The yin and yang of Butch Walker’s professional and personal careers has long been discussed, but the contrast has perhaps never been more palpable than on Afraid Of Ghosts. Walker’s seventh full-length, released just two years after he guided Fall Out Boy’s chart-topping career reinvention Save Rock & Roll, finds the producer teaming up with Ryan Adams to create a heartbreaking collection of songs chronicling life after the loss of Walker’s father and namesake, Big Butch.
Of course, Walker’s never been one to downplay his emotions, even at the beginning of his solo career when things were a little more brash and covered with arena rock excess. But the songs on Afraid Of Ghosts are equal parts poignant and painful, refusing to use the singer’s trademark sarcasm and self-deprecation to deflect his sorrow. They’re also arguably his strongest to date. AP caught up with Walker to talk about music as therapy, Afraid Of Ghosts’ false start, how an A-list actor ended up on the album and more.
Stream “Autumn Leaves,” a previously unreleased track from Afraid Of Ghosts:
You played a sold-out show in your hometown, Cartersville, Ga., just after Thanksgiving. What a homecoming that must have been.
BUTCH WALKER: The town was much smaller when I was there years ago. I did it at The Grand Theatre, where I went to go see my first movie with my parents; it started out as a performing arts theatre and then became once again. My mom and dad would always say, “You should come play a show at the Grand Theatre” and I said, “That’s an awful idea. Why would I do that? No one would come.” That would have been my thinking over the years, but when my dad passed last year, the first thing I did was go downtown to the Grand Theatre. The mayor of Cartersville, who actually runs the theater, let me in to take a look around and I got an unbelievable sense of nostalgia when I walked in. I remembered seeing my first movie, King Kong, there with my dad and crying when they killed the ape. It brought back a lot of emotions, and I said, “I have to play a show here.” Pretty much a year later, I finally decided to do it around Thanksgiving. Everyone would be home for the holiday; I would be home for the holiday. It was a little celebration for my dad, which was great, because it was all his friends and family. It was cool. You always eventually go home.
Afraid Of Ghosts is your first album since 2004’s Letters to feature an outside producer.
Yeah, I guess. I hadn’t even thought about that, but I guess it’s true. It’s been a long time. I love making records for other people, and, up to a certain point, have enjoyed making them for myself. I tried going in and recording this one myself, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t get what the songs deserved. I didn’t have anyone to argue with, which I never do when I produce my own albums. It felt like I needed an outside opinion on it.
My friend Ryan [Adams] came to me and [had many opinions]. I respected it and liked it, whereas a lot of people would have been strongly averse to doing some of the things he wanted or recording it the way he wanted … the way he wanted me to sing or whatever. It very easily could have been that, but it ended up being something special because I let go and let him do it the way he saw it. I just needed it to come from a different place in order to be inspired and like it—and also to protect the songs. Not many producers want to produce a producer, I’ve come to find over the years. Go figure. It’s like a magician who knows how the trick works.
[Recording with Ryan] ended up being better, having someone who’s crazy enough to come in and tell a producer what to do and then say, “You don’t really have an opinion in it.” I said to him, “That’s what I want. I don’t want to have an opinion. I want it to be someone else’s record when it’s done.” I really enjoy listening to other people’s records; when you do your own records, you’re fucking sick of them—especially if it’s all me on them. I can’t even listen to myself talk back on recordings. Why do I just want to hear another record of me playing all the instruments? That sounds like a terrible idea. So now, the way we treated this record, it feels more like a Christmas present because it feels like someone else’s record even though it’s me singing and they’re my songs.
In a way, it must be therapeutic to have another person involved, especially since the songs have so much emotional weight.
You know, Ryan is the king of pain, and I’ve always enjoyed his records because of that. I think fans are tapped into his outlook and his lyrics—you’re not listening to Ryan Adams because of the sweet guitar solo in every song. It’s more connecting with what he’s saying and how it makes you feel. I tend to think I have a lot of the same kind of fans who connect on that same level. With him, he wanted to make sure I wasn’t screaming songs at people, that I was giving them the right treatment vocally that he felt they deserved. I don’t know, that made me … it excited me to have him say, “Hey man, sing this song five steps down from what you’d normally do.” I showed him these songs in a hotel in New York, and he said, “I want you to sing it like you’re scared to piss off the neighbors.” It makes the song and the lyric come from a different places; it’s not all fucking jazz hands and volume.
A few months ago, you posted a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost which uses humor to diffuse the seriousness of topics like death and the afterlife; similarly, some musicians have a tendency to cover up vulnerability with a big shiny hook, but you went the complete opposite way. Was that the plan for the start with your self-produced sessions?
Some of the songs were just skeletons, or they were lyrics. A couple of them actually were recorded with my band the way I thought they should go, but they weren’t right. A lot of that was my manager, Jonathan, telling me … I think he was steering me into making a personal record, where I’m constantly fighting the demons in my head saying, “Oh, I’ve got to make something very modern.” These songs are not that.
I’d recorded some of them very uptempo and louder, and you can’t take the lyric seriously when you hear it back like that. It just so happened that I was staying the same hotel as Ryan, and he told me he wanted to hear some of the new stuff I was working on. The way I played them for him was really the way they were recorded, and I really started embracing things instead of being shortsighted and thinking it needed all these bells and whistles or making it sound trendy and having a 20-person choir singing whoa all through it. It would be stupid of me to do that.
Do you periodically feel the need to make records like these to essentially detox from things like the albums you did for Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco, which were very much kitchen-sink productions?
Oh, without a doubt. Look, I love pop music as much as anybody; Ryan loves pop music as much as anybody. I just happened to make a living producing it for other people by happenstance. It wasn’t planned, it just happened where it became … I got the manager promotion at the coffee shop to run the store. [Laughs.] And because of that, it sometimes consumes you. Everybody’s coming to you to do the same thing.
It’s a good problem to have. I’m grateful for the work that I’ve done up to this point on records, but I can’t strictly make those kinds of records—either for others or myself. I wouldn’t be able to take a 45-year-old guy with a gray beard seriously if he were singing “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark.” But I enjoy writing and producing those kinds of things. I just can’t do it all the time. I grew up on too many certain styles, and especially where life has been for me over the past year. It’s fine. You can’t please everyone. This is the kind of record these songs deserved.
“Autumn Leaves” is really a remarkable song lyrically because of how the story unfolds line by line. You think you know what’s happening until the next verse comes and changes your perspective. You also play with “autumn leaves” as both a physical object and a symbol representative of a passing season in the chorus.
Oh, thank you. I wrote that about my friend John. He’s younger than I am, and he recently lost his wife to cancer. They were both very young. I was kind of like … I don’t know what he’s going through, but I thought it would be something like that song.
Johnny Depp shows up on “21+” and is an out-of-left-field cameo at first glance. How did you meet Johnny?
I ended up meeting him through Ryan. When we were making the record, we thought it’d be fun to have a couple people come in and play on the record. He kept talking about this one guy; he’d say, “Oh, my buddy J. Diggle is going to come by and shred a solo. He’s a great guitar player.” I didn’t even think twice about it or who J. Diggle was, but if Ryan’s guy, then that’s fine with me. As I said, I’m not going to question it; I’m just going to let Ryan do his thing. Next thing you know, Johnny Depp walks in and I’m thinking, “Okay, this must be J. Diggle.” Couldn’t have been sweeter or cooler; he’s everything you expect him to be. We were doing “21+” and he says, “Oh, I love this song. I want to play a solo on it.” We threw him on it at the end and he ripped it. It was great. [Laughs.]
How does this album fit into your catalog in terms of the live show? Do you have to adapt your normal setlist to give these songs the proper setting?
We wanted to make a record that was very … you didn’t clean it up and mute all the microphones when something wasn’t being recorded. We didn’t try to clean up tape hiss. It never hit a computer ever, so there was no way we could have ever fixed mistakes. You hear everyone shuffling around and doing their own thing, much like you would if you were seeing a band live and having all the mics on.
There’s just something that personally connects, and people can make their own vision in their head about how it was done. It makes it more fun to listen to over and over versus, “Oh yeah, that was a perfectly executed song with a perfectly tuned vocal.” I don’t want to listen to that, because you’ve already figured it out. Those records are very boring for me. It doesn’t have to have screaming guitar solos and 20 tracks of harmony on it to keep my attention. It’s more about the vulnerability of the track that keeps me on my toes.
I think doing it live is the same way. We did it with Ryan’s band, so it’s all his boys playing on it. To me, it feels like a different recording for me, which is what I wanted. The beauty is I can go out and do this record on one guitar—which I did opening for Ryan—and it sounds the same doing it at nine in the morning as it does at midnight. If I want to put the band on it, I will. It’s nice to have a record that gives you the freedom; there’s no, “Oh, I can’t go out and play this live because I don’t have a 20-piece orchestra and a bassoon player.”
I read the album was inspired by the records your parents loved. Fair to say?
They’re records I love, too. They might not have been records I loved when I was younger, because I was too busy thinking KISS was the best band in the world when I was 8 and 9. I remember my family listening to Willie Nelson and Elvis and CCR. Later, I realized my musical taste sucked. It’s typical kid shit: I want what I want now.
When I was young, I was listening to things with bells and whistles and loud shit and screaming; that’s what attention-lacking children listen to. It’s like the sound of pop radio: There’s this feeling that you’ve gotta keep it exciting. But these songs are saying something. These lyrics rip my heart out. I don’t feel that when I hear a One Direction song, really. I don’t get that connection when I hear a Florida Georgia Line song. It’s not doing my heart justice. The last year, I’ve had a lot of things to deal with on top of my father’s passing, and I needed a record that was catharsis to that. ALT