Move Over Busker: John Butler, Back In the U.S.A
John Butler embraces the work that leads to a sense of accomplishment yet finds a part of its attraction the launching of a new beginning. Butler’s success in his Australian homeland allowed him to pursue a contract with a major U.S. record label. After several years, he signed to Lava Records, which released his U.S. debut album, Sunrise Over Sea on March 15. He marked that event by taking part in the next chapter of his life, gaining public awareness in America.
My interview takes place several hours after he and his trio performed an in-store concert celebrating Sunrise Over Sea arriving on store shelves. The album makes good on the promise of 2004’s EP, What You Want, gracefully blending country, blues and reggae via the tight interplay of Butler, drummer Nicky Bomba and upright bassist Shannon Birchall (Michael Barker fills in as the touring drummer).
Prior to and following the release date, the John Butler Trio keeps busy playing live shows including solo gigs, a support slot for the Black Crowes and a set at this year's Bonnaroo Music Festival. The addition of more interviews and television appearances to his promotional workload excites him because it represents what he's always wanted to do as an artist — share his music.
JPG: Doing in-stores and all the other promotional activities in the U.S., is it good or strange for you because you’re starting at the grassroots level again?
JB: We would prefer to do it that way to say honest truth. I've seen so many acts, just by living in society, you see these people come and jump in your face, and you say, who the fuck are these guys?' And then they're gone. Never hear of them again. I never wanted to do that to people or to myself. I'm happy to come over here and earn people's respect.
JPG: Working as an independent artist in Australia, and now working with a major label and all the machinations there, are there times where they suggest things that may be too big or Let’s have you on MTV Beach House’...
JB: If I'm going to be in this game and want to share my music, certain things are going to help. As long as it doesn't compromise my ethics too much, MTV I'll be the first to say, it's not my favorite channel. At the same time if I can turn on some of the people watching it, turn some of those guys on to something that's real and honest, then that's cool as long as I'm not half-naked in a stupid program doing it. If I'm playing music on it, I can deal with that, yeah.
JPG: Now you have a very interesting situation because you spent portions of your life in America and Australia. How did those two situations impact on your life and music?
JB: Growing up in L.A. and going to a school with a thousand or so kids there and every nationality known to man with kids being shipped in from East L.A. and Compton and all, it was a pretty rich cultural experience. And then moving to a small country town, there's mostly all white school, quite a lot of racism in town, xenophobia as well because I was American and I wasn't all that popular at the time. Quite a different lifestyle but also kind of countryside.
Those are two things I learned about — the street smart, so to speak, about the city and the multiculturalism and, at the same time, got to experience the simplicity of the country in the space of the country and going to a school with only 300 kids where the principal actually knew about my level of work, my standard of work from where I left L.A. Teachers ripping out pages in my book, Hey, learn how to write properly.' I had a principal who'd come by once every three months and go, You're getting better." This is this guy who hardly knows me but he's on to what I'm doing.
They both really were positive influences on me. Even In LA. I grew up on this strange street that was rurally zoned. I have a strange urban rural kind of thing.
JPG: I’ve been to L.A. a few times and I was trying to figure out where Lomita is.
JB: Lomita, kind of in the middle of Torrance and San Pedro. It's just this square mile little city. It's not country. It's a little street. Just one little street, used to be years ago, and it just kept some of it's country-ness. Every year we voted not to get the sidewalk put in and not have that tree cut down…
JPG: How did you end up going to a Los Angeles school?
JB: They shipped a lot of kids out from the inner city. Shipped kids out into the outskirts like Lomita.
JPG: You’ve been a success in Australia, what brought you to America for several tours before you were signed or even all that well known?
JB: Well, I mean, the cultures are not that dissimilar. You can see people reacting the way they do in Australia, and I'm thinking, Hey, people around the world dig this.' Australia is a country that you can come in a short amount of time with the proper amount of work and good luck and good music and become a big fish in a small pond. It's good to get out and keep on expanding.
The biggest thing for me was the sharing. I just wanted to share it with whoever wanted to listen to it. I don't really care what nationality. America just seemed like the first, most obvious one; a challenge as well as wanting to share.
JPG: That must have been quite a dichotomy. I assume that at times when you first came over you were playing to no one…
JB: Oh, in some places we're still playing to no one. We've been touring over here for the last four years. It's doing really good. On this tour, it's mainly promo, but we did three or four gigs. We played to 3,500 people crowds and that's the biggest crowd we've ever had in this country. Doing a little radio helps this time, which is good. Obviously, record companies have divisions, which help push it. That's really helped, having people who know what they're doing. (laughs). That's been good. But it's still early days.
I always relate touring America as kind of like you're trying to make way. You're standing on a matchstick trying to make a wave in a country that its own ripples can sink a ship. It's a hard place to make a wave let alone a ripple. Just starting to pay off as far as crowds and people a night. Lucky we've done so well in Australia, otherwise we just couldn't have done it. Cost too much money to be in this country.
JPG: I wondered about that.
JB: Success in Australia has really afforded us the luxury to come over here and do it.
JPG: Speaking of the two countries, and getting back to the album, is there any difference between the version of Sunrise Over Sea that you released there and the one you released here?
JB: We put "Betterman" on the album. We re-recorded "Betterman." We thought that was a good song that didn't really quite have a chance. We figured, if it could have a chance we wanted it to have the best chance it could.
JPG: You had a whole year between its release in Australia and in America, how do you view the album? Some artists would just keep tweaking their work forever.
JB: A year ago I was very happy with the album. It's the best thing I've ever done, really. I listen back to it and just go, Wow! Good work!" (slight laugh), which is really surprising. It's usually not that way. It's usually, you cringe, you know. I don't have any cringe factor. I made an album that I was really happy with.
JPG: At the very least, an artist grows and you play live a number of times and thinks, My playing is so much better than it was back then’ or it represents something different to you now. It’s understandable if someone would want to change this or that.
JB: I suppose it's about representing the song. It's not about whether you can shred any better on the solo of the song. You don't always like the previous album and say, wow, I wish I could sing better.' I'm all right with my voice on this album. Maybe in a few years time when my voice is better, then I'll go, "Oooh." At the moment I'm happy with it.
JPG: What about John Butler, the busking days versus the John Butler of today, releasing his major label album debut in America? What would you say, musically, is the difference?
JB: Oh man. I never sang on the streets. It seemed to push people away. I don't know if it was because I had a shit voice. I did the instrumental parts because it was more inviting for what I was doing on the streets, which was filling an instrumental album and, obviously, selling my wares and making money to doing that.
I just noticed being on the streets it was kind of one-dimensional. I sang at home and I wrote songs, but on the streets, I didn't sing. When I got into the pubs, into the bars then I mixed instrumentals with singing. On the streets it was purely instrumental.
JPG: Was it easier doing it that way because you wouldn’t have to hold people’s attention for a whole four minutes with verse chorus verse…
JB: It's almost easier to grasp their attention because they don't have to know what you're talking about. They hear the music, which, sometimes, is a lot more immediate as far as expressing the spirit of a song. Aw, I missed the first two verses of a song, now I don't know what the song's about.' You know what I mean? Music instantly captures people more. Instrumental music a lot of times can speak what words can't speak.
JPG: What impact has that had on you?
JB: I don't really write a song without an instrument in my hand. It's always inspired by a riff or something, you know. And yeah, I do like to make sure that being a pure song, sometimes a song doesn't want an instrumental, doesn't want to go on a huge journey, but sometimes it does. When it does, I'm ready. I'm ready to go there. I used to do that all the time when I was busking. I really love that. I love the instrumental aspect when you can actually make a song a movement, kind of like a classical piece. It takes you on a journey. Yeah, I'm definitely into doing that. And the guitar is definitely part of my voice.
JPG: Speaking of your guitar playing, you use a 12-string guitar but you take off one of the higher strings, so it’s actually an 11 string.
JB: I just don't like the high G. The high G is annoying. It always breaks. It's really sharp and trebley. When you want your guitar to be warm, and you have this (makes high-pitched noise), the string gets higher than any other string on the guitar. I don't like it.
JPG: Do you still play your grandfather’s dobro. (When the 16-year old Butler started playing guitar, his grandmother gave him his deceased grandfather’s dobro.)
JB: Yeah, when I'm at home. I don't take it on the road. I learned how to play that instrument. I've only been playing slide, for the last, it's getting on now eight years. Before then I was just mucking around strumming stuff. The slide and lap steel in particular, it's relatively new in the scheme of things.
It's the only way I'll ever experience anything of him other than talking to my grandmother and hearing stories.
JPG: Back to your busking days, you were doing this while attending college, correct?
JB: Busking all that same time and then at the end of my first year of my degree, I'm leaving the course and spending full time on music.
I was going for Fine Arts. I wanted to become an art teacher so I could do art and pay the rent. That's all any musician or artist wants to do, pay the rent. Not many of us want to be famous as if we can just pay the rent (slight laugh). That would be cool rather than to flip burgers. That's why I was going to art college, I figured a foolproof way of making my art pay the rent because I couldn't guarantee my art being popular enough to sell. I could probably guarantee I could become an art teacher. Teach kids, which is cool. Teach kids about art and be a cool teacher. The cool teachers are the linchpins in a good development. A couple cool teachers I had they made it bearable. So, I figured if I could do that. Teach some art and pay the rent. That's success to me. Feed yourself with something that you love.
JPG: You’re doing that in some manner now through the Arts Grant Scheme that you started.
JB: That's about giving back, you know. The minute I had enough money that was excess to the rent and the food thing, I was always into supporting certain causes whether it be donating a dollar from every ticket to a certain cause. That's what we do on every tour in Australia or to be able to start a grants project. I just try to make what I do part of a solution rather than a liability.
JPG: As far as your lyrics, I was happy to see you gave a nod to someone such as Paul Kelly, an Australian musician who’s very underrated in the States, who can say a whole story within just a few lines.
JB: Ani DiFranco. Same thing. She's amazing. She's influenced me over the last three years now. I love what she does. Totally (laughs).
Just the craft of putting words together, I was never that interested up until this album. I kind of fall in and out of it. Sometimes, I just want to say how it is. Sometimes, I just want to go, Fuckin' right. You're going to fuckin' pay. You're a dodgy corrupt motherfucker.' Sometimes, I want to say something a little bit more eloquent and a little bit more concise in a strange way.
JPG: Is that where such songs as "Zebra" and "There’ll Come A Time" come in, where you’re just straightforward?
JB: "Zebra" uses a bit more metaphor than "There'll Come a Time" does. Sometimes, I don't want to pussyfoot around. Other times, I'll just wanna say something that's gonna say a lot and work on many different levels and minimal amount of words. It's not that mathematical. There's a craft there that I've just begun.
JPG: Trying to write, lyrics, in different ways did that came about when you took the time off following the birth of your first child and you had that recharging period?
JB: It was time to do it. I just recognized it at the time. I just [recently] said, No' to doing a tv show because I wanted to spend my 30th birthday (on April 1) with my family in Australia and not be on the plane between two time zones and actually missing the whole day. I'm not big on birthdays, but I'm big on starting new phases of my life in a grounded place. I took six months off to have my child. Going into the next 30 years of my life with the people I love and not another bloody gig somewhere.
So you make those decisions, you know when they come up, sometimes not everybody's happy. It's something that you have to do.
JPG: There’s been some criticism of you for bringing your environmental views within your lyrics, but your rebuttal is that it’s just common sense.
JB: It is. As far as I'm concerned clean air and clean water are just as important as having people who love you. It's just human stuff. We have to categorize things and I understand that.