John Butler Trio recently released their latest album, Home, the group's first full-length effort since 2014, and while the trio's leader and namesake has been known to experiment with genres in the past, the new record finds him digging deeper into some electronic and hip-hop influences-and even trying out different ways of writing and recording his music. Since the trio's last album, Butler has moved to the Australian countryside with his wife-fellow singer-songwriter Danielle Caruana (a.k.a. Mama Kin)-and children and discovered that sometimes an artist needs to create alone to truly live up to their own vision.
Calling from halfway across the globe at his home in Australia, Butler discusses how the tracks on Home came to fruition thanks in part to a newfound love of GarageBand, why he decided to record much of the album without his regular trio bandmates-bassist Byron Luiters and drummer Grant Gerathy-how he sees potential song ideas as "wild horses," his thoughts on the longevity of his career and more.
Let's start with what you've been up to since the last album, and how these songs on Home came together.
I always take about three years in between albums, because it just takes that long to tour the album and then record another one. This one was a little bit longer because I took about a year off, actually. I took a whole bunch of time off and moved from the city back down to the country, closer to where I grew up. So I took that year off and set up my home and set up my place and built gardens and sheds and what have you, got my kids in school and stuff. Then I started to go make another album. And it was a little bit tricky with how the album wanted to be made, so that took that little while longer. So it was a mixture of deliberate extra time and then unexpected extra time.
Was that move back to the country a permanent one for you and your family? Were you living in the city before that?
Yeah, that's where we've been for the last four years now. I was born in LA, and then I moved to a small country town in Western Australia and spent 10 years there. Then I hopped around between different cities.for the next 20 years. I spent about a good 10 years in a city called Fremantle in Western Australia, which is an amazing city, awesome. But as my kids were getting a little bit older, we just wanted to make sure they got some country time. That was really important to us. My wife was like, "What do you think about this?" and I was like, "Hell yeah." It's where I'm from; I'm happy to do that. Especially, you know, because it's such a nice balance to our touring life-Danielle, my wife, is also a touring musician. Touring is just, like, in a different city every 23 hours, and you live in parking lots and buses and hotels and venues. Which is all great, but it's so highly urban and so fast, so it's nice to come off the road and be in the country.
And when did these songs on Home start to come out of you?
The songs always know when I'm free to write. It works like this: I'll write 20 to 30 songs-20 kind of finished and then the other 10 could be something good if I finished them-and then I stop writing. It's like my cup filled. Like, "OK, cool, I have to record." And the recording process can take anything from up to a month, to three months, to a year, depending on how long the mixes and masters and everything take. I don't write anything in that time, because my all energy is consumed by bringing these new children to life. The minute I release that album, I won't be surprised if I start writing again. The songs know that I'm free, that the cup is empty now. I wrote all throughout the touring cycle for the last album, Flesh & Blood. I write a lot on the road.but I write a lot at home as well. It kind of happened in a myriad of different places.
Do you and Danielle ever write together?
Yeah, sometimes we do. We'd like to do it more, but we're so busy doing our own stuff that we have to make it a very deliberate intention. We've just been working on our own projects too much.
You've likened these songs coming to you as "wild horses" that you needed to work with and tame to reach the final product on the album. Is this metaphor a mindset that you've been in for a while?
It's definitely a metaphor that keeps solidifying itself in my mind over the last few years. I'm gonna give you this really bad analogy: You know that Bruce Willis movie where the kid sees dead people? With musicians, we see songs. They make a musician a horseman, or some kind of wrangler. I spend a lot of time out in nature, what I call the "never-never" or the bush. But the never-never is this mystical kind of bush. Musicians frequent that area, that creative, natural, wild place, and we see these wild horses, these songs. It's wild. We hear them, we see them; it's like they're special, beautiful things. They sound so magical in our minds, and when we see them out in the never-never, it's like "Cool, I want to bring this into the material, three-dimensional world now. I want to bring it into the city to show people, to show the people who aren't travelers, who haven't been out to the never-never. I want to sing these songs to them."
Some songs just follow you in. You pop the saddle on, away they go, and they come in and they're beautiful, wild, majestic things. Other songs, you have to really work to bring them in, and some horses you force in. You literally tie the rope around their neck and you drag them into town and you break their spirit-and you present a pretty shit song to everybody. And they're like. "Why'd you bother showing me that broken beast," and you're like, "Well, it wasn't broken out there, but I broke it on the way in because I wasn't crafty enough with my skills-as a horseman, as a poet, as a songwriter, as a guitarist, as a recorder, as a producer." So, every song is like this sensitive, wild beast that you need to use all your skills as a poet and as a guitarist and as a producer and as a writer and bring it in and not fuck up. You want to bring in something that's wild and mystical and has a bit of divinity about it. I really believe the songs come to me, they choose to come to me, and I'm a conduit for that. But when I do it really well and I really bring them into the town, it's just magic. The way the songs sound in our head is pretty majestic, so it's a lot of pressure when that red button gets pushed. It's like how Michelangelo said that he just removed all the marble to reveal David, that David was already there. I believe it in the same way [about songs]. Songs are already there, and we just have to play up to them. I hope that makes sense.
Absolutely. Were these songs recorded over a long period of time in different places or was it more of a focused, one-studio thing?
It was a mixture. I did all the pre-production on my iPad on GarageBand. GarageBand, finally with the touch screen [on the iPad], became really user friendly. For me-as a bit of a Luddite-it allowed me to start using drum machines and synthesizers in a really easy way. I don't have to go to the studio and work with a beat-maker and 500 vintage synths-it's all at my fingers. I produced the songs from start to finish-from the drum beats to the bass lines to the synthesizers. Then there was other times where I was like, "I wanna experiment with a multiple drum thing," with a drum kit and two other big toms that actually play the kick and the snare parts. I've always wanted to do that. So I came to the studio, and we got Brazilian drummers to come in with a drum kit, and we tried some songs and it kind of worked. And then I'd back again to keep working on my iPad.
I had a couple sessions with the Trio, but I found the best way for me to get out these ideas-which were now quite distilled and I was quite protective of-was to just get them out of my head without too much distraction, without too many people around. I ended up going to Jan Skubiskewski's Red Moon Studios in Victoria and recording with him pretty much by myself, for the most part. Which was a big place to get to, because it's so not how I do things. I record in my studio with my trio. Now, I was in somebody else's studio by myself, but that's what the songs on it asked of me. That's what I needed, too. I was so sensitive, so protective of the songs and anxious and sensitive to everybody being around. It was just too much to manage for me at the time. The process was so unlike anything I've ever done. It took a long time to get to the point where I was like, "OK, I want to record this song with my trio." I kinda felt guilty. It felt weird. But it was the right thing to do.
Was that because of the type of songs these were, or was it more about the headspace you were in?
It was the amount of pre-production I'd done. I'd just done so much that I knew exactly what I wanted to hear. What I really needed was for everybody to do as I said, and I felt guilty about that. I Felt like a dictator. I mean, it's always been my band, and I've always been the captain of it and produced it, but there's a lot of freedom in how things end up being when I arrange it with the band. This time, I needed everybody to play exactly how I wanted it to be played. I just felt weird about it, and then I was actually anxious. I was feeling this anxiety that was kind of a completely new thing in a lot of ways. I was so anxious at the time that having anybody in the studio and having any other things to deal with overloaded me. And that wasn't the band's fault; it was just because I was trying to manage people's emotions. Like, I would notice this kind of strange dynamic between the band and the producer, and I felt in the middle of that. And at the same time, I was just trying to get these sounds out of my head. I would've done it by myself if I knew how to record properly. I just needed to be in that mad-scientist space. It was a bit of a spin-out, this whole process.
Another interesting thing is that recording an album, for me, is a very much transformative experience, like a therapy session. I won't be the same after it. I'll have divulged so much of my emotions into it and tried to kind of do some reckoning with and realization of myself, because that's how I write. I write to make sense of myself and make sense of the world around me and the emotions inside me and outside of me. And the recording process is revealing-it asks a lot of you, to be great. As great as those songs and those wild horses are, to be that great is a lot to muster. And recording this album was part of that journey, that learning, that healing.
Do you think this recording process helped you deal with that anxiety that you were feeling?
To a certain degree, definitely. I manage my anxiety now. I can see that my dad had it-now that I have it, it's like "Oh, that's what dad would do, that's why he was a fucking freak." [Laughs.] It's come from a lot of touring, to tell you the honest truth. I first really noticed it when I was leaving home. I'd get really anxious and really grumpy and prickly and emotional, and then I'd come home and feel like it wasn't enough time between this tour and the next tour. Then I'd get grumpy and prickly again, and all I'd see was work and mess around me. It started as touring anxiety, and then I realized it was just kind of there. So yeah, I manage it now, with fitness and meditation and just trying to be gentle with myself.
This day and age, there's a lot of information out there, man, a lot of social media inundated by the details of the world that we didn't really evolve to manage in our minds. A million years of evolution didn't set us up to cope with knowing about the atrocities happening in Georgia and in America and then in Brazil and Argentina and then in Malaysia and the Philippines and then in the Middle East. The bomb that happened in Paris. There's just so much. Every environmental disaster that's taking place at the same time, the humanitarian disasters, all the political division, the gender division, the racial division, the religious division-I don't think we're meant to be able to take on all that. Maybe within our community, maybe within our state, maybe within our countries, but not globally. I do think I'm seeing this kind of anxiety take place all around me. I kind of feel like I'm just part of the zeitgeist in a lot of ways, you know?
Did you ever consider calling this a solo album and not putting it under the Trio's name?
Yeah I did. Totally.
What made you choose the latter?
It was actually a lot of boring shit, to tell you the truth. But at the same time, some of it was realistic. I didn't want to confuse people and make them think that this was just me and my guitar, playing and singing. And if I was to go and tour around the country with my trio and two other people-at the moment, it's a five-piece-but under the name John Butler, the people would think they're gonna get some intimate, unplugged theater show as opposed to The John Butler Trio. So I did it to avoid confusion. This album is wider and more expansive, and it doesn't sound like I'm going for a laid-back solo project. And The Trio's still featured on the album on quite a few songs.
You mentioned using GarageBand more in the writing of this record-did that contribute to more of an electronic/hip-hop influence, especially on tracks like the lead single "Home"? Was it a conscious decision to go that way with your sound here?
It's pretty conscious. It's something I've rattled on about. With [2004's] Sunrise Over Sea, I was like, "I wanna do this reggae, hip-hop thing over this country, double-thumbing [guitar] picking thing," being inspired by G Love and stuff. All the hip-hop I was listening to before Sunrise Over Sea was '90s hip-hop, and that had a lot of breaks that were looped, a lot of James Brown loops. So over the next 10 years, I still listened to hip-hop and listened to a lot of it, and a lot of the programmed beats came in and I'm kind of drawn to them. That's what I'm hearing under what I'm doing with this folky thing. So I rattled on and on about it for a while, but a lot of times I just didn't have access to the technology to really experiment. I guess, as a songwriter, I write in solitude-I enjoy the alchemy of writing by myself in a hotel room at four o'clock in the morning or at my house or in my shed. I like that. A lot of times in those spaces I don't have an MPC around, so GarageBand has allowed me to do all of those things I wanted to do in such an easy way. In fact, it started on my phone. I used GarageBand on my phone and I was recording whilst driving in between shows, like "This is amazing! This is so much easier than a laptop, which is just a pain in the ass."
And then I lost all my demos-like 13 demos for the new album-while skateboarding, because I answered my phone and put it back in my pocket, and my butt basically decided to only delete my demos. So I got the iPad and it just made it easier. I had access to all those things I had been hearing in my head. Like I would need to write a drum beat for this song, but every time I got my actual kit to try and do it, it was like, "This is a mess." So I got on Crate Digger and got all these other hip-hop samples, and I was like, "This is it. This is what I've been wanting to do." And instead of going to the bass guitar, the bass synth sounded so much better. Byron introduced that to the band two albums ago, brought that bass synth. So yeah, that's how it came together. It was quite deliberate in that sense that-yeah, I know I can make a great live-based album if I wanted to, but that wasn't the aesthetic of the album. I really wanted to see if I could merge these things together in a way that's still natural and not like Frankenstein. By no means do I think I'm any kind of pioneer-there's people like Beck who've been doing it beautifully for years. Beck was definitely a massive influence with this kind of thing for sure.
Your Trio is coming up on two decades as a group-do you have any sorts of thoughts on that sort of longevity, how you've been able to make these records for, honestly, longer than a lot of people are able to survive in the music industry?
Part of me doesn't really subscribe to the anniversary thing in a lot of ways. It's putting a date on what you do, and I feel like like art shouldn't have a timecode on it. And as a artist, you don't wanna be dated in any way. But at the same time, I'm fucking stoked to be here. You're right-I've seen a lot of changes, and I've seen a lot of talented people come and go, without sounding too calloused. So to still be around and still be engaged, with the fan base still growing, I'm really grateful for how we did it. There's been many times where I'm like, "I wish we were bigger sooner," or this or that, but I've always said to myself that I want a long rise and a long plateau. So many people spike up out of nowhere, go worldwide platinum, and then spike down to like, "Woah, where are they? What happened?" So a long rise up and a long plateau-you don't always get the popularity you wanted immediately. I'm thankful for how we've done it. I'm thankful that it happened in a really slow and natural way. And I feel like I'm getting better at it. I'm writing better songs. I'm a better performer-I've only really started to really enjoy playing onstage probably the last six or seven years, where it's not stressful and the fear of failure's not always around.
I'm glad my first couple albums weren't huge, because I liked some of that music and still play some of it, but I think I'm writing better songs now, better poetry. I think I'm playing better guitar. This isn't what you asked about, but one thing that I've definitely thought about on this album is how to keep it wild-how to keep the songs wild. Why are our favorite albums [frequently] someone's first album? Because they weren't thinking too much. So it's like, "How can I think just enough to write a better song but stay naive enough to keep it wild and free?" Not too considered, just considered enough. I'm writing good music, I'm playing with a good band, there are more people than ever listening to our music, and it happened in a very natural and organic way that I've been able to mature with. I'm just getting a better grasp of this whole thing. I don't think I would've been very good at 21 doing what I'm doing now.
Going forward, do you think the way this album came about might be the way that you approach future albums-with GarageBand and recording more by yourself instead of with the Trio?
I think I'll try to keep a balance. I think there's times with the Trio and what we do as a trio, that there's no way I could replicate it anywhere else but with Grant and Byron. They're two fantastic musicians who can literally go anywhere-so many more places than I can go. There are things that just happen-flowering, I call it, like when the flower opens, that's what we can do with our music. It goes from being quiet to explosive, and you can't do that with GarageBand. I definitely want to always keep aspects of that, and I definitely want to keep aspects of all the new songs. As an artist, you want to paint with the full spectrum, then that skill, that craft, that intuition, it helps with a bit of wisdom to go, "What application works here?" If you wanna draw a beautiful landscape, then don't use the neon colors right now. Maybe the neon colors won't work for what you're doing, unless you're going for that whole neon-natural thing, which is different. It's about trying to mix them and use them in an eloquent kind of way. I think I'll never throw the baby out with the bath water. Those new sounds are in, I can't help but not use them. One of my favorite songs is "Formation" by Beyonce. The breakbeat in that is one of the most awesome I've ever heard. And and all the production that Pharrell does-it's hard to ignore that stuff. It's really, really good. But it's also hard to ignore the beauty of what happens between, you know, John Bonham and Jimmy Page. You can't close down that shit; that's just natural animals, fucking bringing it. So I definitely want to make sure that the Trio as an animal doesn't get lost either. And I don't think it has-it's part of the journey.