Misfortune has inspired musicians since the first jilted caveman started banging out beats on a woolly mammoth skull. So, it’s only logical that power-pop whiz Butch Walker would somehow find a hook-laden silver lining after losing nearly all of his earthly possessions in November 2007 during a California wildfire. Walker’s latest solo outing, Sycamore Meadows-named after the Malibu street where his ill-fated home stood-finds the singer-songwriter-producer in a more reflective and intimate mindset than on his glammy, super-fun prior record, The Rise And Fall Of Butch Walker And The Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites, as he revisits a lifetime of memories while sifting through the charred rubble.
Walker’s not one to hang his head for long, and Sycamore has plenty of upbeat rockers to counterbalance its moodier moments. Anthemic opener “The Weight Of Her” has the drive of vintage Tom Petty, “Here Comes The…” addresses a painful breakup with uncharacteristic bounce, and “The 3 Kids In Brooklyn” pokes fun at Kings County hipsters with jangly acoustics and fluid slide guitar. Even when Walker slows things down, as on the piano-laced “Ships In A Bottle” or “Passed Your Place, Saw Your Car, Thought Of You,” with its somber organ and sparse electro beat, his innate sense of song perpetually keeps up the pace. For those bands still trying to write that elusive hit, arson is now looking a hell of a lot more appealing. (POWER BALLAD/STAY PLATINUM/ORIGINAL SIGNAL) Brendan Manley
Butch Walker’s Letters
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Pete Yorn’s Musicforthemorningafter
IN-STORE SESSION WITH BUTCH WALKER
Where were you when the 2007 California wildfires started?
I was in New York City playing some acoustic gigs, and my surfer buddy back home saw that the entire hill where I lived was on fire, and he called and woke me up. Here I am at 8:30 in the morning, and I’d just gone to bed a couple of hours earlier.
What happened next?
About 20 minutes later, I got a call from another buddy who lived in Malibu, who was like, “I’m going to try and go up there and save some of your guitars.” He called me back all out of breath and coughing, and he said by the time he got there, the whole second story of the house was gone. It burned to the ground in a matter of minutes. I got that call standing in Starbucks in Union Square at 9 o’clock in the morning. I realized I was heading back home with two suitcases to my name.
Were you insured?
Well, that’s a long discussion with lots of boring details, but basically no, you’re not always insured, and you don’t always get back the full replacement value… It had been [Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist] Flea’s house, and we were still in the process of buying it from him, so we didn’t even have homeowner’s insurance. Luckily all my vehicles and gear were under a separate policy.
What did you do when you returned home?
We got back before they leveled it and scraped out the ashes, and I was able to shoot a video for “Ships In A Bottle,” which I had already written, and is a metaphoric song about losing someone, with a lot of fire and burning references. So me and a buddy of mine spent about five hours just walking around, shooting footage.
How did the experience change you?
I was feeling complacent in life before that happened, and was sitting pretty in a nice house with all this nice stuff. It puts you in a spot where you’re too comfortable and don’t have anything to say anymore. I’d started having random freak-outs about that before the fire, and hit a writer’s block for the first time in my life. But after the fire, the music poured out of me like never before.
So do you see the fire as a good thing?
I had two songs down that were all I could come up with before the fire, [but] when it was all taken away from me, I really got in touch with my emotions again. That’s why I feel so strongly about this new record. I’m actually very thankful that the fires happened. In hindsight, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. [BM]