“I feel like this must be the thirteenth or fourteenth time playing the festival – hold on let me Google it,” John Butler says, the click-clack of his fingers hitting a keyboard audible in the background of our conversation. “I’ve never Googled myself before. How else am I going to answer this question?!”
Incredulous as it seems, neither of us can seem to form a solid answer as to how many times Butler has performed at Byron Bay Bluesfest. Since his now-legendary debut at the festival twenty years ago, Butler and his band have notched up countless kilometers touring around the planet, treating millions of fans from all corners of the world to a show spilling over with passion, charisma and musicianship. This time, however, Butler is a man alone: for the first time since 2012, he’s embarking on his own solo tour.
“It’s the first major journey I’ve done since Tin Shed Tales,” Butler explains. “I did about four shows about two European tours ago when my drummer got really sick, and either we canceled the shows or I played solo to about two or three thousand people who paid to see a band.
“So, I did that, and it reminded me how much I love playing solo and how I can still make that many move and feel, even though it’s just one guy. So, it kind of seemed perfect when Byron and Grant left the band – I just said ‘You know what? I really wanna play solo for a while’.”
Butler is of course referring to the departure of longtime Trio members Byron Lutiers and Grant Gerathy, who left the group on amicable terms around twelve months ago to spend more time with their families. Although he’s rotated through several different iterations of the Trio in the past, Butler acknowledges that their departure did make him reconsider how he wanted to re-approach his strategy towards performing live.
“After everything that happened when Byron and Grant left, which was so understandable after so many years of playing, I did feel a bit emotional,” Butler admits.
“I just wanted to simplify things for a while. The JBT touring juggernaut is a massive entity; it’s a thirteen person crew and we do great work, but I just wanted to do that same kind of work by myself, and it feels right for now. I know I have plenty of band music still in me but right now solo feels like the most exciting thing.”
There’s no doubting that John Butler is an above-adequate solo performer – anyone who’s witnessed him performing his signature instrumental piece ‘Ocean’ in the flesh can attest to that. However, given the more expansive and textural production heard on his 2018 LP Home, it’s hard to imagine how some of his more recent material will sound without the backing of his group. Butler of course, remains unflappable.
“Finger-picking is an amazing technique,” he laughs. “I’m not trying to emulate Home, or any album for that matter, but a lot of the textures that I produce with or think about for drums and bass are already inherent within my right hand and the rhythms I’m making with my guitar and voice.
“I do have a couple loop things that offer an extra shade, but I’m also not wanting to ruin whats really beautiful about the folk singer-songwriter aspect of what I do by making the set full of loops or by using backing tracks,” Butler says with confidence, gently ribbing on a growing dependence on backing tracks in the industry as he goes.
“My attitude is ‘if you can’t play it, maybe it’s just better to have it a bit raw or rough’ That’s sometimes a good thing. If you really want it there, maybe just get someone to do it! To me though, it seems like the general population doesn’t give a shit about playing live or looping or using backing tracks as long as it sounds good.
“I mean, I think ‘Ocean’ can sound as big as an orchestra with just one person, so if I can do that with one song without words, then I can make any other song as big or small as I want within my own physical realm.”
John Butler is performing at Byron Bay Bluesfest this April. Head online to cop your tickets today.