Butch Walker’s Tense ‘American Love Story’

Calling from his recording studio in Santa Monica, California, Butch Walker sounds upbeat as he describes the good day that he has planned: “I’m down here with my son today. He’s 12 [years old]. He’s been writing a mini musical. I’ve been getting a lot of joy out of that because he brings me a song with lyrics and melody, and I put it to music. We record the track and he sings it, and then he does a video to it. It’s really fun.”

The apple apparently doesn’t fall far from the tree, because on May 8, Walker himself released an ambitious new project – a full-blown concept album, American Love Story. Walker even goes so far as to call it a “rock opera,” though many of the tracks are actually far more accessible than that label might suggest. The ridiculously catchy single “Gridlock,” for example, has a breezy ‘70s AM radio vibe (but with lyrics that examine the hypocrisy and confusion of modern times).

In this age when singles are the focus, it’s highly unusual to expect fans to listen to an entire album in one sitting to get the full effect. Walker knows it’s a hard sell. “As unfashionable as it is, I didn’t care. I wanted make a record that people will have to listen to from beginning to end. I’m old school. I came up listening to records and getting invested in listening from song one to song ten.”

Even as Walker hopes that people will give American Love Story their undivided attention, he recognizes that its themes of racism, homophobia, and socioeconomic status – all wrapped up in a story about a family in turmoil (“not so loosely based on my upbringing,” he says) – make this a challenging listen. “This is probably the hardest record I ever have done. It wasn’t easy subject matter, but it was something I felt I needed to say. I wanted to write about what I was feeling. 

“Clearly, it’s got a lot of trigger points that would turn off certain people – or it would make other people feel passionate about it. It’s very black and white. That’s quite all right. I don’t care about giving people what they want or expect. I’m never going to do that. I think that’s part of the ride, is that I’ve never stuck to making one style of record, nor do I want to, ever. I’m happy when I give my all on a record and I love it and I feel like my quality filter is high. I have to care more about what I think of the record than what other people think when I put it out.”

Even though Walker is confident about American Love Story now, he admits that its inception wasn’t easy. “It became a rock opera just by mistake because I wrote the first few songs a few years ago, and it all happened to be centered around a theme. My manager said, ‘Oh, it sounds like you’re making a rock opera here. Maybe you should do that.’ I was like, ‘Why not?’” But then, Walker says, “I sat on it for two years. I didn’t know if it was ever going to be the right place or time to put it out. I contemplated never putting it out.”

When the pandemic happened, though, “I was just like, ‘You know, this needs to come out.’ There’s a lot of tension, even a lot of it pertaining to the subject matter of the record, so I said, ‘Let’s put this thing out there.’”

American Love Story is the latest chapter in Walker’s remarkably diverse career. Growing up in small-town Georgia, Walker says he was “playing in metal bands and pop funk bands and funk rock bands. I immersed myself in so many different styles of music.” For this, he credits growing up in the pre-Internet era. “All I had was MTV and FM radio. Thank God, because it was such cool, diverse music. I appreciated Duran Duran as much as I appreciated Neil Young. I appreciated Motley Crue as much as I appreciated the Bee Gees or ABBA.” 

Walker’s eclectic taste extended to his own music. First making a name for himself with the glam metal band SouthGang in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, he then switched gears and fronted acclaimed rock band Marvelous 3 (with whom he still sometimes plays). He credits these experiences with helping him expand his musical knowledge even further. “Spending 200 days a year in a van playing shows with five other bands on the bill each night, you’re soaking up so much,” he says. “We were playing all these college towns and going to all these record stores and soaking up all of this underground punk and alternative music. That was so important to me.”

Next, Walker launched a solo career that has found him skipping across multiple genres, spanning everything from pop rock to folk rock. “Some people call that a being chameleon, some people call it worse. They think you’re selling out or they think you’re just being a trend jumper. And by the way,” he adds wryly, “I think if I was a trend jumper, I would have been trying to do whatever Justin Bieber is doing this week.”

But while Walker has become well-known for his adventurous musical output, he admits that he wasn’t always so bold. “My first solo record [2002’s Left of Self-Centered], I was basically doing what my band before that did, because I was scared of losing the fan base that we had built up. Not saying I didn’t back it at the time, but I definitely was hanging onto a little bit of a security blanket.”

Walker expanded his repertoire with his next album, 2004’s Letters. “For my next record, I did a singer-songwriter record because that’s all I had been listening to, was dudes with a guitar and a lot to say. So I channeled all my favorite ‘70s classic singer-songwriter guys.”

From there, Walker has expanded ever further on each of his nine solo albums. Through it all, he has amassed a fiercely loyal fanbase, for whom he is grateful. “It’s a small but mighty audience, and I’m proud of it,” he says.

Walker also thinks he’s managed to have a long career because “I never got big. I think the bigger you get, the harder the fall. My first band back when I was barely out of my teens when we were playing hair metal, it was the biggest blessing in the world that we never had any success because I feel like anybody that got really big [then] has a hard time now being taken seriously. That’s unfortunate that the world likes to label and put things in a box.”

Now, Walker applies this same open-minded approach to his other career as an in-demand producer and songwriter. He worked on several notable pop albums, including Avril Lavigne’s Under My Skin (2004), P!nk’s I’m Not Dead (2006), Katy Perry’s One of the Boys (2008) and, perhaps most famously, played a significant role on Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning 2012 album Red. But he has also worked with artists like Weezer, Pete Yorn, Harry Connick Jr., Fall Out Boy, and dozens of others. Walker clearly relishes this diversity. 

“I love so many different kinds of music, and it gives me great joy to say, ‘Oh yeah, I just did a Green Day record – and I also did a new Jewel record.’ I’m not snobby, I’m not some elitist, that’s for sure. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, if it sounds interesting and it sounds like I would have fun doing it, that’s all that matters.”

Walker has been able to continue his production work during this lockdown, saying that technology makes long-distance collaboration with his clients no problem. But his thoughts are already turning toward what he’ll do when restrictions are lifted, though he is still figuring out how he’ll pull off tour dates to promote American Love Story.

“It felt like the lockdown actually gave me an out because I was worried about going out and doing a normal tour on this record, because it didn’t seem like it would be fitting to play this mixed in with a [regular] show. I have people coming to my shows that want to hear songs dating back 30 years. So it’s a tall order to say, ‘Hey guys, I’m going to sit here and play this brand new record you’re not familiar with from beginning to end, so give me an hour.’ It’s a little weird.” As he figures out how to proceed (and while the lockdown restrictions continue), Walker thinks he’ll probably live-stream a performance of the album. 

But for today, Walker is content to stay in his studio, working with his son. He says goodbye so he can get back to this, his most important project of all. “We’re going to record one of his songs. It’s awesome!”