Interview: Kickstarting Everyone Orchestra’s First Studio Album

New Contributor Week continues today with our first feature from Carly Shields. You can read Carly’s Weekly Wrap-Up column at Oh Kee Pah Blog.

Words: Carly Shields

There’s a band on the rise that has become a festival staple and a scene favorite. The Everyone Orchestra is a free form improvisational act conducted by Matt Butler and featuring a different batch of talented musicians each performance, including artists from The String Cheese Incident, Grateful Dead, Furthur, Umphrey’s McGee, Los Lobos and many more. From his roots in a ’90s jam band with Ken Kesey as his friend and mentor to his 10th anniversary leading audiences and rock stars alike on a mysterious musical journey, Butler has worked ceaselessly to grow his Everyone Orchestra dream.
Flash forward ten years and the first Everyone Orchestra album is half done.

[Photo by Michael Weintrob]

Butler has two days of music recorded with Jon Fishman (Phish), Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band), Al Schnier (moe.), Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green), Steve Kimock, Marco Benevento, Jennifer Hartswick (Trey Anastasio Band), Jamie Masefield (Jazz Mandolin Project) and Jans Ingber (The Motet) waiting to be mastered. He’s gotten a few tracks done on his own but, like the live performances, the album needs a little audience participation to get through the last few stages. Butler has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to finish it, and Hidden Track got a chance to talk to him about project.

Hidden Track: First, I have to ask, when did the idea to make a studio album come about? How did you initially feel about not having audience participation in the studio?

Matt Butler: As the 10 year anniversary was approaching, I was like, “What am I gonna do for the next ten years?” I wanted to try something different, maybe get some special musicians together to brainstorm and I wanted them in a different environment to elicit something else from them. I wanted to celebrate having accomplished this for the last 10 years by experimenting with the concept in the studio as a compositional tool. Taking the audience out of the equation really changed the dynamic but also freed up the musicians in a unique and inspiring way. It was really fun!

HT: How do you take the spirit of improv-based performance into the studio? Does the ‘spur of the moment’ feeling translate at all? How?

MB: It was very relaxed, I’d let solos go two or three times longer than usual, pass it around even more so, but we had all the time in the world and were just playing for ourselves. We played musical games, everyone started something as a jumping off point and the next one we would really compose it. We did a songwriting collaborative jam that we spent two and half hours on. It was great because we could stop and have a discussion about it. The rules of the studio are different then the rules of recording, but it was still a free-flowing jam. Some of the songs have chorus’ and lyrics that just came out of the ether. To not have the audience there created an intimate environment for the musicians. At times, I was missing the audience and the pressure to perform, but for the majority of it, it was like a private fan box for me to watch and compose. Composing through improv.

HT: How did you know which musicians to ask to participate? Why did you ask these specific musicians?

MB: Well, I know them, they’re friends with each other, they’ve done EO before and what we shared on stage was an intimate musical experience. Fishman was really enthusiastic about it and had an opening in January so I had to jump on the opportunity, and since he was available I just started calling a bunch of people asking them if they were interested.

Steve Berlin from Los Lobos connected me with the studio in Brooklyn, and it just happened. Everyone’s availability popped up before New Years last year (2010), and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I have the possibility of this line-up right now?” I had to go for it, and had I had more time, I might have found record label to back it up, but I was pressed fortime and committed to funding it myself. I’m a sole proprietor, I run the whole business and fund it, and I’ve been able to support my family, but there’s just so many more incredible ideas that I want to finish on this album. I think people are really gonna dig what I have here, and I want to be able to do it again with other musicians. All these guys showed up out of their support for EO, they got paid the same amount, which wasn’t that much but they knew they would be playing with these other great musicians.

HT: Why did you choose Kickstarter? I saw that you’ve funded other projects so you obviously have faith in its mission but how’s it going for you?

MB: I did two albums in the ‘90s on my own, Redwood Project and Good Option, it was kind of a singer songwriter thing and back then, I sent out 500 letters to everyone I knew asking them to contribute by preselling the CD. I raised almost $15,000 for that first album, not quite as much for the second, but I’ve already done this. For me, Kickstarter was a natural fit and those two experiences were really positive so I got the ball rolling on it. It’s a bit like conducting and improvising, it’s like asking yourself, can you do this? Make your own business plan and put it out in front of everyone.

Artists are going to find it’s a good fundraising tool and a good way to hone in one what you’re doing, manifest what you want to accomplish. It’s good for bands in general. I’ve been on this mission to explain was EO is for a long time, I can’t keep saying it’s this interactive improvisation musical experience, with a conductor and da da da, ya know? and this definitely helped me define it more for everyone. The music business and the world is evolving so fast that we have to change the paradigm for where funding for music and culture and art is coming from.

HT: How have you funded the Everyone Orchestra until this point?

MB: I’ve done it all on my own for the last 10 years, saved money from performances and stuff, but I’ve had to put a few thousand dollars into it. Especially this project because it came together so quickly and nowthe mixing part of it, there’s more songs I want to finish. But yeah I’ve got a little bit going on a credit card right now, and I hope we can raise money to cover some of that and finish it up.

HT: Tell me about these rewards and how you decided on them.

MB: The main crux I want to do is get the music out there, I offer some fancy things but really I want to sell the music. The videographer who helped me with my Kickstarter video helped me decide the rewards and we’re offering some bonus material beyond the music itself, but this is me asking for support for my project. This is not Jen Hartswick or Fishman for their projects, but me, my project and these are the awesome people on it. I was just trying to think of ways that people could interact with Everyone Orchestra. We have until the day before Jam Cruise, and I think we can do it but we definitely need more support. I’ve had people say, “Oh, you can afford all these guys, why can’t you ask them to fund it?” Well, I can’t, this was for them and I want people to hear this music, engage in this conversation and I have a lot of faith. Signing a record deal might not be the best idea for Everyone Orchestra, and a lot of what I do is just trying to figure it out.

[Photo by Michael Weintrob]

HT: So for those readers who may not be as familiar with EO, can you tell me a little about where the Everyone Orchestra came from and how it’s evolved?

MB: This New Years Eve will be the 11th anniversary of our first show, and it came out of my wanting to host a collaborative variety show or event with my musical friends. I came out of a ’90s jam band, Jambay, and we had the support of Ken Kesey, so we opened for a ton of people. I met most of these musicians pretty much through that. I had just called him up to ask him to come see my band, and he loved us, totally took us under his wing. We were supposed to open for The Dead one time but the show got cancelled and he asked us to be the pit band for his musical Twister. It all about trying to get the audience to be part of this crazy play the Pranksters were putting on.

After Jambay broke up, Ken was really sad but it kind of inspired the Everyone Orchestra, and for us to break the fourth wall even more, create elated connectedness. With Kesey, we would give out instruments to the audience, discovering how to encourage participation even more, and when I started conducting, I quickly realized it had to be easy and fun for the musicians, I wanted them to just show up and be present, and know that we’re going to create something beautiful together that isn’t premeditated at all. I facilitate that process but I’m an instrument in myself, and sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s extremely moving, sometimes it’s a mind blowing experience.

In the beginning, I wasn’t conducting; I passed the baton, sometimes played drums, and eventually I hired a conductor for us. I started to realize a few years into it as a half time conductor, sometimes drummer, I was essentially the producer, and I realized conducting is like my instrument on stage. It has so many possibilities- dynamics, solos, explosions, I took it on as an instrument and I was studying how to grow the interactivity with audience and musicians, make it more exciting, more challenging, but easier to participate in. I just wanted to see where we could take it. It’s kind of an improvisational performance game; Kesey taught me how to just be playful and I loved that part of working with him and so I wanted to create an environment where musicians, no matter how accomplished they are, could enjoy playing together and connecting. Musicians like to do this because it’s an exciting exercise that touches some vital creative energy that can offer inspiration into all the other things they’re doing. Like I know Fishman enjoys it because it’s fun and easy to just show up, meet some new people, and jam. It’s a nice change of pace for these busy musicians.

HT: How do you invite musicians to join you? Do you have repeat offenders, so to say?

MB: It comes together all different ways. Sometimes someone is available and wants to do it, other times I try to organize it. This past year, we mostly built our line-ups around bands that were already playing a festival. It’s not entirely just show up and play, I try to pick certain musicians, maybe someone who hasn’t done it, maybe people who haven’t played together. I try to organize a little bit but the music is organic. Sometimes people can just show up, or bring a buddy who says to me “you have to let this guy play,” and of course it’s okay, so while I confirm line-ups in advance, I’m open to last minute ideas or sit-ins, and it usually goes over pretty well. One time we decided to have a second Everyone Orchestra on the stage next to where our set was and I conducted them both from the audience. It was wild.

HT: What can we expect from Everyone Orchestra in 2012?

MB: I haven’t been pushing much beyond this album, I just did a collaboration with Rex Foundation but I want to spend some time with my family, time off for myself, time to think about where I’m taking this, where EO is going to go in the next 10 years. What have we not considered about where this could go? There’s definitely going to be some major festivals I’m sure, I’d like to talk to producer about doing some regular gatherings where we can build a community around each regional Everyone Orchestra. And I’d really like to do more of the studio stuff, I’d really like to get back in a studio with a new group and see what we get.

I also just want to say I encourage artists to do Kickstarter. I think it’s a really positive process, I encourage artists to do it to find support, to focus. I wish it was easier for people to donate, but it’s only another 5 or 10 minutes, but if people check out the video, listen to the song we use, I think they’ll like. We get our pitch in, but really watching the interaction between these musicians in the studio… I’m just really proud of what we captured there and I think people are going to love it.

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