The John Butler Trio just said no to American record labels




It doesn’t take long to figure out that Australian singer-songwriter and slide-guitar ace John Butler is an issue-oriented kinda guy. In the CD booklet that accompanies his trio’s latest disc, Three, one page is loaded with facts detailing the ongoing destruction of his homeland’s old-growth forests. A little further along there’s a map of Australia that pinpoints all the country’s known uranium mines and nuclear-weapons test sites. But that’s hardly where the causes stop for the 27-year-old musician-activist.

“There’s some other things that have been goin’ on as well,” notes Butler, on the line from L.A. before a gig at the House of Blues. “There’s a big reef on the west coast of Australia that they want to build a nice big marina and resort into. And we have a pretty full-on refugee-status thing happening, too. Our country, along with America, has signed treaties at the U.N. to say that we’ll let refugees in, but we’re putting them all into detention centres—basically concentration camps.”

With politically motivated acts like Midnight Oil leading the way, Australia has proven to be quite a stronghold for rock bands bent on tackling serious issues. It makes you wonder if there might be something about the Aussie mindset itself that makes the country’s musicians so keen to voice their social and environmental concerns.

“Maybe it’s because we never had a war of independence,” ponders Butler. “To a certain degree, we come from a long line of people who have either oppressed others or been oppressed, you know. We were oppressed by the British when we colonized this country, and then we turned around and oppressed the Aboriginals. So, although Australia is a very lovely western democracy, I think its history alone makes us question authority a little bit.”

Those who appreciate Butler’s humanitarian and Earth-first ideals—not to mention the haunting, bluesy tunes driven by his amplified, 11-string acoustic guitar—can show their support when his band plays Richard’s on Richards on Thursday (May 23). And people willing to go the extra mile can also trek to the Sasquatch! Festival at the Gorge on Saturday (May 25), where the John Butler Trio will be sharing the stage with Jack Johnson, Galactic, the String Cheese Incident, and Ben Harper. Musically, the JBT has drawn comparisons to the stark, slide-guitar–based style of Harper, and several major labels have taken note of the trio’s potential for commercial success. But Butler has chosen to protect his status as an independent recording artist.

“We’ve been influenced by people like [indie Aussie folk-rockers] the Waifs, who’ve really done a great job,” he explains. “And over here I’m really influenced by people like [singer-songwriter and Righteous Babe label head] Ani DiFranco. So we just said no to the American labels. I really like to be in control of the image of my music, and the sound, the production, the business of it. At the moment I just don’t feel like I can hand over that control to a bunch of people I don’t know.”

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