[18 November 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
It’s often noted that the very act of performing—be it in the realm of acting, music, dance, or any other artform—can be an extremely cathartic experience. If this is truly the case, then, Butch Walker is in for one hell of a night tonight.
Tonight, Butch Walker continues his run of shows at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles, where he’s been performing one of his solo albums in its entirety each week, wrapping things up with a few choice covers just for fun (Taylor Swift herself was stunned by Butch’s version of her hit “You Belong with Me”). Tonight, he tackles his intensely personal 2008 record Sycamore Meadows, which was recorded after the 2007 California fires burned down his home and all of his possessions—part of which included all of the master tapes for all of his albums. For a man that did two albums with SouthGang, three albums with the Marvelous 3, and (at the time) three albums under his own name, that kind of loss can be described as nothing short of crippling.
Yet Walker isn’t the kind of artist to take these kinds of things lying down. A year after the fire, Walker released Sycamore Meadows as a way of coming to terms with both what had happened and where he was going with his life. Veering from Tom Petty-indebted rockers (“The Weight of Her”) to Casio keyboard-driven ballads (“Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You”) without as much as blinking an eye, Sycamore Meadows showcased Walker at his most personal and unguarded, crafting confessional ballads for himself and then scoring somewhat of a minor hit in the process (the Pink-assisted “Here Comes the ...”). The video for “Ships in a Bottle”, in fact, was filmed in the rubble of his former home, proving not only that Walker was unafraid to confront what had happened, but also that he was ready to move on.
And move on he did. The 2009 calendar year showed Walker producing more big hits for other artists (like Katy Perry’s “Thinking of You” and Weezer’s “If You’re Wondering If I Want You To (I Want You To)” being just a few of the highlights), prepping a new album for early next year (called I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart), and performing these career-retrospective gigs in L.A. this month, New York the next, and in Chicago in January of next year (tickets of which sold out in only two minutes). Butch Walker has been doing this for nearly two decades now, and when it comes to determining what makes a good or bad performance, there is no better go-to than Walker himself.
In the second installment of our three part feature on Butch Walker, an emphasis on performance was placed, both in terms of what works in a live setting and what needs to be coaxed out of an artist for a believable performance in the studio. As always, Butch was remarkably candid about the subject matter at hand, freely discussing annoying trends in rock vocalists, the difficulty of forcing melodrama, and the worst show that he has ever put on himself. So without further ado, I give you Butch Walker: the Performer ...
PopMatters:These residences must be particularly interesting to you, as you’re now digging out some songs that you haven’t performed for years. Are there any particular tracks you’re looking forward to letting loose for the crowd?
Butch Walker: I’m pretty excited about some of the cover songs. Honestly, it sounds like its more of a job to do these albums front-to-back, but it kind of is because it’s a little bit more of—there’s a reason I don’t play some of those songs live and why they’re just “album songs”. They work better as recordings then they did translated live. So the sad truth is, it’s me to trying to figure out how to make those songs sound good live—[and] I haven’t really figured that out yet on some of them! Some of them I’m dreading playing ‘cos I don’t think they’re going to translate that [well]. It also shows the weakness of the song. I mean I definitely feel like I don’t always hit it perfect on the mark every time, so it’s very hard to perform [them] live after almost ten years.
PM: When we last left off, you were talking about how your new album features a full live band in the studio, and how that was a very potent experience for you. Given how humorous and fun your live shows can be (as evidenced by your live This is Me ... Justified & Stripped CD), what do you expect a fan to take out of the Butch Walker Concert Experience?
BW: I don’t know—I guess maybe just to get that it’s OK to express a couple of different emotions while seeing a show. You got to let the artist be the artist sometimes, because we’re not always going to be in the mood to be funny or witty and sometimes we’re just in a completely silly mood and not in the mood to be stoic and melancholy. When you carry those things to the microphone—when you carry that baggage with you—you gotta have an audience that’s understanding.
PM: Well you, of course, are very much a seasoned pro at this kind of thing: you’ve been touring for nearly two decades at this point, both in solo and full-band formats, doing small club jaunts one moment and opening for Avril Lavigne the next. Yet many of the young bands that you produce—they don’t have that experience. They’re usually thrust into the national spotlight after recording about eight songs or so. What has been your personal secret for touring success?
BW: I suppose you gotta find a way to keep yourself occupied. It’s a lot of boring downtime and a lot of monotony and you just have to learn how to occupy your time and make the most out of being a vagabond. You got to have that wandering spirit in you to want to do it, because if you don’t—I know lots of people [where] it just doesn’t last, it doesn’t last very long for them. They can’t handle all the dynamics that come along with it. There’s a lot of stress, and you can’t let a lot of things stress you out like being late or blowing out a tire or [having] your bus or your van breaking down or missing a flight. You just have to take that stuff with a grain of salt, and that’s the secret to the longevity of touring, [that] and really understanding your bandmates and knowing who they are and being respectful to them as well as in return.
PM: It seems to me that the very notion of what a concert in has changed in recent years as well. I was interviewing a band a few years ago that made a very pointed observation, noting how there aren’t any “private” moments at shows anymore. Every performance is a bringing-together of different people and different energies, sometimes allowing you to connect with the crowd on a very personal level—and now those very special moments can be posted on YouTube the very next day, with people commenting and judging said performance from afar. Have you noticed a change in that dynamic over the years?
BW: What goes on on the road goes online the next day. That’s the thing: there’s no mystique anymore, so you have to just be prepared for the whole world to see when you’ve had an off night or when you berated somebody in the audience for being an asshole. You have to think about those things when you play your show now, where as it used to be a free-for-all. And also people just know what you’re going to do! If you have a regimented show and you got a comfortable set list that flows really well, you kind of want to give that to a new audience every night that’s never seen this show—[and] it’s hard for them to be surprised anymore. I guess it’s good to embrace spontaneity as much as possible in a day and age where there’s no mystery anymore.
PM: With that performance aspect, you ever notice that there are some artists that go with that “tortured” vocal inflection? The kind where the singer seems to be deliberately trying to make every word sound tortured and painful?
BW: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve seen that happen.
PM: Well A) what are your thoughts on that, and B) do you feel like bands frequently rely on that kind melodrama a lot these days or are there still some genuine performers left out there?
BW: I think so. I think a lot of people just feel like it’s hard to keep people’s attention, and you have to scream instead of whisper to get anyone’s attention. You have to just keep things at a melodramatic high, I suppose. I’ve been accused of it in the past; I [just] try not to do it if it’s not called for or it’s not a feeling that’s right for the song. I mean, sometimes I get mad and I sing loud and sometimes I get into songs more ... it just depends on what kind of subconscious thing is going on with you that you’re manifesting while you’re singing. It’s impossible to do the same thing every night. You can’t really just do the same thing and be the same way every night and expect for that to be taken sincerely or sung sincerely.
PM: Otherwise you’re just a Broadway performer, replicating the exact same thing night after night.
BW: Yeah, which I’ve been accused of in the past. [Laughs.] I definitely feel like I have something to say story-wise and I just want to be a good conduit for people. Hopefully I just sing a song and a lyric will relate to them.
PM: And sometimes the performance can be the make or break factor as well. On that recent Pink song “So What”, she has a part near the end where she seems to be wailing and going into this deeper, darker emotional place for a song that doesn’t necessarily call for it, making this where’s-my-man anthem something all the more potent and powerful. As a producer, is there ever anything you do to “coax” a good performance out of someone, or is it something that has to already be there to begin with?
BW: The first time that [Pink & I] did the vocals to “A Long Way to Happy”—which is a song that Alicia and I did—it was written about her having to deal with being raped as a teenager by a cop, which was brutal for her. We had never even known each other before she expressed this to me, and I said “Well, obviously when we go into the studio it’s going to be [a] pretty emotional time, so let’s make sure the vocal goes down naturally”, and sure enough she was practically in tears when she sang it, and I don’t blame her. I don’t think you have to subscribe to the mentality that you have to bring the person to pain to sing and give a good performance. You just got to let the song be the song and let it do the work. Some songs are meant to be taken lighter and some are not. She definitely let that one fly.
PM: Well I think it was even Billy Corgan that said you don’t need to be tortured to do great art.
PM: So with all of these performance aspects in mind, I got two last quick questions for you. First off, what have been the best and worst shows that you yourself have attended?
BW: [Laughs.] I don’t know. Best concerts? I don’t know—some of the best ones I’ve ever seen were just [when there was] one person there. There’s always been this unpredictable thing going in—you just never know what you’re going to get sometimes, and those end up being some of the best concerts. Luckily, I’ve walked out before [they’ve] gotten too bad. With that said, any Third Eye Blind show I’ve ever seen is probably the worst concert I’ve ever seen. Honestly, [Stephen Jenkins] is an amazing songwriter and super-gifted, but I can’t stand to hear it live. It’s so bad. I know it makes me an enemy to a lot of fans ...
PM: Well is it the forced melodrama of it all?
BW: I don’t think he has any drama. I feel like it’s just as cookie-cutter, whitebread as possible, and I think [it’s] maybe overcompensating for the fact that he can’t sing. I don’t know: I’m just being mean, and I don’t want to be mean. He’s probably a nice guy now.
PM: Well with that said, from your perspective, what are the best and worst concerts that you’ve performed yourself?
BW: Oh I’ve done plenty of bad shows, which is why I’m allowed to say that I’ve seen some bad shows from other people, ‘cos I’ve definitely had some bad shows in my day. Probably one of the worst concerts that I’ve ever had—anxiety-ridden—was when I did a college show opening for Midtown at Rutgers. I was so anxiety-ridden ‘cos here I was up there, kind of at the beginning of getting back out and playing live again and I hadn’t done it in quite some time.
I played, by myself with an acoustic guitar, some songs that were off of my first solo record and then some that would be off of Letters to come. I just remember all these blank stares from all these little college kids, looking at me like “Who the fuck is this guy?” It couldn’t have been a more lukewarm response, and I think the last time I had toured was two years before that—I had been off the road for quite some time and lost my mojo. I just didn’t know how to get out of it, and I cut the whole thing short and gave them back their money and left. “I can’t do this! This is horrible!”
PM: Did you go on a few nights later or was it just that one show?
BW: No, it was just a one-off.
PM: Well, conversely, has there ever been a concert where just everything fell into place for you?
BW: I think I’ve had a lot of those. I’ve been lucky where I’ve had a lot of those shows that were just like the best shows I’ve ever done. It happens every tour, like [with] the El Ray show on the last tour we did.
PM: I can only assume you’ll be touring behind the new record which, just out of curiosity, does it have a name yet?
BW: Yes. My band is called the Black Widows, and the name is called I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart. [Laughs.] It’s… true.