Epic blues-rockers Smoke Stack Rhino take on John Butler: ‘The riffs equate to energy’

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Epic blues-rockers Smoke Stack Rhino take on John Butler: ‘The riffs equate to energy’

Smoke Stack Rhino
Credit: Johnny D Photography
Words by Staff Writer

We speak with Ash King from one of our favourite local bands, Smoke Stack Rhino, about the band’s new single, a cover of Funky Tonight by John Butler Trio. Ash plays guitar and sings in the band.

First things first, tell us about the pressure involved in covering an Aussie legend (and guitar virtuoso) like John Butler?

Yeah there certainly was pressure. John Butler is an amazing player and his band has always been great too. One of the hardest things about learning this song was the guitar part and getting the tempo right: it’s so quick at 154 BPM.

I had to learn this really intricate and interesting finger-picking pattern on the guitar. I’m not sure that I got it right fully, as the way John plays it is almost like playing drums and I’m not that coordinated.

I put the fingerpicking part mostly into the acoustic guitar on the recording and then elements of it into the electric part. But yeah, covering the song was a good challenge.

From such a plethora of tracks to choose from, what was it about Funky Tonight that felt like a great fit?

We had about four or five songs left over from the recording of our last album The Mojo Funk and we wanted to put them out. It was a matter of “what other original songs do we have that we can record, and if we don’t have enough, what else could we record?”.

We’ve had Funky Tonight in our live set for a little while now, and it always goes off: just a really great energy. And we’ve added a few things into the song to try and put our own feeling and energy into it.

It’s just a great song, the feel of it just resonates with people and it gets them up and about. I think it also catches an exciting moment in John Butler’s career where things were really taking off.

As far as roots go, there are few bigger names in Australian music. Tell us more about how he’s influenced your music and the Australian scene more broadly?

For me, as a guitarist and singer, he’s a major influence for sure. I never fully got into him until about five to six years ago when the band went from being a four-piece down to trio, and I took on lead vocal duties.

At that time, I actually said let’s take six months off from playing live and just get back to learning more about our instruments. When you’re playing all the time it gets very difficult to actually set aside the time to practice or get some new guitar licks into your repertoire, so we took a bit of time to do that.

We experimented with different styles like psychedelic, reggae and stuff. One of the songs I tried to learn during that time was Ocean, and it was just great just diving into that world and noticing all the intricacies of how John Butler had put it together. A lot of his stuff is really funky as well. I’m not sure if he’s a Chili Peppers fan or not but to me, I feel like there’s some similarity in terms of rapid-fire vocals, a lot of lyrics and generally funkiness.

In terms of his general influence, I guess that was one of the sounds of the ‘00s. You had an explosion of acoustic rock and roots music with artists like John Butler, but also Xavier Rudd, Ash Grunwald, Jack Johnson and so on and yeah, it was part of an organic and genuine sounding music that translated well all around the country.

You’ve certainly taken the responsibility very seriously with such an exceptional array of production expertise and some very exciting gear. You say it was a saga, please take us through the process and what you learned along the way?

Okay, so the process was to basically DIY and then send the track to the experts to mix and master. Or so we thought!

We realised we’d have to record drums in a great-sounding room to get the fullness we need as a big, loud, raucous rock band, so we hired a studio and worked with our mate Brad Toan to engineer the drums.

I know Brad had quite a few mics and when it came time to mix, there were plenty of options and colours. He got a great sound. Then it was onto bass, guitars and vocals which I engineered. This took a lot longer!

Recording guitars on your own can be hard as you can kinda get caught up in the loop of not balancing the engineer and artist hats. It’s a juggle. There were quite a few all-night recording sessions in there. Getting the acoustic guitar locked in with the electric was really difficult.

For vocals, I did a single track and then added more in the chorus. We sent that version of the song off to Callum Howell to mix. As I was in a rush, the ProTools session I gave him was a dog‘s breakfast, a complete mess, unorganised and stuff, but Cal was awesome, he just said “fix it up next time and let me know if you need a hand”.

We got the mix back and identified a few other things to add, like double-tracking the vocals, then mixed again. The whole process took almost a year as Cal was on tour with Ocean Alley, so we were limited in when we had access to him but he was very patient with us, and it’s just great working with him. And Brad was awesome too.

It’s interesting to read you talk about Sabbath and taking this track to another level live. It must keep audiences enthralled to see it taken in a unique direction? 

Yeah any guitarist learning how to play should really do at least a year’s worth studying how to play Black Sabbath! I certainly did growing up. The Paranoid album was definitely on high rotation there for me.

Obviously they helped establish heavy metal, but if you look at what it is that they’re playing, it’s really just slow, heavy blues. In an uptempo song like Funky Tonight, the riffs equate to energy and that’s motivating for people and gets them up and about, especially live.

I watched the Total Guitar video, where Butler talks about wanting to play folk and Sabbath at the same time (as well as a clip of him covering Iron Man). What is it about that kind of combination that’s so damn effective?

Yeah it’s a really great question! You wouldn’t think that folk and distorted guitar and heavy metal goes together, but there are plenty of great examples of that like Led Zeppelin or Opeth or whatever. On blending the tone it’s interesting.

On our version of Funky Tonight, the mix is designed to use the rootsy earthiness of the acoustic guitar to be a feature at times and as a percussive element at others. It helps fill out the sound a lot more which is really cool in the studio, but harder to do live, because you need need two guitarists or two pickups and specific routing, but on record, it just adds to the overall mix.

It puts another colour into the artwork, like a complementary colour. So if you see the electric guitar as like a shade of red, then the acoustic guitar would be like a maroon or brown. Or burgundy. Ron Burgundy.

Where else do you think you get the heavier elements in your sound from?

When we first started and we were looking for a bass player, we put an ad on a forum that read “What would Rage Against the Machine sound like playing the blues?” And from that what we got Shane!

So definitely Rage has been a massive influence on us in terms of the heavier stuff, along with bands like Soundgarden, Queens of the Stone Age, Deep Purple and Zeppelin.

The slap bass solo sounds extraordinary – when you’re covering such a diverse range of sounds, how do you find the balance between interesting and OTT?

Well the funny thing is, Shane actually hates playing it. Slap bass is more trebly than normal bass with fingers or pick. As soon as you start slapping, you’re automatically stepping into a tenor or more trebley EQ range, which is where you want to be when soloing.

Flea’s a massive influence on Shane and a lot of his playing in early Chili Peppers stuff was definitely over-the-top because it was just all energy. It took the band to record with Rick Rubin to really strip it back and embrace what needed to be played for the song, as opposed to what the person needed to play for themselves.

But being a trio, Smoke Stack has to try and cover a lot of ground musically. So I see slap bass as a different instrument to thumbed bass and the lower notes that Shane is usually playing. It’s just a sonic change, which is what a solo break is there to do: to break up the music from the lead vocal parts to verse the chorus, that’s why they have a break.

Plus, I feel like you’re always getting guitar solos in rock music, so it’s fun to mix it up and have another instrument step in.

Tell us about the current tour – what have the responses been like to The Mojo Funk live, what can audiences expect at George Lane and The Golden Vine?

The current tour is going great! We played up in Sydney on Saturday night at the Duke of Enmore and it was a really raucous gig. The main songs off The Mojo Funk like Doom Boogie, Mojo Back and Old Silver Bullet all got a run and were well-received.

A couple of weeks ago we played Grampians Grape Escape and that was probably the largest crowd we’ve ever played in front of, about 4,000 people on the footy oval on a beautiful, iconic Australian blue-sky day.

They love a few well-known covers like The Doors and John Butler, but we dropped a few songs off the album too. People just love to pick up the album on vinyl: it’s got handmade artwork and a translucent blue smoke colour so it definitely catches the eye.

This weekend the tour rolls on: we’ve got Golden Vine in Bendigo on Friday and George Lane in St Kilda on Saturday, where we recently played for St Kilda Blues Festival. For Bendigo we’ve got amazing up-and-coming blues act Bill Barber and the Holding Cell while on Saturday at George Lane we’re playing with roots songwriter-artist Olivia Lay and dirty rock group The Dead Amigos before we see it through to the messy hours.

Finally, anything else you want our audience to know? Any other exciting future plans?

We had a lot of fun putting Funky Tonight together and it’s awesome to be taking it around Australia. We hope everyone enjoys it!

Get tickets to see Smoke Stack Rhino’s incredible live show this weekend at George Lane. Compare Smoke Stack Rhino’s cover of Funky Tonight here to John Butler’s original.