Early this decade, a total spazz with buzzed hair, makeup and a crazed look in his eye ripped through a medley of Queen tunes, including an outrageous pop-punk audience-participation version of "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's safe to say Station Square's Hard Rock Café had never seen anything quite like former Marvelous 3 frontman Butch Walker and his band -- if for no other reason than that it was the venue's grand opening.
Fast-forward to 2009. Walker's music has grown more nuanced, and he's followed up 2002's Left of Self-Centered with first the glam-inflected The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's Go Out Tonites and now the introspective Sycamore Meadows. He's also grown quite successful as a pop producer -- think Katy Perry, Avril, Pink, The Academy Is and so on. As he speaks with City Paper from Minneapolis, on a day off from touring, he's working on Dashboard Confessional tracks in his hotel room.
"I've been really working my butt off for years to be this sustaining artist," says Walker, who first hit the road with a band in his teens. "And as fate would have it, I can't go to a party in New York or L.A. or go to an event or anything without being introduced as 'Oh, this is Butch Walker -- he's a producer.'" He laughs. "And it's really strange, 'cause then you just don't want to get into the awkwardness of going, 'Oh yeah, I am, but I'm also an artist,' and you just start looking ridiculous and desperate."
That said, Walker seems to really get off on both his own music and producing shiny pop for others -- but tries not to mix or "cross-collateralize" the two. "There's something sacred about each thing," he says. "It doesn't do any good to try to turn a pop diva into Bob Dylan. People don't want that from them."
In some ways, recent events have conspired to bring Walker back in touch with his early years of hand-to-mouthing it in the music business: In late 2007, he lost his Malibu home, possessions and all his master recordings in the Southern California wildfires. Or, as Walker describes it, "someone's way of cleaning out my closet and saying, 'You know, you've got too much shit.'
"Now that I've gotten to a place in my life where I don't live in a hundred-dollar, piece-of-shit station wagon, like I have at the lowest point of my life or career struggles or whatever ... I went crazy, and just went out and got two of everything I ever wanted," he says. For a lifelong musician, that meant a lot of studio gear. Which came with some unexpected costs. "Here I am with this amazing studio with all this gear that I've always wanted, and this massive studio, and I can't write a damn song."
With the house and studio destroyed, Walker found that "everything kind of poured out of me after that happened, and the lyrics and the songs came effortlessly, when I'd been clogged up for a year." With just the acoustic guitar that survived the fire and his laptop, "I was good to go -- I had everything I needed to make music on it, and to write."
The result was Sycamore Meadows, named after the site of this cleansing fire. The album is mainly devoted to upbeat, rootsy pop reminiscent at times of Tom Petty and The Wallflowers (especially the opener "The Weight of Her"), with echoes of the old country -- Buck Owens and George Jones, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn -- that Walker's parents listened to, and that Walker describes as his "heritage, or something."
"It is very cool to be able to put a quirkier spin on my own stuff and not have to worry about whether it's going to sell a half-a-million records," Walker says -- though it probably doesn't hurt to pull in Pink for backing vocals on one of your ballads.
"Ponce de Leon Ave." is one of the most appealing songs, with a vintage tone, Chicago-style horns and lyrics that seem still drunk on the aftermath of a fantastic party. There are also plenty of slower, piano-based songs, like "Ships in a Bottle" and "ATL," Walker's ode to his hometown. "Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought of You" is built on stark electric piano and the chintziest Casio beat you could imagine.
One of the most memorable tracks, though is "Going Back / Going Home," which directly addresses the fire. The mainly acoustic song, augmented with some gentle mandolin and glockenspiel touches, contains an odd, rapid-fire autobiographical rap in the middle section. "It's not NWA, it's more like 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' -- it's basically me ripping off Bob Dylan," Walker says. It's his life story condensed into a minute, over country guitars and a handclap beat, ending with the telling lines, "If living like this at 38 is a bore / then come on God please give me 38 more."
Sounds like you're doing something right, Butch.
Butch Walker and His Gang of Merry Musical Melodymakers with The Films. 9 p.m. Fri., March 13 (doors at 8 p.m.). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $15. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com