Jon Button is from Alaska and resides in LA but he's seen the world in a way that only few dreaming musicians attain, as the bassist for rock & roll royalty. He's a mainstay of the session scene (film, television, and commercials) but that's his day job. The skills he honed at UNT in Denton, Texas may have empowered him with the reading chops and stylistic diversity required in the studio but his inner teenage rockstar manifested with touring gigs such as Sheryl Crow, Shakira, Roger Daltrey, and most recently The Who. From his hip digs in the outskirts of Los Angeles, Button shares his thoughts about what led him to such success and how he maintains this in the midst of a serene family life.
You grew up in Alaska, quite a ways from the music city meccas of New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville, Miami, and the like. To what do you credit your ability to go from a scene with not a lot of musicians to have an amazing career playing with some of the world’s most respected and accomplished musicians…keeping in mind your humble beginnings?
My parents both play music and I have 4 older siblings that were all very good musicians. Also, I grew up in Alaska during the Oil boom, so our public schools had tons of money and thus had plenty of funding for music programs. I joined school orchestra in 3rd grade and jazz band in 7th grade. There were also a couple of local summer music camps that brought in great educators from out of state. I also mail-ordered lots of concert and instructional VHS tapes!
You’ve been the bassist/sideman with a number of very well-known artists/bands…any aspirations to just be a “band guy”? What’s the best and worst parts of being a sideman (for you personally)?
I’m 100% content to be a sideguy. It’s actually what I always wanted to be, since i was a kid. I never really had aspirations to be a rockstar or a “band guy” (though I did try being in a few bands over the years.) There are many great things about being a sideguy. I love that I get to play with so many different amazing musicians, and get to play so many different styles of music. It keeps things really fun and interesting. I suppose the downside is you don’t get a piece of the passive income that you might get from record sales etc. as a band member.
Most recently you have been playing bass for The Who, one of the most iconic bass positions in rock & roll. How did this come about and how much does playing those songs with that band mess with your head?
I had been playing with Roger Daltrey for many years, which came about through auditioning. When Pino Palladino decided he wasn’t going to do the Who dates that were scheduled for 2017, Roger recommended me to Pete as a replacement for Pino. I know they considered a few guys, but in the end they decided they would do the first tour, which was only a few shows, as a trial run for me. I was really appreciative of Roger for going to bat for me. He’s a really great guy and I sure acknowledge him having that faith in me. As far as playing the music. I had done it with Roger for 8 years, so it wasn’t a total shock, but it’s definitely a different animal when you put the force that is Pete Townshend in the mix. I find that most of the time I’m so focused on the task at hand that I’m not really thinking about that, but every once in a while it crosses my mind - “Holy Crap I’m playing with THE WHO!?!?!”
One of your first gigs with The Who was playing Royal Albert Hall, that’s pretty surreal. Describe the experience from your perspective.
Well, I don’t generally get very nervous anymore. Especially since I’m such a meticulous preparer. (I find preparation eases the nerves.) And I had played Royal Albert hall several times previously, so that wasn’t really an issue… but they were filming it for a DVD, It was my first gig with the Who, we didn't rehearse all that much, (I think 5 short days???) and Pete is fairly unpredictable! So, yeah, I was nervous. I was quite nervous the hour right before the show, but I KNEW that once I got on stage and got my bass on, that all the nerves would melt away - Playing bass is my comfort zone. I had a good time, and I think the show went really well.
You once told me that during your years as the bassist with Sheryl Crow there were several amazing bass players in the band at that time. It conjures up the question, when you are playing with these immensely popular and famous musical acts…do you feel that you are trying to measure up to the previous bassist or trying to just be yourself?
I definitely feel the pressure to measure up to the previous bass player! I feel like I’ll always be myself, but that I’m trying to live up to the quality-level of previous players. I’ve had the fortune of being asked to fill the shoes of some amazing bass players over the years and I always feel a duty rise to their level. With The Who I feel a pressure to live up to the expectations of their long time fans!
You graduated from UNT with a reputation as an amazing musician, you’ve toured with countless iconic artists, and you’re a mainstay on the LA studio scene; out of all these experiences, what’s the most important musical lesson you’ve learned?
To Listen. Not just while the music happening, but when producers or artists are giving you direction, really listen to what they’re saying and where they’re coming from.
It seems like Social Media is a part of so many musician’s careers these days. You already had a great career prior to the prevalence of SM; how do you feel about SM in both a professional and personal sense these days?
I don’t mind it. It seems like a necessary evil to a lot of people, but I find enjoyment in it. I really like that it allows all of us touring musicians scattered all over the world to keep in touch with what each other is doing. All that being said, I think I could do more and better posts. I have friends that are masters at it. They’re constantly posting interesting, engaging and creative things.
You’ve played some massive shows with a Japanese pop artist. Different cultures offer different experiences to a performing musician. Describe the vibe performing at some of these arena shows in Japan. What are the differences that you notice?
One of the biggest things that I noticed was that they asked people not to film with their cell phones, and the audiences always complied. It’s really nice to look out and see faces looking back at you instead of a bunch of cell phones!!!
Of all the places you have toured, what location (city, country, etc.) stands out for you most and why?
That’s a TOUGH one! I’ve been to so many wonderful, amazing places! But usually Columbia comes to mind. I was fortunate to meet some really nice people the first time I went there. They showed me around and we became friends. The next time I went, I rescheduled my flight to stay an extra few days and those people took me to a vacation house they had in the middle of nowhere. It’s such a beautiful place, and to get to travel off the beaten path with locals acting as your tour guide was really amazing.
One would assume that you travel in the best of manners while on tour. Do you ever find yourself doing a van tour or schlepping your gear around town for some tiny gig? If yes, why do you do this when you have established yourself as a premier bassist?
I do a bit of that. Playing huge venues is amazing, but it can be so impersonal, and such a big production. It’s really nice to be in an intimate little club. Also, each person you play with is a unique experience, so I love getting to connect and play with different people. Playing local clubs gives me that opportunity. I do have to be careful though, I put the same focus and preparation into playing a local gig as I do for the biggest show with the biggest artists. So I have to be careful not to book too many things, or I’ll spread myself too thin and stress myself out!
What’s your favorite thing to do on a day off while on tour?
Spend the whole day aimlessly exploring a city on foot.
Does your son get it yet that his dad is a pretty big deal and if so, can you describe one situation with him that communicated to you that he does get it?
He has no clue. :D
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