Don't Call the John Butler Trio a Jam Band
John Butler, center, and his trio
The John Butler Trio is all about making good music. Sure, every band says that, but Butler takes a more spiritual approach to his songwriting. His intention is to let the listener not only into his world, but perhaps become him.
"It's with intention, a sense of purpose, and a goal of openness — openness in myself. The more open I am, the more others are open around me and we can try to build something," he says from Telluride, Colorado, as he prepares to play that city's annual bluegrass festival. "I just try to write a song that captures the heart. I try to tap more into the emotions. If I can get those emotions out in the most powerful way possible through my poetry, then you'll feel it, smell it, taste it more. It's part of understanding me. And it's one thing to understand me, but it's another thing to become me or, maybe, me become you."
Butler conveys these emotions over a wide spectrum of music styles touching on rock, folk, blues, funk, bluegrass, hip-hop, and reggae. The didgeridoo of his native Australia has found its way into several songs as well. Yet though Butler says he tries "to dig deeper and not write the same song all the time," he also explains that whichever style the song takes, that direction isn't necessarily a conscious effort.
"I'm just a bag of bones, and the instrument allows something to come through me as purely as possible, and hopefully as powerful as possible. Whatever the song wants, I'm just the employee," he says, adding with a laugh, "and I just try and keep the song happy!"
Butler's diverse portfolio has garnered a bevy of acclaim and led to numerous awards Down Under. In the States, Butler's loyal following keeps this former busker returning regularly. Yet if there's one thing Butler finds disappointing about his stateside visits, it's the maligning of his trio as a jam band.
"I never really identified with the jam band thing, and in fact I've avoided it a lot. I thought it was really limiting," he says. "I think jam bands are more about 10-minute instrumentals and with-it-all guitar solos than writing good songs. That may sound a bit judgmental, but . . . when you look at all these [diverse] bands lumped into that genre, it doesn't mean that much to me. I mean, fuck, why are these bands called jam bands? Who makes these labels?"
Butler admits his music has "room for some improvisation," but that doesn't mean he's "jamming or anything."
"It's more tasteful embellishment," he says. "There's a point where my guitar and the musical movement go on saying the words that words can't say. It's a chance for the music to flower. The music keeps on opening and budding and then breathe. That's how I've always made music . . . The music can get wild, but I'm not about being indulgent for the sake of being indulgent."
Flesh and Blood is the John Butler Trio's most recent album, now more than a year old. If anything, the album is the group's most realized yet — tightly wrought, lyrically compelling, and emotionally powerful. It may be a tough act to follow, and though Butler is more than up for the challenge, he's not tipping his hand about material that will land on the next record.
"There's been lots of songwriting recently. I've written plenty of songs, but I don't necessarily want to release an album next year," he says, stating a desire for more down time with his family. His voice then turns a little sheepish. "Yeah, but I hope to be recording within the next year."
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