Butch Walker didn’t intend to make a Christmas album. The singer-songwriter/producer extraordinaire was simply getting together with his band to rehearse some tunes for his annual caroling party last year and just happened to have the tape rolling in the background. The demos were raw and gritty — filled with false starts, bouts laughter over someone hitting the wrote chord, goy reworked lyrics, inside jokes, and witty banter between boozed-up friends. But they were also completely original takes on some the holiday season’s most iconic tunes — a big band rendition “Frosty the Snowman,” a mashup “Feliz Navidad” and Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” a pedal steel guitar infused “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” which is artfully kicked f by Walker’s best Elvis Presley impersonation, and more. After listening back, it was clear that the album needed to be released, as is. Thus, Over the Holidays and Under the Influence was born.
Billboard caught up with Walker to discuss his 8-track Christmas release (out today on iTunes, Spotify, and limited edition vinyl), which he affectionately refers to as “improv comedy.” “It’s not a record you put on to mellow out and relax to. It’s definitely a Christmas party record,” he says, noting that the album provides the perfect glimpse into the behind the scenes antics him and his bandmates.
Billboard: What made you decide to do a Christmas album?
Butch Walker: I have a Christmas caroling party at my house every year. I break out the guitars. The whole neighborhood comes. It’s a lot fun. It used to be traditional going door-to-door ordeal but basically everybody in the entire neighborhood ended up being at my house so we just keep it in the backyard now. My whole band came out and did it last year. We got together at my studio beforehand to rehearse and work out some sounds because we were going to go full out with a PA system and do it up. We got together at my studio. We all got a little bit high as balls with a pretty funny buzz on and we recorded it while we were working the songs up. Everybody took a work tape home it to listen to make sure that they knew their parts for the caroling party. Then we all kind hit each other back up on text and said, “This thing is funny. It’s great. We should put it out as a record.” And so we added a horn section to it and that was it. It was all live. It’s very raggedy because there are a lot false starts and stops on the songs. There is funny back-and-forth banter and us just being goy like we are in every rehearsal. We figured it would be a nice little window to the world as far as how we cut it up behind the scenes so we had the record ready to come out, as is, all it’s warts and all. My bass player came up with the title Over The Holidays And Under the Influence, which I thought was pretty funny. We recreated the Beach Boys' Christmas album cover, which is pretty hilarious because I don’t think they were trying to be funny but we dressed up as them and did the whole thing with the Christmas tree and the cardigan sweaters. It’s hard for me to look at it without laughing.
As a producer, you’re constantly having to put out super polished material for the artists you are working with. Was it fun for you to release something more rock 'n' roll and gritty?
Yeah. I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to having to always compromise on other people’s records due to the overthinking department the A&R people or the managers or whatever. Often, it becomes this thing “Oh we have to do that again. We have to cut that again. It’s not perfect. It’s not right.” There is so much that and it just starts to kind wear on me when I’m in the studio. But I’m a team player and I want to make people happy with their record. I get it. I know a lot people just want perfection. I don’t really care about perfection. I just want it to be awesome and sometimes things that are awesome are not perfect. So it was fun to say, “Let’s just put it out as is.” I guess you gotta be pretty secure with yourself to put stuff out there where you are singing all out tune and you are messing up the chords and having to start and stop all over again. But I think that’s kind the fun and the charm. And that’s what people end up looking for. They end up digging on the Internet and YouTube to find demos and outtakes their favorite artists just to make sure that they are human beings. So I think that’s kind why we did it this way. Plus there was no way we were going to recreate it and make it better by redoing it. Who cares about a polished Christmas record? We’re not trying to make the Mariah Carey Christmas album.
What makes the Butch Walker versions these tunes so different from the classics?
Some the lyrics are altered for fun. We wanted it to have its own personality. We do that in rehearsal all the time anyway where I will go around and change the lyrics to be funny. The great thing about this record is there is a unanimous spirit. You hear it in every single person in the room and you can hear every single person on their microphone talking and laughing and breathing the entire thing. It’s basically just a half-hour long conversation with my band. It can be disastrous but it can be fun. I think we ended up making it more fun than disastrous.
We have “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” which we’ve always loved and have done at the caroling party. We incorporated the instrumentation we would do live, which is pedal steel guitar and some big three-part harmonies that are sung very gang style. “Feliz Navidad” is probably my favorite one on there because we got the bright idea to stop in the middle it and go into another Christmas song I have covered in the past, which is “Last Christmas” by Wham!. We combined those two but we didn’t know we were doing it as we were recording because I just stopped the song and started singing it. We were like, “Oh let’s do that. Let’s go back and do it in the second chorus.” We were all going with the flow and improvising with these as we went. There is one tender moment where we did “Little Drummer Boy.” We didn’t want to fuck that one up because it’s a beautiful song. We did our homage to some the more big band era stuff. Like with “Frosty the Snowman,” we made it almost more a big band vibe, sort a Brian Setzer meets Sinatra version it. We gave our nod to Hall and Oates on their version “Jingle Bell Rock” back in the '80s and went that direction with that song and kept it in that style. “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” is very much an obvious nod to Springsteen’s live version. We always like jamming that version because it was awesome, sax solo and all. The whole thing is fun. It just makes me smile when I listen to it.
What is the perfect scenario to listen to this album in?
This is definitely a Christmas party record. It’s not a record you put on to mellow out and relax to. It definitely puts a spin on the holidays, which can sometime be a fucking drag for people – especially this day and age when you go home and everybody is disagreeing on politics and religion and gun control and all these heavy subjects that are being debated right now that are so brutal. We just felt like we needed to make the world laugh a little bit on this and not be so heavy. There is a time and a place but not at Christmas. Keep it light. Keep it fun. If anything, my kid is going to get a kick out it. He laughs every time I swear so he’ll love this album.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m in the studio right now with Matt Nathanson writing for his next record. I am working with this band Coin. And then I’ve got the Raven Baxter record that I just did that’s getting mixed right now. I’ve got the new Struts album that I did a bunch songs on. And then the new Weezer record just came out and the new Fall Out Boy record is coming out; I did a bunch the singles on that one. I’m ready for a break myself so I’m hoping I can just sit back and enjoy some these records coming out so I can maybe just go ride my motorcycle and do nothing for a bit.
You seem to be able to crank out continuous hits. What’s your secret?
There are way more misses than there are hits but at the same time, I think more than anything, I still enjoy my job and I just want to continue doing my job and liking it. I try not to burn out on it. A lot people do too much and they write too many songs and sometimes those songs end up sounding like the same song. You know how they say absence makes the heart grow founder? I like to think that the more time I can spend stepping away from the studio and music, the more you can come back and still love it. I’m trying to exercise that right now as much as I can because I don’t like the feeling burning out. It’s hard to stay inspired and excited about things if you don’t take a break from it and come back to it.
You must be turning down tons requests for productions at this point.
Yeah, we definitely turn down more than we do. I tend to put my heart and soul into everything. I put a lot blood, sweat, and tears into songs. I’m not one those guys that has a team people doing everything for me and I just come by the studio on my way to a fucking Apple Store to check in on everybody to see if everything is sounding good. I’m there for the entire thing. I’m there for most the time when the song is written all the way to when it’s mixed. That’s a lot time away from my family and a lot time away from sleeping and a lot time away from anything. I’d rather just choose things that seem interesting to me.
Are you gearing up for a follow up to Stay Gold?
Yeah, I sure hope so. Right now I haven’t had a chance to write a single song or record one. I would like to spend the rest the holiday taking the time f and that’s usually when a lot the song ideas will start coming because when I’m focusing on other people’s records, I don’t think about my own stuff. I get too distracted. Maybe I’m just a shitty multitasker. I’d rather focus on one thing at a time. But I’ll be itching to do something soon for sure.
Stream 'Over The Holidays And Under the Influence' below: