Perpetual Groove: Surround Sound Upstarts
Over the past two years, Perpetual Groove has emerged as an heir to the jamband crown. They’ve played Bonnaroo, dressed like Michael Jackson and toured in Dolby 5.1. More importantly, the Georgia-bred quartet has figured out away to marry free improvisation with equally exciting song craft, resulting in a series of well-received performances and an excellent Home Grown Music Network release Sweet Oblivious Antidote. Guitarist Brock Butler discusses his first meeting with bassist Adam Perry, how Perpetual Groove linked up with a pair of army men (keyboardist Matt McDonald and drummer Albert Suttle) and why every musician should study Star Wars.
MG- Tell us a bit about Perpetual Groove’s inception
BB- It started when Adam and I attended the Savannah College of Art and Design. It was my second day there—-his first—-and we just started chatting. We were both into a wide spectrum of music, like Clutch and other bands. Clutch is a band that isn’t real hippie but at the same time they jam out. It’s kind of bizarre. We actually jammed our first night there. He brought all his stuff with him and I had all of mine in the dorm rooms. I imagine my roommate’s parents got pretty scared. It was probably the fourth or fifth trip up before I actually brought any actual art tools [laughs]. At the time, we also played with a kid named Joe Stickney who was our original drummer before we took the band on the road. While we were still in school he had his drum kit in the room just below me. Lucky enough, we got along and started playing music for free at coffee houses.
MG- How would you describe your sound at that point?
BB- Coming out of high school, I was listening to a lot of the stuff like Sublime—-I am actually still a big Sublime fan. At first, a lot more of that was coming through in what we were playing. I was writing shorter songs that didn’t really change that much live as far as the arrangement. I had never really thought about having keys or anything in the band. As far as I knew, bands were just guitars, drummer and a singer. But Joe was from Alabama and he turned me onto John Scofield and Medeski, Martin, and Wood—-that was a real big change for me, hearing A Go Go. Ultimately, after a couple weeks, we met a keyboardist named Brett Hinton and we were the first four guys on the original Perpetual Groove CD. It was mostly free form jams and a few of the songs we actually play today like “Echo.” Those instrumentals all came out of jams that we did in the dorm room. I imagine everybody on our side of the building hated us—-we were loud and had a great time.
MG- Unlike many modern jambands, your sound also seems rooted in a strong, singer/songwriter tradition. Do you look to that formula for inspiration?
BB- Now more so than ever. I have never been very calculated in what I am writing to a point. I get things stuck in my head and have to manifest it and make it exist and start humming it. Most of the stuff I write is from a personal standpoint, kind of autobiographical. So if people ask me what a song is about I very rarely have one thing specifically in mind. I like hearing what the audience thinks a song is about. Sometimes its like, “That is pretty cool, I never thought about it that way.” Lately, I’ve been writing more lyrics—-I am a really big fan of Wilco and their approach to songwriting.
MG- In college, both you and Adam minored in audio engineering. How has your technical background played into Perpetual Groove’s sound?
BB- Adam, our light guy Jason Huffer and I, have all taken classes for video and film. I think that’s helped tremendously. I know it has helped me learn about the seconds of sound and what a sound wave is doing and the dynamics. Trying capture sound for film or capture any sound to be recorded for that matter, has helped me a tremendous amount. Listening to old tapes, versus my playing now, I am not necessarily playing any faster or better, but having a better sense of dynamics. I think that is one of the strongest points of our band. When we play together in an ideal sound situation, where we can hear each other we have some really nice moments. We can bring it down and take control of the music and it is nearly almost noisebut not in a bad way.
MG- Last year, Perpetual Groove also actually toured in 5.1 Dolby surround sound.
BB- Everybody in the band speaks to that mentality. I’ll go see some movie and it might not have the best dialog, but it has a really good sound design. Like Star Wars Episode One. The movie itself is definitely bad. But, I saw it several times just because just I wanted to hear it on a proper sound system. Its such a pleasure for my senses that I will just close my eyes and listen. The sound in Tim Burton movies are just fucking awesome.
MG- I know you are huge Sci-Fi/fantasy film buff. In fact you list my first cinema experience, seeing Transformers: The Movie, as one of your favorite films.
BB- That is one of my favorite movies. Adam, Albert, and all of us played with Transformers Did you ever see Boogie Nights? I swore I heard the Transformers’ song “The Touch” in it. I had to go back to make sure that it wasn’t some sort of washed up porn star trying to save the day.
MG- After college, you began to tour pretty rigorously. What did you find was the hardest market to break into?
BB- Probably the Midwest. It’s like you get used to playing at home and the shows get better and better there. Then you go into a new market which not everybody knows the music and you have to keep on working to impress people. On the flip side, High Sierra was a fantastic opportunity to meet people and gives you a good chance to play for a new audience. I still meet people where that it was the first place they saw us and it was a great launch pad for the band.
MG- You also seem to have foster a fraternal bond with several of your festival-mates
BB- Playing with Moonshine Still, being that they were from the same area, was huge for us. They had been doing it a few year before us and we got very lucky to get in with their audience. They are very good friends. I am also always interested in what Umphrey’s are up to. They are real cool, welcoming guys.
MG- In the past year, you’ve also become a staple in the Jambands.com sit-in department. What are some of your favorite collaborations?
BB- Having Cody Dickinson form there North Mississippi Allstars sit in with us on Jam Cruise was awesome. At High Sierra, Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner also let me sit in with Conspirator and on Xingolati I got to jam with John Medeski and G. Love. I have been going to festivals for years and watching those guys form the audience—-I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited to be playing with Medeski.
MG- In this day and age there really seems to be a jamband blueprint for success. Did you use that as a framework for Perpetual Groove’s growth?
BB- In college, I was always going to different shows. By the end of my first year I was getting into Phish and Scofield was being played a lot. In Georgia, Panic was also more or less was being jammed down your throat, not that it is a bad thing. I have had a really good times at their shows. The whole acid rock thing with the Flaming Lips was a huge sonic influence. I like how they blend it all together. They have the lyrics of a singer/songwriter, but then musically they are bumping. Their four disc Zaireeka sound experiment was amazing.
MG- In 2001, just as you began touring harder, Perpetual Groove was thrown a curveball when 9/11 hit. How did having two members in the armed services change the dynamic of your band?
BB- We had been juggling that for a long time and fortunately they both got out before this business started overseas. When we first jammed it was at army bars. I think it could be one of the most key ingredients in this band. We are all very open to any to everything and try to have a positive attitude. I think our manager, Ben Ferguson, had an open mind. He said, “I have this plan. Do you want to be playing bars or really get this thing together and go places?” I really liked his approach and he was so eager to do the business part of things which I could never do. He found a guy to do the website and got that going. We got a CD duplicator and made CDs with labels. We had over 10,000 of those and we went to the first Bonnaroo as an audience members and handed them out to people.
MG- And then, three years later, you were onstage playing at Bonnaroo.
BB- Oh man, before we played I needed to be calmed down because I was nervous. First you wait and wonder how you going to play. Here we are really excited and then you get nervous because you realize there are several other stages. Are we going to have people in front of our stage? I was nervous that no one was going to come to our set and then I realized, soon before we started, that there were about 20,000 people out there. They had to close one of the tent sides trying to get the flow going back around Centeroo. Then something wasn’t working before we started—-it was the longest ten minutes getting it fixed, not knowing. If you get seen by a lot of people at Bonnaroo it is a tremendous success.
MG- Last year you adopted a movie theme for your Halloween performance. How did you choose your Jackson-inspired costume this year?
BB- The year before we were playing in surround sound so we did two nights of Halloween movie themes: Big Lebowski and O’ Brother Where Art Thou? I thought that we set the bar pretty high with those, but looking around we found that every other band was doing stuff like that [laughs]. So we just came up with a bunch of other ideas and a lot of different things that weren’t all necessarily connected. I thought that maybe we could add some more theatrics to our show—-like have a chainsaw on stage and fake blood. Not necessarily dress as the Jackson Five, but do the song “Give Me One More Chance” and then get murdered and come out with the “Thriller” jacket which was a real treat for me. We discussed maybe doing a Tarantino film but then we realized that the costumes for that would be blank suits like Reservoir Dogs and that wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun. With the Jackson Five we were able to add afros and real funk. We played “Funkytown” before we came out and we had fog machines to look like it was low to the ground. We put our retired songs on gravestones because we hadn’t played them in so long. For New Years, we are playing three nights and everyone is already talking about that. We haven’t planned anything planned yet, but who knows. I really love this stuff and I think it is tremendous. We will definitely have some good covers and bust out some old ones. After Thanksgiving, people start to slow down a bit while the college kids have finals. That gives us time to practice and brush up on old songs that are on the back burner. Right now we are just trying to get some new songs ready.