"Now, I want you to yell so loud that my dad can hear us from heaven!" musician Butch Walker shouted as the crowd crouched to the floor around him. Like a Baptist minister in the throws of the Holy Spirit, Walker feverishly presided over the sweltering Bootleg Bar in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. The venue was so overwhelmed by friends, family and fans clamoring at the door, that even Walker collaborator P!nk was held up at the ropes. Beautiful old motorcycles belonging to Walker's comrades in chaos, the Venice Vintage Motorcycle Club, lined the sidewalk. You'll never see a man perform with more heart and gut than when he plays in the city he calls home for the people he cares for the most.
In the span of just a few weeks, Walker's biographical documentary Out of Focus dropped, he released his unfinished Peachtree Battle album early as an EP, and his closest confidante and greatest advocate, his father "Big Butch" Walker, passed away as he held his hand. Through fearlessly honest lyrics and stammering speech, Walker gave homage to his best friend earlier in the night, rolling down the sleeve where his heart lay. It was as if all these events that both lifted and shattered the musician had lead up to this cathartic moment.
Walker yelled, we yelled. Walker yelled louder, we yelled louder. As the cacophony of voices ascended and knocked on heaven's door, the audience of Walker disciples was unexpectedly showered in cloud of balloons and confetti as the band kicked in for the final raucous chords of the night. Nobody dances at rock shows in L.A., and here the floor was getting pounded. It was the kind of bittersweet revelry that Walker songwriting exudes so masterfully. And as a child of KISS, this man—whom many call the consider the music industry's "secret weapon"—certainly knows a thing or two about putting on a show.
"As an eight-year-old you're either scared to death of that experience, or you fall in love," reminisced Walker over his morning coffee in New York last week. "I didn't know what was going on, but I loved it and I wanted it for myself. And after that I never looked back." In 1977, little Bradley Glenn Walker begged his middle-class, Southern parents to take him to a KISS show in Atlanta, his first concert ever. "I felt Big Butch at the time was highly regretting taking us... spitting blood and breathing fire, guitars blowing up and people passing joints over us to the next person down. I remember this guy kept spilling his beer behind me, he was in Gene Simmons makeup. My dad was wearing his brand new brown leather blazer his mom, my grandma, got him for his birthday. He turned around and was like, 'If you spill that beer on me you sonofab---h I'm gonna kill you,' stickin' his finger in fake Gene Simmons's face [laughs]. But I think looking back in his later years, he was probably very excited that he took us because it opened up a big door for me to do what I do, and he loves what I did."
Despite the initial parental horrors of seeing his only son's hair grow longer and his guitars get pointier, Big Butch supported Walker's career at every turn, though never financially. "He was never content with giving up, and he wouldn't've been content with me ever giving up," Walker said of his father. "So he always pushed me and encouraged me to keep going. As he would say, 'keep throwin' stuff up on the wall and something's gonna stick'." And music stuck for him. Through a slew of bands including '80s hair metal band SouthGang and '90s soul patch rock band Marvelous 3, Big Butch kept every record, every poster, throwing his son's creations up on the walls of their modest Cartersville, Georgia home.
But with every success that Walker notched into his belt, superstardom seemed to always elude him. Instead, he climbed charts not as the face on the album, but a name in the liner notes. With a gift for witty lyrics and catchy hooks, he was prime to create the same for pop and rock stars alike. Eventually, he fell into producing and writing songs for some of the biggest acts today, including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and motorcycle buddy P!nk.
Butch Walker talks about the evolution of the music industry in this exclusive clip from his documentary, Out of Focus:
When asked how he started producing other artists, Walker gushed, "Prince was one of my favorite artists of all time growing up and I just always found it fascinating that this guy was a complete star. Questionable dresser, but what an amazing singer, songwriter and producer. He could do it all." From there Walker obsessively taught himself how to mix, starting with a 4-track cassette recorder in his parents' basement. He later began making demo tapes for people for extra cash between tours in the '90s. "When I finally had a hit song for my last band Marvelous 3, we had a song called 'Freak of the Week' that was kind of a Top 5 hit. People started asking in the industry who produced that and they started asking me to do stuff for their artists. It just kind of all happened from I guess my own records that I’ve done."
Walker's most interesting collaborator? The notably eccentric genius that is Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. His biggest regret? Waiting around the studio for an indifferent Lindsay Lohan whom he practically walked out on.
Then the opportunity came for the creation of Out of Focus. Filmmakers Shane Valdés and Peter Harding were initially brought in to shoot a making-of for Walker's 2011 album The Spade, but wanted to expand on the footage they gathered into a feature-length movie. "They decided they wanted to make a movie and I was like why? You’re gonna make a movie about a guy who’s not famous like Bono, that’s kind of weird," admitted Walker. "But that was the idea of the movie, so then I just said make it about a guy who loves music and lives and breathes it 24/7."
What Out of Focus elucidates for viewers is just how prolific Walker has been over his long music career. It will come as a surprise to casual Walker fans that songs they have heard in the past were of his doing. But the film isn't a piece of narcissistic puff, as the directors interviewed Walker's family, friends, and even ex-bandmates without the musician knowing, both the good and bad. It's a raw, authentic and un-embellished look into one of the industry's great talents that rightfully gives him the belated recognition he deserves. And perhaps, unintentionally, Walker's love and need for music is so contagious, it instills a yearning for viewers to play music themselves.
But the film also tells a universal story of a man reconciling with the imminent loss his father as he steps up to be a good father for a son of his own. On Peachtree Battle, the country-tinged track "Let It Go Where It's Supposed To" directly addresses this topic. Walker released Peachtree—which sounds increasingly closer to his Southern roots—with only half the intended songs because his father wanted to have it before he was gone. A last addition to his collections on the wall.
"I felt like [the film] will be something fun for the family to have and my dad will love this," Walker said. "He was a content junkie, everything I did he had to have the first copy of, he had to have it, so I’m glad he got to see it before he passed away. It was very timely that of course now it came out a week after he passed away, so it would be a little hard to watch for me to it now."