What can we expect when the John Butler Trio comes to town in January? “Fireworks, circus tricks… incandescent.” Yes, John Butler really knows how to coin a phrase, and apparently a good show. “There’ll be no down low, no dynamics. Kind of no up and downs ’cause we can, the whole time. Lots of sugar, lots of Red Bull and then we need to chuck all that I’ve said, [because] it’ll probably just be some good music and good songs and good times.”
Talking to John Butler is kind of like speaking to a longhaired and tattooed unicorn. You’re startled by his uncanny ability to go off on a whirlwind tangent involving magical circus tricks, and then mesmerised by his beautiful and poignant way with words. As he speaks about his band’s upcoming gig at Costa Hall, you get the sense the show is going to be just as ethereal and honest as he is.
“I think no matter how far we go down the road of entertainment and music and technology, I don’t think the experience has really changed. If I’m doing the live thing well, the only difference is that I’m getting people to chill. And that’s what I’m trying to do: make them feel like, “Wow, this is awesome!”. I’m not saying I always do it, that’s what I aim for.”
Since 1998 The John Butler Trio have been enlightening the Aussie music scene with their profound lyrics and captivating melodies. Topping the charts with numerous albums, the trio have won numerous APRAs and ARIA awards for their work, with six studio albums and two live releases under their belt.
Starting off as a teen busking on the streets of Fremantle, John Butler has toured globally and seen more in a year than many of us will see in a lifetime. “That moment on stage is kind of why I spend the other 23 hours of the day trying to get ready…It’s a magical thing,” he shares. “But apart from that [my favourite part is] the different nationalities and cultures all over the world.
“Seeing all these beautiful places and actually being a part of another culture’s story – it’s a really, really cool thing. All of a sudden there’s people in France and Germany, America and South America, who are kind of incorporating my stories and my songs into their experience. That’s pretty far out.”
Life on tour though, as most musicians will testify, is no walk in the park. And John knows this all too well. “Life on tour is difficult. It’s a hard balance because the physical aspect of it is that I’m just away. You know, over the last two years I’ve literally not been home a year, like the whole year. That’s pretty sobering. You know? A difficult situation. How I deal with it is I’ve always brought my family on tour…So last year, they came out for two tours, and this year they came out for one.”
Staying fit and taking care of his own health is also vital for the wellbeing of the musician, and he’s learnt to be creative about it. “Whether it be yoga, or meditating or running… I do like a lot of leatherwork, so when I’m not making knives and things I’m also kind of testing my skateboard that I made. I made it out of leather, so [I] keep my hands busy.”
Learning to fill his down time with healthy activities is Butler’s conscious effort to not repeat the past. “I think there’s so much down time touring – 23 hours of the day you’re prepping or waiting to play. Trying to fill that space with something productive is really healthy, otherwise…you fill that missing and that longing for friends at home and family with a whole lot of drugs.”
The wealth of experiences that Butler has lived enables him to write riveting music. In particular, JBT’s latest album Flesh & Blood delves into topics like addiction and death. “As I write I look for more creative ways to describe things and more ways of telling the story. Sometimes just my story alone doesn’t necessarily have enough meat on the bone…I want to explore that whole idea of addiction and relationships. You know, I’ve never been a heroin addict [but] I’ve dealt with addiction. So all of a sudden, I can explore the whole idea of addiction intensely if I create a character,” explains Butler.
“Music’s always been that for me. It’s always been a way of kind of expressing how I feel about the world and pain. And kind of expelling demons and it was a really a great way for me in the early days to be highly aggressive and not be violent… So I use music and all the trappings and tools to explore territory, emotional territory. I think the more I write and the more I grow as a human being, I find the most interesting thing to be the human condition.”
A well-known voice around social causes, Butler has used his platform to make a stand for justice many times. Most recently, he filmed a video for the #KidsOut campaign, petitioning the PM to remove children from detention centres in Australia and on Nauru. As he speaks about social justice with me, it’s clear it runs in his blood.
“I kind of think it just comes from my upbringing to tell you the truth. My great great grandfather fought in the uprising of Bulgaria in 1876 against the Ottoman Empire and with the Russian militia, and then I think he passed that kind of rebellion and that kind of disdain for oppressive and disrespectful authority onto my grandmother, who then passed it onto my dad, who then passed it down to me.”
“My family has a sense of justice that comes out if we feel like we’ve been taken for a ride by people who should be looking after us or people abusing…power.”
He laughs as he also adds in, “And we’re big mouths! I don’t think we can keep our opinions to ourselves. Like, ‘Get f*cked, that’s f*cked!’ I’m gonna say f*ck, ‘cause it’s f*cked.”
How do you define John Butler? Well, you can’t really. But you can bet he believes every single word he sings, and that’s probably what makes him so captivating.
“When I speak out about [justice], I’m one of a whole community that expects more from this society, more from its readers,” he says. “Long for something deeper than just more money and more holidays and more iPod RAM.”
The John Butler Trio and the Waifs will perform at Cost Hall on January 28. Tickets available at johnbutlertrio.com.
When & Where: Costa Hall, Geelong – January 28
This interview was published as the local feature in Forte Magazine issue #629. You can read it online here.