Beauty in skipped beats

John Butler likes the impact of music that has a little room to breathe

September 29, 2005|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,SUN REPORTER

In his recording and touring, John Butler wrestles with different kinds of spaces.

As the frontman and namesake of the John Butler Trio, which plays the 9:30 Club tonight, Butler keeps his music uncluttered. The trio format - guitar, drums and bass - leaves plenty of sonic room, which appeals to him.

"I just like the space," said Butler, who sings and plays guitar. "I can produce a pretty full rhythmic sound on my own, so I don't want too many people involved. It would take away from the impact and take away from some of the subtleties."

He said sometimes the absence of a beat can be just as strong as the beat itself.

"A lot of times, I find [in] my favorite music - what I like is how the space accentuates the rhythm," he said calling from Austin, Texas. "The fact that there's no sound in a particular space can actually make for a great rhythm. I think space is definitely part of the rhythm."

Once a solo artist, Butler started playing on the streets in Australia. Street performing, called busking, led to bar and club gigs. Australians latched on to his sound: a raw mixture of reggae, blues, gospel, hip-hop and bluegrass. A few years of touring and cutting albums resulted in a No. 1 double-platinum album, Sunrise Over Sea, on the Australian charts.

From the start, Butler remained independent, taking pride in his rise from grassroots. After Sunrise Over Sea's success several years ago, he toured the United States hoping for the same reaction. But American interest came at a much slower pace.

Butler found the States a bit more daunting, with its myriad radio stations, aggressive record labels and large populace. Word spread much slower here than in Australia, where there is only one major public radio network, he said.

"It's hard to get a whole vibe across the [U.S.]," he said. "It's a totally different beast."

Crisscrossing the spacious country without a hit single and no domestic reputation is like trying to float a matchstick in the ocean, Butler said.

"You're actually trying to make waves in the country, and the ripples of the country could easily take you out," he said.

To help boost things a bit, he signed a five-album deal with Lava Records last year. While negotiating the deal, he said he made sure to keep the reins in his own hands.

"We wanted to get some help and use our energy efficiently," he said. "Those guys gave us the creative control that I needed. They gave me the business control that I needed to do it."

Even with Lava and years of American touring under his belt, Butler said he hasn't broken even - but he's hopeful. This summer, the trio opened a handful of shows for the Dave Matthews Band. Now when the trio headlines, they're playing to crowds of 500 to 1,000 enthusiastic people, he said.

"It's not the kind of concert you go to waiting for your hit single and then you leave," he said. "You go there for the whole ride, and there's lots of different rides to go on. Really slow quiet ones, extremely fast, raucous ones. It's an experience: always good for everybody - band included."

The John Butler Trio plays the 9:30 Club tonight. Tickets are $15. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Call 202-393-0930 or visit 930.com.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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