John Butler Trio - "Home" A Dual Perspective by Tim Lemon and Chris J. Smith
Updated: Aug 17, 2019
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Some artists seem to develop a signature style and proceed to live within that comfort zone. Assured that a proven approach, perspective, sound, or technique will continue to be successful, they become content in doing what they’ve always done to get what they’ve always gotten. However, the definition of success is subjective. For other artists, it is found in a continuous process of challenge and evolution as if setting out to show that it is possible to strike gold once, but doing so in subsequent attempts is the true symbol of success and versatility. The release of 2018’s Home finds John Butler in the midst of such a mission. Renowned for his blues- and roots-based guitar stylings as well as his multi-instrumental prowess, his work with his eponymous trio has garnered countless ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) and APRA (Australian Performing Rights Association) nominations and four award-winning albums. But just as trophies and speeches do not serve as the epitome of success, Butler has seemed to find it elsewhere through constant re-invention. Although his acoustic busking roots ground his entire discography, Home picks up where 2014’s Flesh and Blood left off. Incorporating electronic drum programming and synthesizer bass, it hails from the likes of “Wings are Wide” and “You’re Free” but strives for a deeper rhythmic infusion in integrating Butler’s diverse musical influences. Lyrically, it displays Butler in a moment of release, confronting his anxiety, the compromises entailed in the life of a touring musician, and the hardships throughout his family heritage that have been branded on his psyche and spawned his now decades-long search for meaning. Melancholic at times, there is also hope and light illuminating the darkness of his mind’s isolation. Finding comfort and relief in the people and places that form his support network after years in pursuit of an intangible thing that he could not seem to find on his own, John Butler has come home. Given ample time to listen and analyze the record, Audio Underground Blog Contributor Tim Lemon and Chief Writer/Editor Chris J. Smith discuss their thoughts on the album’s lyrical themes and re-invented instrumental approach below.
Q: TL - Home is the first album in John Butler's discography to have a true title track. Do you feel as though the songs on the record are all tied together by the theme of "going home"? Does the presence of that common theme justify the album getting its title from the eponymous track? A: CS- For me, the title track “Home” was a weak spot on the album and a bit disheartening to bare the namesake of the record. The synth was just too foreign to sink my teeth into. In a more metaphorical sense, though, I personally feel a title track should define an album and set the theme as you mentioned. I think he absolutely nailed it here, as the record’s theme of “home” was consistently present. More so than “going home”, it resonates with me as if asking the question: “where is home?” I do love those backing vocals that eerily echo “can’t find my direction”, so in this capacity the tune did somewhat fulfill its duty for me, additionally creating an atmosphere unlike anything we’ve ever heard from John. It laid the groundwork for an entirely new beast in terms of soundscapes.
You can actually hear and FEEL the desperation to get his feet back on solid ground throughout the entirety of the record, all while simultaneously refusing to return to the familiarity of what was, as it is no longer a place of rest and/or creativity. This is why he is forced to wander and redefine his identity once again. In short, you learn to grow or you fade away and I don’t believe John Butler has any intentions of fading away. His methods seem more original than a cheap attempt to stay relevant. He simply sounds like he is exploring musically and it is nice to be along for that ride with an artist with whom we have a connection. This keeps an audience asking “what next?”, which conversely sells records as well as concert tickets.
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Q: TL- Coming somewhat as a surprise, in addition to the newfound love of synthesizers this record highlights Butler's fondness of beats. How has his affinity for rhythm evolved across previous albums and how does it explore previously untouched sonic territory on Home? A: CS- John Butler has always been a stand-out inspiration for me when it comes to his rich rhythmic knowledge and feel. He knows exactly what the masses want and how to best showcase his elaborate compositions in a relatable manner. He even dynamically attacks his guitar like a drum with stunning accuracy. Over the course of about 8 full-length studio albums (I’m counting his solo single “Ocean” due to the complexity within that masterpiece) we’ve really been exposed to a lot of tribal sounding dance themes... dare I say Aussie pop? Generally speaking, they have joyful bounce to them and really push the well-crafted songs forward appropriately.
One of the trio’s former drummers, Nicky Bomba, has always struck me as heavily influenced by one of my favorite drummers, Stewart Copeland of The Police. These guys aren’t necessarily going to be the cleanest drummers in terms of execution, but there’s a lot to be said for that organic vibe. It reminds us that we are in fact witnessing humans making music, and what Nicky lacked in decisiveness (which to me, wasn’t a lot as he was and will always be, my favorite drummer of the trio) he definitely made up for with energy, grit and youthful spunk. The man looks like he was plucked from a funky, colorful garden and placed right atop his drum throne for goodness sake! That kind of personality cannot, and should not, be emulated!
That serving as a light segway, listening to this new side of John Butler’s production initially gave me mixed feelings. As a musician dabbling in electronics myself, it wasn’t off-putting in the sense that the drums on Home were sequenced and heavily processed alongside some more kosher instrumentation (excluding the banjo amplified by a Marshall half stack.. that just takes balls), but the only way I can describe it is that it does feel like the two entities are still audibly wrestling to co-exist, and to me, the beauty of John’s style has always been that it felt effortless and care-free (yes, I’m referring to that hippie stereotype that Tim diligently quoted John as saying that he is trying to break free from). The trap style hi-hats for example, are sort of an affronting or rather “intense” sound to begin with, but bringing a distortion-heavy banjo in on top of that with John’s supposedly “focal” instrument nestled shyly below these manipulated layers? It’s all a bit peculiar to say the least and really breaks apart any (mistaken) preconceptions made by anybody in anticipation of this release. I imagine this is what John’s intentions were from the start when he began toiling away with drum programming during Flesh and Blood. There are also definitely some more fan favorite flavors incorporated percussively and not with the connotation of cliche throwbacks either. Not to be misconstrued as an overly negative critique, but speaking on the filters and hard “loudness-war” contending with bass drum breaks, for me they tended to overwhelm those gentler touches right when I was settling into the groove. I think the early experimentation on Flesh and Blood provided a rather sparse electronic reinforcement and complimented the songs in a more cohesive fashion at times.
It was not a surprise to learn that Flesh and Blood partially contained some collab-pieces after reading Tim’s segment (Thanks Tim!), and all I can hope for is that John finds the right group of people to get this kind of collaboration going again. Even if it does contain a new eclectic, electronic air, I think that it would benefit highly from the chemistry of others. Although these somewhat radical changes are essentially moving the music forward into new sonic territory, it does feel like a step back in regards to the collaboration element.
Q: CS- A couple of things jumped out to me on this record. These are the replacement of electrified banjo in place of John’s signature electrified acoustic leads as well as the use of programmed drums serving as the backbone of the rhythm tracks. These were presumably conscious decisions made by both John and co-producer Jan Skubiszewski, but what do you think the primary reasoning(s) behind them are and do you ultimately agree with this uncharacteristic direction?
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A: TL- Recording through his own label, Jarrah Records, I don’t believe John to be beholden to anyone as far as catering to executives, or anyone for that matter, is concerned. I’ve listened to some interviews with him and he has stated that he really took a different approach to pre-production for this record. Extensively using GarageBand, he was able to experiment with a lot of beat and bass programming, laying them down overtop of a guitar melody to flesh out ideas rather than waiting to go into the studio with the trio. In addition to the honest, personal lyrical themes of the album, it seems like the entire record was something John needed to do for himself. For a man that has likened songwriting to taming wild horses, really being a servant to the song rather than forcing previous techniques and approaches, I feel as though this record had some sort of vision that needed to be seen through from beginning to end. I don’t think that I’m in any position to agree or disagree with an artistic decision made by a musician, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. I find the approach to pre-production on Home rather interesting, especially considering that Flesh and Blood saw John relinquish some control over the songwriting and arrangement processes, as that record featured some of the first collaboratively-written songs in the trio’s catalog (“Only One”, “Devil Woman”, “Blame It On Me”). However, some of these elements that seem to have come out of nowhere have actually been incorporated on previous albums. I didn’t quite find that the acoustic leads were replaced by banjo so much as they were used in conjunction with one another, especially on “Tahitian Blue”, “Just Call”, and “Running Away”. It sounded to me like both instruments played the same riff, working off of one another to diversify the instrumentation and sound. Going back to Sunrise Over Sea, John layered multiple instruments throughout the album. Most notably, “Seeing Angels” sticks out to me as the acoustic guitar was accented by banjo in the chorus. Then, on Grand National, “Daniella” used beat-boxing and reserved programming to incorporate an organic hip-hop vibe. And on Flesh and Blood, the synth bass made its presence clearly known on “Wings are Wide”, a touching tribute to John’s grandmother. Making a career of blending elements from different genres into a unique sound, Home just sees John lean more heavily into his more rhythmic hip-hop inclinations. In an article for adelaidenow.com, he is quoted as saying, “People often see me as a stereotype cliche... a pretty mellow, tree hugging, vegetarian. But what I really am is a skateboarder who struggles to be a vegetarian...who is a pretty intense guy. I’m totally into the outdoors, camping, and love my gear and my tools.” I think this album as a whole sees John turn intentionally away from that stereotype while also staying true to the stories and messages he’s always told, all while continuing to challenge himself in experimenting with and evolving his sound.
Q: TL- Although an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, John Butler has proven himself to be among the most innovative and eclectic guitarists currently making music and touring. Yet, at times on the album the guitar seems to be more a part of an instrumental ensemble than the focal point. Do you feel that this is a symbol of Butler's maturity as a songwriter, a sign of a different approach to composition and production, or that he is simply catering to the song as its own being? Conversely, what do you feel is the standout element on Home? A: CS- Continuing off of my previous response, I yearn for the guitar to be more upfront but appreciate that in order to get his message across, the guitar might have to take a back seat. It’s bold and I don’t necessarily understand it at all times, but it’s his vision not mine. I think there’s more morose (dare I say emo) undertones to this album, so I feel that his lyrics are the true standout element here in my opinion. I think the drums were a little easier to swallow in Flesh and Blood and for whatever reason, they meshed with his compositions a little more naturally to my ears. But, this could very well just be that he has adopted a more firm commitment to his artistic lateral here on Home, and that is something fans are just going to have to adopt, too. I think overall, a mix of both maturity and following where the songs take him (however strange) are to be held responsible for this new flow in his musical direction. I see Butler as having a common theme of always putting the song first before any production/writing technique and that these things are simply tools of expression for him. I do look forward to how he adapts with the technology in front of him and how his direction continues to change course.
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Q: CS- What are your top 3 songs AND top 3 lyrical phrases on the album? How do they embody the theme of the record? If they do not, how do they stray from the theme as outliers? And what do these songs/lyrics tell us about John’s mental state currently/what can be expected from his future discography? A: TL- I’m going with “Wade in the Water”, “Tahitian Blue”, and “Brown-Eyed Bird” on the favorite songs front. As I write this, I’m realizing that those three tracks tell a microstory within the overall album. “Wade in the Water” finds the protagonist on a journey in self-discovery through isolation. At the song’s end, he resolves to rejoin society, “look for [his] lover”, and “no longer live in that valley on [his] own.” “Brown-Eyed Bird” then finds the protagonist in a relationship that disregards social approval. Leaving their old lives behind to start anew, they decide to align their fresh beginning with their own priorities free from societal influence. “Tahitian Blue” then finds that couple in a more settled state where they can lay back and profess their love. Pertaining to the theme of “going home”, each song approaches it from a different perspective. The journey in “Wade in the Water” necessitates taking a step back, leaving home and all external parts of the protagonist’s own self behind to re-evaluate what they truly need in a place or a person they can call home. “Brown-Eyed Bird” revolves around the idea of home in a similar fashion, but does so in the context of having a significant other along for the ride, finding solace in the person rather than a place. “Tahitian Blue” brings both journeys together as the lyrics show a deep sense of devotion while the overall vibe of the song gives the sense that there is no more running. Instead, there is contentment in having found both the person and the place that the protagonist was in search of in the previous songs. In terms of lyrical songwriting, in the past John has used a technique he calls “magpie-ing” where he takes some of his own personal stories, meshes them with world events or observations, and ties them together with a crafted narrative to create a new product. However, he has also written a bit more bluntly at times, more so in his earlier discography. For example, “Young and Wild” off of Flesh and Blood is a perfect example of magpie-ing whereas “Losing You” from Grand National sees him talk freely about his wife and “Gov Did Nothing” is an openly harsh criticism of the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
I think that Home sees John continue to integrate these approaches and the above songs serve as an example to that. “Wade in the Water” likens the isolation ingrained in touring to that journey in self-realization; there is a part of John’s own experiences in the song. “Brown-Eyed Bird” is rooted in John’s relationship with his wife but finds a youthful infusion where the love between partners is the only thing that matters. And “Tahitian Blue”, although heavily metaphoric, is an unambiguous ode to John’s woman. Overall, these tracks offer a glimpse into John’s deeply reflective headspace, giving thanks to the people that make up his home when the touring lifestyle pulls him away from it for so long over the course of a year. With regard to phrasing, I think my favorite moment on the album comes during the bridge/chorus of “Wade in the Water” in which John sings, “I’m looking for something | But I get in my way | I can’t seem to find it on my own.” That resonates particularly with me because it describes the journey that I am currently on, trying to find my own way and learn a bit about myself in Maine. The second stanza of the first verse in “Brown-Eyed Bird” also speaks to me, as well as to the theme of the record, when John sings, “Get us out of this mess and take what little we can take | Run away from the facade and all that’s fake.” Those lyrics present home as something true and honest. Turning away from the idea of home as something personal and turning it outward to reference country as the home front, “We Want More” is the closest thing to a political song on the record. The phrase that speaks to me most also comes in the first verse when John sings, “You can’t pick a side living on a ball | The only fight’s to save your soul.” Particularly direct, it assails the absurdity of party politics when you call the same country home and are quite literally on the same side against much larger issues that go beyond the political divide (i.e. climate change). This lyrical snippet tells me that the rebellious, activist attitude that drives much of John’s discography is still alive and well; it has just taken a different form on Home. Giving me hope for future work, I think that John will continue to tell stories that incorporate bits of himself while also weaving in social observations that trouble him. As the lyrics in the last verse of “Faith” go, John has “gone within and...gone without”. Previous albums have shown John’s attention to be directed at the world around him, often times critical and sometimes hopeful. But Home shows him shift that focus inward, easily being his most personal display yet. Offering glimpses into his own psyche on “Running Away”, his disillusionment with touring on “Home”, and the fractured nature of his paternal family on “Coffee, Methadone, and Cigarettes”, it is his most lyrically raw work to date. Going forward, I can only imagine that he will continue to blend elements of his previous albums to chart new sonic territory while bringing together the lyrical themes found both before and during the 12 songs that comprise Home. Q: CS- Seeing as you’ve experienced this work as both a spectator in the live setting and as a listener of the CD, which gave you more of a reaction? Describe reactions initially after the concert then describe after one listen to the CD. Three listens?
A: TL- I think that John Butler’s music overall is best when experienced in the live setting, where you can tune into the energy of the band and the audience around you. It is a real symbiotic relationship that you can feel in the air. That can be true of a lot of shows with a lot of musicians, but most songs that the trio performs are not as they appear on the albums. John makes sure to bring a little extra to the live setting whether it be an extended intro, a new solo, or a prolonged jam in which the entire band contributes to build the song to a triumphant crescendo. As it pertains particularly to the album, I saw John and the trio+ (with two added touring members on vocals and percussion) play Boulder Theater and Red Rocks last June before the album was released, so a few of the new songs made their way into the set as a sort of trial run. They started the sets for both shows with “Wade in the Water” and then “Tahitian Blue”. Between both shows, I also saw “Just Call”, “Home”, “Faith” and “We Want More” performed. “Wade in the Water” was absolutely epic, especially considering the only lap steel feature on Flesh and Blood was “You’re Free”- not a bad song at all, just one that seems like it was never meant to be played live. Also, having just graduated from college and reflecting on some girls I thought I’d never see again, it was an interesting change of pace to hear John write about love in “Tahitian Blue” and “Just Call”, the latter being more akin to the likes of “Peaches and Cream” as far as subject matter is concerned. “Home” was a massive surprise. When Byron hopped on the Moog bass, I wasn’t caught off guard as some other set staples feature the instrument. However, when G-Money started playing electronic samples on a drum pad, I really perked up. Armed with the Telecaster that is used on “Blame It On Me” off of Flesh and Blood, John played a descending progression similar to the riff in the live intro jam of “I’d Do Anything” off of April Uprising. Adding percussion throughout the song, John kept the Telecaster on his back while emotionally delivering the lyrics with palpable traces of pain and self-loathing before swinging the Telecast around for a powerful solo. “Faith” was accompanied live by a short monologue about John’s thoughts on religion and spirituality. Initially hesitant to embrace the stagnant bass drum in the verse, G-Money incorporated the technique into a more dancey rhythm that showcased his style well. “We Want More” concluded each set before the encore, bringing back the tribal drum beat of “Ragged Mile” while also being reminiscent of the intro jam of “Funky Tonight”.
Image from musicradar.com Hearing a John Butler song for the first time is always exciting, but having the first listen be part of a live performance is a true experience. However, each translated well to the record as well. On the first listen to the album, each song resonated similarly to how they did in the live setting. I may be a bit biased due to that experience, though, as listening immediately transported me back to those shows out West. I must say that I was a bit disappointed that the Telecaster work was not featured on the studio recording of “Home”, but as I said previously, live performances often add an element of surprise so that is definitely something to look forward to. After three listens, and many more as the album has been in my car CD player for a while, I feel pretty similar about each of the songs. I do like the peaceful, dedicated vibe of “Tahitian Blue”, the driving, forceful nature of “Wade in the Water”, and the lyrics of “Home” to be more specific. Especially having moved away from my hometown and state shortly before the record was released, I relate most with “Wade in the Water” and “Home”.
In conclusion, as our discussion on this work concludes with mainly similar but also a few starkly different trains of thought colliding, John Butler is undeniably chipping away at a new masterpiece (or possibly an old one), and finding new and innovative ways to radiate his music into the world. There are few, if any that can even remotely resemble his creativity when picking up the assortment of stringed instruments in his repertoire. He is a singer/songwriter of the art with a burning authenticity that makes him so undeniably honest to the point that if his heart is in a place of controversy and unrest, you can damn well guarantee the song is occupying that place as well. Many things have been said about the addition of Home as the latest offspring in his discography, but one recurring theme is that it gave rise to a reaction in each of us, made us dig deeper into the work to find appreciation (and critique) in a compilation that would possibly not exist otherwise. I believe I speak for myself and Tim when I say that it was a pleasure to dive deep inside the analysis of this record and we hope to have revealed as much to you as we did ourselves in this review.
Here is the album Home by the John Butler Trio for your listening pleasure.