Music: John Butler Trio
Mar 31, 2010 1:11 PM, By Blair Jackson
A COMPELLING AUSTRALIAN 'UPRISING'
What are the odds that a singer/songwriter/guitarist from a small town near the Western Australian city of Perth—where 14 years ago he was busking on the streets—would develop an international following for his infectious and powerful amalgam of dancehall reggae, rootsy blues-rock, harmony-filled pop and Hendrix-influenced guitar pyrotechnics? The John Butler Trio (JBT) has been one of the biggest acts Down Under for a number of years, but evidently the word is spreading fast elsewhere: This month, the group is touring all over Europe in support of their new album, April Uprising, and then beginning in late May, they embark on a big U.S. tour that will find them headlining at Red Rocks in Colorado, hitting Bonnaroo and playing in a wide variety of clubs, theaters, ballrooms and amphitheaters.
In America, Butler is principally known for the albums Sunrise Over Sea (2004) and Grand National (2007), but there’s no doubt that April Uprising is going to increase his U.S. profile considerably. The eclectic 15-song disc is probably the JBT’s most “commercial” outing yet (whatever that means in this era), easily incorporating tuneful love songs and socially conscious numbers, fast riff-rockers and quiet ballads. It’s tough to pigeon-hole, but the songs are united by Butler’s strong presence as a singer and guitarist.
The current trio has only been together since last year: Bassist Byron Luiters replaced longtime JBT member Michael Barker, and drummer/percussionist Nicky Bomba is in the slot formerly occupied by Shannon Birchall, though Bomba (who is also Butler’s brother-in-law) was actually in the trio briefly before Birchall. “At the time we were making this trio, I was looking for a very heightened sense of chemistry, some kind of X-factor,” Butler says in early March as his tour bus cruises up the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco. “Nicky and I have a very special thing that dates back a long way, so we were looking for the same thing from Byron, and I think we found it. They’re both amazing musicians, and our catalogs and libraries overlap really well. We like a lot of the same things and we approach music the same way. When you find this kind of chemistry, it’s unquestionable—when you get it right, it feels like you’ve been playing with each other for 50 years.”
Adding to the group’s comfort level is the fact that they eschewed recording in a conventional studio and instead set up shop in Butler’s rehearsal space in Fremantle (12 miles south of Perth), enlisting engineer Robin Mai—who mastered the first JBT album and tracked and mixed Sunrise Over Sea—to record and mix April Uprising.
“I bought a building in Fremantle around three years ago with the idea of having a headquarters—an office and rehearsal room and a storage place,” Butler says. “We worked up most of the songs in the rehearsal room, and they turned out so well, Nicky was saying, ‘We’d be crazy to record somewhere else. You just need to do a couple of things to the room.’ So I got a bit of advice from some engineer friends and built a soundproof monitor [control] room within the big room to put the desk and the amps and the preamps in, and also be big enough so that I can be in there recording my acoustic guitar at the same time we track the drums. We put in these big sliding doors and a couple of gobos with windows so I could even isolate myself within that room and get a tighter sound. Then the main room, which is the drum room, is all jarrah [eucalyptus] floors but with big Persian carpets, so you can change the sound in different parts of the room. And we built a few more gobos so we can tighten or loosen the drum sound.
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