If John Butler hadn’t chosen a career in music, he would make a good chef.
American-born and Australian-raised, Butler dishes up a spicy musical stew with his debut Lava/Atlantic album, “Sunrise Over Sea” (released on March 15). With sidekicks Shannon Birchall (upright bass) and Michael Barker (drums, percussion), Butler sprinkles a pinch of blues, rock, reggae, folk and hip-hop into the pot.
The message behind his first single, “Zebra” (Hear here via iTunes), says it all: Don’t pigeonhole me.
“We, as human beings, can be lots of different things,” Butler said recently. “We’re not just one-dimensional, as modern media would like to portray us all. Being in a band, you always get pigeonholed. Me, they think I’m this leftist commie hippie. It’s great to break down those stereotypes, even if you are a leftist commie hippie.”
Lazy music journalists might compare him to Dave Matthews Band, but Butler will have none of that.
“The music media, in particular, love to put you in a box and make you stay there. That’s boring,” he said. “Comparisons … they’re just reference points. We’re just roots musicians going in lots of schizophrenic directions at once. But, hey, at least they’re not comparing us to Britney Spears.”
Obviously, fans are eating up “Sunrise Over Sea.” In Australia, the album debuted at No. 1 and has been certified platinum four times over; it has fared just as well in New Zealand. Butler won best male vocalist, best roots & blues album and best independent artist at the ARIA Awards (the Australian Grammys). And “Zebra” was selected song of the year at last year’s APRA Awards (Australia’s annual honors for song publishing).
Butler is just glad his concoction is touching people’s palates.
“With this album, I just wanted to make sure the pictures I was trying to paint musically were achieved,” he said. “The fusion between the blues and hip-hop and reggae and rock ‘n’ roll, I tried to make sure all those flavors were there. It’s not all one style.”
Butler’s taste for all things musical comes his busking days in Australia.
“Those were some of the best days of my life,” he said. “It was really inspirational. There was lots of learning. It really gave me a good work ethic and how to show my music to people.
“I used to play in this marketplace, but I got kicked out of there and ended up playing in the streets, and from there people started asking me to play concerts.”
Yes, there were lean times, but busking gave Butler the fiercely independent spirit that has served him well, even with a major label.
“As far as I was concerned, I was doing a lot better busking than where I came from, when I was on a student’s wage,” he said. “I went from school to unemployment to busking, and I was actually a lot better off. I was supporting myself through music; it wasn’t bad at all.”
Now that he has made it big, the only drawback is being away from his wife and daughter for long stretches.
“I try to stay emotionally disciplined, and not to be too dramatic, I try to have grace,” he said. “It’s hard being on the road all the time, but you have to be honest with yourself and feel things, go through the emotions and talk, but you definitely can’t be too dramatic about it; it only makes it worse.”
As an American-Australia, Butler has a unique perspective on relations between the two countries.
“I can’t speak for Australians, but lots of us agree with you politically, economically and culturally, and there’s a few who don’t,” he said. “I think it’s a great country, but I sure don’t want to see Australia become like America. Things like multinationalism and the World Trade Organization can do a very good job at homogonizing this world, creating one bland culture. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it’s America’s fault.”
Millions of Americans can get a glimpse of the dreadlocked Butler and his band on March 29, when they’re scheduled to perform on “Late Night With David Letterman.”
ON THE WEB: johnbutlertrio.com.
BWF (before we forget): Upcoming tour dates – March 19, Austin, Stubb’s (SXSW); March 22, New York, Hammerstein Ballroom (opening for the Black Crowes); March 27, Byron Bay, Australia, East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival, Red Devil Park; April 29, New Orleans, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Fairgrounds Racetrack.