Everyone Orchestra’s Matt Butler Shares The Frisbee
Photos by Suzy Perler
Conductor, producer, arranger, counselor. Matt Butler takes on all these roles and many more in his Everyone Orchestra project, which draws together a variety of musicians for collective improvisation, with Butler at the fore, dry erase board in hand, guiding the action. Butler has enlisted many celebrated players for EO performances, including members of Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, moe., String Cheese Incident, Derek Trucks Band, Tea Leaf Green and Railroad Earth as well as Adrian Belew, Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur and many others.
In addition to his national Everyone Orchestra gigs, starting tonight, August 26, he will begin a monthly Everyone Orchestra residency in his current base of operations, Portland, OR. As he explains, “Starting in August I’ll be doing a monthly show in Portland, so I can integrate into my local community and use the Everyone Orchestra to engage a bunch of local musicians I haven’t met yet. I’m looking forward to that recurring local production and just mixing up the whole creative musician pot as well.”
Butler first toured with the group Jambay starting in the late 80s and as of late also has gigged steadily with Hot Buttered Rum. In the following conversation he looks back on the former group, hints at what may follow and also acknowledges that he will need to cut back his touring commitment with HBR, as he spends much of the fall focusing on EO.
The first time heard I heard you play was with Jambay, a group that I think was maybe a little ahead of its time. I’d love to hear your take on the band, what everyone’s up to and whether you’re ever tempted to put together a reunion gig.
You know it’s interesting, I’ve gotten a lot of love the last few weeks for Jambay. I was just out at Horning’s and there were a lot of older people who were around in the 90s jam scene and lot of them told we were kind of ahead of our time. We were sort of an amalgamation of Umphrey’s, Phish and then almost a Mother Hips or a singer/songwriter band. We hit it hard, played over 1000 shows and I can say the only reason why I’ve been able to do what I do with the Everyone Orchestra is because of who I met back then, which became the seed for building the Orchestra.
Ken Kesey at one point just went gaga over us. He was convinced we were going the next big thing and did everything in his wacky power to get us to open for the Grateful Dead. He actually did position us to open for the Grateful Dead at Autzen Stadium but they cancelled that year because Jerry had some health issues. It was devastating and who knows what would have happened.
Chris Haugen has a new project called Seahorse Rodeo and I helped him to do that record. He’s one of my best friends. We talk all the time and play whenever we can. He’s sat in with Butter and played a whole bunch of Everyone Orchestra shows. He’s also played on my solo albums and other projects.
Mike Sugar, the bass player from Jambay, he’s a producer and multi-instrumentalist. He’s done a whole bunch of Everyone Orchestras.
Shelley Doty’s still playing. She sometimes felt she was a bit of fish out of water in the jamband scene but she was great at being who she was wherever she was. She’s a real busy mother and she definitely has a career in the Bay Area but she doesn’t tour and I think that bringing it back would be about re-integrating with her.
We’ve been talking about doing some stuff with Jambay. I don’t think we’d go on any long tours but there’s a wealth of incredible music. There’s like 150 songs that were written in that period.
The bottom line is we were burnt out and penniless at the end. We should have been counseled, “You guys don’t have to tour all the time, you don’t have to make all of your living off this right now.” We should have chilled out, focused on the Bay Area and just relaxed. Instead of playing 160 shows a year we should have played 70 shows and I think we could have gotten over that hump. But we were so frantically touring, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Shelley left to do a solo project and then Chris, Mike and I tried to run with Jambay and do it as a trio but that just didn’t fly. It was really good, a whole new collection of songs were written for the trio, like 40 songs but we just kind of lost steam of how to move it forward.
It all seems to be coming around now though, now and I miss that music tremendously.
Here’s another one that goes back a few years. In terms of the Everyone Orchestra’s formation, I seemed to remember that Tye North seemed to be the conductor early on. Can you talk about the moment when he literally handed the baton over to you?
It was my idea from the beginning, it’s definitely my baby but it’s been a lot of things. It kind of started out more as a variety show where I had Jambay, ALO, Taarka, Michael Travis and Tye North on the bill. ALO did a set and Jambay did a set and EO did a set with me and Travis drumming and Tye North conducting. Another early concept is we wrote the set list as a bunch of jam ideas on a big piece of paper behind the band.
But the very first Everyone Orchestra, my appendix popped so I missed it. Zach Gill from ALO actually led that one. Meanwhile I almost died and the doctor told me, “I don’t know how you survived but you did,” and everybody said it was the best gig they’d ever done, even though I wasn’t there (laughs). They all donated the money to my health costs and there was a strange cosmic nature to the very first Everyone Orchestra.
Early on I was the drummer. I had been to Zambi a couple years before [the open-ended Zambiland Orchestra] and I was hosting these open mics and I had all these ideas regarding large group improvisation. At the beginning I didn’t think it was only conducted improvisation, that was part of the show which was a much broader variety show. So I basically asked Tye and Jamie Janover, they were my first conductors, and I knew they knew about conducting from Zambiland, so it was a natural fit.
I was getting opportunities, we were doing shows. I happened to know the best drummers around in [Jon] Fishman and Travis and [Jason] Hann and [Jeff] Sipe and they said, “I’ll play that’d be great, sounds like fun.”
I did this series of EO shows at these Pangaea benefits in Portland where I was playing this percussion rig with Jason Hann and Fishman and I thought, “I don’t have anything to do right now.” (Laughs) I’d created this incredible thing, it was going great and the energy was there. But eventually I felt that the conducting role was a bigger responsibility than I was giving consideration to in asking people to do it and I thought I’d try it one time.
I thought of a conductor as like an instrument. It’s not like the conductor is controlling everything but the conductor can facilitate things that are going on, can let things happens that are already happening or can make a change. And the idea that you can hold up a card with anything on it and people are going to do something is exciting, it’s a dangerous proposal. And I believed I could help produce incredible music that people would think is totally composed just by facilitating improvisation.
So I tried conducting one time and received a huge wave of accolades and encouragement for me to investigate it and do it more. Then I took it upon myself to kind of make it my instrument, and it’s evolved to where I can go into a festival and do a 90 minute set and conduct and facilitate it. It’s not a variety show and I like where it’s landed, it’s such an incredible melting pot. A lot of people ask me if I miss playing drums when I’m conducting and I don’t. I have trouble switching gears between playing drums and conducting. So when I’m conducting Everyone Orchestra, I tend not to play an instrument and I just give myself over, my ears and my whole spirit over to the musicians, to be there to take them on ride and also to be taken on ride by them.