By Steve Weinstein
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Butch Walker admits that the ongoing meltdown of the music business has affected his wallet in a pretty gnarly way. "My living is done through producing records, but that living has dwindled immensely over the years with people not having to buy music," he says. If Walker's name doesn't ring a bell, some of the songs he has written or produced certainly will: Katy Perry's "Thinking of You," Avril Lavigne's "When You're Gone," Weezer's "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To."
Old-model fees for creating these hits helped build the shabby-chic Santa Monica recording studio we're sitting in, not to mention Walker's home in Malibu, where he lives not far from Beck and Jakob Dylan. Still, the 41-year-old is sanguine about the downsizing of his song-doctor career, if only because it frees up more time to fulfill the identity he really cares about: Butch Walker, Totally Awesome Garage Rocker.
"People that encourage me to produce and write more and do this less are idiots," Walker says. "I'll live. I'll figure it out."
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In an artistic sense, at least, he's doing more than getting by. The Spade (Dangerbird), Walker's new album with his backing band, the Black Widows, is his finest collection of songs in a solo catalog that stretches back nearly a decade. (Prior to striking out on his own, Walker played in a string of groups in both Los Angeles and his native Georgia, including SouthGang, the Floyds, and Marvelous 3.) The tunes layer funny, well-observed words about love and music over rootsy arrangements that sound like they fell together seconds before Walker's engineer hit "record." It's straightforward stuff operating at the highest level of songcraft. Which doesn't mean Walker resists the occasional low blow. "I didn't name my band after an animal/I don't have any feathers or neon clothes," he sings in the indie-kid send-up "Synthesizers." "But I can stay out all night/Like Sacagawea in a paint fight."
Calling it the first "band record" he has done in years, Walker deflects some of the credit for The Spade's excellence. (I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart, from 2010, featured the Black Widows' playing but less of their creative input.) "We toured six months solid last year," Walker says of the group, which includes guitarists Chris Unck and Fran Capitanelli and bassist Jake Sinclair. "And in that time, it went from me being a solo artist to being a real band. They're not just what I call 'riser guys,' where a band will have a bunch of salaried dudes on risers who aren't allowed to move."
"There's lots of things Butch could be egocentric about—like the fact that he can play every instrument better than you," says Patrick Stump, who noticed Walker's esprit de corps when his band, Fall Out Boy, hired the producer to work on Infinity on High. "But he's not like that. He wants you to play it."
According to Jeff Castelaz of Dangerbird Records, Walker's humility extends to his commercial expectations. "Butch and his team have the exact right perspective on where he is as an artist," Castelaz says, adding that his goal for The Spade is to score a Top 10 single at triple-A radio. "They don't think—and this is a rarity in this business—that Butch is as big as the artists he produces."
For Walker, the Next Big Thing is yesterday's news. "I spent years chasing my tail trying to figure out who the fuck I was," he says. "We don't know how to be fashionable right now; I mean, this is basically a trucker-rock record. But I finally feel comfortable in my own skin."
Butch Walker and the Black Widows play the Gramercy Theatre October 24 and Music Hall of Williamsburg October 25.