Why Butch Walker's 'love story about hate' might be the rock opera America needs right now

Butch Walker (Photo: TCD Public Relations)
Butch Walker (Photo: TCD Public Relations)

While Butch Walker is a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter in his own right, many of his biggest success stories have been behind the scenes, producing and composing for Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Katy Perry, Weezer, Green Day, and many others. But his years-in-the-making upcoming rock opera American Love Story — a “love story about hate,” partially inspired by his upbringing in Cartersville, Georgia, that examines social and racial divides in America — may become his most talked-about solo project yet.

Songs like “Pretty, Crazy,” which just dropped this week, and other tracks that Walker has been previewing on Instagram like “6 Ft Middle Aged American Man,” “Flyover State,” “Blinded by the White,” and “Torn in the USA,” are told from multiple perspectives — including American Love Story’s racist protagonist and the liberal gay man who eventually helps him change his ways. While Walker stresses that this is not a political album per se, and that it reflects various perspectives, he does say he came up with the idea for the project right after the 2016 presidential election.

Now, in another turbulent election year, it is finally time for American Love Story to be heard. The full album comes out May 8, but in his first in-depth interview about the album for Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume, Walker tells us what to expect.

Yahoo Entertainment: Tell me about American Love Story. How did it come about, and what is its storyline?

Butch Walker: It's loosely based on my childhood, which is nothing new in my songs that I do for myself. I write a lot of introspective and retrospective material, but this one started taking the shape of being a story, and I couldn't write about anything else. I couldn't write typical love songs or breakup songs or whatever. I just kept thinking about growing up in the South and how hard that was to overcome — bigotry and racism and things like that. Just growing up in a small town, this is how a lot of people are programmed and wired, and they don't know anything outside of what their parents taught them. It's basically a love story about hate.

What sort of hate?

It's a story about a guy who grows up in a small rural town, and his dad's a piece of s*** — a racist and a bigot, a drunk, and not very good to his children. And this young boy who grows up in this environment and this trajectory, he goes to school every day, and he sees a gay kid, passes him every day in class, and pushes him into lockers and beats the s*** out of him and calls him “f***ot” — really tortures this kid.

And this goes through the storyline, because in a rock opera, it's one continuous listen; one song ties into the next and everything ties into a story. And it's sung a lot through the viewpoint of this racist bigot. So you can't just pick a song off the record and listen to it out of context. There are no radio singles from this! [laughs] Because you might be like, “Um, what the hell did he just say?”

So the gay kid that grows up, he's out of school now, he's coming home with his friends from a party on a weekend night, driving through the desert, and sees a car overturned on the side of the road. He gets out, pulls a body out of the truck, resuscitates the person… and when the person comes to, that person that he just resuscitated is the guy that used to beat the s*** out of him in school and call him derogatory names and hated him. It's that kid, all grown up.

And so that [racist] guy has this whole epiphany, and basically his whole life turns upside down. … He's got to realize that he's had his life saved and spared by someone that he was taught to hate his whole life. So he starts to question his whole upbringing, his whole existence, his whole everything, and seeing the amount of privilege that a white, middle-aged, American man has a lot of times. And this is all in the songs.

And he finally falls in love with this free-spirited kind of hippie girl that really shows him what love is and nurtures him. And they have a kid together, a boy, and the boy grows up to be gay. So the dad has this whole scenario with his son: unconditional love.

Wow. You say American Love Story is loosely based on your childhood. How so?

This is just something that I grew up in — with wonderful people, by the way. I have to make that disclaimer that I love being from the South. I still have a home in the South and my family is still there. There's great, great people all over this country. But I also saw and heard a lot of s***ty things. You can't just pinpoint it to the South alone. It's everywhere. You go an hour outside of Los Angeles and there's some racist mother***ers out there. There's some really bad people. The thing, though, is these people don't think that there's anything wrong with it. It's completely normalized. And it was normalized for me as a child. So, that's what this story is about is about: having to overcome something that I think I knew wasn't right.

But obviously you resisted bigoted ways of thinking, rather than blindly accepting things you’d been taught…

Well, I think I was definitely sitting around with certain people, growing up, when I was in on the [off-color] jokes and laughed at it and thought it was funny… so I'm not saying that I'm in the clear. This whole record is about me at one time being a f***-up. Now, I'm not the character that I talked about. You know, I didn't like go down the hall yelling F-bombs at gay people and throwing them into lockers. I was extremely passive growing up. But I saw it, and I knew people like that, and it just saddened me. And it's bothered me for years

So, why is now the right time to make a record like this?

I actually did this record about two years ago. I've been sitting on it, and I didn't think I was even going to put it out. … I think just because of no matter how you want to slice it, I'm not here to politicize anything, but there has been an extremely massive resurgence of hate and bigotry and racism in the last few years. And it's just inherent. I mean, we'd been seeing that it hasn't gone away. We can all live in bubbles and act like it doesn't exist, but it's been brought to a lot of people's attention now. So I will say this as loud as I can: This a positive record about people just having a conversation. Because people do not do that anymore.

How do you think American Love Story will be received?

Maybe I'll just be preaching to the choir, the [fans] that want to hear this record. But as I think as an artist, you've got to talk about what's on your mind. It would be completely disingenuous of me to go out and make a record of breakup songs, if that's not what I'm going through.

I think there will be people that will be [offended], sadly. I think there'll be people that'll be rubbed the wrong way by it. But f*** those people, you know? That's why I finally said, “I don't care. I'm going to put this out because it means a lot to me at this stage of my career.” People always say, “Stick to what you know, stay in your lane.” This is not even a political record, for that matter. It does show the stereotypes on both sides. You've got what people think of as “California liberals,” and then you’ve got what people think of as “rural America,” whatever. But it's a beautiful story that has a happy ending. So if someone has a problem with it, then that tells me all I need to know about them.

The above interview is taken from Butch Walker’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.

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