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  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.
JAMBASE: How much rehearsal do you do with lineups, if ever?
MB: I’ve done themed shows. We’ve done Rex benefits where maybe we’ll do interwoven conducted improv with a handful of Grateful Dead songs or something else traditional. But it’s not about rehearsal. Early on we did some rehearsal but at the same time, I don’t need to fill niches – I just want to have the musicians come in and take away this incredible experience.
Fishman for example, he likes a lot of the aspects of this but he also likes that he doesn’t have to learn new songs for it [laughs]. With him maybe it’s all about sitting around with an acoustic guitar for a few minutes before we go on stage and throwing around some ideas – I can facilitate that from a conducting end. But with different lineups we get into different situations, and it’s just a good time, you know? John Kadlecik, you know he doesn’t play in Everyone Orchestra so he can work out his Grateful Dead chops.
JAMBASE: Good point.
MB: Right? Fishman doesn’t do it to work on Phish songs, though we’ve wound up there a few times. But seriously it’s about departure from the norm and exploring all these different aspects of musicality, being on the edge of things.
JAMBASE: Have you ever had any particularly challenging lineups? People you just couldn’t get to click?
MB: Hmm. It does require attention and for your ego to be in your back pocket. Whenever either of those things has been an issue, though, the thing bringing attention to it is the players themselves. The whole band is waiting for one player to watch the conductor or pay attention because for whatever reason they’re not quite present in the performance.
It hasn’t happened to me in a long time, but I’ve collaborated with all kinds of musicians and promoters, and I have taken on players I don’t know well but that people I do know well have recommended. I do draw the line, and I do hold the line, but it’s the inclusivity of Everyone Orchestra that I’ve really strived to keep intact. It’s not about everyone playing all at once, but I will say that I’ve had a few times where there were communication breakdowns, and a friend of a friend who’s a star player maybe just shows up to the gig and doesn’t understand the concept.
But where I more often have challenges is the actual physical logistical nature of these shows. I’ve showed up to places where we’ve got 20 people and the stage can fit six, you know? That was more early on, but we have stories of shit breaking down completely and instruments broken and people hurt. We had a bad late-night Jazzfest experience once where a musician lost his shit because he just couldn’t hear anything.
JAMBASE: You sometimes direct the Orchestra to follow one player. Who among your regular collaborators would you describe as the most adventurous? Anyone just jump out as “oh yeah, we’re going to let him lead the jam”?
MB: On some level, I have that excitement about everyone that plays. I want to see where it goes. But I definitely have some people I look to. Al Schnier will give me this look like, “Oh, me now? Oh, OK, fine” and then he’ll just go off into something that’s this incredible jam and it’s never a one chord jam but the first time he plays it, everyone’s like, what? Then the second time and the third time he tries it people are like, oh, ok, wow. I’ve seen that happen with [Al] again and again. I can signal to Al and have it not just be “follow Al” but “Al, play it punk rock” and he’ll be like, “OK, let’s do it.”
Joel Cummins is kind of like that as well. And Marco [Benevento] on the keys, he and Joel have this ability to just take three seconds and rip into something that evolves into this unbelievable jam – this catchy, hooky thing that just comes from the ether. Then there are Kimock and Kadlecik who in some ways have a similar temperament: their ideas can be slower, more complex to develop, but also tend to be lightning on top of whatever else is created.
All of it is creation we try to jump on. A lot of it’s in their personality. If you ask Marco a question, he’ll have an answer for you like boom, right there. Kimock, if you ask a question, he’ll look you in the eye, stare you down for a bit and then start in like, OK, OK, here comes.
JAMBASE: How do you pull together these lineups, I mean at the block and tackle level? Can we boil it down to you and your manager working the phones?
MB: It really is, man. It’s wild. Sometimes, it’s a logistical challenge and that’s especially true for non-festival gigs because we’re doing budgets and seeing who might be available and in that case it’s people needing to fly in from all over. And then we have to consider infringing on people who might be playing in a [city] with their own bands. But lineups evolve, and there’s been a pattern I’ve seen developing in different regions. We’ve tried to keep an annual schedule and we now have 20 markets that it’s probably enough to do this once or twice a year and keep it rolling.
I tell you, the funny things when Jambay broke up, Everyone Orchestra was all kind of my attempt to be a singer-songwriter – this was my solo project gone awry! [laughs] But I wanted to bring people together. I wasn’t interested in creating another steady band. I didn’t want to be married to four people again like I was with Jambay in the ’90s. Jambay was such a thing. We recently did some reunion shows and it was still such at thing – that’s what playing 1,000 or more shows will do for a bunch of people. But I wanted to create something outside of a box. That’s where this came from.
JAMBASE: How much of your Everyone Orchestra recruitment is based on instrumentation? I imagine you hold the line when it comes, to say, five guitar players or something.
MB: Instrumentation is the very first consideration, but these groups get built in all different ways. We look at whoever is available and see based on that where we can go and who we can add to it. If we’re building a band around Fishman, we don’t look for other drummers.
We’ve definitely run into situation where we have several big-name players on the same instrument. It doesn’t always make sense. But I’m willing to go for it with any instrumentation in the long run because I do like the challenge of it. I want to keep it interesting. In the beginning I used to just double everything: two kits, two basses, two keyboards. It was a massive thing that didn’t always need to be massive, I realized.
JAMBASE: I have to ask for your wishlist. Who would you like to have in an Everyone Orchestra lineup that you haven’t yet?
MB: I have some other things brewing in my creative career – I’m doing a lot of singing these days. I just did a workshop with Bobby McFerrin and he does this thing called circle singing that I find very related to Everyone Orchestra in the sense that it’s group improvisation with a conductor signaling.
I’d love to get Bobby McFerrin into an Everyone Orchestra – to get to work with him in the context of some incredible musicians. It would really have to be the right dynamics – we do a lot of rock band stuff – but I’d love to try this Everyone Orchestra Vocal Jam kind of experience. Maybe we get audience members and other musicians singing, like a drum circle except with vocals.
I’d love to do an Everyone Orchestra with Trey, and with Warren. Those two guitarists have been part of my musical upbringing and that would be amazing.
JAMBASE: What else are you working on, outside of Everything Orchestra?
MB: Well, I’m on the board of the Rex Foundation and we’ve got benefits and a huge community. There’s also the Positive Legacy on Jam Cruise. But Everyone Orchestra really is my baby outside of my family. It has my attention.
We’re sure someone has a list of everyone who’s ever played in Everyone Orchestra – and we’re safe saying it’s one hell of a long one. For those with a slightly shorter attention span, here are six previous Everyone Orchestra performances well worth a listen for a primer on the concept and execution.
2/21/2003: Taft Theater, Cincinnati, OH: This EO event holds the record for downloads of EO shows posted on Archive.org, and it has nearly three times the downloads of the show in second-place. It builds from a place of adventure to all-out mayhem, with nearly 25 musicians onstage for the finale.
4/29/2004: McDonald Theatre, Eugene, OR: This one was a benefit for the Pangaea Project and features Jon Fishman, Kai Eckhardt and Tony Furtado as its “core.” Tye North, Scott Law, Jans Ingber and original Merry Prankster Ken Babbs (!) are also along for a wild ride.
6/8/2007: Campground Stage, Lawrence, KS: Widely acknowledged as a sleeper set of the 2007 Wakarusa festival, this one packs a punch and doesn’t let up. Gnarly textures abound in a lineup featuring Tim Carbone, Todd Stoops, Jason Hann, most of Toubab Krewe, Tanya Shylock and Jamie Janover.
8/8/2008: Up North Festival, Hiram, ME: This one is short by EO standards – a festival set that barely breaks 80 minutes of music – but what this Northeast musician-heavy crew gets done in that truncated segment is delicious. Jon Fishman and Jamie Masefield are here, as are Club d’Elf’s Mike Rivard and several of his usual collaborators, plus Ryan Montbleau and several of his bandmates.
12/29/2008: Cervantes’ Masterpiece, Denver, CO: Colorado has a stranglehold on great nights of EO, and this one near the end of 2008 has all the hallmarks. Relentlessly fun and groovy, it has Kimock, Dave Watts, Joey Porter, Jans Ingber, Dominic Lalli, Eric McFadden, Cecil “P-Nut” Daniels and other top-marksmen, but the standout to our ears is Jamie Janover.
4/20/2013: Cutting Room, New York. NY: An instant classic of East Coast EO extravaganzas. You’ve got Kimock and Schnier on guitars, Vinnie Amico on the kit, Reed Mathis on the low end and Trevor Garrod, Steve Berlin and Daniel Lamb coloring the whole thing with keys, sax and ‘bone.