The John Butler Trio return with a new album, Flesh And Blood, which sees acoustic genius John Butler expand his palette of sounds and techniques once more. Acoustic heads down under.
The music industry may currently be in the middle of a steady slide downhill to an inevitable grave, but for a small number of musicians who are savvy enough to know how to take control of their own destinies, an escape route is available. One of this elite bunch is the Australian John Butler, head of the Trio that bears his name and a chap who other musicians should consider emulating if they don’t want to be flipping burgers before the decade is out.
‘I steer my career with my heart,’ says the great man. ‘I spend time in my shed making pocket knives, and I paint, and climb trees, and hang out with my family. All these things run in parallel with each other. There’s a lot of blood and sweat and tears and hard work that goes into it, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.’
The sweat and tears to which Butler is referring includes running his own record label and a tight team of associates, thus ensuring that business is kept close to home. This frees him up to write the music he loves, he explains. Asked about his new album, Flesh And Blood, Butler says: ‘I’m inspired by a pretty wide variety of music. It’s all in there in some way or another. I guess my music tastes start with Tool and Rage Against The Machine, through to Gillian Welch and Cat Stevens, and in the middle there’s lots of songs by The Cure and The Smiths, plus a whole lot of Beastie Boys and NWA and De La Soul and Bob Marley and Toots & The Maytals. Heaps of Hendrix too, of course. The album is pretty eclectic, I guess, just like all my albums.’
Although Butler is primarily an acoustic guitarist, he isn’t afraid to plug his acoustic in, run it through a series of effects and whip up a full-blooded electric tone. ‘I use acoustic DIs that are very clean and very woody,” he explains, “and at the same time another pickup is going to a very angry, overdriven Marshall, which I can bring in and out with a volume pedal. That covers a wide array of colours and sounds, from a single instrument. I can get a very distorted, feedbacky tone out of my acoustic. I like to do that because the landscape I can traverse is so much wider than if I only have an acoustic or an electric. This way I can do both, or even both at the same time.’
In line with Butler’s wide range of guitar tones, his songs – and in particular, those on Flesh And Blood – cover a similarly broad scope when it comes to subject matter and arrangement. I tell him that his reputation in this country is basically that of an acoustic hippie, which makes him laugh, although he does nothing to disprove that impression by saying ‘I see songs as wild horses, man: they’re like wild beasts out there in the ether, and like many musicians I can see and hear them and bring them into the city so people can hear them. Every song has a different way that it wants the saddle put on. You want to bring them in from the wild and not break their spirit, so sometimes that takes an acoustic guitar and some gentle fingerpicking. Other times it takes a Telecaster through a Marshall, on a song like ‘Blame It On Me’. They all sound different. Some are acoustic-electric, with psychedelic multi-effects, where I might put my acoustic through a Tubescreamer, a tremolo, a phaser, a delay, and a whammy pedal all at the same time. Whatever it takes to get that horse into the city!’
He continues the equine metaphor when asked if, once a horse has been brought into the city, as it were, it requires much looking after. ‘Songs look after themselves, it’s just up to me not to fuck them up. Again, just like a horse!’ he chuckles. ‘Once the band and I know how to play it, we just do what we do. When it’s time to freak out and go off the map, we do that as well.’
Butler is big on alternate tunings. Visit YouTube for footage of the amazing ‘Ocean’, in which he demonstrates a range of fingerstyle techniques. ‘That song is tuned to CGCGCE,’ he tells us. ‘I started writing ‘Ocean’ in 1996, ’97, so it’s been with me for 15 years. I’m not really much of a guitar nerd in the sense that I wanted to create a video of my technique, but hopefully it will be good for showing anyone who wants to see how that song is done.’
When Butler pulls out his trusty 12-string, you may notice that in fact he’s a string short of the standard dozen. Rather than this being a mere eccentricity, however, he executes this modification for serious reasons of tone. ‘I take out the high G because it’s unnecessary,’ he explains. ‘How can you have a string on your guitar that’s higher than your high E, right in the middle where it’s supposed to be all warm? It’s ridiculous.’ You’ll also notice a monster thumbnail on his picking hand, although thankfully this turns out not to be real… ‘It’s a fake acrylic nail,’ he says, ‘because the 12-string guitar, plus my slightly aggressive picking style, can really mutilate my real nails. I use the same technique that you use in nail salons, where you superglue the fake nail on and then you use a methyl acrylite solution, which really smells horrible. Then you dip it into a powder which turns into a gel and dries very quickly. I put that on about as twice as thick as ladies would do in a salon, and underneath the nail too, so it’s literally three to four millimetres thick at some points. After a week I have to fill it in because the guitar has eaten a couple of millimetres out of it!’
All this adds up to a fingerpicking style of enormous speed and complexity, as demonstrated on ‘Ocean’ and a bunch of Butler’s more recent songs. However, the tunes on Flesh And Blood are more restrained when it comes to the flying fingers, we notice. ‘You’re right there,’ he nods. ‘That said, there’s a song on the new album called ‘How You Sleep At Night’ and that one started off really fingerpicky – but I had a dream about the same song, but with different chords and a dance production. I was actually watching the video to the song in the dream! Anyway, I liked the new version more, so I took a lot of the fingerpicking out of it.’
Wait – he dreamed up a whole new production? ‘Yep! I actually woke up at 4.30am and ran to the living room, where I changed the chords and recorded it like it was in the dream. Normally you immediately forget anything you’ve dreamed about, but this time I just went straight to the guitar and emblazoned it into my neural pathways and that seemed to do the job.’
The gear you’ll see Butler playing is tailor-made for his wide-ranging style, he explains. ‘I play a Maton 12-string acoustic, a Maton six-string, a Western Australia-made six-string and a bunch of electrics. There’s also a Weissenborn in the last song on Flesh And Blood, ‘You’re Free’. These guitars have a mojo that you can’t replicate.’
Talking of ‘You’re Free’, the epic album closer, that song came about in an unusual way, Butler recalls. ‘I was playing a foot-powered Wurlitzer organ in a little jungle shack in New South Wales, where my children were born. It wasn’t tuned to A440 or anything, but I got my phone out and recorded the chords and lyrics. Then I gave the audio file to my producer, and we grabbed the solitary four bars of music that don’t have me singing or the kids talking over them, pitch shifted them up to A440, quantised them so it was in time and programmed all these great beats to it. The first take of the vocals was the one we used, because I’d been marinating in the song for so long and I was really in the mood to sing it.’
Asked about the guitars he plays live, Butler says: ‘I take the Matons out on tour. I take my main 12 and six, my National lap steel, the electrics and a five-string banjo. I have two other Matons that live in America, too.’ So what about the tunings? ‘D major or C tuning for quite a lot of songs, plus standard E, and a B tuning which is the same as the C tuning but half a step down. I also have this lovely G tuning which is CGDGBD: that’s on the new album quite a lot. Tunings sometimes inspire me to write, depending on the situation: different instruments can do that too.’
So life is good in the JBT camp? It appears so. ‘I’m booked up about a year ahead,’ he tells us. ‘My career and my art are sometimes synonymous and sometimes not. I tour an album for at least three years and it takes two years to make a new one, so when songs come along I hang onto them if they’re any good.’
He concludes: ‘I’m really pleased that I’m still doing OK after 15 years, rather than fading away as so many others do after that time. The tours are getting bigger, the band is having more fun and I think my songwriting is the best it’s been. I always wanted a long, steady career that didn’t suddenly spike up and down – and that’s what’s happening.’ Joel McIver
Images by Bo Wong & James Minchin
Flesh And Blood is out now.