From his early days busking in the streets of Australia to currently headlining shows around the globe, John Butler has evolved as a guitar player, singer, songwriter and human being. Whether backed by his stellar band or solo, his music is uplifting and powerful and his grasp of a variety of stringed instruments is deep and well seasoned. His last record, 2010's April Uprising, debuted at #1 in his native Australia and his fan base has grown considerably worldwide. In advance of that record, I had done an interview with him in Hollywood, CA and we had a great chat. However, the magazine I was interviewing him for wanted only the gear talk, leaving what I thought were the most interesting parts of the interview on the cutting room floor.
With Butler's new album Flesh & Blood coming out on February 4th, I wanted to release this lost interview with a modern day roots master. Even though the discussion is about his last record, his sense of character and commitment to the craft shines through. If you have not experienced Butler's music, it's high time you be introduced! Lucky for you, he and the band are embarking on a world tour so you can see them live.
Robbie Gennet: Tell us how you approached creating April Uprising.
John Butler: My main agenda was to have something that was very focused, very powerful and very song driven. We just humbled ourselves to whatever it needed. The songs have to hold. At the end of the day, that's the only thing that matters.
RG: How were the creative duties shared amongst your band mates?
JB: The chemistry was so good between us and we all have a very similar library of music. We all love funk, reggae, soul and good songs and we kinda came together as three producers. Because I was doing the record at my studio, we had a different time frame to work with. I'd have an idea and it would kinda mutate into something else which was always better. Our rule was: whatever sounds the best. We don't really care where the idea came from or how simple or complex. We just had to humble ourselves to the song. That was a real nice thing to do, just being mature with it and serving the art rather than having the art serve me.
RG: I read in the bio that you recorded twenty-two songs for the album before whittling it down. How did you decide which ones made final cut?
JB: Well, getting down to the focused song made a huge difference. A lot of times the songs were musically brilliant, some of the best music we've ever made as a trio. This is fresh, we were really proud of it. But because the song structure, either the arrangement or a lot of times just the lyrics, didn't make the grade. We just felt that's some of the best work we've ever done musically, but as far as the songs concerned it wasn't good enough.
RG: Will any of those make it to B-sides or an EP?
JB: There's a few B-sides from that, yea. You look back on all the memorable music moments in our past and all the hits and some of them aren't recorded the best. Look at Motown. Compared to nowadays, there's a lot of distortion and noise but they're great songs. You can have a really crap song recorded amazingly well with all bells and whistles and it's still not gonna move you. So at the end of the day, it was just feeling the song has to hold. I don't care how great the solo is, I don't care how amazing this rhythm section is or how phenomenal that music is; if it isn't sitting in the vehicle of a song, it will only be so potent. Unless you're creating an instrumental -- that's completely different -- the song has to hold at the end of the day. That's the only thing that matters, the only thing that will stick with me and us and listeners is that classic song. I wanted to make a classic album.
RG: Do you have one guitar you tend to write on most? How do you choose which guitar will represent the song on the record?
JB: I write on anything that's in my hands. If I'm on lap steel, I'll write on lap steel but that song could easily go to a six-string or 12-string or electric. More than not what it was written on will make it to the final grade but sometimes not. But other songs I have in my head for ages and so when I finally remember them and have an instrument, that's always the hard part. I usually have a riff in my head when I have no guitar and then when I have a guitar I don't have the riff in my head. When they do line up, I'll play on anything. Like "Close to You." The first time I finally got it out of my head it was on an acoustic but I always heard it on electric.
RG: Since you play banjo and so many different types of guitars, do you feel compelled to record with them all?
JB: Only if the song wants it. I had a bit of an epiphany just realizing that the artist serves the art. I think a lot of times I was trying to make the art serve me in a way. You try to do right by the song. It's really a cliché but songs are something kinda divine and they're not all mine. All I can do is use my craft and skills to kind of get it through me as purely as possible without fucking it up. I always relate to a wild animal in a way, a beautiful wild horse. What makes it beautiful is that it's wild and strong and healthy. It hasn't been broken, but in order to take it to town and show everyone how beautiful it is without it kicking everybody in the face, you have to be able to get the saddle on it. I want to be able to ride it, not kill its spirit.
RG: The lyrics of your songs are often socially conscious and a lot of your fans are moved by that. When songs come to you, how often do you have an idea for the topic that you want or do songs always come and find their topic later?
JB: Probably the latter. It usually starts with the music, then I start scatting a vocal rhythm and melody and little things they come they take what has come out, and usually that's like the assignment. It's like "ok, there's your phrase, what's that mean to you?" well that could mean a whole shit load to me. "Tell me family what do you think? Watch it all go down the great big sink." That instantly sets the theme for a topic. Other things like "Steal It," all that came to me on that song was the chorus 'steal it all from me' and it worked so well with the melody and slight yodel. Ok, now what does that mean to me? I get phrases given to me, they come right out of my mouth and then I have to make sense of them and elaborate on them.
RG: Is it a pretty easy process or do you get stuck on a phrase looking for a greater meaning?
JB: With "Revolution" I wrote that chorus four times. I'd write it one night, song was already tracked and I'd sing it like "that's great!" and I'd get back to it the next day and be like "that's embarrassing, I can't stand that" and it's really obvious. Some songs come out of you like "Ragged Mile." That was a bit of music I had and a vocal melody that we recorded and it sounded great. Then through about six or seven vocal scratch takes I wrote lyrics and it really was something else. Then other songs like "Revolution" I had to really take my shit to the next level. I could of accepted the first or the second thing that came out but at the end of the day I was making sure I was kicking myself in the ass. It's a fine line. You wanna kick yourself in your ass but at the same time not overbake something.
RG: How do you know when a song is done?
JB: When you stop hating it, or when it really resonates. A lot of what I'm driven by is my gut and my instinct on that. When it starts feeling right and it feels right for a few days. It might feel right then but in a week I might completely not like it. When it holds water for long enough and it stands the test of time then i can go 'cool.' It's a real alchemy. Every song wants to be born in a different way. It's interesting. You can't use any formula to bring a song to life. How to get that saddle on the horse is different every time. It's humbling, you know? You can't be cocky. You gotta go to the song with a lot of respect and go 'ok, how are we gonna do this?' I don't have any predisposition or concepts of how I need to bring you to life; I'm here to serve so what do I need to do? It's pretty nice, actually. It allows for better art for me to take myself out of it a little bit.
RG: When you were first writing songs and busking, how far away were you from how you write songs now?
JB: It was a little more contrived and naive all in one. It was like I would accept anything that came outta my mouth; that's great, that how I feel. It's literal but there wasn't a lot of poetry. I was saying little with a lot of words. The more I started writing songs and discovering great songwriters, I started realizing there are artists who can say one phrase, can nail the general feeling of it and say it better than ten years of conversation about it. And that's not even the whole song, that's just one line of the song. God damn, that's powerful shit! That's a one-inch punch, you know? It's pretty zen. Not saying I always got it, but I was always aiming it for it. I want to say a lot more with a lot less and paint a vivid landscape that one can feel and get the chills from rather than "aw that was clever." Now I want to say as much as a I can with as little as possible.
RG: Who else has been very successful at truncating the message?
JB: Bob Marley. To a lot of people who love Bob Marley, which is probably almost everybody, he's saying it so sweetly. Like he says "when the music hits you, you feel no pain," he's hitting you, he's actually knocking you in the face with some heavy shit and yet you're like "I love this guy, I feel great." It's kinda sublimely hitting you. Eminem is an amazing lyricist. He's on another level of saying what everybody's thinking. But he has the balls to say it and he has a way to say it that really works. You go 'I think that I've never told anybody that but you nailed it.' Also Gillian Welsh, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, obviously. There are a lot of greats out there. I mean, Hendrix is a great songwriter. There's a reason Hendrix is Hendrix. A lot of people think it's because of his guitar playing and yes, for a huge part of it, it is. But we all have known great guitarists that were great and they're not remembered because they didn't have the vehicle of a song to put that great guitar playing on. He wrote some great stuff then put some sublime ground-breaking music on top of it. Paul Kelly is an Australian artist, great songwriter. Bon Iver and Jose Gonzalez put out some great stuff, too.
RG: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
JB: I like the Justin Timberlake album that Pharrell did. I really like it. Nelly Furtado's last album was really good. They're not really guilty pleasures, just stuff people think I wouldn't listen to that I really dig. I write to beats.
RG: You sing very rhythmically, almost rap-ish without being rap.
JB: Well it's influenced by that, definitely influenced by Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys. That's what I listened to growing up. De la Soul, Q-Tip and all that stuff. I love that stuff. I love NWA "100 Miles and Running."
RG: Will we ever hear a straight rap record from you?
JB: (laughs) I'm too schizophrenic to be that way and not only that, I have a voice and a style all my own. What I've seen as a musician is that the most important thing is to have your own voice. I mean, look at Neil Young. He's anything but a shredder but he's one of the most ass kicking guitarists around because he has this style and he puts everything he's got into it. Sometimes it's only one note for like eight bars but fuck, there's 160,000% of Neil Young in that note! Neil just nails it with all of him. He's not trying to be anyone else.
RG: But he also has the songs.
JB: Exactly. So I just try to cultivate my style and obviously be influenced by everything I see around me at the same time.
RG: It's kind of a dichotomy. To have a style, you have to have certain parameters for what makes that style. But to keep it from getting stale or stagnating, you have to change it up to keep it fresh. So how do you balance that? Finding the parameters of your style but not wanting to repeat yourself?
JB: I guess the greatest thing is to realize your style doesn't have any parameters and it's a growing thing. From the way I see my art, it's a subjective thing. It's not really about how I hope other people see it but it's grown, and that's the beautiful thing about it. The last thing I would ever want to be called is a master of anything because I'm always gonna be a student. So always keep the idea that you're cultivating a voice of your own and the best way to do that is to try not to sound like other people. There are a lot of people who love Hendrix and just learn him or Clapton or the Beatles and you can hear it everywhere. Jeff Buckley is a classic example. He is amazing. So many artists went to bed with Jeff Buckley on and were like "ohh this is amazing" but then they sounded like Buckley. All you can really do is love what they do and bring it into your fold. As long as you don't study anybody, I think that helps. I have a certain amount of ignorance. I'm lazy. I love lots of them but I won't learn anyone's music. There's enough of my songs knocking at my door that I need to finish. Sometimes I learn songs to play covers, but I never really try to learn someone's style. That's the voice, you know? All I can do is like it, but I also like Celtic violins and I also like bagpipes and I like beat-boxing and I'm gonna do my shit and see what happens.
RG: Do you cross-pollinate with other guitar players?
JB: Not a whole bunch. If I get a chance I'll ask people. I'll just go straight up. I saw Rodrigo and Gabriela in England. She just got off stage and had been doing this nice strumming thing and I went up and said, "How do you do that?" I just throw my ego away and go 'school me'. I'll do that to anybody. It doesn't matter if it's a 16-year-old doing something really cool or an 85-year-old so-called master. I just ask. If I see something I like, I usually ask somebody to teach me. I don't get the chance to sit down with a lot of guitarists. I'm pretty much immersed in my own world. I mean, I get my ass kicked every once in a while and get a fire lit under my ass, which is really good, I like it.
RG: What are some of your earliest influences?
JB: Jeff Lang is a fucking sublime Australian singer/songwriter guitarist who I got a lot of my idea from as far as amplification and acoustic and distorted guitar coming through a volume pedal. All that was inspired by Jeff. He tours around the world but he's not huge or mainstream. Anyone who's done anything good in the Australian roots scene, you can find a lineage to Jeff. He's like a Tom Waits. The first time I saw him when I was still busking and it was like going to church. The pIace wasn't full, I didn't know what to expect and I sat there with my jaw on the ground. It was the first time I had been blown away. I started songwriting at 16 and through about 20 it was all jingle-jangley. Then I came to open tuning and got right into that. Then I stopped writing songs in way, still wrote a little on the side, and got right into instrumentals. Then I saw Jeff and he was an amazing guitar player. He had an acoustic six string but then winding in this heavily distorted Music Man and created this Hendrixy Celtic vibe. After seeing him and Tony McManus I realized you can be a great guitarist and put these songs together. So seeing Jeff for the first time is by far a huge pivotal moment in my life. And then the last one and the best live gig that I've seen was Rage Against the Machine in Portugal. So tough, so funky and really just powerful. And Tom! Tom Morello is a motherfucker.
RG: Talk about thinking outside of the box.
JB: You can hear all his influences but he's not trying to sound like anybody but him. After seeing him, I might get a whammy bar but I won't use it like him, I like that flavor, just like I like Marshall amps. I'm not gonna learn Tom and I'm not gonna learn Hendrix but I'll grab those sounds and give reverence to that spirit they're channeling. But I want to find my voice.
RG: When you were in that period of discovering open tuning, was that when you wrote "Ocean"?
JB: Yea. That was one of my main busking songs.
RG: Does the way you play it now resemble how you played it back then on the streets?
JB: No, completely different. It's grown, it keeps on morphing. Back then I had the slow part and the fast part but I didn't have any percussion or the simple bar chords I do with my other hand.
RG: Are you happy with the way your careers gone in terms of how you've been able to manifest your music?
JB: It's great to have dreams and aspirations and goals and it's good to have perspective. Where I am along the path is a pretty amazing and beautiful place. I'm living the dream. I was doing that from about the first year and I will always acknowledge that. I was able to pay the rent and feed myself for doing my art. It doesn't get better then that. There are so many talented great musicians out there who would love to be able to do that and for whatever reason can't and I don't take it for granted at all that I can. So I see the potential that this music has that's why I worked so hard in Europe and around the world.
RG: I'm excited to see new trio and the new music tomorrow night. How much new stuff are you working in to the set?
JB: We're playing a long set, like eighteen songs, about two hours. The mix is about half and half; it's a tricky phase. Like me when I saw Rage Against the Machine, I wanted to hear everything I knew and I did and it was fucking awesome. And so I realize that's what people want. That's what I want when I see somebody. I don't really want to hear obscurities because I'm not that kind of nerdy fan. But at the same time, we need to indoctrinate people with our new stuff. So it's kinda like start with two old ones and then it just kinda goes old new old new old new.
RG: On some level musicians are always servicing what the crowd expects.
JB: People want to hear certain things and I don't mind playing them because I like the songs. And if they wanna hear them, that's a pretty cool thing. You don't want to have people walking away going "that was pretty lame, I mean, I like the new songs, it would be nice to sit with them with an album but I didn't get to hear anything I know."
RG: Are there songs from your catalog that you're surprised people ask for, that stand the test of time?
JB: Yea this song "Trees." It's one of the most literal naive songs I've ever written that I don't sing anymore. It's just way too trite, but people ask for it all the time. It has a great guitar part, that's what it is. I've thought about taking that guitar part and writing another song with it. I don't dig the lyrics anymore, even though all the lyrics are spot on and they're all coming from the right place.
RG: When you go back to older songs do you have to brush up on what you were doing?
JB: Definitely have to remember all the subtleties and all the lyrics for sure. You gotta move on; you can't remember everything. Hopefully you don't need a teleprompter! The band is taking the old stuff to a newer level which is cool and all the new stuff too
RG: Have any of the new songs been tricky to transition from the studio to the stage?
JB: "Close to You" was interesting because I came up with that riff on guitar and didn't have any lyrics. I went to my studio, put down a disco beat on the kit and looped that and put down the guitar part pretty much in just one take. Put down the bass and it sounded kinda cool. Then I sat down in the corner of the room, smoked a couple cigarettes and started writing. Then I put the song on the PA system on loop six or seven times and finished writing the lyrics. I went and recorded them, sounded great. Then when I went to try to play it, I couldn't. The guitar part is a completely different rhythm to the vocal part. That was a great way to write because I wouldn't have written those lyrics or that melody without having a guitar away from me. So some of the songs, they're pushing me out of my comfort zones and they're pushing my levels of how I play, which is cool. I feel like a 16-year-old again. I feel really challenged again by this music. I have to use everything I've got just to play it, and that's good. It always makes me very reverent and humble to the song. I can't go through the motions of any of my music. I think I'm just a bit of a primitive player that way. I don't hold some kind of mastery over my instrument; every time I play, I have to give it everything. Otherwise, it sounds like shit. That's good, I like that.
RG: Does it make you want to write different ways out of the box?
JB: Yea that's what I did a little bit on the album. "Mystery Man" and "Ragged Mile," parts of "To Look Like You" and a couple other songs were written that way. We recorded them, good arrangements, basic blocks of lyrics, but then there's lots of bits where I had big gaps. Often when I come back to it, I might find a vocal melody shots off against a chord in a way that's unnatural to play it, but it sounds great for the song. It gets me out of my songwriting comfort zone.
RG: So then you have to actually learn what you did to perform it?
JB: You have to be a student. It's cool.
RG: Speaking of students, what advice would you give to up and coming guitar players?
JB: Try to find your own voice. Take heed from all your influences and give reverence to your forefathers but search for your own voice. Get lost. Don't be afraid to be self-indulgent within your own style as opposed to just learning how to shred a million miles a minute. Try to find more of the spirit side. The guitar is such a good friend. Culture your own voice and relationship with it. It's not about a body count. It's an experience. Even some of those guys who can shred really well, they touch you. And there are a few who do it. You just have to do it right and do it in your own voice.
RG: What moves you as a listener?
JB: There has to be a story. You want to be taken on a ride. There are so many techniques and attributes and tones that you can use to really express a feeling. The first time I got hit really hard was listening to "Machine Gun" by Band of Gypsys from the Fillmore East. It wasn't the version on the main album; there was a reissue. They recorded two nights and the second night is where it's at. I could hear helicopters and napalm burning and screaming and machine guns and crying and hearts breaking and coffins being sent back. He painted a multi-dimensional picture. He was channeling something way bigger than him. Sometimes he ripped it and sometimes he just let it hang and let it just unfold and distort and break apart. When you can do that, when you can paint a landscape... I remember I was laughing and crying at the same time. It was life changing. It was just coming from his heart. That's good advice for young players: come from your heart and not your mind. It's sometimes a hard thing for us to separate.
Find out more about John Butler's music at www.johnbutlertrio.com
Hear the new John Butler Trio single "Only One" from the album Flesh & Blood: