The Art Of The Sit-In | Matt Butler

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: The Art Of The Sit-In - Matt Butler ::

Welcome back to another installment of The Art of the Sit-In, where we talk to the scene’s most adventurous musicians about their jamming philosophies and hopefully tell some stories, too.

Back when we were drawing up the Art of the Sit-In concept, we made an initial list of musicians we knew we’d have to include. Matt Butler was near the top of that list, not only for his experience, wide reach and firm grasp of the scene and many of its most popular talents, but also because with Everyone Orchestra, he’s trying to capture the essence of what fuels this whole scene. Improvisation? Ephemera? Things that’ll never happen the same way twice? The ultimate in FOMO because it’s that collection of musicians playing that music right now, and never again the same way? That’s Everyone Orchestra – and that’s why, 12 years into its existence, it appears to be enduring.

Everyone Orchestra shows on the East Coast used to be pretty rare, so we’re psyched that Butler and his ever-changing group of co-conspirators have made it a point to be back at least once a year. Everyone Orchestra returns once more on Nov. 7 (Washington DC), Nov. 8 (New York, a late night Phil & Friends after-show), and Nov. 9 (Philadelphia). There are also Colorado dates on the books for the following weekend.

Let’s hear what Matt had to say about this always-fascinating experience.

JAMBASE: What do you remember about the first Everyone Orchestra shows? Is the concept much evolved since then or still fundamentally the same?

MATT BUTLER: Well, ha, the very first gig [2001] my appendix burst, but from the first few gigs…yeah I think there are things that are generally still the same and others that have evolved to become something different. In the beginning, I was leading and hosting it, but I was not really conducting. Conducting was part of the show but it wasn’t the main point of the show. I did a bunch of shows where I basically had like three or four bands or parts of bands – enough members so that we could do something, but I was playing drums and I remember getting to do double drums with [Jon] Fishman a bunch of times.

Those were some really fun gigs as it was coming together. But even by the fifth time we’d done it like that it was becoming apparent that the conducted parts of the show were the most unique parts and were also what were really getting people off. That’s where we saw the potential. I grew up in an orchestral household, you know, and I had never thought of a conductor in terms of a rock band or a jazz band or a jamband type of setting. But I started to think that a conductor, in this situation, could actually help compose – yeah, we’d keep it improvisatory but also be guiding the band and composing music in the moment.

It took me a few years to get there. I’d seen John Zorn and Zambiland Orchestra and I listened to all these different forms of improvisational conducting and I still didn’t find anything like what I was imagining. I wanted it super-experimental, avant-garde music, but I’m also aiming for inclusiveness – I want beauty and excitement above technical prowess. So I think in those early gigs, conducting was just a piece of it and now it’s pretty much the whole thing.

JAMBASE: Would you call that the X-factor in Everyone Orchestra?

MB: So many factors go into it sounding good, from the musicians being well-rested and eating dinner together to what we can do in the sound check. But there are also not too many preconceptions. What’s interesting is if we do these multi-night runs with more or less the same band, the band gets more comfortable and the music can get more dynamic. I’m able to carve out more dynamics and I feel like the band is able to deeper and wider with me as that goes on – we do these runs and we do two, 90-minute sets, and by the end of a few of those shows, there’s a real deep connection.

I think that’s why it continues to grow. No one’s getting rich doing this but the musicians are psyched for the experience – they get to mix it up with other incredible players.

JAMBASE: How much are you directing traffic versus letting jams and improvisational segments evolve organically? And do you change that approach based on who the personnel is?

MB: It’s all about intuition. Too much conducting makes it not as much fun – I feel like there’s a balance between needing them to feel free to do something and surprise us all and react to the moment and me being ready to carve dynamics and call a different solo and getting them ready to go with me.

I haven’t ever approached it as, oh man, this lineup will need serious conducting, otherwise these guys are just going to fucking noodle [laughs]. I have to trust that shit’s going to come up that we’re going to have go for and that the band can go into that space and we’re willing to go there and see where it goes.

Some of these lineups have repeat offenders – folks who are really interested in the concept and trying this with me more than once. If folks have done this with me a number of times, we’re able to create A-sections and B-sections and go into cover songs out of jams and maybe go back into an A-section or just pull something from the ether. People that have done this a lot with me can definitely go into a more complex jam.

When we do festival sets in particular, they’re often about this vortex of incredible talent mixing and melding on stage. I’m focusing on the fun of it: if the musicians are having a great time, the audience is having a great time. My biggest problem is there are so many to choose from, especially in [situations] like Jam Cruise, where there are like 50 players to choose from who’d be a good fit.

JAMBASE: Your familiarity with certain players brings up an interesting question. If you play with the same folks repeatedly, you get more complex jams and can do things that maybe you wouldn’t be able to with one-off lineups? But that would defeat the purpose of Everyone Orchestra, if you kept going back to the same players.

MB: It would defeat the purpose, yes. I think it works both ways. I’m able to conduct more complex stuff with people I know well, but I also might end up conducting less just because I already know what mental level the band is operating on. So while I could conduct them in a more cohesive way knowing what they’re likely to do, I’m also able to sit back and let things happen. Again, it’s finding balance. I want to let it be free and keep musicians on their toes, but not too much.

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