Interview: Butch Walker

Butch Walker

Last week, I got a chance to chat extensively with a personal hero of mine, Butch Walker. We talked about Butch’s new album, Afraid of Ghosts, including how the recent loss of his father inspired a new direction for his music, why he decided to have Ryan Adams produce the disc, and why his trademark sarcasm and upbeat songwriting is nowhere to be found. We also touched upon Walker’s back catalog, the woeful reasons why no one should be expecting to find Letters on vinyl anytime soon, whether or not The Black Widows will be making music again in the future, and why Butch’s protege Jake Sinclair took over most of the production duties on the new Fall Out Boy LP.

First of all, you started streaming the new record on Tuesday. How have you felt about the reception you’ve gotten so far?

Well, I guess for what it’s worth to me in the internet world and social media world it seems like, the only reception I would know would be by reading comments…which I always dread doing. But so far, everyone seems to really like it, so…it seems to be connecting, I guess, on an emotional level with a lot of people, and I think that that’s the most important thing that I could ever want for that record, is for people to feel like I did when I wrote it, you know?

Yeah! So, tell me a little bit about the writing process for Afraid of Ghosts. You said in one of the posts you made that this was sort of like your version of the film Boyhood, and you also called the album something you’ve been waiting to write your whole life. What did you mean by those statements?

Well, I guess it’s a record that no matter how, like, widely accepted it is from people, it’s a record that I feel that, as a musician, I always wanted to have a record hit me feeling-wise the same way that a record like…I don’t want to compare it to other records, cause I know that’s pretentious…but you know, the same thing like, umm, you know Grace by Jeff Buckley, or Harvest Moon by Neil Young, or…any record that, like, had kind of an emotional weight to it that would just knock me out and make me cry, you know? Those are powerful records, and people hurt, so you know, they need music to…to deal. You know, you’re just not in a sincere position to write that kind of record all the time; because you know…at least I’m not. Because I haven’t always been, you know, feeling that way.

And so, I think after losing my father, it triggered writing a lot of these kind of songs. And I just didn’t ever want to put a record like that out without something…unfortunately, something devastating had to happen to break all that out. But, I’m glad I did, and like I said, I’ve kind of been waiting my whole life to have a record like this that I can sincerely back and know that every bit of it came from my heart.

Because a lot of times, you’re just having to make a record because everyone wants you to go in and make a record, and you’re like…in a good place or something, and so your songs have to end up reflecting some sort of…either cynical, witty…you know, whatever element to the lyrics. And that’s not always what I feel or what I want. It’s hard to write a bunch of songs that are from being damaged unless you have been.

So there are definitely a lot of songs on this record that are definitely about your dad, and then there are other songs that are sort of more character-focused stories, like “21+” and “Chrissie Hynde” and “Still Drunk.” I was wondering how those two approaches to writing came together on this particular album.

Well, I mean, no one wants to hear an entire record about your dad dying, you know? And I certainly didn’t write an entire album’s worth of songs like that. I just, I think all these were…they were just all cut from the same fabric, in the same time frame, while writing. And so, I believe that it just became super confessional. To come forward with these songs, and some of these subjects, even if a couple of them are fiction or based on someone else besides myself, you know? I think that that’s what gives them all a common format, it’s that everything isn’t awesome always. (Laughs) So I think, lyrically, I kind of was writing a lot of songs about things that weren’t very awesome, or without an awesome outlook. To me it’s just real life.

You’ve had a hand in producing all of your solo records prior to this one. How did it come to pass that you handed over the reigns here to Ryan Adams.

Well, it really was the fact that we…I didn’t want to…I just really didn’t want to record and do my own songs in the studio by myself anymore. I just felt like…I felt like I was getting very bored with myself, and this was no album and no collection of songs to have be feeling predictable for me. And I think that’s just like anything. Once you get good at something, or you master something and you learn how to do it very well, you…at least in my mind, I’m kind of like “What’s next?” And it’s hard to say, “oh, I’ll just keep pushing myself and pushing my boundaries and…” whatever, I mean…I’m not trying to make Sgt Pepper here. And I’m not trying to make OK Computer. It’s like…I need these songs to just come out very honest and bare, and to me, I felt like recording that myself, I didn’t think I would give it a fair shake.

And so, it felt like the right thing to do, and luckily Ryan is just…he’s just a mad man kind of a wizard with how his brain works, and the way he can…manipulate you in the studio into doing something that you didn’t know you can do. It was just…to me it was really incredible and magical to be inspired like that again, and have that kick in the ass from somebody. Not necessarily somebody who would sit behind their console and fiddle with fucking microphones for seven hours, and 18 mic shootouts and…that stuff’s boring and I can’t stand it and it makes me want to shoot myself in the face.

And so, that being said, anyone who would have been more of a technical engineer type person as the producer? I wouldn’t be able to make a record with them, because I make records kind of the same way Ryan does, where I go very fast and try to capture whatever’s happening in that moment, and keep it fresh and the spontaneity there. And so, he was perfect for that, because it was all from the heart, and all about the feeling, and all about the heart of the song. And not about, like, spending an hour on a snare sound. Because I don’t give a shit about that, that’s boring to me. And people who are thinking about that stuff too much in the studio are not thinking enough about the song, or about the lyric or whatever.

So, to me, it felt good, because his idea was the same as mine, which was “We’re gonna get in there, we’re gonna set it up, we’re gonna do this live, I’ll put the band on the floor, straight to tape, one take maybe two, and we’re not going to be comfortable with the song long enough for it to sound too content and too polished and too professional.” In his words, in my texts back and forth to him–which was great–he was like, “It’s gonna be like…” (Laughs) this was awesome. He said, “It’s gonna be like Armageddon: we’re gonna land on the rock and we’re gonna do our job and we’re gonna fly off.” You know, he’s talking about the asteroid, you know. It was a good analogy and it was funny and it was like…and that’s kind of what we did: we like, we landed on the rock, and we did our job, and we got off…before it exploded.

So, it was really…to me, four days later, having a record in the can, it’s just like, yeah that’s the way it should be. It’s like Christmas, you know? I can still listen to that record and still hear things and find things that are…that I’ve never caught before, and still enjoy it. As opposed to going, “Jesus Christ, I spent six months making that fucking record. I never want to hear it again.”

So, any chance that Ryan would have you in to produce one of his records?

Well yeah! Honestly, that was sort of our plan. You know, we had planned on me going in and working with him, and making this last record that he ended up putting out. But, you know, the only problem was, we didn’t actually get to do that because he worked on this record…like, his schedule’s kind of, any time he was off the road he was in the studio working on songs. And me, any time I was off the road, I was hanging with my family and my son and my wife, and I was trying to like, you know, figure out work in the studio for records I was producing. And also my father was dying. And so, when my father was about to pass, and he did pass, I just didn’t even…I couldn’t think about work or anything or doing anything. I just had to go away for a while and get my head together.

So you know, Ryan ended up producing the record himself, which was awesome, because I think…he knows what he’s doing. He’s made enough records, for God’s sakes, that are incredible, that…he’s not a beginner. So, you know, all of the sudden I see him in a hotel, at this hotel that I was staying at in New York and we’re in the same hotel, and we went and had lunch. And I said, “I’ve got a bunch of songs for a new record,” he’s like “Oh God!” and he just got excited. He gets excited like a 15-year-old boy. And he’s like “I’ve gotta hear ’em, let’s go up to your hotel room.” And he made me go up to the hotel room and play ’em on acoustic guitar. And he just started tearing them apart, you know, like changing lines here and there, and saying stuff like “Oh, you should sing it in this key and do it like this.”

And, you know, I just really respected that. Because, nobody ever wants to tell me…nobody ever has the balls to tell me what to do, because they think I already know how to do it, cause I do it for a living anyway. And so, and maybe that’s…it just takes someone who’s kind of ballsy like him, this punk rock kid, to be like “No, fuck you, that sucks. Do it like this.” And, you know, part of me is–at this point, I was submissive enough to be like, “Yeah man, I love it, let’s do it like that.” So, it worked out really well.

Yeah, you said–I think it was on Tumblr–you said that “Father’s Day” the song was kind of a struggle to write, just because it was so personal. How did guys like Ryan and Bob Mould help you sort of get what you were looking for on that song?

You know, that was one of the songs that when I played it for Ryan in my hotel room, I was…it was incomplete. But I knew it was an important song to me, I knew I really needed it, and I wanted to finish it, and I wanted it to be great. And that was one of the songs that Ryan started, like, side-writing verses for right there on the spot, and was like “Oh, you can’t say that, say this!” And it was wild, cause like, for such a personal song I didn’t know if I should hit somebody for trying to tell me how to write a personal song like that, or, you know, hug him for caring that much.

So, what happened is…it ended up being one verse that Ryan completely wrote. That’s the one that’s kind of more of a vignette, more of a backdrop for the setting, which is like the second verse. You know, “there’s girls on the corner smoking cigarettes” and, you know, “ashes in the breeze.” That kind of stuff was very classic Ryan. And then you combine it with my chorus and my verses, talking about very personal experiences of…sleeping in my father’s bedroom at my parent’s house the night after he died, it’s just…that was the idea.

And then, you know, Bob coming in basically was kind of an added pleasure, because he had just sadly gone through the same experience, was very close with his dad, and lost his dad two years ago that week that he came in the studio and we recorded it. And my dad had passed one year ago that week. And so we both kind of…we’d never met before, so when met, we kind of hit it off, and he got out and sang the background harmonies in the chorus, and it just made my…hair on my arms stand up. It just added a whole other layer of strange emotion, you know, from somebody else who shared the same thing,

So this sounds very much like a country-influenced set of songs, to me. You’ve sort of been toying with that direction for a few albums now, but this is the first album where I feel it’s really…it would almost fit into that genre. What inspired you to go in that direction?

Well…you know, I don’t know if it’s as much a country record…I mean, I think maybe people will say that just because they hear some steel guitar on it and stuff. But you know, I’ve always had those elements in the last, like, 10 years on my records. I’ve never really tried to deny that. Or to make a flat-out country record, and this is definitely not that.

I mean, I feel like Ryan Adams is the same way, where a lot of people just kind of slag him off as country or alt-country or whatever you want to call it, and then he’ll turn around and make a rock and roll record like he just did. Or he’ll make one that’s like punk rock. And in a way, he and I are similar in that way, like, I don’t think…we came from so many different influences that we don’t want to be pigeonholed as one like one thing. Or just, like, “Oh yeah, he’s county.” “Oh yeah, he’s rock.” I mean, I haven’t done a record that’s like my last record for as long as I’ve been making them. Not really.

And it’s funny, I think some people think that this record is–because Ryan produced it, they think it sounds like me doing a Ryan Adams record. And it’s like…we’re two completely different animals. These are songs I wrote, and got in front of a microphone and sang them in one take without any edits or anything like that. So, that doesn’t sound to me like I’m doing anything but just being myself, you know?

So this is also sort of the first record of yours that doesn’t have…I mean, there aren’t really any rock songs, and there’s none of your trademark sarcasm or any of that. Was it a conscious decision to sort of write in a different direction because you were tackling serious subject matter, or did it just come that you were writing more acoustic-oriented stuff?

Well, I mean not necessarily. I wasn’t even sure what instrument I was going to play on this record, because I didn’t even want it to be…I didn’t want to play anything on it to be honest, I just wanted it to be a record of great songs that…that have piano, and acoustic, and electric, and whatever. It’s all…to me, it’s just music, and I think the big thing is that people who are familiar with a lot of my back catalog of stuff…they might be looking for, as you said, you know “Where’s the sneer?” Like, where’s the tongue-in-cheek, where’s the sarcasm? But, you know, I could have written these songs as, like, metal productions with detuned guitars and whatever, and still lyrically, I didn’t want to be cynical or sarcastic.

But, it just so happens that, because of the lyrical content, it favored being more cinematic and organic. More beauty and less carnival, you know? (Laughs) So, to me, it’s like I said, it’s the kind of record I listen to when I’m feeling blue and when I need music to medicate me. And, you know, that’s part of why I wanted them to sound like that. Not to make it sound like one particular artist or anything. I mean, there’s all kind of influence on it. There’s like tons of Elvis and 50s doo-wop influence, and, you know, Neil Young, and Elvis…Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen…there’s a lot of that, you know?

So are there any plans yet for the tour for this album?

Yeah, we’re actually going to start touring in spring, so we’re booking dates as we speak.

Are you going to do solo acoustic stuff, or are you going to have a full band?

Ehh, I’m not sure. I haven’t figured it out. But…I kind of prefer not to even think about that, or put that in people’s brains because I don’t think it should matter, you know? It’s like…I may end up doing both. I don’t know.

What’s it like to have Johnny Depp play guitar on one of your songs?

Hmmmm…well. I didn’t even really know who was coming in the studio that day, because Ryan kept referring to it as like…his buddy J Diggle is going to come by? And I’m like, “I don’t know what a J Diggle is, but I’m sure if it’s a buddy of his…” I trust Ryan musically, wholeheartedly, so if Ryan and a buddy come by and play on my record, I’m sure they’re gonna be really good. So I was just like, “Yeah man, whatever!” I was just being, like I said, very agreeable and very submissive on this record for a reason, cause I’d never done it before. So I was trusting every groove, I was like, “whatever you wanna do, let’s do it. I wanna have someone do this a different way and not my way.”

And so in walks Johnny Depp, and I was like “Oh! That’s J Diggle.” So he ended up picking up a guitar and ripping an amazing solo at the end of “21+,” and then got up and got in a limo and flew to London to make a giant movie. So, it was very classic. But he was great. He was awesome. Couldn’t have been a sweeter kind of laid back, humble person, which I loved. And no weirdness, no…the one thing about him that feels bigger than you is just his presence, but not his brain, not his mind. He’s not trying to be the star of the show, he just is. That’s a God-given talent right there.

So I have a few questions left, and these are from actually readers. The first is “Letters turned 10 last year, and The Rise and Fall is 10 next year. Have you ever thought about doing anniversary tours or vinyl presses to mark the milestones?”

This is where it gets complicated, and a lot of people don’t understand it because it’s just a boring business blah blah bullshit. I put out those records on a major label, for Sony. And they’re just not very cooperative in giving your masters back to do whatever you want with them. And they certainly don’t think they’re going to make any money at it, so they have no reason to do it. So, that’s the reason why I can’t just go out and put Letters on vinyl, or The Rise and Fall, because I don’t own the masters, sadly, which is one of the worst music business clich├ęs ever that people fall victim to, is signing a big major record deal and then realizing you’ll never own the rights to that record ever again.

So…It doesn’t mean I can’t play the songs live, but, unless I wanted to do some goofy, like, re-record the record like people do? Which I…that’s just stupid, you know? I have no desire…that’s a moment in time. It is what it is. There’s a million things I detest when I hear those records that I wish I would have done differently, probably. But I would detest re-recording them more, I think, cause that’s just dumb, you know? And I think they were good for the time, but unfortunately, I can’t do what I want with the master recordings of those.

But of course I could go out and play them live, though, if I wanted to. So that’s…that’s a decent idea! (Laughs)

**Well you did do the residencies a few years ago, where you played a few cities and you did full album shows. **

Yep, I remember that! Some songs I’d prefer never to play again though, so…

Yeah, was there one off The Rise and Fall that you actually didn’t play at the full-album show? Or did you play them all?

I think I played ’em all.

I couldn’t remember if “Paid to Get Excited” got played.

No, I played it somewhere, I know I did.

Alright. So, another question. The gist of it is that, a few years ago you were really consistent about putting out live albums and EPs and stuff, even if it was just a digital only release, and I guess we haven’t–I didn’t even realize this–but we haven’t gotten a live album in a few years. Do you have any plans to do something like that again, or do you sort of feel like it’s redundant now that anyone can just go on YouTube and see live stuff.

No, no, no, I mean…I’m fine with people recording shows and YouTube and stuff, that’s how I discover a lot of new music, too, so I’m fine with that. But, yeah, I mean, putting out a proper live album/video of a show…that takes work and money to make it a real production. To answer your question, yes, we have something pretty special in the works that is related to the hometown show that I did in Cartersville to commemorate my father. And I won’t go into it right now, but it’s going to be great.

Okay, very cool! And the last question I have from a reader is are the Black Widows done? Do you think you guys could reunite for another album in a few years, or have those guys sort of gone their separate ways.

Oh, we all have gone our separate ways. But we all still talk and love each other and will definitely…I’m sure we’ll make music again at some point. And you know, who knows? Maybe it will be all the original members in the same room and we’ll see. But um…it’s gonna be…I mean, everybody’s got other shit going on, so I don’t think…I mean, it’s not reuniting the Police or anything like that. It’s not…you know, we’re not that big of a deal. But we would only do it because it was time to have fun and see each other again. Because we definitely had a great chemistry

Oh yeah, totally. Speaking of the Black Widows, Jake Sinclair seems to be following in your footsteps and becoming a very in-demand producer and songwriter. What’s it been like to sort of watch his evolution in that way?

Well that’s the way I had planned it from the beginning. When I met Jake, I knew that not only was this kid gonna be big but I wanted him to be big with us. So when he came to work with me after I had worked on his band’s last record, The Films, and he started engineering for me, I just knew that he was gonna be more than just an engineer. Because he had the talent and the songwriting ability and was super musical. One of the most talented guys I know. And I kind of just knew that he was gonna be big, or at least have promise in that world and he wanted it real bad.

And so we worked together for like five years making records to where it was like, man, I can’t hold him back anymore. I’d just be holding him back if I just had him stay engineering records for me, because he’s way too talented to do that. So it’s great, because we keep it all in the family, you know? My manager manages him now, and we all kind of discuss all the projects we’re doing next, openly, so that usually there’s some sort of involvement with all of us. So I couldn’t be more happy and more proud of him.

Yeah, that’s great. He did a bunch of stuff on the new Fall Out Boy, right?

That’s right.

Did you work on that one, or did you just do Save Rock and Roll.

I did Save Rock and Roll and then I did a song called “Irresistible” and also I did the song “Immortals.” But I just was…I was in the mode of wanting to put my own record together and get this going, and then Ryan offered for me to go out and tour with him, and I really wanted to do it and really wanted to focus on getting something going for this record myself. And you know, Fall Out Boy needed to…they’re a big, in-demand band, so they couldn’t sit around and wait for me. And it was the perfect opportunity for Jake to go in and kind of do my job. And it worked out great, so, you know they had a great chemistry and made a great record.

Yeah, and I think that just came through today, it’s the number one record in the country, so that’s great. Alright, I think that’s all I had for you. Do you have anything you want to add?

Well now, Craig, I appreciate it, man! Thanks for always just being in my corner. I appreciate all the support. And anything I can do for you, let me know, and I’ll look forward to seeing you on the road.