A chat with Butch Walker, Butch Walker interview, Sycamore Meadows
Butch Walker

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The world needs more artists like Butch Walker. Here’s a guy who just delivers great rock songs like it’s his job, and well, it is his job. Because in addition to being an amazing artist and songwriter, Walker is one of the most sought-after producers in the business, having worked with the likes of Pink, Bowling For Soup, Avril Lavigne and countless others. Walker’s new album, Sycamore Meadows, is his most compelling work yet -- honest, powerful and with an unwritten disclaimer that the songs will stick in your head for weeks. We had the chance to talk to him about that and more.

Bullz-Eye: Hey Butch.

Butch Walker: Hey Mike. How are you, buddy?

BE: Good, man. How are you doing?

BW: I’m good. Just getting ready to go into the studio.

BE: Yeah. Who are you in the studio with?

BW: I’m working with this hard rock band called Saosin.

BE: Oh, okay, I’ve heard of them.

BW: Yeah, I’m doing their next record.

BE: Cool. So dude, I’ve been a big fan for a long time, from the Marvelous 3 days.

BW: Oh thanks man.

BE: Yeah, and Sycamore Meadows, in my mind, is your best work.

BW: Oh, well thank you. I think that most artists think that their latest record is their best work, so I’m really glad that a lot of other people feel that way. That’s awesome. Thank you.

BE: Do you feel that way anyway, that it is your best work, or just because it is your latest project?

"It’s no different than Snoop Dog or Death Cab for Cutie getting asked to do a corporate gig for IBM or something like that, to play to 13 people in suits and ties for 13 grand. So I sort of do the same thing in my day job. But I like the fact that me being an artist, I run with my own pack and do my own thing and it stays extremely liberal and what I want to do"

BW: No, I think it’s a special record. I think it wasn’t just me going in the studio and making another record just to do another record. Sometimes that just happens because you feel like, “Okay, I gotta start thinking about another record now,” just because it’s been a year or something like that or just because you feel this sense of entitlement to do it for your fans and for the sake of your artist career. I don’t really. I guess it’s old news about the fires (Walker lost his house in SoCal wildfires in late 2007), but before that happened, I really wasn’t inspired to make a record. I was like, “Well I really don’t want to make a record right now because I really don’t feel anything.” And of course when things get swept out from under you, it’s like all of a sudden there’s a lot to talk about.

BE: Sure. Actually my next question was, nobody wants to lose their house to a fire, and of course it had to be devastating thing. I wanted to know if you felt any sort of obligation to write songs about your experience as a form of therapy to yourself, or to help others cope with the same thing?

BW: Yeah, I think there was definitely some therapy. I think there are a couple of kind of confessionals on the record, that I don’t know if I would have ever really written if something like that hadn’t have happened.

BE: You’re known more so as a producer these days than you are as an artist, at least in mainstream pop circles.

BW: Yeah, ironically.

BE: What do you look for in the projects you produce, and is there anything you’re doing now that you’re particularly excited about?

BW: I guess a lot of times I just do records to have something to keep me from getting bored with trying to be so self-obsessed musically all the time, and doing things for myself. It gives me some space and dimension maybe, and somebody else might inspire me for my own music when it comes time to do that. So I think that that helps. I can’t think of anything in particular right now, one example per se, but there are plenty of examples where I’ve enjoyed what I do for a “day job,” so to speak. And sometimes I do those things just for strictly the love of it because I’ll be really passionate about something and believe in it whole-heartedly. And then sometimes I’ll do it for the money, you know? It will just be too easy and too good to turn down, and I think that’s just too natural to want to do stuff like that. No, it’s great. Getting to where I’ve gotten based on learning the craft, that’s one of the perks of the job. It’s no different than Snoop Dog or Death Cab for Cutie getting asked to do a corporate gig for IBM or something like that, to play to 13 people in suits and ties for 13 grand. So I sort of do the same thing in my day job. But I like the fact that me being an artist, I run with my own pack and do my own thing and it stays extremely liberal and what I want to do.

Butch Walker

BE: Well good, that ties in to my next question. The reviews for Sycamore Meadows have been very positive as far as I’ve seen. But I’m guessing you are more concerned about what fans think?

BW: Oh sure, it’s nice to see people who normally hate everything say great things about your own record. Especially the ones who hate everything you normally do. But then again, I don’t spend a lot of time listening to those peoples’ opinion. But I definitely can tell you when fans don’t like something. And without them, why would I bother making records and going out and touring? I could just play in my basement to my dogs. I don’t want to alienate, but I also want to do my own thing and it’s tricky because I don’t like doing the same record every time.

BE: I can’t imagine your fans not liking anything you’ve done. Has that happened?

BW: Yeah, it’s definitely happened. Sometimes passionate hatred. But I think that also goes because there’s a really weird dynamic mix of people that are my fans. And it’s not like emo or whatever, where it’s this strict character that comes to follow those bands. They don’t all have the same clothes and the same haircut and the same album collection. It’s like all over the map. And that’s good and bad because what becomes one’s favorite record sometimes becomes another person’s most hated record, because I’ll do something so different.

BE: Interesting.

BW: I mean I don’t go like, “Oh, Butch made a country record.” It’s always been pop/rock and roll. It’s just for some reason I’ve got just as many fans that only like me when I’m yelling or being funny or whatnot and jumping up and down on a pogo-stick while playing a fancy lead guitar. And they get mad when I sing a heartfelt emotional song, and if there’s an album full of them. And there’s people that hate that other side of me and only like the troubadour side of me.

BE: Well I could imagine you’ve pleased a lot more people with this new album than on previous records.

BW: And that’s just a bonus. But honestly with this record, I don’t want it to sound like I was just saying I only make records for fans, because that’s not true. I don’t think I have enough of them for that to matter, really. I think it is important and therapy for me to get out my song ideas just for myself. It’s almost just like documentation.

BE: Right. When you sit down to write, do you consciously write for yourself or for somebody else to record?

BW: No, I just write. I write whatever comes out, and sometimes it comes out so blatantly obvious it’s not for me, and I’ll keep writing it and finish it, and it will be an idea to start for someone else or end up on their record. But it’s too hard to tell, because you just can’t fight or stop a notion to write something when you sit down to do it, or when you come from so many different styles of music and influence.

BE: Right, absolutely. Well my next question was, who were the artists you grew up listening to and wanting to emulate?

"It’s just for some reason I’ve got just as many fans that only like me when I’m yelling or being funny or whatnot, and jumping up and down on a pogo stick while playing a fancy lead guitar. And they get mad when I sing a heartfelt emotional song and if there’s an album full of them."

BW: Well I guess when I first started listening to music, I really loved rock and roll and heavy metal and stuff like that. When I grew up, I’d just stare at this Elvis Presley record that my Mom had, and then I flipped over The Monkees because they were on TV everyday and I got to see them and it was funny and they were cool-looking and then their songs were super catchy. I don’t even think I had heard the Beatles yet. So The Monkees were my first Beatles. And I actually bought the record, well not with my own money, but I made my Mom buy it off of TV, the original Internet, whenever they would have those TV spots: “For $5.99, the Monkees Greatest Hits.” I think I was in first grade or something like that, and I just wore that record out. And I remember freaking out over hearing the Beatles and thinking how much they sounded like The Monkees. And then I heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I had that 45 and I wore that out. And then, I was not playing music at the time, but when I started playing music, it was all about Kiss and Van Halen. The first Van Halen record blew my mind. Same with the first KISS record, and then every KISS record after that. Then Motley Crue came along and replaced KISS for me. Same thing, different make-up. So I started playing guitar and learning all these songs. And then new wave obviously made me appreciate melody. I think it was just a weird mix of all of those things. And then later in life, when I knew better and could discern one style of music and a good artist from a bad artist, I started really getting into the storytellers and the verbose lyric writers, like Elvis Costello and Billy Joel and Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. So much Tom Petty. Just all kinds of stuff. It really is no wonder that when I make records for myself, that they’re never going to sound like the same song over and over.

BE: Yeah, absolutely. I can hear all of those artists and styles that you just mentioned in your music-- a little bit of everything, which is really cool.

BW: Right, well cool.

BE: So the music industry has obviously changed a lot in the past 10 years, and in some ways it hasn’t. How do you see it now as opposed to how you saw it a decade ago?

BW: I definitely see the biggest change that has come along, and it’s a positive one, in the amount of freedom that the artists have these days. As opposed to where when you signed a contract to a major label back in the day, you pretty much lost all your liberties. And now to get people to sign to a record deal, you have to offer these artists almost total complete control. And the reason why is because it is becoming less and less valuable to sign with a major label, when they don’t really do anything for you except they’re a small bank, and most of them are bankrupt now. And they don’t do anything for you. They’re signing bands that are already good, or they’re already done. Or they’re just signing shit and throwing it out there and seeing if it sticks. So I feel like if anything, it’s great because the digital age has done as much bad as it’s done for the quality of music per se. And maybe people rely more on computers and less on talent. It’s also gotten more music available and out there to listeners because we used to just be slaves to whatever was on the radio and god knows that’s a dying format.

BE: (laughs) Yeah, I think it’s dead at this point.

BW: Well right. I mean my favorite station in the world out here (in Los Angeles), Indie 103, which was the only station in America that played listenable, good indie rock and really awesome, creative new bands is now a Latin station. It only lasted a few years.

BE: Ugg, that’s awful.

BW: It’s terrible. And all hope definitely was gone for me at that point. I was like, “Well, time to buy Sirius for my car.”

BE: Yeah, and even that gets kind of repetitive after a while with their play lists.

BW: Yeah, if you listen to it for eight hours straight, you’re going to hear it over and over. And it’s in the same order. Yeah, that’s bad. Because they’ve cut the commercials out, basically you hear the play list go through quicker. Whereas on the radio, there are so many commercials, it dilutes the fact that you’re only hearing the same five songs in sequential order over and over again.

BE: (laughs) So you’re heading out on tour soon. What’s your favorite part about being on the road these days? And what’s your least favorite part?

"And now to get people to sign to a record deal, you have to offer these artists almost total complete control. And the reason why is because it is becoming less and less valuable to sign with a major label when they don’t really do anything for you except they’re a small bank, and most of them are bankrupt now."

BW: I think my favorite part about being on the road is that it’s like a boys’ club. I don’t get a lot of that in my life these days, as hard as I stay working in the studio and as much as I want to spend time at home and be with my family and all that. It’s not really a chance for me to go out and act like a 12-year-old again, until I go on the road. And so when I go out, it’s me with my best-friend drinking buddies from Atlanta that I’ve known for years and that I love to be around, and it’s fun and inspiring and we’re just nomads, you know? We rape and pillage the towns. And we go in and steal all their beer and crank our music on the bus and go to the next town and do it again. It’s so much fun and I love it. The down side to doing it? Ah, it gets old. So, then I want to get back to the reality of being an adult. But it’s a nice cathartic little release for me, and it’s also amazing to get back out there and flex my social skills, and talk to fans and meet new people along the way and hang out with old friends.

BE: Right on. On this tour you’re offering fans the opportunity to hang out with you at sound check. What brought that about?

BW: I just wanted to do something different this time, instead of like, “Here’s a t-shirt for being the first 30 people in the door.” It was really cool to give them the scenario where not only can they see the unglamorous side of it, because I’ve never tried to put up a front that way. I’ve always tried to be the same on stage as I am off with people, and just be real with people as much as I possibly can these days. So there’s no harm, no foul in coming in and hearing how shitty my voice sounds in the afternoon as opposed to at night when I’ve been road-worn, and hearing us make mistakes and work through songs and listen to feedback. Maybe if anything it makes people appreciate the show when they see how it comes together when we’re in front of an audience, as opposed to at sound check when it’s pretty unglamorous and pretty un-sexy. Everybody’s up there in their pajamas, our hair is all fucked up and we sound like trolls. It’s definitely not the show vibe.

BE: Do you have any worries about any stalker-types getting into this thing?

BW: Sure! I mean, no real worries. I’ve got my fair share of them, so I guess the more the merrier.

BE: (laughs) Right.

BW: Or the more the scarier.

BE: Right on. So, what’s next for you as an artist, or is it too soon to ask that?

BW: I just want to tour on this record. I want to play this record to death till I’m sick of it. I’m not sick of it. I just released it. And I’m really excited about going out and playing a lot of it. I think I’ll be happy like this for a while.

BE: One last question, are you a football guy?

BW: Man, I haven’t followed any sport in so many years. I’m so bad.

BE: Just wanted to know your pick for the Super Bowl.

BW: Well let me even get this straight -- it’s going to be the Cardinals and the Steelers?

BE: Correct.

BW: Okay, at least I got that part right. I would have to say I don’t even know what city the Cardinals are from, so I guess I would have to say “Go Pittsburgh” because they’ve got a lot of team spirit. Pittsburgh’s a good town for me too, so I’ll somehow turn it around and make it about me.

BE: Sounds good. All right, Butch. Well good luck on the tour and good luck with the album. It was great talking to you.

BW: Okay buddy. Thank you so much.

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