John Butler Trio

The John Butler Trio: (L to R) Shannon Birchall, John Butler, and Michael Barker.
Photo: Marty Philbey

For the record, John Butler hates the word “environmentalism.” Actually, he’s sick of all the “-isms.” The Australian jam-band musician is more interested in the interconnectedness of problems, in why humans do the things we do. “Lack of love, or hope, or opportunity,” he says, “are the core problems that end up, down the road, becoming environmental or human-rights issues.”

Known for his outspoken political beliefs and signature dreads, Butler — who was born in California and moved down under at 11 with his family — has a way with audiences that goes back to his days as a busker on the streets of Western Australia. Now most of his performances are on a stage in front of thousands of people, gaining him a platform for the issues that matter to him: banning nukes, fighting AIDS, curbing climate change. At the Live Earth concert in Sydney last month, Butler took the opportunity to do just that, making T-shirts emblazoned with “Say no to nuclear energy” and encouraging fans to think about renewables.

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Butler’s green leaning isn’t just an act. The John Butler Trio’s most recent U.S. tour was greened by Clif Bar’s GreenNotes program. His messages have made their way into album inserts (printed on recycled paper) and lyrics. His website even includes a forum for debate about the environment and global politics.

The video for Butler’s most recent single, “Better Than,” an upbeat song set to a relaxed, rootsy beat, closes with this quote: “Art changes people … people change the world.” It’s a notion he truly seems to live by.

I got the chance to chat with Butler post-Live Earth during a brief stop in the U.S. (he called from a parking lot in Hollywood) before the band finished up its Grand National tour in Australia. Our conversation echoed his musical style, laid-back and thoughtful, as it meandered from the obligatory questions about green touring to reflections on human psychology.

You recently returned from Australia, where you played Live Earth. What was that like?

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It was good. It was really good actually. The theme of the day was awareness, but it was so much more about action. So we thought we’d put the fifth pledge into action — put pressure on your leaders to support renewable energy.

We decided to bring up the nuclear issue, because we have 40 percent of the world’s uranium in [Australia], and we’re being heavily lobbied by all the people from the uranium industry, nuclear industry, and even the government’s gotten behind it. … In the name of this concert and in the name of the fifth pledge and in the name of, actually, common sense, we were out there putting pressure on our leaders to support real renewables, rather than going down the nuclear path.

Everybody wore these T-shirts that said, “Say no to nuclear energy.” I had a speech in the middle of it and got about 40,000 people all saying they wanted a nuclear-free Australia and a nuclear-free world. To me, it was a success on that front, when you put something into action. A few people were a little bit confused, like, why would you say no to nuclear energy when it’s the bridge to renewable — and I’d say well that’s just bullshit, you know? So many people are getting fooled in Australia and all around the world, [saying] let’s go to a green energy like nuclear energy … it’s like going from the coal fry-pan into the nuclear fire, you know?

They wanted us to take action, so we figured rather than celebrating doomsday, we’d have an action.

Did the concert have a different feel than when you normally go on stage?

When people come together for a cause that’s bigger than themselves, if it’s something that connects us all, in a way, as humans and as humanity, there’s a special feeling, for sure.

You guys partnered with Clif Bar’s GreenNotes program for your recent tour of the U.S. What was that like?

It was great. They hooked both our buses up with biodiesel; both our buses are running on B99 — that’s almost 100 percent biodiesel. They also hooked up some really great riders backstage — a lot more organic and a lot less waste. They were a really cool crew.

What made you decide to be part of that?

We were just kind of sick of talking about it, actually.

John Butler.

Photo: James Minchin

We started in Australia first … we offset all the emissions from our touring and reduced a lot of the freighting by going ground instead of air. We were buying carbon credits from New Zealand; that was also going back into the wind-energy industry over there, and we offset that whole tour. Then we decided we’d try to do it in America, but it was already happening over there with Reverb and Clif Bar — it was almost too easy, actually.

That seems to be a rather recent change in how people are touring. What do you see for maybe the next five or 10 years, or what do you hope to see, in terms of the music industry making changes?

It’s just like society — it’s up to individuals, or these individual bands to take the initiative on. Clif Bar, Reverb, Music Matters — all these crews — they make it easier than ever, and that’s what needs to happen. At the moment, it’s easier than ever to destroy the planet with fossil fuels and the amount of waste that’s going on … because people provide the service for it to be easier. So the minute people provide another service … then most people do the right thing.

In Australia in our last tour, we had two tickets — we had a green ticket and a regular ticket. The green ticket basically just offset people’s emissions that they make coming to our gate, and we wanted people to have the choice. We could have just made the ticket that way and offset everybody, but we really wanted to let people know that they had a choice in the matter. And you know, 80 to 90 percent of the people made the right choice to buy the green ticket and offset it. When people are given the opportunity and the information, and then they have the access to do the right thing, people usually do.

And I think it’s the same with the music industry. More artists know about the fact that they can do it and somebody’s making it easier for them to do it — like Reverb and so forth. The more it happens, the more affordable it’s going to be.

Everybody basically wants a world to live in. So I think people are just going to keep doing the right thing, or they’re going to pay the price. Human beings are pretty smart, you know? We learn very slowly, but we have our own interest in mind at the end of the day, and our survival.

So you were talking about individual actions making a difference. What are you doing as an individual?

Every day we go on stage is an action for us, and a way of adding to positive change on this planet. And it’s also the buses on biodiesel, the recycling at home, choosing to buy green energy as opposed to regular types of energy. Those are the things anyone can do. Those are the things I’ve been doing for a long time — it’s just the right thing to do.

Are you planning to continue this in your future tours — offering the green tickets and the biodiesel, and all that?

At the moment I think we’re just going to do it while it’s cool, and then when it dies out, we’ll just go back to being dickheads. [Laughs.]

I mean, yeah, of course. Once we started it, it was just the way to be done. And if you can do it, why wouldn’t you? These things are about common sense. This is not a right-wing debate, it’s not a left-wing debate, it’s not an environmental debate, it’s a human-being issue, a human issue. It’s the same when you see an old lady coming to a door, you open it up for her because that’s just the right thing to do. You treat people with respect — not because it’s the fad, or because it’s going to make you look good — because it’s the right thing to do.

You’ve mentioned a bunch of different issues that you support. Do you include any of this in your music? Do you mention it when you’re on stage, or in your lyrics?

We put a brochure [about renewable energy] in our latest CD, and that’s direct action as far as I’m concerned. That’s 100,000 people getting information that they don’t have to find from some site — it’s on their lap.

Nowadays … I’m more interested in looking at why we consume, and the way we consume. Why we always think the grass is greener on the other side. Why we always want one more flat-screen TV, and why we want a better nose, and all those things that end up making us destroy ourselves and each other. Why do individuals who run corporations that make billions of dollars in profit still want to make that little bit more off cutting out working conditions in their factories?

You can complain about it ’til the dogs come home; there’s always going to be dickheads. I’m more interested in why dickheads choose to be dickheads. And it’s usually not an evil thing; it gets back to being hit as a child or not loved enough, or being insecure. I find that really interesting. Because that’s where we’re going to really solve the problems, when people love themselves and are willing to be awake, rather than escaping.

That’s going to make some real big change in this world — when it’s not a Republican issue, when it’s not a Democratic issue, when it’s not an environmental issue, or a human-rights issue — when it’s actually about human beings loving themselves, loving each other, respecting themselves, and then, in due course, respecting other people, and other things. That’s the common denominator for me; when you peel all the layers off the onion, that seems to be the core issue.

I gave you way too much there! [Laughs.] I didn’t answer the question.

No, that was great. I’ve actually interviewed a lot of musicians, but nobody ever talks about [the] why.

It gets boring talking about pointing the finger. It doesn’t really do any good. Yeah, there’s something wrong, and people have been saying “there’s something wrong” for fucking thousands of years. And we’re still in this situation because we haven’t really dealt with the issue — which is us, you know? Us.