[24 November 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Butch Walker has come a long way since that guitar solo on “Tainted Angel”.
Yes, that’s him there in the black, and as dated/cheesy as this song may sound to some, there’s no denying that Butch really worked his axe on this track from his first band, SouthGang. Years later, after SouthGang never really made it, Butch emerged from the rubble with the Marvelous 3, a rock group with some very strong pop sensibilities. Three albums and one minor hit later, the Marvies called it a day, and not long after that, Butch embarked on one of the most unique solo careers in recent memory, one that has lead him all over the stylistic map as well as to the four corners of the earth, producing chart-topping hit singles one minute and playing sold-out shows with his own band the next. Being on both sides of the mic for nearly two decades has given Walker a unique perspective on the music industry as a whole, and it is for this reason that I have always wanted to do a feature article on him. Today you are reading the third and final installment of what I have affectionately called The Gospel According to Butch, and today it focuses on one very specific thing: Butch Walker, the Artist.
A quick overview of Walker’s songwriting prowess is intimidating enough: after penning upbeat pop-rock/fantastic hair metal homages with the Marvies, Walker’s solo career covered everything from snarky pop parodies to moody acoustic musings, glam-rock freakouts to backwoods confessionals. Walker always seemed like he was daring himself to try something new each and every time, which is perhaps why he’s proven to be so well-liked in the songwriting community, lending powerful assists to everyone from Avril Lavigne to Tommy Lee to Katy Perry to Weezer. He even worked on Lindsay Lohan’s second album because—as he would later admit in an interview—he always wondered what it would be like to work with a train-wreck.
Tonight, all of his history will emerge in the form of his last performance at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles, concluding his month-long residency where he’s been performing one of his solo albums in its entirety every Wednesday night. With his new album still on the horizon (due early next year), tonight Butch has been taking requests from fans, and there will no doubt be some old gems dusted off for this fun-filled event. It seems to me that there is no better time to ask Butch about his growing role as a songwriter, and concluding the last chapter of this Gospel. So without further ado, a give you Butch Walker: The Artist ...
PopMatters:You’re at an interesting place right now as a songwriter. After the fire [in 2007 that burned down Walker’s home and all of his master tapes], Sycamore Meadows was something new for you, almost a completely different style, as it were. It was still Butch Walker through and through, but it showcased a personal maturity previously unseen. Just out of curiosity, is the post-fire Butch Walker a new kind of songwriter, or is it just the same guy moving on a slightly different tangent?
Butch Walker: It’s the same guy, different verse, you know? I think I’m just kind of doing it as a different approach [that] I’ve always wanted to do: to kind of learn new methods of songwriting and learn new things to say. I hope that I do that. I hope that I can do that now. All I know is yes, it’s definitely going to have a different production than what I would’ve done two years ago. I don’t know. I’m just wishing that maybe now I can be a little bit more honest with myself in songwriting [than] on the last two records. Whether people think [the new record] is good or not ... I think, it’s honest, and the best part is I kind of decided to throw out some of those feelings [that] I grew up [with] when I was a younger, snottier kid. I know a lot of people will miss that. Like, there’s got to be some sort of inherent level of how I’m not supposed to do it. It’s not like I want to wear parachutes again. I’d like the song and subject matter to not sink.
PM: And that goes to show that with each album that you do for yourself, you work with tons of other artists and songwriters in-between, expanding your pallet and allowing yourself to grow—it’s something that shows through on your records. Given your years and years of working in the industry now, is there any “definitive” way to write a “good” song, and—conversely, is there any “definitive” way to write a “hit” song, in your mind?
BW: Is there a specific way? Ya know, it’s not exactly a ... unfortunately in this day and age, the “magical formulas” are so predictable and so poppy that it’s not as exciting as it used to be, where music was interesting [‘cos] there were different kind of songs [on the radio]. For that matter, the fucking “Macarena” was more interesting than half the songs on the radio right now because it certainly didn’t follow a formula—that was just ridiculous and retarded, and, in a way, pop hit songs are not supposed to be—in my mind—things that are “post-gleeful”, so whatever. You have to embrace the fact that it can be ridiculous and cheesy and fun or happy or whatever. The sad part is [that] there’s a lot of fake trickery in [songs like] that: the same exact structure in every song over and over again, it’s all verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-out, it’s all a lot of neat production tricks [that] are being used ... so it all kind of melds together. It’s not as interesting, and [they] definitely don’t want to take chance on songs, on pop music. Radio doesn’t want to take chances. It just kind of makes the job a little bit more of a “job”.
PM: With that said, are there any current songwriters that you admire?
BW: Well, I mean, I meet a ton of ‘em that are great. I think Max Martin is the king at writing pop songs. He will boldly go where my clever guns [would] shoot myself in the foot. He will go straight there. I would’ve never in a million years—ever!—would’ve said “So what / I’m a rock star / I’ve got my rock moves”. I would’ve been like “What the fuck? Are you kidding me? I’m not saying that!” But then some guy who’s Swedish who doesn’t really have a full 100% grasp on the English vocabulary is not being picky and choosy. That’s [what] pretty much relates to middle-America and a majority of the world, for that matter. I really respect someone who is not scared because they’re letting their pride or ego or “cool factor” get in the way of what sometimes I try to do. [One person] I really like, on the other end of the spectrum, is actually a pop writer that writes pop hits, but [is] more of a good songwriter in general. There are so many people out right now who I think are wonderful or amazing writers. I would have to literally go through my iPod to tell you exactly ... I think Ben Gibbard is a genius. I love everything he says. He’s so poetic. I still think Conor Oberst is one of the best voices of our time. You know it’s quite the opposite [for me]: I feel like I’m “too smart” for pop, whereas I won’t say “So what? / I’m a rock star / I got my rock moves”, but then I’m not smart enough to write a real simple line [like] “I’m broken”. It’s just like “Dammit! What the hell? Am I that shallow? Am I that narrow?” So I dig people like that who really challenge me to do better.
PM: That reminds me of the electro-pop artist Annie, who did an album of nothing but upbeat dancefloor hits. Someone once asked her why she writes so many upbeat pop songs, and she said something along the lines of: “‘cos it’s the hardest kind of song to write.” Anyone can sit down with an acoustic guitar and write a mopey song about a relationship, but to write a pop song? An upbeat pop song? That is difficult. That is hard to do.
BW: I agree wholeheartedly. I think the first thing I do—and I think this is where some of my more “rock and roll” fans get pissed at me—is that I tend to get ballad-heavy because I can’t help it when I pick up a guitar or sit at a piano. It’s just [easier] to get out frustration and to get out anger than it is to be poppy and happy—and that just ends up getting very indistinctive in a recorded body of work. So it’s definitely harder to write some pop and make it good.
PM: I think the realm of the pop song itself has changed a lot in recent years as well—it’s become much more “fluid”. I think of that Puffy AmiYumi album Splurge that you had a hand in crafting, and one of the surprises that I had in listening to that album was when you brought back the Marvelous 3 song “Radio Tokyo” for them to cover. You helped with it and produced it yourself—what made you decide to “lend” your song to them? Is this something you find yourself doing more often or was that just kind of a one-time thing?
BW: They asked for it. They wanted the song. I would’ve never in a million years [have] said “Hey listen: I’ve got this song I already cut on a record—you should totally do it!” That’s a little weird to me, unless it’s a major cleaning up of a scenario where I got to let someone cover my song, you know what I mean? I certainly wouldn’t let my pride get in the way. If Taylor Swift wanted to cover something off of one of my records, I probably wouldn’t say “no” because it’d be very lucrative. It’s like, whatever. I’m certainly going to try to write a song for someone before [they’re] walking off with one I’ve already done. It was fun that [Puffy] wanted to dust off the whole irony of the thing and make it interesting. They took the edge off the song in a good way.
PM: That actually leads me to an interesting point: you write songs for yourself as well as co-writing songs for others. With both of these facets in mind, what would you call your most “important” song? Not necessarily your “favorite”, but the one that either opened up new doors for you or helped you reach new creative highs.
BW: That’s a good question ‘cos it could go two ways. I could say that the first hit I had for somebody else—the first pop song I ever had with Avril Lavigne: “My Happy Ending”—it really opened my eyes up: simplifying, not being scared of specificity, not always being so cerebral, so heady, or even being too verbose (that’s definitely a problem that I have). That opened my eyes, ‘cos I remember sitting there writing that song with her and I had this very verbose chorus that was just ...
PM: Too wordy?
BW: Too wordy and too heady for her. She was very young at the time, [so] when we dug a lot deeper, she popped her head to the side, refusing on saying it, [and] I felt like 10 billion little girls pop their heads behind her at the same time and go “I don’t get it.” And then of course we simplified the chorus—a lot of [which] came from her—and it totally worked. I learned a lot from that as far as how not get in my own way for that and write that kind of a song and not worry about what people are going to think about it. You’re not writing a pop song or a “hit” for a critic. But on the side of the coin, I think, there are other songs that mean a lot too, that were not written like that: songs that were written for myself that helped me turn a corner. When I wrote “Joan” off of Letters for the first time, I think that really proved [to] a lot of people who didn’t think I had it in me to be a serious songwriter [that] I did. I wasn’t just the guy that was trying to be some Wizard of Oz “pop guy” behind the curtain. I really was anxious to [show] people that I could write a song that wasn’t worried about pop structure and production and all that—and that became a fan-favorite almost. Like, to this day, it’s a die-hard fan’s favorite at shows, and that’s way more important to me than [having them] yell out “I wanted to hear ‘Freak of the Week’”. I don’t miss it at all—[“Freak”] was intentionally written as a pop song, a pop-structured song. But I like the fact that more important songs to me are also the more important songs to the fans.
PM: So one last question here, which I feel is particularly fitting given that you’ve been essentially performing your entire back catalog as of late: so far in your career what has been your biggest regret, and—conversely—what has been your proudest accomplishment?
BW: I would have to say that my proudest accomplishment is being able to be hired as a songwriter. I see plenty of people that are just tacky, “Hollywood writer” types that are full of frustration that take it out on the world with everything: their ego, their pending incentives, their “win win win”-factor—all these gross things. I like the fact that I’m still an artist and I’m not crushed by frustration. I don’t have to agree with those who are overcompensating with their longwinded [nature], talking about how much money they make or how much shit they have. No matter what, there are plenty of people that will never know that I’m an artist and will never know that I [make] records, and that’s fine. ‘cos you know what? I have a great life doing this. I’m not bothered by people, I got great fans, and as long as I get to keep being grateful for that, it’s my proudest accomplishment. As far as biggest regret goes—every time I’m ever asked that question, I completely draw a blank. I never go “Oh god I regret this” or “Oh god I regret that”. I never remember—whenever I’m in an interview—what I regret.
PM: Well that’s a good place to be.
BW: I think that maybe I regret the path that I went down—I mean, it’s very cliché, it’s very ethereal and petty for me to say that “I regret certain passions” or “I regret getting into a certain type of thing that can effect you in a negative way”—but that’s natural. I think [that] if I regret anything, I regret never getting through with my passions. As long as we’re living, we got to have that passion in us, [the kind] that I admire in my heroes.
... and thus he said it, and it was good.