In the 2012 documentary Butch Walker: Out of Focus, Willard Eugene “Butch” Walker (aka “Big Butch”), suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and an ailing heart, looks into the camera and talks about the film's subject, his Grammy-nominated son, singer/songwriter/producer Butch Walker (aka “Little Butch”).
“I love him very much,” he says, as tears collect in his eyes. “We have a very special bond and I'll always be around to look over him. He may not see me, but I will be.”
Almost two years after his father, Big Butch, passed away within 24 hours of having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Butch Walker, his dad's name tattooed prominently across the back of his right hand, is sitting in his Santa Monica recording studio, RubyRed Productions. He's preparing to leave for a North American tour in support of his latest record, Afraid of Ghosts, which was inspired by the loss of his father. Produced by Ryan Adams and with guest appearances by Johnny Depp and Bob Mould, Afraid of Ghosts marks the first time Walker has handed the producing reins over to someone else.
Walker initially met Adams on Twitter. After exchanging a few messages back and forth, Adams invited Walker to open for him on tour. Sometime later, the pair bumped into each other while both were staying at the same hotel in New York City. Walker played his most recently written but not yet recorded songs for Adams, who provided immediate feedback.
“He was constantly stopping me and asking me why I'd say that or why don't I change the key,” says Walker. “He was going a million miles an hour when I was just trying to play him songs and I appreciated that. Usually it's just me and no one is there to bounce ideas off of and argue with.”
When Walker was leaving New York, he texted Adams from the plane and asked him to produce his next record. From there, a collaboration was born.
Recorded in just four days, Afraid of Ghosts, with its stripped-down production and Walker’s warm and sometimes whispery vocals, makes for a contemplative and melodic lamentation for lost loved ones. But it’s a cathartic journey, as opposed to a depressing one. Opening with the album’s title track, in which he sings, “I’m coming to terms with a ghost/Learning to deal,” Walker serves as a strong and simultaneously delicate anchor throughout the record, balancing vulnerability with faith and regret with acceptance.
Walker is no stranger to loss and introspection, having seen his home and all of his belongings go up in flames in the Malibu wildfires of 2007, an ordeal he documented on 2008's Sycamore Meadows. But Afraid of Ghosts is as raw and intimate as he has gotten on record.
“When my dad passed it was, sadly, very easy to write about it,” he says. “As a songwriter, you're going to get it out. You're going to grieve through song sometimes. With me, it just helps to write it all down and it’s definitely helped. The record Sycamore Meadows helped me with possessions. But, in hindsight, obviously it's not as bad as losing someone.”
Given its direct connection to the loss of his father, Walker says it is “bittersweet” that his newest work is receiving widespread acclaim. Alternative Press called Afraid of Ghosts, which came out on Feb. 3 on Dangerbird Records, “his strongest to date.”
When asked what he misses the most about his father, Walker, who still has his dad's number saved on speed dial, says, “That I can't just pick up the phone and call him is probably the hardest thing. I miss calling him whenever I see something funny. He was a big presence and he filled up the room with it — everywhere he went — which made my dad very much a star and such a star in my mind. I miss that a lot.”
When he’s not making his own records (he has released seven full-length solo albums), Walker has kept busy writing and producing for a wide range of artists, including Katy Perry, P!nk, Weezer and Avril Lavigne. The media likes to juxtapose his solo career with his more high-profile collaborations, often describing him as leading a “double life.”
Ever the Southern gentleman (he grew up in the small town of Cartersville, Georgia), Walker speaks graciously about that binary career tag. “I joke about it being my day job, because it makes me a living just like a day job does anybody. But I like my day job. It's been a blessing to have this day job as a fallback, but it's become less and less of a double life and more of a tandem thing. Luckily I paid my dues, and I've made plenty of records that I probably shouldn't have and didn't want to make, but I did to make money. And now I get to pick and choose and do things that sound more interesting to me.”
Asked how he feels about having often been referred to as a hidden musical treasure, Walker responds with a good-natured laugh. “Sometimes it feels like a backhanded compliment, but it's awesome actually. It could be way worse. If people say 'best kept secret' or, to a funnier extent, 'guilty pleasure' … it's humbling when someone says, 'Oh, I didn't know you sang.' But hey, that's the reality. Not that many people know me for that. In the last 10 years, I got way more popular as a songwriter/producer for famous people — for bigger people — and that's why that started happening a lot. With people saying, 'I didn't know you made your own records,' it's constantly humbling, but it also keeps me driven.”
Walker says he is happy with his solo achievements. “I would have probably coasted and given up and ridden it out a long time ago if I would have gotten as successful or big like my clients. Nothing scares me more than being content. I've never been concerned about record sales or I'd have put out a record long ago that sounds like records I've produced for other people. But I've never believed a guy with gray hair and tattoos singing an Avril Lavigne song. It doesn't make any sense.”
Ironically, in a climate where record sales are steadily declining, the demand for Walker's records has been on the rise. “Go figure. Now that records don't sell, I've sold more records than I ever have in the past.”
Walker winds up his North American tour back home in Los Angeles, where he'll play three sold-out shows at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery during the week leading up to Father’s Day. “Fuck, that is wild,” Walker says, a soft and slow smile spreading across his face as he contemplates all the ways his tour's last shows will dovetail with the themes on Afraid of Ghosts. “It will be special. This whole tour is an homage to him. I'm really excited about doing this tour on my own to have one-on-one time with my dad.”
A vintage motorcycle aficionado who owns eight bikes, Walker infuses his grief with zen on Afraid of Ghosts' final track, “The Dark,” co-written with Adams. As he rides along California's Pacific Coast Highway, he sings, “Ain't running from nothing/Nothing on my mind/Into the black/With my father at my side.”
Just where Big Butch had said he'd be.
Butch Walker plays the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever June 16, 17 and 19 with Jonathan Tyler and The Dove & the Wolf.