John Butler back at Bluesfest

JOHN BUTLER has given me two instructions to carry out after I hang up the phone.

The first is to type ‘April Uprising’ into Google search, the second to check out stand-up comedian Bill Hicks on YouTube.

The first instruction is to research the history behind the April Uprising in Bulgaria – the event behind the name of the John Butler Trio’s latest album, released last week in Australia.

The second is to explain the secret behind his success.

Butler tells me that as a busker on the streets of Fremantle many years ago he made a ‘deal’, which transformed his life as a ‘mad max gypsy busker’ into becoming Australia’s most successful independent recording artist. Every John Butler Trio tour for the past seven years has sold out and the band has sold more than one million albums in Australia alone.

The deal would also see John Butler Trio as one of the headlining acts of the 21st anniversary of Bluesfest, which kicks off tonight.

“I wanted to be a part of positive change on the planet. It was then that I made a deal with ‘that’ and it was only then that things bolted off for me like a horse,” he says.

When pressed with what ‘that’ is, Butler vividly mimics a Bill Hicks impersonation of the devil granting various musicians stardom on condition they enter into ‘conjugal relations’ with him.

“Well, it wasn’t really a deal with the devil,” Butler laughs. “I can’t explain what the divine is but what I do know is that I have a relationship with it. I know it’s in all of us. Some people call it God; some call it Allah, others Mother … for me they are all the same thing.”

Fast forward to 2010 and John Butler’s deal with the divine has paid dividends.

The 2004 breakthrough album, Sunrise Over Sea, went multi-platinum, as did the last studio effort, Grand National. April Uprising, Butler’s first studio offering in three years, is a 15-track masterpiece, which highlights the extent of his range, although it came at a cost.

“April Uprising is a metaphor for transformation,” he says. “April was the month when this huge period of change in my life manifested in the foundations of this album.”

It all started when Butler got together for a jam session with his brother-in-law, Nicky Bomba.

“It was electric; it caught me a little by surprise. It scared the hell out of me and it surprised me. I knew I had to follow my heart and take a risk. It is my job as an artist to take risks. So I broke up the previous trio, who were both outstanding musicians. It wasn’t an easy thing to do but I had to follow my intuitive heart,” he says.

Butler had started recording the new album with Bomba and Byron Luiters when he participated in the SBS TV documentary, Who Do You Think You Are? last year. He discovered his passion as a musician had roots back through generations of trailblazers, from a matriarch who sang for her survival to a great-great-grandfather caught up in the violent April Uprising in Bulgaria

“Learning this stuff gave me a kind of pride about having ideals, that it all went further back, which is cool,” he says. “Taking part in the documentary translated into a form of focus and a sense of conviction. The title April Uprising represents that conviction.”

Catch John Butler Trio on the Mojo Stage at Bluesfest tomorrow night. Bluesfest kicks off tonight and will run until Monday. Tickets available at

For full coverage of Bluesfest today and tomorrow, grab a copy of Saturday's Northern Star.

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