Justin Charles

Every music fan, at some point or another, has put together their dream jam session in their head. Take someone from Phish, someone from String Cheese Incident, someone from Umphrey’s McGee, and someone from the Grateful Dead together and put them in an empty field and imagine them just jamming. For the past decade, Matt Butler has essentially been doing this in real life, conducting some of the biggest names in the jam band scene regularly as The Everyone Orchestra, an always changing group of musicians who come together to jam.

In 2012 alone, Matt has conducted the likes of Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk), Michael Kang (SCI), Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s McGee), Vinnie Amico and Al Schnier (moe), and Adam Deitch (Lettuce/Break Science), to name just a few. Everyone Orchestra’ 2012 debut album, Brooklyn Sessions, featured an all-star line-up including Jon Fishman (Phish), Marco Benevento, Steve Kimock, Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews) and Jen Hartswick (Trey Anastasio Band). The man keeps in good company.

Matt sat down with Live For Live Music recently to discuss everything from living with Ken Kesey to his upcoming shows at Sullivan Hall. Read the full interview below:

Could you tell us where the idea was behind Everyone Orchestra came from?

It’s definitely a combination of a lot of different things. It began as an idea when the “jam scene” really started to develop in the early 90’s. We began with a band called “Jambay” which incorporated a plethora of exploration and experimentation. That was a huge contribution to the idea. Another was being part of an enormous open mic in India. Most people there didn’t even speak the same language, so it was interesting to see the improv form a universal conversation all its own. Yet another was when Jambay was the house band for a Ken Kesey play called “Twister”. We lived and toured with him for quite a while, and he was very into incorporating the audience into the play in a lot of different ways. That whole idea of breaking down the barrier of the audience and the performers started to arouse my connection to the improvisation. All of those combined together to inspire the Everyone Orchestra, which is still a work in progress to this day. When we first started, it was just me looking to create a musical playpen for musicians. Now it’s a lot more solidified, and with shows like the Sullivan Hall run, it’s awesome to have the opportunity to stretch out with the whole idea for three days straight with a static line-up.

When you say that the Everyone Orchestra is a “work in progress”, do you mean there is a higher standard in your mind for the band than where you already are?

Not necessarily. It’s a work in progress in the sense that it’s been a very dynamic thing the past decade. For example, I just started conducting, which I’ve never done in the past. It’s a group of musicians who love the essence of the music we play, but it’s an ever-developing thing. You know the game we play, and you give your own into it. The aim is to co-create music, and songs for that matter, with the audience. So, all-in-all, it’s still developing. There are things similar to it, such as “super jams”, but I’m definitely aiming for something a lot different. I really love shows like the ones we have lined up at Sullivan Hall because the musicians are excited about it themselves. When the musicians are having a great musical experience, it really adds a whole new realm to the music. The musicality gets a lot deeper, too. Like I said, though, we’re still pushing for new ideas. We just did this album about a year ago, but we’re still looking at the songs in a sense of “what more can we do with this on stage?” versus getting too satisfied.

Was it hard to go from playing in a rhythm section to conducting?

Not necessarily. It’s hard to do both; to conduct half a show then play drums the other half. All-in-all, though, conducting is such a crucial role, so once I started, it was a huge morale boost for the band. Me conducting kind of gave a sense of relief to the project, too. Beforehand, everyone was a bit pressured when they were just playing without any given idea of what they were going to do. Once the band saw that someone was willing to move the band into a more guided route versus just playing completely naked, it gave a whole new dimension of musical maturity to the band.

Since there’s an eclectic array of musical influences, does the music change greatly from line-up to line-up?

It does. I just did work with a plethora of different musicians, including the Barr brothers and Ivan Neville, so I try to keep a common synergy among’st line-ups. I love seeing what any band can do with “funk”, however they may interpret it. I call out “funk in A” a lot, and every musician will have their own take of it, but it’s a great jumping off point. The musicians are challenged too by it. Forcing them to play with a group of very dynamic musicians pushes them. It’s kind of like a “music camp” for them.

How does each line-up come together? Do you just pick people out of curiosity as to how they will fuse?

Well, obviously there’s a lot of logistics involved. Every line-up just seems to come together. For example, musicians will give me a list of dates available, I’ll go ahead and book the Everyone Orchestra for a festival, and then create the line-up afterward. Then there’s the requirement for diversity. I’ll make sure to set up a show meticulously when it comes to the musicians for every section.

When it comes to shows, do you choose songs, or is it just one free-form improvisation?

It’s never just one long free-form improv unless it’s an hour and half All Good setlist where I’ll just say “let’s play the whole way through”. We are aiming to create music on the spot, so embracing patience is key. It’s pretty dynamic though. Sometimes, we’ll incorporate songs. For example, the last show I did with [John] Kadlecik was a Jerry Tribute, so we did a few Garcia tunes in the set. I’m not sure if we’ll put songs in there for the shows coming up, though. Zach Gill is very into the songwriting of it versus other musicians like Fish who loves to create music that’s never been played before. It really comes down to not necessarily how much rehearsing we’ve done, but how conscious one is in the moment.

Speaking of rehearsals, will there be any for this Sullivan Hall show?

 I’m not sure. We rehearse for shows where we incorporate actual songs, such as the Rex Foundation benefit, but I don’t think it’s as necessary with this show. For example, we didn’t rehearse at all for the album, and it came out great.

You mentioned the album you made about a year ago. How was the experience in actually putting music on record versus the actual live show? Did you have written ideas or was it improv like on stage?

 It was all conducted improv.

Wow… Would you ever do that again?

Definitely. We would just play and take the crystallized moments and put them on the album. I’d love to take that approach for the next one.

You funded this album partially with KickStarter. How did that work out and can you see yourself doing that again for the next album?

I’d rather do it at the beginning then at the end next time. The album came together, but as everyone’s availability came up, the album was being put down quick. So I really had to commit to the financial reality of making it happen. Everyone affiliated with the group is so busy so to have a period of time when they were all free was something I had to take advantage of on the spot. Next time though, I’ll probably sign everyone up, fund it beforehand, then get to work.

Is there any particular artist that is your favorite to work with? Also, are there any dream artists you hope to work with?

Very hard question… I’ve conducted so many of my heroes over the years, it’s hard to say… I’d love to get an eclectic group of pioneers of specific genres together in the future, though. Have a bluegrass wizard like Grisman, a classic funk artist like Neville, etc etc. I’d love to do something like that.

Do you have a favorite show moment?

This one I just did with the Barr Brothers and Neville up in Canada was very fun. It was a small festival on a lake, and the audience doesn’t get much live music up there, so they were super into it. We had a very unique lineup, too. It was a blast.

For the people who haven’t seen the Everyone Orchestra, could you tell them what to expect at these Sullivan Hall shows?

Well, you’re going to see and feel joy through the musicians. They may look surprised or on high alert at points, but that’s only because they have no idea where it’s going to go. A lot of times, too, we will allow the audience to sing lyrics to songs, so make sure we can hear you! Another thing is sometimes I’ll write something on the board and show the audience before I show the band, so that in itself is a very unique and fun experience. It’s very playful. It embraces imperfection and togetherness… The spiritual nature of improvisation in searching for those amazing moments.

Are the Sullivan Hall line-ups set or are they subject to change?

We have one musician we can’t announce for a while, and there’s a few rumored guest musicians, so we’ll have to see… Fishman just got done with tour, so I’ll let him rest for a bit, but essentially, I have all of the core lineup for these three shows, though.

I’ve noticed you talk a lot about working with Fish… Was he the first guy you went to and you just kind of built around him?

Well, with musicians like Fish and Kadlecik, they’re always so busy, but when they’re available, I always try to incorporate them.

I know you’ve done a lot of charity work… Is there anything you’d like to tell us about that?

Well, with those shows, either a charity will approach me, or vice versa, and we’ll do a benefit. A lot of them are environmental, but there’s a lot of different charities we contribute to. We could end up making the Sullivan Shows for charity, but we have not as of now.

Butler will be at New York City’s Sullivan Hall between October 26th and 28th, conducting Jon Fishman (Phish), John Kadlecik (Furthur), Lebo and Zach Gill (ALO), Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green), Jamie Masefield (Jazz Mandolin Project), and more as the Everyone Orchestra. Tickets are going fast, but can still be purchased here.