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Are We Having a Conversation? An Interview With Butch Walker

Photo: Haley McDonald

Butch Walker delivers what is arguably his most ambitious release to date with American Love Story. "I'm calling everybody out," he says, about a record that he concedes may not be for everyone.

American Love Story
Butch Walker

Ruby Red

8 May 2020

When is the right time to release an album that runs counter to much of your career, tackles racism, homophobia, economic disparity, and features a series of songs that tell stories in the voices of characters who might be utterly reprehensible to some of your fan base, and has (in case no one's already guessed) about as much commercial potential as a sequel to Styx's Kilroy Was Here as performed by the Arcade Fire? (OK. Well, that might actually be cool.)

If you're Butch Walker, 2020 might be the year to do exactly that.

His latest solo effort, American Love Story, is a rock opera/concept piece that the Georgia native has kept under wraps for the last couple of years. Opening with the words, "Are we having a conversation?", the record grapples with big questions that perhaps can only be answered by actually speaking about societal ills. For anyone who lived through the scourge of AIDS, followed by decades of growing disparities in wealth and socio-economic mobility, these 13 tracks speak to the reckoning that privilege has been quietly fomenting over the last 40-plus years.

But these songs aren't didactic: The liberal, white suburbanite who enjoys wine, well-groomed lawns, book clubs, and the beauty of a freshly-paved bike line is as culpable in the storyline as the small-town redneck bent on blaming others for his misfortunes. There are no easy answers in American Love Story , but there are hard questions and, ideally, ones that listeners will begin to sort out for themselves long after the needle has lifted for the first time.

Speaking from his California home, Walker acknowledges that the record isn't necessarily for everyone. He's aware that it might alienate some long-term fans, offend casual listeners who are on board for easy rockers but not necessarily tuning in for a harrowing portrait of what corporate greed, unchecked ambition, and bigotry have wrought.

What becomes apparent throughout the album and nearly half-an-hour on the phone with the former Georgian, is that, regardless of whatever trepidations the singer-songwriter might have about unleashing this particular song cycle upon the world, he means what he's singing and believes in what he's put forth.

Was American Love Story something you'd been thinking about for a while or did it come to you in one big burst?

I started messing around with some of the songs a few years ago. I couldn't really write about anything I'd touched on in the rest of my career. There were things playing out in my head as I watched the events in Charlottesville. I was mortified, but I wasn't surprised. What happened there was a sleeping giant in America for years.

I grew up in rural Georgia, and I still love the south and love where I came from, and some of the best people in the world come from there. But, just like anywhere in rural America, there are people who were brought up with a limited scope of what's out there. To put it bluntly, they're taught to hate and fear.

There's a lot of fear about people of other races and ethnicities and religions. I grew up when this shit was normalized: being in on the racist and gay jokes with family and friends because it was just fucking normalized. It's shocking and sad to me now, but I came out of it and learned what I hope was right. I just couldn't write anything else, and I thought, "Man, nobody wants this kind of fucking record from me. Or anyone right now."

Photo: Haley McDonald

I sent three or four songs to my manager, and he said, "Sounds like there's a theme here. It sounds like you're writing a rock opera or concept record." I hadn't even thought of that at the time. I took it and ran with it. I realized that it wasn't very fashionable to do a rock opera or concept record and decided that was why I would do it.

I based some of the characters loosely on people I'd known growing up and what was around me. I made a love story about hate. A lot of the songs are sung through the eyes of different characters, including "6FT Middle-Age American Man". I've been posting lyric video snippets for the whole record, and when it came to that song, it set a lot of people off because they don't know the story of the record yet.

It's not a record for everybody. But I'm very proud of it. I'm glad I did it.

There's a phrase that comes up on the record, "Are we having a conversation?" I remember seeing all these things happening when I was growing up, including racism, and thinking, "Maybe by the time I'm in my middle years, they'll be eradicated." But they haven't been, and I think a big reason for that is that we weren't having a conversation about any of it. Not in any real sense. As though it would just take care of itself.

I think that's the problem. We had eight years of a Black president, and a lot of angry white people resented it. Hated it. Fox News spent eight years bashing the shit out of the guy. They didn't have nothing on him. He wore a tan suit one day, and he wore a fucking bicycle helmet while riding through a park. That's all they could do was rag on him for that.

That said, I think it stirred up an undercurrent of animosity and racism, inadvertently even. It's that "I'm not racist. I have a black friend." I still heard all of that in certain circles. I can remember going back home for a class reunion, and we all went back to a bar in my hometown. It might have even during an election year. Fox News was on, and these two guys said, "Look at that fucking guy. How is he president? Just look at him." It's clearly racist. It's not like the dude looks weird. No weirder than Trump. Jesus.

I couldn't help but feeling the way I did about these things. I know nobody wants to hear these things from their favorite artists. A lot of people just tune it out. But it's not like it's a political record. That's too boring. But you can bet your ass that there are people who say, "I don't want to think. I want to be entertained." I love entertaining, but I'm a human being, and I think. And I get angry. And I get sad.

Photo: Haley McDonald

When I wrote, Afraid of Ghosts, after my dad died, which was a very said, mellow, introspective record, tons of fans hated it. Now people come up to me and say, "I didn't like that record when it came out because you weren't being funny and snarky and cynical and loud. But lost someone I love, and now it's my favorite record." I can't predict what people are feeling. I can only tell you what I'm feeling.

I follow your social media, and it fascinates me when people comment along the lines of, "Stay out of politics" on your posts or anyone's post for that matter. You're as much a citizen as they are.

It's hypocritical for a barista or someone who works at a paper mill or is a contractor to post crazy shit about politics every day, but then when a musician does it, all of a sudden there's no reason they should be doing that. It's the "Shut up and dance, monkey" shit. I'm sorry, if I lose you, then good riddance.

The last thing I'm going to do is "stick to what I know". I travel a lot,.I pay taxes, I know a decent amount about what's going on in the world. People seem to think that if you're in music or any form of entertainment, you're sheltered. That's another reason that I made this record, to stereotype stereotypes. People from rural America think that people in Hollywood are these anarchistic elitists, and people in Hollywood think about rural America as being part of "flyover states".

I'm calling everybody out.

There is something healthy about people using their platform to discuss social issues. Had it not been for Jackson Browne or U2 talking about social justice organizations or Rush encouraging fans to donate to food pantries, I may have had a slower social awakening. By those artists using their visibility and talking about certain issues, I became a more informed person.

What happened to that? It's like, "Sing your funny shit or sing about love or just shut up." A lot of my favorite songs when I was grown up were songs that were written during difficult times. Songs of hope and protest songs. The funny thing to me is the people who play some of these songs without even knowing what the song is actually about. Look at "Born in the USA". How many presidents have used that in their fucking campaigns? They don't even know that the song is about how fucked up the government is.

Photo: Haley McDonald

You mentioned the songs coming from different points of view. Is that a challenge for you as a performer, to put yourself in a headspace that's maybe alien to your own?

Sure. I sat on the record for two years because I didn't want to put it out. I wasn't even sure if it was a record that made sense for me. I wondered about putting it out under a different name. When we went into Quarantine 2020, I said, "Fuck this. Everybody's postponing their records. I get that. I'm putting this out." It wasn't like I was going to tour it. What am I going to do, come up there and play 30 years of songs and then pepper in things from this record where I'm saying crazy shit?

That wouldn't make any sense. It needs to be played from beginning to end, but that's a tall order: To get people to come out and pay money for a show where you're playing all-new material, the whole thing front-to-back. In a way, the pandemic was divine intervention for me. I was able to say, "You know what? This is the perfect time to put this out."

I've found myself doing more deep listening during all of this. So, for a record that demands time, attention, and conversation, maybe this is the perfect time for it.

People's emotions are high right now. People are more angry, bitter, and sad than ever. I don't speak for celebrities because I don't think I am one but people don't want to hear someone complaining from their fucking mansion. I thought there's really no good time put this out, but I'm going to do it anyway. And here we are.

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