photo: Marty Philbey
John Butler has been everywhere and his music reflects that. Although he was born in Torrance, California, when Butler was 10 years old he migrated with his father to the small Western Australia town of Pinjarra. He moved to the big city of Perth to attend school in the hopes of becoming an art teacher, but music got in the way. No matter where he’s been, music has been Butler’s companion.
Like the thousands of guitarists before him, Butler first picked up the guitar to imitate Hendrix and Iommi. As Butler describes it, he was just another gangly teenager until an Excalibur moment happened. His whole life changed when he was given his grandfather’s ’30s Dobro and later discovered open tunings. Since that moment Butler hasn’t put down the Dobro—or any other guitar—and has successfully blended an unusual mix of music to make something Butler calls spiritual. His music pulls from the worlds of blues, reggae, folk and roots. Incorporate some gritty, distorted rock plus a little hip-hop guitar percussion and rhythms and with a pinch of Celtic and Aboriginal fingerstyle playing and you get a synopsis of Butler’s discography.
Now with the release of his fourth studio album, April Uprising
, Butler has added yet another tool to his musical belt by incorporating electric guitars on several of the album’s tracks. The use of a ’72 Fender Telecaster Deluxe and a Silvertone Jupiter validates Butler’s rock side without taking away from the worldly influences. Instead, it makes for a much more accessible album that anyone can appreciate.
We recently had a chance to catch up with Butler during his flurry of promotion for April Uprising
, and he talked with us about matching his Maton 12-strings with a ’75 Marshall JMP Super Lead, mixing Western and Eastern musical styles and his discontent for G-strings.
How did you get introduced to the guitar?
I discovered it as any teenager with a primordial urge a boy gets when they hear Black Sabbath or Jimi Hendrix. I started just playing standard tuning and some basic chords—something to mimic the guitar giants. [laughs] When I started it was just four chords and the truth.
There was this guitar that was left in my family’s possession. I saw all my aunts and uncles give this slide guitar a try, but none of them could play it and what I refer to as an Excalibur moment happened. All my aunts and uncles couldn’t get it out of the rock, but when I stumbled across it as a gangly juvenile I could just play it—it was like my grandfather was talking to me through it. So when this guitar was given to me from my grandmother it was a big deal to me because it was my grandfather’s, but on top of that it was a 70 year old Dobro … it was just a heavy thing to have unfold as a teenager. But when I first got that Dobro I didn’t know really what to do with it. I didn’t know anything about open tunings or even like the blues—it was all a mystery to me.
Who were some of the guitarists that you first looked up to?
It had to be Jimi Hendrix and “Voodoo Chile”—just hearing that made me realize that there is something pretty different… something really amazing going on between him and that guitar. Back then—and still to this day—what grabs me isn’t a complete song but killer riffs. I just remember hearing “Voodoo Chile,” “T.N.T.” and anything off Paranoid
and I was just put into a trance.
When did you have that “A-ha moment” and knew you were going to be a guitarist and not just a hobbyist?
I played with simplistic chords for about 6-7 years and I did it as a teenage hobby like skateboarding. When I was 21 years old I found out about open tunings—that was just like the light going off. Until then I didn’t really grasp the versatility of the Dobro except as a way to remember my grandfather, but after the discovery of open tunings I couldn’t put the guitar down.
It all started with the simple drop D. The first influences for me to go with open tunings had to be The Tea Party and of course Zeppelin. One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten was the introduction of the “Jimmy Page” tuning—the open C. When my friend showed it to me on paper I thought there were too many of the same notes to make anything musical, but then I tuned my guitar and started playing it and it was liquid. Music I never knew would just flow out of me. And to this day, CGCGCE is still one of my main tunings.
Compared to your previous studio albums like Grand National and Sunrise Over Sea, the new record April Uprising is more accessible to the masses yet it still retains your roots-rock mentality and feel. How did you achieve this as a songwriting guitarist?
Luckily as a songwriter I feel I’ve gotten better at it with each record and each song. I’ve been able to find a way to get my ideas out in a more vivid but coherent way that makes them more available. Both as a guitarist and songwriter, one epiphany that appeared during this album’s process is that less is more. I’ve heard that many times before, but with April Uprising
I was finally able to ingest those words and apply them in manner that worked for me. I feel more comfortable saying a lot more with a lot less, allowing the song to breathe and react naturally. I really tried to focus my efforts on creating songs rather than forcing them out. If the song wasn’t there or something became unhitched, I just left it by the side of the road. We just did our best to make each song stand on its own and work with the attitude of “all killer, no filler.”
How did you craft your songs with April Uprising?
For me, each song always starts with the guitar [laughs]. I always have to come up with a riff or hook that ignites the rest of the song to just flow out of me. When those words didn’t start to come, I spent a bit more time really building quality, thoughtful lyrics. One thing I hadn’t done much prior to this record was re-working choruses and song parts while in the studio. For instance, on “Revolution” I re-did the chorus four or five different times while I was recording it. When I round up with the guys in the studio I bring my songs in as naïve teenagers and when we’re done recording they are fit to leave home as adults … [laughs] I guess I babied my songs a bit more this time. Another thing that helps is working with the Trio—they often hear and see things I couldn’t even imagine for a song, but end up totally working. It’s a blessing to have them in my back pocket.
One of my favorite tones off the record is found on the track “Close To You,” while it sounds like you, there seems to be something different going on. What are you playing in that song?
[laughs] It definitely was something different—I was playing a new ’72 Fender Telecaster Deluxe through my Marshall JMP Super Lead. I doubled the track with a Silvertone Jupiter, which is this grungy, dirty sounding thing and I sprinkled my 12-string Maton on the choruses, too. This album definitely has me playing a few more tracks with the electric guitar. It is a nice change of pace and it gives me another way to express my voice in a completely different manner. For effects on that solo I use a Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe, Boss PH-2 Super Phaser and the Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer and a sprinkle of the Boss RV-2 Delay. Also, I used the DigiTech Whammy on the bridge parts.
Did you use any other electric guitars on the album?
No, I mainly used the Telecaster and the Jupiter … [laughs] both guitars I got off eBay. Isn’t that where everybody gets their guitars now?!
What are some of the effects you dabbled with on April Uprising
I definitely used the Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer quite a bit on the record—that thing is my ace in the hole. I really enjoyed working with the Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe because it’s a phaser with that Uni-Vibe feel from Hendrix’s days. Like I said before I used the PH-2 Phaser and RV-2 Delay. I saw Rage Against the Machine about two years ago in Portugal and I forgot—when done well and used sparingly—how awesome the whammy can be for a solo or cool intro riff, so thanks to Tom Morello I used the DigiTech Whammy on this record, too. You can really hear it in the songs “To Look Like You” and “Close To You.”