One of pop’s hottest producers likes to play rough—when they let him

By Michael Gallant

Butch Walker’s not only a jack of all musical trades, he’s a master as well. From the producer’s chair, Butch Walker has crafted hit records for everyone from Pink, Fall Out Boy, and Keith Urban to Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry. From the stage and studio, he’s the frontman of Butch Walker and the Black Widows, which has achieved a cult-like following. The 43-year-old Georgia native tours extensively and, not surprisingly, produces his own records, including his latest EP, Peachtree Battle.

“When I do my own records, it’s definitely kind of loose,” says Walker, who favors analog tape but is equally comfortable in the digital realm for high-profile pop gigs. Regardless of platform, the versatile producer strives to maintain a level of grit. “There’s a certain slickness and fun when you hear tracks that are flawlessly tuned, with drums perfectly timed and quantized—and there are those who freak out when they hear something loose or idiosyncratic on a record,” he says. “To them, those elements are wrong. To me, it’s vibe.”

Walker’s taste for vibe has not only led to success onstage and on both sides of the studio glass, but also recently transformed him into an accidental movie star. Walker explains: “These two filmmakers, Peter Harding and Shane Valdes, came into the studio while I was recording The Spade with Black Widows to shoot a little behind-the-scenes material that we could put online. Next thing I know, they wanted to make a movie about me. I thought it sounded like a terrible idea! I’m not Bono or Michael Jackson. Nobody really knows who I am. But they said they wanted to make a movie about somebody who lives and breathes music 24/7. I was reluctant but they never went away.”

The persistence paid off—Butch Walker: Out of Focus premiered last year to packed audiences and critical acclaim at numerous film festivals. Walker spoke with us about adapting to a wide array of artists, bridging the worlds of slick pop and gritty rock, and producing hits for the biggest stars in the business.

Do you know when you’ve nailed a take?

I try to trust my gut more than anything. It sounds a little pompous to say, but whenever something gives me goose bumps, makes my eyes water, or makes my skin tingle, I go by that a lot of times. If it made me feel something inside when I did it, I don’t think there’s anything stopping people who are listening from feeling that as well.

You lean toward old-school for your music.

Being a musician, I grew up listening to Tom Petty and the Beatles. Those records were slick and very well executed in how the music was played and the vocals were sung—there was a little more roughness and attitude that was able to be left in, probably because they didn’t spend years making those records and didn’t have ways to fix things after they were done. I usually don’t do any of that stuff for my own records. I try to stay the hopeless romantic, recording to tape and getting performances on the front end, instead of fixing it in the mix.

What was the biggest challenge producing Peachtree Battle?

Having perspective. My last two records were with my band Black Widows, and that was easier because they’re all accomplished musicians, songwriters and singers. I had tons of feedback, which was a good thing. But when I make my own records, I want them to come from a more personal place. If nobody’s in the room over my shoulder then it’s a lot harder knowing if you’re doing the right thing. Another hard thing that came from Peachtree Battle was that it was originally going to be a full-length album, but I decided midway through to make it an EP instead.


My father passed away. I was writing a bunch of songs about him anyway, because I didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but felt that it would be sooner rather than later. We were best friends and I was dreading it, so I channeled that emotion into writing the songs. I was being precious with them because of the lyrical content, so I would re-record them three or four times to make sure I was doing them justice. When he passed away in the middle of doing the record, I stopped. I had five songs I felt were a cohesive body of work, so I decided it needed to be an EP. I have to say that I’m very proud of it. I listen back and there’s nothing I would change.

Unusual for a producer to say.

I’m not a perfectionist when it comes to making records. I go for things spur of the moment, especially when making pop records. It’s hard not to have that stuff sound so watered down, mechanical and methodical. Some people trip out because I work so fast. I just don’t like to sit and second-guess myself. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s working for me.

Sounds like a rock approach to production.

It’s from years of making records and not having computers to fix things. Also, I love the grittier sides of records, those intimate moments of squeaks in peoples’ voices and guitars getting weird in spots. That roughness isn’t as allowed in the pop world, sadly, but I try to get away with keeping as much of that stuff in the track as possible.

How do you strike that balance for artists like Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry?

They are the slickest and most perfect as far as mistake-free production that I’ve had my hands in when I do pop records. On projects like those, A&R guys and managers will listen to rough mixes and want things fixed that sound honest or normal to me. I’m not listening for the last syllable of a word being a tiny bit out of pitch. I would sometimes even get A&R guys saying, in almost a negative tone, “Are those real drums?” It’s sad that producing pop like that can be seen as a bad thing since so many make tracks on laptops with synthesizer programs and the same drum beats over and over. I try to get away with as much as I can, but I draw a line. If I worked at Starbucks and wanted to make somebody my own version of a latte outside of the protocol of what Starbucks allowed, I’d be fired.

Pop generally lends itself to digital.

It would be stupid to try to record a band that’s on pop radio all the time to tape just to indulge in my own fantasies. Some kid turning on the radio and hearing his pop favorite song isn’t going to say, “Oh man, I like this one because it was recorded on tape.” Plus, it takes a hell of a lot longer to make a record on tape than on Pro Tools.

How was it working with Fall Out Boy?

They came in as a band and set up and tracked that way. That project was a very big combination of live drums and sampled drums, with lots of real, loud guitar amps. There was a lot of good singing and gang vocals—working with them was the most rock ’n’ roll way of making a pop record.

How about Taylor Swift and Pink?

Both Taylor and Pink are super-focused, know what they want, and know how to do it. They’re very accomplished songwriters in worlds where many think their stuff is propped up and written by somebody else. Taylor would send me demos of her singing and playing acoustic guitar into an iPhone. I would take it from there and build a production around it. Pink is the same way—she writes all her lyrics and melodies. She doesn’t play an instrument, but she’s really good at working with music, not just coming in and saying, “Hey, what do you have for me?” I admire that, and I admire the same thing about Taylor.

How did you connect with Keith Urban?

He had heard a record I did for Fall Out Boy and said, “I want that for country.” (laughs) Once he found out that I had co-written and produced it, he called wanting to go to dinner so we could feel each other out, see if it would click. Trying to see if I could apply some of that same landscape from the Fall Out Boy record to his style of music—it sounded like fun and turned out great.

What vocal chain did you use for him?

It all depends on the scenario. I’ve got a $20,000 AKG C24 from the 1950s and I’ve also got a $400 EV RE20 broadcast mic—you can run them through the same signal chain and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. If I’m cutting a singer live in a room with a band, I won’t use a super-dynamic mic like the C24. I’ll use something directional like the RE20, so it cuts out a lot of the bleed and we can actually use the vocal in the final version of the song.

So how did you track Keith’s vocals?

Some singers don’t want to use headphones or track in the control room, and some like to do it in the tracking room—but Keith didn’t mind either way. Sometimes he would stand next to me and sing, and other times, he would go into the big room, turn down the lights, and try to come from a different angle.

What was it like being the subject of Out of Focus

I really didn’t have much to do with it. Once it was all shot and edited, Peter and Shane sent me a cut and I saw that they’d interviewed my family in Georgia and my old bandmates, which I hadn’t known. There were some things said that I had never known but am glad I heard. I thought it was good. They won some awards, all of the screenings sold out, and it’s now up on iTunes and Netflix.

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