‘Glorified volume knob’ Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra

Matt Butler
Matt Butler must be an an improvisational master who can both lead and follow the energy of the band. The Everyone’s Orchestra plays Sunday at WinterWonderGrass at Squaw Valley.

It seems Everyone Orchestra’s Matt Butler is up for just about anything.

Tahoe Onstage talked to the whirlwind jam-band conductor and instigator of improvisation after he had just completed a half-marathon, but not just any half-marathon. He ditched the streets for forest trails outside Corvallis, Oregon, that included 1,700 feet in elevation change and “3 to 6 city blocks with 6-12 inches of water” to bound through. Butler described the experience as epic.

That’s certainly how many people would describe one of Butler’s Everyone Orchestra shows.

The concept is a fantasy for many jam-band and live-music aficionados. Let’s get a band together of some of the most inspiring musicians out there and just see what happens as they rip together for two hours, completely improvised. Butler threw the first Everyone Orchestra show on New Year’s Eve in 2001 and has been going steady since. He has become a mainstay at festivals and has worked with members of Phish, moe., Gov’t Mule and Leftover Salmon, among a plethora of other musicians.

Butler’s first encounters with the art of conducting came at an early age. His mom was a professionally trained violinist and many of the family’s close friends were internationally known conductors. They left an impression on the young musician, who was intrigued at the power and role conductors had within an orchestra. He then embraced the jam-band ethos, playing drums in his band Jambay and experimenting with all sorts of group and music activities such as drum circles, open mic nights and producing albums. All those eclectic inspirations kind of came together in his experience with the Zambiland Orchestra, which was formed by Jeff Sipe and Col. Bruce Hampton.

“They would have these annual shows where they would have to 60-80 musicians on stage and a conductor that would use a plunger and giant cue cards. It was an incredibly magical, musical experience. The music wasn’t beautiful, the experience was beautiful. The music was chaos and funny and challenging and avant-garde. Put all those things things together and that’s where Everyone Orchestra came for me,” Butler said.

Matt Butler takes concertgoers on a new journey every time the Everything Orchestra goes onstage.

Everyone Orchestra shows are all about trying to capture that inspired chaos. As conductor, Butler must be an an improvisational master who can both lead and follow the energy of the band. He uses cue cards to guide the flow of the music and band, throwing up words and instructions like, “Chaos,” “FREEDOM” and “Fade Out” to act as stars for the musicians to set their compasses. It doesn’t seem like much, but his work is integral in deciding the scope and feel of every show.

“Sometimes I joke about my role as conductor, that I’m a glorified volume knob. A conductor basically captures the overall spirit of the piece of music the orchestra is going to perform. They’ll keep everybody on the same page in terms of dynamics and the intensity and the emotion part of it. The best conductors work out a way of inspiring the performance of the group and driving the emotional part of what the music was attempting to bring forth,” Butler said.

Each show is completely improvised and very little goes into preparing for it. Butler will collect a group of musicians and before the concert will send them his intent for the performance, some basic conducting moves and some input on what the musicians want to get out of the experience. That’s basically it until showtime, when the music takes over.

“I let the musicians compose the music. We do it as group and I play the role of capturing the emotive part and the dynamic part. But they are completing the specific pieces I am putting into play. Sometimes I’ll give a key change to play this, but a lot of times I’m saying, ‘Vince Herman, start us off and we’re gonna use that as a jumping off point.’ He plays a riff and we’ll go,” Butler said.

Butler is supercharged for Everyone Orchestra’s show at WinterWonderGrass on Sunday, April 2. Per the makeup of festival, the musicians fall within the realm of bluegrass, cosmic country and folk-rock, which Butler believes will create a lot of singalongs and care for the makeup of the songs. He’s enlisted Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, Andy Thorn and Erik Deutsch of Leftover Salmon, Tyler Thompson and Mimi Naja of Fruition and Tyler Grant and Adrian Engfur of Grant Farm. The conductor promises there will be additional guests and the whole thing will be a family affair.

“The intent is about these master musicians being completely spontaneous, completely vulnerable, completely on board to co-compose pure improvisation with this group of musicians and to just go for it,” Butler said.

It will surely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

-Garrett Bethmann

Related stories:
This time Sam Bush brings entire band to WinterWonderGrass.

What Say You, Leftover Salmon, Fruition, The Good Bad, Dead Winter Carpenters?
What Say You (2), Infamous Stringdusters, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Trout Steak Revival, Front Country, Head for the Hills?

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