“It seems every kid has the dream of becoming a rock star but few get or take the chance and make it happen. [Butch] Walker did it twice.” That’s a comment from a five-star reader review of Butch Walker’s new book, Drinking With Strangers, and it couldn’t be more true. Walker’s memoir captures his odd trajectory through the music industry, catching him failing upwards at every turn – from failed hair-metal guitar hero to third-wave alternative one-hit wonder with Marvelous 3 to songwriter/producer to superstars like Weezer, Avril Lavigne, and Pink, among many others (read the story in Drinking With Strangers about Walker working with Lindsay Lohan and try not to laugh…).
Rolling Stone called Walker one of America’s best songwriters, and named him “Producer of the Year” in 2005. Along the way, Walker has gained a unique perspective on the music industry while carving out his own career as a singer-songwriter – this year, he released his sixth solo studio album, The Spade, on esteeemed indie Dangerbird Records (home to Silversun Pickups and Fitz and the Tantrums). As a performer, Walker considers himself a “mid-level artist” – albeit one that has garnered a sizable mass of fans as passionate as the one quoted above. For that reason, we asked you, dear readers, to submit questions for the interrogation below (in fact, 177 questions were submitted – all of which can be read here in their original form). Putting Walker under the microscope with those that know him best resulted in a typically candid and humorous exchange. Read on…
The Daily Swarm: You mention that you’ll never play “My Way” again because you think it sucks; you also don’t play “Freak Of The Week” and “Mixtape” anymore either, and those are some of your more well-known songs, as far as radio or public awareness goes. What about the fans who are touched by those songs, or that those songs remind them of a good time in their life? Is it really so painful for you to perform those songs for three minutes of your life for the people those songs mean something too? Not that you’re not allowed to have songs you dislike, and maybe you can’t relate to them, but Gwen Stefani probably can’t relate to “Just A Girl” anymore and she’ll play that the rest of her life, along with her new songs. Don’t you think you can honor those past songs as well as perform new songs as well? At the end of your book you mention “99 Luftballons” and how you got a euphoric feeling hearing it. If you went to see Nena today and she didn’t play the song live, or said she thought it sucked, wouldn’t that sort of be a bummer?
Butch Walker: You are absolutely right. But I am a different animal than Gwen and Nena. I am pretty sure that Nena, if given the chance to play some oldies radio show or “back in the day” fest, would contractually be obligated to play the “hit”; most likely, it’s not like we know her for any other songs. As far as Gwen goes, I really think her catalog of hits has warranted the freedom to do as she wishes. That said, “Just a Girl” is actually not a far stretch stylistically from the songs she does now. All that said, your point is a good one, but I have not had the success nor the obligation to radio or radio listeners to honor them with “the hit” that doesn’t exist. I look at that as a blessing, not a curse. Until I see people leaving in droves at the shows from disappointment with my setlist, or have people yelling to play only those few songs that I don’t feel like playing anymore, I suppose I will stick to doing what makes me happy, while Gwen throws up in her mouth a little every time she plays “Just A Girl.” Then again, I might start playing all three of those songs again on my next tour…
The Daily Swarm: Last I heard, you still have a record left on the Marvelous 3’s record deal. Would you ever consider revisiting your punk-pop years with a Marvelous 3 reunion?
Butch Walker: Not yet.
The Daily Swarm: In your book, you talk about being a bit homophobic when you first met Desmond Child [superstar producer to the likes of Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Ricky Martin] because you hadn’t been around somebody so open about being gay. Then you mention that you probably experimented a little bit in your liberal years as far as hanging out with dudes to see if you were missing something. What does “probably” mean? You’re not sure if you did? You woke up next to a guy one morning? And how did you feel about “probably” hanging out with dudes? Were you missing out on something? There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but I thought that was interesting, and as a reader, I wanted more info on your thoughts about that.
Butch Walker: I am glad you asked that question because, in my forty-two years, I have never answered one about this. When I moved to Los Angeles, straight from a small farm town at seventeen, I had never met anyone who was openly gay. Desmond wasn’t subtle about his sexual orientation either! I suppose it was a crash course in social interaction and culturing a small-minded, sheltered farm boy who thought at the time that only hetero-Christian-white people weren’t weird. It is sad to grow up that way and be brainwashed by a closed-minded, frightened society, but I was lucky enough to get out and get thrown into the three-ring circus of life at a young and tender age. L.A. really taught me that judgment sucks, sheltering the youth is wrong, and… Well, most people I grew up around were boring. The boy-kissing thing appealed to me in the ‘90s a bit, when some of that “free-love” movement from the ‘60s came back around. That, combined with alcohol and a little shock value, I had no problem making out with dudes – even onstage – but that was about it. I realized, although I wouldn’t shun it, that I wasn’t really gay or bisexual; I was just not scared. Plus, I really think women are hot.
The Daily Swarm: Do you ever get homesick for the simple life of Cartersville, Georgia where you grew up?
Butch Walker: That’s funny. In my older age, I actually go back and find a little bit of myself feeling nostalgic and romantically attached to the town which I couldn’t wait to tear myself from its lining. It really is funny: I love the little downtown train station and depot, the fact that they sell drinks in bars now, and the cute little shops popping up everywhere. But then I’ll hear someone open their mouth and say something racist or politically ignorant, at which point I think to myself, “Don’t unpack just yet.”
The Daily Swarm: I recently saw you play at a small club in Buffalo to a small but enthusiastic and adoring crowd. You did make a couple of comments like “I feel like I’m in a comedy club” (because everyone was sitting at little tables at first), but you gave us 1,000 percent that night; it didn’t really seem to matter to you if there were 100 or 1,000 people there. My question is, are you disappointed when the crowd is small, or do you find it an opportunity to connect with the fans in a way that maybe you can’t when you are playing for a large crowd in a big venue?
Butch Walker: Thanks for the kind words. I guess I get a little bummed out, more for my crew and the opening acts, for not getting to have the best show possible sometimes. But sometimes those markets get thrown at you as tour stops, and you fight and fight them on it, warning that you haven’t played there enough to build an audience; you succumb to it anyways – and then the show turnout sucks and the vibe is bad. It really does make me question myself sometimes, and why I still do it. Then the next night we will play a sold out show somewhere eight hours away and realize it’s not anyone’s fault. But if you just go through the motions and treat it like it’s the worst thing ever, then you will feed the demon in your soul that says “give up.” And sometimes those shows are the best shows ever – including that one in Buffalo.
The Daily Swarm: What would you be doing if your career was not music?
Butch Walker: I don’t know – honestly, I can’t do anything else good. I suck at sports, can’t count very high, and don’t remember any musical theory, so I don’t think I would make a good football player, accountant, or music instructor. Maybe I would be a leisure expert just traveling around and taking photographs – then selling them in tourist towns once steeped in history, but now shilling snow globes and signature drinks.
The Daily Swarm: How long did it take you to write Drinking With Strangers?
Butch Walker: About a year and a half. I went back and re-wrote stuff on several occasions due to the fact that it didn’t always sound like me talking. I would constantly have to ask myself if I really wanted to say some of those things, and not everything got left in. It didn’t seem like the right thing to do if it made someone look bad due to my ranting; it was never meant to be a “tell-all,” or an attempt to throw people under the bus.
The Daily Swarm: Do you ever see yourself letting someone produce one of you albums again? What would be the good and bad of that at this point in your career?
Butch Walker: I don’t know. I just don’t have the patience to go over something twice: by the time I have recorded a “demo” of a song for myself, I have already over-analyzed it, recorded it properly, thought about the structure and the lyric, and kept my budget down. So I guess everything I do is always “produced,” but if the right person wanted to do it, I’d let them have a shot at it.
The Daily Swarm: I’ve heard you described as “the best-known artist you’ve never heard of.” Can you elaborate on that sense of being the “man behind the curtain” for so many artists?
Butch Walker: I just think of it as a family instead of an institution. The minute you treat your family like a business, you are fucked.
The Daily Swarm: Do you have a favorite quote?
Butch Walker: “The people that mind don’t matter, and the people that matter don’t mind.” [commonly attributed to Dr. Seuss]
The Daily Swarm: I understand you are currently working with Train on their new album. What can we expect?
Butch Walker: Ten tracks, all focused on the ukulele. Kidding…
The Daily Swarm: How has fatherhood changed your world? What would you like him to learn about you, and what would you like him to not find out about?
Butch Walker: I don’t have any regrets, so I am not really that interested in sheltering him. He will see some shitty pictures and videos of me, hear some awful things about me, and probably not give a shit, because liking your dad and his music is probably not going to be cool. I see the singer for the ‘80s band Mr. Mister in my neighborhood all the time with his beautiful, cool looking teenage kids: I can’t imagine they’re stoked to crank “Broken Wings” loud in their cars on the way to high school every morning. But hopefully they’ve learned some good lessons along the way, and weren’t spoiled by the excess of money and easy living. I plan on taking my kid to the country half the year, to learn some real chores and appreciate saving his money up to by his first guitar, baseball glove, or car. That’s just how my father raised me, and I came out alright.
The Daily Swarm: Your latest album [The Spade] has been released on Dangerbird Records, which is an independent label. So far, how has this made an impact versus self-releasing [or working with a major label]?
Butch Walker: It really has been an independent release. Dangerbird hasn’t gotten in the way of our vision, the little train we run every time we put a record out; they just kinda jumped in and started helping. That is all I ever wanted – not someone who thinks they know me or my fans better than I do: “Hey! We airbrushed off your facial hair to give you a more youthful appearance – what do you think?”
The Daily Swarm: How’s your liver?
Butch Walker: Hopefully fair to partly damaged.