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Hello, My Name Is… Butch Walker

| June 11, 2020
Butch Walker

Mega-producer and solo artist Butch Walker fully understands the dire scope of our current coronavirus pandemic, which is forcing folks all over the world to shelter in claustrophobic place while the worst passes. But — truth be told — he’s noticed no tangible difference in his day to day Malibu activities, he swears. “I’m at my studio right now, which is just me and isolation, which is how I work most of the time anyway, and I’m commuting back and forth to our home on the beach,” he says. “We also have a little farm in Tennessee, but we’re here in California because my kid goes to school here, and he’s doing online school right now, and the classes are in real-time. And it is cool, but it does keep us stuck in one place, whereas we’d like to be in an RV traveling back to the South.”

Instead, the 50-year-old has spent much of his new concept album American Love Story on a journey back to Georgia, where he grew up, lyrically dealing with the prejudices, bigotry, and uninformed populace he encountered — make that SURVIVED — there. It’s his most ambitious undertaking to date.

The disc opens with “The Singer,” and the repeated rhetorical question “Are we having a conversation?” Yes, apparently we are, as the diverse songs — influenced by everything from The Beach Boys to Pablo Cruise — veer from perspective to perspective beginning with the chiming “Gridlock;” a funky “Fuck It;” a bongo-furious “Out in the Open;” a surf-frothed “Torn in the U.S.A.,” and the gentle closer, “Forgot to Say I Love You.” Walker explains the storyline thusly: “There are several characters, and it runs the gamut. You’ve got a narrator, a musician who’s on the stage who is narrating the situation. Then you’ve got a white guy who’s a middle-aged, homophobic, racist bigot, but who’s also misunderstood as he’s unpacked a lot of his own daddy issues growing up in a house full of hate. Then you’ve got a gay guy that this guy used to torment and beat the shit of back in high school. Then, in a twist of fate one night, that very gay guy — now an adult — saves the other guy’s life in a car accident, so that guy now owes his life to everything he grew up hating. Then you’ve got a woman who’s this free-spirited California hippie party girl that becomes the love interest for this guy that’s changing, then they have a son together, and that kid comes out as gay. Then dad really has to deal with his karmic shift in life. The characters are all loosely based on people in my life, including myself.”

IE: Do you have any pets out there with you?

BUTCH WALKER: We have a French bulldog. And sadly, our German shepherd passed away unexpectedly last weekend, so it’s a fresh wound. And it’s a bummer. But we’re getting through it. It’s been tough, tough on my kid because he grew up with that guy; it’s his guardian angel. He was only eight, but it was tumors, cancer, and it was pretty brutal and sudden, having to put him down. But let’s talk about something more uplifting!

IE: You once said that you proudly pushed The Donnas into recording their first minor-chord anthem, “Revolver.” Do you hear something in an artist’s music that they don’t?

BW: That happens a lot. But you’ve just gotta go into it hearing the end of the song before you even start at the beginning. That means you have to have the foresight and the vision in your head for what it’s going to sound like in the end, because it doesn’t always sound like the final result right when you start. A case in point — when you’re building a song from scratch with an artist, and it’s not a full band situation, where you CAN hear what the end result’s going to sound like — when you’re sitting in the room with just a singer who’s a songwriter, with a song on guitar — then you’ve got to be in sync with whatever they have in their head. You’ve got to be in sync with that, or you’ve got to create the vision yourself and tell them, “Okay, trust me on this — I’m going to lay down this little drumbeat, and you’re going to play along and sing to it. And you’ve got to trust me that the end result is going to be good, and it’ll have THIS vibe.” And a lot of people just don’t have that. So I think it’s no different from being a house designer, like an interior decorator, where they can go into an ugly, beat-up ‘70s house with linoleum floors and shitty wallpaper and outdated appliances, and they can go, “Oh, this is gonna be AMAZING!” And you look at it and go, “How? How is this going to be amazing?” But if you can see the vision before you start, then that’s 50% of the battle right there.

IE: I think it was Brian Fallon’s song “Smoke,” where he gave you a bare-bones acoustic track one night, and overnight you turned it into a stomping hoedown.

BW: Yeah! For sure! I think more than anything, it was just like being able to — again — take a song that was just his guitar and vocals and say, “Oh, man — I think it’s gonna be great like THIS!” And a lot of times I really do enjoy it when people give me the keys to drive, and they come back the next day and let me play them something I’ve done. And that’s not always gonna be the case, but its kind of nice to get people to trust in you that much where you can see something and get closer to the finish line by [having them] leave you alone in your sandbox to build the ultimate sandcastle.

IE: You made Green Day sound Gary-Glitter huge on Father of All Motherfuckers.

BW:  Ha! Love Gary Glitter or hate him — and he’s very hateable at this point — there was some good music there. And cool production. And a lot of that ‘70s glam era is in my wheelhouse, from just growing up and loving it and making a lot of tributes, production-wise, just on my own records. That was also a lot of Billie Joe Armstrong’s influences. And like I’ve told people before, half of making a record is just talking with the artist before you even start the record. So Billie and I would spend a lot of time just shooting the shit — over texting and over phone calls — and we had all the same records, we had the same exact influences. He’s very much a musicologist and knows every guitar player on every record, and I love that. So not only was it like, “Did we just become best friends?” It was also “Okay, let me get a vibe on this demo you just sent me, and I’ll send you back a work in progress, a template of how I think it would sound cool.” That’s how we started the record, and he loved it. And there were a lot of those great influences there, like E.L.O., the early Bowie stuff, the T. rex stuff. It was a lot of fun.

IE: E.L.O.’s unsung classic is Time.

BW:  Yeah. I’m a big fan of Jeff Lynne, I loved his last stuff, too, like “When I Was a Boy.” What a great song. But Out of the Blue? That was a game-changer, a life-changer for me.

IE: When you finally get around to recording your own stuff, are you like Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather after he’s murdered one of his many families — “Wait a minute! Who AM I here?”

BW:  Ha! That’s wild! Well, yes. Yes. And I want to kill both of me by the end of it because it’s very hard sometimes just to get out of your own way and stop being an artist and start being a producer, and vice versa. But I’ve gotten better at it over the years, and I think that’s just from growing up and making my own records. And I don’t think everybody is great at it, and I don’t think I’m always good at it, either. But I’ve gotten to a point right now, where I understand myself. I understand both of me, and I can figure out a way to curb any of my neuroses that happen. Which does happen. It definitely does happen, where you end up going, “Oh, shit — I’ve got to step away from this!”

IE: “Everything White” on your album actually sounds like Pablo Cruise.

BW: Totally! Of course! Those are the influences on that record. It starts from late-‘70s yacht rock turning into early ‘80s stuff. Those are the records I heard on the radio growing up, and American Love Story is a rock opera set to that soundtrack. It’s loosely based on when I was growing up in the South, and I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. So whatever I heard on the radio at that time is kind of what this is about. And with every single song on the record, I could tell you what song influenced it, sound-wise.

IE: Is there salvation for the protagonist at the end?

BW:  Definitely. Definitely. It’s a love story that has a very bittersweet ending because not everyone lives. But what does live is love, an unconditional love. [It’s] just a little life lesson to learn in the story, that there is definitely a way for people to turn things around. And it all starts by just having a conversation, and not always attacking. And that’s tough. We’re in a bumper-sticker nation now, where everybody just takes everything at face value and in one general statement. It’s something that I want everybody to listen to and hopefully walk away with something from it that’s not a bummer, or something too offensive to them. I’m sure I’ll lose a few people, but that’s okay. I’m okay with that.

-Tom Lanham

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Category: Columns, Featured, Features, Monthly

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