The Expanders
An Interview with John Butcher

Recently, Norcal Reggae Calendar had a chance to interview John Butcher, a member of The Expanders, as the band embarked on a nationwide tour. It was clear, their progress in the reggae music industry had been putting them in the spotlight -- literally and figuratively. In fact, the latest album Hustling Culture on Easy Star Records hit #1 on the Billboard Reggae Charts. Currently the album has an average review of 5 stars on iTunes and is receiving rave reviews from Top Shelf Reggae, The Pier, and Reggaeville. The Expanders are a perfect example of what “On the Rise” is all about.

The Interview

Kyle: “John, thank you so much for taking some time to interview. To start out, I'm a huge fan. Let's get right to it... Do you want to share any crazy stories from being on tour?”

John: “We have had some funny moments happen… We were staying in Texas at my friends Geo Ramos from ReRooted. It was a day off and everyone was chillin’ out doing laundry and just blazing -- a day off, you know? There were some guys upstairs watching a movie. I was downstairs doing laundry and I went down to put a load in and come back up, and Devon was about to take a shower… Geo’s bathroom has two rooms, a room with a sink and mirror and you can close a door -- and then there’s a toilet and a shower in the other room. So, Devon’s in the bathroom taking a shower, I go downstairs to change the load... I go back upstairs and everyone is FUCKING SCREAMING like at the top of their lungs like FUCK FUCK and yelling. I couldn't figure out what was going on! They were grabbing dishes from the kitchen and running to the bathroom. All of a sudden I realized what’s going on because there was a smoke alarm going off and fucking beeping like, 'What the fuck is going on?'

What ended up happening is when Devon got in the shower he like took his boxer shorts off and threw them in the other room, the room with the sink, and it landed on two candles. Then he shut the door to the bathroom and locked it! So he was in the shower and smoke started coming under the door he said and he didn't know what to do. He opened the door and there was like fire on the fucking counter. All the guy’s personal belongings caught on fire. So Devon is trapped in the bathroom and he’s trying to yell to the people in the living room to open the door. Anyway, they finally got the door open and what I saw was them grabbing coffee pots full of water and throwing fucking water into the bathroom! Devin almost burned down the bathroom.”

Kyle: “Is there a sound engineer that you always look forward to working with? Who is your favorite live sound engineer?”

John: “A lot of the sound engineers at the local venues change throughout the nights. I can tell you that we’ve worked with one in the past, his name is Steve Sullivan. He does the sound for Tribal Seeds. We had the opportunity on a previous tour with Tribal Seeds to use him as our sound guy for the tour and he absolutely killed our sound! He nailed it, he came prepared, he knew the songs... it was really quite a pleasure to work with him.  He’s a good guy, he has a skill, he knows how to make reggae. If you just go from venue to venue and you go from sound guy to sound guy some of them may have listened to reggae some of them might not. That’s always a challenge as a reggae band. Definitely, by far, Steve was the best at that.”

Kyle: “On tour, is there a city or venue that you always look forward to playing?”

John: “That’s tough because we’re just barely new to getting out on the road. I personally just enjoy playing any new city at this point -- any city again where we can make fans… We haven't done too many headlining tours... I can definitely say that [we look forward to] hitting the road in general. Every city offers something different.”

Kyle: “Which studio is the preferred place to record The Expanders?”

John: “In my opinion, it’s Killian Sound, which is the studio where we recorded two of our albums.  That’s in North Hollywood and is run by Sergio Rios, the guitar player for a band called ORgone. That’s just our spot. It has the best vibes. They use record-to-tape, vintage mics, vintage amps, and everyone in the same room. It has a feel. All of the albums have been analog, recorded straight to tape. You can’t buy new tapes anymore so you gotta buy stocks of old tapes or tapes that you can tape over but there’s still quite a bit of old stuff that hasn’t been recorded on. I’m sure now, with the resurgence of vinyl, it should be coming back around.

For us, definitely the analog sound is what we want. We really try to record as close to the way the Jamaicans did, as possible. That’s recording straight to tape, all in the same room with mics bleeding into everything. We do attempt a little bit of isolation. the drums are right next to the guitar amp and the bass is right next to the keyboard amp. Everything is kind of going into everything. But that ambiance is what makes Jamaican reggae. It’s *the shit* in my opinion.  I think when you try to isolate too much you lose something. But Killian Sound offers the opposite of isolation. The unity factor. Those physical things happen.

When you play in the same room and you’re all looking at each other, other things can happen that normally wouldn’t happen if you’re doing it one person at a time. The bass player might play the bass line a little different, maybe on accident, but you like what he did so you then do something and then that inspires the keyboard player to play a line -- and then you just have this magic moment that was never written but was captured on tape. Those moments are what we try to get. The recordings are loose in the sense that we try to capture those little intricacies that happen. We can’t generate that when the drummer lays his stuff down and then the bass player goes in and lays something over the drum tracks. That stuff gets so cut and cookie-cutter-dry it’s like ‘UGHHH’... no knock on people making their living doing that, but with what we’re doing, we can’t do it that way.”

Kyle: “Is there are headlining tour in the works for The Expanders?”

John: “We’re definitely doing that; it’s in the works already.”

Kyle: “Do you have fans that follow you on tour? Do you have super-fans?”

John: “We do. Not one person or group has followed us for a whole tour but they’ll do a couple shows in a geographic area. [Sometimes] they’ll do like 3 or 4 shows in a row. That's definitely happening more on the West Coast. We’re from Los Angeles so more of our fans are out there. We’ve had a couple fans that have seen us on the East Coast and West Coast. One in particular I can think of is Ashley Kidwell -- she’s really cool! She comes to a lot of the shows. I’ve seen her in Florida, Santa Cruz, up in Seattle... She’s definitely a cool fan.”

Kyle: “Do you have any sponsors that you’d like to give a shout out to?”

John: Earnie Ball Music Man hooked us up *fat* on strings, keeping our music gear on point.

Four Star - they’re a skate company. Also, Lakai. We’ve been friends with Rudy Johnson from Girl Skateboards. He’s a musician is L.A., as well. We crossed paths so I ended up getting some good links from him.

Definitely want to thank and give a shout out to Black Flys, D2PC, Val Jerks, and Bud King Infusions."

Kyle: “Of the bands you’ve toured with, which of them has the most fun?”

John: “All the bands we’ve toured with have definitely had a lot of fun and the whole experience has also been a lot of fun. There have been a couple tours that definitely stand out in terms of repeat epic nights and the insane after-parties. That would be Tribal Seeds and Slightly Stoopid. They definitely can rage and have a good time. I hung in there with them… haha.”

Kyle: “Who is the messiest and cleanest person on tour?”

John: “The messiest one would have to go to Devin. He means to be clean but he’s an absent minded fellow sometimes. You’ll find a sock in one bunk and a shoe in another... and then a bathroom bag under your pillow you’re not sure how it got there but like somehow his stuff is in your stuff. I’m serious, it’s great! We take pictures of his stray socks. There would just be one sock wherever he was, even if you’re at some random friend’s house. If you invited him to your friend’s house, and he was there, a single sock would show up somewhere. How does that happen?

Definitely, I would say I’m the cleanest. I have the tendency to want to be organized and clean all the time. I strive to be clean -- that’s a priority. It lowers my stress level just having my stuff in the spot, knowing where it is, going from place to place. People lose shit. You put it down at a venue and walk away for a minute and then… bye bye! I’ve got my guitar bag, my cord, and my amp. Sometimes at venues you forget where you put it down.”

Kyle: “So you’re a skater. Did you skate in high school and watch all those classic skate videos? Did you have a skateboarding club in high school?”

John: “I have a hoard of those [videos]. I think they’re at my parents house somewhere. They wouldn't let us have a skate club at my high school. We tried to start one. They said no because they associated skaters with stoners and they thought we were going to get together and get high -- so they said no. They did let us have the astronomy club and the camping club, which was just another excuse to go hang out in the mountains and get high… haha!”

Kyle: “Do The Expanders have a street team?”

John: “The Expanders have a street team, our own street team that’s up and coming. You can check our website for more info. We also have some street teams that have showed us love for a long time: NorCal Street Team -- Beaver, Jimmy, Tony, and Alex. They all are great! Also, SoCal Street Team has been showing us love for a long time. Kara is great and on top of her game! And I work with Beaver a lot. He comes to all the shows when he’s in the area and reps before the show. Hie is always very welcoming and he’s a good dude.”

Kyle: “Can you tell us a little about rehearsing, songwriting, and the challenges of organizing musicians?”

John: “Yes. Smoking equates to a lot of time in our rehearsal because we have to go outside to smoke. Only 2 of us smoke heavily, John Asher and myself. But, literally you see one dude going to get a water and we’re running out the door. It definitely causes some hiccups in the rehearsals. As far as the jamming, we always try to jam.

The way we do our songwriting... We come up with riddims at a rehearsal. We just start jamming and we record our rehearsals, so obviously we can reference them. But we’ll just start jamming and do a chord progression real quick. Sometimes guys have ideas like ‘Oh, I was really feeling this one Alton Ellis tune. It’s this kind of feel -- just check it out,’ and we’ll start messing around with some chords. If it starts to groove then we’ll ride it for a little bit and then move on and not hammer it too hard.

The rest of the time is usually spent rehearsing the set or devising the set. Lately we’ve been really busy with gigs and playing longer sets, so we’ve been really just trying to rehearse full sets with transitions and stops. We try to choreograph the whole thing and that takes a lot of time.

That’s where we are in the game. We all know we can play the songs. For the most part, that’s not the issue. It’s been a real challenge getting the new album stage-ready in the sense that we spent a lot of time writing this album and our approach was different. We didn’t worry about vocals when writing the musical part, so some of the parts are very complicated to play and sing at the same time. They’re taking a little more time than normal, but that’s what we spend a lot of time on in rehearsal. We are trying to get the songs from the new album at a place where they hit just as hard as the ones we’ve been playing for 5 years. It’s a lot work. There’s definitely less of the homies getting-together-to-drink-smoke-weed-and-play-reggae. Now, the train is off and rolling and we’ve got to bring fire every night! The work ethic is there in the rehearsals.

I hate to say this, but the more people [in your band], the less money you make. It’s like, ‘OK, do we really need a guy to play piano?’ No. The keyboard player has the skills to play a left hand organ and a right hand piano, and switch. Otherwise we wouldn’t be using this guy. Everybody is doing multiple things. The drummer plays drums and sings and everybody else is playing their instrument and singing pretty much on every song. A lot of work goes into that. The rehearsals are pretty focused. But, like I said, the digressions are great. Sometimes the jokes are poppin’ and an hour later you’re like, ‘Shit, we gotta end in 30 minutes now.’”

Kyle: “Does the band get together when you're not playing music?”

John: “The whole band will generally only get together for musical things like a show, but we all try to hang out as much as possible. There are a couple of us that really nerd out on camping and backpacking, geology, and geography. We will get together and go on hikes. Or, if we’re on tour and we’re by a cool outcrop, we’ll get out and investigate.”

Kyle: “Do you ever play acoustic sets or street sessions?”

John: “We did an acoustic session at California Roots and got a great response. We picked it up from that point and started doing it everywhere. We’ll do it down the street before a show. We don’t always do that, but it’s definitely on our mind.

We’ve done it informally in front of The Catalyst and Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz . We hung out in front of the venue before the show and that was essentially our warm up.

Those intimate performances put you on a level with the people. I’m not saying we’re above or below or anything like that... but fans see you on stage and there’s that disconnect. They're down here and you’re up there. That performance, raw, in-your-face, standing eye-to-eye is a very powerful thing. It's a crazy thing when you’re standing on the stage with a bunch of people and it’s hard to see individuals that are enjoying themselves. You just see this mass of people and if the whole thing isn’t moving, you’re like, ‘Why aren't people dancing?’

You can't pick out just one person that's having a good time. You just see this sea of people that looks like it's standing still. It's like, ‘AHHH!’ I definitely feel there are positives to both big shows and small shows. There's an intimate thing happening at the small venues, for sure.”

Kyle: “John, thank you so much for sharing your stories and experiences. We are definitely looking forward to your headlining tour! It will be posted on the calendar as soon as it’s available to the public. Keep up the great work!”

by Kyle Nelson Cameron

© November 2015