Shelby Harwood chatted it up with Australian roots rocker John Butler and here's the full transcript of that interview which is MUCH longer than the portion that appeared in the print edition. Enjoy all you faithful JBT fans...
It seems like you've been on tour almost non-stop since Grand National came out last year, but you said in an interview at Lollapalooza that you had enough songs for a new album, how do you find time to write with such a busy schedule?
I'll actually take a bit of a break after this tour and just chill out, write more songs and do nice things like visit the beach with my family, and then I'll see how I go and just record an album. We're looking to kind of probably, now that we're kind of getting more established in all the territories we're going to give everybody a little less. Usually what happens is you go really hard at the beginning and kind of get everybody on board and then once everybody's on board you don't really need to tour three or four times a year, you know, it's actually probably dangerous to do that because everybody you know gets sick of you. You know, we'll start coming back once or twice a year, and that will leave a little bit more time for all kinds of stuff. You know, it takes a long time to get it to that place - whether it be in America or Australia or Europe - and you just kind of have to dig in for a while you know?
I was actually living in Australia last year when Grand National came out in March and was wondering what's it like being so huge in Australia - getting daily radio play and being blasted over the sound system at City Beach on a regular basis for example - and then coming to the US as a relatively unknown act? Is it strange or do you like it better being somewhat anonymous?
It's to be expected, you know, there's a big difference between mainstream popularity and underground popularity, which is what I guess we kind of have over here now after seven or eight years of [touring] America. It just takes time, you can't expect things to transfer from one country to the next unless you have some sort of world-wide hit, which comes with it's own dangers. There's several bands from Australia that have had major world-wide hits - no one's ever heard of them and then they're big around the world and then it's hard to kind of maintain that. So we kind of do it in the opposite way. We kind of just build it up from the ground up and what it kind of means is by the time you're kind of getting to where your status is in the well-known region, it's solid and it just stays for a long time. That's kind of what's happened in Australia, every step of the way it's grown slowly, it's never been like a huge splash and so by the time we were big, the roots were very deep, it wouldn't really matter what storm came by, what we built ... it wouldn't be knocked over. So that's pretty much what we've built over in America, it just hasn't hit mainstream yet, but it's a very solid place to be and I don't have a problem with that.
Is it nice to go around and not worrying about people coming up to you all the time though?
You know I don't mind that. To a certain degree, people are pretty polite in Australia. I'm not like a huge celebrity because I'm not a f***-up. Because I'm not a f***-up I'm not very interesting in that big paparazzi world so I'm not getting really hounded. You know, we're really popular, but people seem to have a general respect for us. Coming over here it's not that much of a difference. There's a few less photos and that's kind of cool, it's nice. But like I said, if I was a f***-up, then it would be a nice thing because then I could go and get f***ed up in public and make a fool out of myself and no one would know who I am, but I don't do that so it's really (courses for courses?) ... I'm so busy on the road it's kind of hard to find time to get out in a huge public situation and get mobbed anyway - I don't really think I would - but I'm pretty much just on the bus and gigging and with my family, but I don't really get that exposure to see if I would mind not being more affected than not.
How did the team up with G. Love and the Special Sauce for the North American tour come about?
We've known each other for a few years and have a mutual admiration for each other's art and I think we just thought it would be a good idea to kind of put a tour together and do something together rather than just doing it by ourselves all the time. It was a good idea and we're just having fun. I heard G. Love 12 years ago when I was busking on the streets and I thought it was the coolest sounding music around and to be on the road with him is quite an honor.
You're touring in the midst of a huge political surge right now in the States, what's the political atmosphere been like at concerts? Do you think the US is starting to progress in the right direction or do you think that the younger generation is still too unmotivated to make a real change (like their poor voter turnout in the 2004 elections, for example)?
Oh America. Okay, well, I think you know, most people ... it's hard to tell. People tend to hang around people who are very like-minded. Take, for example, me, I'm not very much of a right wing conservative, so the people I hang around with all think that America is ready for a good change. But because I guess of the unpopularity of George Bush and the complete shamble of a job that he's done as a puppet kind of coup de tat president via Fox [news] and the military complex, I would say that even some of the more conservative people in the country are starting to lose their faith in what their party has to offer. In general in the world, things are just getting more extreme, and I guess when things get more extreme we start looking at the common denominators a lot more closely than we ever have before. I don't really believe in politics as a practice unto itself. Politics is for the people and politics is to protect basic common sense. It's not really about us against them, blue against red - that's all a game to keep people separated. I think most people in this country want the same thing, whether they know it or not and whether they back McCain or Obama or a Muslim or a Christian or a black or a white or an atheist or a fundamentalist. I think we all want the same thing, most of us, unless we're crazy, and there are a couple lunatics out there who always ruin it for everybody - and there happens to be one running the country. But, having said that, I think we all want the same things. We want clean air, we want clean water, we want peace, we want justice, we want freedom, we want equality - I don't know anybody who doesn't want that. What gets confusing is when people are pit against each other in the name of a flag or in the name of an organization, whether it be Republican or Democrat. I guess with the war and the environment and global warming and the corporate takeover of America things are getting very extreme and we're starting to find that when things get extreme, everything gets pushed into the kind of same place, and when you get pushed into the same place, it's that common denominator. You start looking at each other as human beings and not necessarily as Republicans or Democrats and I think that's an extremely handicapped situation, and I don't know how the hell you're going to possibly put this down into print. I think it's changing slowly, I think it always has to get worse before it gets better. I think, personally, which doesn't really mean much, because of my political (bed?) that this country's totally ready for a change and I think that we have a candidate called Barack Obama who's black and you know can be a really good leader for this country and very, very good for the reputation of this country throughout the world. Whether it happens or not, I don't know, I was surprised George Bush got in last time, I'm always surprised that people vote for people they know have lied to them but hey... All I can say is the younger generation, they kind of know what's going on, and there's a lot of disengaged people and there's a lot of people who are engaging and it's kind of hard to tell on the day, you just kind of have to see who's going to get off their ass and vote. And that's the best thing you can do, is to just tell people to just get out there and register and be a part of this.
Grand National is a very upbeat album, more so than Sunrise over Sea, but has more political and social commentary in it -can we expect more of this on your next album with all that's been going on in the world?
What I've been writing, I have to be careful nowadays because we're in such a polarized climate politically and religiously and economically that it's easy to write about these things quite a lot to me because it's kind of what concerns me. I use music as a vehicle to make sense of the world and to express how I feel about it and to use it as a kind of therapy. So there are probably going to be quite a few songs talking about what's going on around us. Not because - and this is a really important factor that I say to everyone I talk to - not because I feel like I know something that other people don't know, not because I'm trying to tell them how to be - I think that would be bad way to take my music and it's really condescending (can't understand what he says) ... I don't come from that place, I come from a place where I just really have to express how I feel about. You know, sometimes I just go, 'What the f***'s going on everybody?' I mean, you turn on Fox and you think 'How can anybody not see this for what it is?' It's hard not to say that out loud and it's hard to not write a song about it. So probably there are a lot of songs about what's going on, but I'm more excited about peeling off the layers of the onion more than talking about McCain and Barack Obama, I'm more interested in the human condition, I like to look at it that way, like if we're at war, 'Why are we at war? Is it greed? Is it insecurity? Is it because we fear?' and then you start to get into these kind of juicy topics, rather than talking about "Why's there a war? Can't we all live in peace?" "Oh my God, I need a release." That kind of thing gets boring. Looking at the anthropological kind of psychological reasons why we choose to kill each other or why we choose to love each other is a lot more interesting to me, so I'm sure there will be a lot more of that stuff, with you know, the intention of not trying to write the same songs over again.
It looks like (from the Lollapalooza posts on your Website) you've cut your dreads? Why did you decide to get rid of the hairstyle that you'd become known for?
I just didn't like them anymore. I had them for 13 years you know? People change. They didn't suit me. I had to make a decision for myself and it was the first time I've ever had to think about my hair in the context of my career, and was like "what the f*** is that about, I've never had to think about it this way, that's weird, this is lame, there's no way I'm keeping my hair for my career, f*** that. If people only like my music for my hair than they don't obviously don't like my music in the first place." I just was sick of it, I needed a change and I like it a lot more.
It's a pretty big thing for some people, and, I'm not comparing myself to this person at all, but I think that I'd be shocked if Bob Marley cut his hair, but I'm not like a Rasta, and maybe if I was a lot bigger and then did it, like when Lenny Kravitz did it, but I'm kind of still in an early phase of my career and my creativity and I'm not a Rasta and I'm just a human being. It's all kind of part of it, to tell you the honest truth, it's all kind of part of the whole consciousness of what I create. It's not about how you look, it's not about what you wear, it's not about what god you worship, it's about what you have to offer. I guess my life in one way or another kind of represents that. That's kind of the way I roll. At least that's the way I endeavor to roll and put a lot of my energy into. If you look at it that way then it all makes sense.
What are the chances of you playing "Ocean" for the Bend audience?
I play "Ocean" every night. That [song's] kind of the foundation for where my career started in a lot of ways, on the street ... it keeps me close to where it all began.
You also sang with your daughter in Chicago, do you tour with your family?
We just got my daughter a violin and she's just cranking on it, she's a little natural, she comes on stage and sings with me sometimes ... it's a good environment for her to grow up in in a lot of different ways. We all miss home at times but we're all together and home is kind of where our hearts are so it's a blessed life we lead.
What are you looking forward to doing when you get a break from touring in a few months?
It's all about enjoying the simple things in life - food, love and music.