This is Your Life: Butch Walker

Laura Studarus

By Laura Studarus

on 10.25.13 in Interviews

Peachtree Battle - EP

Butch Walker

Butch Walker is a covert rock star. Though his name is unlikely to raise more than a quizzical look in the average household, run through a brief list of artists he’s either produced or written with and watch the lights go on: Katy Perry. Fall Out Boy. Taylor Swift. Avril Lavigne.

As an artist, Walker’s CV winds through an even more diverse set of sounds. Although his first outfit to generate public attention was the Marvelous Three, a late-’90s power-pop trio that predated the explosion of the genre by five years, he’s since leaned into the singer/songwriter world. A fan of musical storytellers like Elton John, Billy Joel and Elvis Costello, Walker shifts from folk, to rock, to pop at will — but he never finds himself without a rich narrative.

Laura Studarus joined Walker in his Santa Monica studio to revisit the highs and lows of his musical past.

The Marvelous Three, “The Retail Girl”

The lyrics I was writing on this stuff was very stream of consciousness. I was still single. I had been in a long relationship from the time I was 18, 19. Married her, it went bad, got divorced and started just living — really living. This song in particular was about this girl. I lived in a place called Little Five Points, and there was a girl I was crazy about at the time. She was super mind-blowing. She used to always kind of flirt with me, but I think it was just to sell me clothes. I think that’s what the song was about, the power of flirtation. I’d buy anything from her. It didn’t matter; I would wear anything she told me to wear because she was so striking.

I was still learning how to write songs. I was listening to Elvis Costello and Cheap Trick, the Raspberries and things like that, thinking that was my calling in life, to fall under that category. Those bands were not always about big pop hits — a lot of the songs had super quirky lyrics, and super strange, offbeat subject matter. That’s what that entire record is to me.

Butch Walker, “Diary of a San Fernando Sexx Star”

I was scared of going too far out of my zone. I was scared that I would lose whatever fans I had left, from Marvelous Three days, that I would alienate them if I changed too much. It quit being a concern when I realized that a lot of them left anyway. When you come off of a band that had a marginal radio hit, you realize that a lot of those fans are just radio listeners, not music lovers. When you have a song playing on the radio, your show will be packed. And you, of course, are oblivious, and young and dumb and think that’s not going to ever end. “Oh my god! I’m going to have these people forever!” No matter how good you are live, a lot of those people just aren’t that interested in making you their life, and following you around and coming to your shows every time you come into town on a Monday night.

I don’t think there’s any way I thought this would be a hit song. That’s the thing: You’re writing all these songs. The blessing and curse of a stream-of-consciousness lyric writing is that I write about what I see around me all the time. That doesn’t always apply to trying to write a pop hit. I don’t think I was trying too hard on this record to do that anyway. I think I was more interested in telling stories. This is about that depressing, dark, mid-day, pale, zit-faced, girl leaving a small town. She’s a stripper and a porn star. I always was obsessed with the dark, seedy side of anything. I think being out here in California over the years I saw a lot of that, and got to know some of those people. I wrote a lot about it record after record. This particular song, if you take away the glossy, pop punk production, it’s really just a sad song.

Butch Walker, “When Canyons Ruled the City “

This is another one that’s a metaphor for stereotypes in Hollywood as if they were houses. Each neighborhood had its own type. Beverly Hills had the do-good girl, Laurel Canyon was a dilapidated, popular-in-the-’70s-type place. Silver Lake, at the end, stood there with her nose up in the air, pushing up her horn-rimmed glasses saying, “I don’t fucking care.” In ’06 that was the height of the disenfranchised youth of the east side. Nothing’s impressive.

That was a fun record. It was a fun time for me. I was living in the Hollywood Hills. I was totally the cliché. I was one of the lyrics, basically of this song, living in Beachwood Canyon. My first taste of mailbox money for writing a hit for someone else, and buying a house overlooking the whole city. Deciding that I would make this record that was based on the Ziggy Stardust platform, the upside and downside of the so-called glamorous life of pop stardom. I saw it happening around me, with a lot of people I would work with who where already big pop stars. Then there was me, coming to terms on whether or not I should be one, or try to be one. I never became one. So it’s kinda obsolete anyway. But that’s good. It saved me from a lot of disillusion.

Butch Walker and the Black Widows, “Pretty Melody”

I was definitely going through my Jeff Lynne phase. This song in particular, I had taken up co-writing for the first time in my life with one of my favorite songwriters, Michael Trent, who is one half of Shovels & Rope. I just thought Mike was an unsung hero as far as lyrics go. I had him work on that record. I threw him a bunch of ideas, and he would come back the next day with them finished. This song in particular was one he wrote for me. I loved it. I fell in love with it immediately, even though it wasn’t my initial idea. It didn’t matter; I thought it was a beautiful song. I wanted to make it sound like Roy Orbison meets ELO production.

I like collaborating. I would have never stood for that when I was younger. I was too full of what we like to call “piss and vinegar” in the South. I had too much to prove. I feel like I was still trying to prove too much to the world — that I could do everything and anything, and that I could do it all by myself, and I didn’t need anyone else. Once you get to that point where you go, “OK, I’ve proved it. I’ve done it. I’ve taken the credit long enough for being able to do everything and shut everyone else out long enough,” that’s just a part of growing up. I just didn’t grow up at 21 like some people do. I grew up at 31.

Butch Walker, “Going Back/Going Home”

“Going Back/Going Home” I’m really proud of. It’s probably the first time I wrote an honest, raw record from my perspective. I was always scared to write from my own perspective, because I was scared of exposing too much. I’m referencing a fire in that song, because this is the record that came out of wildfires that took our house and my studio and everything I owned and everything I had collected as a kid.

I was having a hard time writing that record because I was totally complacent. I had finally gotten to the point where excess had kicked in. I had two of everything I ever wanted to buy but couldn’t when I was growing up a poor, struggling musician. I had this giant house in Malibu and this giant studio, a six-month-old baby boy at home. Didn’t know what the hell I was. Didn’t know what I had become. I wasn’t inspired in the least. I was having relationship trouble during that period. It was hard. There was a lot of stress and a lot of expectations, a lot of overhead and all these other things I had never experienced in my life before. Maybe a bit of midlife crisis. I didn’t want to become this complacent singer/songwriter guy that just phoned in music for money for other people, or phoned it in for myself because I didn’t have anything to draw inspiration from.

Everything good came from that fire. Coming from having everything I ever wanted and zero music inspiration, to having one suitcase to my name. I had one acoustic guitar. One suitcase. One change of clothes. I wore those same ripped-up black jeans for a year after that. I never took them off. I think I just appreciated things more. Traveling light was something I hadn’t done in a while. It was awesome to say, “What do you want to do? Do you want to move to Paris?” I had a little money in the bank. That didn’t burn. We could move to Italy. I didn’t even know if I wanted to play music any more. I was that burnt. Then when everything literally burnt, “Oh there’s fucking irony! You’re so burned out that everything around you burned to the ground. What now?” I just realized it was important for me, from that point forward, to really not take anything for granted. Especially music. Especially being able to create it and make it. Walking away from that would be dumb. And selfish. Even if it only brings a few people joy, it brings me joy. I don’t know how to do anything else. At that point I was going to go become a fucking goat farmer, or keep doing music.

Butch Walker “You Belong With Me” (Taylor Swift cover)

I ended up having a night open up where I didn’t have anything to do here, and everywhere I went, that song was haunting me. I’d hear it on the radio, everyday, everywhere. I was new to Taylor Swift. That was the first time I had ever really heard her. I went to record it, and I took my camera phone and just walked around and filmed me recording it, one-man band style. Playing all the instruments on it and putting it together myself.

I put it online. The next morning, I woke up and it had 50,000 views by morning. People were blowing up my phone saying, “Taylor Swift retweeted your song!” How did she see it or hear it? I guess someone sent it to her. She posted a tweet about how she loved it more than her own version. Next thing you know, it has half a million views in over a week. Probably just from her fans alone — I don’t have that many fans. She ended up calling me after DMing me on Twitter. She said, “I love your version of my song. I love it better than the original version. I want to play that version on the Grammys if you don’t mind.” “I don’t mind! It’s your song. You can do it any way you want. I’ll be flattered that you did it the way you did it.” She said, “I know it’s a long shot, but would you want to come play it with me on the Grammys?” I was like; you can check that off the bucket list of the most unlikely propositions ever!

From there, we ended up having a good relationship. She asked on her next record if I could work on some songs. That’s where I ended up getting to produce some songs on her record. I think she was excited to get in the studio and see if we could do something.

Fall Out Boy, “My Songs Know What you Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)”

Sometimes you write something and you’re not writing it for yourself. I could never picture doing this song. It doesn’t fit me at all. But I still love this kind of music. My manager, who also manages Fall Out Boy, played it for them. They were going to do a new record and they didn’t know what they were going to do. They didn’t want to be the same band before. They didn’t want to come back and be the same band. It wouldn’t make any sense. Also, they were different people now. They were kids then, now they’re adults. They have a world of different tastes and influences under their belts from when they were pop-punk kids.

So I got together to talk to them, and they said, “I like that ‘Light it Up’ idea that you’ve got.” I said, “We should figure that out, maybe that can be the blueprint for the new Fall Out Boy.” Sure enough they took the song and reworked it a little bit and rewrote some of the verse lyrics. We made it sound way more like a Fall Out Boy song, but a new version of the band. It became the sonic template for the whole record. I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of them for being so open-minded to that, and moving forward with it and embracing something new.

The hair-metal scream on the track is definitely me. That was one of the first things I did to the track when I sent it to them. They were like, “Whoa, what the fuck is that?” I told them it was time. No one knows hair metal like me.

Butch Walker, “Peachtree Battle”

Every street in Atlanta is called Peachtree. It’s a running joke. There’s a street called Peachtree Battle. I remember it as a teenager. The girl I was dating, I used to have to take Peachtree Battle to get to her house when I would skip out of school and drive to Atlanta. When I taught guitar lessons I would have to take Peachtree Battle Road to get to it. There were a lot of memories of that.

This record was a loose dedication to my father, who passed away a few weeks ago. Poetically, I think, I wrote this song prior to his death, but I knew it was coming. He had lived way past his expiration date. We were still super tight and he was super graceful and carried himself so well, no matter how bad off he was. I ended up getting to spend the last couple of days with my dad before he passed and I played him that song and played him a lot of the new EP. He was coherent enough to give his normal approval. I don’t know if he put together that half the songs were written about him, which is the beauty of it. He was my best friend. So I’m proud of the new record for that.