Aussie musician and activist John Butler didn’t intend to have a high-noon-style faceoff with the premier of his state, Colin Barnett. But Barnett approached him in an airport lounge and started a conversation, so he had no choice but to defend his position on saving the Kimberley, Western Australia’s coastal home to dugongs, snubfin dolphins, the world’s largest humpback whale nursery and Aboriginal history. At the time, the government was slated to approve the construction of an oil refinery in the area, which would alter the area’s unique and delicate ecosystem.
“But the Kimberley is magical, and one of the last real wild places on the planet,” says Butler, an avid outdoorsman. “It’s beautiful, pristine and it’s where I met my wife.”
Butler — who plays San Francisco tonight as The John Butler Trio — penned a folk-rock dissection of the showdown for his new “Flesh & Blood” album called “How You Sleep At Night.” At first, he employed familial I’m-a-dad-you’re-a-dad logic on Barnett. Then he got serious.
“I said, ‘This is not about politics — this is about decency. How would you feel if the church that your great-great grandparents attended, where you went to sing every Sunday with your parents, were to be bulldozed for some refinery?’” he recalls. “And Mr. Colin Barnett had no answer to that. We went at it for quite a bit.”
Butler might have lost that battle. But he won the war, thanks to two awareness-raising concerts he headlined for a total of more than 33,000 people, plus an in-person protest outside BHP Billiton headquarters in Melbourne. Eventually, the Kimberley encroachment was scrapped.
“And even though the premier still wanted to go through with it, no oil company would go near that site because they knew how much community opposition there was against it,” he says. “So it was a mixture of many bows and arrows, pointing at the same target — activists of all sorts, musical and otherwise, focusing our magnifying glasses on that issue.”
The singer supports other causes such as the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“I don’t really like nuclear power or uranium mining, and Australia has 40 percent of the world’s uranium,” he says. Another song on his sixth album, “Flesh,” called “Cold Wind,” was inspired by his two-month drive into the Australian desert, where his family stayed with Aboriginal elder Uncle Bob Randall and his Ayers Rock-adjacent clan until the wind itself told them to move along.
“Nature is my church, it’s my teacher,” he says.
But rescuing the Kimberley didn’t feel like a Pete Seeger moment.
“It was just what should have been done, because there’s a time for action,” says Butler, who also opposes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. “I get angry about these things. And then I do something about it.”
IF YOU GO
The John Butler Trio
Where: Independent, 628 Divisadero St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $35 (sold out)