Butch Walker: Ghost Writers

Butch Walker enlists Ryan Adams to augment his signature ambient folk metal

Butch Walker built his reputation with hard-hitting, self-produced rock albums marked by a bright, polished sound. When he set out to make Afraid Of Ghosts, an LP partially inspired by the death of his father, he decided to forget about perfection and aim for a more visceral, acoustic feel.

“I didn’t plan on making an album about my dad dying,” says Walker. “I don’t know if anyone would want to listen to my grief for an entire record, but the songs were all inspired by thoughts about life and death. We all know life has limitations and death is inevitable; then it happens and you have to deal with it. It’s easy to write about the girls and parties. It’s harder to talk about loss and missed connections.”

The songs on Afraid Of Ghosts were written over the course of a year, then recorded with Ryan Adams and his band in a four-day burst of creativity. It’s the first time Walker worked with an outside producer. “I wanted a quieter, natural sound for these songs,” he says. “I’m a different person than I was during my more aggressive 20s. I didn’t want the music to sound too thought-out or rehearsed.”

Walker likes to retain control in the studio and knew that turning over the reins to Adams might create friction, but he had faith in their collaboration. “I’ve been playing with Ryan and his band during our recent tour together, and it felt good to just grab a guitar and start singing,” he says. “If I did the same thing in the studio, I thought I might end up loving it. I knew I’d have to submit and not be a bullheaded asshole and fight to get everything my way, but if I went in with an open mind and let go, it might be a better record. Ryan said, ‘You can sing good and play good and write good, but the only way to make it sound like it’s not too good is to capture some of the mess,’ which is what he did.”

The band didn’t hear the songs they were going to record until Walker played them in the studio, so the arrangements were created on the fly, with ideas flowing freely between the players. The result is a bracing mix of acoustic guitar, ambient keyboard textures and rock-band distortion, all recorded onto a single tape machine. (The LP also features guest appearances by Johnny Depp and Bob Mould.)

“Everybody was miked the whole time, just like onstage,” says Walker. “We didn’t edit anything out or try to clean up tape hiss. We wanted to hear five guys in a room shuffling around, waiting for their parts to come up. We’d throw out a few ideas, then record, never more than one or two takes, and we never went back to listen to what we did. When we thought we got it in the moment, we moved on. I think we captured the real emotion of the songs, a combination of punk-rock spirit and human fragility.”

—j. poet