing appeal seem closer to John Mayer or Damien Rice’s acoustic pop than traditional folk.
It’s probably the most digestible track. It’s a contagious song we originally put on Three. But it was only released independently in America so it didn’t do any business. It barely got to see the light of day in the U.S. even though it was a big Australian hit. We re-recorded it with the current band because I wanted to make it radio length and I felt it could be a good single. The live version lasts about twelve minutes with an improvisational jam inside it. We deliberately produced it down to fit the time limit radio would allow. We’re here to infiltrate the music scene. (laughter) I don’t think we’re being artistically compromising and I feel the song translates well to a lot of people.
“Zebra” seems to touch upon racial unity.
It’s also about my career in Australia. Some people thought they had me sussed out as a political pawn. But it’s about showing many sides to people. You can’t judge a book by its cover. We could either be nice at times, or be dickheads.
How do your compositions generally come together?
On the first few albums, I’d get out ideas for the other musicians and make really jammy songs. The lyrics are written down and the musical arrangements were done beforehand but I enjoyed making them stretch out real free form. This album is more crystallized. Sometimes lead breaks would turn into instrumental jams we tried live. I usually have strong ideas how I want the music to sound. If the improvisation isn’t going the right way, I refocus and try to get the final expression.
Is it difficult to mix urban Rhythm & Blues with rural Country in such a uniquely universal manner?
There’s a few people doing it, like G. Love’s done it well. It’s hard to be a roots musician and not be affected by rock and roll and hip-hop nowadays. I see a connection linking hip-hop to the Blues. Roots music comes from a mixture of cultures, from African to Irish. Country songs have a similar offbeat rhythm as reggae. From Elvis Presley to the Beatles, you have to be brave enough to take risks. It’s sad people are so bloody conservative these days.
Do you benefit musically from sharing an Australian and American heritage?
I have to honestly say no. Don’t forget the Beatles were highly influenced by American music but were from Britain. When you have a country like America that invented Blues, Jazz, and rock and roll, it’s hard not to be impressed with those innovations.
Nicky Bomba adds infectious rhythms to your most exciting fare. How has his experience as a reggae artist been helpful?
I intended to have a better relationship with reggae music. I knew his music well so I wanted him to play on the album. I have lots of respect for him and our musical chemistry just exploded.
Does your appreciation for nature and sociopolitical activism affect your music?
It’s definitely about what’s going on around the universe since that’s what’s inside of me. My relationships and environmental politics are in there. It just makes sense to me.
You’ve protested against uranium mining and denounced the destruction of trees.
It’s hard not to be concerned. Those are common sense issues. Clean air and water are not so much environmental issues as they are major concerns for everyone.
Since you wear dreadlocks currently, could I inquire as to whether you’re interested in Rastafarian teachings?
My spirituality is difficult to pigeonhole. I’m into so many Spiritual things. Global happenings and the information age influence me like everyone else. I like to find out about religion and beliefs. It interests me. Like most people now, I find my own recipe.
What would you like to accomplish next? Will you have time to pursue other arts?
I’m always trying to pursue my art career so I want to paint more. Musically, there’s so many avenues. I’m into reggae, hip-hop, folk, and Blues. There’s an acoustic metal influence I’m starting to explore. I just want to hone my craft and try to speak a thousand words with one line.