Interview: John Butler
After a long discussion with the man, the myth, and the legend John Butler — who brings his eponymous Trio to New Belgium Brewing Co. on Thursday, July 25 — I had an overwhelming feeling of hope about the way the world is playing out. The folk rocker’s experienced and positive view is a glimmer of hope in this seemingly crazy time we all live in.
But his new album Home comes from a much more personal place than the global politics and the activism found on his previous releases. His new subject matter and sound are much more evolved than the prior John Butler Trio work as well. Using what he calls a more “programmed sound” allowed Butler to experiment with a new fusion of folk-rooted beats and hip-hop-inspired banjo picking. Throw in the classical 12-string Celtic stylings that his fans have grown to love, plus some hindustani slide guitar and you’ve got an unfolding, ever-developing style of music that transcends genres and, in his words, helps us “get out of our heads and into our hearts.”
Nick Gonnering: So, John, I really love your new album and I’d love to find out what your influences were for that album and hear where you were coming from with it. It’s quite different from your previous body of work. So, where was your inspiration coming from and what was this album primarily written about?
John Butler: Well, topically, it’s very personal. Just the kind of things that I was going through and thinking about, so there is a lot of personal subject matter in there. I guess the longer that I’m a songwriter, the more I’m interested in stories and songs that cross political divides and are geared more towards the human condition with less literal qualities. So, that's always more exciting for me than...I don’t know...writing about the next possible political disaster. I think I’ve written a lot about that in the past and although I think it’s very necessary, I think there are ways that you can do it that can be kind of literal and trite, or you can maybe be a bit more poetic. So, I’m always trying to get more poetic as I travel down the road a bit further. Most of these are more human condition stories than political ones.
NG: Yeah, that makes sense.
JB: Musically, though, I just had a lot of fun with Garage Band and was able to really produce a lot of ideas that I had in my head for a while. That was a lot of fun. I was writing beats and basslines in a different style, which is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. It’s a little more programmed. I’m always trying to find ways to fuse all of my influences together. You know, I don’t really listen to a lot of folk or blues, or even Celtic music for that matter. I listen to a lot of Beyoncé, Rihanna, hip-hop, and beat-driven music like Timbaland and Pharrell Williams, but I’m always hearing banjo plucking over the top of them.
So, that allowed me to bring those worlds together. I’m always trying to bring these different sounds together in a way that doesn’t sound like a Frankenstein mix, but makes the songs sound natural. I have these Influences like Beck and even Ed Sheeran who can mold those folk roots stylings into more modern-sounding instrumentation. I guess that would really be the general landscape.
NG: That’s cool. It’s like you’re able to push the evolution of folk music. I find it interesting that you say, “I don’t really listen to a lot of folk and blues music,” but I feel like, as a guitar player in general, you’re bound to fall into those influences naturally because those roots are inherent to the medium.
JB: Yeah, I’m a folk musician at the end of the day. I may play through a Marshall [amp], and I may be majorly influenced by more modern music, but I am essentially a roots folk musician. And it’s always going to be expressed somewhat like that. I can’t get away from that and I really don’t want to get away from that. I love drumming, so my right hand on the guitar is all about beats and is very percussive. I’m highly influenced by fiddle and banjo playing and traditional music, but I am not very inclined to put on a whole album of it and listen through. I’ll see it once or twice and think, “Wow, that's awesome!” and that may be ignorant of me, but in the long run, I’m just trying to get the sounds out of my head rather than sound like somebody else. Sometimes I’m working with my limitations. Don’t get me wrong — if I could sound like Hendrix, I would, but I’m just not that talented. [Laughs]
NG: Well, I definitely wouldn’t say that! [Laughs]
JB: But I’m limited by taste and style, and that allows me to create a style of my own as opposed to sounding like somebody else, I guess.
NG: I feel like that's the better approach because you wouldn’t want to just recreate a sound that everyone knows, so people can say, “Oh, well, Dylan did that...“ How boring is that for everyone that has to listen to that stuff over and over again?
JB: Yeah man! Bob Dylan did Bob Dylan the best and Hendrix did Hendrix the best. So, I don’t want to see another person trying to sound like Hendrix. I mean, fuck! If I wanted to listen to Hendrix, I’d throw on 1969 Live at Fillmore East and I’ll listen to my man!
JB: I want to hear you! I don’t want to hear you sound like someone else. But it’s totally fine. I’m sure there are many parts of the world where people are into that sort of thing. Maybe. I’m just not that way.
NG: Yeah, I can see that. I think people just want to know a bit more about the genealogy of your music. That way, listeners can tell, for example, you’re influenced by Dylan or influenced by whoever it is. In the end, it takes away some of the distance between where you are and where they are.
JB: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m not sure people can do that! Sometimes I just think I’m so eclectic that people are like, “What the fuck is this?” Maybe that’s why I hit the ceiling on how many people can like it. I don’t really know. I just kind of lose myself in it sometimes.
NG: [Laughs] You can’t please everyone, but as long as you’re staying true to yourself, you’re doing pretty well.
JB: Yeah, you’d probably be doing something wrong if you pleased everyone.
NG: So, you get into Garage Band and begin creating all these songs from your head. Was that an influence for you stepping away from the Trio? Or did that just happen organically and then you began creating in this way?
JB: Well, I was producing a lot of stuff by myself and had a really clear picture of what I wanted, so in all actuality, that part just kind of included them less, as far as what I was asking of [the Trio]. I was asking them to play my stuff — so it was just something that I needed to do. I could have kept writing Trio albums, but I feel like at the end of the day, I needed to get out what was in my head, so I just went with it. I can always do Trio stuff. Whether I call it a trio or not, my bands are always going to be a pretty feely, experiential thing, like it is now. It’s not the same guys who were in it before, but, of course, it has just really evolved that way.
I had a sound in my head that I didn’t want to compromise, and many times there have been moments where I brought a song to the band and they’ve made it better. But other times, it was like...It’s not quite there and the sound wasn’t really realized. So with [Home], I really wanted to stick to that vision and bring about this cross-pollination, which was this sound that had beats with this Celtic picking over the top and this kind of dance hall, Celtic, “go to war” mixture. So, the only way I could really do that was to manage the production from beginning to end.
NG: I just watched another interview where you had talked about your influence for “Wade in the Water.” You were talking about how you had gotten the opportunity to go to India and learn from one of your guitar gurus and learn techniques for this new evolving style of playing. It’s really cool to see that type of Indian influence in your music. Do you care to elaborate on your experience over there or how it changed your playing style at all?
JB: Yes, that definitely put me into a new practice realm because that style of picking is rather rigorous for me and I have to practice it quite often to really be able to play it. So, that’s been a lot of fun to experiment around with. [Indian musician] Debashish Bhattacharya said, “Through discipline comes freedom.” And I really believe that to be true for many different aspects of life. It’s a metaphor for mental health and a lot of things.
I’ve loved his work for a long time from afar and I’ve always found these quasi-Indian/Celtic stylings within my work, and I am highly influenced by that sound. So when I had the opportunity to go to him and learn, and realized that he had a school and that he was teaching people, I went. I really dove at the opportunity! The best part was that when I went, it was the offseason, so it was really too hot for most of the students to go. So, I didn’t end up going to the school, I just went to his house and I lived at his house for two weeks.
NG: That’s awesome!
JB: Yeah! So, basically I’d wake up in the morning and he’d show me new techniques, then I’d go practice for eight hours and I’d come back a bit later on and he’d show me a bit more. Then I’d eat dinner with him and then I’d go practice some again. It really was an amazing experience to be able to become a student — a really disciplined student that was there for one thing: I am not a tourist, I am here to practice my ass off and learn something. It was really cool!
NG: That’s really cool, especially for someone in your shoes who is technically a master of their craft. You are coming from this world where everyone is like, “John, you’re so awesome!” But when you go out and humble yourself before a teacher like that, and take on the role of a student instead, I can only assume it can shift your perspective a bit.
JB: Yeah, to tell you the truth, I really don’t like that term, “Master.” It feels like the end of the road, so I’ve never considered or wanted to be a master of my craft. I think I’m a little too attention-deficit and “jack of all trades” anyways. You know, I half play the banjo, I half play the lap steel. I play the 12-string a little bit more than that, but there are people out there who can play all of them better than I can. I’m just interested to always be a student, no matter how good I get.
For me, it’s not really about getting better, or being good. For me, it’s like bandwidth. The greatest players of all time — Hendrix, Miles Davis and all these guys — they were just able to open up the interface to the sonic universe. These people could become a conduit for something that wasn’t them, but something bigger than themselves. Hendrix is like that for me. He’s like a musical prophet — a sort of direct interface between sound and the universe and, yeah, there’s this guy Hendrix in the middle who is actually the instrument. So for me, I’m always trying to raise up the bandwidth and see how much bandwidth I can gain and learn and get under my belt. Really, I just get the fuck out of the way. No room for John’s ego.
NG: It’s more of a spiritual connection.
JB: Yeah! So, you don’t hear John. You hear something else.
NG: You hear the universe!
JB: Yeah. That's what it’s about for me. I want to give people the chills and I want to get the chills. Those moments are special. I can’t explain them. They’re really magical — it’s a magical craft, being a musician and performing, so I’m trying to upgrade! I’m upgrading the software so I can do it better, rather than master anything.
If I wanted to master something, I probably would play bluegrass and be a bluegrass player or be a bluegrass slide guitarist or a Celtic fingerstylist. I just like all of it and I’m going to put it into my big ol’ gumbo of music.
NG: That’s awesome, man. Thank you so much for sharing.
NG: Before you head out on your North American tour is there anything else that you want people to know about where you’re coming from, what you’re trying to do, or really just what it is specifically that you are trying to put out there as an artist?
JB: Yeah that's a good question. I appreciate that question because I feel like artists like myself and artists in general are instantly put into a category. So, bear with me. It’s a bit hard to explain.
We are easily lumped into this and that. You’re either very left or hating on the right and waving fists in the air against all the weird dickheads running the world and the countries. And believe me, I get it — there are problems! But I’m not interested in taking sides. I’m so fucking over taking sides. I’m over left, right, and division in general — we’re all in this together! The world is a sphere. It’s not a cube or cylinder — we cannot pick sides. It’s a one-sided shape and we’re all on the same side here. So for me, everybody’s welcome as long as you respect each other and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We’re all invited.
I’m not waving the left flag or the right flag. I’m not saying I agree with anything that the president is doing. I obviously wouldn’t vote for him, but I'm not interested in creating any more of a divide than there already is in America, where people are feeling so separate, and so different from people who have mothers just like themselves. Feeling separate and different from people who love their children just the same way. Why? Because they live on the other side of the border or they have different skin or a different religion? That’s wacky and crazy! So for me, anything to break down the borders or break down the idea that we are somehow different — anything that helps us all realize that we can make this work together.
But I’m not here to fly some alternative left-wing progressive, inner-city, “the other side is wrong” agenda. In my opinion, that’s just as judgemental as any of the racist stuff you hear or uber nationalistic stances someone might take. I think we need to break down those walls and not be building them up. It’s the one between America and Mexico, but it’s also the walls we put up between ourselves. I think I started the conversation with [Bhattacharya’s mantra], “The war without is the war within,” and that’s why I’m more interested in writing songs about people rather than politics.
NG: Human condition?
JB: Yeah, because I really believe that if you don’t love yourself, how can you love anyone else? I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. It’s easy to just get up there and talk trash on Trump or call him a dickhead, but that’s the easy way out. I’m not here to inspire separation, I want to inspire togetherness. I’m really not here to fly any one-sided flag.
Sorry, I’m just super passionate about that, and I didn’t mean to rant. [Laughs]
NG: No problem, man! It’s cool to dive into that realm and see what you’re working on. It’s your life, and you have a great platform as a musician to unify and take a look at these issues. I guess the main question it brings up for me is do you see these things happening on a global level? You are a globally touring artist, so are you seeing these lines of division happening all over the world, or is that just in the States?
JB: Yeah, I do. I see it in Australia [and] all over Europe. There’s a lot of tension going on right now — lot’s of “us vs. them.” And the strange thing that I see, as someone who’s waved his fist for the left social activist side of things, is that somewhere along the way, the left has been so condescending to the right, that the right just left the conversation — because they felt they weren’t respected or listened to, and then they voted someone in who was crazy and volatile. So, I take a bit of responsibility for that. I feel like the conversation wasn’t very open or the other side didn’t feel heard. So, what can I do to bring people in and open the door? Because, really, it’s weird to see such an extreme leaning to the right where people are actually voting against their own self-interests — not wanting to vote for someone that would help out with education, schooling, or healthcare.
As soon as politics get involved, everyone gets divided by these left and right flags. People who see the world the same way are divided by these fine lines. As soon as these flags get flying it’s like…if you’re right, all you want is jobs and you don’t care about the environment. And if you’re left, all you do is care about the environment and you think everybody on the right is a hypocrite. Then it’s like, “Whoa! Lets slow down here.” Somewhere, we’ve lost all the stuff in the middle that’s really important, like educating our kids, clean water, and healthcare.
When these things get politicized and polarized, then we can be divided like sheep.
So, that’s why I believe much more in the spirit of humanity rather than politics. You look at someone like [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] and all of his messages were, “It’s us. It’s all about us. Were all in this together.” He wasn’t exclusive of anyone. So, how do we get more inclusive to other people’s opinions? We might find we’re not so different after all. For me as a musician, I want to create some type of interface that gives you a break from all of that and allows you to maybe find some wonder in being a spirit amongst other spirits.
NG: That’s beautiful, man. I always think about how much of an influence you have as a musician and how you can put out this music that can literally change the vibration of the world around you. I like how you’ve taken that power back and have really honed in your music to be in touch with the human spirit, and stepped back from all the jarring things in the world to really take a stance on the unification of all human beings. It’s really a beautiful vision.
JB: Yeah, and it’s a complex thing to be unified. But the good thing about music is that you can use it as a tool to get people out of their heads and into their hearts. It really gets rid of the confusion for a second.
Sometime recently in the last five years or so, being on the front lines politically and being a part of campaigns, I thought that you had to change people politically. But now I just want to give them the chills — that's it. When you get the chills, it transcends all of that stuff. Make ‘em feel again, because when we stop feeling and watch too much media, it can be jarring and you can lose sight of what's important.
IF YOU GO
Who: John Butler Trio with Trevor Hall
When: Thursday, July 25, 6:30 p.m.
Where: New Belgium Brewing Co., 21 Craven St., newbelgium.com
Tickets: $35 general admission/$75 VIP
(Photo by Kane Hibberd)