John Butler’s last album in 2010, April Uprising, seemed to be all about re-invention. There was a new incarnation of the John Butler Trio – with Butler’s brother-in-law Nicky Bomba joining the band, along with bassist Byron Luiters – and the songs were spare, pared down; no flashy solos and screaming freak-outs, just the music the songs needed to work.
Three years on and Butler has unleashed Flesh & Blood. Bomba has departed the line-up to concentrate on the burgeoning career of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra (although he appears on 10 of Flesh and Blood’s 11 tracks), and the songs breathe out – they’re relaxed, languid, often electrifying, and have been created by a trio utterly at ease with the music and one another.
April Uprising was the first time I’d really played electric guitar, and this time round, through the Silvertone and the Telecaster, I was able to find my own voice…
Butler says the key difference lies in a simple idea: flavours.
“Flavours’ is a really big thing on this album; we all really wanted our individual flavours to show more. Not in an egotistical sense, ‘cause we all love the same beats and the same styles of music,” he explains, speaking from the Fremantle offices of his label, Jarrah Records.
“April Uprising was our first offering; I’d write all the songs, and we’d produce it all together. This one: I write most the songs, but we had a whole two-week session of improvising together – I wasn’t allowed to bring my songs.”
The sonic results put a very definite stamp on the album, from the burning guitar freak-outs of Living in the City and Cold Wind, to the head-crushing, floor-wrecking pure dub groove of Blame it on Me.
Much of this lay in Butler finding his voice on electric guitar, having predominantly played acoustic before April Uprising.
“In Cold Wind, the slide playing was never meant to be there, I had a completely different finger-picked, acoustic-amplified part,” he says. “It wasn’t working so I pulled out my Silvertone, the electric, and something came out of it pretty quickly.”
“April Uprising was the first time I’d really played electric guitar, and this time round, through the Silvertone and the Telecaster, I was able to find my own voice – as opposed to, ‘this is kind of cool, but I don’t understand it’.The Tele was pretty – it sounded good unplugged… I know that sounds really ‘Spinal Tap’.”
So, Butler does indeed have a sense of humour, which is well and truly proved by the ticklish zombie video for single The Only One (see below).
While he’s no po-faced protest singer, he’s always had a strong social conscience and humanitarian streak.
Given the seriousness of much of his work and image, is it important to be seen to have a sense of humour? “I wouldn’t say I can write a song that has a great sense of humour like some great writers can, but you’ve got to be able to laugh,” he responds.
“Otherwise, you’ll just be always crying. My solo show over the last year, Tin Shed Tales (see right), was a great opportunity for people to see that I was not someone to take themselves too seriously. And as well, caring about important things. If you’re always seeing the darkness in the world and taking yourself too seriously, it becomes boring – boring for anybody watching it and wanting to enjoy it.”
But there are serious moments in the album, one lying in the song Young and Wild, that addresses the subject of addiction. “I understand why there’s broken marriages and drug addiction in my line of work – it’s a warped reality and no one else can relate to it but other musicians,” he explains.
“And we don’t see each other ‘cause we’re all on the road, so the support network is atrocious. I’ve had smoking addictions, stimulus addictions – what I mean by that is just anything that would stimulate you: computer, phone, or what’s the next big thing to chase.
“As a young person who did a lot of partying with friends, I saw people who didn’t stop partying, who became full junkies. We orbited around the circles of addiction; maybe we were partying but the centre was hardcore, so I was putting a lot of those stories into place.“
With Grant Gerathy now in the drum seat after Bomba’s departure, the band has been touring the new album through early 2014, and Butler is merely philosophical about Bomba’s departure.
“Over three years I was watching Melbourne Ska Orchestra grow and grow. I was watching him play a sold out show at the Metro in Sydney, and I was looking at a man in his prime, in his prime location at the front, and I was like, he’s going to say ‘no’ to a million and one great opportunities for this band because he’s out with me, that doesn’t seem right. He’s been on three albums – Sunrise Over Sea, April Uprising, and this one. We have a beautiful relationship that is beyond bands and music, or family for that matter.”
Flesh & Blood is out now through Jarrah Records.
Palais Theatre, Melbourne, April 1 and 2
Tivoli, Brisbane, April 7 and 8
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, April 11
Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 19.