“I can't think of the last example on the Australian music scene where a totally independent artist has gone straight to number one,” triple j’s Richard Kingsmill said in 2004.
He was talking about a group who were redefining the local music landscape and, in the process, also reframing the relationship between artist and audience. Western Australia’s John Butler Trio.
Their 2004 album Sunrise Over Sea was the first such album to achieve what had never been done before. Perhaps spurred on by its success, the follow up, 2007’s Grand National, had a more ambitious vision, reflected in the greater variety of sounds as well as personnel.
From the strings and horn sections, to an array of percussion instruments and artists like Vika and Linda Bull on backing vocals and Money Mark on keys, this was an album aimed at reaching audiences further afield.
This was also marked by the decision to bring on producer Mario Caldato Jr. The American, best known for his work with the Beastie Boys, Beck and Jack Johnson, was recruited for a very specific purpose
“My most important thing, was I just wanted it to swing,” Butler told Robbie Buck on triple j in 2006. “I was writing to hip hop beats and reggae beats and fusions of all those things together, and when you’re capturing a song, it has to swing, especially if you’re writing to a groove based kinda song and you wanna capture a moment between the band.”
John Butler’s band at that stage was a tight unit made up of Shannon Birchall on double bass and Michael Barker on drums.
“We just go out there and do it the old-fashioned way, we earn our fans one by one, we play really good music and try and be on it every night.”
Melbourne journalist Patrick Donovan, who hitched a ride with the band on a trip to a show in Bendigo witnessed how dedicated the band was to giving their best at each gig.
“It wasn't the old sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that you might imagine with some of the other, sort of, younger bands,” Donovan told ABC’s The 7.30 Report. “They do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, take a lot of vitamins, eat healthy food and, you know, you've got to do that, really, to maintain that sort of level of consistency at performances.”
Barker affirmed as much.
“We're there for the music, you know,” he told The 7.30 Report. “And to be there for the music you have to kind of have sound body and mind.
“You can't be a little bit sick or a little bit hurting for a two-hour show,” Birchall added.
With a huge hunger to play live, the group had been focusing their energies on trying to break the US market for a solid six years by this stage.
Robbie Buck asked Butler whether having to maintain that constant drive to crack America had been a strain. Butler’s response gave an indication of how he’d managed to catch so many in the music industry off-guard with his ability to breakthrough and succeed on such a significant scale as an independent artist.
“I have an undying belief in what I do and what we do as a band,” he said. “I see it everywhere I go, whether we’re busking on the streets of Fremantle or Brisbane or France, America, Japan. I see people’s faces light up and I just go, ‘man, there’s a potential here that we need to honour’.
“It’s definitely something that I committed to the minute I said I was going to do music as a career, was to bring music to anybody who wanted to have it and make the world a better place in the process.”
He did this all on the steam and love of his longest admirers.
“We are totally funded by our fans in Australia,” he told triple j in 2006. “We don’t make money outside the country at the moment.”
Driven by an unflagging optimism and a quest for understanding and change, you get the sense of a broadened appreciation of life on a community level and hence on a global scale.
Grand National’s opener ‘Better Than’ and its lyric ‘I know the grass is greener but just as hard to mow’ talks about the drawbacks of ‘having’ as a necessity ‘to living’. The hollowness of over-indulgence is explored in ‘Used To Get High’.
Elsewhere there’s songs about opening up your perspective on life (‘Good Excuse’) and political apathy and short sightedness (‘Gov Did Nothin’, ‘Devil Running’).
It’s clear that the man, his music, his socio-political ideals and activism are all interwoven. Over his now two-decade career, he’s sought to present a point of view and bring it to as many people as possible.
“In a lot of industries, especially the art industry, it’s about making relationships,” he told Buck. “With the audience, with the record companies and radio stations and you get a good rapport going. Something everybody feels they can really dig their teeth in and everybody can believe in the dream.”
Grand National makes good on the nurturing of those relationships, its melodies and messages, an invitation to the listener to invest in its maker’s very worthy beliefs.