Few folks' calendars are as consistently loaded as Butch Walker's. There's his own extensive performing past, exemplified by a score of bands and a famously rigorous touring schedule – like a fisherman describing a cherished catch, he recounts "250 shows a year for 10 years straight." Then there are the dozens of songs he's written for other folks to sing. Couple that with all the hours Walker has clocked in the studio producing records for marquee names ranging from Avril Lavigne to Pink, and you start to get the picture: Butch Walker is one busy dude.
His charmingly upbeat new record, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, belies the fact that he is also a polarizing figure. Outspoken and often self-assured to a fault, it sometimes seems he's as keen on making enemies as friends; and he's earned plenty of both. But Georgia-born Walker's musical voyage speaks for itself.
A Cartersville native, Walker trekked to Hollywood in the late '80s as a youngster with a burgeoning lust for rock and roll fame. He played in bands with such cheesy rock and roll names as Bad Boyz and SouthGang. The latter group scored a minor hit with the song "Tainted Angel," a slice of hair-metal mayhem that would nonetheless pave the way for Walker's career.
After SouthGang's demise, Walker moved to Atlanta, inhabiting a Little Five Points apartment "when it was still relatively rough," he boasts via e-mail. When he wasn't touring, he spent most of his time in now-defunct clubs the Point and the Cotton Club, soaking up the music. As he tells it, he would constantly bug whichever clerk was working behind the counter at Criminal Records, asking how to get his music sold in the store. "I would usually ... get a funny look."
Soon, he teamed up with two former SouthGang bandmates, bassist Jayce Fincher and drummer Doug Mitchell. Together they formed a slick pop-rock outfit called Marvelous 3. You might remember their ubiquitous 1998 radio hit "Freak of the Week." All the while, Walker was quickly becoming a go-to guy among songwriters-for-hire. Every act from Weezer to Katy Perry wanted a piece of Walker's talent: a knack for the four-minute pop song.
According to Walker, it was a surprise. "I didn't ever pursue it," he insists. "If you would have asked me if I wanted to produce records for money 10 years ago, I would have said no." Nevertheless, it pursued him. Walker explains that he felt "burned out" from his unrelenting road schedule; but while that aspect of his career broke him down, the music was also what kept him up. He suddenly needed to channel his energy through a different conduit. "The minute I gave up trying to write hits for myself and [started] writing music naturally, I [figured] out how to let that torch burn vicariously through other artists."
For a man with lifelong rock star aspirations, he's found solace with working behind the scenes. "Being a commercial nobody in the touring world has its advantages," he claims, somewhat sardonically. Such as? "No bikini-judging contests for some radio station with a DJ named 'the Lizard' or any shit like that." But Walker is his own shock jock. Blunt and brusque, it's hard to believe he's content being a "nobody."
Surprisingly, though, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, Walker's latest record with his group the Black Widows, is understated and lean. His music seems to have found a certain neatness that it once lacked. I Liked It Better is scrubbed of the bulging excess of his past work. There is something intangibly uplifting about it that's a bit surprising considering recent events in Walker's life. In 2007, a wildfire destroyed his rented Malibu, Calif., home, and with it, all of his master tapes. But it's clear he has rebounded ("I'm fine. Traveling light," he writes). And though it's not groundbreaking, the record is fresh and buoyant enough to merit repeated listens. There's no debating that the guy knows his way around a melody.
There's also no debating that at times, he is confident to an off-putting degree. There's a fine line between pride and arrogance, and Walker is a man on a wire. In a display of either brilliant self-parody or nauseating narcissism, depending on your perspective, he recently helmed a YouTube video with Panic! At The Disco singer Brendon Urie in which Walker, playing himself, lures unsuspecting fans to his house, only to viciously slaughter (Butch-er – get it?) them, American Psycho-style.
Trouble is, sometimes the reality is almost as cruel – albeit with less blood spatter. A recent @butchwalker Twitter post directed at an unhappy showgoer read in part, "[F]uck you. I sang my ass off for you. Go follow someone else if you weren't fucking satisfied. I mean it." When pressed about it, Walker is impenitent. "When people [aren't] happy if I decide to cut two songs from my shows because I'm not feeling well, or the audience are a bunch of dicks, then I don't have to defend my anger."
But Walker's anger also serves to underscore what drives his life and his music: passion. From his earliest days, he has been exuberant about everything he's done. And is that really such a bad thing?
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