Interview with Jon C Butler
Jon C Butler
Interview by Paul Davies
Singer and songwriter for the legendary Diesel Park West, Jon C Butler has released a new solo recording: Universal Stranger. Rocktopia caught up with Jon to discuss his current release and, whilst we were at it, rock ‘n’ roll stories of touring America as lead singer in Widowmaker, recording an album at John Lennon’s house, being produced by recording legend Chris Kimsey and solid gold tales of meeting Jagger and Richards. As Jon explains:
As I recall you became the lead singer for Widowmaker. Tell me how that came about….
I was living in Islington, in 1976, having a right old time just absorbing the seismic change that was on its way with punk. I remember Joe Strummer and his 101ers at the Nashville Rooms, the Pistols supporting Eddie and the Hotrods at the Marquee with Lydon, whom I liked instantly, he was dressed like a member of Showaddywaddy with his Ted coat and creepers. I had never seen a support band clear the bar at the Marquee before, but they did because everyone moved into the gig room to see this thing! You get the picture, that’s where I was aged 22 and generally up for anything…. Then out of the blue I got a call from Widowmakers office asking if I would like to audition as their singer because Steve Ellis had left and they wanted to do an album, then get back to America asap. I had actually seen them with Ellis earlier on that year, again at the Marquee, during that hot summer. I went to see them because of Huw Lloyd Langton, their second guitarist, who was a friend of mine. So I went to see his band who were doing ok, they were on the up so to speak. I thought they were pokey and tight with a good rock thing going on and of course, Ellis on vocals brought a familiarity to the proceedings because his voice was so well known. They were good and the place was rammed for the second consecutive night but, obviously, it never entered my head that I might join them one day. Huw had put my name forward (he knew I could sing having seen me in a local Leicester band doing a London gig), so after Steve left I went down and sang immediately and getting the gig probably because of my image as much as anything else.
We recorded an album and toured the UK and Germany, then the USA having a real rockist time along the way. I was a young British rock singer with some money, that was a first, and in America, 1977, with my straight leg jeans and long hair. So, of course, it was a very steep learning curve regarding the pleasures of life! It did, however, take me away from the absolute epicentre of the emerging punk and new wave culture that I may have been a natural for, and that’s something I regret about joining them, but parallel to that is the fact that it gave me a tremendous experience in Stadium rock and, I have to say, by the time the band had come to the end of the American tour it was on fire musically. The tour finished with four nights at the Whiskey, in LA, and having come straight from the stadiums the tightness and power was incredible. If that band had returned to London regrouped and then caught the next rock wave, which happened about 1979, once punk was pretty much spent as a commercial force, it could have been massive and probably still be going to this day.
What were you doing between the period of Widowmaker and the beginning of Diesel Park West and is it true that you recorded an album at John Lennon’s house?
After Widowmaker, I came back to England but instead of London, I went home to Leicester. There was a guy there who I very much rated as a drummer, so I had it my head to build a band around him and me. In fact, I joined the dying embers of a band that he was still playing with albeit, by this time, just as a recording unit at dear old Bob Priddens’ place; Bob was The Who’s long-standing soundman. When that fizzled out we both sort of kicked along for a while, playing local places and seeing who might be around to do something with. Eventually, we did a session with a couple of people I knew from my time in London and the tracks we put down ended up getting us a serious deal with Ariola, who at that point had just signed Japan and had hit the money with Boney M and their Babylon song. That resulted in us getting a full line up together and by autumn 1978 we were at Tittenhurst Park recording an album. It was Lennon’s house, the place where he did Imagine the same one in all of the clips of him. It’s an amazing house near Ascot, obviously an old colonial dwelling, with huge grounds, and it became our home for about four months. The guy who looked after the place said to us “you can get up to anything you want to get up to ( we sure did that ) go anywhere you want, no problem, except for this one store room, OK, you are not allowed to go in there!” Of course, we went straight in there, after he had left, to find it full of Beatles’ gear, amps, Rickenbacker guitars and some of the drums; a treasure trove of fab fourness. I especially remember a Fender amp, with fag burns on the top, and a sticker saying “George, for repair” you know, that kind of casual incidental stuff any band has, but this was the Beatles!
It seemed to me that what had gone on there was a case of a band splitting up and one member storing the equipment for a while. Anyway, we finished an album full of harmonies, quite intricate guitars and a bit of a jangle fest which came out in 1979, to utter indifference and sinking without trace under the New Wave; even though it certainly has elements of that about it. The album is called, ‘Go For The Effect’ and the band were ‘The Flicks’. We did one tour around the UK supporting Frankie Miller and that was it, then the wilderness for the next eight years. There is, however, a lot to be said in favour of the wilderness because, musically, it lets you develop your own thing unhindered by fashion and trend which is exactly what we did. By 1981, we had rescued Geoff Beavan from some awful glam band he was playing bass in, and then met Rick Willson who was in a proficient but kind of middle of the road covers band with his elder brother. He did, however, have a kind of natural vagueness about him and was clearly a good player; he also ran his own tiny four track studio. We started recording there, with him, where at first he just engineered but pretty soon he was putting his Telecaster over my chorus based songs and we knew we had something going. Mind you, it took a while making a lot of mistakes along the way mainly whenever we tried to bend to the times. It was only when we started to put stuff down, with absolutely no thought of compromise, and just doing what we wanted to do those songs like When The Hoodoo Comes, Like Princes Do and All The Myths On Sunday started to appear. This was over a very long period of time, but we were also gigging by then as ‘The Filberts’ and becoming very popular locally which added to the creativity. In 1987 we signed to Food Records for about three grand, which was a massive break for them, more than us, because EMI was so insistent on signing the already signed and newly named Diesel Park West, that they signed Food itself as a label in order to get hold of us. So, with their clout, we were able to record a major label album with Chris Kimsey at Olympic.
What was it like to record with legendary producer Chris Kimsey? Are there any stories that you can share from that time?
Well, the irony there was that it was Chris who had recorded the Widowmaker album I sang on back in ’77. When we first met again, at Nomis rehearsal studios in Shepherds Bush, I actually tried to hide my face from him in case he twigged who I was. Imagine that, here we were at the first meeting with someone who is going to record the debut record and there I am trying to hide from him; totally nuts! I think it was because of being keen not to give any past lives away, such was the desire to be seen as organically new. Anyway, that little wheeze didn’t work and we both had a laugh about it. Chris was great to work with, he has an air in the studio with just the right combination of command and friendliness to bring out the best in people. He reminded me as a sort of benevolent Henry the Eighth! He got the guitars and vocals really shimmering on Shakespeare Alabama, it belongs as much to him, and engineer Chris Potter, as it does to us. One night, in May 1989, after our debut had come out. and in the middle of a tour. he asked me down to a Stones session at Olympic, which was memorable. At one point, Jagger came up to me, in the control booth, right up to my face shaking a pair of maracas and getting into what was coming out of the speakers. He said to me, “it sounds just like a small club, doesn’t it” that was a trip. Keith Richards, who had brought Peter Cook with him to the studio after a night on the piss, seemed quite shy or shall we say reserved. Keith and I both sat down browsing through a copy of Sounds, with him pointing at a piece about him saying to me “what a load of crap, I never said that at all.” All in all the Stones seemed very keen and happy to be in the studio and full of enthusiasm.
Chris had a copy of Shakespeare Alabama on the desk on which Jagger said to Richards, “Diesel Park West, is not a recording studio Keith.” I think that they liked our album, though. It was only a block at the BBC playlist on all things DPW which prevented us from probably having huge success. We were a strong live band too, due to years of experience and on stage, it really shone through resulting in us influencing a lot of other bands that came afterwards, that much is obvious. Chris, as it happens, has just made a record for Peter Perrett on which he has done a great job with the guitars, so he is still coming through with fab productions and bless him for that.
Food Records had an interesting and varied roster including a certain Britpop band: Blur. What was it like being a rock band amongst these Britpop upstarts?
Well, when we first took up with them they only had a couple of acts and nothing of real note, but they were perceived as being a hip label. We merely enabled them access to a vast amount of the EMI resource which in turn, by about 1990, enabled them to get first of all Jesus Jones, who are basically a novelty act, then Blur. Damon Albarn is an OK guy, who made his lyrical skills and sheer bloody minded ambition go a long way, I guess. Coxon is a great guitar player and a very effective backing singer, but the unsung talent in that band is Dave Rowntree. Dave is a wonderful drummer, who managed to reign in the band’s more eccentric style with his grooves but, at the same time, allow that very thing to project also which, of course, is what they were all about. I really rate him. I understand he is a politician now!
We felt like elder statesmen around them, which was true by comparison. We got seriously trashed with them at the Hiatt in LA, one time, where they told us that Dave Balfe – owner of Food Records – had encouraged them to get as “fucked up as possible” so, in a way, they may have been simply obeying orders; whereas we were naturals. Funny thing is apart from JJ, Blur and before them DPW who made the major label world possible for them, in the first place, Food never managed to get anything away at all, despite spending massive amounts of cash which, presumably, EMI let them have because of Blur. I remember that there was a band named Strangelove who came in – just as we were shown the door – and who Food must have spent a fortune on, but nothing happened.There were several others, too. Mint 400 and a band called Whirlpool who never even had a release, but featured that guy, Gem Archer, who went on to play with Liam Gallagher. He was a big DPW fan and must have been taking notes. What Food might have done, but didn’t, was to say to us after our second album, the overproduced and costly Decency, “look you fuckers, we know how great you are but this record has just gobbled up so much bread, without giving us a winner, so go away record a third record, on a shoestring, and we will pay for that but you can forget wages or luxuries. Go and sign on the dole, for all we care, but give us a great album. Now fuck off and do it.” We could have taken that too and, of course, the album would have been ‘The Corporate Waltz’ which, with an EMI promo budget, would have broken us through. A case of third time lucky ( same as Blur ) and with songs like, ‘The Cat’s Still Scratching’ and a couple of the others, it would have done the trick. I have no doubt.
DPW album ‘Vs The Corporate Waltz’ was, possibly, your strongest recording as a band. Was it an acerbic dig at the record companies album?
In a way, but not directly, no, it was more an observational statement on what had happened to us and what I was seeing around us. I think that we were all constantly bemused by the sheer amount of profligate unhipness in the music business. We were not that savvy business wise, that much is true, but some of the decisions and wastefulness we encountered were mind blowing. It’s a familiar tale and one that is often used as an excuse for failure but the Corporate Waltz album itself is a musical success. It’s the album we love it has a real fertile sound and attitude running throughout. We did it for a few grand in a beat up studio with Paul Sampson, in Coventry, on two-inch tape and it sounds great to this day. Good Times Liberation Blues is possibly the best DPW recording of them all and other tracks come right into that equation as well. It was 1993 by then, with another wave of guitar bands just about to happen. So, as I say, if it had received real promo support, and I am not dissing Jake Riviera or Demon for the job they actually did, because they did their best, and Jake loved it, but I feel it would have got there.
‘Universal Stranger’ is not your first solo album. Why the name change?
Because of John Butler the Australian blues songwriter of the same name. Why invite confusion, when it is so easily resolved. I thought about a completely different name altogether like Bob Dylan or Bob Hope but, in the end, I figured Jon C is a lot more fitting and conveys, shall we say, more of a maturity of vision! My first solo album, The Loyal Serpent released on Chrysalis in 1997, is enjoying belated critical acclaim, these days, and is about to be released again in America. So there is some fire burning, somewhere. We shall see…
It’s has a bright and upbeat sound of classic Butler songs. How did the album come together?
Back to Paul Sampson and the same studio we did the Corporate Waltz in, back in the day. I had the songs and decided to check them out, by recording them acoustically in a sort of Greenwich Village way at first, but the pair of us got into them deciding to bring in a drummer and put electrics on the tracks. Paul hangs vocals in such a great place, not just the lead, but the backing vocals too. He has a real knack of using them as sounds as well as a vehicle for the lyric. This album has an identity, one which I think is long overdue from me. It doesn’t retread old Diesel ground and relies totally on the song being the reason. I hope people like it and take it as a new start which, even at my age, it actually is. In the end, it’s the quality of the song that counts. My other half and I often refer to the envelope and letter syndrome, by which we mean, the production is the envelope and the song is the letter. If the envelope breaks open the letter won’t get through the post, so that has to be sturdy and do its job. But, if it gets through only to deliver a letter which comes over as weak, then whats the point in writing and posting in the first place? Songs like ‘Each Other’ and ‘Would Have, Should Have’ are unrelentingly honest so it’s worth checking out and, also, the Lovin Spoonfulish, ‘Birmingham’, too. I realised that it is a subconscious take on wanting to leave ‘Alabama’ or, in my case, ‘Shakespeare Alabama’ not because of any bad stuff necessarily, but because it’s time to move on and for other people, the DPW people, to look at things differently. I want to make a dent with this one, and then a hole with the follow-up. I have learned well the lesson that a writer has ten years to write the first album and ten weeks to write the second. Not this time, as people will find out.
Do you plan any shows in support of Universal Stranger?
Quite likely, yes, if there is some action with the record. The songs all lend themselves to performance, but I am in no mad rush even though I like to play. I would want to do that with musicians I have never played with before, in order to take some chances onstage because the songs are all so fresh.
You have always worn your influences on your sleeve: Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield, John Lennon to name a few. If you had the chance to join one of these bands, which one would you choose?
What does the future hold for Jon C Butler and Diesel Park West?
I don’t know, I only know what I think I might want it to. One thing DPW always did was deliver! We never shirked a performance or a recording, and we always performed as best we could even during some of the madder periods. None of those guys are shirkers when it comes to music and the work ethic remains. As for me, I want to keep writing but not just because it’s what I do, I want to keep searching for the chord, you know, the one that rings in a better time for all.
Universal Stranger by Jon C Butler is out now on the Strataville label.
This interview with John Butler is taken from issue 22 of the fanzine Lights Go Out and took place in the summer of 2013.
Back in the 90’s I discovered a band called Diesel Park West. With some inspiringly written songs, melodies and huge tunes, I know I discovered them late but set about picking up their back catalogue, which luckily at the time was just a couple of albums and a load of singles, which all still sit very nicely in my record collection (yes, vinyl!). One of the things that I pride myself on here at Lights Go Out is that maybe we don’t feature all the “cool” new bands on the scene, I like the fact that if a band is great and deserves recognition then they should be in here. Having listened to Diesel Park West for some 20 years now to get the chance to fire some questions over at John Butler from the band is a pretty big deal for me. And I am really chuffed to be able to have DPW in the pages of Lights Go Out. Over the years they have put some seriously impressive albums, some stupidly catchy songs and are one of those bands who sadly still remain on my bucket list of ones to see live. I would urge people to check Diesel Park West out for sure and without any more of my waffling, I give you John Butler…
Hi John, thanks ever so much for taking time to chat with us, it is very much appreciated. Let’s get straight into, your latest E.P. called “You, You, You & You” came out in May of this year, can you tell us a little about it please?
Hi Paul …yes it’s a forerunner of what eventually will be an album ready for 2014. The lead track , Someday Back Together, is the cut we will put on the album whilst the other four tracks are different versions . Someday Back Together is basically the band playing live together in one take which is how we want the next album to sound. Nothing against doing it the long way but sometimes whacking it down can be best.
Having been a band for over thirty years now, did you feel when the band started you’d have a career this long?
Thing is it doesn’t feel like a career but more like a warped vocation. It’s a really hedonistic thing being in any band I imagine, but this one is something else. We often get asked just what it is at the heart of the band when really it’s like a self-preserving creature which is able to bend and even submerge for long periods without food or water or even air only to then resurface and freak people out! At the beginning we just wanted to get some gigs then some more then bigger stuff and so on. We were a pretty big drink and drug band early on that’s for sure. Unfashionable drugs at the time too. It always seemed laughable to us how the Stone Roses and the whole Manc scene made a big deal out of the same shit we had been doing for years.
Can you remember what that first rehearsal was like back at the start?
The first thing we played together was the Stones song Salt Of The Earth off their Beggars Banquet album. It was in a rehearsal room which used to be a Victorian waiting room for the Great Central Railway. We sounded natural together it was as if we had been playing together for years. Very loud too but clear as a bell!
How did it feel when you signed to Food Records in the late 80’s?
We got the call from them in April 1987. They had freaked out at the demos we had sent (which eventually came out on the King Of Ghosts album) and so they should have because they were great demos. We had been passed on by a few labels earlier but Food were quite hip at the time or at least seemed to be. They were getting a lot of press for the few acts they already had and even some daytime airplay on Radio One for one of their acts called The Voice Of The Beehive remember them? They gave us £3000 advance and we thought we were rich! We bought a couple of amps and some leather jackets which was sort of a retrogressive step, the first of many under the Food regime, because we had started to wear really great looking suede coats which nobody else was doing at the time. We should have stuck to that look because leather makes everyone look fake hard or German or something! Of course Food also made us change our name from The Filberts to Diesel Park West. We loved being The Filberts but DPW did sound good. Crazyhead’s manager came up with it. It’s a name which people remember and one which we have gradually redefined over time because back then it maybe seemed a little brutal.
Back in those days the Food Records roster was much smaller and of course you famously covered Jesus Jones debut single “Info Freako” on the Food Christmas EP. How did you come to choose that particular track?
Well we thought we would show Mike Edwards how to do it properly. And we did.
And what did you think of Crazyhead’s version of “Like Princes Do”?
Yeah rockin bunch of post punk punks that they were they had a good go at it. We always loved the Heads and thought they got a rough deal after we got signed or rather after we got Food signed to the might of EMI.
It seemed that a lot of focus got placed on the commercial success of Blur at Food Records. Did you feel that Food paid less attention to Diesel Park West?
Damon Albarn introduced himself to me saying “Hi really great to meet you”, and then holding out his hand said “Food Records” so I said “hello Food Records” I thought he had changed his name by deed poll. They were recording their debut at Maison Rouge in Chelsea at the same time as we were mixing some of the Decency album having just come back from Brussells where we had recorded it. It was like some new recruit meeting a battle hardened veteran. Eventually though Blur did “become” Food Records with their big one Parklife. One thing that impressed us about them was the fact that they only used about six channels on the SSL desk whereas they could have used sixty odd. We used to see quite a lot of them and hung out getting pissed and stoned together in America. At that time they were struggling really to break through. It was that dog track bullshit marketing idea that did it for them eventually and of course Boys and Girls which everyone claims to hate but is a massively commercial single and deserved to take them to where they got. Dave Rowntree is a good bloke as they all are really. We call Coxon Harry Potter.
The thing I recall about then was that you had some really nice vinyl come out for singles like “Fall To Love” and “Boy On Top Of The News”, 10” singles, gatefolds, prints. Was vinyl quite an important deal for you and were you involved in the release process at all?
Well Rick didnt even want Shakespeare Alabama to come out on CD, that’s how purist he was then! At one point it was selling 30,000 copies a day ha ha. No we didn’t really have much to do with release dates thinking that “they” knew best and anyway we were busy gigging and filming and travelling all that rocklife trip. To be honest I think we may have felt that all that stuff sort of cluttered the releases up and only later did we realise it all means such a lot to people who are into the band. To this day I have never heard Shakespeare Alabama on vinyl but I am reliably informed it sounds really fantastic. Maybe Rick was right!
Are you vinyl collectors at all and do any of you own a complete back catalogue of Diesel Park West material?
Not collectors as such but we do all have copies of everything we have ever put out yes. I mean, its eight albums and loads of singles by now so yeah you want to at least have a physical object of all that work.
I’d read that David Balfe of Food Records insisted you changed the band name to Diesel Park West, is this actually the case?
It was a trick he used for all his signings. It gave him psyche control. I think that was his real plan although he claims it was for commercial purposes . The thing with him is that while he may have the venal instincts of a predator he doesn’t have hardly any insight into what is gonna be happening later and certainly not a clue about music’s past. Of course his job was to sell us to the present so that’s understandable but he doesn’t have a sense of rock n roll continuity and that’s a shame. He probably only signed us in the first place because there were elements to our sound which may have reminded him of the dreadful U2 and one of their albums was a global smasheroo at the time so mentally it was a clone job for him. That of course was a disaster for us because we were essentially a 60s hippie west coast influenced dope band!
Is “Thought For Food” named in reference to your time on Food Records?
Yes it sure is. The tracks on that , well most of them, would all be known to the Food duo but they couldn’t have cared less by then. If they had kept us on we would have broken with The Corporate Waltz. The Cats Still Scratching would have been the first breakthrough single and then off we would have gone with at least three more hits from CW. Actually “Cat” remains the only ever DPW track to be playlisted on national radio but by then we were off Food-EMI and little Demon were unable to market properly.
You’ve changed labels a few times, and had a couple of years break in the 90’s, what made you decide to form the band again and start releasing new music
No that’s not true there has never been a break in the band. We have always done some gigs or released an album every year since our inception back in 1987. At various times each member has tried to escape from the band, including me, but has always been seduced back into it. The seducer is the sound of the music. When we plug in and go “straaaang laaang a lang “ on the guitars and that sounds kicks in its irresistible. That’s what does it.
Did the release of “Left Hand Band” help to re-establish the band? And did you get much or any say about this release and what tracks would be included?
It got fantastic reviews that compliation. Even journos that had previously taken the piss realised what an unusual and valuable band we really were underneath all that EMI hype. The track choices are all EMI era songs obviously so it’s not really a best off because there is nothing from The Corporate Waltz , Freakgene , Hip Replacement (underrated album that one) Blood And Grace or Do Come In Excuse The Mess. One day, when we are done, there will be a Best Of that takes from all the albums. That will be a fantastic bunch.
It’s been cited that The Byrds were a huge influence on your sound, is that how you see it? And what other artists have given you inspiration?
Sure the Byrds were for me more important than the Beatles. Yeah I know nothing would have happened without The Fabs but those yanks took it all somewhere else. Beautiful mystical and commercial all at the same time. That’s one hell of thing to pull off for any band. Personally I think David Crosby is the last word in rhythm guitar playing! Moby Grape are another big influence.
What has been the hardest thing about being a musician for you?
Trying to be a human being at the same time. Still not certain I have managed that one although I am still having a good go.
Is there any particular song in your back catalogue you can look back on as your proudest moment?
Above These Things . I remember when we recorded that song thinking “eye eye this is the first time its sounded great” The track only came out as a b-side (a Food master move that!) and also on that early comp album Flipped in 1990 but even now it sends the shivers. Rick got caught being all emotional listening to it not that long ago.
Do you feel that the music industry as a whole is struggling what with downloads being so popular?
No not anymore . The industry is almost at that point where its got its grip back. Download is just another adjustment for them and they are about there with it. The music business, to a man, is one hundred per cent ran by people who really want to be onstage. All the execs all the managers and agents the roadies the merchandise guys journos (especially them) fucking DJs you name it everybody wants to be a performing flea but some mugs actually ARE! Our albums are all available now via our site. Easy innit?
What are your feelings towards the whole downloading generation?
Its gonna be interesting when the generation that is used to downloading for free is asked to pay the BBC licence . The BBC is the reason so much music that gets through is so mediocre and a lot of great culture enhancing great stuff doesn’t. There again that’s their agenda isn’t it.
Do you feel that there is still the requirement to have a physical product released?
Yes I think so. A lot of people need to be able to hold the vessel of music in their hands and read shit about the artists or the recording etc. It is important but it’s also a devalued item too because everybody in the world is now making an album. Or so it seems. Endless CD launches which are really CDr launches.
It’s obviously vitally important for bands to have an online presence these days. Do you find that this is an important tool to you as a band?
Diesel Park West has certainly benefitted from the whole online revolution yes. Its hard to see how anyone would know what we are up to without it because we don’t exactly get loads of press coverage. That’s not in itself a bad thing because the opposite can be really negative. We do however feel that a proper insightful account of the band by the intelligent press is long overdue. Lay to rest all that early anthemic bollocks brought about largely through the short sightedness of Food I am afraid.
I’ve never actually managed to see Diesel Park West play live, despite being a fan for over 20 odd years. Have you got any upcoming dates at all during the rest of 2013?
Dates come and go keep checking is all I can tell you.
It’s also been 20 years since “Diesel Park West vs. The Corporate Waltz”. Any plans to play this album in full at all?
We love that album and yes that would be a great idea if we could get it together. We always do something from it when we play live.
What advice would you give to bands out there?
Don’t be democratic until the fourth album.
And finally what does the future hold for Diesel Park West…
…a hit single at last.