One of rock music’s most in-demand producers, Georgia-bred Butch Walker has a simple theory he’s applied to every diverse project he’s undertaken.
“You’ve just got to go into it hearing the end of the song before you even start at the beginning, which means that you’ve got to have the foresight and the vision in your head for what it’s going to sound like in the end. And if you can see the artist’s vision before you start, then that’s 50% of the battle right there.”
It’s how he wound up ballooning Bay Area proto-punks Green Day into a Gary-Gliiter-like glam band on “Father of All Motherf——-,” its 2020 release, and pushing studio parameters for acts as diverse as Pink, Train, Weezer, Keith Urban, the Struts, Fall Out Boy and Taylor Swift.
He’s worked on more than 100 albums to date, as well as his own solo releases, such as his new concept album “American Love Story,” released this month.
Walker, 50, has faced one big challenge since leaving Marvelous 3 in 2001: To figure out how to sound like himself and maintain that focus.
“It’s very hard sometimes just to get out of your own way and stop being an artist and start being a producer, and vice-versa,” he says. “It’s like there are two mes, and I want to kill both of them by the end of it.”
But he thinks he’s really hit his stride with the ambitious “Love Story,” even though it runs the sonic gamut from E.L.O. to The Beach Boys and Pablo Cruise and all points in between — the radio classics he grew up listening to in the South, where this rock opera is set.
Opening with “The Singer” (which asks the rhetorical question “Are we having a conversation?”), Walker says, “With every single song on the record, I could tell you what song influenced it, sound-wise.”
Somewhere between his work on Rob Thomas’ 2019 “Chip Tooth Smile” and Adam Lambert’s regal 2020 album “Velvet,” Walker managed to conceive an elaborate Flannery O’Connor-ish storyline that runs through tracks like “Gridlock,” “Blinded By the White,” “Torn in the U.S.A.” and the quiescent closer “Forgot to Say I Love You,” which revolves around four central characters based on Southerners he knew in his youth, as related by a musician narrator.
“You’ve got one guy who’s a white, middle-aged, homophobic racist-bigot,” he says. “He’s mean, but he’s also unpacked a lot of daddy issues from growing up in a house full of hate. The misanthrope has a fateful run-in with the same gay protagonist he used to bully in high school, who winds up saving his life. Then there’s this free-spirited California hippie chick that becomes the love interest of this guy that’s changing, and they have a son who comes out as gay. Then dad really has to deal with his karmic shift in life.”
Of course, Walker could not have predicted the coronavirus crisis, which has kept him, his wife and their son sheltered in place near his Malibu studio, not on their farm in Tennessee. But he sees “American Love Story” as a perfect panacea, with existential metaphors and bearing a subliminal message of hope.
“It has a bittersweet ending, because not everyone lives,” he says. “But what does live is love, unconditional love, and that’s a little life lesson to learn. These days, it’s tough, because we’re in a bumper-sticker nation, where everybody just takes everything at face value and in one general statement. But there’s definitely a way for people to turn things around, and it all starts by just having conversations and not always attacking.”
Keeping open lines of communication is another of Walker’s production techniques. He and Billie Joe Armstrong were constantly texting and phoning song ideas back and forth before Green Day made “Father of All…” Walker says, “I quickly found out that we had the same records, the same exact influences. He’s very much a musicologist and knows every guitar player on every record. So not only was it like, ‘Oh, did we just become best friends?’ But it was also like, ‘OK, let me get a vibe on this demo and send you back a work-in-progress sonic template of how I think it should sound.’”
He laughs, “I really do enjoy it when people give me the keys and let me drive!”