Matt Butler has journeyed a long way from the hardscrabble days of playing with early 90’s band, Jambay, through a solo career and two solo albums, and now into the ether of the experimental scene, organizing and conducting various lineups of top players from different bands under the name Everyone Orchestra. They hit the road in November for a Northeast tour featuring Jon Fishman, Jamie Masefield, Peter Apfelbaum, Jeff Coffin, Steve Kimock, Jamie Janover, Reed Mathis and more. A Conscious Alliance food drive will take place at each stop of the tour, fulfilling the project’s mission of activism and improvisation. Band leader Matt Butler recently spoke to Glide from his home in Eugene, in regards to his ever-evolving orchestra.
Everyone Orchestra seems like a much more difficult way to go than just having a band: You have to work out a lot of tour logistics, you have higher expenses, you have to rehearse with different people all the time, and go do shows without a lot of preparation. Why did you choose to go that route, instead of just starting a band?
Well, a couple things…I have started a band, and have done that throughout my life, and part of the intention of EO was to do something different than start a band. Each show—at least the first 30 shows that we did—I really didn’t know if I’d do more beyond that. EO has such an experimental nature. It was more like a series of opportunities came up, and we got to put music together that way.
You didn’t really set out to start an EO band that was going to last for years, you just started doing something, and it sort of took on a life of its own, didn’t it?
I couldn’t have said it better. As it’s evolved, I’ve put different levels of intent into different aspects of it.
How do you choose the people you want to invite to play with EO
My friends, it all started just inviting my friends, and actively looking for a container to bring a lot of friends together and put on a show, but not have it be a band. And then just recommendations from other players, and in new markets, I collaborate with a promoter for other players that I’m working on the show with, and it just kind of developed from there. Uh, let’s see…Gathering of the Vibes, a few weeks ago, the one that got rained out, I had five new players out of nine, so that was interesting. When it’s new players, it has a different kind of excitement to it in some respects, because there’s so much unknown. And I know that some of the magic of those first early gigs, is definitely that whole, “What the heck is going on here?” It’s different than this lineup that I have coming up on the East Coast, they’re all veterans of EO, basically—I mean, they are, they’re all veterans of EO—so it’s kind of taking the improvisational games we play in EO and seeing how far we can take it.
Interesting, because I was just thinking, what would it take to put together, say, ALO and ELO?
ALO and ELO?
Yeah, and then I realized, well, Jeff Lynne is, like, the next generation back, you know, he’s like probably too old to be directly connected to your immediate network of people that you know and that you play with.
Right. Everybody would be like, “ELO…I’ve heard of them…were they back when the Beatles were a band
Right. Well, it’s interesting, because all of a sudden it becomes a superband concept…that wasn’t my intent either, at all. It’s fun and kind of a pain sometimes because, there is a certain amount of energy in moving the players around every time. But the conducting makes it work… just conducting any ensemble of people. You could do something with some businessmen all having lunch, and have them put their things down and do a clapping thing and all of a sudden you’ve done something different, and taken them someplace else. Like with the school kids, or familiar friends’ bands I work with, the concept lends itself to all these different things, and working with groups, so I just started to say yes to different opportunities that were coming up for EO, working with a lot of different people, and basically I felt a lot of success in working with a lot of different people doing that.
What sort of feedback have you gotten about the experience of playing with EO from players like Jon Fishman and Kai Eckhardt, who have played in very well known and successful bands?
Interesting…very positive feedback…I hesitate to put words in their mouths because I can’t remember exactly. It’s such a playful game, of playing Everyone Orchestra, and in some ways it’s constantly expanding, and sometimes being in a band is not expansive like that, you start to contract, so there’s definitely this expansiveness with an agreement amongst the players of where it could go, and it continues to go new places. Fishman specifically, has said that was one of the things that he really likes about it, is how it’s constantly expanding, musically and personnel-wise and even with just a new audience, to kind of bring something different out in people.
As far as Kai Eckhardt, to have him be really enthusiastic about doing EO is a pretty exciting feeling, and it’s interesting, because a lot of the scholarly musicians, there’s a deep seriousness to the theory, and all these other things that I don’t relate to. I grew up in an orchestral household that was always studying music, and I was kind of repelled by it, I only wanted to paint with colors and with people with music just feeling the energy of what was happening.
Peter Apfelbaum, is like another example of an extremely high-level functioning composer, producer, performer on multiple instruments, including drummer. He called me one time and said, “Hey Matt, I used your conducting with this high school group I was working with in Berkeley for two weeks and it worked so good, man, so I just wanted to say thank you.” [Laughing.] It’s so obvious and so blatant that if you’re looking really hard at music, you might not see that. ‘Cause it kind of breaks down musical barriers that might be there to what you think music is.
You often set up your shows as benefits for various charities and environmental causes. Why do you do this, when EO isn’t terribly profitable yet?
More and more we’ve been doing non-benefit shows, but keeping elements of activism, or some sort of fund-raising aspect or awareness-raising aspect for cause-related happenings, or organizations within the context of the show. Now, we’re really looking at the future for EO, and striving for a balance within those two things, because, yes, we can’t survive doing just benefits. We’re looking for different ways to incorporate fundraising or activist awareness-raising elements within the core of the EO experience, both from the performers’ standpoint and from the participant’s/audience member.
So obviously you see that as an integral part of the mission.
So that brings me to my next question, is what role do you see yourself playing in the musical community as a whole
On the most basic level, just a peer musician. And, I really think that in facilitating a musical experience, I strive to help the musicians have fun and be comfortable and connect with each other, and that is part of, somehow, my natural forte of what I do. In all aspects of my life, that is kind of like the thing that I do best. I’d love to be able to take conducting on a whole different scale and be able to sit in with a dry-erase board and have a high profile, well-known band with really large audiences that strictly stay to some sort of format and take them someplace completely different for 15 minutes and then give it back to the band to do their thing.
Right, just like an EO segment or conducted segment within their show.
Exactly. That’s kind of a new thing that I’ve been doing recently, since I started conducting, and I really, really enjoy doing that. You know, there’s a certain energy in organizing EO that takes a lot of my focus and attention…so I have a certain amount of energy left for the music. It’s different when I just show up and it’s a whole band, and it’s their own thing, and they’re like “OK, so we’re going to do this song, and then we’re going to come out into this jam, and then you come out, and we’ll follow you.”
[Laughing] And then I just basically take them somewhere else. And I take the audience somewhere else. You know I’m trying to just bring them together for that moment, so that basically it’s an EO moment. It’s funny because it’s showing up on bootlegs like, “Everyone Orchestra Jam,” and I’m thinking, “Was that an Everyone Orchestra jam, or was that Matt Butler sitting in on dry erase board?” [Laughter] Everyone Orchestra has a formula for the setup, it’s really egalitarian with the musicians all being able to see each other, and me just balancing space between all the different people for their voices to be heard. Which is the basis for the concept, so…
Speaking of which, have you ever considered having Trey Anastasio conduct a show?
Yes, and I’ve invited him, a few times. I know that in talking to Fishman, he says “Oh, he would love it! He’s the best conductor in the world!” and I’m like “Yup! Let’s have him conduct, man, it would be great!” but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m so open to that, I think that’s part of the game of EO, that different people can participate in different ways.
Well, maybe that’s part of the issue, just the different contractual arrangements and obligations that people have with their record labels, with their management, with their bands, whatever…
Have you run into that at all, is it difficult to get people because of that?
Yeah. There have been different reasons why people can’t participate, though I haven’t run into too many people who won’t participate. The hardest part about the different contractual obligations is the selling or releasing of the music, and finding out a way for the EO organization to sustain itself, and do that. And we’re working on it. We haven’t found the exact formula yet, but we’re working on it.
So do you think you would continue in this direction, or do you see yourself eventually having like a host EO band, like a core band?
Well, we’ve gone down a few different roads over the years, I mean we’ve done maybe 50 shows, we’re still in the infancy. I started conducting about a year and a half ago, and ever since I started doing that, the whole experience has changed a lot, and in some ways, it’s become much more fluid. I can facilitate from the conductor’s role, better than I can from behind the drum set with a conductor that I brought in. Not to say that I’m the end-all conductor, because it’s all about having different people conduct because your personality comes out. Trey’s going to have a very different approach to conducting, but facilitating the event, and doing that from the conductor’s role, is something I’ve been a student of for about a year and a half. I’ve been really looking at that as my new instrument. This tour coming up is an experiment. We did the four day run in July in the Bay Area with the same lineup and it felt good every night, but by the fourth night it felt really, really good. The musical possibilities and the flexibility of the band working in this format, it was like people would turn on a dime and they were really responsive and really connected and it was going. We’ll see what happens with this tour and where it goes.
Because you’ll have an established group of players that get to play with each other more than once in a row?
Exactly. You know, maybe by the fifth show, they put me in a bag backstage while they go out and play it! [Laughing] Hopefully not, but I suspect that by that show the buzz will be out, and people will be freaking and the musicians will be really, really happy and taking this music in a really free, inclusive, magical way that, wow, doing these little runs is the new paradigm!
Back to the other part of your question, the core band, I believe a core band is essential, on different levels. And we’re still kinda looking at the way to do that.
So of all the Everyone Orchesta shows you’ve done so far, tell me about one moment, one standout moment that you thought was particularly special, and unique to the whole Everyone Orchesta experience.
This year, at Oregon Country Fair, we were nearing the end of our set, it was a large ensemble. I had a five-piece horn section, and steel drums, it was at least 18 people up on stage. And we went from this just gigantic, gargantuan groove dance party thing that was the epicenter of the music quake that we had created that day, and we broke it down to just [keyboard player] Asher [Fulero], coming out of this explosive jam, and he went right into the Phish song “Stash.” It’s just so funny to throw people off their guard, you know from that loud, huge sound to just solo, acoustic piano, just like [imitates it], and about 10 seconds into it, people started to realize what he was playing, and your hear the crowd [roar], the energy was just starting to build again in another way, and there’s are these little parts where the audience goes [claps three times rapidly], you know it’s like the Phish thing, and he’s building it, building it, and then, all of a sudden, the power went out.
To the whole festival. And so, it’s silent. And I’m looking back at Asher, and he’s banging on his keys and goes ‘I dunno’ and then the stage manager Tia says “They can’t fix the transformer for two hours, you’re done.” And so I wrote in big letters, “Power’s Out – Let’s OM” or something like that, you know, or I just put “OM”…and I got everybody singing “Om.” There were a few thousand people and it was so funny to be in this…that we were so revved up from where the music was, and to have that pulled out and then to go right to an Om…and the way the Om ended it, it was…there was something about that Om ending that was, one of the best fuckin’ moments ever at EO. And multiple people have come up and said “That was the shit!” you know…there’s just something about, it was just about being, being acknowledged together and being…you know, feeling the moment with your neighbor and just feeling connected … the audience-band was definitely more blurred than usual, it was just like one entity. So…that one in particular was pretty powerful.
Everyone Orchestra Northeast Fall Tour Dates
October 3, 2006, Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, MA
October 4, 2006, Paradise Rock Club, Boston, MA
October 5, 2006, Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT
October 6, 2006, Recher Theatre, Towson, MD
October 7, 2006, The State Theatre, Falls Church, VA
October 8, 2006, The House of Blues, Atlantic City, NJ