In Conversation: With a Sullen Mind (and Free WiFi) Ryley Walker Cares for You
The Chicago folk-jazz guitarist talks the ups and downs of touring and how the city of Chicago influenced his new record, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.
Ryley Walker no longer cares about forests and summer dresses, muddy old rivers and baptism scenes. The guitarist made his bones with the release of his second album, Primrose Green, last March, spinning a handful of lengthy folk songs out of knotty acoustic-guitar playing and pastoral imagery that is in retrospect almost comically out of place in the Chicago music scene from which it sprung. “I think it pandered to record collectors and my own fucking ego of what I wanted to be—a far-out sixties guy, or [someone who would record] a private press record,” Walker says on the phone from Leamington Spa, England, where’s he’s currently on tour.
He’s being a bit unfair—Primrose Green remains a compelling piece of softly psychedelic folk that benefits from his apparent pretensions—but that unfairness stems in part from how proud he is of his new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, which was produced by Leroy Bach, formerly of Wilco. If Primrose was a stoned day traipsing through an English garden, Golden Sings is an early-dark evening spent trudging around Chicago’s industrial west side, another working-class Chicago record in a long and proud tradition of working-class Chicago records. Walker’s long been a fixture in the local experimental scene—math-crunchers Health&Beauty and free-jazz cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm both played on Primrose Green—and Golden Sings borrows heavily from the city’s rich tradition of elegantly constructed and joyfully played avant-rock à la Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, Gastr del Sol.
Still, it’s not as loose of a record as those names might suggest. While Walker is quick to undersell his own skills in the face of his collaborators (he’s the only person I’ve heard use the word “dunce” in a musical context, and he does so twice in the half hour we’re on the phone), his temperament is the rudder that guides Golden Sings. It’s an album that was written on the road, a chronicle of life as a mildly popular player in a niche genre, and it’s both bemused by the modesty of its author’s success (he doesn’t have to pay for drinks at the bar!) and scared of what a life without music might hold. The overcast skies that seem to hang over the record, and the way Walker holds up a single lyric and examines all of its possibilities—the title phrase in “Funny Thing She Said” in particular—recall Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain, itself inextricably linked to Chicago’s industrial landscape. It’s the sonic translation of the brutal Chicago winter and the unhideable interior darkness that it seems to either engender or expose.
On the other hand, though, when Walker’s home, as he tells me, you can find him at the hot soup bar at Mariano’s grocery store near his place, and to hear him tell it, the stresses of a life on pilgrimage are worth the rewards.
If I understand correctly, you grew pretty tired of the Primrose Green songs pretty quickly.
Yeah, I mean, we recorded them in early 2014, and by the time the record came out, it was a year [later]. I always play new stuff [live], so early last year when I was touring Primrose Green I was playing songs from this new record, so they could be good when I go to the studio—all fresh and shit. I played that record [live] before it came out, [and] by the time it came out, I was like, “Goddamn it, I gotta make new stuff.”
While you were making the record, you played a lot around Chicago, right?
All the time.
Did the city itself help you to put the pieces together?
Yeah, especially with the band. They’re all Chicago jazz musicians, heavily based in improv. That definitely leant a hand to the direction the music was going.
This is the Health&Beauty guys, right?
Yeah, three of them, at least: Frank, Ben, and Brian. They’re a great band on their own. But a few other people in that scene, too. That definitely influenced the music and the writing and recording process.
It seems like knowing what’s going on in that scene on the one hand and what you do on the other, there’s some stylistic overlap, but do you feel like you’re trying to stretch a folk skin onto a jazz body?
That’s definitely a way to approach it. They’re songs, you know? I’m a songwriter. But I kinda hate ninety percent of folk rock, and for that matter, a lot of indie rock isn’t really my thing. So to have far-out jazz musicians in the background pushing the music is always really fun. I’m not really a guitar shredder; I don’t have guitar solos in me, so I can’t really do “rock” songs.
To me, listening to this record almost makes it seem like you have a need to make a coherent narrative, or to bring a kind of thematic wholeness to your work. It’s hard for me to imagine you doing something super outré or super disconnected.
All the songs were written—it’s almost a cliché and it’s stupid to talk about, but all of the songs were written while I was traveling and full of anxiety, so that’s a big part of the music. That’s the only reality I really know at this point. I’m never really home, and when I am home, I’m not sitting down like, “Oh, here’s the song I’m going to write today, and it’s going to be genius.” When I’m at home, I’m hanging out with my friends at the bar or sitting on the toilet taking a shit in peace for once, you know?
When you say anxiety, what do you mean?
Oh, it’s called the Road Scaries. When all of a sudden, you’ll be three hours into an eight-hour drive, and you look at the clock and you’re like, “If I look away, the time will go faster,” and then you look away, and you’re like, “Oh my god, there’s still seven hours left, holy shit, everybody I love is back home and I’m just ignoring everybody, oh my god, I’m making no money, what am I doing?” Yeah, the Road Scaries. It’s a common symptom with everybody who travels as much as I do.
That seems pretty miserable.
It’s not miserable, it’s just that there’s a lot of bad that goes with the good. Touring is so easy if you want it to be. I guess when I was younger—I’m starting to get older and fatter and more hungover now—when I was twenty, god, easiest shit in the world. You get free food, free alcohol, you get to be the center of attention, your fuckin’ ego’s boosted every night, if that’s what you’re going for. You get to play music, which is the best part. Technically, it’s easy, but a lot of people put shit on themselves. That’s where the Road Scaries come in, your highway anxiety just goes full throttle. I don’t wanna say it’s miserable—it’s definitely better than mixing concrete. But there’s definitely some garbage involved.
That comes up pretty frequently on the record. You mention not having to buy a drink when you’re at the bar or being able to take home whoever you want to take home, and if you were twenty, that might sound amazing, but as you get older, that seems less interesting. The idea of having a structure around you becomes way more enticing and appealing.
“All of the songs were written while I was traveling and full of anxiety, so that’s a big part of the music. That’s the only reality I really know at this point.”
Yeah, and one thing people in indie rock never like to talk about is the money they’re making. I’m still fucking broke as a joke. I work so hard, and I look at some other bands and see pictures they post on the Internet where they’re like, “I’m living on an island for the month!” I’m like, “Where are you guys getting this money? Where’s this secret indie-rock money everybody’s getting?” I’m still in total hustle mode. I feel like I’m always working working working. I just want to have some sort of stability. I know I’ll never be rich, and I don’t want to be rich; I just want to be able to have stability. And if I’m not touring, I’m unemployed, because I don’t have a skill set. I have no education. I’ve been fired from ninety-eight percent of the jobs I’ve had, which is a lot of jobs. God help me if I have references; I don’t think I have any.
At the same time, I’ve gotten to go all over the goddamn world, and I’ve gotten many WiFi passwords in many different music venues; it’s a pure joy.
Leroy Bach produced the record. How did you guys initially get hooked up?
Obviously I knew Leroy from his being in Wilco a long time ago. He does a ton of improvised music [around town, too]. I think I got to know him pretty well around 2014, just from going to improv gigs. He invited me to play on a couple of shows he was doing at various locations.
I recorded this record pretty quickly after Primrose Green came out, and I don’t think my label was ready for me to record at all. They were like, “Take your time.” I think there may have been discussions about different producers—a “name” producer—and I was like, “I’m gonna get my friend who’s a far-out avant-garde composer, and a local.” And it worked out great. He lives really close to me, so I’d just go over there, write songs, play guitar. He has clear vision and a good heart. And he’s a fucking badass musician.
When you’d bring a song to him, what would he do with it? How would he push you?
He’d write a lot of piano parts around it. I don’t think he wanted to deconstruct the songs as a whole. I didn’t bring him a rock guitar riff that he’d want to turn into a dub song. It was more about simplifying things. He had a hand in inventing that classic Chicago sound, and that’s a sound I really wanted to hang on to. It’s really contemporary music still, but I wanted it to have a classic sound—that mixture of songwriting and jazz and a lot of electronics and grooves. I guess that’s the basic theme of those classic ’90s Chicago records.
Is your attraction to that sound purely aesthetic? Or is there a kind of thematic resonance with the things you’re interested in lyrically?
Chicago doesn’t really have a lyrical sense. It’s not like Greenwich Village folk or New York no-wave where it’s all super-political. Lyrically in Chicago, it’s always been absent, kinda detached feelings. Apathy, I guess, would be a general theme, and self-deprecation. It feels like you’re reciting words and not really saying them, you know?
You told Uncut that this is your best record, but that it won’t be as popular or as easy to digest for people as Primrose Green was. Why is that?
With this record, there’s more me: my own goddamn shit. Not songs about mountains and all that bullshit. It comes from absolute reality. There are a couple of lenses here and there, but it’s about who I am. It’s the record I’ve wanted to make forever, and I’m really proud of it. I think the whole Primrose Green record didn’t fairly represent what I wanted to do. Maybe I was too scared or too young or not confident enough at the time. I’m still learning, but I feel like I’m finally getting a grip on where I wanna hang. I’m glad that I’ve done the previous records; they got me to where I am now.
And I’m excited about what’s next. I want to keep writing, keep touring, I want to keep losing money, I want to keep making money and spending it too quick. I wanna do it all over and over and over again. FL