The Butch Walker Interview
Something I learned about Butch Walker from interviewing him: Butch is a “Scorpio to the third power” and left-handed. Something I knew about Butch before we ever spoke on the phone: According to Ink 19 folklore, Butch was once our ad sales rep out of Atlanta. How about that? Small world. Butch used to sing and play guitar in a cool bubblegum pop/metal band called Marvelous 3, and before that, he was in a hair metal band called South Gang. Marvelous 3 were signed to Elektra for a few years, put out two great albums (Hey Album in 1998, Ready Sex Go in 2000) for that once-great label, but were terribly mishandled and abused and finally dropped. Blessings come in strange disguises. Butch used the down time to write some hit songs for a band called SR-71 and produced the debut album by fellow Atlantans, Injected, whose video is all over MTV2. That’s gotta feel good.
Now Butch is signed to Arista Records and has just released an amazing solo record called Left of Self-Centered. And that shit totally rocks. If you’ve never heard Butch’s music before, I could describe it as Cheap Trick’s “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” meets The Raspberries’ “Go All the Way.” Like Def Leppard with extra sugar on top. Like the Milk & Cookies version of Nikki Sixx who can sing like Freddie Mercury when the mood takes him — you know, if there could be such a thing. Butch once referred to the Marvelous 3 as “The Rock Epiphany of the New Millennium.” He was joking at the time, but he was also kind of right. Left of Self-Centered picks up where Ready Sex Go left off. Butch is also totally hilarious, and very, very cute. That always makes for a good interview when I’m the one running the show.
I don’t think you could have come up with a more right on lampoon of the current state of rock radio than the lead track on Left of Self-Centered, which is “Rock Vocal Power.”
How did you come up with that bit?
Well basically — as I’m calling from a radio station phone in Salt Lake City right now — it’s not that I hate everything that’s popular today, I just think it’s kind of funny. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up on all kinds of music, and to see so many trends and changes come and go, that to me, being 32 years old, this is just another chapter in the rock book of things that are popular and things that get worn out, things that just become silly — that sound silly — and people that end up wanting to sound like other bands so badly, just to make a buck. It just gets funny to me, so I kind of just wanted to… I’ve always laughed with my friends while getting drunk at a bar about how I’m going to recreate one of those Rock Instructional Audio courses, like from the ’80s, that you could buy in the back of Cream or Circus magazine, and just call out all the currents trend of singing and posturing and all that. Of course, not without taking the piss out of myself, too, because if anybody takes that seriously, then they’ve got a problem.
Well, as soon as I heard it, it totally reminded me of the stuff on this classic National Lampoon album from the ’60s or ’70s called Radio Dinner. Do you know it?
Wow, no I haven’t heard that, but that sounds funny. I’ll talk to my sisters and see if they’ve heard of it because they’re my muses.
Now that you’re doing your solo thing, I guess the obvious question is, how does working as a solo artist allow you to do something that you couldn’t do within the framework of Marvelous 3?
It made sense for me to go in a more of a solo direction. If I’d kept Marvelous 3 together, or kept the name and assembled a new band around the name — since I pretty much did everything in that group anyway — I didn’t want to end up having to live in the shadow of something that I felt was really great. I felt like we were reaching our peak of what we could be and what we could do. We’d played together for so long that, with all respect to them, it was a good thing for me to explore the influences that I grew up on and not be so narrow with the style and the sound that would have to be “The Modern Rock Thing” or the “Pop/punk Rock Thing” or whatever. I just didn’t want to get badgered into that situation. I felt like the best way to really blow it all out on a record and give all my influences up and kind of reflect on all the things that I liked about music growing up — in all genres — was to put it out on a record just under my name, Butch Walker. Then if people got it and they dug it, cool. If they were Marvelous 3 fans and got it and dug it, cool. If they didn’t, maybe I’m opening up a new can of worms for new people to reach into and enjoy. The main thing is, this is just trying to get people to open their minds to not just going, “Oh, I don’t understand why that song doesn’t sound like the last song.” Why should it? That’s boring, and I get bored listening to records like that.
Yeah, try getting fifty new CDs a week where 45 of them all sound like Creed. That’s boredom distilled.
Another thing that I noticed about the album is that it’s really full of a lot of humor. I mean, there’s humor in most of the songs, and the lyrics of your love songs are romantic but also very sharply barbed and a bit self-deprecating. Do you think that chicks are more likely to go for the funny guy than the seriously overwrought, sensitive guy?
I don’t know, but I guess if I was really trying to win over girls on this record I’d be doing the Kid Rock thing and being like (flawlessly imitates Kid Rock), “Yo, suck my dick!” or whatever, because that mentality seems to — for some reason, I don’t know why — make girls think you’re all [macho]. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I’m wrong, but I think maybe that makes girls think that you’re all confident with yourself and tough and “big guy” and all that. Whereas me, I’ve never really had good luck with ladies, so [laughs] that said, I’m not saying that I’ve had bad times — everybody goes through it — but I think I’m too much of a romantic. I fall for someone so hard usually, when I fall, that it just makes it the backside of the relationship.
Wow, you’re like a girl!
Maybe so, maybe I don’t really have a dick [laughs]. Let me check, hold on, I’ll be right back.
Is humor the way in which you lyrically disguise your self-flagellation, you know, since that kind of thing is so popular right now?
[Laughs] Probably. I mean, I’ve always had a good time and had a fun time being the joker at the party and just being a cut up and all that. So, when it comes down to combining that with art and combining that in a song, it’s just an instant reflex for my tongue going right into my cheek and writing things down that are thoughts that I express with my friends at the bar. Instead of going, “Well, I can’t write that, I need to write [Flawlessly imitates Scott Stapp, sings] “With arms wide open.” I listen to those lyrics and those are the lyrics that make me laugh. Maybe that’s wrong, because I understand that a lot of people get into that and they relate to it, and that’s cool. I mean, it sounds like nursery rhymes with leather pants on, but I want my music to be what makes people go, “Wow, that’s the kind of shit that I think about every day, but would be afraid to express in a song.” And [I like] storytelling, you know? To me that’s just fun.
On “Rock Vocal Power” and “Get Stupid With You,” you show a serious gift for vocal mimicry. Is that something you did a lot of as a kid?
Totally, I’m the guy that everybody gets drunk and goes [adopts high voice] “Do it again Butch! Do it again! Do the imitation of so-and-so!” That’s just me. I think it’s some sort of weird aspect of having a photographic memory, where if hear somebody I pick up on their quirks or their eye blinking or their inflection when they talk or their accent, and it just makes me want to… imitate them, if it’s something that’s really out of control. This is from growing up with a bunch of brats. You know, I grew up in a neighborhood full of shitheads and we all just made fun of each other all the time.
One of the things that I love about your voice is that it’s very unique, but also, you can really sing. The only vocalists I could pull up from the memory bank that you might sound somewhat similar to is Eric Carmen from The Raspberries, or the guy from Badfinger.
That’s fine with me, I love all that stuff. I grew up on ’70s and ’80s pop, rock, AM Gold, everything. So, I’m all about it. I’ll be the first to admit that everything I do is some sort of subconscious rip off of something else. You just can’t deny it. You have to make sure that you don’t deny it, when similarities to other songs pop up, you have to be “Oh absolutely, are you kidding me? I definitely [laughs] pulled that from somewhere, I just don’t remember who,” because when you grew up on so much radio, there’s a lot of melody stuck in your head. It’s easy when you’re a songwriter — if you’re not rapping, [where] there’s no melody involved, which is sometimes the easy way out. If you do a melody everyone’s going to go, “Oh, that sounds like something else,” because there’s only 12 notes, bro. They’ve all been used. That’s one thing all the dinosaur rock bands have on all of us is they’ve used every one of those melodies. But yeah, I tend to pull stuff that, a month later I’ll go, “Dammit, that’s a lyric from a song from the ’70s.”
The song “Sober” has what I think is one of your best vocal performances. What’s the story behind that song?
That’s a song about having to come to terms with… at first I started writing it about a relationship and how my own personal battles with alcohol over the years have caused me to stay numb to other people’s feelings. It’s like when you wake up from doing something really bad when you’re fucked up and then you go, “Oh god, what did I do? Did I hurt that person’s feelings? Did I hurt myself?” I realized that something happened to me when my band broke up and I had to deal with band members, with personal issues, that I just said, this song could really relate to pretty much everybody that’s ever had to deal with someone hurting them from either alcohol or drugs or whatever. Or [it could be about] having some sort of issue that caused pain and hurt in the other person, and the you wake up from it and you realize you’re too late and you don’t really know what you’ve had until you’ve lost it. That’s kind of what that song is about. I think it’s my most bittersweet song on the record, for sure.
That’s probably why it came out best.
I would hope so, yes, thank you.
What’s up with this fun hidden track, “Get Stupid With You”?
That’s my R Kelly tribute. That’s my take on really cheesy, nasty, crappy R&B. Actually that’s something I just did in the studio, drunk, if you can tell. You hear at the end of it: I’m wasted, laughing my ass off.
How did Nikki Sixx — my favorite rock star of all time — end up playing bass on your album?
Nikki’s become kind of an older brother to me. He’s just super cool and I found out he was a big Marvelous 3 fan. I contacted him and he was like, “Dude, we’ve gotta hook up and do something sometime!” We ended up hooking up when I went out to LA and we hung out. I said “Come play on my record!” and he was like “I’ll do anything you want!” He came over and laid down a bass track on the record, so it as kind of weird: the guy I had a photo album of when I was in eighth grade, here he is and I’m telling him “Do that again. Naw, do that again.” But it’s cool because at least I’ve had a chance to get to know him first. We have a lot in common obviously, style-wise. I mean, like I said, he’s been the blueprint to rock, for me, for years.
Isn’t he just the raddest guy ever?
I love him.
He’s the coolest though, man. He’s been through a lot and I’ve learned more what not to do from him than what to do.
Anyway, the Nikki Sixx track, “Into The Black,” has this ’80s keyboard feel at the beginning…
Totally. That’s something that, obviously, I can’t deny those influences and I didn’t want people to think that, “Oh well, you sound like you might be influenced by ’80s music.” Fuck you, of course I am! Listen to this. I didn’t want people to be like, “Oh, I don’t know if can pinpoint this.” Well, pinpoint this.
The ’80s are one of the reasons I had to get digital cable, so I could watch We Are the ’80s on VH-1 Classic.
That’s right, without the ’80s we would never have had Duran Duran and the world would be a bad place if we didn’t.
Another good ’80s reference that shows up on the song “Get Down” is “Rockin’ like Dokken,” which reminded me that you’re sort of friendly with the guys who run the Metal-Sludge.com Web site.
Well, they’re really cool. They’re nice to me, they like what I do. They seem to be fans and they don’t like much, from what I gather.
I think that site is hilarious. I wish they would make better use of their spell check function, but other than that, I have no problem with it. And you’re lucky that they like you, because even when they rip on you, they do it in a good way. Like, when they ran the old pictures of South Gang, when you had really long hair and were all glammed out; what are they going to do, just go on and on about how you’re pretty enough to be a girl?
Oh, you are making me blush.
It’s really no secret about how difficult and restrictive it is to try to get your music on the radio these days, so what I wanted to ask you is this: does most of your cash flow come from producing and songwriting?
Um, you know, I can’t lie, I’ve made really good money writing hits, or pseudo-hits, for other people, as well as a couple of songs for myself and producing records for other artists. It’s unfortunate that the artist is the lowest paid person on the totem pole, but that’s why I was like, “Well, fuck it, I’m going to do everything.” But I’m happy to say that I’ve made a living making music and strictly performing music, for the last ten years of my life, since I was in high school. I feel pretty good about the fact that I’ve been able to do that without having to resort to having to completely give up music or play in a cover band, you know? There’s been leaner times, that’s for sure, like when I had to sell ads for Ink 19. But it had to be a music-related job, honey. I can’t work at a record store. They’re all too worried about the next Star Wars sequel and the next Sigur Ros record. They don’t want to talk about fucking rock & roll — real rock.
Do you read The Onion?
I LOVE The Onion.
Did you see that thing they did a while back about “15 Yo La Tengo Fans Killed in Record Store Fire” or whatever it was?
That’s so great… No, All 15 Yo La Tengo Fans… That’s so funny… but it’s so true. You know, there’s good and bad rock, and there’s so much bad indie rock, that anybody that thinks [if a band] has indie packaging, that it must be good, that’s just as closed minded as those who think that anything on the radio is good, or anybody that sounds like Pearl Jam is good. That’s not true.
Everybody does sound like Pearl Jam now, or what I call the sixth generation Xerox copy of Pearl Jam.
That’s what I’m saying. And there’s so many of them that are bad, but it’s such a safety net, you know? I love it when someone says, “You know, I don’t know man, your stuff sounds kind of dated.” And I’m like “Dated? I was rockin’ combat boots and flannel in ’92, bro, and you’re sitting there wearing [laughs] combat boots now.” I mean, there’s nothing wrong with combat boots, but you know, I think it can be hard on you commercially, or on a popular commercial level, when you try to be too ahead of the curve. But if that’s what you like, then that’s what you like. Me, I was over grunge in 1992, so I had to move forward, which can sometimes mean moving way backwards.
How did you hook up with the band Injected?
I saw them in a club here in Atlanta, and they rocked. I was never really impressed by that many local bands, so they kicked my ass and I said “Keep in touch.” The singer called me when I was making the second Marvelous 3 record and said, “I’d love to have you produce some songs for us,” and I said, “Let me see what I can do.” The deal was, I said I would do four songs and then I would help them get a record deal and they said OK. They were already getting a buzz anyway, but it was kind of at the breaking point when I did those four songs, and those ended up going on the record. We didn’t even re-cut them, and then we went in and re-cut the rest of the record after we got them signed to Island. And the rest is history in the making. The record is so good, and the second single is going to really blow up for them, I think.
You’re a pretty good looking guy, why haven’t you done any acting?
Ha ha. Well, I don’t know. I’ve actually turned down a couple of scripts for movies that I didn’t want to do, because I was too busy making music. I think I want wait for the right thing. I think that playing a bad guy in Big Mama’s House or something is not my ideal quest. I’d rather do something really cool and artistic, you know. But who knows, maybe it will be playing a bad guy in a bad Martin Lawrence movie, but until then I’m kind of more into playing music and performing.
I think you should hold out for a role in a really good independent film.
That’s exactly what I want to do. I love acting, though. I haven’t had the chance to do much of it, so I actually would like to do that… if this rock and roll thing never pans out.
What’s the most unusual thing a fan ever did to meet you?
Ohhhhh… Most unusual thing a fan did to meet me. I got a videotape the other day, or a video file on my computer — that’s very Y2K of me — of some kid that is on my street team. He cut his hair and everything and dressed just like me and was imitating me on camera and stuff. It was really bizarre and really scarily and eerily [laughs] remarkably resembling me. And I thought that was kind of funny, and flattering and disturbing all at the same time. So, when I go down to Florida again I’ve got to hook up with him. I was like, yeah, “We’ll do lunch” [laughs].
Don’t let it turn into the male version of Single White Female or anything like that.
No, I don’t want that to happen. The best thing about my fans is that when I get them, they’re fans and they’re definitely fans. They’re not just on the fence.