The Producer Diaries

Butch Walker is the Forrest Gump of rock ’n’ roll: Somehow he’s passed through nearly every pop milestone of the last two decades, always leaving his idiosyncratic mark in his wake. Indeed, the 41-year-old Georgia native has made an art of failing upwards through the music industry. First, his hair-metal band SouthGang got signed to a big record deal—only to be rendered irrelevant by the rise of grunge. Next, at the tail end of alternative rock’s ’90s heyday, he managed to score a smash single with his band Marvelous 3, which became a one-hit wonder.

Walker got the last laugh, though. He’s gone on to great success as a songwriter and producer, collaborating with artists like Pink and Cee Lo Green. Walker has collected all his cautionary tales into a no-holds-barred memoir, Drinking With Strangers: Music Lessons From a Teenage Bullet Belt (William Morrow), co-written with Interview Contributing Music Editor Matt Diehl. Here, Walker gives up the epiphanies that drive pop’s most unlikely antihero.

MATT DIEHL: Your musical career started in classic Hollywood fashion. You moved from semirural Georgia to make it in Los Angeles’s late-’80s Sunset Strip scene. What did you discover there?

BUTCH WALKER: I came from a town that had one McDonald’s and lots of farms. But we knew from MTV that all the bands on the radio were in L.A., so we got down to fighting weight, got our leather jackets, cowboy boots, and Aqua Net Super Hold, and off we went! Coming from the Bible Belt, touching down there was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. Every girl, and every guy as well, was gorgeous. Groupies would offer you blowjobs on the street. It was all looks, no hooks. I learned not to worry about the hair as much as the songs.

DIEHL: It’s interesting that, years later, you’d end up working with your idols from that era, like Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx.

WALKER: It was obviously me doing the backstroke in a sea of irony to become friends and work with anyone from Motley Crue. I didn’t even think they’d be alive, let alone exist as a band this long. Way past the metal days, I ended up co-writing a single for Tommy Lee, which was a fascinating way to fulfill a childhood fantasy. I don’t know anyone who has more fun than Tommy: He taught me to not sweat the petty stuff—although he’d probably say, “Go ahead and pet the sweaty stuff.”

DIEHL: You yourself had a hit single, “Freak of the Week.” What were the lessons from your short stay at the top?

WALKER: I learned I didn’t want that pressure to constantly come up with the next big single. The truth is, if that’s your only hit, you’ll be back at the car wash eventually.