By A.J. Wachtel
In 1982, The J. Geils Band did the unthinkable and took an unsigned local act on an international tour to promote their hit release Freeze Frame. This exposure led to Jon Butcher Axis signing an international deal with Polygram Records. And in the almost thirty five years since, Butcher’s star continues to shine brightly with his latest release 2Roads East. Check out what the man with the Strat has to say about what’s happening on his fretboard and how he made this album.
Noise: You have an all-star lineup on your 2Roads East. The guitar parts are handled by you, Johnny A, Cliff Goodwin (Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez) and Tomo Fujita. How did you pick and choose this arsenal and what does each of these master musicians bring to the table on this recording?
Jon: I mostly record alone, or more accurately with my engineer and partner-in-crime Warren Babson. Much of 2Roads East is me doing everything except drums, although even there I had a go. That said, I wanted to make room for some collaboration and called a few best buddies who also happen to be world-class musicians. Johnny A and I went to college together, we developed a guitar solo dialogue at the end of “Transcendence” which kills. Guitarist Tomo Fujita (Berklee professor) and I have become very close over the past few years, we improvised an electric and nylon string classical guitar bit at the end of “Dust” in a single take which has world-music inflections. And Cliff Goodwin and I go back to his Joe Cocker days, we’ve been to battle together. We improvised the head-trippy end section of “Path of Life” with a flamenco guitar solo by me and a Telecaster-slide bit by Cliff – very cool and off the grid.
Noise: On bass you use Leland Sklar, Jeff Keithline and Brad Hallen (Duke Robillard Band) who play completely different styles. How did you choose these four stringers and and how does their diversity add to the final product?
Jon: I played some bass on 2Roads East, with mixed results! (laughs), but Jeff and John Anthony (Axis) will form the nucleus in terms of touring/ gigging 2RE. I wanted my pal Chris Martin on 2RE but logistics and the demands of a medical practice (yup, that’s DR. Chris Martin,) made it tough. Chris left some big boot-sized shoes to fill and Jeff met the challenge running, check him out on “Soul Power.” Likewise, Brad Halen’s playing, both standup acoustic bass and electric on “Dust” is expressive, jazz-based cool. Last but not least, what is there left to say about Lee Sklar? The reason why everybody loves Leland Sklar is apparent the moment you meet him. But the reason he gets the call from Phil Collins, James Taylor, Steve Lukather, Glenn Frey, Don Henley et. al. is because he brings it – every time, to everything he does. On over 2000 recordings! When we were in Barefoot Servants we recorded some kick-ass music, but the live-touring side was off the hook. Barefoot Servants touring stories could fill this issue of The Noise! Check Lee out on “Without You,” it’s got a kind of West African vibe going on which he completely owns. I’m honored to know and work with this guy.
Noise: Singing stars Chelsea Berry (folk), Gracie Curran (blues), Meagan Wolf, Shara Anthony and Adrienne Melling share their vocal talents with you too. Please tell us about their contributions.
Jon: My good friend and neighbor Fly Amero of the band Orleans volunteered to help me with vocals on “Without You” and killed it. Chelsea Berry, a very talented singer/ songwriter from Alaska, literally bumped into my wife Laurinda and I at a vintage clothing store in the town where we live. We became friends, I eventually asked her to sing on “Transcendence” and what she did is wonderful. The soulful Gracie Curran’s amazing voice shines on “Path of Life,” a song whose lyric I co-wrote with Dawn Carroll from Over My Shoulder Foundation. Adrienne Melling and Shara Anthony provide the party-energy-studio-fun behind of “Power of Soul,” an ode to brother James Brown. And I have to mention my longtime brother, crazy talented soul-singer Chris Pierce whose voice can be heard tearing it up on the title track, “2Roads East” –boom shakka lakka! [everybody laughs]
Noise: This is your first release of new music in almost two years. Why did it take so long for this to come together?
Jon: A few reasons; first we really only worked two to three days out of any given week. I recorded at Q Division and Bang a Song, both in Massachusetts, for the unique things each offered. A lot of studio hours were logged at both studios. I also re-wrote and re-recorded stuff a lot, multiple times. The title track I recorded 10 different versions, trying to get it to feel right. That song needed the proper application of liquid groove-right (laughs). Peter Hackel (PHProductions) and I flew to L.A. with what we thought was the finished CD. We took meetings and I realized there were important elements missing from it! On the plane back I knew I had more to do yet. I wasn’t perfecting, I was expanding.
Noise: The music covers familiar and unexpected grounds for old Jon Butcher Axis fans. What are you doing on this CD that is different from your old style?
Jon: Nothing. Nothing different that is, hopefully better. I know I’m a better player than I was when I started, at least I hope so. 2Roads East is an expansion of where I started, a mix of styles hard to quantify in a soundbite. There are inflections of blues, acoustic blues, funk-rock, r&b, jazz all over the record that began with me, Chris and Derek (Blevens) in a bug infested, cold Cambridge walk-up in 1982. And I enlisted some truly gifted players, two of which, Dan Kenny (piano) and Sandy Mac (Hammond organ) deserve special mention. Dan’s Keith Jarrett-like piano solo on “Without You” is just brilliant, inspired.
Noise: On 2Roads East you play bass, keys and even banjo on “Madness.” What’s the story behind this?
Jon: ”Madness” began at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA, a couple of summers ago. Passim is one of the oldest and coolest venues anywhere. When I began recording it, banjo seemed to fit perfectly as a counterpoint to the song’s lyric. It’s basically either an old geezer shaking his fist at the clouds or a sarcastic spin on American politics in 2016. Depending on who’s doing the listening! [laughs]
Noise: This album was recorded in multiple studios across many time zones over a period of 18 months. Why didn’t you stay put in one studio and what are the advantages of using different facilities? Will you ever record like this again?
Jon: I really don’t know if there are advantages. I went about it this way as a matter of convenience and studio availability. I figured out early on I wasn’t going to be able to confine the process to two to four weeks and bang it out quick. It just didn’t happen that way. I kept writing. And writing, and re-writing. I recorded everything, hundreds of hours of session files. The longer the process went on the more determined I became not to give up on certain songs I liked but weren’t quite solid yet. I figured if you’re going to pour everything into a record – your family time, your resources, everything, it ought to at least be right for you. Whether or not the music makes a connection with the world at large is a separate thing. And out of your control anyway. Create the art for yourself. Commit to it. Lose yourself in it. If not, why even bother?
Noise: After listening to your music, I think this is your finest sounding recorded work yet. Why does it sound so good in your opinion?
Jon: The sounds created on 2Roads East are a direct result of killer players and working with creative and talented engineers. Bang a Song studio engineer and my co-pilot on 2RE Warren Babson and I work well together and have developed a kind of shorthand. He knows what I’m looking for as a producer, what I’m inclined to dig or not for mic choices, multi-tracking technique etc. I’ve been self-producing my own records and others for a few years at this point, requiring equal parts heightened self-awareness and detachment. Warren and I almost always worked alone when we were doing vocal and guitar tracks, that shorthand came in handy.
Noise: In your press release it says the 10 new songs of 2Roads East are stylistically diverse by design. Some songs predestined for film underscore by their cinematic origin (“Transcendence,” ’Without You”) and others are ferocious reminders of the power and majesty of Jon’s standard sound (“Heat Seeker,” “Caveman”). What does this mean in plain English?
Jon: It means that music is consumed differently now. Album art, concept records are generally anachronisms from another time. CDs are old technology. Music is mostly consumed digitally, download by download. This means that a given CD collection, mine for instance, can have a measure of stylistic diversity. Some of the tracks are old school Philadelphia soul, others are rock-guitar oriented. There’s some folk/blues in the tradition of Taj Mahal or Keb Mo, all of it filtered through my sensibility, such as it is. My fans will go to iTunes or wherever and download what songs on 2Roads East that interests them. I have more than a passing interest in marketing 2RE to film and television for both placement and underscore opportunities. Film music supervisors and Indie film-makers take note!
Noise: “Transcendence” sounds like a Jon Butcher Axis song and your promo release says it has its “traceable roots to Jon’s debut album The Jon Butcher Axis and the video for “Life Takes A Life.” In what way?
Jon: “Life Takes A Life” was my band’s greeting to the world, edified in our debut MTV music video starring Chris Martin as an insane psycho tower sniper! [laughs] That song however touched people in ways I never understood until much later. The song, and Axis had a different sound, an echo-guitar-groove-thing. And a bass/ drum orientation that was kinda Police-y, gratitude to Derek Blevins and Chris Martin. “Transcendence” is built from those bones, a similar kind of approach and sound that relates to ”Life Takes A Life.” The lyric of both share a kind of reflective narrative and the guitar thing is, I don’t know,mine.
Noise: If 2Roads East is a look into your mind and soul why is this an important release in the current day with the completely transformed music industry? How is this a different way you are presenting yourself and bringing your music to your fans?
Jon: Well, 2Roads East is a look into my life as one soul walking the Earth anyway. And I guess the lyrics are excerpts from my own movie, so to speak. While I enjoyed making the Experienced! CD in 2014, it was a cool and fun diversion into Hendrix-land. Big fun and we loved the live shows, the Experience Hendrix Tour, all of it. But 2 Roads East isn’t that. Making this CD was important for me. Each song is a movie, in fact I’ve created mini-movies for each track on the CD that I’ll make available as vids on YouTube. I have a keen interest in pairing music with visual art. A few years ago I began shooting a project with film maker Norman Lang and producer Bill Rosenthal on a film project called Kiss the Sky which featured actress Tara Buck. That project is for the moment tied up, but I plan on exposing 2RE to as many film producers, music supervisors and Indie directors as I can. It’s cinematic groove-blues from space.
Noise: In one word describe 2Roads East.
Noise: What’s in the future for Jon Butcher?
Jon: The launch of Electric Factory X or EFX, a production/ management company dedicated to discovering and cultivating new talent, that and 2RE are what’s on my radar for the rest of this year and next. EFX’s mission is to bring unique artists with something to say to their worldwide audience. While this role is new for me the experience has been life-altering. I’m also bringing a lifetime’s worth of relationships into a single focus, that being to make EFX a viable platform for new music and new art. Leighton Wolffe (EFX co-chair and executive producer) and I are excited about two new artists EFX will debut in 2016, singer Megan Wolf and rapper WiL-B from the UK. Both will launch vids this year along with their respective CDs. Both are in our view the face of modern music in the 21st century and I’m excited about my role at EFX to help make that happen.