"That Feels Good in the Heart"

An Interview with Butch Walker

by Colin McGuire

12 November 2014

He's produced hits for Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and more, but on his forthcoming Ryan Adams-produced album, Butch Walker explores some of the darkest corners of his soul.
 
cover art

Butch Walker

Afraid of Ghosts

(Dangerbird)
US: 3 Feb 2015

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that Butch Walker was in a band called the Marvelous 3, and you probably already know every word to their minor hit, “Freak Of The Week”. Also, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re familiar with Walker’s outrageously impressive resume as a producer, which includes credits with Taylor Swift, Pink, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Gavin DeGraw, Train, and about four billion other bands that have sold about four billion copies of records. 

Shoot, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably even read his memoir, Drinking With Strangers, or seen his documentary, Out Of Focus. If you’re a super hard-core fan, you may even own a copy or two of the records his first notable band, SouthGang, put out. You might follow his occasionally hilarious tweets on Twitter. Perhaps you know every word to the extended rap-like bridge in “Going Back/Going Home”. Maybe you mourned for him when his father passed away last year, and maybe February seems far too long a distance to wait for his Ryan Adams-produced, highly anticipated set, Afraid Of Ghosts

But what if you haven’t done any of those things or felt any of those emotions? What if, to you, Butch Walker is just another singer/songwriter/producer who lurks in the shadows, perfecting your favorite artists’ favorite art? What if you’ve never been exposed to the heartbreak of “Mixtape” or the fun of “Hot Girls In Good Moods”? 

Well, if you haven’t, you wouldn’t be alone. Or, at least so said Walker himself in a recent phone interview between tour stops. 

“It’s really been fun, getting in front of an audience—a big audience—that I wouldn’t normally get to play to and try to get them by the end of my set,” the singer explained, referencing his opening slot on tour with his friend Ryan Adams that is scheduled to take them into late November. “It’s a tough thing to do, but man. It’s so rewarding. You’re used to going out on your own tours and you’re in your routine in front of your own audience and there’s a comfort there. But it’s a lot more challenging to have to go play to somebody else’s fans and they don’t know who you are, and they’re not necessarily going into it with the intention of liking it.”

Laughter.

“I know it’s not for everybody,” he continued, “but I like to think that it’s going real well and people seem to really be enjoying it even though it’s not the headliner out there. When I’m out on the road as a headliner, I’m used to doing two hours a night because I have a lot of music. It’s like with Ryan—he’s got a lot of records and they all want to hear something from every record. But me, now, I have to consolidate it all down to a 45 minute set. It’s more about presenting yourself to the people and in that case, I can play whatever I want. I can play a lot of stuff off the new record and that’s OK, because it’s all new to them. You could play only new songs and they’re not going to know the difference.”

He’s been taking advantage of that freedom each night—Walker’s live performances these days lean heavily on the upcoming Afraid Of Ghosts, a haunting set of songs that is perhaps the most mature the singer has ever sounded on record. Sparse and evocative, it comes across as exactly what you think a record written by Butch Walker and produced by Ryan Adams would feel. Picture old Walker favorites like “Thank-You Note” or “Closest Thing To You I’m Gonna Find” if they were sadder, slower, and served as a companion to Adams’ landmark 2000 set Heartbreaker

It’s almost a complete 180-degree rotation from the turned-up and rocked-out hard-pop-rock heard from his other bands and even his earlier solo work, including 2002’s Left Of Self-Centered. That evolution has been the product of a conscious artistic decision, Walker noted. 

“I guess I just don’t think about those songs a lot,” he admitted when asked about the choice to leave some of his older songs out of his live set. “I’m a different person. It’s OK to not want to wear the same clothes or the same hair style you had when you were 28 years old—or 30 or 35—when you’re 44 years old. There are just certain things that don’t fit you as well anymore. So, not only do my jeans not fit as well anymore, but some of the lyrics don’t, and I can’t back them, I can’t get behind them. I know it sounds selfish, but for me to go out and play those songs just to go through the motions because three people in the audience want to hear them, that doesn’t sound fun to me. 

“When I did that record [Left Of Self-Centered], I think I was just trying really hard to be accepted,” the singer concluded. “I had just come out of being in a radio band with a marginal hit song at alternative radio in my 20s. I’m proud of some of those songs, but I’m not the same person anymore. It’s hard for me to listen to some of it now. I’m not doggin’ on it, but it just doesn’t relate to me anymore.”

That growth has never been more evident in his work than it has been in recent years. Part of what’s shaped his current life perspective, he said, was the loss of his father, Big Butch, in 2013. A lot of that heartbreak can be heard throughout each note of Afraid Of Ghosts. It’s very much a record about coming to terms with death, Walker explained, and the long, oftentimes arduous process of moving on. 

“It’s always going to be weird,” he said while reflecting on the hole Big Butch left. “Especially with how a lot of the songs have come to fruition on the last couple of records because of that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired to write a bunch of songs after he passed a year ago. It just feels like I have so much more to say. The EP [Peachtree Battle] was cut short by his death and these songs now—they feel more substantial.”

The other most prominent influence on Afraid Of Ghosts comes from Walker’s longtime friend Adams. Their bromance has been largely documented on various forms of social media through the years, and it was only a matter of time, it seemed, before they would combine their powers for work on a singular project. 

Collaborating with Adams wasn’t always necessarily (Georgia) peaches and cream, Walker admitted, but he also noted how he couldn’t be happier with the end result. Besides: with two hard-headed guys like Walker and Adams collaborating—along with the fact that Walker has always produced his own records until Ghosts—both artists knew that there might be road blocks along the way. 

“What I love about Ryan is that he’s got no filter,” Walker explained, “and he has opinions. No one loves music more than that guy. It’s inspiring to see him be so immersed in something musically. When I played him a bunch of my stuff, we were sitting in my hotel room in New York City, and he was like, ‘Man. This is the kind of record I want to hear you make and I want it to sound like it sounds right here. When you’re playing it, you’re not yelling at me; you’re singing the song under your breath.’ 

“I appreciate all of his insight into the songs,” he added. “Because he wasn’t thinking about it like, ‘Oh you have to do this because this is your thing.’ He wasn’t thinking about that at all. He was like, ‘I don’t even know what your thing is. All I know is that when you sing those songs in front of me on an acoustic guitar, and you’re being delicate with your voice, that’s what I want to hear.’ So, I said, ‘Yeah. Well, then you’re going to have to produce me, because I can’t fucking produce myself anymore.’ 

“I love the fact that it’s a record that doesn’t sound like an acoustic-folk, singer-songwriter thing by any means,” Walker concluded. “Those records kind of make me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit. It was more about making something kind of dark and a little more dangerous-sounding, but not layered. It was just like, ‘Let it breathe.’ And I love it because I can sing this record in the morning when I wake up and I can sing it at three in the morning before I go to bed. It feels good to have that kind of record and not be like, ‘Oh, this is where the orchestra section would be coming in and here’s where the Mellotron part would go.’ I’m doing these shows now as a one-man band, and I love it. It feels right that way.”

And so it goes: Talking to Butch Walker in 2014 is probably a lot different than talking to Butch Walker in 2009. Or 2004. Or 1999. But talking to Butch Walker in 2014 is also like listening to the most honest, organic case one could possibly make for the entire precept of music being the most therapeutic drug a man might ever know. On a lot of levels, it’s intoxicating. Here’s a guy who only recently suffered through one of the biggest losses his life will undoubtedly ever endure, and here’s a guy who turned that heartbreak into one hell of a haunting record. 

It makes all the sense in the world, then, when he adds this tiny anecdote while reflecting on how well his current tour is going:

“It’s still good to connect with an audience,” he begins, “and have someone come up to me after and see tears well up when they talk about just losing their father or something. Or relating to this song, ‘Fathers Day’, that I’ve been playing every night on this tour.”

He stops for reflection. 

“I don’t know, man,” Little Butch says, a genuine thought escaping a genuine mouth. “That feels good. That feels good in the heart.”

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