By Clive Young.
Butch Walker isn’t a household name; in fact, from one point-of-view, he’s an also-ran who played in a failed hair metal band, a failed jam band and a one-hit-wonder power-pop trio before embarking on a career as, he concedes, a mid-level solo artist. That rendition only tells half the story, however, because simultaneously, he’s become one of the top producer/songwriter/engineers, knocking out hits for Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Weezer and others. And it turns out that’s only one of the ways he’s reinvented himself over his career, as detailed in his cool—and at times controversial—new autobiography, Drinking With Strangers.
Walker comes across as a well-intentioned, fairly humble guy, and he spends a lot of the book wringing his hands about how to consolidate lives as a disciplined studio maven, a caring family man and a hard-drinking rocker into the form of one moderately together adult (it’s worth mentioning that despite the title Drinking With Strangers, this is the first rock tell-all in recent memory that doesn’t include a stint in rehab). Try as he may throughout the years, he doesn't quite succeed on that score until tragedy strikes near the end of the book, as his past is swept away in one broad stroke. All that’s left are memories, and he has plenty of those to share.
When it comes to outrageous rock stories, Walker's got more than a few, from inciting a riot in China with his metal band, SouthGang, to drunkenly not impressing Elvis Costello, to illegally landing a helicopter with Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee on Slash’s front lawn after a Nine Inch Nails show.
For industry readers though, the highpoints of the book will be the recording gossip, where Walker doesn’t mince words; no, he has some bowling ball-sized chips on his shoulder. Discussing mega-producer Howard Benson, who produced SouthGang’s two albums, Walker starts off with “We’re fine and cordial now, but I’ll put it like this: My sole purpose for learning how to produce records was because of how s----y my first experience with him was.” Suffice it to say, it only gets more strident, though Walker duly flags himself for having exacerbated things thanks to ignorance, boozing and a massive ego (“We were a bunch of Southern redneck drunks with a wicked mean streak,” he reports).
That, however, pales next to a long tale where, according to Walker, a song he co-wrote and produced for a singer was altered and re-created by another well-known song doctor/producer/engineer working with the same artist. In the book, the story builds and builds with subterfuge and double-crosses as Walker discovers his song has been scraped because the artist has a mysterious, sure-fire first single for her upcoming album, but no one will let him hear it. Eventually the song debuts and goes to Number One, but it’s “…an exact rip-off of my song, all the way down to the fact that they did a spoken-word rap in the breakdown of the bridge, just with different lyrics.”
The story continues to torque up though, coming to a head with an ugly scene at a Christmas party, where veteran producer/engineer Jack Joseph Puig has to break up a screaming match on the verge of punches between Walker and his nemesis. [It should be noted that while the alleged culprit is never named, Walker leaves a dumptruck’s worth of clues behind that can be decoded with a visit to Wikipedia in roughly 20 seconds.]
That’s not to say Walker has harsh words for everyone in the industry; stalwarts like Jim Ebert and Tom Lord-Alge get shoutouts for their efforts reworking his early Pro Tools home recordings into the Marvelous 3’s first major label album: “Tom did a great job; it was the first time I’d heard my music mixed and sounding the way I’d always wanted to hear it. I was like, 'Holy hell, I can’t believe how good this sounds.'” Likewise, he has nothing but love for the late, legendary producer Jerry Finn, who co-produced the band’s last album.
A moment that will strike fear into any studio dweller’s heart, however, is the culmination of the book, when a wildfire burns Walker’s home to the ground while he and his family are away, taking with it everything they own, as well as 20 years of master tapes and his studio, including a Neve 60-channel VR console, Studer A800 tape machine, Pro Tools rig, mics, high-end guitar collection and more. Walker’s introspection about the devastation and the ways it pushed him forward not only with his career but life in general are the highpoint of the book, adding newfound maturity to the depth only previously hinted at in the tome.
Perhaps because of that maturity, Walker doesn’t always paint himself as the hero. Looking back at his life, he recalls being a control freak at the expense of his friends in Marvelous 3; tells how he turned down producing Creed’s 6x platinum debut album (which he says he doesn’t regret, but c’mon); explains why he agreed to produce a Lindsay Lohan track, which he does regret; and recounts a wince-inducing moment while working with Desmond Child. Each these instances—and others—lead to some form of enlightenment, and he readily shares what he learned from his mistakes.
Drinking With Strangers is at times messy and unfocused, largely because life is like that, but it tells a fascinating story that’s a true page-turner, showing the author to be a natural storyteller. While his music may not click with everyone, Walker’s book is a fun read, filled with rock ‘n’ roll debauchery, a stunning variety of music business skullduggery and inspirational stories about never giving up.
Drinking With Strangers on Amazon