John Butler Trio
"GRAND NATIONAL." On a simple, playful level, it might mean "excellent guitar". Nobody who's ever heard John Butler breathe life into his grandfather's vintage National dobro resophonic slide guitar would deny it. But there's also a larger connotation to the title, a wider perspective, an all-encompassing vision of human experience.
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"It's moving more towards a universal kind of music," says the US-born, Australia-raised singer-songwriter. "The whole thing, the way I look at the world, the way I see myself, the way I see the band, it's all becoming a bit more worldly and encompassing rather than being too specific."
"After the last ten or twelve years of doing what I do, my outlook is more open, so the palette opens as well, stylistically speaking, sound-wise, songwriting-wise. That's the direction I see the band going. More open. Always."
The pigeonholes that exist have long been a bad fit for John Butler anyway. Roots band, protest band, jam band, groove band . . . these labels may or may not have applied in the past, but the John Butler Trio of 2007 has come too far and seen too much to sit in anybody else's niche.
"GRAND NATIONAL" is more about love than injustice, more about ass-shaking than finger-pointing, and more about maintaining the funk than any particular hairstyle. It's an album of sharp focus and wide variety that matches and surpasses monumental expectations.
"SUNRISE OVER SEA," John's last album of 2003, was nothing short of a phenomenon. It sold five times platinum to become that year's fifth highest selling album in Australia. Out of seven Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) nominations, it won Best Independent Release and Best Blues & Roots Album and John also received the Best Male Artist award, while "Zebra" was named Song of the Year by the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA).
More importantly, the Trio's subsequent world travels brought John, bassist Shannon Birchall and percussionist Michael Barker to a new peak of musical fitness and understanding.
"After three years of touring 'SUNRISE OVER SEA,' it was great to come into the studio with those guys and have the synergy all ready to go," John says. "There's a kind of respect between the three of us, personally and musically. Shannon and Michael are astounding musicians to me, breathtakingly inspirational people to play with." The fourth wheel to the project was more surprising. Fortuitously seated next to Jack Johnson on a long flight in 2005, John heard about Jack's recent studio experience with the legendary Mario Caldato, Jr. (Beastie Boys, Beck, G Love). So came the glue that would secure the swing of "GRAND NATIONAL."
"I always really respected Mario's work from Ill Communication and Check Your Head, that's what really did it for me," John says. "I knew if he could work with Jack and G Love, he could work with a trio and get that kinda funk happening.
"Mario was a real vibe guy. He was about keeping the tension down and he reminded me not to be too precious. I can get pretty intense in the studio. Man on a mission," he laughs. "He kept it mellow."
The mellow shows in the laid-back amble of the lead track, "Better Than," in the pure, sweet reggae of "Groovin' Slowly," the solo acoustic prayer that is "Losing You," and in the rambling funk groove of "Used To Get High."
Things get more angry and intense in "Devil Running," heartbreakingly sad between Shannon's strings arrangement for "Caroline," and sexy as hell in "Daniella," and "Funky Tonight".
"More and more I'm convinced by the power of love and less and less by the power of hate," John says. "The journey of love! It's nice to be able to sing about love, get cheeky with it. "
It's far from the whole story. "Good Excuse" is one of several songs that are wake-up calls to our self-obsessed consumerist society. "Nowhere Man" is his own personal song of place in the world, while "Fire in the Sky" considers the idea of peace in a post -9/11 climate.
Then there's "Gov Did Nothing," a song that "really just says what everybody else was thinking" about the human disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. The JBT was on tour in America at the time, but its panorama of instrumental colours was assembled back in Melbourne, with help from jazz pianist Jex Saarelaht, soul singers Vika and Linda Bull and trad jazz band the Hoodangers in the climax.
Other guests on the album include Mario's colleague Money Mark Nishita on keys, percussionists Ray Pereira and Nicky Bomba, and on backing vocals, some crucial family support from John's wife, Danielle Caruana, and his cousins Stacia and Jessie Goninon.
Taken together, these 13 songs comprise a vast new canvas for John Butler, one that offers surprising new points of entry for newcomers, as well as inviting his legion of established fans deeper into his worldly vision.
"I know a lot of people are waiting for this album but I never assume what the reaction will be," he says. "I'm not complacent about that, never take for granted that people are gonna embrace it like the last time. And that's OK. I'm happy with the album. From an artistic point of view. to me, it's a success."
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