When a band have been producing their own hits for a decade, it takes a brave producer to jump into the hot seat...
In 2007, Butch Walker lost everything he owned. A fire destroyed the splendid Malibu house Butch rented from Flea of the Chili Peppers, not sparing the huge studio attached to one side. Butch himself was playing a gig in New York at the time, but the fire took away dozens of vintage microphones and every piece of recording gear he'd collected. It destroyed his 46 vintage guitars, and the master recordings of everything he'd done since he was a kid.
Twelve years and more later, the producer, musician, singer and songwriter has a new studio, RubyRed, located in what he describes as the "more fire-retardant Santa Monica". An all-consuming fire is not something you get over, he says. You just learn how to get on with it. And that's what he did. He was already a busy producer at the time, and he had a solo career that showed no signs of slackening. He knew he had to keep going and that, as he puts it, he couldn't just give up and cry.
He took heart from the help that was offered. "There was Jack Joseph Puig, Brendan O'Brien, Michael Beinhorn, all these guys calling me out of the blue, going: 'Dude, I couldn't imagine if that happened to me and I lost all my stuff!' They were like, 'I'm gonna give you access to my warehouse, and you can pick anything out you want and use it. You can work at my studio.' Man, it was so moving. Anyway, I lived pretty lean for a while. Now, I've got a pretty nice collection of gear again. But, you know, I'm keeping it out of Malibu."
Before the fire, Butch had slowly but surely built a successful career, primarily as a producer, working with Pink, Bowling For Soup, Pete Yorn, and others. His work as a producer had all started back in the '90s with his band of the time, Marvelous 3, in his home state of Georgia. He'd made demos for other bands in — where else? — his parents' garage, discovering the ins and outs of recording with a four-track cassette machine. "When I made the first record for the Marvelous 3, that was just me having a side project to a band I was already in, and my first time dabbling with this new-fangled thing called Pro Tools," he recalls.
He later nudged his gear up to a 16-channel ADAT rig and a little Yamaha mixer, before news reached him that a local store, Atlanta Discount Music, had a used Pro Tools rig with a NuBus Mac (2GB hard drive!), SCSI drive, a cheap Rolls mic preamp, and two microphones. It was previously the property of an R&B group, Silk, who'd used it to make their one-hit wonder, 'Freak Me'.
"I didn't have any money," Butch says, "so I was going to put it on lay away. Well, my girlfriend at the time — who's now my wife — went and took her bartending money and bought me that rig. It was like that ridiculous pie-in-the-sky artistic aspiration, I'm going: 'I will make hit songs on this thing and I'm gonna pay you back every dime!' I mean, if there was a dollar for every time an artist said that, and then nothing ever happened, everyone would be rich. The thing is, I did!"
This new way of recording for Butch meant a lot of mistakes, a lot of calling the guys at the store for help, a lot of trial and error. "OK, going to school to learn this stuff now is great — but there's a lot of things you don't learn in school. You can't be taught common sense, and how to deal with egos and artists. Mostly, they'll teach you the technical side, and that's not the way I learned. And that's not the way I care about making records."
He used his new rig to record the Marvelous 3's Hey! album in 1998, and the main song, 'Freak Of The Week', got some heavy rotation at Atlanta's biggest radio station. "Other stations picked it up, and next thing you know we had a Top 5 hit at Alternative — for a band that couldn't get arrested, couldn't get signed. Then, all of a sudden, every record label is flying us out promising to sign us, chasing the single, that whole thing. But I got my publishing deal out of it, and I paid my wife back. I upgraded to a Pro Tools TDM rig, got a Neve console, went all for it, buying the old Purple Dragon studio in Atlanta. And now I'd started getting phone calls from people to make their records. I had record companies calling: 'Hey, who wrote that song?' Well, I did. 'Oh, who produced it?' Well, I did. 'Who recorded it?' I did."
A producer was born. A few years later, Butch came to wider notice when he scored a big hit with Avril Lavigne, co-writing and producing her single 'My Happy Ending' in 2004, and two further songs on the Under My Skin album that followed. Trouble was, he seemed to be spending a lot of his time on a plane between Atlanta and Los Angeles, as his work took him more and more often to LA. Finally, in 2006, he sold the studio (and the house he'd built on top of it), packed up, and moved to LA. Since then he's had increasing success as a producer with many other artists, including Weezer, Andrew McMahon, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Tommy Lee, Fall Out Boy, Katy Perry, Panic At The Disco, Rayland Baxter and more.
Diversity seems a keyword for Butch. "Yeah — everybody in this industry wants to box you in immediately," he says with a sigh. "I came up making rock, punk, and metal records for no money, indie budgets and no budgets. Then I had the hit with Avril Lavigne, and all of a sudden, oh, that's the teen-pop-girl guy. I was like, really? I just did a Sevendust record, and I just did an Injected record. Thing is, people don't have open minds most of the time. I enjoy mixing it up."
Job offers come via his manager, Jonathan Daniel at Crush Music, who filters the requests. "He's been managing me for 20 years," Butch says. "I was one of his first artists, so we've been thick as thieves for two decades. He's the brains of the operation and he's my partner in crime. I trust him always."
When it was announced in 2017 that Green Day had shifted to Crush and would now be represented by Jonathan, Butch did not hesitate. "I said to him 'hey, I will give my left leg to do a Green Day record'. I said 'I love that band, and I think I could make a record for them that would not be something they've been typically used to doing, but that would still embrace their punk rock roots.'"
That's what happened, and that record is the Green Day album Father Of All Motherfuckers, released in February 2020. It all began with some exploratory phone calls between Butch and Green Day's main man, Billie Joe Armstrong. Billie was soon shooting song ideas at Butch, who would record stuff and send it straight back to Billie.
"He started getting excited," Butch recalls, "said it was sounding cool. Our influences were like we'd had the same record collection from childhood — ELO, the Sweet, the Clash, Bowie, T.Rex, even metal. Billie's very much a vintage metal buff, knows all that stuff. And I came up with '70s classic rock and '80s metal, and the glam scene, which punk was kind of synonymous with — just way different haircuts and clothes. As Steve Jones will tell you, that dude was way more into power pop and glam than he was punk rock. He hated punk rock."
They hit it off. Over the last decade or so, Billie had made the Green Day records himself, but soon became comfortable enough to hand Butch the creative control he needed and wanted as a producer. "It was a rarity to be working with a band that's been working together for 30 years, since they were little kids," Butch says, "and still they love each other, still they love being in the room with each other, and still they hang out with each other. Yes, that's rare, and you can smell it and you can hear it in the music. This is a band of guys that are approaching 50 who still give a fuck, who still care."
Beyond this tight trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool and Mike Dirnt, an important factor in the making of the record was Chris Dugan, who has engineered Green Day and Billie's side projects for the last 10 years or so. "He's super good," Butch says. "Initially, I didn't ask for his assistance — because, again, I didn't want them to go back into the comfort zone of what they were used to. Because then I wouldn't have been any use to them. If they wanted me for my thing and my sound and what I do, then you just have to let me work in my studio and engineer myself, because that's how I make it sound like that thing you want."
Nonetheless, the making of the record was quite the collaborative team effort. Files would zip to and fro down the line, with recordings at Butch's place in Santa Monica, then some re-recordings up at Billie's place in Oakland with Chris Dugan, and so on back and forth. "Billie would send me an idea," Butch recalls, "and Chris would send it in an entire session, so I could go oh, I want the drums from this, or I want the bass from this, or I want the guitars from this, and I don't want this. Then I would put it in my system, do all my things to it, and send a rough reference to Billie. We did half the record in-house here — they were here to track everything — and half of it out of house."
Butch describes Chris as "a real badass behind the board", and would lean hardest on Chris when he wanted to get an accurate feel for the band's specific likes and dislikes, because it takes someone who's worked with them for a long time to have that kind of detailed insight. "I'd be like 'Hey, what is it about that?'" Butch recalls. "'Is there a certain swing I'm not getting? Am I locking in something not enough, or too much?' And it was great, because Chris was almost like my therapist for Billie. I could talk to him about the quirks and stuff of how it works and how everybody works."
Butch says a producer should listen carefully and be sure to be in tune with what the artist gets excited about. On Father Of All Motherfuckers, that certainly included the drum sound. Butch selected Tchad Blake to mix the album — "I've always wanted to work with Tchad, he's one of my favourite engineer-producer-mixer guys of all time" — and he reckons the drum mix in particular hits the spot. "Take away everything you remember about textbook pop-punk-101 sounding records," Butch says, "where it's like super robotically quantised drums and beats and fills, and pointy sharp kick drums, and super snappy over-compressed snare drums, and washy fucking cymbals. I can't stand to hear all that any more. When Tré would come to the studio here to cut drums, my setup is pretty old school. I don't have 20 microphones on the drums in a giant, huge, cavernous room. That's not how I do it."
What he does is to have a permanent ready-to-go mic setup. The drums are in the corner of the RubyRed room, which is about 20 by 25 feet; Butch describes it as a small Motown/Stax kind of a room. "It's a garage. It's just a very well–treated garage. There's no ambience. My console's in the same room, so I'm working and rough-mixing everything in the same room that all the gear's in, and I like it that way."
Those drum mics — not all of which he'll necessarily use — are an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick and a Soyuz Bomblet on the outside, with a Chandler REDD mono overhead, plus two Soyuz 013 small-diaphragm mics in an X-Y pattern over the Chandler for when he prefers a stereo image, or a mono-stereo blend. There are a couple of Sennheiser 421s on the toms and a Calrec CM1050 for the snare, while the hi-hat mic, according to Butch, is a "cheap shitty" Audix. "I also have an SM57 as what they like to call the 'Wurst' mic, pointed at the drummer's crotch. My room mic is an AEA R88 stereo ribbon, which I sometimes use, but not always."
He says the band agreed that they didn't want the album to sound anything like American Idiot or the records they'd made after that, and that included the drums. "I was like, let's get that '70s glam cool, but also like Topper Headon drums, Gary Glitter drums, or ELO drums," Butch says, "where they're thuddy and low-endy and tubby and cool, and you can put effects other than reverb on them — you can put tape slap on them and they still stand out in the mix."
The most blatant glam-influenced track is 'Oh Yeah!'. Based on a sample of Joan Jett's cover of Gary Glitter's 'Do You Wanna Touch Me?', it was one of the first songs Billie sent to Butch, and he was immediately taken with it. "It had the attitude I wanted but also this crazy kinda glam '70s Sweet vibe," he says. The 'yeah, oh yeah' from the sample became the hook, turning into something of a duet between Billie and Joan. Butch created an arrangement out of the rough demo. "I got to something that was roughly three minutes long and felt like it had good flow and had sections. Then I created the breakdown in the middle, and I did the floor tom beat for the 'everybody is a star' chorus, which I wanted to sound super tribal and stompy and charging, like a bunch of rhinos running down a hallway."
He put what he calls his "cool weird H910 Harmonizer vocal swish" on the vocal, providing yet more of the period feel they were aiming for, and emphasised the drum sample with a little more bottom end by adding a thuddy stomp sample to the kick. "Plus some tape slap echo on the drums, the toms and everything," he says, "to get that 'Bennie And The Jets' meets 'Ballroom Blitz', or something like that."
Feeling there was still something missing, Butch added another Joan Jett scream: the 'owwww!' yelp from Joan's 'I Love Rock & Roll', and put that throughout the song, adding delay here, ping-ponging it left and right there. "It made it sound even more exciting," he says. "Then I took a Moog, and in the chorus I added this almost hip-hop Doppler effect, with a very small wiry sawtooth sound, almost like Gary Numan. I heavily modulated that so it sounded psycho, because I wanted the chorus to have this kinda dizzy, going-crazy, chaotic feel. And the guitars double it, almost like the Clash's 'Police On My Back', something that Mick Jones would do big-time. It started really coming together and sounding like this party jam, almost like a jock jam — by a band who couldn't be bothered with that kind of stuff."
Butch Walker: "It was a rarity to be working with a band that's been working together for 30 years, since they were little kids, and still they love each other.
That glam feel, the '70s vibe, comes easily to Butch. "That's my wheelhouse as far as my favourite sounds. My room is set up so I can easily get sounds harking back to those eras. All my front end is obviously analogue, and mostly vintage stuff. My console is an early '70s Quad Eight 2082, which is that sound as well. It's the same console on the back cover of Steely Dan's Countdown To Ecstasy, this was their console. It was in Studio B at Village Recorders, right down the street from here — that's where that console was first installed, and it made its way around the West Coast. I found it in Tacoma, put it all back together. It's pretty much the workhorse, 20 channels, and every channel's being used for everything. All my drums are going through it, bass, vocals, keyboards, you name it. When I run out of those 20, I've got a few [Neve] 1073s in a rack and a few APIs.
"I have a modest three bays of 12-space racks, and that's it. I have some Chandler pres, I have a couple [Empirical Labs] Distressors, and I've got a Retro Instruments Sta-Level tube compressor and Pultec-style EQ. And I've got a Sphere Fab Four preamp that I use for all my keyboards and the piano. That sounds really nice, and it's basically the same exact mic pre that's in my board, because Sphere and Electrodyne and Quad Eight all had a baby at the same time."
Billie brought some enviable guitars to the sessions, including his classic '50s Les Paul Juniors, along with a choice vintage Tele and Goldtop. "He brought in one little rack with three or four guitars on it that were worth more than anything in my entire studio put together," Butch recalls, with a sigh. "I had all my workhorse guitars here, too, which are player grade. I like that stuff. I don't want anything that makes me nervous, you know?"
Tré used his SJC Custom drums and all manner of percussion, and Mike Dirnt had his '60s Precision Basses, although on several songs Butch persuaded him to try a favourite short-scale Mustang Bass fitted with flatwounds. "I've done it before myself on millions of records, but I've got tired of that real glassy piano-like brand-new-strings-on-a-P-Bass sound. It doesn't sound good to me any more. I like the big boomy warmth and the rubbery mid-range of a '70s bass sound, which is my Mustang, or even sometimes a P-Bass with flatwounds."
Mike's basses went through a Radial JD7 signal splitter into Butch's Collins 356E tube compressor, and the preamp was one of those in the Quad Eight board. "Then I'd run him in line-level mode into UA's Ampeg B15 Portaflex plug-in," he says. "I'm an avid UA fan, and I use the shit out of their plug-ins. Like, you can get so many versatile sounds out of that one bass amp simulation — you can go woolly and beefy and overdriven and gnarly and fuzzy, or you can go super clean and bouncy. So we went all over the map, depending on the song."
Keyboards were rare on the album. "It's not that kind of band," Butch says. "But we did do some flourishes, organs and stuff, which was all from things I had in-house here. Yeah, that's harpsichord or maybe celeste on 'Graffitia', in the little Brian Wilson breakdown section. There were sections we really wanted to go out of the box, and 'Graffitia' is one of my favourites on the record — it sounds like a combination of the Clash meets the Beach Boys."
The production work shows no signs of drying up for Butch Walker. Following the Green Day sessions, he cut new songs for forthcoming releases with Jewel, the Wallflowers, Billy Idol and Lovelytheband. "You wouldn't think to put these guys in the same room with each other, normally," he says, "but I love that. I grew up on so many different styles of music."
Meanwhile, Butch continues to balance his own solo work with his production for others. "I love both," he says with a shrug. "I think it's just in me, and I don't really want to stop doing either. But making records, helping someone create and get to the finish line of an artistic vision that they have, for lack of sounding pretentious, is one of my favourite things ever."
Recording Billie Joe Armstrong's vocals provided a good example of the way an experienced producer knows when to pull back. Singers need their comfort zones, and it's unwise to shift them away. "Billie has always done his own vocals," Butch Walker says, "so he was like, 'Hey man, would you be bummed if I did what's left of the vocals on these songs at home?' I was like 'Hell no, you've been doing this for 30 years, and you're a great punk rock singer — there's no way I'm gonna teach you anything new on how to sing!' I said you're better off being comfortable."
Making musicians comfortable is near the top of any producer's to-do list, and it especially applies to singers. "The vocal is everything in a song," Butch says. "Everything. If we don't have that and if it's not as good as it can be and it's not comfortable, then why bother? So I'm not going to say 'Oh no, I have the best microphone for you here.' I don't care what you sing into! I'd have you singing into a fucking 57, and I'm gonna make it sound good. His tracks all came in sounding amazing anyway, because he's just used to doing vocals with Chris. So I said by all means, man, get in there and do it."
In fact, a lot of the vocals that ended up on the record were the demo vocals. Butch would sometimes add harmonies and background vocal parts himself: there was no egotistical insistence that the band had to do everything.
There are some cool guitar amps at Butch Walker's place, including a Goodsell Labrador 40 ("made by Richard Goodsell in Atlanta, Georgia, and basically like an AC30"), a BadCat Cub IV 40R ("one of my favourite amps, which John Thompson makes down in Newport"), and a 3 Monkeys Orangutan ("sort of like my Bassman"), plus a Two Rock Emerald Pro, a '65 Princeton Reverb, and an old purple-stripe Mesa Boogie Mark III head. "Billie would do a lot of the guitars here," he says of the Green Day sessions, "and then he would go do extra parts back at his place. I think he would just always use the amps that he has, but he brought some of his amps down here. He had an old Park, which has been modded — super crazy high gain. And he had a Divided By 13, which was a little more glassy, a bit more transparent."
Any of the amps can be patched into two 2x12 cabs that Butch has permanently miked in an isolation cabinet. But the arrival of a Universal Audio OX Amp Top Box — a sort of combined load box, attenuator and modeller — has seen a shift of tactics. "It's been a game-changer for me," he says. "Half the time I don't use my cabinets any more. I'll just run my heads into the OX. They have such great cabs and mics built into that thing now — the room mics are insanely accurate and great. I can get an even bigger sound than I can get in my studio, if I wanted it. But, you know, Billie was never asking me, like, 'Hey, is that through a cabinet or is that direct?' It was just a combination of all these killer guitar sounds. It worked out great having that setup."