“I’m Trying to Make more Modern Music”: An Interview with Ryley Walker

Will Schube talks with Ryley Walker about writing lyrics, working with a producer, getting older, and comedy.
By    August 11, 2016


“Can I buy you a drink? But my credit is quite shit,” laments Ryley Walker on “The Roundabout.” It’s this moment—amongst many more on new album Golden Sings that Have been Sung—that establishes a new direction in Walker’s music. His 2014 Dead Oceans debut, Primrose Green was less focused, less sharp, less interested in the perceptive details that make Golden Sings such a joy.

The new record is equal parts ’90s experimental indie music and lush, nuanced orchestration. Gastr de Sol, Tortoise, Sea and Cake…Those Chicago bands loom large and Walker will be the first to admit it. But equally prevalent is a constant striving for the ornate; not necessarily fluffed up, precious moments, but twists and turns of actual beauty. Walker’s always approached this terrain, but inexperience and a lack of confidence held prior releases back. Golden Sings is Walker’s highest moment yet, and the 26 year old shows no signs of coming down any time soon. —Will Schube

Ryley Walker’s Golden Sings that Have been Sung is out Friday, August 19th, and is available for pre-order here.

How’s your day going so far?

Ryley Walker: It’s going real well. I woke up. I had some leftover beans and potatoes.

Where are you right now?

Ryley Walker: At home in Chicago.

You’ve been touring throughout the summer. What does your live band look like?

Ryley Walker: It all depends on economics. Economics and time decide what’s going on. If there’s no dough I can’t afford a band. So sometimes it’s solo and sometimes it’ll be a five piece…It actually varies a lot, which I really like. Music with all sorts of DNA. The music changes with different musicians and different instrumentation. It’s really cool. It varies.

For bigger cities you’ll do a full band but on smaller dates you’ll go solo?

Ryley Walker: That sounds about right.

For the Primrose Green [Walker’s last album] tour you were playing with a bunch of improv jazz players. Is it the same backing band this time around?

Ryley Walker: I’ve kept mostly everybody in the fold, but it changes here and there.

Has playing with them informed the writing process for your new record, Golden Sings that Have Been Sung?

Ryley Walker: Oh hell yeah. Playing live every night we really jam.

Yeah it sounds more like you than Primrose does, if that makes any sense.

Ryley Walker: Oh yeah, for sure. That’s definitely something I was trying to get across.

When you’re playing live do you stick to the recorded versions or do you vary them from night to night?

Ryley Walker: Night to night it’s pretty different. We change the set list a lot, jam on everything. Everyone comes from a background of improvising so we’re definitely not one of those bands that plays everything the same. We definitely jam a lot. Some bands are like, “We jam!” But I’m like, “really jam??” It’s fun. It’s a nice challenge musically to change things up. We’re all just looking to do that sort of shit.

Are you into the early jam stuff? The Dead, those folks?

Ryley Walker: Oh yeah. One would call me a Head for sure. You can only take so much from that stuff though. There’s also drone music, free jazz stuff too. It’s not 100% based in rock and roll. The Dead is obviously the foundation, though.

I want to talk a little bit about your relationship to Chicago, especially on the new album. Jim O’Rourke, Gastr del Sol, those sorts of acts. How influenced were you by those guys this time around?

Ryley Walker: I grew up around Chicago so bands like Sea and Cake, Tortoise, you know those bands were all huge influences on me growing up. And everyone I’ve played with has been involved in that free jazz, experimental scene. It has everything to do with the new record. It definitely has a home here in Chicago. The new record was all written here, all written about here.

What was it like working with producer Leroy Bach [Wilco]?

Ryley Walker: It was cool. He’s a really good friend of mine. The record label and the powers that be were throwing some names around when I was starting to write songs. And we were thinking about recording around Christmas, which is when I hit up Leroy. He was on my mind, so I just asked him at a party, “Hey man, you wanna produce my next record?” At first I was like, “Oh shit, I shouldn’t have asked that,” because I didn’t know if I was gonna follow through, but then after a few weeks we tried it out.

I went over to his house—I had half ideas…Guitar riffs but not really any lyrics. This was last summer. And we just worked on arrangements. I would give him ideas and he would write parts around that. It was really great having that sort of subjective voice.

Do you write on the guitar exclusively?

Ryley Walker: Yeah that’s all I know. I can’t play anything else for the life of me.

I want to go back a little bit. I first heard your music when you put out that record with Daniel Bachman [Of Deathly Premonitions] back in 2011.

Ryley Walker: Oh shit that was a long time ago.

Listening to the new record, your move from this primal guitar music to these huge, lush arrangements is really striking.

Ryley Walker: That was a lifetime ago, for sure. When I first got into music—solo guitar music—I just worshipped John Fahey and Jack Rose. And that’s what I wanted to do. I love the music obviously, but after a while I just wasn’t that into it anymore. I was never that good at it. It wasn’t my strong suit. I did that for a few years, and I was like, “Goddamnit. Why am I doing this. It’s not me.” That’s the short story from there to now. A lot of it just came out of hard work and touring constantly. I’ve done over 200 shows a year for about four years now.

Just being on the road, getting better at singing. When I first started singing, I was horrible. I tried to go all over the place and do this Nina Simone sort of thing. But now I think I’ve started to find my own voice. Lyrically, too. It’s just through education and practice I guess. Just looking to friends and peers who make music I enjoy. I’m trying to make more modern music. I’m really proud and really happy to be where I am. It’s taken forever and I hope I can keep it moving.

What were you listening to while writing and recording the new album?

Ryley Walker: It’s funny because I wasn’t really listening to a ton of music. But when I was in a music listening mode I was listening to American Music Club—Mark Eitzel’s stuff. I really like that guy. I think Cass McCombs is fucking great. He’s the best. Stuff like that. Cian Nugent. He’s a friend of mine, I love his new record.

A big thing for me was, I didn’t want to make guitar records anymore. Does that make sense? There are some great guitar players out there but I don’t want to be a guitar player that sings, you know? I want to be a songwriter. I’m not a solo guy, I’m not good at that. I can pick and make a riff, but I was more excited about writing good lyrics and making good songs—overall big picture. I didn’t want to make a screeching guitar record. I don’t have it in me.

Did you study music growing up?

Ryley Walker: No, not seriously. I took some lessons and a few classes here and there but not seriously.

Did you go to college?

Ryley Walker: For like ten minutes. I went to UIC in Chicago. Actually, I went to Columbia College in Chicago first. I did so poorly in school that I couldn’t get in anywhere, but Columbia is a liberal arts college, so they’re like, ‘If you’re dumb enough to take out the loans, we’ll let you come.’ I did that. I was going for television writing. I wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to write for Saturday Night Live or something. That was my goal. That was a pipe dream I couldn’t see myself doing so I transferred to UIC and did English for a semester before quitting. I sucked at it.

Who’s your favorite comedian?

Ryley Walker: Oh man. Damn. Woah, huge question. I was always into sketch comedy as a kid. I really liked the Young Ones. That was my favorite show growing up. That and the show Bottom. I loved Carlin and Bill Hicks, stuff like that. You know [mocking voice], subversive, left-field comedy. I wanted to be a writer for television but I was stupid I couldn’t do it.

Lyrically, the new album is funny and really cynical. That didn’t come across as clearly on Primrose. Were lyrics a strong emphasis this time around?

Ryley Walker: My last couple records were sort of like pay-offs for record collector heads. Songs about nature, songs about lost love. I guess I just got better at writing from my own view and perspective. As sad as some of the new songs might sound, I think they’re all kind of funny. Self-deprecating, at least…Humor I always enjoy.

The lyrics are sort of just conversations I have with friends. It came really easy. Once I got over the hump of writing songs about nature or whatever, writing songs about how big of a dumbass I am came really easy. It all came quick and it was really fun to do. It was a really conscious decision.

What was the lyrical process like for Primrose Green?

Ryley Walker: It was definitely a case of throwing shit against the wall. It was kind of self conscious if I’m being honest. It kind of came out not as good as I wanted. And the record lyrically was kind of where it failed. I didn’t want to throw shit against the wall anymore. I wanted the new record to have a personality. I didn’t want it to be wishy-washy high poetry, which I can’t do anyways. I just wrote about funny shit in my life and I’m happy it came out the way it did. I wrote them far in advance too. They were all written down in journals and stuff like that.

You talked about Primrose being a failure—

Ryley Walker: I just don’t think they’re very good albums. If people like them I have nothing against that. I always just like to move on to the next thing. I think they’re fine, I think they’re good records, I guess. But I can’t listen to them. I always kind of cringe. I can’t do it. I have it in my mind that I’m always ready to move on to the next thing. I guess they’re good records and I had a lot of fun making them but I’m just always excited for the next thing.

I think that’s a prevailing sentiment among a lot of artists. You get it out of the way and never think about it again.

Ryley Walker: Yeah, exactly.

How did your relationship with [record label] Dead Oceans come about?

Ryley Walker: It was half luck…They keep their ear to the ground. I got pretty lucky. I know the people from Numero Group. They work with Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans, so I had a sort of in.

I guess the other half is that they look for stuff they like. I was fortunate enough to have friends who work with them and it’s been great ever since. They’re really supportive and really nice people. I recorded Primrose Green before they signed me. I think the intent was to put out that record with Tompkins Square but Dead Oceans has a wider reach so I convinced Tompkins Square to let me sign with Dead Oceans and it went from there.

What’s your favorite non-musical thing to do?

Ryley Walker: I watch movies all the time. I love the arts, what can I say [laughs]. I constantly watch movies. It’s a big thing for me.

Who are some of your favorite directors?

Ryley Walker: Favorite directors, oh man. A good start would be—I’m trying to pick good ones that will make me sound smart. I like the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa a lot. Do you know his movie Ran?

Yeah I actually saw it in a Shakespeare class during college. That movie is insane.

Ryley Walker: Yeah, I like that guy a whole lot. I like David Cronenberg a lot, that sort of grotesque imagery. I’ll leave it at those two for now. Leave me seeming smart.

What sort of stuff were you reading or watching while writing and recording the new record?

Ryley Walker: I was actually watching a lot of documentaries. Harlan County, USA, the Barbara Koppel movie. I loved that. It was real imagery with these real people who were really funny and they all sort of gave each other shit. With all that weird Kentucky dialect in

Brian Blomerth, too. The guy that did the album art. He’s a noise musician, too. I don’t know him that well personally but I’ve met him a few times over the years. He plays with a group called Gnarwalls of Sound. It’s obscene stuff. He’ll just be blackout drunk onstage and tackle people. He’s this really skinny, harmless looking dude that does insane performance art mixed with bizarre noise music. His artwork really influenced me. He does cartoon stuff with characters that are sort of loners who feel like outcasts. His artwork is really beautiful.

And just my peers, you know? I got to tour last year with Cian Nugent, Steve Gunn, Daniel Bachman, and Jessica Pratt. Meg Baird, too. I got to play music with a lot of people I admire. Certain music is very important to me. All my friends.

You, William Tyler, Steve Gunn, all those guys sort of broke into the indie rock world together—if not them a few years before you. Are you guys all friends?

Ryley Walker: They’re really good friends but they’re a bit older than me. I heard their music when I was coming up. When me and Daniel [Bachman] were coming up we’d listen to Steve Gunn and William Tyler. So I think I’m a generation after them, but I definitely admire them and love them a lot. To see them take off in such big ways is really influential. They’re both really good friends of mine and I love them both so much.

They both followed the same sort of trajectory you did with these experimental guitar compositions coming before full band records on indie rock labels.

Ryley Walker: It is really cool to see that happen. Talking about Steve and William—I can’t speak for them—but everyone was doing Jack Rose and John Fahey stuff which is great and a foot in the door, everyone was making solo acoustic guitar music. It was fucking everywhere. People were making money doing it. Flying across the world and stuff. Those Thrill Jockey bands, too. That came and went in a way so people started to evolve with it and got more into s

I was a fan of those folks in 2005 and 2006. That shit was nuts, I felt like I had to make stuff like that. Six Organs of Admittance, I was obsessed with that noisy folk stuff. It’s evolved, though. I’m getting to the age now, I’m 26, where I’m feeling old for the first time. I saw an entire era of music begin and end.

Yeah I’m 23 and so now every athlete that debuts in the NBA or NHL is younger than I am. It’s so depressing to watch.

Ryley Walker: I remember when I was 22, all the new rappers were younger than me. It was so weird, I was like, “What the fuck is happening right now?” All the new hot rappers are coming out at 19, it’s like what the fuck?

Yeah, all my dreams of being a professional athlete are now over.

Ryley Walker: Hey man, you’ll get ‘em back [laughs].

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