Taken from Beat Magazine (Sep 27, 2018)
John Butler Trio on finding a new sense of home
"It's hard to find complacency while still seeking the answers to the big questions - I'm still trying to figure it all out."
by Will Brewster
In the last 20 years of Australian music, very few artists have carved out a legacy as deep as that of the John Butler Trio. Fuelled by the spirited persona and virtuosic fingerpicking of Butler, the trailblazing blues and roots group has managed to establish a huge local and international following without any major label support through the sheer strength of the group's unmatched musicianship.
So, naturally, when the John Butler Trio dropped their new single 'Home' - a brooding mash of trappy hi-hats and swooping synth bass - fans were quick to scratch their heads. Where was the guitar?
"Primarily, I'm a folk musician and singer-songwriter, so I'm always trying to better my own craft, especially the way I write lyrics and play my guitar," Butler explains. "But the music I listen to is so different. I'm a big fan of Rihanna, Beyonce, Kendrick, A Tribe Called Quest, so this album is me trying to fuse those two worlds together without making a Frankenstein."
Despite the modern sheen of its lead single, HOME is by no means a departure from the organic sound of Butler's original material - in fact, it's one of the most refreshing sounding albums of his career. Produced by Butler and Australian pop maestro Jan Skubiszewski, HOME radiates a distinctive palette of unclipped sonic experimentation, a sound which Butler says was sparked by solitude and kicked upon through the humble touchscreen interface of the iPad.
"A big part of my songwriting this time around was through playing around with Garageband on my iPad, which let me flesh out all these songs with drum machines and synths in real time instead of waiting to take them to the Trio," Butler says.
"When you're by yourself, you can really crystallise and distil your own ideas the way you hear them in your head, and after a while I'd created this sonic palette I was very adamant about seeing the whole way through."
Faced with a fresh canvas to paint on, Butler mentions that the abundance of new ways to create music also proved to be one of the biggest challenges while recording HOME - a tortured relationship which many musicians would be all too familiar with.
"You can kind of hear I'm inspired by a whole lot of weird stuff on the record - I eat it all up and shit it all out in different colours," Butler says. "But the whole time, I had to keep saying to myself, 'You write a decent song John, you're good at guitar, make sure the song benefits from all these crazy ideas.' I wanted to make sure that what I was good at wasn't lost in all the excitement of these new toys."
While HOME still boasts its fair share of the fingerpicked flourishes Butler is renowned for, the record also sees the guitar represented in a much different light. 'Coffee, Methadone & Cigarettes' - the heart-tugging country-tinged centrepiece of the record - features pedal steel guitar played by First Aid Kit's Melvin Duffy, while the Led Zeppelin bluesy stomp of 'Wade In The Water' showcases a relatively unknown style of Indian slide guitar learnt by Butler in the lead-up to writing the record.
"I went and studied Hindustani Slide Guitar in India, and I found myself practicing for eight hours a day trying to learn all these unconventional ways of playing, which you can hear on 'Wade In The Water'," Butler notes, dismissing the notions of virtuosity he's come to be known for. "Nowadays, I'm only really interested in crazy guitar if it supports the colour and the spirit of the song - if you're just showing off then forget it."
Lyrically, HOME sees Butler stepping away from the politicised subjects of earlier material in favour of deep introspective reflections, with the ruminative, soul-seeking verses of tracks like 'Faith' and 'Running Away' acting as some of Butler's strongest songwriting to date.
"Those songs definitely represent a certain maturity and coming of age where I can finally have a perspective which only comes through time and experience, and it took me 43 years to find that," Butler says with a pang of uncertainty. "It's hard to find complacency while still seeking the answers to the big questions - I'm still trying to figure it all out."
Although tracks like 'We Want More' ooze a socially conscious message, Butler remains staunch in his pragmatism, offering his own harmonious sentiment of tolerance and acceptance in making sense of the world as it is today.
"It's so easy to be condescending and patronising by saying 'We need to stand up and fight the powers that be,' and after a while, people just get sick of it, like 'Okay, there's a problem, we get it, so what?'" Butler says.
"The idea that if we stopped using fossil fuels and got Trump out of power the world would be a better place, that's bullshit. That's not true. Pointing fingers or waving flags nowadays, that's just boring songwriting, and I can say that because I've done it," Butler laughs.
"That's why songs like 'Blowing In The Wind' are still as good and as relevant today as they were back then, because it's not dividing left or right or good and evil - it's just Bob Dylan telling it like it is. That's the way it should be."
John Butler Trio will release Home on Friday September 28.