Grateful Web Interview with Everyone Orchestra's Matt Butler

Article Contributed by Dylan Muhlberg | Published on Saturday, May 4, 2013

This is Dylan Muhlberg of Grateful Web here with Matt Butler who is best known as the pioneer and creator of the groundbreaking project Everyone Orchestra. This project brings together musicians from various different bands and musical backgrounds and through Butler as conductor they create on-the-spot improvised concert experiences through the help of audience participation and musical empathy.

GW: The concept of the conductor was important in classical music and composition for centuries. Why did compositional music evolve without the conductor in contemporary American music? Is that a loss or gain in your eyes?

MB: I don’t know if it’s a gain or loss. It’s an addition as to the possibilities. That’s how I would propose that. In no way does it devalue the other non-conductor oriented music. Having a classical background in my family I could see the roles that the conductor played on so many levels. Sometimes a symphony could play by itself, but the conductor would keep it all together. To utilize the role of a conductor in a different way through improvisation through my intent is to add the possibilities. It’s hard for me to address whether it’s a gain or less. I guess it could be a gain in a sense that there are more options.

GW: You we’re speaking about your background and having a musical family, would you speak for a moment about influences in your family and the music you were listening to in your earlier years?

MB: My mom is a professional violinist and she was one of the founding members of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra. And she’s still playing with them for over forty years. Naturally we we’re meshed into this busy symphony life. We would have conductors coming in and out of our house that we’re friends of the family. They would come over for dinner.

I had all this influence, not just by people that we’re doing the conductor thing, but also by them personally. I got to see the human side of who they were. That gave me a kind of chutzpah that I could do things my own way. I can’t compare what I do to a symphonic orchestra since it’s totally different. There is role-playing that is very similar and I command the band in a similar way. But they are supporting written music, which makes it very different. So having that background gave me an extra connection to the role of conductor. To kind of take that and put my own spin on it for what Everyone Orchestra has become.

As far as what kind of music was I listening to, when I was growing up, Bach, Beethoven, etc from my parents. But then I got into jazz and ska, and a lot of heavy, hard rock. I am a drummer, that’s my main instrument before conducting. I played a lot of rock, a lot of Grateful Dead.

GW: Let’s hear more about your background in drumming and break into a professional musical career.

MB: In the 90’s, I went to U. of California San Diego where I formed the band Jambay with longtime childhood friend Chris Haugen. We left San Diego and moved out to Seattle before going on tour and we never really went back. So Jambay was really where I cut my teeth. People ask if I went to music school and I tell them I went to the school of Jambay because I learned everything about the music and touring business from that. I did the booking. We played over 1,000 shows. A ton of the musicians that participate in Everyone Orchestra I met from my work with Jambay. That really was where I jumped into the musical world. We basically went on tour without a single show booked in the beginning. Full on commando touring. Worked our way up to playing Warped Tour. At one point we were the pit band and playing for Ken Kesey and living with him on and off. We we’re tour dogs’ non-stop. We had an invitation to open up for the Grateful Dead at Autzen Stadium in 1992. Summer show it was our huge break, something that Kesey was manifesting for us and then Jerry got sick.

Anyways there were all of these cosmic forces working for us but not quite enough to get this band to a sustainable place. You know we played with Moe. And opened for Phish and it goes on and on. I’m actually doing a reunion with Jambay. We’re going to play Oregon Country Fair and other shows this summer, which should be a lot of fun.

GW: Sounded like a great platform to meet people to eventually form the foundation for Everyone Orchestra. I’ve read lightly about your muse that sparked the idea for Everyone Orchestra. Could you talk about that?

MB: At a certain point I felt like I had done the band thing. I had been a drummer in a band. I gave it my best shot. We took it as far as a lot of bands can take it. So I asked myself, “What’s Next?”.  I hadn’t been that active or a frontrunner in writing music for Jambay. So after Jambay broke up I started to write music. I got a couple of really good gigs scoring some films and working for a dance company in Marin. So all of the sudden I had all of these gigs and had some creative epiphanies in that way. And then I started playing guitar. So I went down this whole path of exploring the singer/songwriter realm. That actually turned into Everyone Orchestra, which is kind of ironic since I was trying to create a solo project where I wouldn’t have to rely on anybody else. (Laughs) It’s kind of funny that the eventual evolution of that was Everyone Orchestra, being a live producer or something like that.

I did this record called “Good Options” which was a solo record but very collaborative. I created the whole concept, singing songwriting, playing lead, composing and producing. We we’re living out in Marin, and I was hosting these open mics. Zach Gill from ALO was living down the street and was my best friend at the time and we were just having these incredible jams that were coming from a lot of our experiences. All these different people would play one or two songs and then at the end of the night we would all jam together. I started to think about group improvisation and how far could we take this. Then I started to write up big charts on big pieces of paper behind the band to kind of guide people. Basically this was where Everyone Orchestra was born. And I took a lot of that experience from Kesey, who was always trying to get people involved, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.  I started thinking about music as a sports game. And the audience would be able to come in and you’d want people to know when to come in and come out. It was always chaotic. I asked myself “How could I create something that would have all of that inclusivity but be less chaotic?”

Eventually after experiences at an open mic night in India where I just saw this music being played as the common language when many of these people didn’t speak the same language. I realized that just a little bit of a container could go a long way, to create a spot for people to play music together. At first when I created it I was the drummer, not the conductor. I was facilitating. I was definitely driving the groves from the drums, but I was having other people conduct it. After a couple of years of doing that I would have drummers like Jon Fishman or Jeff Sipe sit in. These incredible drummers would make themselves available. And of course I was thrilled to have them. I did four gigs with Fishman where we did double drums. And those were some of the best gigs I had ever done, they went really well. But after I while I found it difficult to play the role of conductor as a drummer. I wanted to take it to the next level. So I experimented at one show and played the role of conductor, and that was in 2005. I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m just trying to see where I can take this. Co-composition through improvisation. And this role of conductor/producer/traffic attendant. (Laughs)

GW: It’s incredible to think about the spirit of San Francisco with what the Kesey’s were doing, and the acid tests, reaching a higher consciousness with an audience and the band together.

MB: Yeah, he [Ken Kesey] was a good friend and I had some conversations with him before he passed away. He was helpful in discussing the concept. He always believed in what Mickey Hart could do. Also, giving everybody a chance to shine.

GW: In place of the traditional conductor’s baton, you come armed with a white board and a dry erase marker. Could you talk about that for a minute?

MB: I’ll call out key changes, I’ll call out concepts, anything I couldn’t communicate with pointing or gesturing, and I’ll just write it down. Bass and drums. Boom. No question about what I’m communicating. We’re looking for things from the band to sing. We don’t really have things planned. Occasionally we’ll have lyrics, but it’s really about subscribing to our intuition and reacting. So they’re my tool to capture the moment and market for everybody to jump on board and do something. Whether it’s just going from C to F or a whole chordal progression. Just to break it down in such a soft, serene, beautiful moment from some medal sounds. You can’t get really specific with a dry erase board.

It’s funny I remember working with Bob Weir this one time. And when I broke out the dry erase board he was like “You can do that?” (Laughs) “Wow, that’s pretty obvious!”

GW: Is there a rehearsal process for a given Everyone Orchestra?

MB: Sometimes there is. Not always. It really kind of depends what the show is. For these Denver shows I have a real mix of veterans coming in. A lot of people that haven’t played together. Prior to the shows we might exchange some emails. Sometimes I might want to insert some songs but usually most of the night is improvisation. And even the songs we might play are just jumping off points for improvisation. So it’s not about rehearsing it’s about being present and in the moment. I’ve done some shows for instance for the Rex Foundation, where the concept behind the show is we’re going to play these Garcia/Hunter tunes then a lot of improv then another Garcia/Hunter tune. So we’ll have like six songs for the night. And we’ll rehearse those. But most often we’ll just have a sound-check. For a festival, everybody might be backstage, and I’ll say “for anyone that didn’t get my email here’s the deal…” That’s all evolved over time and more and more people are coming to understand the game I am proposing, both the audience and the musicians. Like this is the intent, we’re going to create incredible music. We’re going to aim to compose music on the spot. We’re going to all take turns, and when it’s the audiences turn to sing be aware of that, and then we’ll have that we’re all one organism moment. It’s a process of slowly getting everyone on board. And I have to say not all of the musicians that I’ve worked with have been pleased in the sense that it kind of breaks some rules. It adds some blatant humor in it. It’s a very humbled performing style. Some people might have more egos in their music that they can’t let go of. And it’s so not about one person. It’s kind of the nature of it.

GW: Speaking of your Colorado area gigs, you’ve got performances coming up at Hodi’s Half-Note in Fort Collins on May 17th, then on to the legendary Oriental Theatre in Denver for the 18th, with artists as diverse as Bill Nershi, Tim Carbone, Dave Watts, or Kai Eckhart from Garage Mahal days. Why is diversifying these lineups so quintessential to the success of Everyone Orchestra?

MB: It’s like the X factor. It’s a lot more work for me. If got to call a lot more people before we do a show, it can be a pain in the ass honestly (Laughs). After the fact I ask myself “Maybe I should have just formed a band”. But it’s really about being a melting pot, and taking these musicians out of their normal situations putting them in this container, giving them the tools to play together. So it’s mixing and matching, connecting with musicians. I definitely take pride in how many musical relationships and friendships have been born through Everyone Orchestra. I think that’s part of the beauty and that’s why most of the musicians tend to come back, they continue to come back. It’s a musical exercise that they don’t get anywhere else. Steve Berlin from Los Lobos tells me, it scares me a little bit. It’s a healthy creative spot to be put on the spot and be asked to do something right in the moment. In a nutshell, that’s why the rotating lineups have always been so important.

GW: And it’s never been one genre or one likeness whenever I’ve seen any of these collaborations. You we’re speaking earlier about benefits and connecting the music world to charity. How do you think that music can be used as an instrument for consciousness and change?

MB: I have always been a firm believer of how much community brings people together and calls to action, that role that music has. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church. What that church taught me was community and being with people and helping others. That’s what I took away from Church. The helping and community I craved. Again I felt like as Everyone Orchestra was coming to focus I wanted to create something that was giving back. Something for coming together. A lot of our shows have benefit aspects. Many don’t at this point. It’s kind of depends on “when, where, how”. I personally got involved with the Rex Jams at All Good [Festival] and raising money for music in schools. With Everyone Orchestra we would bring out buckets into the audience and raise awareness as to the cause. The reward of doing all of these good deeds at the festival is so cool. We have something that is unique. On Jam Cruise we would bring awareness to celebrate the efforts. It’s not about getting people together because they want to play with me, because there’s a larger cause involved. When and where we can incorporate fundraising and awareness raising efforts I’m all for it.

GW: It apparent in the general resurgence of the music festival scene, that is, a variety of bands coming together to play in one place kind of nurtured this concept in a sense. How do you go about booking yourself at these festivals? Are you generally asked to play or do you seek out the festivals you would like to play at?

MB: Both. Me and my manager will reach out to people and explain the concept. Or, some musicians will say they’re available. It kind of depends on whether we’re playing a festival or a weekend run, like this time in Denver. I kind of stopped doing a lot of the hard ticket shows since it was too hard logistically to organize. At my core I’m an artist, and doing all that business logistics is not what I do best. I’d rather focus on whose there and the music. At the core festivals that have rotated over the past ten years its been a great opportunity for Everyone Orchestra to flourish.

The hard ticket shows we’ll have some focused markets. Like we’ll do four shows down in North Carolina. And we’ll do some inquiries. Whose available? How much would it cost to fly them out? What do we need to do to make it worth their while? Eventually it all trickles down and start to make sense. Obviously we don’t want to get four guitarists and a drummer. It has to be a lineup. They kind of have this organic nature. For instance if Ryan Stasik from Umphrey’s McGee would be on board he might be like let’s get Andy Farag (percussion for Umphrey’s) on board. Things evolve that way. Sometimes a promoter might say “You know, Kimock is going to be in town for another day, would you like to do an Everyone Orchestra with him?” And we’ll make a few calls and all of the sudden we’ll have a lineup for a show.

And then there’s Jam Cruise, which is like I have so many musicians to choose from that it’s a problem (Laughs). But its one fantastic show that I’m blessed to put on. One other way might be from a non-profit contact. Perhaps we might have a few celebrity musicians who might be supportive of this concept. And that was the way that a lot of this started. And that’s how I met [Jon] Fishman, how he came into my life. We collaborated on the Pangea Project shows in Portland which were extremely successful. I thought “Wow, we should do this more. There’s some juice to it!” And it’s unique. Musicians will tell me all the time that they’ve never done anything like this. And it’s humbling.

GW: It seems like the final evolution of this indefinable scene that’s been building and brewing. That’s all the questions I have for you Matt. I wanted to thank you for taking time for this interview. I wanted to remind our readers that Everyone Orchestra will be playing two different lineups in both Fort Collins on Thursday, May 17th, Gunnison, Colorado on the 18th and Denver, Colorado on Saturday, May 19th, 2013. It's been a pleasure.

MB: Thanks for the opportunity Dylan.