For those who have followed the career of Bradley “Butch” Walker since the late ’80s, when he was best known as lead guitarist for hair-metal band Byte the Bullet, his current success as a hit-making pop music producer seems both redemptive and a bit bewildering. After all, the odds were against Walker becoming a rock star from the start, given that he grew up in the small town of Cartersville at a time when Atlanta had yet to become the music Mecca it is today.
His first band with high school friends Jayce Fincher and Doug Mitchell, Byte the Bullet (which became known as SouthGang after moving to L.A. to follow in the footsteps of their idols, Mötley Crüe), rose to modest acclaim, releasing two albums on Virgin Records and getting airplay on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball before hair metal went the way of the dodo. They reunited in Floyd’s Funk Revival, which garnered some attention on the Atlanta music scene, but never went anywhere. Finally, they earned serious notoriety under the name Marvelous 3 thanks to the hit single “Freak of the Week,” but a lack of support from their label and numerous interpersonal problems led the trio to go separate ways in 2001.
Ten years later, Butch Walker is arguably among the most respected singer/songwriters in the business, despite the fact that he’s never had another hit single and none of his solo albums has ever charted in the Top 100. Through a combination of tenacity, talent and sheer dumb luck, he’s managed to carve out a remarkable track record as a co-writer/producer for other artists, running the gamut from alternative (Weezer, Hot Hot Heat) and hard rock (Saosin, Sevendust) to Top 40 pop (Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Pink). That success, in turn, has given Walker the creative freedom to release a string of increasingly well-reviewed solo albums.
Now, Walker has released The Spade, his most collaborative album to date with backing band The Black Widows. He’s also about to release a hilarious memoir, Drinking With Strangers: Music Lessons From A Teenage Bullet Belt, which details the many ups and downs he experienced on his long, bumpy journey to the top. We recently sat down with the 41-year-old rocker for a lengthy walk down memory lane, in which he recalled his youth in Cartersville, his struggles on the road to success, and his transition from rock-band frontman to hit-making producer.
How old were you when you first took a serious interest in music?
I think I was around four or five when I started listening to my mom and dad’s records—Creedence Clearwater Revival, Barry White… The record that spoke to me most was Elvis’ Live Via Satellite album. Back then there were no Sony PlayStations, cell phones or Internet, so I’d listen to Elvis on the big Victrola with built-in speakers and look at this picture of him in his crazy, white, sequined outfit, sweating like crazy, with the black hair and sideburns. He was wild! He had a growl to his voice that kind of scared me, but I loved it. Eventually, I ended up getting the back cover of that album tattooed on my arm to commemorate my first memory of music. We moved from Columbus to Cartersville when I was five or six, and my second grade friends were into KISS. It was the late ’70s, KISS was at the height of their popularity with all the makeup and the hair, and my friend brought a KISS album to school. That really did it for me.
When did you start playing in bands?
I started out playing drums, and when I was 11 I played with a group of guys that were my sister’s buddies, who were all three or four years older than me. The bassist, Phil, was like my tastemaker. He had posters all over his walls—Blue Oyster Cult, Queen, The Police, Cheap Trick—with black lights. It was like the movie Dazed and Confused. Walking into his bedroom, it reeked of cover-up spray, but I was too young to know what any of that was. I loved it. Going to his room was like going to a record store for me. At the time, there was only one record store in Cartersville, called Record & Tape World. That’s where I would go whenever Phil would turn me onto something. I would talk my parents into giving me money and I would buy AC/DC, Aerosmith, KISS and Led Zeppelin records. I was really steeped on classic rock, which was new at the time. I remember, I wanted to do “People in Love” by REO Speedwagon and I sang it in rehearsal, but everybody was like “Dude, you can’t sing!”
When did you make the switch to guitar as your main instrument?
I ended up finding my way musically through my guitar teacher in Rome, Georgia. Jerry King was my mentor. He was this amazing guitar player, Berkeley graduate and teacher. His passion for music was unrivaled. I learned everything from him. He made me read books about the music world, and I’d have to transcribe charts every week. We would do these rocking jazz guitar ensembles, with 13 guitar students playing with a drummer and a bassist, jamming on Allman Brothers and Santana. He was very influential for me, because I finally found somebody who could give me a creative outlet in which to learn. I didn’t have anybody to teach me this stuff musically while growing up in Cartersville, but 30 minutes away in Rome was a Mecca! All his students—whiz kid guitar players, drummers and bassists—were my age, and it freaked me out. I didn’t realize that there were was other kids who were into hard rock and could play and sing.
You worked with Jayce Fincher and Mitch McLee for nearly 15 years, first in SouthGang, then as Floyd’s Funk Revival, and finally as Marvelous 3. How did you guys initially come together?
We all met through Jerry and then we started our first band, which eventually became SouthGang. Our singer was taking guitar lessons from Jerry. Shredder [Jayce Fincher] played in a band that was called Oasis, with this drummer [Doug Mitchell] who would become known as Slug. We all changed our names, of course: If Mötley Crüe did it, we had to do it! But we all met through these jazz-rock guitar ensembles that Jerry put together. We thought, this is great, but we should be in a real rock band. We were all smoking dope, drinking and chasing girls as horny young teenagers do. The perfect outlet for us was playing rock ’n’ roll. I would commute every day to Rome. We rehearsed at the Fraternal Order of Policemen’s Lodge, and there was a lot of crazy stuff going on. That’s what fueled my fire to play music, get out of that town and get to L.A., where it was happening at the time. There was no original music scene in Atlanta at the time—you had to play covers. But we wanted to write our own songs, so we left for LA in ’88.
SouthGang was signed to Virgin Records, and Floyd’s Funk Revival (later known as The Floyds) released two albums before calling it quits. Was there ever a point of frustration where you considered giving up the music career aspirations altogether?
I think the adversity just fueled my fire. I had something to prove, and every time I would get so close, it would go away. But I couldn’t ever see myself doing anything else. I would rather have slept on couches and toured, playing wherever someone would let me play for $100 a night, than go back to working a desk job. I did supplemental jobs, like working in music stores part-time, whenever we weren’t touring. I think I found the secret in the idea of being DIY—making our own merchandise, making our own CDs and tapes with J cards from Kinko’s in the back of our van and selling them, keeping up with mailing lists, and doing the whole thing that bands did back before the Internet. I really loved it. I lived and breathed it. Not necessarily the business side of it, but just the lifestyle…
You’d already been in the business 15 years by the time you released your first solo album. What was the biggest adjustment of not being in a band with your buddies from back home?
When I did my own record (2002’s Left Of Self-Centered), there were good and bad reasons for doing it. The negative side was that I had become such a control freak that I couldn’t handle anybody else’s opinions on anything. I knew exactly how I wanted to do things. I felt like if I had to answer to other people, it would never work… and that sucks. Slug and Jayce were the two core people in my life, who I played years of music with, performed over 200 shows a year, and hardly ever spent a day apart. But, with Marvelous 3, we got into a really dark period. We had our brush with success, but it was very fleeting. I was still young enough to be full of piss and vinegar, mad at the world and mad at the Elektra label for neglecting us. I had not been burned enough yet to realize that this was how the business was, and how you have to handle it. We were drinking a lot and being bad to each other, which was mainly my fault. We’re all the closest of friends now, but at that time I think they wanted to kill me and I wanted to kill them.
What was the final straw for Marvelous 3?
It took an implosion, which was Jayce coming to us and saying, “I’ve got a drinking problem. I need to get off the road. I need to leave the band.” I was like, “If there is no you, then there is no band.” We were the Marvelous 3: There were no substitutes for those guys. That’s how it all came to a head, and I had no choice. I wasn’t going to form another band. I played with these guys for 15 years in different incarnations, so I didn’t want to do something else with other people where I had to have a committee. I decided I was going to do my own thing and see what happens. That eventually became where I am today.
How did you make the transition from struggling artist to multi-platinum record producer?
Because of how much we’d toured over the years, by the time I was 30 years old I was burned out. I just couldn’t fathom staying in another hotel room, packing a suitcase, eating crappy food… The romance was gone. I was pretty good in the studio, and I always produced my own records. All these people were calling me to do production or co-writing after “Freak of the Week” became a semi-hit. I didn’t see myself doing that, as I still had delusions of grandeur that I was going to be some big, famous frontman. But when I got burned out on touring and decided I was going to take a break for a few years, that’s when I had the time to focus on working in the studio, and the doors just opened up left and right. After a while, it made me hungry to be an artist and tour again.
What sort of cachet does your success as a producer allow you as an artist? George Clooney talks about how he’ll make one hit for the studios in exchange for the chance to make a movie he’s really passionate about. Is there an element of “I’ll do one for the industry so that I can do one for me?”
I totally believe that! With this little day job I stumbled upon a few years ago, a light bulb went off in my head: I wished I could make the kind of records I wanted to make instead of what I thought I had to make. When I was able to do that, I think my music got better, and that made me feel better. Some people may not agree with that, but that’s OK. I certainly don’t sound like everything that’s on the radio at the moment, and I don’t want to. You give up worrying about how many records you’re going to sell, and that’s when things started getting good for me. My concert attendance started growing without any radio or commercial success, and that feels great. I would rather have that than to have a hit song and no one at my shows, and I see that happen all the time.
How do you feel you’ve progressed as a songwriter with The Spade?
I’m extremely happy about this record because it was my first band collaboration in a long time. On my last record I worked with the Black Widows, but the stuff was written mainly by me, with some lyrics co-written by my buddy Michael Trent. But this record was the first time the whole band came in with their own song ideas, lyrics and melodies, with Mike and I co-writing a lot of the lyrics. I couldn’t have been happier with the things they brought in, and it sounded like a really cohesive record for a band. Everybody has been glowing about the record, and that makes me happy, because I thought that these guys deserved to be heard.
Tell me a little bit about your forthcoming book. What can fans expect from that?
I definitely had to be talked into doing it. The last thing I wanted to do was write a memoir. It’s not like I have all these crazy drug stories like the Chili Peppers or Mötley Crüe. But the publishers really liked my blog and thought that it would make an interesting book. So far, the response has been good, but I’ve got to say that I’m a bit nervous about it. It feels very narcissistic, but at the same time there are some funny stories in there that are just too lengthy to tell in detail in an interview.
What goals do you have for yourself as you move forward from here? How do you see your career as a producer, singer/songwriter, and performer balancing out as you go forward?
I don’t really know. I just hope I get to keep making records for other people. I’m very happy and very lucky that people want me to do that, but at the same time I don’t think I could ever give up making my own music, touring and playing. It is good for my soul, and makes me feel like I’m doing something that I was set out and put on this planet to do. I just love playing music for people, hopefully making them laugh, making them smile, making them cry, or whatever… as long as they feel something.