John Butler spent years busking on the streets of Fremantle in Western Australia, which helped refine his guitar technique and taught him the art of performance.
“It taught me a lot about the music industry,” he says. “You are the performer, you are the writer, you record it, and then you are the producer. You do the whole thing. And nothing’s really changed. You put 75 per cent of the hat back into new strings and recordings and manufacturing and paying people.”
Today, his band, the John Butler Trio, consists of Byron Luiters on bass and Butler’s brother-in-law, Nicholas Caruana (known as Nicky Bomba), on drums, and the band is a superb purveyor of Butler’s self-professed “funky roots rock”. Their 2011 North American and European tours in support of their fifth studio album, April Uprising, were a critical success, and a live CD/DVD recorded at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre was released this past July and will attract new fans.
Butler favours acoustic guitars, but he’s far from mellow—more Ben Harper than James Taylor. Harmonic distortions that Jimi Hendrix would have approved of emit from a 12-string Australian-made Maton acoustic with a multitude of effects pedals, including a wah-wah pedal, played through a Marshall stack amplifier. Butler also plays a Fender Telecaster Deluxe and a banjo, but his sentimental favourite is a 1930s-era Dobro slide guitar that once belonged to his grandfather.
Butler was born in Torrance, California, in 1975, and he moved with his father to Pinjarra in Western Australia after his parents split up when he was 10 years old. At the age of 21, he dropped out of university art courses to pursue his love of music and busk full-time.
“I started busking when I was 16,” he says with just the hint of an Australian twang in his American accent. “I saw [Australian guitarist] Jeff Lang play and he was a big influence on me. That’s when I discovered open tuning and finger picking, and got completely obsessed with that. On the streets, all I did was instrumentals. Everybody was always singing and playing covers, and not playing covers on the street doesn’t get much attention. But my instrumentals did.”
Various bands who had seen him busking invited him to open for them, and before long, gigging took over. Now Butler is among Australia’s most successful performers—dubbed by some in the media as “the million-dollar hippie” for his (since-shorn) dreadlocks. He’s also a co-owner of the independent label Jarrah Records. But all this good fortune hasn’t dimmed his social conscience.
As he sits backstage before a show at Toronto’s Sound Academy, he’s wearing a black T-shirt bearing the emblem of a marine wildlife conservation organization called Sea Shepherd. Many of his lyrics are politically charged, and he’s not afraid to have a go at greedy corporations and corrupt politicians.
Political convictions notwithstanding, Butler places enormous priority on family; he is married to singer Danielle Caruana, who goes by the stage name Mama Kin, and they have two children: a daughter, Banjo, and a son, Jahli. The couple have released a song via iTunes, entitled “Losing You”, and contributed its sales toward the Broome Community No Gas Campaign, protecting the Kimberley region of Western Australia from being exploited.
“They are just chopping down all these forests, these 500- and 1,000-year-old trees, for wood chips,” he explains. “I did lots of benefits and took part in lots of blockades. There was a moment when I thought, what’s more important: my career, or stopping this corrupt government from fucking up our world? I almost chose to go into activism full-time. Then I decided so many people burn out because they chose activism and didn’t follow their dreams. I thought maybe I can do both.”
Since the band’s inception 13 years ago, Butler has resisted all temptation to add other instruments. “Any more, it tends to get busy and it sounds like mud. And I think we can get busy enough as a trio, and then the parts where we don’t get busy, it’s nice to have space.”