Butch Walker talks with PopMatters about the music industry, the problems that young bands frequently succumb to in the studio, and why it's more important to write songs than design T-shirts.
Tonight, Butch Walker is going to tune his guitar, and he's probably going to crack a bit of smile. A knowing smile. One that says "I can't believe this is happening" and "it's about damn time" at the exact same moment. After all, Butch Walker has been at this for more than two decades, and tonight, Butch Walker gets to celebrate his success just a little bit.
You see, Butch is in the middle of a series of gigs at L.A.'s famed Hotel Café, wherein every Wednesday this month, he's performing one of his solo albums in its entirety. Tonight it's 2006's The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites, a glam-accented disc that mined the classic rock of Walker's youth and cemented his status as one of the best rock songwriters working today. Yet a couple of successful albums and a huge cult fanbase are only a small part of what makes Butch Walker who he is: this is a guy who was signed to Virgin records by the time he was 19, scored a bona fide hit with his band The Marvelous 3 in 1998 (the still-fantastic "Freak of the Week"), and has since become one of the most in-demand producers working in the music industry today, working on hit songs for artists like Avril Lavigne, Pink, Tommy Lee, Weezer, Katy Perry, and dozens more. In 2005, Rolling Stone even named him the "Hot Producer of the Year" -- a nice turnaround for an artist who had to break up the Marvelous 3 in 2001 after he realized that Elektra wasn't going to promote their albums anymore, no matter what they did.
In short, no one knows the music industry better than Butch Walker.
It is for this reason that I've always wanted to do a feature on him, a survivor of the turbulent '90s alt-rock explosion who has turned his industry know-how into a lucrative, fantastically successful career. I was a long-standing fan of all three Marvelous 3 albums, but was unbelievably fascinated by his 2002 solo debut, Left of Self-Centered, a snarky, funny, and flat-out entertaining rock disc that showcased every single production trick that Walker could think of, selling poorly but getting passed around quite a bit at various record label offices, all leading to Walker getting hired for numerous production gigs and using his success from there to launch the second phase of his solo career. Now, with a new album slated for early next year (I Liked You Better When You Had No Heart, his fifth) and a retrospective of his solo career underway at the Hotel Café (and again in New York in December), there seemed no better time to talk to Butch about his life, his career, and the industry he knows so well. It is, in short, the Gospel According to Butch.
Following Butch from L.A. to New York to back again over the course of a month, I decided that an all-encompassing interview would be a bit too much for just one sitting, so perhaps it'd make sense to divide it into three parts: one focusing on Butch Walker the producer, one on Butch Walker the performer, and one on Butch Walker the artist and songwriter. Though each of these thematic breakdowns would focus on Butch's own career, they'd also cover his experience in producing other artists, gigging all over the nation, and helping others write the songs that would help define their legacies. The entire time, Butch was as friendly as can be, unafraid to censor himself or shy away from a certain subject, making the conversations (and this subsequent feature) all the more lively. So ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you Butch Walker: The Producer ...
PopMatters: So first off, you just finished recording a new album as of late. Given that there was the more subdued/Tom Petty-ish tone that Sycamore Meadows took following the fire [that, in late 2007, destroyed not only Walker's home, but also every single worldly possession he owned, including the master tapes to all of his own records], how is the new album sounding in its initial stages?
Butch Walker: It's very -- obviously I've gotten a chance to kind of heal some wounds since the last record. The last record definitely had a little bit more of a melancholy feel to it, but not without merit or purpose. I unapologetically write the way I've been feeling at the moment, and at the current time I feel very celebratory, so I guess it has more of a celebratory feeling.
Now, I feel like ... it's sort of an extension of where I left off on Sycamore: it's got a very familiar feel and I'm very flexible in this skin. I'm not purposely trying to put on a different mask every record, I don't think, as I'm approaching 40. I think it's more about just being comfortable with what I'm gonna get up on stage and sing and play [without] feeling like an idiot. But it's definitely an interesting record 'cos the sound of it and feel of it and the way that the band plays.
[On] the last record, I really played it all myself except for a couple of drummers here and there, but this is with my band. We were literally fresh off the road, and the night before we did our last show of the tour at the El Ray in Los Angeles, we started recording the new record. The way we did it is [that] it was [recorded] all live, set up live. The lyrics were all written by me and my friend Mike who is an astounding lyricist: he's one of my favorite lyricists and singers, and I enjoy the collaboration process intensely. We just got off the road [and] he was the opening act, and I wanted to bring him in the studio to be a part of the creative process because I really enjoyed my time in the studio working with him and his band, a year before.
I sat down with him and he just poured it out, man, and [we] had the best time writing. [If] I had an idea for a lyric [and] I just didn't have the finish, he would help me paint the pictures, and that's kind of how this record was written and recorded, and that's why it's [credited to] "Butch Walker & the Black Widows". It's a new lineup, it's a new band that we've been playing with. So I think that's where it'll be a little different: [the band] all came up with all their own parts and that's what's so great about that.
PM: So it's like a real band: it was actually collaborative.
BW" Right, and they're all great musicians and great collaborators, so it didn't seem like the right kind of place for me to go into the studio and be just try to be another all-encompassing pit boss.
PM: For going into the studio for you, you've produced god knows how many albums over the past couple of years. There's no doubt have certain rules and expectations that you come in with during any given session. What are those rules that you prescribe onto others when you're producing, and -- conversely -- how do you apply those to yourself when you're producing a Butch Walker record?
BW: Well, the main rule -- especially when recording my own records -- is [that] no one is allowed to over-think anything. I have tried hyper-analyzing [and] over-thinking, and it's just never done me right. I've never created a record that I was proud of [under those circumstances]. I may have re-recorded and over-thought a couple things on the last record, but I was really worried [and] was being really precious about it. If it's not right, then they get recut, but for the most part, no over-thinking is allowed. I'm going for a moment. Especially since this record was recorded live and [was recorded] in five days practically, it was very important to me that it was done with that spirit in mind, because when we play live, it's amazing -- everybody always says "Oh my gosh!"
This is the problem with everything and everybody: no one ever thinks your studio records are ever as good as your live shows. You can make yourself sound amazing all day long in the studio, but when you're seeing someone onstage play, and you're making that visual connection to the audio, there's nothing to compare to that! So you're always going to lose when it comes to that. Not to mention [that] when I say "live", we play everything so fucking fast, [so] it means there's going to be a lot more energy distilled into the live show and people's representation of the show is going to stay with them. Yet I don't want every record I do to be a "live" record, you know? I want to be able to do some overdubs and creating parts and things like that -- you want that intimacy to be alone in the studio with your band. So I think just the fact that we did it all live and played it live after we came off the road and were really well-oiled -- it makes it sound like a live record without the audience around.
PM: A while back, I interviewed Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla about production, and he made an interesting point. He notes how a lot of younger bands would sometimes come up to him and perform a mediocre take and then just tell him to go and "fix it" in the studio, what with his digital studio trickery and whatnot. He called this succumbing to the monster of "good enough". With the proliferation of audio software out there today and the rise of digital recording, has this been a part of your production experience as well?
BW: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. That's why it saddens me that the industry has gotten so far from signing a talented band [and] instead worries about a cute kind in a haircut that little girls like. I mean, that's understandable, but let's be honest: when I was 14, I didn't have the best taste in music, [but] that's not to say that I didn't love stuff that was on the radio -- I did! I just think those records -- even the poppiest of pop records -- were all played by really amazing musicians. Even if they weren't in the band, they were really amazing studio musicians. Even if it's a pop singer, the musicianship was through the roof, and that kind of thing inspired me to do good.
Also, the limitations of not having technology on my side [when I was] growing up recording -- I wasn't able to really have those questions of tuning fixing and timing fixing, shit like that. So it really sucks now because I'll record younger bands and they'll be completely fine with singing a really shitty out-of-tune vocal thing and just expect that I'm going to fix it.
Instead of them being like "Oh, I didn't think that was good enough, I need to do it again," a lot of them will be like "OK, are you done with me now?" They think I'll make them great, make them sound awesome, and then they'll go do interviews and talk about how the process was in the studio and how focused they were and how hard they worked on making the record, but you didn't fucking work hard on making the record! I made it a great record by fixing everything that was bad about it -- and that's not the way it should be! You need to own up to your hit.
You're gonna have a big fanbase of people based on one song and a video. You need to get some respect back to yourself and learn how to play your instrument and sing your part. The good ol' "magic people" can't do it that well, these days.
But you know what? I don't want to be that bitter, clichéd, old guy producer who's just mad that he's a better musician than everybody but not a successful artist [Laughs]. I think producers get bitter about that because they know they have to deal with artists who suck and they can play the parts better themselves -- and that's tacky. On the one hand, bands these days are focused on other things like marketing and T-shirt sales and their merch designs. My whole diatribe headline on that is "a band has six songs and seven T-shirts". That's what I describe those bands as: a band that doesn't have an album full of good songs but they got more good T-shirt designs.
PM: Well you see that today in production too -- I mean, how many records do you see that are "mixed by Brendan O'Brien"? I was reading this book recently -- The Adventures of Mixerman -- about a record engineer who has to deal with a young upstart group. He notes how you often mix as many records as you can simply because it's like a lottery out there, and you're just trying to get as many tickets as you can, and if one of those records becomes a "hit", then people think you have discovered a "sound" that works for radio.
Of course, that's a total lie, and that's one of the things I respect so much about you: each one of your solo records sounds completely different from each other, almost as if you're deliberately challenging yourself to produce in a particular style, just 'cos you're not complacent with "stumbling upon a sound that works." Is that a rough approximation of what your process is like?
BW: I think I enjoy the challenge, you know what I mean? I don't want to get bored doing one thing. I want to be able to expand my abilities and skills. I don't want to just be like "Oh, I'm just hired to write" and produce the same record over and over again. [The radio] is a pretty scary place right now, the way that people are overcompensating and over-tracking and breaking out and timing out these perfect drones -- it sounds like a slot machine!
PM: Auto-tuning their vocals.
BW: Yeah -- the songs sound like a casino going off at 7AM. A shitload of crazy [effects]. Bells and whistles and shit going crazy. And unfortunately that's how pop radio is weaning right now on that -- on that sound -- and so it's hard to get something like a guitar, a vocal, and a drum kit out there when you're up against a Flo Rida song and stuff like that. It sounds like Mr. Roboto in 2010.
PM: It's more of a gimmick now -- not as much a tool to express artistry as it is just a way to chase trends. Of course, you know more about what works and what doesn't because you yourself have had a hell of a career on both sides of the mic for about a decade and a half now. Given your time in the these contexts, which do you prefer more: being a producer or a recording artist?
BW: I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't love touring and playing my own music -- I mean, who doesn't? That's its own thing. But I think I just had overkill where I just played and toured for a good ten years solid of doing 200 shows a year no matter what. Whether my band was doing well and I was in a bus or back in a van with no crew or back in a bus again years later -- it didn't matter.
For good or for bad, I did it anyways. I missed out on a lot of things in life, but I also learned a lot. It made me want to get together and make records with people, working and helping them and getting their music out there. That thing's great. To be able to still produce records -- I don't know any other guys that do what I do, still touring half a year and have a fanbase and play their own music. They just gave it up -- and I would never want that. It's always funny when I read interviews or read a review of one of my records that says "pop producer puts out his own solo record", and that's always funny to me because it's like "wait, I've been putting out records for 15 years -- I know that you haven't heard 'em, but it's not like I just all of a sudden I woke up out of bed and became a producer who is learning how to be an artist."
PM: So one last question: as a producer, you've worked with a ton of incredible artists now -- is there anyone still left on your wish list of people to work with?
BW: You know, people always ask me that question and I don't really know how to answer it because the first thing you usually do is want to go through and work with one of your idols. It would be so different for me to go "Oh, I would love to do a record with Elvis Costello!" or "Oh, I would love to do a record with Tom Petty!" But the thing is -- I don't really know if I would want to do a record with those artists now! I mean, it's not like I don't like their music now -- I do ... some of it -- but I'm not sure if I want to do that. What if it ruins my perception of these people that I hold in high regard? I don't want to be in the studio and realize they can't sing in tune or ...
PM ... are assholes.
BW: Or they're just assholes! I don't want to deal with that. So I don't know if I want to handle that, honestly. I don't ever do anything -- people always come to me, and I love it that way. One of those things happened this year, where I thought in the back of my mind how great it would always be to work on a Weezer record. They were one of my biggest influences in the '90s when they came out, and I worshipped that record [Weezer's 1994 eponymous debut].
That band paved the way for my first real band The Marvelous 3, and I thought "Wow, couldn't it be cool to do a record with them one day?" And sure enough, out of the blue, I get the call and here I am. I mean, that's pretty cool: we co-wrote a song together and produced it and I thought "Wow, that's pretty fucking great." That's the reason why I wake up to do this every day ...