Everyone Orchestra “is about creating community and friendships as much as it is about creating spectacular music,” says the introductory video for the kind-of-hard-to-explain project. Over the years, hundred of musicians have participated in the rotating cast. Alumni include members of The Grateful Dead, Phish, moe., String Cheese Incident and The Flecktones among many other.
The group, led by founder and conductor Matt Butler (who talks to Xpress, below), returns to Asheville on Thursday, Feb. 6. The lineup, set to appear on stage at Asheville Music Hall, features Eddie Roberts (The New Mastersounds), Mike Healy and Sam Brouse (Papadosio), Jake O’Conner (The Fritz) and Rowdy Keelor and Casey Chanatry (Jahman Brahman). Jahman Brahman also performs a full set, and the evening includes a DJ set by DJ Logic. 10 p.m., $15 advance/$20 day of show.
Xpress: Was Everyone Orchestra originally intended to be a rotating lineup? What inspired that approach, rather than having a fixed set of musicians?
Matt Butler: Yes it was. The original vision was more of a variety show that culminated in conducted segments each set. As time went on it was apparent that the conducted segments were both the highlight and unique aspect of the event. As we started performing at festivals and I took the helm of conducting, this was all the more true.
When I was first brainstorming about EO, I was committed to create something that built community in a new and different way and I was looking for ways to incorporate lots of musicians over time. I didn’t want to create another band. I’ve done that a few times and it’s great, but EO was [meant] to be different from the outset. Using improvisation as the musical focal point to bring lots of different musicians together became the first intention of EO. The conducting role became a great way to keep the music fresh and listenable but still spontaneous.
As the conductor, what exactly is your role in the show? On videos, you seem to be as much a ringmaster as a conductor in the symphony sense.
My role as conductor is multifaceted. First, I am the host of the event. I’ve brought the musicians together and built trust amongst the players to perform without a net. Second, It’s my job to make sure the overall musical performance is balanced dynamically, melodically and emotionally. Too much of the same chord, tempo, volume or personality becomes tedious to both the players and the audience. Thirdly, I see my role as coach to the musicians. I’m there to keep them challenged, engaged and entertained all in the same moment. I sometimes describe the “hook” of EO is simply the awareness and vulnerability of the musicians. Their intent is palpable to the audience and it’s a beautiful thing.
When working with an evolving band, is it ever hard to relinquish creative control? I imagine that the project requires a lot of going with the flow. I don’t arrive at a performance with any preconceptions other than what I stated above. I tell the musicians I’m ready to follow if they get inspired and I do. Still, in those moments there is an agreement among the performers to respond to a request I might make. But I’m there to follow them and let the jam go all the same.
How are musicians chosen for the project? Is there any sort of audition process, or do you hand-pick individual players for each iteration of the Everyone Orchestra? Each lineup is hand picked by me and my manager, Brian Asplin. Every line up is built differently and I’ve known most of the musicians who we pull from over the years (I’ve been active in the jam scene scene since 1990). Or we know [them] from word of mouth from other musicians, promoters, etc. We try and keep lineups diverse, with a mix of old and new EO performers and unique instrumentation.
Have there ever been any combinations of players or particular shows that just really didn’t work? There really haven’t. As long as the intent of EO is clearly communicated to the participating musicians, everyone has always shown up with their A game and it’s always interesting. The only shows that I would say “didn’t work” were ones that had too many musicians on too small of a stage and too little time to perform. This has happened a few times in the 13 years I’ve been doing this, and I think this is simply karma from putting “Everyone” in the name!
What do you see as the role of the audience at these shows? I see the audience as participants and as the extended “choral” section. My favorite thing is when the audience is truly ready to sing and can swell with the band on harmonies and lyrics. We are co-creating these improvisational tunes together and when things are on fire, the audience feels a part of this process. I’m asking a lot of the musicians, in a sense, to arrive onstage with a blank slate and they are a bit “naked” in their performance. The beauty of EO is that we get to see true musicianship and personalities shine [because the musicians] have to respond to unknowns and create in the moment all night long. I’m asking the audience to both support this creative process and participate in it. An EO performance is most satisfying to the active listener — someone who is watching all of the interaction on stage with anticipation, much like one watches sports, because you never know when the next batter/musician will hit a home run.
What can we expect from the upcoming Asheville show? A super funky, electronically fueled dance party celebration.