Q&A: Everyone Orchestra’s Matt Butler Discusses Being Present, Group Songwriting, and Musical Medicine

Posted on Tuesday May 17th in

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Matt Butler has been conducting a rotating cast of musicians through full-length, entirely improvised Everyone Orchestra shows for more than a decade. And when the band — rounded out by Aron Magner of the Disco Biscuits, Shmeeans of Lettuce, Rob Mercurio of Galactic, Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman of Trey Anastasio Band, Chris Jacobs of the Bridge, and Johnny Kimock — returns to Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday night, you can expect a totally unique live experience. Last week, Matt Butler rang up Knockdown Alley from home in Portland, Ore., to talk about improvisation, musical medicine, and how it all comes together for Everyone Orchestra.
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For the uninitiated, can you tell us how your Everyone Orchestra project first started? I’m a drummer, and I played in a band called Jambay back in the ’90s. I always say, “Before jambands, before JamBase, before Jam Cruise, there was Jambay.” And we were like the West Coast version of Phish in a lot of ways — kind of the post–Grateful Dead jamband scene that was emerging. We played with Cheese, we played with Phish, were part of the H.O.R.D.E. tour on the West Coast. And we did a lot of collaborating with musicians at that time. And those jams kind of evolved into my desire to create something once Jambay had dissipated. And I’d gone into a compositional phase. I did some solo albums, created my own bands. I was really just looking to think outside the box, and EO came together as a combination of all these different things I’d done in my lifetime: from drum circles, from leading a band, from coaching sports, from working with Ken Kesey — being in a pit band for his play and getting the audience to do various moves on cue and having this superinteractive third-wall-broken-down experience. And I grew up in an orchestral household, so I was around world-famous conductors when I was a kid. Plus, I was very inspired by things on the East Coast, like Zambiland Orchestra and John Zorn. And I found out about those things and a lot of the conducted-improv things after a lot of my initial ideas were solidified. I was really influenced by Zambiland using the cue cards because that opened a lot of possibilities. We started in 2001. That was my first EO.

It sounds like you’ve always been involved in improvisational music based on all the things you just said. But do you have any musical endeavors that aren’t based on improvisation? EO’s been my deep focus for the last 10 years, for sure, but I’m a composer. I’ve done a few soundtracks for independent films. I’ve got two albums out that are on Spotify. One of them’s called Good Options. It’s kind of my foray into pop songwriting. I have another one called The Redwood Project. They’re both thoroughly composed pieces, and I’ve considered doing more of that — a lot, lately, actually. But time hasn’t opened up lately.


The word about EO shows is always that everything is improvised. Yep. But what does that include exactly? Is there any advanced framework? Do you ever have a set list or an idea of what songs you want to play? No, but let’s back up a little bit. Occasionally we play a song, but it’s, like, 95 percent improv. I’ve done a few events where it’s, like, we’re going to weave Jerry Garcia songs in between full-on improv songs. But on this tour, the whole focus is: Let’s create some music on the spot, group improvisation. These musicians are psyched to be a part of it. They want to be there to be put on the spot and to be in that kind of zone, that’s superfresh and a little bit scary but exciting. The preconceptions going in for me really are just to have a balanced set where everyone has a chance to really shine. It’s not all one tempo, all one key, all thinking about the same thing. It’s about having a variety. All the best bands I know, their performances have an arc. And I’m aiming for that arc as much as I can. Sometimes it happens very organically, and sometimes I feel like I have to push it more. As a conductor, I try to be up there and be of service to what’s going on, and not get in the way of what wants to happen.
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It sounds like you’re guiding the story, right? You’re telling a story onstage and you’re making sure it doesn’t go off the rails. And also taking responsibility to say, “OK, you lead this one.” And have the next person step up to take charge, and everybody follows that person. Sometimes that kind of guidance creates a framework for something very organized to happen, but it’s actually coming from chaos. That’s a great way to put it. And I imagine that inclusiveness is what makes people want to be part of it. Rather than someone leading everything the whole time, and they’re just there to go along with it. Yes and no. Some people are totally into that, the musicians that come back again and again. It’s like musical medicine for them because it’s not learning the same song again. It’s not doing another cover, which is great. I love doing that stuff, too. But it totally hits this different creative chakra of being present because you have to be in the flow and be reactive in a little different way than when you’re doing other kinds of music. Any improv is kind of like that. But, in the same sense, for some people, it scares them so much, or it’s just so not what they’re into about music that it repulses them [laughing].

I realize onstage it’s a very organic thing, but do you ever get a chance to rehearse in advance, to run through what it sounds like playing together? Although I know you’ve played with some of them before. It’s mainly sound check. The band we have coming in to the Brooklyn Bowl is close to a lineup we’ve had before, but not exactly. But everybody is a veteran. I don’t really have any newbies on this run. There’s no rehearsal, especially if we’re focused on the improv stuff. If we’re doing some songs, we’d definitely rehearse. Sound check is a rehearsal of the concepts, making sure everybody can hear each other and addressing anybody’s questions or concerns. Or somebody might say, “Can we try this thing tonight? I want to go for a heavy Slayer thing.” I often keep a cheat sheet to kind of fall back on to if the organic flow ends, and it’s like, “What’s next?” I can look down at my cheat sheet and go, “Here are some ideas.” Often I don’t ever look at it. I just create it, and it just happens. And the cheat sheet kind of sits there and gets ignored. But the thing about having it there is a little bit like a security blanket.
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The people you’re coming to Brooklyn Bowl with are some all-time Brooklyn Bowl favorites. How did this lineup come together? How do you decide who to bring on for a tour? It’s a combination of who I like to work with, what instrumentation we need — and everyone’s availability is so random that there’s not really a science to how the exact lineup comes together. Other than, like, I don’t want five guitars. And it slowly kind of evolves: We know we’ve got Johnny, we’ve got the rhythm section down, and then Shmeeans was like, “I can do it.” Awesome. So then it’s, like, let’s get some vocals in there. And Jen Hartswick says, “I’m available.” And it slowly pieces itself together. And we’ve got huge vocals between Chris and Jen and Natalie. There’s a gigantic vocal presence. So there’ll be a lot of that aspect of the songwriting in the moment. That’s really the thing. At first, I didn’t think of it as songwriting in the moment. That’s such a great expression. Yeah, and really, that’s what it is. It’s group songwriting in the moment and being able to write a chorus and then go to a verse that somebody makes up and then be able to reprise that chorus in the moment and have everybody be onboard to make that happen. That’s the thing that we’re going for. It’s just so fun and so satisfying. And I’m recording all this stuff. And there are a lot of songs I know I’ll be able to reprise.

Is that how something like Brooklyn Sessions comes about? Yeah! If you look at this from a compositional angle, when you’re sitting with a guitar by yourself, and you’re like, “This sounds cool.” It’s like throwing a referee-slash-conductor in the middle to come up with a brainstorming session to come up with as many ideas as possible in a short amount of time. And then use the studio element. In performing, we just go. In the studio, I stop a jam and I’m like, “You know what? This is awesome, but let’s do this: Try doubling this line the second time around and then we’ll go back to the solo and the chorus.” And have a little bit more liberty, but basically, everything came out of improv. And we composed totally in the moment in one day in the studio.
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Is there any idea to do something like that again? Yes, it’s not on the books yet, but I’ve got a West Coast, more Americana concept coming together out here. And I want to do something in the Chicago area, too. You know, it’s interesting: Selling music is one thing, but selling an experience is another thing. It’s kind of like gearing up the energy and finances to make it happen. Gotta be real organized for sure.

You’ve played Brooklyn Bowl a number of times in the past. Does anything stick out from those shows? And what are you looking forward to in returning? You know, Brooklyn Bowl is just so fun. It always feels like a circus element because of the bowling, and the venue itself is just so vibrant. A number of times has played there, Questlove from the Roots has been spinning afterward. It’s just like a jamband Mecca. There’s no mistake, the aesthetic, the vibe, the support for the musicians. Musicians are really catered to nicely there and appreciated. And the production crew is totally pro. It’s just a great vibe. I always have a ton of friends from other band who are in Brooklyn or New York playing or just hanging out. And they tend to stop by. It’s just superfun.
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