Interview: Butch Walker Talks Pop Music, Club vs. Theater Shows and Winning Over Train Fans

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Butch Walker at the Pageant, April 5, 2010. - PHOTO: TODD OWYOUNG
  • Photo: Todd Owyoung
  • Butch Walker at the Pageant, April 5, 2010.

1991 wasn't exactly the best year to launch a career, if you were a head-banging metal guitarist. But that's just the position that a young Butch Walker found himself in when his band, SouthGang, made its heavy metal pilgrimage from Atlanta to L.A. back in the late '80s. The act was quickly signed to a major label just before grunge came along, shrugged its flannel-clad shoulders and extinguished what was left of hair metal. But even though that band didn't exactly catapult Walker to rock guitar glory, he was one of the few with the foresight (and taste) to embrace the changing musical landscape. He quickly started a new band, the Floyds (soon renamed Floyd's Funk Revival) which later morphed into power-pop trio Marvelous 3. That band charted with the indelible single "Freak of the Week" in 1999.

By then, word of Walker's penchant for writing ultra-catchy, smart pop music was spreading like wildfire in the music biz. Even those who don't know his name or anything about his solo output over the past eight years would probably recognize at least a few of the songs he's written or produced, for the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne, Pete Yorn and Weezer.

The loyal followers of Walker's solo output know his virtues as a singer, guitarist and show man. He recently released his latest solo album, I Liked it Better When You Had No Heart, under the name Butch Walker and the Black Widows, and just finished a string of theater dates opening for Train. The RFT caught up with the talkative Walker for a chat just before leaving for his current headlining club tour. He plays the Firebird tonight with Locksley.

Shae Moseley: You just finished a string of dates opening for Train in bigger theaters. Are you looking forward to going back to headlining shows at smaller venues? Butch Walker: Yeah, I'm ready to get back to reality where we're playing to the size of crowd I'm used to, as opposed to being spoiled by the Train tour where we're playing in front of sold-out theaters every night. It was fun though.

Are there things you prefer about smaller club shows? I love playing clubs because the energy level is so insane. We were playing some of these seated theaters on this last tour, which was just so sedate. Especially as the opening band, when it's a pop radio audience who probably don't go to many concerts. They don't know who we are and they probably think we're weird because we have mustaches and play electric guitars and what-not. [laughs] But it is fun for the challenge of winning people over.

Were you able to win people over? We sold a shit-ton of merchandise and CDs every night, so I guess it probably did do some good. That's kind of how we would gauge it. I liked the fact that nobody there really knew who we were. It made us work harder to make an impact, I suppose.

Your career got going back in the early 90's when the face of rock music was very much in flux. How do you think you were able to navigate that changing landscape when so many weren't able to evolve? I'm lucky that the band I was in back then completely tanked, because if we would have been successful, I'd be stuck with some kind of weird stigma. It's like, "What if the guy in Winger was the most credible, badass artist right now and writing the best music of his career?" Nobody would take him seriously because of his past. How do you think working with younger artists as a producer and songwriter has influenced your solo output? I think it's definitely opened my mind. I don't know if I've exactly picked up on a ton of tips as far as how to write songs, but I feel like I've learned some valuable lessons and maybe a couple extra chords here and there, and things that have definitely made my life a little more interesting over time. You just have to keep your ego in check and make sure not to let yourself think that you're the shit and you know everything. I'm certainly still learning every day.

What kind of things can you do as a solo artist that you can't get away with as a producer of more pop-oriented stuff? The big thing is that when you're decidedly making a pop record, there are a lot of things that you just can't do in that world, which is sad but it comes with the territory. Do those records end up selling potentially hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more than a really cool indie record? Yes. But does it stink sometimes? Yes. I try to dodge those bullets as much as I can when I'm making a pop record, and try to make it about the song -- but who am I to be this egotistical asshole and say that I'm too snobby for that? Look, if I worked at Starbucks, I wouldn't make people's coffee drinks differently just to please me. I would probably make them the way they want them, or I would get fired.

Some people in your position might try to make more out of it than that. Yeah, I don't think there's any way to really cover it up. It is what it is. I'm not going to apologize for the fact that I have a kick-ass day job where I get to make guilty pleasures for people. But I'm also not going to try to push the boundaries on that music too much. I get to explore other sonic territory all the time with other projects.

Sounds like you're able to compartmentalize then? Yeah. There's good and bad music in all genres. There's great pop music that I get a total kick out of listening to or even having the pleasure of writing or producing, but I don't base my whole vocabulary on that. I think I would probably dry up as an artist if I did. There's just a ton of great music that the masses will never hear and never buy but that's okay. I don't mind keeping it as our own little outlet for inspiration.

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