This extended discussion is supplemental to “No Luck Needed,” and features our complete Q&A with Charles Butler, following his introduction to the banjo, his time studying under Tony Trischka in New York & the viral success of his “Get Lucky” cover.
Are you originally from Burlington? Do you remember how you were first introduced to music?
I am originally from Youngstown, OH. I moved to Burlington, VT when I was 14. My dad had an impressive sound system when we were growing up, I used to bounce on the couch to “Electric Avenue” and “Abracadabra.” His enthusiasm for a good jam rubbed off on me.
When did you first start to recognize that you wanted to pursue the banjo?
My first stringed instrument was the mountain dulcimer, my parents got that for me when I was about 12. Eventually I wanted something with more range, but not a guitar. My friends had guitars, I wanted to play something more exotic. I acquired the banjo one Christmas at age 14, a year later I found a teacher and learned a few actual tunes. The momentum built from there, playing music became way to much fun to seriously consider doing anything else full time.
How did you become aware of Tony Trischka, and did studying in New York affect how you approached playing your instrument?
I first heard Trischka on the Violent Femmes track “Country Death Song,” the banjo drops in at about 1:00 and I remember getting really pumped every time I heard that. In New York I studied with some great jazz players which suited me perfectly as I have always felt closer to jazz than to bluegrass.
Was NY supportive of the music that interested you most? Were there any collaborators you worked with during this time that helped direct your playing style?
I ended up studying at SUNY Purchase because they would take a banjo player into their jazz program. Actually, they created a major for me, and plugged Tony Trischka lessons into my curriculum, which was exactly what I asked for. It was a great time to be there, I used to play with Langhorne Slim and Regina Spektor, we all graduated together.
What led you to relocate to Nashville?
NYC is an expensive place to exist, I wanted more space and a better way to transport my gear to and from gigs. I was curious about Nashville, so I drove down here and never left.
Your music has been called “newgrass”… Do you feel you’re trying to introduce a modern flavor into a traditional sound?
No, I am just playing the way I feel, not going for anything in particular. I am always amazed at the emphasis placed on playing traditionally, to me it would be odd to stick to what’s been done by other people.
I am a Daft Punk fan, and was excited when Random Access Memories came out. “Get Lucky” was stuck in my head, so I had a feeling I could make it work. Fortunately it was in a banjo friendly key.
A student of yours submitted the video to Reddit is that how it first began spreading?
If I remember correctly, my brother Henry submitted it to r/banjo, where my student saw it. My student then posted it to r/music, which is a much bigger pond. The way the post was phrased, something like “check out my banjo teacher playing Get Lucky” was much more conducive to success on Reddit than something that I would have written for myself. It was endearing.
How did you react to its popularity?
There are so many musicians out there who don’t get recognition, for a moment the light shined on me and it felt great. I celebrated.
Is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for the attention to retain or gain more listeners?
At the time, I was giving my music away for free on my website, in retrospect, I should have had it up for sale on iTunes. I’ve since remedied that.
When did the Beats Antique project begin and what was the goal of that collaboration?
David Satori of Beats Antique was a member of my high school band Bubble Tribe, and a dear friend. We had collaborated live before, but this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to mash up what we do in the studio. My contribution was recorded here in Nashville by Marc Lacuesta about three days after the wave started.
The Beats Antique team worked on it through the night in San Francisco, and the final product was finished and posted online all of five days after my video. It’s worth mentioning that neither Beats Antique or I have ever sold our versions of “Get Lucky,” they are all free to download.
How has the video’s popularity benefited you professionally?
Not much has changed, really.
What can artists do to better prepare themselves online in the event that lightning strikes, as it did for you?
Have somewhere to direct people that will benefit your career.
Also, this is sort of off-topic, but I just wanted to confirm that you’re a comic book artist as well (or that this is your work). Sort of an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind theme going on there — I really like the visuals!
Yeah, that’s me!