- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

A California wildfire decimated Butch Walker’s rented home in November 2007. Every possession he owned, from musical instruments to rare master recordings, fell victim to the flames. Mr. Walker, who was touring through New York at the time, quickly returned to the West Coast to deal with the situation.

“I had writer’s block before the fires,” says the songwriter, who maintains a solo career while also producing records for artists including Avril Lavigne. “I suddenly didn’t have a home, so I guess I was going back [to California] without really going home.”

Mr. Walker soon found himself funneling his emotions into additional tunes. He wrote “Going Back/Going Home,” an acoustic song that reflected on his long career. Before long, his fourth solo album had emerged from the ashes of his former home.

“Sycamore Meadows” takes its name from the street on which Mr. Walker formerly lived. Geography is often invoked in the album, which mixes soulful ballads with clever, tightly crafted pop/rock. Images of Hollywood, Brooklyn and Atlanta all pepper the lyrics, creating a composite home for the semihomeless songwriter.

Of course, another solo album signifies another tour, which Mr. Walker seems eager to launch. “About five nights out of the week,” he explains, “I am gonna be having a blast onstage with my band.”

Asked to compare that routine to his life at home, he seems a bit less enthused. “I’ll go into my studio and do a little music. I will go to meetings if I absolutely have to. … I go out on my bikes to clear my head. Get tea. Maybe go out into town at night and have drinks with my friends. Isn’t that a boring life?”

Hardly. When Mr. Walker isn’t touring the country or twirling his thumbs during company meetings, he’s one of the most in-demand producers in Hollywood. Two of 2008’s biggest artists, Pink and Katy Perry, both enlisted his help on recent albums, a testament to Mr. Walker’s talent and lengthy resume.

Nevertheless, it’s the strength of Mr. Walker’s solo work that’s most impressive. “Sycamore Meadows” is a heartbroken record, filled with ruminations on breakups and veiled references to that fateful California wildfire, yet buoyed by amiable melodies. “The Weight of Her” channels Tom Petty’s heartland swagger; “Vessels” evokes the fist-pumping anthems of yesteryear; and “Here Comes the … ” tempers a lover’s exit with warm, poignant vocals.

Mr. Walker now issues his albums independently, an opportunity he credits to recent changes in the industry. “Artists are able to go back to controlling their destiny instead of having to rely on someone else for their success,” he explains, advising all aspiring musicians to “go out and play shows, build an audience, make your own records on a computer or whatever you can find or afford, and decide your own fate.”

“It all boils down to talent,” he sums up. “If you have it and want people to see it, they will keep coming back. Not as easy as it sounds, but you have to try.”

Butch Walker and Jesse Malin will play a sold-out show at DC9 on Monday. Doors open at 8 p.m., and music begins a half-hour thereafter.

Academy in session

“There’s a lot of history at the 9:30 Club,” says bassist Adam Siska. “I know that when John Frusciante came back to the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the ‘Californication’ album, the first show they did was there.”

Mr. Siska has his own experience with the 9:30 Club, having played the venue several times with his band, the Academy Is, which returns to the club Monday night. “We’re always blown away by the place,” he says. “The crowd, the staff, the sound. It seems like people always come to hear music and have a good time, and that’s what we look for.”

Since 2003, the Chicago natives making up the Academy Is have blended chugging guitars with high-tenor vocals. Like their friends in Fall Out Boy - another group hailing from the Windy City - the musicians write material that is often lumped into the catchall “emo” genre, although their recent album has more in common with contemporary pop music.

Sam Hollander and Dave Katz, a hit-making production team otherwise known as S*A*M & Sluggo, joined the band in the recording studio. The resulting album, “Fast Times at Barrington High,” may be the group’s best work to date.

“Those guys have a great track record,” Mr. Siska says of the two producers. “I remember driving in the car one day, listening to the radio and hearing five songs in a row that were produced by Sam and Dave. This record was a blast, and we definitely want to get the same team together in the future.”

Some of the album’s strongest songs, including the sugary “His Girl Friday,” were collaborations between the band and its production team. “They know how to take an existing song and make it the best it can be,” Mr. Siska continues. “Sometimes we’ll play something that sounds perfect, but we end up chasing our tail. We’ll spend a week working on a change, and by the end of that week, it’s just a confused, bad version of the song we once had. The best songs are often spontaneous, and Sam and Dave will tell you what’s great about what you’ve already done.”

The Academy Is will stop by the 9:30 Club on Monday to play a show alongside We the Kings, Carolina Liar and Hey Monday. Doors for the $20 concert open at 6 p.m.

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