Jon Butcher

Shifts Gears
Shifts Gears

Veteran guitarist Jon Butcher is changin’ with the times. Interviewed in Vintage Guitar‘s October ’95 issue, he was at the time recording, performing, and hoping for a sophomore effort from a band called Barefoot Servants, which he helped organize; the quartet recorded a self-titled album, and had toured as part of the Southern Spirit promotion. His solo career was quite active, as well; and when he went on the record with VG, he was anticipating the release of a solo album, Positively the Blues.

Since then, Butcher has released other albums, but his focus these days is on a burgeoning career as a producer and soundtrack composer. His recording efforts are currently done at his own Electric Factory Studios, where he incorporates classic guitar tones (many evoked from classic guitars) into his digital recording realm.

In follow-up dialogue, Butcher enthusiastically brought us up to date on his past efforts and the new facets of his career.

Vintage Guitar: Previously, you called your participation in the Barefoot Servants band one of the best moves you ever made, but I saw (bassist) Leland Sklar in the house band for the Zappa brothers’ cable TV show, and your current musical efforts seem to indicate there probably won’t be a Barefoot Servants II album.
Jon Butcher: I recently spoke to Leland; he’s the kind of guy who’s always working, and you never know where he’ll pop up. He put that house band together, and if they get another season out it, then God bless all four of those musicians. I haven’t spoken to (guitarist) Ben Schultz in a while, but I know (drummer) Ray Brinker is playing in Pat Benatar’s band; I saw him at the last NAMM show. We’re at all four corners of the globe, so there’s a slim-to-none chance we’ll all be in the same place at the same time. But I’ve learned to never say never.

There was a review of a club performance of yours in a West Coast music periodical – it was a positive article and stated the occasion was an acoustic performance.
Those are sporadic at best. Doing things like that helps keep my songwriting skills as sharp as possible. I can’t think of a more immediate way to try out material I’m gonna record as solo stuff, or use on a soundtrack. I’m lucky I have the ability to do that, even if it’s on an infrequent basis, but it’s something I really enjoy. I’ve been playing the same old acoustic Yamaha flat-top and the same Guild guitar for years at things like that. I think one of the last gigs I did like that was at B.B. King’s (Universal City).

Are they solo performances?
Pretty much, but there’s also a singer I’ve been working with named Chris Pierce. His band, Best of Simple, just got signed and I’m producing them. He and I really sing well together, so a lot of the so-called “solo acoustic” performances will include him on percussion and a little guitar and harmonica. He’ll help me sing some of the new songs I’m trying, as well as some I wrote for their new album.

Another facet of a musical career that’s pretty much de riguer these days is a website, and you’ve got one of those, as well (
Yeah. For somebody like me, who’s doing several different things – literally at once – there’s no other way to coalesce those things than having a central place for people to contact me, and for me to disseminate information. Let’s face it – there are very few companies that aren’t doing that. For composers and guys making a commercial effort in a studio, I can’t think of a better way to get the word out. The days of putting an ad in a local paper are pretty outta here (chuckles). A lot of younger musicians, as well, are so computer-set that it’s a medium that will not be ignored. I’ve had to revamp a lot of my knowledge and approach to making music due to computers, but I’m not complaining. The state of recording has changed so much in such a short time. Hard-disk recording is more prevalent than ever, and I’m gonna predict that there will be less and less analog machines in the future. If you’re gonna stay in the game, you’ve really got to be familiar with the tools.

Before we get into the details about your studio, let’s talk about some of the recent releases. First, there was Dreamers Would Ride, a greatest hit anthology.
(chuckles) Yeah, Capitol had a hand in that. Sometimes I look back on my career as a checkered past – I’m really proud of some of the stuff I’ve done, and some of the other stuff, less so. I can see now how important it is for young artists to keep their vision intact, and by that I mean if a band gets attention by playing in clubs or touring up and down the coast, or making demos, it’s good for producers and other people to stay out of the way at that point if there’s a response. A lot of times, when bands are novices, they believe a lot of the bull**** they hear from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. So they do their record, it doesn’t come out right, and it gets released and goes directly to the cutout bin. That story repeats itself over and over.

So how much input did you have with the selection of songs on Dreamers Would Ride?
You reached right to the nut (laughs)! I had some input. There were some songs I wanted to include, and some I didn’t want on there. Rather than say which are which – because I don’t want to alienate anybody in the company trying to sell it – I’ll just say that I think it would have been a better package with my choice of songs, but that’s just my opinion. There is a lot of stuff on there that fans of the bands I’ve been in will enjoy hearing, and there are some unreleased songs.

You’ve also had a live recording of a “King Biscuit” show released. What did you think about how that album turned out?
It was alright; it wasn’t the best show we’d ever done. When shows are being taped, and you know something’s going to be done with those tapes later, you’d be surprised at how much you can’t use, for any number of reasons. Unless you have the luxury of taping every show in a very high-end way, you take what you can get. But having said that, we had several shows to pick from, as I recall, and this one had the most usable versions of songs on it.

I presume your rig for that show would have included the “parts” Strat-type guitar noted in your first interview.
(pauses, then chuckles) Aw, man…I was just talking to another guitar player about the days when most guitarists had huge racks that were four feet tall – all kinds of processing, harmonizers, blah, blah (laughs). I’m sure my rig had a bunch of Roland processors and Rocktron stuff, but it’s gone the other way for me; I junked all of that years ago.

The biggest new facet of your career has been the recording studio and your soundtrack recordings. What kind of film work have you done so far? What about those Music for Film CDs you’ve recorded?
I did the original compositions for a film called Trash, by a hot young director named Mark Galluzzo, and I’m in the running for one called The Whole Nine Yards, starring Bruce Willis and Patricia Arquette. It’s extremely competitive; not unlike trying to get a record deal. There’s not a lot of musicians who have made the transition from being “rock guy” to composer for films people take seriously – the only example that springs to mind is Danny Elfman. His credits are extremely varied, from Batman on. He’s made that transition, and I think getting that kind of credibility is really difficult. That’s kind of where I am right now; you really have to work at your composing skills, and maybe less on chops, believe it or not.

The Music for Film CDs are actually “samplers” of my material that producers and directors would receive if I’m being considered for a soundtrack. Each CD can be “custom-made,” with different selections, depending on what kind of music might be needed.

The first one I heard had all kinds of styles and instruments, including a banjo and a clarinet, but the second had an overall “jazzbo” vibe; one could imagine hearing that kind of music in a smoke-filled club.
The second contains the sort of music needed for a film like The Whole Nine Yards, and some world-class musicians helped me out. There was Todd Sikafoose on upright bass, Dan Morris on drums – Dan’s been working with me on some of my solo material as well – and Jim Carney and Kevin McCourt on piano. All of these guys have heavy-duty careers and track records regarding recording and touring, and I’m lucky they like working with me. I’ve been coordinating this with Deluxe Entertainment’s Alan Kauffman, one of the film’s producers.

The whole idea of my production company is to not only play a lot of American music myself, but to also have the availability to put out a great session in terms of authenticity.

Details about how your work on Trash came about?
I’m not sure how the director managed to get in touch with me, but he really liked some of my dobro stuff – and I need to thank Ben Shultz for rekindling my interest in that instrument – but the relationship with Mark worked out great for everyone concerned, and I hope to do another film with him.

Have you acquired any additional instruments lately?
Not really; I’ve been using the same standbys since we talked last time. To me, the Fender Strat has transcended being a kind of guitar; the model means “guitar,” as far as I’m concerned. Even some of the jazzy stuff that sounds like a big, fatbodied guitar on the second sampler is a Stratocaster! Instead of using an amplifier, I recorded it with the neck pickup only, going direct into the microphone preamp, and I ran that into a compressor, then into the board. It’s pretty convincing, isn’t it (laughs)?

But I do have that old fatbody Guild I’ve used for other stuff. It gets the sort of resonance heard in old recordings when guitars like L-5s were used. There are some guitars that fall out of circulation, and I discovered that guitar a few years ago, and I’ve hardly been able to put it down. I know there are a lot of people who might have different opinions about those early Guild pickups, but my guitar sounds real warm. I think it’s a ’59.

Tell me about the basic layout of your studio.
Well, the details can be found on the website, but basically, it’s a 64-track, digital hard-disk recording facility. I use a lot of tube processing on the front end, between the mic and the recorder, to get warmth and that analog vibe. But what I like, and enjoy about digital recording, is that it’s dead-on easy to edit, and it’s dead-on easy to make your music available to other people fast, because it’s computer-based. Say there’s a young director who wants to check out something for a film. Rather than send it to him on a CD, I can put a piece of music on my website and let him download it. You can’t beat that.

Did you design and build your studio?
Yeah, with the help of a couple of other guys. And to be honest, we’re still growing, and are going to do more and more major projects.

We opened about a year ago, and are already getting more film-friendly.

You’ve already had other bands at your facility – The Best of Simple, for example, whose singer you cited earlier.
They’re the hottest band I’ve seen in a long time. I first became acquainted with Chris several years ago. Nalle Colt, from Sweden, is a remarkable guitar player; he has so much earthiness in his playing, it’s amazing he wasn’t born in this country. Mitch Turner is on bass, and Rick Wheeler is on drums. We’ve been recording for about a year, and we just got our first major offer. We’ve made a really nice record, and I think when everyone hears this band, they’ll think they’re something special, like I do.

I’ve also worked with a band called Medicine Man; they were what I’d call “hard alternative.” In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of an analogy! A guy named C’Vey is the guitar player and primary writer. I’m now shopping their demo. I’m also working with an artist named Caroline Stratton; she’s from Massachusetts, my old stomping ground, and she and I have known each other for a long time. Caroline’s a tremendous jazz singer, and we’re doing her CD right now.

And that’s just a sample of the range of artists I’ve been working with at my studio, and I’ll have to say that the types of music I’ve been involved in has really evolved to include a lot of different stuff. And I think that’s the way it ought to be for any musicians who take their careers seriously. If you’re not growing and evolving, you’re dying on the vine. As a guitarist, there’s no way I could continue to look at my career like I did in the Jon Butcher Axis. A lot of bands have re-formed to give it “one last shot” or put one more album out. God bless them, but that’s not for me. I can’t see the benefit of re-forming one of my old lineups to play some gigs up in the Northeast, for instance. I don’t know if I’d be taken seriously. I think I’ve got a lot more to offer as a viable artist if I continue to look in a forward direction, not back.

Jon Butcher’s entry into the decidedly different world of film scoring and running his own studio represents a transition not every rock guitarist would be capable of making. However, Butcher’s always been a consummate professional regarding his craft, and he has not only the requisite musical experience to validate such a move, he also has the desire and maturity of a professional player seeking to take his life’s, work to a different, laudable level.

One of Butcher’s favorite instruments is this ’50s Guild electric archtop. Photo courtesy: Jon Butcher.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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