Butch Walker is a rock & roll lifer. After surviving the twilight years of the Los Angeles hair-metal scene, he reinvented himself as a punky power-popper, landing a hit with the Marvelous 3's self-produced "Freak of the Week." From there, he branched out as a producer for bands across the musical spectrum, racking up a client list that now includes Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and Katy Perry. Meanwhile, he's maintained his own career as a solo artist and road warrior, playing shows to a cult audience of fiercely devoted fans.
On the newest episode of Walking the Floor, Walker, a native of Cartersville, Georgia, and podcast host Chris Shiflett cover the ins and outs of a career that stretches from the pre-grunge glory days of the Sunset Strip to the digitalized present. They talk about early MTV, pre-reunion Kiss and The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, winding up with one of the most extensive interviews in Walking the Floor's catalog. Below, we've note a few highlights and premiere the new episode in its entirety.
Butch Walker's first concert was Kiss in 1977.
"My dad was not happy about going to this concert," says Walker, who'd convinced his entire family to take him to the Kiss show in lieu of a Christmas present. "He was this beer-drinking, outlaw-country-listening, hell-raising, Southern boy to the hilt. A mountain man." At the show, Walker smelled his first whiff of marijuana and witnessed his father – dressed up in a leather blazer, "like Kenny Rogers or something" – choking a Gene Simmons lookalike who'd been spilling beer on the back of his seat. The family eventually left before the encore, not realizing that the band would likely return to the stage. Even so, the young Walker was elated. "I remember it being a pivotal moment in my life, even at 8 years old," he insists. "Most people go through life not knowing what they want to do. I knew at 8 years old."
As a teenager, he was a cover band king.
Originally a drummer, Walker switched to guitar duty after realizing he "didn't like sitting" throughout an entire show. Northern Georgia didn't have much of a music scene at the time, so he began playing cover songs with other music-obsessed teenagers. During his show as a vocalist, he kicked things off with a rendition of Bryan Adams' "Run to You." "That album is all greatest hits," he says of Adams' 1984 smash Reckless. "It's, like, seven singles off that album alone. . .It's good three-chord rock & roll."
When Walker began playing original music, it was with the hair-metal band SouthGang, whose members briefly ruled the roost in late-Eighties L.A.
"We were the last band standing in that scene," Walker says of the Sunset Strip's notorious hair-metal community. "We might have gotten the last bidding-war record deal in that whole entire wave of shit." Signed to a record deal before he was of legal drinking age, Walker found himself co-writing songs with Desmond Child and appearing on MTV, although the band's music never managed to find a real market. "We toured, toured, toured," he remembers. "We went full force. . .and then it didn't do anything. Our video was on Headbangers Ball every Saturday night at 2 in the morning, which wasn't quite enough to recoup the millions of dollars they'd put into it."
Even a highly publicized tour of China couldn't save SouthGang from imploding.
"We got this shitty deal to go play China – to be the first American rock band to tour [there]," Walker explains. "We went over and took the money because we thought it was going to be Beatlemania or something, and it was a disaster. It was one disaster after another for six weeks." There, in a tightly militarized country, Walker and his bandmates found themselves "playing these big arenas to people that spent their whole month's salary for their families to come see an American rock band play, and they weren't allowed on the floor. They had to be seated. They couldn't stand, they couldn't cheer. There were machine guns everything. . . Because it was a communist country, they didn't want [the band] to incite a riot." Later, a riot did ensue during one of the band's Chinese shows, prompting government authorities to take the band to the airport, book them on a return flight and withhold all of their money. The band broke up during the return trip.
As a producer, Walker's influences are as expansive as his own musical background.
"I love Rick Rubin," says Walker. "He set up the template for being able to be a well-rounded producer of all genres." On the other side of the musical spectrum, Walker also loves Prince's production. "You could be a metalhead and love Prince in 1984," he says. "You could be a punker. You could be a country fan and love Prince. The respect level was unanimous, because he wrote it all, he produced it all, he played it all."