A Pre-moe.down Interview with Matt Butler of the Everyone Orchestra
Words by Mike Mauger
Earlier this summer, Tri State Indie sent me on an adventure to the All Good Music Festival in Thornville, Ohio. Of course, with a lineup packed with names like The Flaming Lips, Yonder Mountain String Band, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, there were many expected highlights. However, one that was a bit unexpected, if only for my lack of knowledge about it, was Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra.
If you are not familiar with Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra, do not worry, you are not alone. But let this serve as a warning: Matt Butler may very well be revolutionizing live music, and you should really get on board.
He travels the nation playing individual shows and music festivals, gathering together friends and various local and popular (and always very talented) musicians, and puts them on stage.
He’ll be making his way to the East coast this weekend to perform with his Everyone Orchestra on Friday night at the 13th annual moe.down festival in Turin, New York, so we saw it fitting to talk with him and maybe get a little more insight behind one of the most exciting movements in music right now.
Like many “jam” bands, Butler is winding down his summer festival schedule but is nowhere near finished for 2012, a year that will see him conduct about 40 Everyone Orchestras. I asked him about his touring schedule:
“You know, it’s interesting,” he said. “There definitely is a balance. It takes a certain kind of energy to put these things together. To me just to stand up in front of whoever and conduct is different than putting together an EO and getting everybody on board and marketing it and managing logistics and that sort of thing. We’ve done a couple short tours and it’s very logistic heavy because everyone is coming from their own bands and different areas and it’s fun, but it’s not as much fun as either doing a residency like I did in Denver… or the festivals where it’s like the production is all set in place and either there’s a bunch of individuals from bands that are already on site or it’s just easy to get people there. I’ve mastered the art of bringing together groups of musicians and milking the idea of the honeymoon. Like it’s always fresh.”
So how did The Everyone Orchestra come about?
“Well, people ask me what school I went to, and actually I went to UCSB and studied psychology, but really I went to the school of Jambay (his old band, for whom he used to play drums) because that’s where I learned how to play and learned the music business. A lot of the relationships came and came around when I started calling people, it all started from Jambay. And being in India and seeing multicultural open mic musical experiences and just the way people would collaborate and either just perform for each other or perform together I just got really excited about a different way of bringing together the musicians that were in my community and really started seeing how can we break that 3rd wall down even more. It’s like a church or a gospel choir experience or like sports when cheerleaders get the audience to cheer and then the team does something. I feel like all those things are kind of like everyone orchestra.”
He continued on, discussing the similarities between music and sports, “It incorporates a church experience, the community aspect of church, singing together on stage, you know, and then the sports aspect like the interactivity and the band is on and we’re playing in EO and there’s a little bit of like, ‘Is he gonna pass to me?’ And my job, as a conductor is like whoa I heard Al start to play this incredible riff and I’m sure the whole band heard that riff, but my job is to kind of take a stand for that riff and my job is to kind of amplify it and bring everybody else into it a little bit more and see where we can take that. It’s almost like when you see a wide receiver that is all the sudden freaking’ wide open, ya know, and the quarterback changes the play and goes for the wide receiver. There’s definitely ties to sports.
Musically we have these plays we fall into in improvisation and we run them and all of the sudden we hit the touchdown and sometimes there’s a fumble but that’s part of the excitement. Sometimes when I’m conducting I feel like I’m coaching a tennis team, running drills for a soccer team and I’m also a game show host. And also there’s these really, really spiritually impactfull and connected moments where words come out of the vocalist that have real pertinent meaning to the time we’re living in or the weekend or events around the world…. Everybody is just right there and all that focus and intent and all that musical energy it’s all improvisation it can become really really powerful and to me really spiritual and you know I kinda go for those moments and I embrace the humor along the way and I want the musicians to have a fun exciting sometimes scary musical experience because I think that’s where everyone grows from.”
Now, you’ve done the EO live for 10 years and to celebrate, you took it off the stage and into the studio and released The Everyone Orchestra’s first album, Brooklyn Sessions. Could you talk a little bit about the transition of taking this wonderful live act into the studio?
“The intent in the experiment that I wanted to do was to use this kind of improvisation, as in conducted or facilitated improvisation, as a compositional tool. We can use this technique of conducting to compose a bunch of cool songs. And the way we’re gonna do that is I’m gonna conduct the way I would at a show but I’m gonna create an extremely intimate environment for the musicians so that they just have a ton of space and time so that they can create and interact with each other. And I’ll do the same thing I do when I’m performing you know, I’ll call solos and I’ll call dynamics ya know, I’ll hear a riff and I’m like lets do a unison on that… but the studio, and I had done this for ten years… but when I’m in the studio, we’ll find ourselves in a groove, and I can take my time and have everyone solo through the jam we just came up with. Before we got started I got everyone together and said, you know unlike a performance I want to be able to take the liberty to stop, talk about what we’re doing and then go right back to where we are and everybody agreed that that’s cool, but we only ended up doing it like twice. And then I was able to go back and with the beauty of digital editing basically collapse the jams so like a 25 minute jam I’d collapse into 9 minutes, or a 16 minute jam into a 4 minute one, with the intent of creating like a listenable album. My idea is to do a series where I can move around the nation or the world and using mostly regional players from that area just to kind of see what we can create.”
Do you ever go out there with an idea in mind that maybe you want to get to or do you just go out there and think let’s just write this on the board and we’ll see what happens?
“Absolutely not. Well I take that back. Sometimes, like for the Rex Jam, we’ll play a song, we play one song and we do one improv. But really the intent… I don’t go out there thinking, ‘I hope… I want it to sound like this.’ What I want is… I want it to be dynamic and I want it to have variation in tempo and I want it to have variation in key. I want each player to have space and time to be featured and to be kind of on the spot and interact with everybody and the audience, I want to get them involved. The more I subscribe to getting everybody on the same page of we’re fully improvising here, we don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know… I want us all to know that and lets jump off the cliff and then all of the sudden magic is happening. And I think that’s part of the hook and part of the beauty of what everyone orchestra is or has become.”
Do you ever play drums with the EO or find yourself wishing you could be drumming instead of conducting?
“I find it really difficult to switch gears from conducting to doing anything else because I feel like I’m holding space for everybody. I’m a little bit like the policeman like I hold sacred space for them to create. If they’re not comfortable it doesn’t work and when I’ve done that in the past it’s just harder for me to balance out the needs of everyone else and to keep a balanced show and to keep it moving fluidly and almost kind of creates stress. So I feel more relaxed and focused if I just stay in the conductors role and just hold space. I love playing drums and I’m sure I play more down the road… I play whenever I can but I’m not looking to get into any full time touring act right now because I’m really enjoying raising a family. But like I’ve said for years now, conducting is kind of like my own instrument.”
So, what is on the horizon for Matt Butler and the Everyone Orchestra? You mentioned a residency in New York?
“Well, I can’t announce it just yet… I’m going to continue growing and doing the festival thing and kind of utilizing EO as the vortex meeting point for musicians from different bands and stuff. And we’re also basically looking to do 2-4 show residencies in about markets throughout the US and Denver we did in june, I’m looking to do new york in the fall and you know hopefully next year we’ll have other markets on board to do that. I wish I could announce it right now but it’s probably going to be a week or so before it’s official.”
A big thanks to Matt for chatting with me. Check out Matt Butler and the Everyone Orchestra this weekend at the moe.down, peep the video below to learn more about the Everyone Orchestra, and of course check back here at Tri State Indie for the latest EO show announcements!