It’s a testament to the power and universality of American roots music that it can take in the suffering of an Aboriginal Australian.
“That song is influenced by indigenous stories I’ve heard of cultural disenfranchisement,” Aussie singer-songwriter John Butler explains about the track “Cold Wind” from his new album Flesh & Blood. “Having your land and culture taken away from you, things that have happened in my country… There was one story that broke the camel’s back: a friend from Uluru who was taken away from his family; that inspired that song.”
Butler says from his home in Fremantle in Western Australia that the American roots revival scene spearheaded by the likes of Ben Harper and Jack Johnson had a big influence on Aussie musicians. “I was busking on the streets around the time Ben’s first or second album came out,” he recalls. “In Fremantle, there was a whole acoustic thing going on—something called the Moody Tuesdays down at a bar called Mojo that my future manager ran, and that’s kind of where I cut my teeth.”
The fact that the American roots revivalists also tended to be surfers and/or skaters may have helped the music find favor in Australia. Butler himself was aiming to be a pro skater before music took him on a different path. Debuting in 2001 with Three, the John Butler Trio have notched up three number-one albums in Australia and become a fixture of the worldwide festival scene, including this year’s Fuji Rock Festival.
“Japan has always been a special place for us,” the reedy-voiced singer observes. “It’s a different market—there’s so much J-pop that Western music holds a different position. No matter how big you may be elsewhere, when you come to Japan you’re part of an underground scene—and that’s kind of cool. You’re part of a noncommercial scene that loves music, and our fans often notice the small details of what we do—the extra things we do on guitar. The crowd really appreciates that.”
While vexed with the larger state of the world, Butler seems mostly content with life in Fremantle, and is quick to point out that Western Australia isn’t a music backwater, but a place that’s produced the likes of INXS and, more recently, Tame Impala. When Metropolis reaches him, he’s taking some days off touring, spending time with family (his wife is also a professional musician), and writing new compositions.
“There’s a new song loosely called ‘Why Don’t We Use Our Wings to Fly,’” he says. “It grapples with the frustrating situation that man has put himself in. He’s so intelligent, we can get to the moon—but we can’t hold each other’s hands. We can create life but we spend most of our time destroying it. I find it strange that we have so much potential but use so much of it to destroy things.”
Butler says the best songs are a mixture of epiphanies and hard work. “Often, you have to scrape away the dust to reveal the skeleton of the song,” he muses. “It’s kind of like archeology. You use all your craft and art to bring the skeleton out of the ground without breaking the pure idea that it began with. You hone it and distill it and sharpen it into focus, but often the nucleus of the song is a wild, untamed thing.”
A cocktail of hard work, inspiration and being in the right place at the right time have brought Butler to a position of worldwide acclaim. But the onetime would-be pro skater is philosophical about the life of a public entertainer.
“I started skateboarding at about 12, and was obsessed with getting sponsored,” he remembers ruefully. “When I realized that wasn’t working out, I began to focus on music, and now I skateboard for the fun of it.
“That experience taught me early on to enjoy the journey more than the destination. I try not to get too obsessed with achievements over craft. Always love your craft more than the achievements that result from it.”
Oct 22, 7:30pm; Oct 23, 7:30pm, ¥6,500 (adv) +1d. Ex Theater Roppongi. Nearest station: Roppongi or Nogizaka. Tel: 03-5720-9999. www.smash-jpn.com