INTERVIEW: Butch Walker
He's seen it all in the industry - and is still making records (Epic Records)
By: Alex Steininger
Butch Walker has pretty much seen it all in the music business.
Fresh out of high school, he and his band moved from Cartersville, Georgia to Los Angeles to make it. Ten months later his metal band landed a major label deal and toured the nation relentlessly with other cock-rock bands, only to soon find out that the band's type of music was out and Nirvana and Pearl Jam were in.
The band broke up and Walker moved back to Georgia, this time settling in Atlanta.
It was in Atlanta he began listening to a lot of indie-rock and hanging out at record stores -- changing his whole view on music. Instead of heavy metal, he started playing pop-tinged guitar-rock. It was still loud, it was still potent, but this time around it was more punk than metal, more poppy than hard, and fit in nicely with the radio format of the times.
This band, Marvelous 3, quickly started making waves in the Southeast, playing over two hundred and fifty shows a year, and selling out regional shows.
All while on an indie.
Then Atlanta's big modern rock radio station, 99X started playing a track of theirs, "Freak of the Week", and as the song became a mainstay on the station, major labels started knocking.
The band quickly signed to Elektra Records and their debut, Hey! Album was released in 1998.
Soon 99X wasn't the only station playing "Freak of the Week" in heavy rotation. The band found themselves on MTV, touring relentlessly, supporting bigger bands, and winning commercial praise. The future looked bright for Butch Walker and Marvelous 3.
Then came the follow-up.
Less pop and more rock, ReadySexGo! failed to ignite radio and MTV exposure like Hey! Album and the band was soon dropped -- and broke up.
Realizing he could make a living producing and writing songs for other bands, and not have to put in the grueling work of a touring musician, Walker picked up gigs writing and working with upstart bands SR-71 and Injected. These would lead to more songwriting and producing gigs, as well as a solo major label deal.
Released in 2002, Butch Walker's Left of Self-Centered continued on with the guitar-focused, rocking pop of Marvelous 3. Though a tight, punchy guitar-rock record, it did even less commercially than the last Marvelous 3 record.
Walker then began working with acts such as Pink, Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan, Midtown, Sevendust, and American Hi-Fi. Acts that were receiving tremendous commercial success.
Life couldn't have been better for Walker. He was making money as a musician and producer, and didn't have to put up with the treatment the industry thrusts upon artists -- arguably the lowest rung on the ladder. However, Walker wanted to do another solo record. So, he went into a studio, wrote and produced his sophomore full-length, Letters, and once again found a major label home for it, Epic Records.
The difference this time, Walker had found himself. Instead of worrying what others would think, what others would say about his work, Walker focused on himself, and made a record that he didn't care whether it sold one copy or a million. He just wanted to make it.
The result: a beautiful, heartfelt record that finds Walker at ease, comfortably mixing loud power-pop with tender, dark piano ballads. And plenty of rich, juicy pop in between.
"I was forcing things," Walker says of his previous bands' work and his first solo record. "Though, my fans respect all the records. They respect the whole book, not just chapters. But I'm very happy to let my guard down and be myself rather than chase a trend or do what is trendy now."
"It took me a long time not to care what others thought about my music to be able to do these love songs and not worry about what others would say or think," he continues.
The album is filled with such gems as the piano-pop of "So At Last", power-pop of "Uncomfortably Numb", dark, haunting lyrics with a moody piano on "Joan", and punk rock on "Lights Out". Not to mention the melodic, hook-laden pop-rock of "Mixtape", burning with heartbroken lyrics about love.
"Most songs are definitely from an autobiographical standpoint," he says of the lyrical content of the record. "A lot are experiences I've dealt with growing up."
When asked if the autobiographical nature of the record made it hard for Walker to write, he pauses for a second and then tells me no.
"It wasn't a hard record to write. Some of the stuff I'm dealing with now. It's been an interesting last few years in my life."
Walker and I begin discussing his comfort level on Letters, and why its the record he's always wanted to make, but was afraid to.
"I like to get my punk rock guard down and write a beautiful love song about someone I love," he tells me. "In the past though, I never thought I could make an album full of them. I thought people would hate me for it".
And, unfortunately, things people don't understand will always receive some resistance, as is evident by the hate mail Walker received after the record's release from testosterone-filled boys who think that he abandoned the rock.
"I wrote most of these songs on the piano. Maybe that's the difference," ponders Walker. "It's a beautiful thing when you really aren't that great at the piano. Mistakes can really turn into great things."
Not only is Walker proud he was able to release songs about love and how he feels, without hiding behind loud guitars on every track, he always feels Letters is the best collection of songs he's ever written.
"I used to be a real cynical sonofabitch and jaded and that showed in the [older] songs," he says without hesitation. "I was being overly sarcastic about pop culture and love. I'm over it and that's when I started writing better songs, at least to me.
"I think musically I made a much better record [with Letters]. I could see a blank look on my rock friends' faces when they didn't hear a lot of loud guitars and I had pianos and acoustic guitars all over the place. Personally, I'm sick of playing guitar and want a new challenge."
Letters has helped Walker regain his freedom, something he didn't think he would ever have when making a record.
"I've enjoyed the freedom of being myself and letting go. I like it, it's addicting," he says, his voice glowing as the words come out of his mouth. "Five years ago I never thought I'd have that choice. I always thought I'd have to make pop records that were accessible to commercial radio audiences, but now I'm glad to have freedom."
Walker, quite proud of Letters, as he should be, tells me that usually he is overly critical of himself. But, months after Letters' release, he is still listening to the record - and enjoying it. A true testament, he tells me, to how good he thinks the record is.
"I liked what it did," he tells me. "It opened up a whole new portal of fans who wouldn't listen to me before. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want the whole world to hear my music. I'm excited that critics praised it as well as fans."