Former bands: Jon Butcher Axis, Barefoot Servants Contributing artist to tributes: Hats Off To Stevie Ray (Vaughan) and Fit For A.King (Albert King)
Home base: Southern California
New album: Electric Factory
Previous solo album: Positively The Blues Label: Blues Bureau International
All instruments: Jon Butcher and Ben Schultz with drummer Buck Smith
Q&A with Jon Butcher
Sheila Rene': Hello Jon. How are you?
Jon Butcher: Fine. You're calling from Austin. The last time I was there the heat was brutal.
SR: It still is during the summer. Where did you play?
JB: Actually, it was at the SXSW conference and we played on 6th Street somewhere. I don't remember where. It was a lot of fun.
SR: I had to laugh when I read your bio. You mention being inspired by Hopalong Cassidy.
JB: (laughing) We take our inspiration where we find it.
SR: Further influences as you got older would be Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.
JB: Well , it was. It was just like it was for everybody else from my generation. I don't know how in those times (early '70s) you avoided the impact of whether it was Keith Richards or Jimi Hendrix. It's impossible. For my part you'd have to throw a little Bob Dylan into the mix.
SR: I just saw a great show from Dylan here in Austin.
JB: How's he doing these days?
SR: He's just fabulous. They can't get him off the road he's having so much fun. This last show was the third time he's played here in a year and a half.
JB: How about that. Why should he stop touring. I guess I have the same common influence pool that everyone does. We all got caught up in that music wave of that time.
SR: There's no radio out there anymore except for Public Radio for the type of stuff you do.
JB: You're right, it has changed. When I first started making records it was AOR (Album Oriented Radio) and that at least as we used to understand it has changed. Now, it's funny, depending on your perspective, it has changed for the worse or for the better.
SR: I'm hoping that the Internet will pick up the slack and start teaching the younger kids about the history of our music...gospel, the blues into jazz and forward from there.
JB: No, because they don't get the exposure. One of the most wonderful things about what radio used to be is before it got so formulated you could hear a lot of different things. I have a memory of listening to the radio ..remember the song "Oh Happy Day" followed by a Rolling Stones' song followed by another genre of music. That doesn't happen anymore. I listen to Public Radio for that very reason...the diversity.
SR: I had to good luck to be born in Texas and was able to hear radio that blasted the Blues around the clock. I learned and every band I've dug since has a Blues base.
JB: You were lucky. Sure, as was mine. It's really funny in that a lot of kids aren't even aware that Jimi Hendrix's roots were pure Blues. I guess it's seasonal and who knows what the next season will bring.
SR: I do remember you back when you were Jon Butcher Axis. You released six albums. People were saying that you were the next "Hendrix." Did that put extra pressure on you?
JB: Well, it was a double edged sword. It's nice to be thought of well and everybody wants that. Of course, a comparison like that is weighty indeed. The down side is that it's a yoke around your neck because it brings about certain expectations. I never was the next Jimi Hendrix. It was never like that. There was nothing stylistically that recalled him specifically, but a couple of the surface comparisons with regard to my being a Black guitar player and playing a Stratocaster.
SR: You could have gone commercially heavy if you had wanted, but you chose the Blues path because you wanted to stay with your roots.
JB: It's very simple, Sheila. It spoke to me. We're all guided by what speaks to us and it's the same for you. It's what makes you do what you do. I would like to say that there was some kind of plan I had and it was realized. It just never worked out that way. It was about what spirit moved me. You know with regard to the Blues, I have to tell you, it's the only real pure form. Blues is the common ground to hard luck and I think it's the one form of music that's like a recognized passport around the world. It's better than Visa and American Express. Every place I've been around the planet there has been a commonality and I think Blues music achieves that.
SR: Europe is the biggest supporter of Blues that I know of.
JB: It's always been like that. Europeans have always seen the real American art form more than the Americans have. The beginnings of Jazz ...it was never as big here as it was over there. They had to go there to make a living for years. What does that tell you?
SR: There's always been that theory out there that in order to write good Blues music, you have to be down trodden.
JB: There's some truth there. It's not an accident that when you look at the history of early Blues artists; they're peppered with tragedy. Even B.B. King's early life. I love the story about how Lucille got her name. When I look at that there's some truth there. You don't have to be down in the dumps, but you have to be able to draw on something real. It sometimes is difficult to draw from your soul like fluff and happiness. It's usually something more meaningful that you draw from.
SR: One of the biggest days of your life was when you met your longtime friend Ben Schultz.
JB: It was certainly one of the more interesting ones. Ben and I have had and have an interesting relationship. He's a very talented guy and what initially drew me to him was his affinity for not only Blues music but his approach. On this new album, Electric Factory, there's a lot of dobro and earthy instruments. He had the same vision for that album.
SR: The two of you played all the instruments.
JB: It was the two of us and Buck Smith on drums. I played bass a lot and Schultz played a little too.
SR: There are a lot of rock bands today that use all kinds of different instruments to give a new depth to their music. I love the trend.
JB: When you get a chance to tell a story and to paint a picture, I think as many colors as you can get makes it more interesting, don't you?
SR: I hear that you may be touring behind Electric Factory.
JB: Initially we thought we'd get out there before the holidays but as it loomed closer, you get caught up in family obligations. We're probably going out after the first of the year.
SR: I look forward to seeing you here in Austin. It's said that there are over 150 venues up and cranking out music here every night.
JB: I love Austin. That's amazing when you think about it. Boston used to be like that.
SR: This town loves to call themselves the "Live Music Capitol of the World" however they have guys running around with those noise meters trying to close everything down.
JB: Wow, really. When I was first in Axis in Boston our success would have never happened without the support of that city. By that I mean not only having a lot of venues to play in but the radio was behind us. It was as if we had put out a major album and there's no way I could have made it to where I ultimately got to without the support of that city. You never know what the next wave will be, but what I do know is that Blues is here to stay.
SR: Let's talk about the tribute albums you've been involved with such as the Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute album. There's a great statue of him here and this town marks everybody by SRV.
JB: Yeah, he is the yardstick for Austin, Texas.
SR: Then there was Fit For A. King.
JB: That was a tribute album for Albert King. That was Mike Varney's inspirations with regard to bringing a lot of the artists that he liked together to do this tribute. I have to salute Mike because he really appreciates the masters and not just the flavor of the month.
SR: Songwriting. Is that something that's always been easy for you?
JB: It's something that's never been easy. When it comes to writing I've always admired people like Dylan, John Lennon but the fact of the matter is...saying something meaningful just doesn't come all the time. You might be able to rhyme moon, spoon and June but that doesn't make good songwriting. It doesn't make good listening. The fact of the matter is that anything meaningful has to come from some place and just by virtue of that, at least for me, it's something that doesn't come that easily. I've tried even on the new album to do things that at least had some sort of center. It didn't have to change the world. You don't have to write "Blowin' In The Wind" every time out. It is important to me to have a vantage point and for that reason songwriting has always been challenging.
SR: I love "Chili Sauce," "Rather Go Fishin'" and "Brian's Electric Factory" on this one. Is "Brian's Electric Factory" about a club?
JB: I have a brother, Brian, who's a Blues fanatic, and he's been after me for years to do more Blues. He's always talked about building a club and call it the Electric Factory. That way you can only play the Blues. It's been a joke with us. So I had to name this song for him.
SR: What's the story on the video they asked you to make for a show coming up called "Union Hall."
JB: You've got to see it. It has been playing like crazy for three months all over the Fox Network. That Fox thing turned out really well and I'm getting a lot of exposure. I was Phoenix, Arizona and I just happened to flip the TV on and I saw it myself three times. It's me in a video with Homer and Bart Simpson. It's a gas. I'm playing this old Blues semi-acoustic guitar and it's just a lot of fun.
SR: How about the recording process. Do you like working in a studio or do you get really prepared and just drop in and out.
JB: I'm not prepared at all. (laughter) That's another thing about making honest music and making it sound real I believe a certain amount of impromptu-ness is crucial. I once spoke to Eric Johnson and his approach and mine are so different. He takes a long time and he's really a guy who dots ever I and crosses every T. I like to make sure there are still mistakes on the records I make. Not because a mistake is good necessarily. It's just that when you listen to this album it sounds as if we just sat down and played it instead of sat down and planned it.
SR: I'm fascinated by your interest in the Black cowboys and the Old West. Could you ever think about writing a book?
JB: I just may. I don't know how this happened. It probably started when I was a young kid, but I have an interest in the West of early America. It has just followed me around like a hound dog all my life to the point where I have a reference library of books to beat the band. If you were here right now you'd see a place that looks like a cowboy ranch. I've got saddles, spurs and chaps all over the house. That's been an era that certainly has gotten short shrift from history books. I didn't learn any of this stuff in school about the guys who went a long way to make this country what it is today. I go to all the collector's shows and I find Western memorabilia from all over the country.
SR: Did you see that PBS special on Black cowboys?
JB: Fantastic. I taped the whole thing. I had the opportunity to go to a re-enactment..there's a group called The Buffalo Soldiers. Essentially, it's the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry of the U.S. Army in the mid-1800's just after the Civil War. They were Black soldiers, some were freed men, some were ex-slaves and there are these re-enactors who play homage to the Buffalo Soldiers. I have actually thought about doing that..dressing up in the old garb. I ride horses too. It's a way of bringing attention to the contributions of those men. I think to a lot of Americans, what cowboys represent is a time where you were free. People don't feel free today, not inside. They feel that they're under the thumb of something. In the early West time people felt a sense of freedom and possibility that doesn't exist now.
SR: If you were going to turn on a youngster to the best Axis album that really showed who you are what would that be?
JB: Wishes. That album was released in '88 on Capitol and to me that was the apex of those times. We played a lot of shows up to that point and had been touring around the world a couple of times. The title track, "Wishes" went a long way. I still get fan mail and e-mail about that album today, as recently as day before yesterday. It really makes me feel good. I never achieved the status of say a Mick Jagger or of a Jimi Hendrix, but when I'm getting mail on that album and other that I've done, it makes me feel like I've made a contribution. And that that music that came out of me went into places where it was warmly received.
SR: There is no doubt that you've made a mark in music history. Fan can still get in touch with you at email@example.com. Do you have plans for a web page?
JB: It's on the back of the album. Yeah, I have to give Ben Schultz credit for utilizing an e-mail and net address as a way for people to communicate. Since we have, I get so much mail. It just serves to underline how powerful the medium is and will be as time goes on. You guys doing this for the net is perfect. It's the new wild frontier. We're still not at the nexus of what this is going to be. Who would have thought we'd be doing this interview about Blues music where it'll go onto the net. That says it all.
SR: How early did you start playing guitar?
JB: I was six and played a Hopalong Cassidy guitar then I had an electric Sears Silvertone. It was one of those guitars that you folded up in the case with the amplifier. It all packed up in one easy-to-carry case. I'm telling you, it's true, I never looked back. Thanks to Hopalong. My Mom bought it for me.
SR: Who was the first guitarist that you heard who made you want to play?
JB: I was struck by a lightning bolt called The Beatles. Honestly, that's it. I was still really young. I was in grade school. They came on Ed Sullivan's show and that was it. It not only spoke to me, but it was life altering. I knew at that point that you could do that and it made people crazy. It made me crazy.
SR: Did you learn a Beatle song before anyone else?
JB: Yes, it would have to have been because I was interested in the guitar from such an early age. I was playing "Red River Valley" and "Clementine" and all those songs and then when the Beatles came on it was about an electric guitar. I wanted to play "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and all their songs.
SR: We were talking about B.B. King earlier, did you ever name a guitar?
JB: Never once. It was never important to me. I probably felt self conscious and I never had to save my guitar from a building that burned down like B.B. did.
SR: I've known guitarists who like to sleep with their guitar...just to have it around all the time.
JB: Stevie Ray had his guitar in his hands all the time.
SR: Is there a new guitar out there that you really need?
JB: No. I'm a Fender Stratocaster man and have been for all my adult life. There's nothing being manufactured today in terms of electric guitars. In terms of acoustic instruments I have several that I'm really happy with. There's a company here in California called Taylor Guitars. They've made a couple of acoustic instruments for me that are absolutely wonderful. I still play them now. As a matter of fact, Sheila, I do a lot of playing in the unplugged mode so I use the Taylor's and a Yamaha acoustic that is sensational. If people see me in that setting in a small unplugged venue they'll see those instruments.
SR: I love the whole acoustic movement which really shows the diversity of many players.
JB: I'm sure you saw the Eric Clapton unplugged show. It was masterful. It really re-established true roots music to an audience that didn't know what it was. When we became aware of Clapton it was in the context of Cream. The fact of the matter is that his appreciation and mastery of the real roots genre is unparalleled.
SR: What's your favorite road story.
JB: I don't know, but I can tell you the first time I came to Texas to play. I was in Dallas and we were opening up for the then J. Geils Band. They had released an album called Freeze Frame and I had never played there before. I didn't know what to expect. I had a lot of misgivings in the early '80s with the perceptions of being in the South. We pulled into stop, it was pitch black and I wanted to get something to drink. I asked everyone if they wanted to come with me. They all told me that I'd be fine. The place was straight out of central casting. The guy was toothless behind the counter and there were guys sitting around cracker barrels. The first thing I'm waiting to hear is 'somebody get a rope.' I said, 'excuse me sir, I'd like to have a diet Coke.' The guy said 'Son, you're Jon Butcher aren't you?' He was a big fan and it was then that I realized that all my misgivings were for naught. Music really is the passport that gets your around the world and into corners you're not even aware of. I never forgot that night. It was my introduction to Dallas and my first real introduction to that part of the country. The rest of the tour ended up just like that. Like I like to say the Blues is better than American Express. As I think back on my history there might be more stories that were more outrageous. I fell off a stage once in Detroit and, of course, antics all young musicians go through.
SR: Last, but not least, what is your advice to all new aspiring guitarists?
JB: Don't listen to me. In terms of advice, I don't like to give advice. I'm the poster boy for if there's a mistake to be made I'll make it. Now, having said that, in terms of the approach to music all you can do really is to keep it as real to yourself and true to yourself as possible. It sounds really generic but that really is the secret to success and certainly the key to making good music.
SR: Great advice. What a treat this has been.
JB: Are we going to get a chance to meet sometime?
SR: Darn right. I'll check you out when you get back to Austin.
JB: Take down my address and let's stay in touch. Don't forget to say hello to Pat Travers when you talk to him. It's been great talking to you. Thanks.