John Butler Trio

John Butler Trio
  • Rock, Gospel
  • Sunrise Over Sea may be the John Butler Trio's American major label debut, but it's hardly your typical [... more]

Sunrise Over Sea may be the John Butler Trio's American major label debut, but it's hardly your typical introduction to a new artist. The album's mesmerizing 13 tracks deliver a perfect, eclectic blend of blues, reggae, classic country, Appalachian folk, funk, rock and hip-hop beats into a form and style that ultimately can only be classified as... well, the John Butler Trio. But the real truth is that Sunrise Over Sea isn't actually a debut album at all. John Butler is already something of a musical phenomenon in Australia where this -- and three previous albums -- have taken him to the top of the charts and made him one of the biggest concert draws and the most successful independent musician on that continent.Independent is perhaps the most important word in that last sentence. John Butler began his career as a busker, playing for money on the streets of Fremantle, Western Australia and selling a self-recorded cassette tape. Since that beginning, his career has evolved completely on his own terms, while his austere rise to fame has been as organic and grassroots-based as the styles incorporated into this gifted singer-guitarist-composer's music.In many respects, the unique musical hybrid that Butler creates almost seems to have been part of his destiny. Born in America, Lomita, California, in 1975, John grew up in a rurally zoned neighborhood, where he still has memories of milking goats as a child. In 1986, at the age of 11, his family moved to his father's native Western Australia, to a small town called Pinjarra. Several years later, at age 16, John began playing guitar; that same year, his grandmother presented him with a 1930's Dobro that had belonged to his grandfather, a firefighter who perished in a 1956 forest fire. His grandfather -- also named John Butler -- had wanted the Dobro given to the first of his descendants who learned to play guitar."That's the only way I've gotten to know him," says John, "through talking to my grandmother and playing the guitar. At times when I feel, 'My God, what am I doing?' or feel like I'm just part of some roots hype that seems to be going on these days, it reaffirms that I'm meant to be doing this. I'm meant to be playing slide. I'm here to play that guitar for a reason."Despite his American roots and his years spent playing guitar, John amazingly only began to adapt the styles that make up his current sound during the last five years. "It was around 1998 that I became most interested in the blues after I saw an Australian artist named Jeff Lang -- an amazing soul/roots guitar-singer-songwriter who first opened my mind to the idea that there's actually blues music that's not in the doldrums of 12-bar rhetoric. And it just blew that whole world open and made it relevant for me. And then hearing the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? album suddenly opened my mind to the idea that country music's not just what's on country radio; it can be deep, soulful music. From there, I went to Gillian Welch -- and then it all began to make total sense!"That music, along with reggae, just feels right for me. But then so does hip-hop. I like to smash them all together because they're all related. Hip-hop comes from funk, and funk comes from blues, and blues comes from a clash of English folk and African songs. And you can play any Country & Western song to a reggae beat because they both love accentuating the offbeat. So all that music does seem to have a tie that works together."After graduating from high school, John picked fruit for six months - after getting a deferment to study fine arts - raising enough money to visit his brother for a year in San Diego, where he worked making stained glass and formed his first band, Vitamin. It was shortly after returning to Australia to attend university that he saw Jeff Lang, discovered open guitar tuning, and turned to busking. The rest is now part of Australian musical history."I began taking my guitar to school because I was not enjoying having to write 10,000-word essays on why art is good," he laughs. "I wanted to make art. And busking just flowed. The first time I ever did it, I made 30 bucks in an hour. The reason I originally got into art was because I wanted to try to make a living doing something I love. And busking achieved that."John began developing a fan base via busking - and the street gigs evolved into bar and club dates. After forming the first version of the John Butler Trio, John released an eponymous self-funded debut album, twice sold-out a 300-seat local club for the launch and has never looked back. The band then released an EP featuring several songs time-friendly enough to get them airplay on Australian national radio. The trio was soon touring the continent constantly - and by the time they released their second album, Three, the band was playing large theaters throughout Australia. The independently released album soon went platinum.Their incredible live performances were documented on a 2003 live album, Living 2002-2003, but after several years of nonstop touring, John decided to disband the original trio, taking six months off while his new wife gave birth to a baby girl. During this "recharging", John wrote most of the music that would become Sunrise Over Sea. After forming a new version of the John Butler Trio - featuring his brother-in-law Nicky Bomba on drums (Michael Barker is the trio's touring drummer, as Nicky is committed to his own band) and virtuoso Shannon Birchall on upright bass - they entered Woodstock Studios in Melbourne to create the album, which would debut at No. 1 on the Aussie charts, a first for an independently released, produced and funded artist. The album went double-platinum in ten weeks, and ended up winning "Best Male Artist," "Best Indie Release," and "Best Blues & Roots Album" at the Australian ARIA Awards. At the 2004 APRA Awards (Australia's version of the ASCAP/BMI Awards), the John Butler Trio's "Zebra" was voted Song Of The Year, once again setting a precedent for an independent artist. Most recently it has been voted by the Australian public to the No.2 spot on their influential "Album of the Year" 2004 national poll.The band toured America several times over the years. Although they turned down offers from various U.S. labels, hoping they could perhaps make it independently in the States as well, John finally signed with Lava Records following a second acclaimed appearance at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas last year. The decision ultimately came after Lava agreed to give John the same type of artistic and business freedom he's enjoyed thus far in his career."After having all that control -- producing and funding my own albums and having control of every aspect of my career -- it would've been very hard to have someone telling me what producer to work with or what songs to play," explains John. "It just wouldn't have really worked at this point. It wouldn't have been very conducive to my creativity, especially since this is so personal and such an intimate part of me."I'm not this idealistic kid saying, 'Hey, I'm doing things my way.' I realize all aspects of business that need to be done. At the same time, I've always followed my own heart and it's worked so far. We were No. 1 in Australia the week we were signed in America, so they obviously must have thought I knew what I was doing. And they've been great. They respect all my viewpoints. For instance, all my posters and CDs will be printed on recyclable product as this is really important to me.His recycling demands should make it obvious that the environment is a big issue for John, both in his art and his personal life. His lyrics have frequently been labeled "political" -- in fact, John has been befriended by and has recorded with American kindred spirit, Michael Franti of Spearhead -- although John has an interesting take on the subject. "I try not to pigeonhole myself as a protest singer, so to speak, because to me, the environment and social issues are just integral to life," he explains. "It's not that I'm an environmentalist so much as it's just me observing the world around me. It's just common sense. I want to breathe clean air and drink clean water and hope that my children's children's children can do the same. These things are just basic rights and factors in every person's life."So when people say I write political songs -- well, I guess you can call it that. But when I look at the world not wanting to go to war and then see certain political leaders take us to war anyway, how can I not write about that and all the things going on around me? To me, art is about understanding, reacting to, and interpreting what's going on around me -- whether it's having a child, or how my wife makes me feel, or how when I drive south in Western Australia, it looks like a goddamn dump because a logging company has just trashed it. I just write about the world I live in -- and I think that's what good art does. I've always just written songs for myself. But I believe if someone is speaking their personal truth and being as honest as possible, it resonates with other people. I know Tracy Chapman or Bob Dylan or Bob Marley were all just speaking their minds, but in their truth, they ended up speaking for a lot of us."Sunrise Over Sea seems bound to resonate spectacularly with American audiences, as the John Butler Trio move on to the next phase of their phenomenal success. "My first aspiration was just busking to support myself and see the country," says John. "That's about as big as the dream was. So it kept me from getting involved in the race for success, the competition, the hype. I learned a lesson from when I wanted to be a pro-skater as a teenager and found myself wanting to find a sponsor more than enjoying the sport. Of course, it all rears its ugly head from time to time because the more your dreams unfold, and you find yourself winning awards and selling albums, you realize you do want to excel at what you do. But I understand that excelling really has nothing to do with albums sales or public acceptance as much as it has to do with just getting better at and refining my art."