As far as Australian musical exports go, the John Butler Trio is far removed from what people normally think of as popular Australian music. Despite being from the same continent, The John Butler Trio bears little resemblance to classic hard rockers AC/DC. Their music crosses genres from roots, funk, and bluegrass to heavier alternative. Over the past decade, John Butler has gone from busking on the streets of Perth to releasing platinum albums in Australia and embarking on numerous successful tours of the U.S. They’ve become Australia’s most popular jam band export, and developed an extensive fanbase along the way.
Although he identifies as an Australian native, band leader John Butler spent the first 11 years of his life in Torrance, California. He moved to Australia with his father after his parents divorced, and settled into Aussie life. He became close with his maternal grandmother, and, at 16, he began playing guitar. His grandmother gave him his late grandfather’s 1930’s dobro guitar, and he began playing in earnest. He began studying art in college in 1996, but also began writing and recording his own music. He spent more time with his music than his art, and soon dropped out of college to pursue music full time.
His first album, the self-released Searching for Heritage, was the launching point for his career. The instrumental album only sold about 3,000 copies (making it a highly-sought-after collectors item for fans today), but it also caught the eye of people in the local music scene. He used the success from that album to begin playing clubs, and he began developing a fanbase. By 1998, Butler was ready to do a professional album. He enlisted the help of drummer Jason McGann and bassist Gavin Shoesmith to record John Butler. They began touring Australia, both opening for established acts and playing their own club gigs.
The band was having success on the Australian touring circuit, but they hadn’t been able to get onto the radio. With the release of 2000’s JBT EP, the band changed that. “Pickapart” became a radio hit for the band, and allowed them to begin playing bigger venues. Their appearance at 2000’s “East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival” was a huge success, and there were high expectations for their second full-length album. Three didn’t disappoint fans, and quickly went platinum in Australia.
Three won a variety of Australian awards for the band, and the album was re-released in the U.S. in 2002 on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. The band did their first U.S. tour in 2001, and followed that with a 2002 tour that included stints opening for John Mayer and The Dave Matthews Band, along with a well-received performance at Bonnaroo. They released Living 2001-2002 early in 2003, which debuted in the top ten in the Australian charts, a huge feat for
Butler returned to the studio late 2003 with a brand new “trio” backing him up. He made it clear at the time that he no longer viewed the John Butler Trio as a set band, but instead as a dynamic group put together for the songs that he wrote. The strategy appeared to work, as Sunrise Over Sea debuted #1 in Australia and saw significant worldwide success. “Treat Yo Mama” and “Betterman” became successful singles, and Butler continued to gain popularity in the U.S. as well as Australia. They followed Sunrise with Live at St. Gallen,which consisted of a one performance in Switzerland and another at the Sydney Opera House.
Grand National was released in 2007, and had considerable Australian and American success. The album was the first John Butler Trio album to include extensive use of horns and strings, and a variety of percussion instruments. The band took the success of the album on the road, and played festivals in Australia along with playing Lollapalooza in the U.S. and touring with G. Love in 2008.
Butler took a break from the Trio in 2009, instead embarking on a solo tour in the U.S. and Canada. He played a variety of festivals, including the Montreal Jazz Festival, and sold out headlining shows. After his summer performances, he returned to Australia and announced the formation of a new Trio, this time consisting of Byron Luiters on bass and Nicky Bomba on drums. The album that resulted, 2010’s April Uprising brought him not only continued success in Australia but even more American exposure. He responded by touring the States and hitting up festivals. The highlight of this was a headlining show at Red Rocks in Colorado that was streamed live and subsequently released as a live album.
It took Butler 4 years and another adjustment to his trio to release a new album. Butler began previewing songs from 2014’s Flesh & Blood in 2013 on tour, but the album had plenty of new material for fans to enjoy. The album had more of a rock edge to it and less of the bouncy pop format that Butler had employed on some other albums. While the album didn’t have extensive commercial success in the U.S. it did keep the trio in the limelight, and his version of the song “Happy” became a staple both for his TV performances and in concert. He announced a 2018 US tour after a handful of dates in the states in 2017, and is expected to release a new album sometime in the next year.
Butler’s unique style has allowed him to reinvent himself and his band on a regular basis. He’s most well known for his finger picking guitar style, but he’s also an accomplished slide guitar player, banjo player, and he’s even known to play the traditional Australian didgeridoo. He’s taken to wearing acrylic fingernails in order to allow him to play his music without destroying his hands. He also helps run his own record label, which allows him extensive creative freedom for his recordings. His live performances often mix his acoustic instrumental pieces with more electric songs that use a variety of pedals and effects. While he may take on a variety of labels, predictable is definitely not one of them.
John Butler’s career extends far beyond his music. He’s extremely politically vocal and active, and his lyrics reflect his beliefs. He’s won a variety of awards from political and environmental groups. He’s also started his own foundation, known as the JB Seed Program, that grants money to artists and organizations focused on artistic and cultural diversity in Australian society.
John Butler has become a new face for Australian music, and has given fans a different perspective on the music of the continent. His Australian success has translated well to the U.S., and he’s become a favorite of American and Australian festival-goers. In the jam band scene he’s gone from festival filler to an upper tier act for major festivals. Although he’s always changing and updating his backing band, Butler’s staying power is evident, and he should be making music for quite some time.