John Butler Plots An Uprising
Born in the United States to an Australian father and American mother, John Butler got a taste of American culture until his parents’ split sent the pre-teen packing with dad to the southern hemisphere. On his 16th birthday, his paternal grandmother gave him an important family heirloom, his grandfather’s Dobro guitar.
Mixing college with busking on the streets, he finally chose one career path over another. A success in his homeland and France, and blossoming in other parts of the world including the U.S., solidified his selection. For him it’s not just a matter of recording and performing, but using his celebrity status for activist causes (i.e. the JB Seed which supports social, cultural and artistic diversity in Australia.)
Always intrigued about his familial roots, Butler finally uncovered the history of his ancestors as a participant in the BBC/Australian TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” The program films celebrities as they’re guided through their family tree. Going through generations of hardship, he arrived at a matriarch who sang for her survival and on his paternal side revolutionaries who took part in the 1875 insurrection against the Ottoman Empire (a.k.a. April Uprising). The name felt right for a number of reasons and became the title of his latest album.
Recorded with his new bandmates — brother-in-law Nicky Bomba on drums and Byron Luiters on bass — April Uprising follows 2007’s Grand National as his next studio effort but travels a different course musically. Jam-oriented numbers are trimmed in favor of concise songs that maintain Butler’s mix of reggae, roots rock, hip-hop and pop.
While the conversation runs smoothly, the technology of patching in his voice from Australia to mine in America doesn’t, and we end up repeating questions and answers. It’s not surprising then that the time flew by and the publicist who set up the call pops in on more than one occasion to attempt to wrap up matters.
JPG: Let’s start in with the album cover. What led to to it and is it a Bob Marley, Rasta, lion reference?
JB: It kind of started with wanting to get my face off the cover of an album for once or my head off the album. And I’d once seen this really great album cover with the portrait of a gorilla. Knowing any of the story about the April Uprising and you may know about my ancestry in Bulgaria, on the flag of their uprising, there was this lion and so it’s kind of fitting to go looking for this great portrait of a lion…if we could find one. And I found one on a royalty-free stock image site. We worked on it a bit. Its face seemed to capture the energy in which we recorded the album, the energy in which we were putting the album out, with focus, power and confidence.
JPG: The first track, “Revolution,” I got the idea that it’s more of an inner revolution. While listening to it and reading your explanation in the press kit, are you familiar with the Adrian Bellew song, “Inner Revolution?”
JB: No, no.
JPG: You’ll have to check it out. Some of the lyrics fit well with what you’re talking about. “You say you’ve got big problems like everybody else, you won’t find any answers until you find yourself.”
JB: You’re right.
JPG: “When you face yourself and look inside you see there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.” It seems as if that’s where you’ve been the last three years?
JB: Umm, I’ve been for ages. We’re always evolving, we’re always changing. Never going to be on the other side of it again. I guess as you go through periods of intense transformation, being on the other side of transformation, yeah there’s a lot of change going on. It started right with superficial stuff like getting rid of bits of my shell, having a son, and then changing my band, new lineup, a whole bunch of stuff. It tends to unfold. But then to be on the other side of it and be holy shit, god damn, there was a whole lot of fuckin’ shit going on there. I didn’t really realize what happened, you know. It was three years. A lot. It was nothing that I was really formulating. I don’t know anybody to get better connected to until now. It’s just an evolution that’s worked.
JPG: Connecting with that idea, I found it very interesting that the first thing you released when you were busking is called “Searching for Heritage,” and then you end up taking part in the BBC TV program “Who Do You Think We Are?” What is it about heritage and ancestry that has always been nagging at you?
JB: I guess coming from America and Australia I’m a part of a land that has a very ancient culture on it, the indigenous people the Native Americans and the Native Australians, they have a very strong tie to them, to their culture, their ancestry. There’s a sense of strength and a sense of spirit that these people get, the indigenous crew over here in Australia, and when you see that, hear the stories and get to see it firsthand, you almost feel it. And being that you have a relationship with land and spirit you listen for your own story; for myself, a broken storyline. My people come from the other side of the world. So, I’m always looking for my story and it influences a lot, to make our own ideas, make our own religion or…create a connection with the land that we’re on and that we love yet we’re from somewhere else. To me, I’ve always had that interest. You talk to anybody who will say, ‘We’ll fill out your family tree for you. Do you want to do this?’ Most people jump at the opportunity.
JPG: I saw a Canadian version of the show and now there’s an American version. It always seems like the participant get their mind blown by what’s told to them. Because I’ve read different versions of what you found with ancestors in Bulgaria and the April Uprising how did you apply that to yourself? Did you feel more confident as an artist, because of what you found from the matriarchal side or more as a socially conscious person from the great great grandfather’s side?
JB: It was a lot more physical and metaphysical than it was cerebral. We’ve heard the same, ‘You know where you come from, you know where you are going…’ We’ve all heard these things. So, when you go and walk on the land of your ancestors, and you go and sit in the same places, the places that they died or they walked through the woods or there’s a fireplace that they actually made, it’s quite a different position altogether. For me, yeah, it gives me a strong sense of foundation and power that I wasn’t really expecting to get from anyone. The journey itself was reclaiming, going on that journey was pretty special.
Like I said in the documentary, I’ve always known where I was going. I had my bow drawn but in the metaphor of drawing back that bow back being behind me, when you know more about it, and you can hear more about it, then you know where you’re coming from. All of a sudden, it seems like you’re able to draw back further, especially the things that I found out, it just reinforces everything that I already believed in, and felt in. Yeah, I knew where I was going, I had my bow drawn back and then all of a sudden with all this behind me, it’s like I had three generations pulling back on the bow, too.