For the better part of three decades, Butch Walker has simultaneously been a rising and continuous presence in music-making. From his early days in the late '80s glam metal band SouthGang, to Marvelous 3 in the '90s, as well as numerous releases under his own name and penning hit songs for artists like Taylor Swift and Frank Turner, plus producing albums for a massive list of artists including Pink, Weezer, Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Saosin, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Sevendust, Midtown, The Donnas, and Panic! at the Disco, his career has known many iterations . Earlier this year he released the album American Love Story, a rock opera that tells the loosely autobiographical story of a young man named "Bo" who deals with themes of racial and sexual bigotry, reckoning, and redemption, paired with a walk down a musical memory lane of the '70s and '80s. Butch still prefers to record in one room, handling the engineering, mixing, and musical duties himself, just as he did on his first 4-track in the shack behind his family's home in rural Georgia.
How did you got interested in recording and music?
I was always fascinated as a kid. I was an information junkie. I took in all the album notes and credits. I was obsessed with who did what, and what did it mean when it said, "Produced by," "Engineered by," or "Assistant Engineer." I didn't even know what most of that was. Pre-internet age, when no one was smart about this! Now everyone seems smart, because they can look it up. You had to stumble into it, especially when you were in northern, rural Georgia in a small town. The only music exposure I got was what was on the radio or, after 1981, what was on MTV. [I also relied on] what I read in music magazines, which I was obsessed with. It didn't matter if it was Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, Hit Parader, Creem, Guitar Player, or Modern Drummer; I loved all that. I was able to acquire a little bit of knowledge from those magazines. I saved up my grass-cutting money and bought a 4-track cassette recorder. The first one I had was a Ross 4-track recorder. The "chicken coop" was my parent's antique and crafts place behind our house. My dad was an antiquer and my mom made country crafts, and they had this cool wooden shack built behind the house. It eventually became my playroom, jam room, and make out room; everything as a teenager. I started having band rehearsals there. All I had was some cheap, shitty microphones. I hooked those up and started learning from trial and error. The first time I played back what I recorded, they were all super distorted and crappy. But it was a really cool experience, and a way to learn.
You're a songwriter, a band guy, and a multi-instrumentalist. At what point in your career did you really take a look at things and say, "I'm a producer and engineer"?
Well, I don't know if I ever did. I always grew up admiring people who were able to have their hands in all kinds of cookie jars. Prince was one of my favorites growing up. It was always public knowledge that he was the writer, the composer, produced everything, and played all the instruments. I loved that. I didn't know if I was ever going to hold a candle to what someone like a monster musician and artist like him could do, but I definitely aspired. Todd Rundgren was another one of my favorites who did that. I wanted to learn it all and know how to do it all. I didn't grow up with any money, so I didn't have money to go into a fancy recording studio. Back then it was super expensive. You could spend $2,000 a day, and you might not get shit when you went in on your dime. You had to make sure your inspiration was always hitting. Over time I got it set up myself in my own private spaces. I guess I've always been a producer, but definitely not one everybody knew. That didn't happen until around 1998, when my band [Marvelous 3] had a runaway freak hit single ["Freak of the Week"] on alternative rock radio. It got us a record deal, got us signed, got us a lot of recognition, and had us touring all over. That was something that I had recorded in my bedroom; that opened up the floodgates. I started having labels calling me going, "Who produced that? That sounds great!" I'd say, "Well, I did." They'd say, "Well, who engineered it?" "Me." "Okay, cool. Who played it and wrote it?" After answering that it was all done by one person, I started getting calls asking me to do [the same] for their artists. I started doing production for signed artists and had some success right out of the gate with it, which was awesome. Basically, my own little records that came and went – and didn't really amount to much in the grand scheme of things – paved the way to producing outside records for other people. I'm still doing it now.
Do you only work at your studio, RubyRed Productions, or are you working in other studios?
I don't like playing in other peoples' sandboxes. I did it a lot coming up. Before I was established, and could make records wherever I wanted, a lot of times I'd have to fly to L.A. or New York – when I was living in Atlanta – and work out of places wherever the artist was. It was always hit-or-miss. Sure, the studios were incredible. I got a chance to work in pretty much all the greatest studios in New York and L.A. I'm envious of the build of these places, the vastness of them, and how cool the vibe and the history is; but, at the end of the day, that doesn't fucking matter. I could have the worst musical experience of my life on one of those days, and not only would it be a total waste of money and time for me and the artist, but half the time I didn't feel inspired. It felt disruptive. It didn't feel fluid to me. It felt like it was always a distraction; people coming in and out and watching. I realized growing up, making music by myself in a bedroom or making records in houses and makeshift garages, that that's where I was most comfortable. I spent the time collecting and accumulating the gear. We'd get to the point where I was able to make records that sounded like they were on the radio and ready for mastering, right there in one little room. That's the way that I'm still doing it today. I mean, sure; I've got a pretty elaborate garage, but it is still a garage, my studio here in California. It's just a big fancy modified garage. It's a one-room setup, and I like it that way. All of my toys are always within reach. I can grab something and it's already mic'd up, plugged in, and ready to go.
There's huge value in that, in terms of workflow. What are the pillars of each production that you're doing? Are the songs the most important part for you?
Yes, always. It's probably an overused statement, but the song is the most important thing. I record songs where I'm the only "band" – I'm the guy playing every instrument. Or sometimes it's heavily-programmed and it's one singer doing everything. Then I've got situations where it's a full, live band in the room tracking with no overdubs. A song is what's going to potentially save someone's life one day, not the kick drum sound. Most people would like to think in a bigger picture about how they're working. If they have an album full of incredible sounds but lame songs, then what's the point?
Do you do much pre-production outside of the studio, or do you hit the ground running with the artist working in the studio?
I used to do a lot of preproduction, especially when we were still on tape and I really needed to "see" the end of the tunnel before I started making the record. If I didn't, there was a lot that could go wrong. Now, with technology on our side and most people being in DAWs and working in Pro Tools and whatever, I've changed the workflow a little bit, and most other people have too. Instead of sitting in a rehearsal room and working out kick drum patterns with a drummer, with everybody playing at once... I'm not saying that it's not important; you can do that with great results. But I find that if I have everybody here in the room mic'd up and we're going, the pre-production is usually getting done as we're going. It goes in tandem with the actual production. Let's say it's a live band set up in the room, everybody's playing, and I'm tracking it at the same time. If we get it, which a lot of times you do when you're not thinking about it, then we got it. But if we're like, "That pattern isn't working on the snare or the kick drum," or, "That pattern on the bass is not working," then we can sit there and do it all together. I find that there's a freshness and a fire in the tracking when I do it that way. Anyone who's way too rehearsed on a song sounds more phoned-in to me when I finally go to record it, because you're too comfortable with it. I don't always make records that sound like this, but most of my favorite records were where they recorded ten songs in one day. They went with the first take and nobody knew the songs. Like old Motown records; the session guys came in [and generally] had never heard the song before. They hadn't practiced the song at home. They heard the song for the first time, worked it up together, and then, boom, they recorded it as a band right then and there. There's something exciting about that. They might not be perfect, but perfect is boring. That's why I try my best not to over-abuse the tools of digital, where you can make people like me an incredible drummer when I'm not, just by clicking one button and putting every single kick and snare on the grid and on the beat, or take a singer and make every single syllable in perfect pitch. I don't love the way that sounds. I certainly don't like it, and fight artists who want it. A lot of times now, everybody wants it. You've got to be a little cautious if you want it to have any character at all.
With a band like Green Day [Father of All Motherfuckers], did you have a conversation beforehand about how you wanted to work? I can see that being a challenge with some bands that are super-established. They've gotta buy in.
A lot of my pre-production is having a lengthy conversation of, "Okay, here's how I like to work. Are you open to arrangement ideas? Are you okay with me being an extra band member in the room?" That's what I like to act like; I'm an auxiliary band guy. A lot of that you can find out from the get-go, and that's important to get out of the way. With Green Day, with Billie [Joe Armstrong], he was excited. He was stoked; he liked the records that I'd made. Especially the ones that I did on my own, so he was a fan of the production element. I was a huge Green Day fan, so I felt like, "Let's make something fresh." He was already to that point. He was a little burned out on making and producing the band's records for the last decade by himself, basically. It was perfect timing to come in and have him say, "I'm open to anything." It was great. We ended up getting a different dimension of Green Day, and it worked. We got a number one album out of it. I'm pretty happy.
That speaks to the value of collaboration. A lot of younger artists say that they're open to collaboration, but, when it comes down to it, they want to put their arms around it and claim it as their own.
We've all loved listening to this record and playing it back, because it was a collaborative experience. I'm as proud of what I did on it as they're as proud of what they did on it. That does make for a great experience when you're making a record. I have a lot I won't listen to anymore, because making the album was such a dreadful experience!
Yikes, yeah. What are some questions you don't get asked in interviews, but wish you did?
"What's the daily routine? What's the schedule like? What do you do before you come in? What do you do after?" There's always a question about the process, but that's usually more technical.
So, what are your days like?
I get up, usually at about 6 a.m. I get up with my kid, we make breakfast, and he gets ready for school. He's 12, so we can the shoot shit for a little bit. I'll get out the door after he starts school around 8 a.m. – right now, he's doing video school. I have the luxury of being able to go to the studio every day and work in isolation. I have at least four shots of espresso, listen to some music, work on my shitty 50-year-old lower back, do some stretches, and, if I'm feeling adventurous, I get on my bike and try to get my blood pumping a little bit. The normal routine, pre-pandemic, would be everybody I'm working with – if they're coming into the studio at all – they're rolling in by noon. I do a lot of work between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. to the songs I've been working on the day before; the most important part of the day for me. I'm alone, my mind is busy, it's working, it's racing, but it's focused on what I'm doing. I tend to experiment more and get the track more realized when I'm alone; modeling, shaping, and forming the song. When everybody gets in at noon, I can press playback and they'll hear something that's as close to done as possible. Then it's the face-to-face hours, where we'll record from noon until five or six. Not grueling hours, but I get a lot done. I tell everybody to come in and be ready to go, and to have already had lunch. So much downtime always frustrated me when I was on the other end of the glass, growing up and making records with producers. It always bugged me if it was a two-hour lunch break. I would be like, "What the fuck! I've got all these ideas in my head. I want to work and can't stop obsessing about making music." Distractions and downtime do nothing but dilute inspiration. That's the most creative part of the day for me, and for a lot of other people. Work in between the meals; from noon until dinnertime. I'll go home after that. Nothing after dinner for me. Never. I'll take the track, put it in the car and listen on the way home, and get a better perspective outside of the studio. My drive home is easily 30 minutes to an hour, depending how Los Angeles traffic is. My studio in Tennessee is at my home, so I don't have to drive. The one here is all part of this routine that is really helpful and productive to the record-making process. Then I get home and I can have dinner with my family. I can talk to my wife about the day, go to bed, and then get up and do it all over again. I don't work on weekends. It's Monday through Friday, and I love it that way.
So many people getting into the business work themselves 15 hours a day, but as you get older, the balance part of life becomes important.
I did that in my younger years; my single years. When I had a studio at home, I'd fall asleep in my fucking robe making records. It'd be five in the morning, or I'd see the sun come up. That was part of putting in the 10,000 hours, which I'll never regret. That afforded me the knowledge in life to be able to work almost regular office hours now, and have my weekends off to spend with my kids. A lot of that work I did when I was younger, working that long was just ambition, trial and error, curiosity, and having the energy and the strength of a 22-year-old to burn. But I realized that my best work did not happen bleary-eyed late at night. It happened during the day, when my brain was fluid.
You released a rock opera, American Love Story, this year. I listened to that and watched the accompanying short film. I'm guessing we're about the same age; I'm 50. I listened to it and I felt like, "Oh, there's a Thin Lizzy moment, a Billy Joel Glass Houses bit," or, "That reminds me of Mike Campbell with Don Henley." I love the musical references, but it also really grabbed me lyrically.
I appreciate that too. I'm glad you got it. You nailed the references right on the head. That's exactly a lot of the references that are there. Obviously, a lot of my influences as well. I was a rural Georgia country kid growing up with only access to music of what was getting played on the radio or MTV. Late '70s and early '80s were very formative years for me, and also the time that the story in my record reflects. Probably yours too, because we're the same age. With that being said, it's absolutely a walk through time, by design. I didn't want to make this modern-sounding. The whole idea was to give you the feel. It was my whole plan to give it the space, sonically, of those moments. I loved doing it because it was so fun to explore those recording techniques, styles, and sounds. I love that shit. It's in my DNA.
Why did you feel it was important to tell this story?
Growing up with a lot of that [racism] in my trajectory, that subject matter, and also being a byproduct of it [was something I wanted to address]. Being complicit sometimes, and also that shit being normalized to me growing up in a small town in the South; and then when there was the  Charlottesville riots, not that that had ever gone away. Over time, throughout my years, I've seen lots of bad shit happen on the news due to racial and bigoted behavior; hate crimes and news like that. From all walks of life and all cultures and ethnicities. But it broke my heart in two when I saw the Charlottesville riots, because I felt like we stepped back to 1950, or even 1980. I never had the blinders on where I didn't see it out there. But it made it more apparent. Obviously, at the risk of coming off as partisan here, a lot of it was due to the enabling of this behavior by this current administration. Having actual white supremacists and bigots endorsing this President proudly? I couldn't sleep. When you're coming to write a record, you start to get that itch for that next thing to get that creative juice flowing. You're coming up with lyrics and melodies. I couldn't write about anything else. I had nothing to say about love or relationship songs, or anything like that. The first few songs were all those situations. I sent some of the demos to my manager, and he said, "It sounds like you're making a rock opera or a concept record." I thought, "Oh, I am? It's not what I set out to do, but I guess I will now!" That's what I did. I decided, "I'm going to make a story, and it's going to be based loosely on characters I knew growing up, as well as based on myself." Then I sat on it for two years. I did it and then I was like, "Okay, I'm done. I can't put this out. I gotta think about this." Maybe, at the time, I was a little too scared of it coming off as divisive. Even though it's not that kind of record at all. If you know the story, and you listen to it all the way through, it's got a silver lining and a happy ending. But we live in a bumper sticker society that's triggered immediately by three words, and nobody takes the time to invest in the story. It's all about a headline. I was a little worried about putting it out. We went through a bunch of shit; a second fire out at our home when half of California burned a year and a half ago, and we lost almost all of our property. Life hit hard. Then, the fucking pandemic! That actually gave me the confidence to finally put this out. Everybody was canceling tours, because they had to. Everybody was canceling release of records. I thought, "Everybody's dying for music right now, and probably having a lot of pent-up aggression, and thoughts, and frustration." Not only about the pandemic, but also about social divide. This whole record was to spark a conversation. I thought, "Okay, fuck it. Let's put this out right now." I was worried it would be the opposite reaction from everyone when it came out. Luckily, people seem to understand it. [This interview was conducted before the George Floyd arrest and ensuing protests. -ed.]
In your interviews, all the way back to SouthGang, you really seem like the same guy to me. You seem to genuinely enjoy this job and are grateful for it.
Well, thank you. I am. There are so many people I grew up with who either tried and didn't have any success, or had lots of success and are now not doing it anymore. I thought I'd burn out a long time ago, because I figured that's just what happens after you've either said all you had to say, or you're not inspired. I've had enough life happen along the way that it strangely rekindled the spark when the flame would burn out. I'm really grateful that I get to still make a living making music. Being able to make a living in music is like finding a fucking unicorn in the woods. Believe me, I didn't [have that] for the first half of my life. I didn't have a dime until I was about 30. Then I lost those dimes and had to make them back. But it's the best job in the world, because it's fucking music, and it's amazing. I get inspired every time somebody comes into the studio with a song that I'm like, "Wow, you wrote that?"
In your documentary, Out of Focus, you have that moment with your bass player where he had a suggestion about one of your tunes. After a little scuffle, you conceded and met him halfway. What about personalities and dynamics in the studio, when you're working with a band, or even an artist one on one?
That was funny, because that was Jake [Sinclair] who was my engineer for six years and my best friend. We are still super tight, and he's one of the most incredible musicians and talents in the studio. Yeah, he was a pain in the ass with his opinions, and that's okay. Sometimes it takes a very strong opinion to make you better, as opposed to everybody being yes men. You can't get an honest outlook when everybody around you is telling you, "Everything's great." Sure, it's opinions, and a lot of times they're wrong and I'm right. [laughter] But there are so many things that I can overlook – [it's easy to] get caught up in your own little vortex of self-doubt, spin your wheels, and not really get anywhere. I feel like no matter how tense it might get, it always lights a fire under my ass and I always walk away learning something from it, no matter what it is. That's a battle I choose to risk being brought to the table, by letting people work as a collaborative effort. If you want to be a solo artist your whole life but not have a band give you input or opinions, that's your call. I've chosen most of my life to do that, but I've been in bands long enough to know that sometimes that fight can be productive. You're referring to when I had [Butch Walker] The Black Widows together, and we made those records. That was a conscious effort on my part to bring in these guys who were my friends. I respected their own musical endeavors, to be equal input and equal say on what happened to the song, the way this album was produced, and everything. I loved it, even though, like I said, there were some opinionated motherfuckers in that group! But I'm glad; I came from being one, so that's not a problem! You learn a lot from it, if you don't let it eat you inside and let your ego take over.
When you're working with somebody who comes in with songs, how much of what happens is Butch, and how much is the artist?
I feel the person out if I don't already know, through and through, what their capabilities are and what their goal is. I feel like I'm equal parts extra band member and also like everybody is bringing something in. But the other part of me is the guy who likes to sit alone in the studio with the tracks and be the band, which I am on a lot of records. It's cathartic for me, and I love it, and sometimes artists don't have any desire to contribute to that part of the skill set. That's okay. But pushing them to get great results at what their strengths are? Absolutely. If it's a singer who sings their ass off and they phone it in, then sometimes you gotta tell them, "You can do this so much better."
One of the most sensitive areas for a lot of singers are their lyrics. How do you navigate that if there are changes you want to make? Sometimes digging into lyrics has the potential for people to get a little more defensive.
Yeah, protective is a better word.
I understand it, and I respect it; but I also try to go into a project knowing I'm at least going to be able to have some say in helping out with that, or to be a believer in their ability as a lyricist to change it and make it better themselves. I try not to work with too many artists who need a lot of help in the lyric department. If they do, that's talked about on the front-end. But I have been in some situations where I thought it was going to be collaborative and copacetic, and then I get in there and all of a sudden they get really precious, insecure, clamp down, and don't want to hear any ideas. At that point, I'm just a knob jockey, and that's not my strong suit. I'm not going to sit there and be like, "How does this sound for you?" And then after they do a vocal say, "Sounds great! You're amazing!" That's not going to behoove anybody, especially me. I'll end up hating my job. I've had to bail on some records, or decline second opportunities, because of that kind of shit; people thinking that nothing they do is ever broken.
It's also encouraging to hear that you still run into that occasionally, even at your level of success and the people you're working with. I guess that's just humans.
It is! You never know. You could get some young band, and some kid who's 20 and thinks his shit doesn't stink and hasn't experienced failure yet. I've dealt with that many, many times. I stop myself from yelling at them. "I remember my first record deal." That's what you want to say to them, but I try not to. I get it. That's not going to help anybody. But, like I said, I pick and choose my projects based on whether I feel like I have a lot to offer, as well as whether or not it's something we'll have fun doing and have no egos involved.