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We Like Them Butch


Can't get enough Butch Walker? From today's 34th Street's  feature on the reborn songwriter, here is a continuation of the interview, along with a review of his latest album, Sycamore Meadows.

Street: So, obviously, Sycamore Meadows contains a lot of songs about the fires that took your house last year… Butch: It was a pretty great place and I had a lot of great memories in the year that I lived there. I feel like, obviously, I'm cleansed from it now and all the things that we lost and I appreciate the memories that we still have. We didn't lose those. It helped me to come up with a lot of what I felt to be some of my best songs yet.

Street: So what are you listening to now? Butch: I wasn't listening to anything. When I did this record and leading up to doing it, before the fire and everything, I was really bored of music. I was burnt out on it because I just didn't feel like I had anything in me any more. I'd burned out listening to it and doing it all the time. To me, it's about playing in front of an audience, and if I don't have an audience to play in front of and connect with and do the show, then that part of it is just not fun and it's annoying. The show aspect of it and playing is the most beautiful high you could ever get in the world, and that's why I still do it all the time. But, you know, do that a hundred or two hundred days out of the year, then come home and the minute you get home you're in the studio with somebody making a record and hearing the same song over and over again, and then having to sit there and listen to demos of people to work with and it's just like, "God, I've got to stop listening to music for a change." I'm thirty-nine today, and I have not stopped listening to music since I was seven years old. It's a long time to be mass-consumed in music, and I don't feel like I could keep it special and keep my songwriting special if that's all I do and just burn out listening to too much.

Street: Do you think that everything that happened put you in the state of mind to write this album? Butch: Yeah, it's definitely a record that I don't think would've come out the way it did if that had not happened. I might still be writing it, because I didn't have anything. I couldn't really feel anything. I was worried, because this is a very important record for me. I'm not exactly getting any younger, and I want my records to get better and not worse. I hate it when I listen to records by some of my favorite artists from a long time ago, and when they keep putting them out, their records dwindle. And people are gonna have their favorites anyway. There's plenty of people that think I haven't written a great record since Marvelous 3, and there's plenty of people that didn't like anything I did until the last record [2006's The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let's-Go-Out-Tonites]. It's all relative and you can't please everybody all the time.

Street: What do you think this record would've sounded like if the fires hadn't happened? Butch: Before the fires, I was reeling in a lot of memories and everything like that but I didn't feel anything because I'd just hit that complacent roadblock that writers dreadfully get to. I'd never hit that part yet and it freaked me out. I've never set out to do a different record every time, it's just how I'm feeling at the time. So the fire was the blessing that got me out of complacency. It made me feel very nostalgic and emotional about a lot of memories that I've never written about before and needed to.

Street: Why, then, does the album open with "The Weight of Her," an upbeat party track? Butch: I love the song and I wrote it very last-minute for the record. I just thought to myself, "I don't want this to be so obvious where  it's like, 'Oh everybody knows my house burnt down. Woe is me. Here's a sappy  record because of it.'" That's not how I really wanted the record to be; I just wanted it to be a little more sincere and introspective. And when I wrote that song last-minute, I just felt like it was such a good pop song and that I didn't need to throw it away because of this big master plan to have this record. I originally wanted the record to start with the hidden track, which is a real downer of a song that I wrote right after the fires. Now it's like five minutes after the record's over, and the song is kind of a bummer.

Street: One of the last tracks, "Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky," has a distinctly Springsteen-esque sound and vocabulary to them. So what were you listening to when you were writing this album? Butch: Honestly, I don't think I was listening to any music. I mean, obviously, Petty, Springsteen, Costello, Van Morrison. The list goes on and on of guys that I steal from that I love. So to do a song like "Closer to the Truth" and have it sound like a Bruce song makes perfect sense. When I started writing the song, it was all I could do not to. I think it's always been something that's been in my songs, but maybe more so on these than others. I think I just wanted to write this song that wasn't gratuitously lifting Bruce's signature lyric things, but the song is a true story about me and this girl on a road trip a long time ago and that's where those come from. You're bound to put the word "highway" in a song when you're talking about a road trip, so it just happens. So instead of trying to make music that sounds like Metallica, it comes out sounding like my influences.

Street: What's the perfect song? Butch: U2's "All I Want is You."

And now for the review!

Butch Walker Sycamore Meadows 4.5 out of 5 stars

Few musicians have the ability to make their listeners enjoy sadness while feeling compelled to sing along, but Butch Walker accomplishes a rare feat with Sycamore Meadows. After losing his home and its contents to the wildfires that ravaged California in the fall of 2007, Walker rises from the ashes with an album of thoughtful tracks that showcase his scars without explicitly harping on the fire itself. The versatile lyrics apply a palette of fire-related imagery to paint a picture of failed relationships, ostracism, and, ultimately, survival. During the video for "Ships in a Bottle," Walker sifts through the wreckage of his home, using the fire to describe a break-up in a hook-laden chorus as he sings, "Just wanna walk away from the ashes/I can take the fact that I got burned/And maybe let you know I'm still standing." He's still the same intelligent songwriter who will poke fun at the record business on "A Song for the Metalheads" and channel Springsteen on "Closer to the Truth and Further from the Sky," but for the first time he is combining his formidable skill with an equally substantial subject matter. Sycamore Meadows is a powerful album that showcases a man allowing himself some time to grieve in the best way he knows how.

John Vilanova