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Butch Walker is all about that tape, about that tape (no digital)

The Audiophile Butch Walker Afraid of Ghosts
Noah Abrams/Butch Walker

“It sounds like a band on the edge of the song falling apart.”

Butch Walker is describing the vibe of his new solo album Afraid of Ghosts, and he’s nailed it to a T. Or should that be a C, as in “crumbling”? The art of falling apart is indeed the essence of what his seventh solo album Afraid of Ghosts (out today on Dangerbird Records) evokes. Produced by acclaimed singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, Ghosts is a stark work that reflects the emotional straightforwardness of an artist not afraid to share his raw nerves about the loss of love, family, and direction.

“It’s dark, but hopeful,” admits Walker. “And we didn’t want everybody to know the songs too well while we were recording. I didn’t want it to sound like a bunch of boring session musicians who couldn’t play a wrong note if they tried.”

“I grew up on a tape machine, and I like tape better.”

Walker is known for honing all the right edges as a producer for the likes of Fall Out Boy, Weezer, P!nk, Simple Plan, Avril Lavigne, Hot Hot Heat, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift, and he has a number of impressive records under his own belt, including co-writing and singing Marvelous 3’s 1999 alterna-hit Freak of the Week and solo gems like the uber-catchy She Likes Hair Bands (2010) and the wonderfully ironic Synthesizers (2011). The latter song’s video features Matthew McConaughey lipsyncing the lyrics as David Wooderson, his unforgettable rock-lovin’ character from Richard Linklater’s classic 1993 coming of age film, Dazed and Confused.

Ghosts adds a few more heartfelt notches to Walker’s recorded C.V., powered by the stomp and echo fueling I Love You, the yearning for Chrissie Hynde, and the stark confessional of The Dark. Walker, 45, and Digital Trends got together to discuss why recording to tape was critical (and how it also threw a kink in the “repurposing” process), how making a timeless album equates to the feel of a good t-shirt, and what it’s like having Johnny Depp take a blistering guitar solo. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts — especially when they sound this damn good.

Digital Trends: I love the fact that you recorded Afraid of Ghosts direct to tape in this digital-centric era of recording.

Butch Walker: People don’t do it much like that anymore because it’s more expensive than modern technology and recording. But it was definitely comfortable for me. I felt fine with that decision. I grew up on a tape machine, and I like tape better.

What kind of tape did you use?

We used ATR. They’re like a modern take on old quarter-inch master tape. It sounds good — it’s new, and it’s consistent. I’ve still got reels and reels of old RMGI and 3M and NOS 3M 996 — every kind of tape you could imagine. I just let Ryan and the band hear it the way they wanted to, to help get the sounds they liked with their gear in their place. [Ghosts was recorded at Adams’ own PAX AM Studios in Los Angeles.]

I loved hearing the tape hiss as you’re counting off at the beginning of the record, right before the title track starts. That’s such a nice, real sound.

Yeah. And there’s no reason to get rid of that! (laughs) There is a program in the digital world that would get rid of that hiss, but this album never hit digital in the entire process.

A lot of people spend time cleaning things up and getting them to sound perfect, muting out all the tracks when they’re not being played on, and getting rid of the noise and people coughing. There’s something to be said for leaving everything on and leaving it all exposed throughout the entire song so we can actually hear every person’s little quirks and clips, and all the coughs and creaks. That’s just what it would sound like if you were sitting there watching a band onstage.

I’m with you. I like knowing I’m listening to a real, non-clinical recording. Tell me how you worked with mastering guru Howie Weinberg to ensure you got the sound you wanted at the end stage.

Howie’s mastered a bunch of records for me and for Ryan, and we both agreed we wanted Howie to give it a go. It’s a different thing, mastering — especially mastering for vinyl, and from analog tape. It’s not about how loud you can fucking get, because that’s something for Justin Bieber records, or whatever. That’s like, “How loud can you get it?” You can’t do that with this kind of record. We told Howie he needed to go back to the way he was thinking in the ’70s when mastering our record.

“We didn’t want everybody to know the songs too well while we were recording.”

Are there some touchstone albums you pointed to as having the kind of sound you prefer?

We were definitely touching on what I’d like to think are my favorite parts of Nebraska (1982) by Bruce Springsteen, Nashville Skyline (1969) by Bob Dylan, and Closing Time (1973) by Tom Waits. Those are great records to me; I’ve always really loved them. There’s even a little bit of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (1994) in there. That’s not an old record, but it has a classic feel to it. And that’s what I wanted for this record — I wanted it to be a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. That’s the only thing I can look back on in my 25-plus years of being a musician onstage and not wince at what I was wearing, because it doesn’t try too hard to be what it is; it’s just a t-shirt. That’s why it’s been around forever and hasn’t gone out of style. I’ve always wanted to make a record that sounded like that.

Are you encouraged that we can hear so much of the detail that goes into your productions in high-resolution 96-kilohertz/24-bit playback?

Yeah, yeah, totally! That’s kind of the idea. I love that there are digital options out there to hear things back in their purest form. But I’ll be honest — I’ve listened to this record so many times on my laptop and my iPod, and that’s because I have to. I’m traveling all the time, and it still sounds cool to me. I’m not being a snob about it. Not everybody is an audiophile junkie with a $10,000 platter and hi-fi setup to play records. Not everybody has time to set aside like that for listening to music.

Well, I’m glad you agree high-res is a valuable playback option. Did you and Ryan have any discussions beforehand about how you wanted Ghosts to sound?

We had a discussion about whether we wanted to use certain instrumentation and how the songs would reach a certain level of density, yes. We kept all of that in mind going in. The thing about working with Ryan and being friends with the guy — he thinks outside the normal, because he isn’t normal. (both laugh) He’s very romantic about music. He’ll start, “Oh man, I want this record to sound like you’re riding your motorcycle through the desert.” If some other person said that, I’d probably want to slap them, but when he says it, it gives me chills. That’s the kind of vibe you get when you hear this record. It’s dark, but hopeful.

That’s true. And I totally feel like I’m in motion when listening to a song like Bed on Fire, which has more instrumentation than some of the other tracks here. How did you decide to put strings on it? Where did that come into the writing process?

We cut that live with the same group of guys — Ryan’s band, who we cut the whole record with. We did that one essentially with only a guitar overub, and then strings. The strings came on the second day, when we laid down a quartet over the track.

Every one of the songs were kinda pulled out of the hat while we were recording. Ryan would be asking, “I need a song with dark elements,” and I’d say, “Yeah, I got this idea for that.” I remember singing the chorus — I didn’t even know what it was about yet, but I was singing it. When I sang the line “bed on fire,” he was like, “Stop right there — you’re going to call it Bed on Fire.” That was the approach we took on every song.

The solo on Bed on Fire was done by you, right? It sounds like a good Neil Young kind of windout.

Yeah, that’s me. I’m a guitar ninja from another decade. (chuckles)

Was that an improvised solo, or did you have some idea about where you wanted to go with it?

That was a first take, done on the fly. That’s how we did the whole record. The record was basically a first or second take of everybody not really knowing what the hell they were doing yet. That actually comes through in a great way when you’re listening to it. It sounds like a band kind of on the edge of the song falling apart, and that’s what we wanted. We didn’t want everybody to know the songs too well while we were recording. I didn’t want it to sound like a bunch of boring session musicians who couldn’t play a wrong note if they tried, you know?

Absolutely. To borrow a phrase from our man Neil Young — it’s got a “ragged glory” sense to it. Anything could happen from one moment to the next.

Yeah, exactly! I like that! To me, those are the records I like the best. I don’t like it when everyone’s trying to cram in one more solo or top each other. It’s better when you can see the looks on their faces, being afraid they’re going to fuck up the song if they’re only going to be playing it the one time.

Does Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders] know she has a song named after her? Have you guys interacted about it at all?

Yeah, luckily, she and I are pretty close. I think we’re even closer now. I asked her, “Hey, do you like this? It’s an homage, but I don’t want it to be released if you’re not into it.” And she was super into it.

I’m glad to hear that. I also like how you waited about 2-and-a-half minutes before getting to that guitar break, like you waited to put it more toward the end.

Totally. It’s been fun to see a song like that have people care about it. I didn’t know if people were going to understand it or even get it, but I guess you don’t even have to know who Chrissie Hynde is to like the song. And that’s good.

Right after that comes Still Drunk, and I vacillate whether to call it a spiritual or a hymnal.

“It’s like a real fucking bummer of a record. We’re celebrating tears.”

I tried to finish that one before I went in to do this record. I didn’t know it was going to end up being on the record, because it was recorded kind of more rambunctious and up-tempo, which completely changed the tone of the lyric. I realized that when I played it the way I wrote it, so I changed a couple of things and made it more direct on the guitar.

One thing Ryan always likes is taking songs down a few steps in key, because it changes the urgency in the lyric. You hear it be a little more personal. That’s how we did that one, and I thought it was a nice surprise to do that song a bit more lonesome in tone, because it’s not really a snarky, angry thing I’m doing in that tempo.

What was the reaction when you played the finished record for your team?

One funny thing about the modern age — everybody was like, “OK, we’re going to need instrumentals of all the songs so that we can have them for pitching movie soundtracks and commercials.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s funny. I can’t give you instrumentals. My guitar and vocal were recorded at the same time. If you don’t have my vocal, you don’t have my guitar. We did it on tape, so I can’t just go into a laptop and magically make it appear. It was a moment in time.” Then I’d see management and people like that go, “Oh. Ohhhh.” Even they don’t understand. “Where’s the file?” “There is no file.” So I suppose making records like that is really bad for “marketing.” (both laugh) I’m like, “You’re just going to have to pitch it as a commercial with my annoying voice singing in it.”

Bad for marketing but good for sound, because analog and acoustic material go together quite well. I mean, I think about a song like Father’s Day — I don’t see how you can pitch that one around.

Yeah, exactly. It’s not an Apple commercial kind of album. It’s not that. I know that it’s really popular right now to have 20 people in a band celebrating something with “ohh-ohh-ohhhs” in the background. This album is not that at all. It’s like a real fucking bummer of a record. We’re celebrating tears.

It’s a bittersweet kind of celebration, yeah. I see on 21+ [the “+” here means “and over”], you have a special guest playing guitar — a certain Mr. Johnny Depp.

Yeah, Johnny recorded the outro guitar solo on that song. Johnny swung by when we were working on that song — every song is basically me and the band playing live — and he just ripped that guitar solo over the end. He does his own thing. People probably want to take something away from him because he’s such a giant at being an actor and is really good at it, but you can’t throw away the fact that he can play music too.

It was cool. I was a bit nervous because if it came out bad, I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell him, “Um, we’re going to have to replace it.” He probably wouldn’t have cared, but it came out unique and totally different from what either Ryan or I would have played, since the bulk of the guitar work on the record is done by me and Ryan.

Johnny’s such a soulful player. Any time I’ve heard him play guitar, there’s a real depth to what he’s doing, which may surprise people — though it really shouldn’t. Here’s a thought — I’d love to see you produce an album of his. Have you guys ever talked about it?

I’d have to see how seriously he’d be about doing that. He may just like playing guitar on other people’s records, you know what I mean? Guitar’s gotta be a pretty fun hobby, so to speak, for someone as successful and gifted at the acting profession as he is. I guess the world will see how serious he’ll get ab

Mike Mettler
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has…
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