Q&A: Butch Walker

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Butch Walker on being one of today’s most in-demand producers, his new documentary, and working with Taylor Swift

Butch Walker is a man of many lives. A native of Georgia, Walker’s first iteration was as a guitarist for SouthGang, a hair metal band during the genre’s heyday in the late 80s. Later, he transitioned into the late 90’s rock band Marvelous 3, and is currently a successful solo artist with a diehard following and variety of critically acclaimed records under his belt.  On top of all of that, Walker has effortlessly slid into a career writing and producing for other artists, working with the likes of Pink, Gavin DeGraw, Weezer, and Avril Lavigne — just to name a few. Hot on the heels of a brand new documentary all about his life called Out of Focus and his new EP Peachtree Battle  (both available on iTunes now), Walker took some time out from recording to chat about his producing career, the downside of the music industry, and how being a father inherently changed him.

Right now, “Everything Has Changed” (Butch’s song he produced for Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran), and “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)” (his track with Fall Out Boy) are burning up the charts. Those are two totally, wildly different song. How do you get involved with these artists?

I’m pretty proud of the fact that most everything I’ve ever worked on came to me from the artist because they enjoyed something I did personally as an artist. I like that because I’m not about going to parties, pointing fingers and acting like a douchebag telling people, “You gotta work with me! I’m the best!” It’s just not in my nature to sell myself in that way. Taylor Swift knew of my own stuff, and liked what I did for other people too. She actually saw a cover I had done differently of a song of hers.

What song was that?

“You Belong With Me.” She hit me up and said, “I love your version better than the one on the record, and I wonder if you can come play it with me on the Grammys?” And I was like, “Sure!” I like embracing things outside the box like that. It turned out great because she’s a really pleasant person to work with, and is a talented pop artist. When it was time to put together her record (”Red”), she called and asked if I wanted to produce a song for it, so I agreed. That process is way better than having my manager call 50 people a day begging for me to work on stuff no matter who the artist is. It happens more organically than that, which I like… I’m very fortunate to say we turn down 95 percent of the stuff we get asked to do, because I don’t want to make it a job.

It’s funny, because I know you consider working on music for other people a “day job,” but at the same time you’re such an accomplished artist in your own right. How did you transition, and now balance, both careers?

I never really thought that working with other artists was something that was going to do well for me. At first I thought that I’m a touring and recording artist, and that’s just what I do. I didn’t want to go behind a desk and make a job out of it for somebody. I still to this day try to take it very casually; I’m very laid-back about it. So when I started getting calls to do that, I thought about it and figured I may as well try it. It seemed a little bizarre, to get in a room an try to write a song for somebody else, because I had never done that before. However, when you produce or write a song for somebody else to go out with it, I found it was great because it was less about the political side of music. I don’t like to bad mouth these days as much as I used to, but the industry is kind of gross to me in a way. I don’t like having to go out and do a pie-eating contest for some radio station and then have to go to the record label and perform three songs for a bunch of disinterested interns eating donuts and drinking coffee. To me, that’s the not-so-glamorous side of making music. There’s a lot of that behind the scenes you don’t know about which you have to do to get a song out there, be a hit, and stay relevant. At a certain point, it didn’t feel like it was about the music and creating something anymore, rather it was about exploiting something. So I liked the idea of creating for someone else and it still being beneficial to me without having to go out and do all that.

A few weeks ago was an unofficial Butch Walker Day in New York City for me. I saw your documentary, Out of Focus, which was great, and then directly after went to your show at the Highline Ballroom, which was great as well.

Cool! That’s awesome.

What I realized is that I couldn’t pin down the type of music you put out… what do you define it as? Pop, rock, alternative?

Well, it changes all the time. I guess I don’t know what to call it… You could say it’s rock and roll, but then everybody paints a certain picture and a certain sound of rock and roll. If you say it’s pop, they paint a certain picture of that too. So I don’t really know what to call it, but I suspect it’s all a form of pop music. I like to write songs that tell stories and have melody and I’m certainly not into jamming for 10 minutes on a song, or being experimental. So yeah, if pop wasn’t such a bad word these days, I’d say it was pop. Though when you talk about pop music today, everyone thinks of artists like Britney Spears or Katy Perry, but to me the Beatles were just as much as a pop band too. I mean, they weren’t a rock or country band… So, I suppose it’s not really wanting to be a certain thing but to be a little bit of everything. I like that, because I grew up on a little bit of every kind of music and appreciate all aspects of it. I’m terrible on answering that question, because I can just go for days on what I love about all genres and maybe that’s why my stuff sounds like such a mutt.

Right. I think that’s a huge strength for songwriter and producer; to be schooled in and have a passion for so many genres. You say in the documentary, “There’s good pop and there’s bad pop,” and I think that’s so true. Like you mentioned, “pop” gets a bad rep.

Certainly. It certainly does. But that’s because the majority of it that gets played on the radio is so bad. It’s kind of a bummer to be associated with that, but when I write and produce pop for people that are on the radio, I try to at least make it come from a better place… I don’t know if I do, but I try. I can’t write a song about the club, it just doesn’t resonate with me. Hopefully there’s something there with my tracks, even if it’s lighthearted.

Tell me about the genesis of the Out of Focus documentary.

These two guys, Peter Harding and Shane Valdes, came to the studio just to film as sort of an online behind the scenes video of making the record. It was only going to be a little promo piece. They didn’t really know me as an artist, but when they came to one of my shows and saw how I worked after a few days, they sensed there was something special there to go further with. When they asked me about doing the documentary about my career, I said it wasn’t that great of an idea because no one’s going to know who I am, but that’s what they said they liked about it. Basically, it’s about a guy that nobody knows who’s been playing music his whole life. I reluctantly agreed, but after seeing all the interviews they snuck off to do, I saw that it had a lot of candid rawness and it seemed to work. When I first watched it, I thought, “Well, that’s not terrible.” It’s hard to watch a movie about yourself.

Here’s an observation. It seems like throughout your early career trying to break in and be successful, you were actively after fame and make a name for yourself. And now, you are very easygoing about your success and all of these things are coming to you organically. I mean, the biggest artists of the day are knocking on your door. This documentary about yourself wasn’t even your idea. Have you ever made the connection that when you started pulling back a little more that more things started working themselves out?

I think it’s a lesson in once you stop trying so hard and being worried about pleasing others, it does seem to fall into place a little more organically and naturally, I believe.

On the other side of that, I think you have a reputation as a guy who’s very choosey and has a certain pedigree.

Sure, sure. I think more than anything, you want to be selective and life gets shorter as you get older because it’s not worth a lot of the heartache that sometimes goes into making records… I’m fortunate to have done a ton of records back in the day to make ends meet that weren’t necessarily fun to work on, and now I don’t have to do that. But it’s like anything; in business you start in the stock room and that’s not a fun job, but you do it to get in the position of being floor manager or whatever.

 That’s definitely true. Alright, I have one more question for you.  In the documentary your young son is shown, and you talk about how you’ve become a dad. Has that changed your songwriting, and how you think about music, as well as the world in general?

The world, absolutely! [Having a child] affects your life so greatly and opens your heart so much that you love in a bigger way you ever had before because you realize the fragility of life. That being said, you see things in a different way than before you saw kids.  A lot of times, it takes people’s self centered-ness and narcissism away, because suddenly it’s not all about you anymore, it’s about being there for them and raising them right. Then you somehow still want and crave your own success and to stay good and relevant. If anything it gives me drive, for sure. I definitely started writing things from a more introspective point of view I suppose, because then you start reflecting how your parents raised you. All of the sudden on this last record, I was writing a ton of songs about my childhood and my parents, and dealing with my dad’s coming of age and mid-life crisis. I figured maybe that’s a way to parlay that feeling into songwriting that isn’t too Hallmark or too mushy. So I definitely think being a parent has caused me to figure that out.

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