Interview: Ryley Walker

Chicagoan singer-songwriter Ryley Walker chats about his acclaimed recent LP Primrose Green and formative influences

Posted on May 6th, 2015 in Features and Interviews, Ryley Walker, Dead Oceans / By Ben Wood
Ryley Walker His record company bio paints Ryley Walker as the latest incarnation of a classic American archetype - the rambling, footloose guitar player with talent to burn and no home but the road. But Ryley isn’t sure about any of that romanticised gubbins: he just loves to play, and his passion for music shines through every syllable. Two solo albums down the line, Ryley told Bearded about his journey so far - and some of his biggest inspirations.

Bearded: Hi Ryley, your bio says you hail from the “mundanity of the Mid-west”. Is that how it felt - and were you eager to escape?

Ryley: It’s a fair comment I guess... I come from a land of grass and cornfields - a little place 60 miles from Chicago. There’s nothing really going on there so everyone ends up going to the city. I made the choice to get out of town.

Over the years Chicago has had a great musical heritage and a while back it became famous for its jazz influence, and post-rock bands like Tortoise. Was that part of the city’s appeal for you?

Those bands are still around.. they were huge when I was growing up. Plus noisier stuff like The Jesus Lizard and the other Touch and Go [Chicago indie label] bands. That’s what I grew up listening to... Chicago music, not meant for anybody else!

You weren’t always a singer-songwriter, were you?

No - I started out playing noise stuff in basements. But I was playing acoustic stuff at the same time. And it wasn’t a hard transition to make.

Like Dylan, you had a career-changing bike accident, we hear...

I got beaten by a car really bad when I was on my bike... I was riding down the street and got hit. But it gave me a lot of time to play guitar.

And you lacquer your fingertips, to help you pick...

Yeah... [shows Bearded his hands]... a guy called William Tyler [Lambchop and Silver Jews guitarist with a solo career] and a lot of classical guys do it. You break your nails otherwise. It’s just for durability. It’s not a good fashion choice but at least you don’t end up bleeding!

You’ve really explored the guitar from all angles... who are some of your heroes?

I really like John Fahey, he’s the beginning and ending of finger-picking in a lot of ways [the late Fahey is revered among acoustic guitarists for his adoption of unusual tunings and is seen as the founder of the American Primitivist school]... he’s a key that opens this door to a lot of American music. He’s the kind of guy who was a record collector first and a musician second. [The late] Jack Rose, a more recent example, is kind of the same.. half musician, half enthusiast.

Do you also have an affinity with those late 60s / early 70s English guys like Bart Jansch, John Renbourn and John Martyn?

Yeah... I love American folk a lot - Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, even Bob Dylan - but there was a lot of music made over here [the UK] at that time that really inspires me personally. It was really progressive then: their palette of taste was so broad and it was all pretty far out.

Some of your collaborations suggest that you’re into journeying out in a jazzier direction as well - like Tim Buckley did on Starsailor...

I love Tim Buckley... he could do beautiful folky stuff but also insane shit that sounded like [Miles Davis’ legendary jazz-rock opus] Bitches Brew or something... [Classic Buckley album] Happy/Sad has a vibraphone, jazz influences... just total freedom.

Some of your pieces are quite long and structurally a fair way from the standard verse/chorus/verse. How do you work out how to mesh your improvisations with more conventional song structures and lyrics?

I see the voice as another instrument, sorta parallel to the way that a horn player like Miles Davis uses his instrument like a voice. The voice is like your heart.

Your bio paints you as this mythic archetype - one man and his guitar, heading down the road... do you dig the romance of that concept, or is it somewhat overplayed?

They may be laying it on a bit thick! It’s obviously not 1965, and I’m not hanging out in Canterbury... I just want to be as good as I can, to keep getting better and focusing on the music.

We’re in Shoreditch, just down the road from Dalston’s Cafe Oto, which is a mecca for improvisatory and out-there music [it has hosted the likes of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono and Can singer Damo Suzuki]. Have you played there at all, and what do you make of it?

A lot of the guys in my band are jazz guys from Chicago and they love it. It’s this wonderful small space. Whoever’s running that is really smart... they have a wonderful series of gigs there.

On a lighter note, you play a lot of pub/bar-type venues... as a punter, how do English pubs compare with American bars, and which do you prefer?

I had this conversation with a friend recently. Americans drink quicker and barf sooner... English people drink longer and barf later! We get there first maybe... but I don’t mean that in a good way! I have plenty of English friends: the two nationalities are like cousins, I think. We all like to have fun. English bars are more romantic. Every other place here is 500 years old - over in the US, 50 years old is old! We’re like ‘this is an old bar, Dizzy Gillespie hung out here’. You’re more like: ‘this is an old place, King Arthur hung out here...!’

Mind you, we kinda envy the romantic travelling songs you have - Route 66 wouldn’t be the same if it mentioned Slough and Milton Keynes...

We’re on the road for a lot longer - if we’re driving for 12 hours there’s more chance we’ll write a song about it!

Are you pretty much free to make whatever music you want to? Do you have a good relationship with your record company?

Yeah.. they’re paying for it so you’ve got to talk to them a bit! But they’re really nice people. I wouldn’t put up with that kind of bullshit like ‘here’s what you do - make this one...’ They’re good friends. That’s the secret - work with your friends!

Primrose Green is out now through Dead Oceans