Wilder in the Heart: An Interview With Butch Walker

He's a Top 40 pop producer by day, '80s rock solo kingpin by night. Butch Walker's back with charm (and stories) to spare.
Butch Walker
Stay Gold

Butch Walker isn’t a causal interest.

He’s the kind of artist people fall hard for. His fans have grown with him for decades, like the mural of tattoos that continue to paint his skin, and they’ve stayed the test of time like the tiny bits of silver in his hair that he doesn’t work to disguise. They are ’90s pop punk fans, they are fans of his Americana records, they are 50 and they are 14, but when they signed on they signed on for life.

When he speaks he talks through his thoughts out loud, unrehearsed, as if he’s trying to find the right words, yet unafraid to say the wrong ones, but when he speaks of his fans there is no hesitation in his voice.

“I’ve had fans who are outcasts, ” Walker says. “The island of misfit kids since the beginning, and that’s how I am, I’m the same as them. I wasn’t a popular jock in school, I was a fuckin’ weirdo. So I think, the common bond is that we show up for each other, there’s never like ‘Oh, look at him he’s not cool anymore, because I was never cool to begin with.'”

At 46-years-old, he’s seen and survived more iterations of the music industry than the majority of artists could hope for today. He is not a household name, but the people he produces for are. With a Wikipedia page that would impress even the most high-faultin’ critics, he doesn’t wear his production credit like a badge of honor; instead he sits in the proverbial nosebleeds with the rest of us cradling his personal work with pride. While he’s become the Mr. Congeniality of the production world, producing for everyone from Taylor Swift to the members of Shovels & Rope, his solo career is equally as powerful and important to the fans that have followed it.

Set to release his 8th studio album, Stay Gold, his cult following is largely attributed to his effusive, stream of consciousness songwriting, but also a level of intimacy between fan and artist that has been lovingly exchanged and nurtured over time. He offers a part of himself that isn’t required, an openness channeled and heightened by the advent of the Internet: he’s been engaging with his audience since the days of MySpace, sharing personal tragedy and comedic social commentary.

“I want them, [the] fans, to know that I think they are very special and dear to me. And it’s a good way to do that instead of having an automated management newsletter go out that says, ‘Hello boy or girl thank you for subscribing to Butch Walker Daily.’ I don’t want to do that. I don’t have a lot of time out of the day, but I do like to spend a little bit of time every day, you know, talking to these people and hearing them out.”

That little bit of time has gone a long way for Walker, many of his fans can be heard outside shows exchanging stories like coveted trading cards, exuberant, attempting to trump each other’s experiences or bonding over the ones they’ve unknowingly shared.

Because onstage, Butch Walker is like a Marvel character whose superpowers are triggered by fluorescent lights, packed perspiration and red wine, his emotions rising against the return devotion of a sold out room. Walker likens his shows to that of a religious experience and at the height of his communion he can be found in the center of his congregation, guitar still ripping through chords, his black hair glued to his face as he wails into the microphone like a turtle turned on its back, vulnerable but safe among his people.

“I don’t wanna just get up onstage and count the minutes until it’s over,” Walker notes. “It’s the only two hours out of the day that I feel really — that I feel at my most alive. I was kind of alone in high school. I think I’m making up for the lost time, I spent a lot of time, and I still do spend a lot of time by myself. I don’t go to church or anything like that, it’s the only school or club that I feel a part is with those people. That might sound kind of corny, but at a show it’s time that you get to exercise a little bit of your ego and a little bit of your talent and a little bit of your — It’s therapy, you’re talking to these people for two hours basically. And they’re talking back.”

His dialogue both on and offstage is whip smart, his photographic memory is only trumped by his emotional memory and the pairing has generated some powerful imagery and nostalgic narrative in his songwriting. On his upcoming record, tracks like “Record Store”, “Wilder In The Heart”, and “East Coast Girl”, while differing in energy and narrative, speak to that nostalgia in a lot of his scripts. “I’ve always loved how Costello did it,” Walker continues, “people like Tom Waits and Springsteen are great at it — I feel like that’s always been something that I’ve strived for.”

In reference to his ability to recall heartbreak he says, “I’m kind of a sap and a hopeless romantic, so you know, when I fall in love I fall hard and when I fall out of it I fall hard. I think a lot of those things you remember. At least I do. Especially I think it comes back to me nostalgically a lot when you’re in that mid life — we won’t call it a crisis — we’ll call it a mild-life crisis. You get into that in terms of reflection. Lots of memories come back that you couldn’t remember for the last 20 years. A lot of that is just the cycle of life. [laughs] I feel like now I’m just getting some of my memory back that I’ve burned away on lots of alcohol. “

In his book, Drinking With Strangers and in much of music, his narratives reflect on his formative years in hair bands, navigating the Sunset Strip. His odes to the power ballad era are funny, achy, and encapsulated vividly in his memory. When asked about the ’80s recurrences he pauses, trying to work out the answer: “Well, that might be partly due to the fact that my life just has not been that interesting. I think a lot of it is: you pull from things that have happened in the past. I don’t know if that’s me being dated or if that’s just me needing to talk about it. I don’t see a therapist and I probably should. That therapy comes through writing — it’s just the same stuff that a lot of people will sit and talk about on a couch. “

Despite his tenure on the music scene and his useful case of nostalgia, Walker is very much in tune to the current zeitgeist. He’s recently worked with Frank Turner, Ryan Adams, and Elle King; he even had Shovels & Rope open for him before they blew up on the Americana stage. While he escapes trends within his own music, blending genres and just blatantly doing what he wants, he has a strong awareness of what’s popular and culturally relevant. Paste Magazine named him one of the Best Twitter Accounts in 2015 and on his latest record he’s working with recent Grammy winner Ashley Monroe and alt-country darling Suzanne Santos.

Another example of this awareness: Walker’s father passed away from Pancreatic cancer and to honor him he founded The Autumn Leaves Project, a foundation that aids those struggling with the disease. On the landing page, he has a video mission statement, and within that he specifically addresses the millennial audience, attempting to educate the generation on the importance of awareness to the dangers of the disease so that they might take up arms.

“Millennial is such a bad word,” Walker says.

Despite their bad rap, he thinks millennials are actually more active and aware than they’ve been given credit for. “I think the younger generation is more passionate than ever. They care about making a difference. [laughs] They may post a lot of pictures of themselves in the meantime doing it.”

On the title track to his new album, “Stay Gold” and on many of his other recordings he talks about the social suffocation and stagnancy of staying in the societal hamster wheel, something he says millennials are rebelling against, seeking art and intellect instead. “There was nobody in my town who wanted to do anything like that, they all settled and married their high school sweetheart and got out of school and got a job at the factory and go to church on Sunday and go to their local softball game, it’s all business as usual for small towns.”

While Walker understands the varying facets of popular culture he doesn’t feel like he completely fits into the passing fads: “I’m definitely not like Mr Blog Guy or the cool kid of the week or getting written up on Pitchfork and that’s okay. I don’t say that with any bitterness, because a lot of that stuff I hear is great and a lot of it is over hyped bullshit. And also, it’s sad because they’re so young a lot of them and inexperienced, then all of a sudden they’re thrown into this hype machine, they’re playing Coachella and then a year or two later they’re broken up.”

He says his experience has earned him the right to call bullshit on pop culture fads, and he’s suffered enough at the hands of the industry to gain some lofty foresight. While he claims to be numb to criticism, there’s softness to him, humility in the way he refers to himself as a “small fish” in the spectrum of popularity. When he receives a compliment he says, “I appreciate that” and you believe that he does. He listens intently, without interruption and answers at length, passionately, impatient with himself as he works out the answers. It is this candor that people show up for.

If someone were to embark an archaeological dig of his life, his musical footprint would tell a lot of stories, but the symbiosis between fan and artist would speak the most.