Before he became one of the music industry’s most-coveted producers, Butch Walker was a musician. As a glam rocker, a solo artist, the frontman for Marvelous 3 or playing with his band The Black Widows, Walker has accumulated a deep catalog of material that continues to inspire worldwide adoration. In the past two years, he has sold out a solo headlining tour of the United States and opened for Pink in a sold out tour of the stadiums of Europe. Taylor Swift heard Butch’s cover of her song “You Belong With Me” and was so excited by his re-tooling that she invited him to perform the song with her at the Grammy Awards ceremony (to see Walker’s creative process at work, check out this video and watch it blow up just before the three minute mark).
Walker is currently touring the US with his band The Black Widows in support of their impossibly catchy new album, The Spade. With blistering melodies, smart and catchy lyrics and more hooks than a fisherman’s hat, The Spade lies at the precise intersection of pop and rock, making it one of the year’s most enjoyable releases. This week also sees the release of his memoir, Drinking With Strangers: Music Lessons from a Teenage Bullet Boy.
We were lucky enough to catch Walker as he rolled through middle America to ask him about touring, the music industry and just what the hell a producer really does.
I’m good, man. I’m on a bus heading to Minneapolis.
How’s the midwest swing treating you so far? I see you’ve already sold out Chicago.
Yeah, that’s gonna be fun, man. Chicago’s always been one of my best cities to play and one of the best audiences. I’m really excited. This record (The Spade) has been so fun to play live. You know, we made it to be a live record, to play every song, front to back, and it’s just going over really well. We’re so excited.
So you’re doing the whole new album live? Are you bringing in your older stuff too? What does the set list look like?
Yeah, and then some (laughs). I have like, eight records of shit now, so the set list looks like it’s about three pages long. What I tried to do is differentiate between the band and my solo work. So instead of me trying to get all these guys in the Black Widows to learn a bunch of old songs that they had nothing to do with or don’t feel a connection with, I can just play those by myself. So I’ve been going up on stage before the Black Widows come out to join me and I play lots of old material- things that the old school fans will like and some of the stuff from the first two records. Then the Widows come up on stage and we do primarily stuff off of the last two or three records, because they were all kind of there for that.
How does this current tour with the Black Widows compare with your first couple of tours that you describe in your book, when you played with (Walker’s old glam metal band) SouthGang?
Well, it sucked a lot worse back then. Most of the time I was in a van, touring without any road crew or anything. I definitely now appreciate everything that I have- every accommodation and every luxury. We’re on a tour bus now and we have five crew guys and it makes life a lot easier. Slugging it out playing 200 club shows a year in a van with a trailer, with no one to help you… it’s a lot harder.
It’s funny because I don’t know how any band lived without cell phones (laughs), and GPS and all that. I spent probably three quarters of my touring existence in the pre-cell phone era. No MapQuest, no GPS. Basically just a big atlas book sitting up on the dash, and if you needed to make a call, you had to pull over and use the payphone.
I remember back when pagers came out, it was like the only people who had them were drug dealers and maybe the bands. So we all had pagers, but even if you paged someone or you got paged, you still had to pull over and stop driving and find a payphone so you could make a call with your calling card. We worked a lot harder then!
The music industry was so different back then as well. Do you feel that change out on the road or is it essentially the same experience once you’re out there?
You know, it’s kind of great not having to have a label involved so much. I love being where I’m at now. I’ve always been a self-sustaining machine and I’ve always been very do-it-yourself. That’s been my m.o. since the early 90s. I was able to tour and stop at Kinko’s and make j-cards of our album for our cassettes and then fold them in the backseat while riding down the road, and have them to sell at our shows, and do a mailing list on a piece of paper to gather people’s information to send the mail out, letting them know when we were coming through town again. It was a business.
Then in the late 90s, early 00s, I just exhausted myself being on record labels. I found out that I didn’t need them for that shit because I did it myself. If they’re not going to be able to get your song on a radio station, which is an act of God these days, then they were kind of useless to me. I could do promotion and guerrilla marketing myself. You know, I’ve built up a fan base with a good loyal following and as long as I play and I let them know that I’m playing, hopefully they’re going to come see me. It really helps. It’s been liberating to not have to say, “Oh, I really need to be on Epic Records,” or “I really need to be on Sony.”
Well one aspect of your book that I think will open a lot of eyes both within and outside of the industry is the picture you paint of the role of the independent radio promoter. I mean, that’s depressing stuff.
With that process in place (the use of independent promoters to get radio stations to play singles), how does a good band get recognized?
I find out about new music fifty times a day because of the Internet. I mean, you’re not going to find out about a new and upcoming band at WalMart or Target. They’re gonna be selling a Toby Keith album, or Lil’ Wayne, you know, that’s already selling a gazillion copies. And they could care less about getting behind the little guy anyway.
That being said, there are 50,000 web sites and blogs that you can go to and find out about an exciting new band, and you can then get right into the music and see if it’s legitimate or not- if it’s something that will stand up, where you’ll be interested in hearing more than one song. And that’s the beauty of it.
It used to be that the radio would only give us one song at a time (from a new album), so we had to take our chances when we bought a record. Back then, there was no iTunes to preview a whole record, so you’d buy a record and be severely let down if the only one good song was the one playing on the radio, and you couldn’t get behind the rest of it.
Now it makes you work harder as a band or as an artist, I think, to make every track count, to make every song count, to make every vocal count because everybody can hear everything that you’re doing instantaneously. And all of it. And get it for free.
So I think it’s an exciting and awesome time for bands out there because man, I’ve seen it. I could easily sound jaded because of having to go through the Ice Age of the music business, where you relied only and solely on the label. But now there are only a few bands now that can just come out and their first show is sold out at a big theater or a big club, with kids wall-to-wall buying the twelve different shirt designs they have, and the band only has an EP, or barely finished an album. Vampire Weekend’s first record was like that.
You could look at that two ways, you could say “that sucks- it’s too easy.” But no, it’s exciting and I think it will separate, quickly, the good from the bad.
That ties into another thing you talk about in the book, which is the role of the A&R man. You kind of beat up the A&R man…
Well my apologies… You know, I kind of get a bit edgy about that sometimes.
If that was your experience, then I wouldn’t say any apologies would be necessary.
You’re probably right (chuckles).
Given the process you just described- the ease of finding and the proliferation of new music on the internet, do we need the A&R man anymore?
Well… what do we call A&R in the book- “Alcohol and Restaurants?” We need somebody to pay for the tab. They gotta take us out for a big steak dinner, you know? But I don’t know. A&R’s changed so much now. It’s become kind of crooked. The music business is in such dire straits financially that they’re finding ways to bring the songwriting skills (of the artist) into the mix by taking publishing and trying to get in on co-writing songs for the artist. That’s just not necessary.
And the fact of the matter is that any of the people still working for the big labels, if they’re not getting their band on the radio instantly, which is almost impossible, I mean, getting struck by lightning is probably easier, then what purpose do they have? Because most of the time, they’re all sitting there saying, “well, can you give us another song that sounds like the current hit by so and so?” They’re not willing to take chances because their job’s on the line. Their six-figure salary is on the fucking line.
And hey, there are some good ones. I’d rather it be known and printed that I think there are some really great examples of A&R people still left in the business. Just not as many as there used to be.
You were Rolling Stone magazine’s “Producer of the Year.” I think that there are a lot of readers who are music fans and who have heard the word “producer” without knowing what one does. Can you explain a producer’s job?
The biggest thing is being an extra member of the band. You want to give an objective opinion, but not try to dominate the record with that opinion, and still make an artist sound like them. You want the ideas to be the focal point.
There are several different ways (to produce). Some producers are nothing more than recordists that are engineers, and Steve Albini will call himself that. It’s like “the band’s gonna be the band and I’m just going to record them. I don’t want to be called a producer.” But he’s still a producer. Fuck him- he’s still a producer.
Then you have a guy like Rick Rubin who honestly doesn’t have a technical bone in his body, and doesn’t know the first thing about miking up an instrument or getting EQ and compression in the sound or whatever. He’s more like a guru for these bands. He gets them to stay focused, maintain the direction and do the right thing on every record, and help filter the songs. That can be considered producing as well, so it’s a broad spectrum.
Sometimes I’ll take both of those approaches to records depending on who the artist is. You just have to take it on a case-by-case basis.
Can you give an example of what you feel is a really well-produced album?
Hmm… (AC/DC’s) Back in Black. That and (AC/DC’s) Highway to Hell are two amazing productions. And here’s a guy, (producer) Mutt Lange, who only did a handful of artists in his entire professional career- all huge. Def Leppard, Shania Twain, AC/DC, The Cars… Those records- none of them sounded anything alike. There was nothing similar about those bands. But he knew what each one of those bands needed to sound like and what they needed to do, and either technically or even just philosophically was able to get it there. And they were massive, pivotal records. And I’m just thinking nostalgically, I’m not thinking about modern records. The last Arcade Fire record (The Suburbs), if we want to go modern and hip and new, that record sounds incredible to me. I love the production of that record. It’s honest, it sounds amazing and it really brings you to a personal level, but it sounds epic.
Interesting that you picked AC/DC because you’re an old school metal head, but you’ve made a huge footprint producing pop artists like Katy Perry, Pink and Avril Lavigne. What do you enjoy about producing pop?
You know, I love pop music. I love good music. There’s good and bad in every genre, and I hate bad pop and bad rock. You just have to know. Every once in awhile, I’m going to get thrown an opportunity to make a pop record because the artist has a bigger chance of being successful than say, some obscure indie record. And I have bills to pay (laughs).
I do like doing those pop records, some more than others, but I think that I grew up on so much pop in the 70s and 80s that it’s in my blood to know how to do it and to want to create this big, juicy guilty pleasure for someone. Sometimes it’s not even a guilty pleasure, it’s just straight-up fun pop.
Why ever? Harper Collins hit me up and I said “I don’t need to do a book- I’m boring. I don’t have dope-shooting stories,
sprinkled with six dwarves at one time…. I’m not like the lit major that you think I might be, just because of my blogs.”
But they said “well, we think you’re honest because of your blogs, and if you can somehow tell your story in a 350 page book, then could you give it a shot?”
So I said “well, I’ll try.”
I just didn’t like the idea of talking about myself for 350 pages, but somehow Matt Diehl, the co-writer, was able to help me through it. He’s written books before and I never had. When we were done, it felt cathartic. It was fun to talk about some of the stuff I’d never talked about. Basically it was like a long-form interview, with stuff I don’t normally have the time to mention, and maybe you don’t want me getting into because you’re gonna have a hard time getting out of it…
I was able to carefully put that in the book and people are going to hear some things they’ve never heard and didn’t know. And for some reason, I’m sadistically excited for people to hear it. Nervously and sadistically (laughs).
We like to wrap up our interviews with some Either/Or questions. Ready?
Van Halen or Motley Crue?
Mmmm… Van Halen.
Phrygian or Mixolydian?
I don’t even know what you’re talking about- it just sounds good. (laughs) It’s a guitar scale, right?
Yeah, you mention it in the book.
Yeah, I’m kidding. I was getting into that stuff when I was a teenager, but now I couldn’t even tell you what that looks like on paper. I do recall doing more Phrygian than Mixolydian.
Last one- music industry in 2011 or music industry in 1990?
2011 absolutely. Bring it on.