Honest Tune caught up with Matt Butler, creator and conductor of the Everyone Orchestra before his upcoming shows this weekend in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as he takes his concept on the road with an all star bevy of talent. We get in depth about how he started this path, how the path itself has changed over the years, guest conductors and who he’s like to have sit in who hasn’t…yet. (Yeah, it’s Trey!) Enjoy!
Honest Tune ~ Let’s start at the beginning…do you remember when you first conceived the Everyone Orchestra?
Matt Butler ~ I conceived it in stages. It started when I was in India with my wife at a cross cultural open mic where we got to witness music being a universal language, bringing everybody together. I just Felt the communication in a really deep way. Then I thought, “Y’know, I bet there’s a different way I could create something that’s not really an open mic, but not really a band either.” It’s like this new musical experience, where people can have this feeling, the musicians can feel it differently, to be organized and brought together in a different way. At that point I was out of Jambay, my band of the nineties, and I had started to compose a lot. I was doing some singer song writer stuff, some film scores, and started thinking about heading in that direction fully, stepping out from behind the drum kit. I tell people “Everyone Orchestra is my singer songwriter project gone awry.” (Laughs)
HT ~ (Laughs)
MB ~ The process of working on my singer-songwriter project is where I made all these other discoveries. When I came back from my Indian experience I hosted an open mic, and there would be lots of jams, drum centered jams, multi-instrumental jams…global music jams and I was in deep experimentation stage with the concept from 1996 through 2001. It was also part of my experience working with Ken Kesey (Original “Merry Prankster” and author of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and how he was always trying to get the audience involved in unique and funky ways. He was often very blatant about it. He would hand out handbills before our shows where it would have instructions like “This is where you spin!” and “This is where you dance like a clown!” There were these very specific ways he was trying to get the audience to participate. The idea of breaking the fourth wall down, between me and the audience, became very interesting to me. It’s not that we had that much success with this back in the day…sometimes it worked, sometimes not. I just grew up in a really orchestral household where, my mom just last year retired after 48 years of playing in the Eugene (OR) symphony. I had the opportunity to grow up among really, really incredible musicians, and actual conductors were in my mom’s regular circle of friends. Marin Alsop, who’s the principal conductors for the Baltimore symphony and one of the most highly regarded female conductors in the world…I guess watch her…y’know, this was orchestral music so it was very different from what I was creating, but still, the dynamic of where a conductor could take a group of musicians…I was very inspire by that. I didn’t conduct for the first few years. I mean…I was the drummer! (Chuckles) I hired conductors. It didn’t dawn on me ’til 2005 to conduct , I still self-identified as a drummer. Once i started conducting, I realized the role of conductor was really important to making this different. It was crucial to tap into this as something truly unique within the scope of what a band is and what people expect when they go to a music performance. The idea of being a facilitator, like leading a drum circle, kinda impacted my thinking at that point to. Being a facilitator, you don’t know exactly what will happen, you just roll with the punches, and help direct and adjust as needed. So learning how to conduct without some master plan, musically, is kinda my specialty.
HT ~ The genius of the Everyone Orchestra is that it works for basically all genres and styles. Do you approach these radically different styles any differently?
MB ~ Not really. I would say I adjust more for personalities. When I have a bunch of more, say, bluegrass musicians I lean in a more down the line style. We do some themed EO shows from time to time, like bluegrass or funk, but even within those contexts there is always some eclecticism. For me, it’s about personalities, the alchemy between the talent that’s most exciting. Seeing what people do, in reaction to these other people. I think the sonic texture of what the instrumentation is, that takes care of any accommodating that I may do because of a genre, and it ends up just happening. But, no matter the instruments, it was still just”Funk in A!” (Laughs)
HT ~ You lead the band with notes and stuff on dry erase boards. I’ve seen “Love” written on there many times, what are some of your other directions?
MB ~ I’ll give keys…sometimes I write “Love” because I’m just feelin’ it. I’m feelin’ it from the musical energy, from the vibe in the room. There’s love all around us. Music is love. I’ll write lyrics sometimes, but that changes nightly. Sometimes I’ll write “Bass & Drums'” sometimes I’ll write “8 beats Chaos!” There’s a photo in our show poster, with five words…I really believe in the contrast, the light and dark and chaos that comes from it. The right mix of those two forces…that’s chaos. I’ll give any type of direction…a key, a style…a progression…but a lot of what I am doing is asking different people to lead. The broader idea of what I am doing is facilitating a group, working as a team to create music through the conductive influence. I do a lot of this by just asking someone to start something, and that will lead to a jumping off point. I have no idea what they are gonna play. They’ll play a progression of some kind, people will jump in and it just becomes something. And then someone else will come up with part “B” and i wait for someone to give me a wink or a sign thatb they have something, and then I’ll cut everyone else out and give them the lead. Everyone then has to stop and listen, figure out what the hell is going on and join in and develop their part. That becomes “Part B.” Then I say, “Let’s go back to “Part A.” And at that point we’ve created both of these sections kinda out of the air. And sure, sometimes somebody brings a riff or a premeditated change in, but even so…nobody else knows what it is. What the other people play is still from the spontaneous ether…this is my favorite thing to do right now. I’m trying to write songs, as a group, that include the audience as a chorus, that have some kind of meaning to the moment and that feature all the musicians in a way that is exciting and new.
HT ~ You keep it pretty wide open with your selections, but a few folks have become semi regulars. Does familiarity make the collaboration easier or harder?
MB ~ I try and have a mix of the old and the new. I will say that there are some professional players out there that are my really close friends that I just enjoy working with, musically. It’s just a fun hang, a good spirit and it’s fun to throw them in the mix. And, y’know, they’re well known players and that brings a little extra excitement to the audience and the promoters. To have them on-board, and to mix them up with new musicians…that’s one of my favorite things about the Everyone Orchestra. Getting to see musicians expand their comfort zones, try new things with unfamiliar players, to grow as musicians…It might get easier for veterans of the experience, they know what kinds of changes I may call for, but also know that there is not really anything NOT to expect. With the noobies often there is a bit of fear, a little hesitation as they wonder “Can I really improvise?” Sometimes I’ll invite people who are not really improvisers, and I’ll be like “This is different. You don’t have to be free jazz musician, you just have to be ego-less and try and have fun with it.” The music we’re making isn’t perfect, but the being together and making music…that IS perfect. For the noobies it’s just about getting past the initial hesitation. I think that once the music is going, old hand and new faces are equally challenged each time.
HT ~ You’ve actually let someone else lead the orchestra at least once, moe. guitarist al. Schnier. Did it feel weird handing off your baby?
MB ~ Anyone can give this a shot, as far as I am concerned. As I get older I am thinking about teaching more people how to play this game. I’m embracing this as a new instrument, and I think that what I’m doing with it is kinda a unique twist, and an eclectic combination of a lot of the different parts of what it’s like, actually being a musician. It’s kinda like a new role on a baseball field…as if…what if they found a new base to play? (Laughs) Y’know, not first, second or third or the outfield, but some totally new position. It was kinda exciting in a way. I hated missing that show. Sometimes it happens in this crazy life of travel. A really close friend had passed away and so I had to miss it. It’s better than the show not going on, and I think Al has a deeper respect for what I do now, after having done it. I think some musicians could get a lot out of the experience after trying it themselves. If somebody had to try it at the last minute, i’m glad it was him. I used to do a lot more of the guest conductor thing, but that was mostly before I took the helm. A few of the key musicians who were around me when I started this said “Look, I like all the people you are bringing in to conduct, but the way this concept is gonna work is that we’re here because of you, and you should be conducting…we trust YOU.” Some of the conductors got up there and they were just kinda fucking with people. And that can be interesting, but as a musician you don’t wanna feel like a puppet on a string. You don’t want to be told what to do again and again and again. There’s a fine line between direction and setting there clearing space so musicians have a floor under them and can explore, to be free. Having been conducted and then taking the conducting gig myself…Different styles of conducting were bringing different things out. I’m still in the place of figuring out what this thing is, and I didn’t wanna put other people in the place where they’re being told what to do by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. On the other hand, I’ve been developing a curriculum, so that other people can more easily do this.
HT ~ Franchising is where the money’s at! (Laughs)
MB ~ Who knows? (Laughs)
HT ~ Did you lend him the hat?
MB ~ NO! Fuck no! (Laughs)
HT ~ (LAUGHS) Ever have a musician try and slip you a couple of bucks to get more stage time?
MB ~ (Laughs) Only Fishman! (Laughs)
HT ~ Well, He can afford it! (Laughs)
MB ~ (Laughs) Yeah right? He’s desperate for face time! (Laughs) No, nope, so one’s ever done that.
HT ~ In the beginning it seems you just brought the EO concept to festivals, but now you’re bringing it to cities with a heavy musician populace, like Denver, New Orleans and Portland. Is it harder to pull together a city show?
MB ~ It’s different. It”s different budgets, it’s different energies…just different considerations all around. I couldn’t do this without a good team. I have a few people who help manage the logistics, do the booking, help build the line ups…do the publicity. i’m all about the art. At a festival I will build it from there. Really, the concept was built it to make it easier for musicians in the area to come and play together. As we get bigger and bigger draws it started making sense to bring in some of the regulars. It becomes feasible to say “Okay, let’s bring out Al for these shows.”
HT ~ You have strongly linked the Everyone Orchestra to some very worthwhile causes. How has your charitable activism informed your musical direction?
MB ~ It’s a big part of the development of what EO was, was to kind of bring these people around a cause, and making it extra intense. As the years have gone by it’s been more difficult to make each show affiliated with a different cause, difficult to pull off. But when I was starting this, it was a perfect time for this energy in my life. I wanna save the redwood trees, just help be part of bringing awareness to the troubles of the world. My cause related work with folks like Positive Vibration, Summer Camp, just to add a little meaning to the party, so to speak. Honestly, I’d like to do more of it. I’d like to get bigger in the industry, just to do more for the causes.
HT ~ I can’t think of any environment more perfect a fit for what you do than Jam Cruise. How hard is it to pick from the massive amount of talent on the boat?
MB ~ It’s definitely a first world problem. (Chuckles) It’s hard! That EO always ends up being really big because I try to be inclusive.
HT ~ Are there any artists you have your eye on who haven’t been a part of the Orchestra yet?
MB ~ There’s this guitarist named Trey Anastasio I’d like to get. I mean…I don’t know…he’s a busy guy…I just think he’d understand the process really fast and I think he’d enjoy it.
HT ~ If you had a time machine, who are some of your dream artists to have in the band?
MB ~ I don’t. I really don’t. Sorry to burst your bubble on that one. I just love so many musicians. I’ve loved each and every one of the line ups just the way they are.
HT ~ That’s a perfect note to end this on. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us sir. Look forward to seeing you soon!
MB ~ Looking forward to it as well!