Published in Relix Magazine November 7, 2014
Amid of sea of activity backstage at London’s famed Brixton Academy, John Butler is calm. He’s enjoying the success of his first studio album in nearly four years, he’s gearing up for a sold-out show at a marquee venue and he’s focused. Well, almost.
“Let me close this window and tell my comrades to shut the fuck up,” he says with an audible grin before quieting his entourage. Then, he breaks into a laugh, amazed.
“Wow, they actually did. I thought they’d tell me to get fucked.” In a few hours, he’ll play to a crowd of nearly 5,000 people. His trio, rounded out by bassist Byron Luiters and brand-new drummer Grant Gerathy, will dive into their percussive mix of roots, rock and reggae with Butler’s rat-a-tat singing topping each jam. Later, alone onstage, he’ll pick through the beautiful, 12-minute instrumental “Ocean.” He’ll even curse corrupt world leaders between songs.
“Power to us—power to the people,” he’ll say. “Because if we don’t protect it, you can surely bet that your leaders aren’t.” Then, he’ll slip into “How You Sleep at Night,” from his sixth album, Flesh & Blood, which was released in February and is an easy pick for his best-ever record.
“Do I dare to believe in something more?” he’ll sing. “‘Cause all I hear is lies dressed up in fantasies.”
But that rumbling, emotional purge of a performance is still hours away. For now, Butler is here, pushing as many thoughts through his lips as he can manage. When he speaks of his new album and his new band—or about the myriad environmental and social issues that he devotes much of his waking life to—he’s sharp and focused. Like the voice that comes through in his songs, his words are sincere and immediate. “I’m going to play the Brixton Academy tonight,” says the 39-year-old. “My kids are on tour with me. It is all good. But I’m here. And I’m happy to be here. I’m not thinking about being anywhere else.”
If the life of a touring musician resembles the tide, then the waves were swelling for Butler at the start of 2013. He’d just wrapped a breezy, 20-day session with Luiters and his brother- in-law, drummer Nicky Bomba. There wasn’t a clock to race against— they’d recorded at The Compound, Butler’s personal studio in his hometown of Fremantle, Australia.
It had been about three years since the John Butler Trio released 2010’s April Uprising. They’d toured long and hard behind the record, climbing closer to the top of festival bills than ever before. It was the Trio’s first record to crack the Billboard 200 in the United States, hitting number 36, and they played sold-out shows at world-renowned venues like Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks and New York’s Central Park SummerStage. The album’s music was as momentous as the tour behind it. April Uprising featured intense, scathing calls-to-arms like “Revolution” and downright rockers like “Close To You.” It was a far cry from the lovely, acoustic—albeit overtly political—folk songs that pulled Butler from street busker to recording artist more than a decade earlier.
But by early 2012, Butler slowed down. He painted in his shed, fashioned pocket and hunting knives and spent time with his wife, musician Danielle Caruana (who performs as Mama Kin), watching their two kids grow. They spent nearly three months camping in central Australia, living out of their four-wheel-drive vehicle. The family trekked 4,000 miles from Fremantle to Uluru and through the Tanami Desert to Perth, visiting Aboriginal communities along the way.
Bomba explored his own musical ambitions, and his 26-piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra began to take off. Luiters, the Trio’s youngest member at 30, kept busy in Sydney, where he was a one- man construction team renovating his own home and scored a gig in the house band for the Australian version of the TV show The Voice.
Butler’s calm was infectious, and it crept into the music. The songs that he brought to the December 2012 sessions found the bandleader staring at himself in the mirror instead of at the news. His lyrics were more diary than diatribe.
“I’ve written a lot of songs about political issues in a revolutionary headspace,” he says. “I still believe in those things. That fire is still in me. But sometimes you need to walk away and write a song about a couple who are madly in love or about your own demons. They are emotional landscapes, and you get a lot of texture and flesh there.”
Luiters admits that the 20-day stint was “pretty relaxed, actually. We’d start in the morning and go until 10 at night, but there were a lot of coffee breaks and smoothies and stretching,” he says.
For the first time, Butler invited the band to write with him. The sessions gave birth to the lurching, slow groove “Blame It on Me” and the shout-along “Devil Woman”—notably two of only three heavier tracks on Flesh & Blood. “Both [Luiters and Bomba] had some amazing colors, and we weren’t really maximizing them,” says Butler. “I wanted the lack of my song there to see what would come out.”
The songs they created tackled matters of the heart, not the state, and resulted in largely quieter but more emotionally taxing material. “Wings Are Wide,” written about the passing of Butler’s grandmother, Philipa, was challenging—she had, after all, given him his first Dobro guitar when he was 16. Butler imagined Philipa reuniting with his grandfather and namesake after existing in different worlds for years.
“It was an essential song to write,” he says. “I had this really massive cry when I started singing those words. I had to stop the session a bunch of times and run to the bathroom and get my shit together. But I could finally process the huge moment that her passing was for me.”
On the lilting, folky “Spring To Come,” Butler dropped himself back in harder times, looking forward to the brighter now. “Out of the darkness, only light can come,” he sings. “After a lonely, long night comes the sun.” Butler recognized the universal appeal. “We all have self-loathing, our own darkness,” he says. “But sometimes we need to drop an anchor and not try to battle through the storm. But just stop—don’t try to work it out. Have a bit of faith that it’ll be alright. When you’re lost in darkness, there’s only one place to go, and that’s up. “After winter, spring follows,” he says. “Always.”
In less than three weeks, Butler, Luiters and Bomba had an album on their hands. It was mid-2013, and the men could see high tide coming again—another few years of promotion and touring, world travel and video shoots, radio interviews and festival slots.
And that’s when Butler decided to pull the plug and parted ways with Bomba.
When Butler discusses Nicky Bomba leaving the trio, his voice is bittersweet. He chooses his words carefully. “We’re blood brothers, musically and family,” Butler says about his brother-in-law.
As Butler, Bomba and Luiters stared at the coming waves at the beginning of 2013, the Trio’s leader knew that it was time to set Bomba free. During the band’s time off before recording Flesh & Blood, Bomba’s longtime side project, the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, had transformed into a party-starting force in Australia’s music scene. A presence in Butler’s music since the beginning, and a permanent fixture in the Trio for more than five years, Bomba finally stepped to the front with his Orchestra.
In Butler’s eyes, at least, center stage was where he belonged.
“I watched him play this big, sold-out show in Sydney,” remembers Butler. “He was shining. The band was on fire. I thought, ‘This is where my brother needs to be right now.’ We were about to release an album, and he would be caught up for years on the road. That just didn’t make sense. As someone lucky enough to capture momentum, I know it’s a rare thing. When you have it, you need to grab it with both hands and run.”
Butler spoke to Bomba about leaving the group, and Bomba soon agreed—it was his time to be the leader. The Orchestra’s self-titled debut album was released in March 2013 and a clip for the single, “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” has already racked up nearly 100,000 YouTube views.
But Bomba’s budding success didn’t make the goodbye easy. Butler says the farewell was “quite traumatic. He’s an uncle to my children, a co-creator with me. It was emotionally taxing, to tell you the honest truth. I hope I never do it again.” Flesh & Blood still could have been released in 2013. Butler could have found a session drummer to fill in, and a new Trio could have marched on. But “that’s not what the universe was saying,” he explains. Instead, the year carried on as if they had never recorded an album, Butler grounded himself even deeper into his home life and, for the first time, he became a real stay-at-home dad.
Caruana released her second solo album, The Magician’s Daughter, in February 2013 and toured through much of the spring, leaving Butler to raise their two children. His only profession was being a dad for nearly five months. Butler describes the time as an “honor,” in awe of “the amazing intimacy you can have, while learning how hard it can be to be a single parent.”
The months also allowed Butler to see his son and daughter’s creativity blossom.
“My daughter plays piano and my boy [plays] a bit of drums, but music is just one important thing to them. Music is meant to be a friend, not a mission,” he says. “Whether it’s climbing trees or riding a BMX, I want them to always have a creative outlet.”
It isn’t surprising that the Butler-Caruana household is “a musical house, with guitars hanging everywhere,” says Butler. “We’re always singing. Our toilet is outside—we have an outhouse. So you can often hear music coming from there when I’m on the toilet, too.”
While Butler settled into domestic life, Flesh & Blood sat on the back burner for months. Meanwhile, Luiters was back in Sydney, “usually with a hammer or a drill in my hand, cutting myself with tools as I attempted to build this house,” he says, laughing. “It was a whole different world.”
When Grant Gerathy was 10, his uncle bought him a drum kit. He grew up in Byron Bay, south of Brisbane on Australia’s east coast, and spent the better part of his teens and twenties in the ocean. “If there are waves, I’m in the water. If I have a free 10 minutes, even, I’m surfing in the ocean,” he says. “I could swim before I could crawl. It’s a bit like drumming; I feel like I was born into it.”
At 36, Gerathy is dark tan, with long, untamed blond hair. In certain ways, he is the poster boy of the Australian music scene. Around 2004, he began sitting in with a group of musicians that included Luiters in Sydney, a nine- hour drive down the coast from Byron Bay. Every Friday night for almost two years, they played covers at the Macquarie Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills from 9 p.m. until the hotel bar shut down. As informal as the jam sessions were, Luiters and Gerathy quickly locked in as the crew’s rhythmic backbone.
In 2007, Sydney singer Ray Wassef drafted Luiters to join his stripped-down soul trio, The Ray Mann Three. A year later, Gerathy joined the group. Soon after, the band was opening for retro soul acts like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and, in 2010, they played with the Rev. Al Green. So when Luiters and Butler began searching for a new drummer in 2013, Gerathy’s name was among the first that they considered.
“Byron knows a heap more musicians than I do,” says Butler. “I’ve been in the JBT bubble for 15 years, but he’s played in a lot of bands. He always mentioned how great Grant was. He came to audition and nailed it.”
The audition, says Gerathy, was “pretty relaxing. We sat around, had a laugh. Eventually John said that maybe we should play some songs, and we just played something spontaneous for 20 minutes. That was it—we went and had a sandwich and a coffee.”
By later that year, Luiters started gigging with Butler and, in August, the bassist had left one trio for another. Luiters and Gerathy were back together for the third time, in their second trio. Butler knew their history was good for the music immediately.
“Byron and Grant’s pockets are pretty fucking deep. They have a magic together,” he says. “To see that chemistry come together again—it’s an honor.”
“The fact that we played three or four-hour gigs every Friday night for two years—it was like learning to speak a language together,” Gerathy says of his rhythm section partner. “I don’t think we could ever forget how to speak it. And now, every night, it gets better and more fluent. We start to do the same phrases without realizing it, like we’re finishing each other’s sentences.”
Wassef, who had relocated to Berlin, was quick to chime in. “So it’s official: John Butler has poached my entire band,” he wrote in a 2013 blog post. “I know full well the belly laughs John has in store with that twosome.” To seal the deal, Butler brought a final song to the table. Written during his long, at-home hiatus, his new trio recorded “How You Sleep at Night,” giving the album a sense of both past and present. The song is a brooding, slow-building indictment of corporations, businessmen or politicians. Take your pick.
Flesh & Blood‘s 11 tracks offer a whole musical map wound around Butler’s acrobatic electric and immaculately plucked acoustic guitars; his voice is, in turns, ethereal and gripping. It’s among his most hushed records, but it’s emotionally booming.
By the dawn of 2014, the high tide that Butler had avoided a year earlier was back. And now with Gerathy in tow, he was ready to swim out. On April 19, 2014, The John Butler Trio was the top Australian band at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, one of the country’s largest annual festivals. They played alongside headliners Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer. The next day, the Trio performed for a decidedly smaller crowd—a few hundred people camped out across a wide-open field near Lismore, Australia, to protest a proposed gas well that the Sydney-based Metgasco plans to drill deep into the sands.
The tents had been up since February, with community members effectively camping out for months to keep the drilling operation from commencing. Performing a few songs together, Butler and Caruana fit perfectly into the fabric of the tent city, its population feeling a mix of exasperation, inspiration and optimism.
“You have environmentalists alongside farmers and mothers and fathers and police and the fire department and teachers saying, ‘This is my home. This isn’t about being anti- corporate. It’s about my water and my land and my children’s home,’” says Butler. “When that happens, it takes the politics out of it, the environmentalism and economic side of it out, and it comes down to common sense.”
Common sense plays deeply into Butler’s deep-seated, and often outspoken activism. But it’s a common sense that, unbelievably, the majority of the public in Australia—and certainly in the United States—still fails to grasp.
“That’s the scariest thing at the moment,” he says, his voice quickening. “It’s so smart the way it’s done—by mixing major corporations, capitalism, mining, love of families and patriotism into one message— we get this tapestry you can’t get away from. If you don’t like mining, and the jobs it creates, then you don’t love America. It’s all backward. In the most insidious nature of capitalism and corporate enterprise, enough is never enough. We live in an economic system that does not add up. It will never add up. We live on a finite planet with an infinite economic philosophy.”
Butler’s focus shifts to what is arguably his country’s best known and most precious natural treasure. The words shoot out of his mouth like they give him a toothache.
“We have a government that wants to dredge up one of the world’s most amazing living organisms, the Great Barrier Reef, to ship out coal,” he says. “To ship coal? Are you serious? You want to carve through a World Heritage site to ship coal?”
He pauses a moment, but there’s too much to get off his chest.
“My country placates and caters to the mining companies. It’s a crazy cancer that’s spreading across our country, across America and across the world,” he says. “These companies are crack addicts who will do anything for their junk. They’ll rip off their own people because they are sick. And unless there is an intervention to take back our countries, these crackheads are going to fucking burn it all down.”
It’s tempting to see Butler and his kindred peace-pushing, environmentally conscious musicians—think Michael Franti, Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco and countless others—as green gods, bicycling from gig to gig and eating only vegetables that they grew themselves. Butler is quick to jump off such a pedestal.
“I don’t like massive wastes of water and the cutting down of rainforests, but I eat meat. I’m fallible. There are contradictions within me,” he says, slower now. “Life is a balance. It’s a tightrope. It’s a struggle. I’m flying around the world with 10 men with me. We travel on a double-decker bus. There’s a lot of diesel being used. At the end of the day, and it’ll only be known at the end of the day, I just hope I’ve left more than I’ve taken. Then maybe I’ve done the right thing.”
It’s nearing evening and the trio’s tour manager calls to Butler from across the room. It is time for a soundcheck, then dinner and show time. The Brixton Academy gig is at hand.
Caruana has been on her own tour of Ireland, her latest Mama Kin album revving up her musical career. Tomorrow, she’ll rejoin Butler and their children in England. Butler can’t wait for his wife’s return and for his family to be whole again, even if they are half a world away from their musical home in Fremantle.
Their next year is already mapped out. The summer will take him to American festivals like Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and a few big dates in Europe. Butler is months away from painting quietly in his shed. Luiters’ house is still under construction. Gerathy may have to wait to hit the surf. But none of that seems to matter now.
“I have to stay excited about the day I’m in. It’s so easy to say, ‘I want to get on the other side of that, to that show or the next.’ But it creates a life of being not in the present. There are magical things that happen every day. If you’re not living here now, you won’t see them. You won’t remember them. So I’m just here,” Butler says. “I’m right here.”