How Jason Aalon Butler became rock’s voice for the voiceless

FEVER 333 frontman Jason Aalon Butler has been fighting on the frontlines his entire life, and the world is finally waking up to what he has to say...

How Jason Aalon Butler became rock’s voice for the voiceless
Mischa Pearlman
Jonathan Weiner

For 13 straight days, Jason Aalon Butler didn’t know what else to do. Each morning he would wake up feeling helpless, lost, angry, scared. A sickness was churning deep inside of him. Like most of the world, the FEVER 333 frontman had witnessed the killing of George Floyd on television, watching in horror as Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead. And so, for 13 straight days, Jason responded to and confronted the incident the only way he knew how: by rising out of bed, tying his shoes, and stepping out of his front door to join the marches and protests spreading daily across Los Angeles.

“I remember feeling sick watching the George Floyd murder,” the 35-year-old says. “But I felt so many things at once that all I could even think to do was go out and yell about how I felt. I was involved in peaceful protests; I was in the midst of what people consider riots. I brought my son to a daytime one, my wife to another, myself to the ones that seemed like they were going to be a bit more hectic. It was this strange sense of a purge. I felt all of these feelings, and a lot of them I felt were going to destroy me – like, if I don’t do something about this that I feel is productive in some way for me personally, I’m going to actually explode. I walked for miles and miles and miles and yelled and laughed and cried, and on the 14th day, I felt like my tank was near empty.”

Jason didn’t rest on that 14th day, however. Instead, he got to work, heading for producer John Feldmann’s studio with Travis Barker in tow. The result is WRONG GENERATION, the new FEVER 333 EP. It’s eight songs of pure invective, but also of vulnerability, of fuck-the-system punk rock but with more hip-hop influence than ever before. It’s also more than just an EP. For while it is an immediate response to George Floyd’s death, it’s also a reaction to the system that caused it. That system, as well as the framework of the capitalist society that supports it, is something Jason has been railing against explicitly since he formed FEVER in July 2017, but that he’s been reckoning with his whole life.

“That’s trauma that we’ve dealt with, that a lot of black people have dealt with, throughout our lives in some way or another,” he says. “So I felt that that was a good place to start with this EP. George Floyd was a totem, but this is also a culmination of years – for me, decades, but for us, our culture and our blood lineage, generations – of mistreatment and pain.”

“It was this strange sense of a purge for feelings I felt were going to destroy me”

Listen to Jason discuss the emotional drive that led him to take to the streets

In a weird, twisted way, then, this is the fight that Jason – as the son of a white woman and a black man, who grew up in poverty – has been waiting for; a war he’s been ready to wage for a long time. Not only that, but Jason has had his own run-ins with the police as the result of his race. Most notably, he was arrested in 2007 for assaulting a police officer after a police officer was harassing a friend of his who was drunk. Jason, who has always been teetotal, was attempting to diffuse the situation, but ended up in chokehold similar to that which ended George Floyd’s life (“That’s actually what the next album is about,” he admits. “It’s a whole concept album about my first felony and how it taught me so much about the world, about myself, about my peers”). It was just one of many moments that have led his art and his activism to become one and the same thing. For while he explored his heritage and its consequences with his previous band, letlive., he was met with resistance as he became increasingly outspoken about justice, as his activism bled into his art.

“I got to a point where the people in my band were asking me, ‘Why?’ and that’s why I left. I was like, 'Oh, you hear the lyrics, you hear the music, you hear what I'm saying, but I don't know if you're listening.”

letllive. disbanded at the end of April 2017, and it was just a couple of months later that Jason started FEVER 333. The idea for the band initially came about on, of all things, Super Bowl Sunday that year, when he ended up talking about black punk rock with Travis Barker and John Feldmann.

“It was really time for me to be very, very clear about what I've always been saying,” explains Jason, “and just say it in a way where I am unapologetically who I am.”

While he tends to collaborate, as he did on WRONG GENERATION, with Travis and John when writing FEVER 333 songs, onstage his vitriolic energy is flanked by guitarist Stephen ‘Stevis’ Harrison and drummer Aric Improta.

“I’m actually the primary writer,” he elaborates over text message a couple of days after the interview, “so I write and collaborate with others and mostly play live with the boys.”

‘Play live’ is, of course, something of a euphemism. Anyone who has seen any of the band’s performances knows exactly why Jason calls them ‘demonstrations’ – because that’s exactly what they are. Just as Jason’s lifetime of experiences as a person of colour has manifested itself into increasingly politically-charged, uncompromising music, so FEVER 333’s live shows are riotous embodiments of the activism he says he can no longer separate from his art. It’s why, before he set to work on the WRONG GENERATION EP, he also brought his reaction to all the protests to life in a livestreamed demonstration that the band called Long Live The Innocent.

“During a protest, I saw all these people singing,” Jason explains. “One form of protest, I think, in America is black joy – seeing black people have fun is like a form of protest, because it does actually cause quite a stir for people that would rather we not. So I was looking at everybody and listening to everybody, and I felt like I was at some type of a performance, almost – one that was fuelled by love but also frustration. And it really reminded me of what we do as a band, and [what we do] live and very much why we call these ‘demonstrations’ for FEVER.”

For an hour, the trio engaged in one of their most vicious and wild performances, a breathless and incredibly powerful expression of pain and anger not at what happened to George Floyd, but to the inherent racism at America’s core. In one monologue, Jason even takes the music industry to task for not doing enough to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the decades it spent exploiting black culture to turn a profit.

“Atlantic Records. Sony Records. Interscope Records. RCA Records, Def Jam, Island, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, show up for black people,” he snarls in the middle of One Of Us. “You love black culture? Show up for black people.”

These days, Jason has even more weight on his shoulders than the war he’s waging against racial and economic injustice. That’s because there’s even more at stake since he and his wife, New Zealand-born songwriter Gin Wigmore, became parents. Their first son was born in September 2017, their second in March 2020. Towards the end of our interview, his eldest, Pascal, wanders into the room asking if he can have some honey. And despite the spite and malice in FEVER 333’s songs, and despite what Jason has said over the last 90 minutes, he visibly melts when he sees his son. It’s a beautiful moment of pure, unadulterated joy, but also a perfect reminder of why Jason fights so hard for the things he loves and believes in – and what keeps him motivated. If he was ever worried that the fire burning inside him was starting to flicker, that the weight he carries – the burden of existence that he has chosen, but also feels he has no choice but to fight against – was starting to break him, his sons give him the energy to continue doing what he does. The unconditional love of his black heritage still motivates him – as an artist, as an activist, as a human – but now the extreme responsibility of fatherhood, and the unconditional love for his kids, has been added to the equation.

“For the first time, our generation is finally stepping up to the plate”

Hear Jason reflect on his pride at people’s response to demanding change

“I think before it was just that I love my people,” he ponders about his motivations. “I love the culture from which I come. I see the beauty in what we are and what we can be as black people and I try not to be discouraged fully. Ultimately, for me, I have to believe it’s like God. I think a lot of black faith in God is because we need some shit to believe in. We need to justify why this shit is happening. So I believe that the fire keeps going first and foremost because I have to. And I don’t even know if that’s a fucking...”

He pauses on the expletive, searching as he often does, for the right words. Yet this time, a hint of vulnerability and desperation and uncertainty creeps into his voice.

“I don’t even know if that’s the right way to do anything, but it is because I have to. But now, firstly for me are my sons. I’ve got to try my fucking hardest to make sure that I leave them with a world with the least amount of debt, culturally, environmentally, societally. I have to try my best, because you never really know when you’re going to go, right? You never know. I have no idea, I could be gone tomorrow. And I don’t know what happens after that, but I do believe in the energy that we share while we’re here and I want to make sure that the energy that I invest on this planet will be beneficial to my sons.”

While many Americans are hoping that next week’s U.S. general election is a chance to vote Donald Trump out of office, for Jason, Trump isn’t so much the problem as the symptom of the disease. What Jason is standing up to is longstanding, systemic injustice that’s written in law, not the actions of one ignorant, racist president. Voting won’t make all that much difference, and even if Trump loses, that’s not enough. It’s going to take more than that. Indeed, there’s a telling lyric on WRONG GENERATION where Jason sings, ‘My Uzi weigh a ton, son – carry it.’ It’s a line adapted from the 1987 Public Enemy song Miuzi Weighs A Ton, which Travis Barker, together with the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and Raekwon, then recast for the drummer’s 2011 debut solo album, Give The Drummer Some. Sampled – and then repeated by Jason – here, it’s just one of many moments of violent outrage on this EP. ‘You wanted a fight, well, you got one,’ Jason spits malevolently on U WANTED A FIGHT. ‘I want to be there when the final racist statue falls,’ he proclaims on BITE BACK. Even on the short, beautiful, gentle LAST TIME, his words betray the soothing lull of the song’s melody: ‘You let us down for the last time.’

“I wanted to make it very clear that we know what’s going on and we can’t be fooled anymore,” says Jason. “The veil has been lifted. The semantics and rhetoric of ‘Things are going to change’ isn’t good enough anymore. We’ve heard that time and time again, and we’ve seen amendments that then just turned into modern day slavery. We’ve seen on television people be choked to death, shot to death, beat to death, not getting help until they die in handcuffs. We know it’s happening and we can’t be lied to anymore. We cannot accept blind faith, we cannot accept you just saying it’s gonna change. We need to see that change.”

After George Floyd’s death, it felt like that change might be coming. As the protests spread across the world, Jason witnessed the profile of the Black Lives Matter movement – a cause he’s long been a vocal supporter of – grow significantly in real time as the message and importance of what it stands for become more obvious than it ever had before. The world, it seemed, was finally catching up with and understanding what he’s been saying – what he’s been preaching – with FEVER 333 this whole time. As time has gone on, however, Jason has also seen the response slowly die down, as the protests and movement became less visible. That doesn’t mean the need for them has diminished, though.

“The same motherfuckers that were like ‘Black Lives Matter’… who wanted to scream that they got a black friend, they forgot about their black friend two months later,” he says now, and you can see the sadness in his eyes.

“If you really believe in this change, it’s going to take more than just the protest you were at”

Hear Jason discuss what it means to truly be an ally

While both 2018’s Made An America EP and the following year’s STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS album railed viciously against systemic injustice and police brutality, neither were as vicious or violent as WRONG GENERATION. A document of both personal and universal trauma, it’s the sound of the breaking point Jason feels he and the black community have reached – a collision of the activism and art that Jason admits he is unable to separate from each other – as well as a reinforcement of the battle Jason is now waging on behalf of his sons’ futures. It’s not just posturing, either. Rather, the EP – and title track in particular – is a brazen threat. Not just of rebellion, but of all-out revolution – a warning that his generation are ready to start putting an end to the inherently prejudiced systems in place.

“I do think this is gonna be a long, fucking journey,” he admits. “I’m not naive enough to think that there’s something inside of all of us in this generation, that we were born with this DNA that’s superhuman. I actually think we’re just the compounded result of the generations before us – I think our blood trauma has reached a boiling point, and it’s boiling over, and we are the result of all the policy, of all the mistreatment, of all the disaffected lineages. It’s just harder to avoid now, because it’s seeping from every pore of society, just seeping out the sides, and for the first time – truly, for the first time, in my generation’s history that I’ve observed – I’m seeing us finally step up to the fucking plate.”

Stepping up to the plate is exactly what Jason is doing – walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Outside of the music, he tries to enact as much as possible the principles of ‘Community, Charity and Change’ that drive FEVER 333, not least with the minority-centred, artist-led mission of 333 Wreckords, the label/collective he launched last year. And while he couldn’t have foreseen the unparalleled dystopia that 2020 would become, the fucked-up state of the world is the perfect setting for FEVER 333 to continue spreading their message and for Jason to fight the good fight. Through localised action and politics – focussing on that all-important first ‘C’ – he thinks it’s essential to lead with love. But if doing so doesn’t work? Does he think, as the EP suggests, it’s going to take something more violent?

Jason hears the question, and you can almost see the truth rise up inside him.

“If I’m being completely honest,” he says, “and this is not what I hope for, but I think a lot of people are going to have to die. I think a lot of people are going to have to be placed in violent and bellicose scenarios. I think that people are going to have to really pick a side. At this point, I do believe that that is what it’s going to take. And I want to make sure that like when this is quoted that it’s understood that I’m not encouraging people... no, I’m not even going to say that, because I am encouraging them if they have to do it.”

He takes a breath and in that moment it’s clear that Jason realises the heavy implications of what he’s about to say. It’s also clear that the eight minutes and 46 seconds that the world spent watching George Floyd die, as well as everything that came before, have led him to the point where he feels he has no other choice but to say it.

“I’m not saying that I want this to be a violent shift in power and change,” he explains. “What I am saying is that it’s hard for me to look out into the world today as it stands and believe that it will not be violent. People are gonna fucking swing back, because the idea of this fight challenges all that we know in America, truly – everything that has made America a superpower is being challenged right now. We’re asking for a redistribution of the power that we gave. We want to have some benefits from the power that we gave, the wars that we fought, the tests that you did on our bodies, the fucking culture that you stole from our culture. That’s what this is about. So if you’re going to engage this fight, then I better see you next to me taking some serious fucking swings and hits.

“You can’t just swing and think that you’re not going to get hit.”

FEVER 333's WRONG GENERATION EP is out now on Roadrunner Records

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