Improvisation, Collaboration, Activism–It’s All Connected
By Casey Lowdermilk
Perhaps the late Bill Graham’s description of the Grateful Dead is an appropriate introduction for the Rex Foundation’s next Musician’s Spotlight, the Everyone Orchestra: “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones who do what they do.”
This collective of ever-changing musicians thrives upon the collaborative and improvisational spirit that is so rich in the jamband scene. Matt Butler, the founder and conductor of Everyone Orchestra, has a passion for the music and a clear vision of his future possibilities. “This is my new instrument, conducting,” he says. “It’s this improvisational, interactive experience called Everyone Orchestra. I’m trying to introduce a new instrument into the jamband scene. Not that I’m the first one to do it, but I really have this opportunity to take it to the next level, and that’s my intent.”
The Everyone Orchestra relies upon creative improvisation and audience participation to make every show as unique and inspirational as possible. For each show, Butler creates a different lineup and conducts a complete concert experience before your eyes, an experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The Everyone Orchestra was partially inspired by the annual Zambiland Orchestra event held in Atlanta with Jeff Sipe and Colonel Bruce Hampton, which hasn’t taken place in several years. Butler got the idea for the “blatant conducting” from Zambiland Orchestra; for EO, he uses a dry erase board to instruct the band and audience how to jam and interact. Butler also credits John Zorn’s and Butch Morris’s conducting as influences.
“Now please take a moment to say a silent prayer to yourself for what you want the world to be”, asked Butler during an EO concert this past July at the Independent in San Francisco, a powerful, enriching show that left one with a particular sense of hope, both for the possibilities of improvisational music and for humanity.
Activism is as integral to the Everyone Orchestra concept as the music. EO regularly supports a variety of charities through benefit concerts and promotion. They’ve quickly become one of the most exciting and socially conscious acts on the road and at festivals today. This past July, EO began a new idea of taking the same lineup on tour for several dates. The experiment went over so well that EO will kick off an East Coast tour October 3 featuring such musicians as Jon Fishman, Steve Kimock, Peter Apfelbaum, Jeff Coffin, and Jamie Masefield.
Recently, Matt Butler and I talked about his involvement with charity organizations, the future of EO, and his philosophy on conducting.
Rex: Why is it important for the EO to support the Rex Foundation?
Matt Butler, Everyone Orchestra: What the Rex Foundation represents to me is all the good that the Grateful Dead was about. The Rex is a very intentional outreach of their good work. It feels important to do what we can to continue that legacy. So much has come from the whole Grateful Dead scene other than the beauty of the music; the Rex Foundation is such a powerful thing that they created, it’s important to see it continue to grow.
Rex: One of the best Rex benefits was the 20th Anniversary Celebration in 2004, where the Everyone Orchestra played with a lineup that included Bob Weir, Trevor Garrod and Josh Clark of Tea Leaf Green, Samantha Stollenwerck, and Mark Karan, among others. What can you remember about that evening?
Butler: It was a really fun night; I especially remember the look on Bob’s face during the conducting. We didn’t really get to practice it at all. So as soon as the conducting happened during the performance, it was the first time that everybody was on stage, and he just had this wide-eyed grin and amazement on his face like “You can do this?”
At the end of the show Bob said something to the effect of, “You know, I’ve never done anything like that.” And I thought, well that’s a compliment considering how many shows he’s played. And he also said something to the effect of “I learned something about how I communicate with my band members.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but the dry erase board is so blatant, it was really interesting to work in that way. It worked out really well; Jamie Janover conducted that one.
Rex: What kind of backstage preparation do you give to the artists before a show?
Butler: I make a point of connecting with everybody individually. I get them enrolled in the concept, idea and game of Everyone Orchestra. Right before we go on stage, I try to get everybody together and just do a quick coaching about what’s going to be happening up there. I ask everybody to be really aware and to give me feedback.
I try to get everybody to really embrace the concept of not having too many expectations or preconceptions on what’s going to happen, but just being present and trying to make beautiful music together. It’s about embracing the idea that there are no mistakes other than not listening.
Rex: The lineup for this upcoming East Coast tour looks very impressive: Jon Fishman, Steve Kimock, Peter Apfelbaum, Jeff Coffin, and Jamie Masefield, among others. What are you looking forward to for this tour?
Butler: It’s an experiment. When we first did this, the whole idea was that we were going to do this benefit show to try this concept that we had. Then we started doing more of them and we found out that it really worked well at festivals because we could tap into the people that were already there.
In pop music there’s the hook, you know (best Bono voice) “With or without you” you know, the hook. With EO, I feel like the hook is the process” the blossom. It’s not necessarily anything specific that happens musically other than the creative dialogue that goes from the beginning to the end of the show, and it continues to blossom, and it gets deeper and wider.
We were finding ourselves at the end of the shows thinking “What if this group had another night or two to continue this dialogue?” I’m in this in-between of not being a band, but creating a project that can have that blossom thing a little bit deeper. That’s the concept of the tours” try to give these lineups a little more time to develop and see where it goes.
On this past four-day tour with Kimock in July, by the fourth show, it was deeper and wider- the whole dialogue. It was moving really quickly and everybody was on the same page and able to move really fluidly. The give-and-take was just moving faster.
Rex: At what point do you know when to just step away and let the musicians play?
Butler: I just try to follow it. I try my hardest to put my ego aside and just intuitively have that perspective and be able to step aside, grab a shaker or just sit there and hold space for it to happen.
If the band is totally going off, I might grab an instrument, but I might just sit back and take it in. It’s easy for me to continue to hold that space and then step up and make a couple of moves when the band is ready to do that appropriately.
I don’t have preconceptions on what I want the music to sound like. My job is to conduct when needed and follow my intuition to try to help facilitate a balanced, even show.
Rex: What do you find attractive about improvisational music, especially in the EO setting?
Butler: There’s a spiritual nature to being very present and in the moment, whether in music or anything else. The power of improvisation is that it’s being created right then and there, and we’re bringing the audience blatantly into that.
There’s no hidden agenda to what we’re going to do musically. Anything could happen at any moment; just be aware. The more we get into that moment together, the higher the moment gets. We take it higher together.
I find that it’s a good way to bring in that spiritual nature of bringing people together. We find everybody being in a very present, happy and connected state. There’s something empowering about that. With music, connecting with people in that moment can often be very empowering and inspiring for the rest of your relationships in life.
I hesitate to say ‘healing’ because it kind of implies that we’re sick. But people would go to the Grateful Dead shows to be healed in a way, from the woes of their normal life. It’s a very tangible way to get healed or inspired, and that’s what’s attractive about it.
Rex: Who are some musicians, living or dead, that you’d love to assemble for an EO lineup?
Butler: I don’t have a big agenda on who I want to play, necessarily. I want to play with my friends, and my group of friends is growing exponentially with this project. But I also have my internal friends that I’ve been playing with all my life, and I love to play with those guys and girls more than anybody, in a way. Putting the super bands together just happens organically.
To get Zakir Hussein, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Bob Weir, and Joni Mitchell - in a sense, that could be the ultimate expression of what this is to the mass public, because they relate to these iconic musicians, in a way. It might be most effective if we get it to the level where we’re breaking out of the grassroots jam scene into mainstream pop. We have that potential in a way; it’s not necessarily my goal with it, but I’m open to it, just because it’s an ongoing experiment. Getting people to be in the moment like that could be very powerful.
As far as a specific dream team, and there’s so many of them, if we take that scope and bring in some people that are outside of this scene, I think that’s an exciting thing to consider.
Rex: Activism plays a large role in the Everyone Orchestra, from promoting sustainability to supporting a variety of non-profit charities to audience participation. Why do you think this musical celebration of EO should be involved with activism?
Butler: It came from a desire to connect activism with music and performance. The first shows that we did were all benefits, so that is part of how we ended up getting all of this together, and it evolved from there. There’s a higher intent for all these musicians to be there together, and they can acknowledge that there’s this higher intent. I think it raises the level and meaning of everything a little bit, and it just felt important.
It’s interesting to have a real distinction between the music performance and any kind of activism, or supporting some cause. Maybe it can be messy if you combine those things, but I appreciate when musicians do stand up for something that’s important.
There’s a part of that with the Grateful Dead that I didn’t get from that scene, except for the Rex. The Rex Foundation helped me give meaning towards my relationship with the Grateful Dead.
The musical and artistic value of what we’re doing beckons to do it more than just a few benefits a year. Let’s see if we can get this going to where we’re doing 50-100 shows a year around the world. Being a non-profit, activist group made it kind of difficult to do that without figuring out a way for us to make money to afford to do it. We’re figuring out exactly how to pair those two things together and move forward with integrity.
Rex: It seems like in 2001, EO started as kind of an experiment. What have you learned in the past five years?
Butler: I’ve learned that on the whole, the musicians love it. And it wouldn’t be moving forward if I wasn’t getting that feedback. I’ve also learned that improvisation has been framed in a way that alienates the baseline music fan who’s not into jambands or improvisational music.
I want to take it beyond the people who are expecting the jamband thing. I believe that EO, in some ways more so than a band that just has a really great lead guitarist, is going to connect with the average pop-music listener in the live setting, has an opportunity to connect with them in a completely different and new way. We can bring them into the idea of improvisation where it doesn’t have sound too cacophonic or be a long, long noodly solo. It can be all these other things and we’re just trying to put that on the plate – right in front of people. I’ve learned that there’s an opportunity to connect with people that aren’t expecting that they would be into improvisation or jazz in a whole different way.
We’re going to be releasing music in the coming months and throughout this tour. We’ll be releasing these live shows as much as possible so people can get acquainted with it in that respect.
Jamming with the Everyone Orchestra
Samantha Stollenwerck, a rising musician in the local San Francisco music scene, has captured the nation’s attention with her “Cali-Soul,” performing at Austin City Limits, SXSW and Bonnaroo. This fall she’ll be supporting Ziggy Marley for 11 dates across the country. She frequently participates in Everyone Orchestra lineups for the thrill of improvisational music and the opportunity to collaborate with great musicians. The Rex Foundation recently spoke with Samantha about her Everyone Orchestra experiences.
Rex: What can you recall from the December 2004 Rex 20th Anniversary Celebration with the EO?
Samantha Stollenwerck: I remember getting a chance to get up on stage with part of the Grateful Dead. The best part for me was being able to sing the upper harmonies for “Friend of the Devil” with Bob Weir. I grew up singing along to this on tape cassettes and now I’m singing it with the man – it was definitely a highlight.
Also, my friends in TLG were in it as well. We’ve done a lot of good work together. We were SF people. That family element reciprocated back.
Rex: Why do you think activism and supporting non-profit charities are so important to the concept of the Everyone Orchestra?
Stollenwerck: The reason why I continue to be a part of EO is that the template for the music is so unique and so community energized. That’s the reason why we get on stage and do that. There’s this give-and-take between the audience and musicians on stage. It’s all improv, and it’s all about what we create when we’re there.
That goes along with the mindset of coming together to make this world a better place. You’re getting to share your music, you’re getting to be a part of the audience and the audience gets to be a part of you. And that goes hand in hand with getting involved with the world around you.
Rex: During your opening set at the Independent earlier this summer, you played a song that you said had been inspired by an EO session. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Stollenwerck: This is a song called “NOLA,” kind of a tribute to all my friends who were affected by Hurricane Katrina. We did an EO fundraiser at 12 Galaxies and it was dedicated to New Orleans. I come up with these improv spontaneous lyrics for EO, and it becomes a mantra for the song, and everyone sings along. I think what I said was, “No matter what you do, your soul can’t get washed away.” I wrote an entire song around that hook, that turned into an awesome song that I love to play live. That definitely propelled a song for me.
Rex: What have you learned as a musician through participating in EO?
Stollenwerck: I’ve always been a fan of improv music and I support the “jamband” scene. That’s why I’ve been a part of it for so long, because I have a deep appreciation for musicians who can come together and just play, regardless if they know the song or chord progression.
There is a beauty in being able to have a free-form mode of expression. That’s what always drew me to the EO. Sometimes the best things come out when you haven’t preconceived it; they come out spontaneously and in the moment. With EO, there’s a lot of in-the-moment-ness about it. I try to bring, with my music, an element of that to make every concert unique and different. Within my formula, I like to explore other ways of going about in each song to make it a special or unique experience.