A Chat with Everyone Orchestra’s Matt Butler

By: Dennis Cook

Most of the lineup that recorded EO’s studio debut will reconvene next week, June 14-17, in Colorado for four special shows. For full details on the lineup visit EO’s website, and tickets for the three performances at Quixotes in Denver can be purchased here.

Everyone Orchestra by Susan J. Weiand
Matt Butler is a bit of genius alchemist whose true power lies in his ability to inspire others to greatness, freedom and raw invention. As the conductor of Everyone Orchestra, Butler is the ringmaster, the leaping, dry erase board scribbling, living enzyme that catalyzes something unique every time an EO gathers. For the uninitiated, EO is an improvisational grouping of musicians, often at festivals, where the ensemble jumps off together and moves by faith and skill into unknown territory. Everyone Orchestra is often a major highlight of any gathering because one always has zero idea of what’s going to happen from end-to-end. At its best, EO feels like what one imagines the original acid tests were like, except without the acid. Under Butler’s guiding hand and bounteous aura, EO is able to achieve something that is vaguely psychedelic in the broadest, most positive sense, where all genres, moods, etc. have potential sway and music of such pureness and sweetness emerges that one leaves feeling bolstered and moved in ways that elude description.

After years of being solely a live entity, Butler has taken Everyone Orchestra into the studio for the first time. The Brookln Sessions features a dream team of Jon Fishman (drums), Reed Mathis (bass), Steve Kimock (guitar), Al Schnier (guitar), Jamie Masefield (mandolin), Jennifer Hartswick (vocals, trumpet), Jeff Coffin (sax) and Marco Benevento (keyboards, vintage toys), and what amazes is how something so organic sounds so together in this new setting. Each piece stands on its own legs and the whole thing works well together. And while the solos are tasty as four-star cooking, it’s the ensemble vibe and general compositional sturdiness that stand out the most. This ain’t just a high-end jam session, which befits a new chapter in the still unfurling tale of Everyone Orchestra, where unexpected surprises and great wells of feeling abound.

We spoke with Matt Butler at length about the underpinnings of EO, its roots, this first foray into studio work, and much more.

Everyone Orchestra by Brad Hodge
JamBase: Some of what you’re getting at with Everyone Orchestra is stimulating instinct in musicians.

Matt Butler: Instinct and intuition. I’d say those are the two things I’m trying to draw out of people and get them to subscribe to above all else.

Because of the discipline required to get good on an instrument – the endless practice, schooling, etc. – those two attributes can get worn out of musicians.

Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) talks about how it’s a really good exercise to be put on the spot, to stretch your comfort zone. In the past, I’ve had a few musicians turn me down because they didn’t understand what I was doing. It’s not about any particular type of music. It’s a state of mind more than anything.

A willingness to trust one’s instincts is a big part of it. It’s almost like bungee jumping for someone who hasn’t participated in an EO yet.

Yep, yep, yep.

Everyone Orchestra @ JC10 by Chad Smith
It’s fun to watch new recruits ease into the experience, like Anders Osborne on Jam Cruise this past January. At first, he was obviously bewildered by the whole concept, and then once he saw what an opportunity it was he took to it like a duck to water. I’ve seen that happen a lot with EO. You’ve put yourself in a really interesting role to be the facilitator to this thing.

Yeah, I know [laughs]. It really is interesting, especially when I’m working with musicians I’ve adored since I was 12 or 13 and I find myself conducting/facilitating them and they look at me like, “Wow, great idea! I never thought about that!”

Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) told me he and Adrian Belew were doing some kind of camp and they tried out my idea with Tony conducting and it turned out miserable. He said, “It’s a great idea and we want to try it again, but it ain’t as easy as it looks.”

There is something deeper going on than you asking people to play together without a script.

I hope so. I believe that, and it’s continued quite a long time. Sometimes I wonder about that, too. What makes it such an incredibly beautiful, rotating thing also keeps it somewhat in the unknown away from the normal marketing boxes in the industry. The fan base is different each time because of who is participating that time. Over time, I hope that people will understand the concept and participatory nature of it supersede any particular name in the lineup. That’s what I’m offering along with a really unique, challenging musical experience for musicians.

Because EO is so mutable/mutate-able, it’s hard to offer up a neat, finished form of it that works in a soundbite. What I’ve witnessed is when EO is really hitting – onstage and in the crowd – this is much closer to ritual than a concert, much more in line with ancient man dancing around a campfire or perhaps dancing around a psychedelic tour bus, and having a collective experience.

Matt Butler by Chad Smith
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re right. I can’t really add anything to that [laughs].

But you’re in the middle of all that and I wonder how you go into the experience, what your intentions are launching into a new EO. I don’t really think you premeditate the experience too much but it has to be deeper than, “I hope we hit something funky in the next five bars.”

I swear that the whole thing about intuition and instinct is the biggest piece. The other big factor is focusing on who the musicians are as people. I can tune into their energy, and I don’t want to say I’m trying to keep them happy but I’m trying to facilitate an incredible time for them and keeping it interesting. It’s a balance to keep it interesting and keeping them on their toes but leaving them free to do what they do but also demanding things from them and their utmost attention so the group can carve really sharp dynamics together through the conducting without making them feel like puppets on a string. I’ve been conducted before and it’s not so much fun to be told what to do all the time. That can get very dull, and I’m very aware of that. So, my intent is to not put musicians in that position. I’m looking at them as if to say, “I’m counting on you to come up with some cool shit. And I’m also counting on you to watch me so I can change and create something new. We’ll go back and forth on that.” That’s my premeditation more than anything – being aware of who’s involved and getting them to be present.

You may not have an instrument in your hand but you’re as much a part of this music as anyone up there. What is it like to be in the middle of that playing 15 instruments simultaneously?

Everyone Orchestra by Brian Spady
It’s a little bit like working fingers live on a board from a production standpoint. To be honest, I don’t blackout but at the end I don’t always remember what happened. I like to listen to it afterwards because it’s all a blur. It’s like when you’re going down a really steep mountain slope, and the end you’re glad you made it but you don’t remember every single turn or jump. It’s kind of a trance, a little bit.

You work well in that state, and the top hat and conducting coat, the imagery of those things, those extra little touches are part of what goes into the mortar and pestle to make this thing.

In some respects, I think we’re still just scratching the surface on those things. That’s one of the things that makes the EO on Jam Cruise so good, where there’s that beautiful room and we’ve had ribbon dancers. The top hat and tails in that atmosphere develops a circus air, and there’s a Blue Man or Off Broadway feel to what’s going on. That’s when it crosses from a musical experience to just an experiential experience.

Have you thought about bringing in more collaborators along those lines, things like acrobats, dancers, fire artists, visual artists?

Definitely, and we’ve tried to incorporate live painting from day one. There’s many ways we could go further into other artistic disciplines. We’ve had comedy but we could incorporate more circus arts, and I think we could even incorporate dramatic acting as a flow between musical interludes. I’ve worked on a couple different projects with a writer and another with someone who’s done Cirque de Soleil/Blue Man type stuff where we’ve brainstormed a sort of three ring circus experience with this musical element with ninja musicians up there stretching themselves in front of everybody.

It does seem like the height requirement for amusement park rides where one does need to be of a certain “height” talent-wise to step into this arena. I would think it would be pretty difficult for someone who isn’t pretty skilled at their instrument to even know what the hell is going on in this environment.

Everyone Orchestra by Suzy Perler
Growing up doing jazz and improv I felt the depth of it but also got the message that I’d only be good enough to pull it off someday – not now but someday. So improv has this daunting quality to it. I grew up in an orchestral household where I was surrounded by these amazing musicians obsessed with exactness and that kind of performance. Pull away the sheet music and often they can’t play, and they even seem afraid to. That’s maybe less so now since genres have been mashing together all over the place for the past 10 years. Improv can be simple, something that’s defined as simply being in the moment. The idea Miles Davis espoused that there are no mistakes only opportunities applies here. It’s about continuing to move through the moment instead of getting stuck on an idea. In that way, it’s a bit like sports.

When I’ve conducted kids orchestras, they almost look around like, “You can do that?” as if they’re going to get in trouble [laughs]. EO does break some rules. As far as what it sounds like, you put Steve Kimock, Reed Mathis and Jon Fishman on the instruments it’s going to sound fucking great! If you put some 15 year olds just learning their instruments, then it’s not going to sound that great but they’re still going to have a valid experience. They’re learning skills they can transfer to all kinds of areas in life.

Professionally, it’s a smart move to go with professionals, and it’s also the environment you’re generally operating in – namely, the festival live music circuit. Do you keep notes, even if just in your head, about potential EO participants?

Everyone Orchestra by Chad Smith
Musicians turn me on, and I definitely think, “Oh, this person would be great…in any environment.” There’s something I wouldn’t exactly call randomness to ascribing the lineups but the universe kind of has its role in pulling different lineups together. I have a circle of musicians who I’m comfortable playing with and like playing with and know we can wow a crowd together and make some incredible music, but I also like to have x-factors thrown in so there’s always an element of the unknown. That helps keep all the veterans on their toes. I like that to a certain degree and continue to try and work it in.

One of the treats of an EO performance is seeing how the virgins react to the situation as it unfolds AND how they affect the other musicians around them. I think maybe wouldn’t have thought of Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass) as being beautifully suited to EO but once you see him in the setting it’s nakedly apparent. You have a knack for drawing out the gold in players that isn’t always visible in their normal bands.

One great example of that is Sunshine Garcia, who just ripped it at the Rex benefit I conducted at. Everyone was blown away by her vocally, and then she pulls out a flute and rips it up again!

Circling down to the studio debut, after all the EOs that have been, what went into the decision to use these particular musicians?

Everyone Orchestra Studio Debut
The studio concept is definitely built on the idea of an ever-changing series revolving around intuition, instinct and compositional awareness. We’re not just up there jamming. We’re composing together the most beautiful moment we can possibly imagine. I tell the musicians, “If you think you hear a song, believe you hear it and then try and make the rest of us hear it with you.” If all of the sudden we find this incredible melodic or harmonic structure that’s great for a lyrical thing then I’ll make a signal to hold it there, and then write a note to the vocalists that says, “Verse” or “Chorus” [laughs]. My role is to put the pen in different people’s hands. It’s like a football team that has their magic play to get a touchdown. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if we can compose this awesome tune it’s like running a great play and getting a touchdown.

So, with the [studio debut], I hadn’t thought of an initial lineup. I thought I might do one in Seattle, one in Portland, one in New York, one in Chicago, and even outwards internationally with the idea of bringing people in for two days – which is a pretty small shot in the arm for musicians in the studio, so not a huge commitment. But, I knew if I could get musicians to sit down and co-create for two days there would be more than enough to make a record. And since it was in the studio it was different rules than the live incarnation. We can edit, we can collapse things, we could even overdub, though that wasn’t really the point. We tried different dynamics, different keys – all these variable to help us not play things the same way twice.

Brooklyn Sessions Group Photo by Michael Weintrob
One idea was to say, “Let’s write this song together and not just jam it out.” And I’d ask one person to give us the first section, and then we’d work it out and play it a few times. Then I’d ask someone else to come up with the b-section, and we’ll talk it out and work on it. So, we carved the whole thing together and eventually performed the “pop song” version of all the pieces together. That’s the last song on the record [“Talk To Me”], and that’s the one song with an overdub because I asked Jen and Jans to come into the studio to overdub the vocals at the very end.

This lineup wasn’t the first thought I had in mind. I just put the idea out there, asking musician friends, “Is this fucking crazy?” One of the first positive responses I got was Fishman, who was super excited but also super busy. He thought it would be really fun, but he was only available right after the Madison Square Garden [Phish] shows in December 2010. So, I looked into making it happen with the Northeast musicians but only had about six weeks to pull it together. I didn’t have any money to make it happen but I had everybody committed and interested in doing it for two days. So, I spent some time figuring out how to fund it, and ended up putting it on credit cards and whatever I’d made in the fall and just went for it. And my videographer friend Peter Hwosch pretty much insisted on being there to document it [check out the insightful videos below this interview].

Everyone Orchestra by Brian Spady
There’s a visual element to EO that’s important, a physicality to the moment, the hand gestures, the exuberance and subtlety of your hand gestures. So, how did it go? Are you fired up to do more of these sessions?

I definitely want to do more of these, and I learned a lot from this first one. I’d like to get a little more separation but without losing the interaction between the players. The concept of different lineups doing this is really exciting, and it’s really a matter of time and the avenues to pull it together. Doing the Kickstarter campaign was a way to pay the bills I’d incurred and finish the project. It really helped get the word out and really helped broaden the conversation. Plus, it was a great fundraising thing, and it blew me away that it really happened. I’m still focused on this particular session because I’m finding that as people really listen to it they’re surprised at what we accomplished. It’s pretty cohesive little gem, and my hope is it builds momentum to continue the series.

Crowd funding seems to suit Everyone Orchestra on a spiritual level, too.

It’s true, and even before this was a major concept on the internet, this was how I funded my first two solo CDs in the 90s by pre-selling. I want to pick your brain a bit about the roots of Everyone Orchestra. Where did this concept take shape? Were you doing anything like this in Jambay or any of your other projects?

I believe there are all these different elements that make up [EO] that lead to this ‘ah-ha’ moment when I was at this train depot in Woodacre [ in California] we used to live at. I’m sitting there with Zach Gill (ALO) and we’d play for hours and hours, jamming on each other’s music, and we both had babies in our lives, and it was just a formative time. And I thought, “Everyone Orchestra,” and it could incorporate sports and humor and human interactivity. I hadn’t even thought about conducting then but I was all about facilitating. My upbringing in an orchestral household left me very influenced by symphonic culture and incredible conductors, where you couldn’t even tell if the music was better but you knew the whole experience was better by their involvement with the group, by their energy and how they were being affected and how their spirit was vested in the moment.

Marin Alsop was a big, big influence like that. She’s a conductor that’s worked with Trey and now with the Baltimore Symphony. She’s one of the biggest female conductors in the world right now. Growing up watching her engage with people and music was inspiring and a big influence, and so much of that is just her enthusiasm. People say the same thing about Yo Yo Ma, where his enthusiasm for music is just infectious. Some of those elements are part of why I had the gumption to do what I’m doing now, to try it at all.

When Jambay was around we’d do these all-in jams with Leftover Salmon and some of the Cheese guys. There was definitely a jammy element to what we did, and then we worked with [Ken] Kesey as the pit band on Twister. He was always trying to make the audience part of the play. “The audience always wants to be in a band” was his thing, and the Grateful Dead were maybe the first to give that impression since they were creating some of it in the moment. Sometimes it worked better and sometimes worse with Kesey, but he always empowered me to seek something higher and to find ways to incorporate the audience. In some of my last conversations with him about Everyone Orchestra, we talked about being a referee between the band and the audience, free to hold court and let the masters shine when it’s their time to shine, but also letting everybody have their moment in the sun. And he was like, “That’s it! That’s it!”

Everyone Orchestra by Brian Spady
One of my criticisms of hippie jam culture is how it still largely accepts the dynamics of producer (musicians onstage) and consumers (the audience passively taking it in). Despite the lip service about it being a community, it’s really hard to get people to take their hands out of their pockets and dance and shout out loud. And I’m amazed at how – with a firm hand AND a gentle way – you bring just about everyone in the room at an EO event into the experience, at least a bit. How did you build up your acumen at this?

Part of it is that for the first four or five years EO was around I wasn’t conducting. Other people were conducting and I was playing drums and percussion. I was helping make things click and bringing people to the conversation and facilitating the whole thing. I started to realize the conductor role was really, really crucial, if only to facilitate a really easy experience for musicians. We used to use conducting for about a third of the show, and I realized that since I was already sort of stage managing maybe I could do that and conduct throughout from beginning to end. It’s not like the conductor is telling you what to do all the time, but working as the point person.

I made the switch at a Disco Biscuits benefit for Jon Gelbard’s organization at The Independent [in San Francisco] right after it opened, and it was an ‘ah-ha’ moment where I understood this is my instrument now, this is what I need to be doing. I immediately saw the vision for where it is now and where it will continue down the road. It was nothing I felt I could do right off the bat, but between having been a tennis coach and a student of psychology, growing up in an orchestral household, and having been in bands, all those things together made me feel prepared to take on this role, to take on this instrument and study how to take it to the next level. What I’ve learned is it’s about getting everybody to subscribe to their intuition and be in the moment. That’s been my focus because the more they are in that space the better it is. In some respects, I don’t have to worry about what I do conductor-wise if I take care of the musicians.

Everyone Orchestra’s Brooklyn Sessions – Behind the Scenes – Part 1 from Peter Hwosch on Vimeo.

What Is The Everyone Orchestra? from Peter Hwosch on Vimeo.

And a few choice EO moments past…

Everyone Orchestra Tour Dates :: Everyone Orchetra News

JamBase | Wide Open
Go See Live Music!


Featured Articles

More articles