Q&A: Ryley Walker Talks Noise Rock & Nail Salons + “Sweet Satisfaction” (Stereogum Premiere)
Even though his full-length debut, All Kinds Of You, came out less than a year ago, 25-year-old Ryley Walker is already returning with sophomore release Primrose Green next month. Walker’s been getting his fair share of positive attention, often focusing on his guitar playing and the unique and unpredictable forms his vocal melodies and song structures take. Despite being raised in the industrial Northern Illinois town of Rockford and cutting his teeth in Chicago’s noise-rock scene, the other constant with Walker is that people always want to compare him to ’60s and ’70s folk musicians like Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, and Tim Buckley.
I can’t say I follow a lot of contemporary artists who are looking back to that particular tradition, so when I received Primrose Green, I was pretty floored. All Kinds Of You was gorgeous and accomplished, but Walker’s new one is a leap forward. Working closely with a band partially composed of Chicago jazz musicians, Walker wound up with this sprawling, expansive record prone to wandering into mesmerizing passages dominated by psychedelic and jazz overtones. It took me a few listens to find my way into it, to develop a route through the album’s various twists and turns, but once I did, Primrose Green quickly became one of my favorite releases of early 2015. I recently spoke with Walker, when he was sitting on his porch in Chicago looking out at two feet of snow. He has the same kind of amble in conversation as he does in his music, but in kind of a hippie-ish twenty-something way. I guess I always expect folk-oriented musicians to be really concerned with tradition or something, but Walker is one of those guys who just loves playing guitar and trying to find something new with it. His tradition is more or less the kind that’s based on defying forms and seeing how far out-there the music can be pushed. His live show is supposed to be revelatory, so you should probably check that out, too, if he rolls through your town this year.
STEREOGUM: Considering how much your reputation has to do with your guitar playing, I figure it makes sense to ask about when you started playing guitar.
WALKER: I was twelve years old. I just got a guitar from a family friend.
STEREOGUM: Were you classically trained?
WALKER: No, I took lessons for a long time, dabbled with music a bit for my short stint in college, but to say I’m classically trained would be a farce to the guitar.
STEREOGUM: So take me through your musical development a bit. Was this the first kind of music you gravitated toward as a kid?
WALKER: I always liked it. I didn’t grow up in some peaceful household where people just listen to sick records all the time. We had some classic rock. I think I got into the acoustic guitar from Zeppelin and stuff. I started on electric guitar, I played in shitty punk bands forever. I was always also playing acoustic guitar. I always liked Zeppelin, and that opened a lot of doors to a lot of different acoustic guitar music. I think I started on shitty punk music that nobody liked and my parents hated, so that was why I liked it.
STEREOGUM: Do you still follow punk music?
WALKER: Nah, I like seeing it a lot, but I’m definitely not like a head for that sort of music anymore. I did a lot of noise-rock things here in Chicago, too, when I first started playing around here a lot. I think the heyday of all the post-rock stuff [in Chicago] is kinda like … I don’t know, those guys are still around. I know a lot of those bands real well now and I loved them growing up. There’s still a big noise thing. It was easy to get into that. That’s how I started touring pretty hard, doing noise-rock stuff in basements, drinking tallboys of beer, getting annihilated and playing 10-minute sets for five people across the States. That whole scene, they were the ones who were like, “Oh, you should do the song stuff more.” So I kinda came out of that, that’s how I got my start.
STEREOGUM: How old were you when you started to do the more folk-oriented stuff?
WALKER: I always kinda dabbled, but I think I got into it … well, it was the same time as the noise stuff, too. I was seventeen, on the regular playing fingerstyle guitar.
STEREOGUM: Is there much of a folk scene in Chicago along the lines of what you do, or are you kind of working in a vacuum there?
WALKER: Oh, no, there’s no folk scene here. Thank God. And also the folk scene is kind of … it’s not like your classic folk scene like Greenwich Village where we’re all in a cafe, trading Yeats poems and stuff. There doesn’t really need to be a folk scene anymore. The cool thing about Chicago music is it seems to be a Midwest thing. Everybody collaborates. Folk dudes play with jazz dudes, jazz dudes play with noise dudes. There’s so much collaboration. There’s just kind of a scene here. There are the real heads and obviously a lot of indie rock stuff. Everybody just kind of hangs together, there’s not really a niche scene for anything here. If you want to do it, you can do it.
STEREOGUM: I read that your writing process comes from jamming and improvisation, and that you like to work songs out in live settings first.
WALKER: Always. A lot of it comes from improvising — especially, the dudes that play [with me], they’re all big improv jazz dudes here in Chicago: total pros in the improv and experimental scene. You woodshed everything for a long time and then you record. It all comes from jamming. The songs are never “done” or anything, it always expands live. That’s my favorite part about playing music. [My songwriting] is definitely informed by that. That’s how I work. I’m not much of a “sit down, here’s my three verses and a few choruses, song’s done.” It comes from the jam. Having a song set in stone would drive me crazy. I like to change it up a lot.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever have melodies floating around in your heard that you start with in the band setting, or is exclusively jumping into improvising and just seeing where it takes you?
WALKER: I have riffs. You can sit down for a while and think of riffs, and I bring that riff to that band and they can just take it anywhere. Small seeds. Songs are kind of like this growing, living being. They’re always expanding. Anybody can inform the tune when you play it live — What’s the bass doing? What are the drums doing? — so we all kind of riff on each other. It’s really fun, it’s really rewarding. It’s a challenge, it’s hard work. It makes the songs more interesting for me, and I hope for the audience, too, to change it up.
STEREOGUM: I know you improvise your lyrics a lot as well, but is there anything in particular that inspires you thematically?
WALKER: I think [Primrose Green] is just a better record than the last one. Thematically, it comes from more of a band thing, I think. The last one was just me like, “Here’s my songs.” They were really planned out. This one, I just wanted to be real loose. Not put so much thought in. Take it easy on this one. It was really easy and fun to do. I think I just wanted to make a band effort, where everybody could chime in with their ideas. Everything was finished in the studio. A lot of those are first takes. I wanted it to be really quick, a snapshot of that time we were in.
STEREOGUM: This record has a more prominent jazz influence. It’s also just a lot denser, there’s a lot going on in these songs. And there wasn’t a lot of time between these two records. How’d you arrive at this sound so soon after the last? Was it primarily from touring with this band and creating this unit?
WALKER: Yeah, certainly. That sound just came from those dudes, their day jobs as jazz musicians. That, combined with … I got a little better at guitar and singing. It’s just kind of a force of nature that works itself out, fortunately. I’m really proud that they all had a huge part in it. Playing with them every night just made it go toward that sound. I like that sound. A lot of the folky records I like have jazz dudes on them. If you think about John Martyn and Tim Buckley, they’ve got hippie session jazz dudes on there that are just ripping it up. It’s better than some dingleberry indie rock guy, “Here’s my 1-2-3-4,” you know? There’s a nice looseness and freedom to the tunes that I really like, at least. It’s just fun.
STEREOGUM: It doesn’t strike me as a sound that a ton of people are drawing on right now.
WALKER: For sure. It’s kind of a cool time for guitar music. There’s a lot of cool guitar music right now, I think it’s just a little different. You know, Steve Gunn or Jessica Pratt. I don’t know where their headspace is, but it’s cool that there’s this cool guitar music right now. It seems like a good time to do it.
STEREOGUM: Tell me a little bit about the title of the new record.
WALKER: Primrose Green is this cocktail my friends and I invented where you mix whiskey with morning glory seeds, basically. You have three or four of them and you’re kind of drunk and tripping. I don’t know … I guess it’s kind of the classic “write about things that fuck you up.” It’s just about a time and place in my life, this fun shit my friends and I did. Primrose Green was a nice title, I thought, why not? I wouldn’t recommend [the cocktail] to anybody.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny you brought up Led Zeppelin earlier considering “All Kinds Of You” is on Primrose Green and not All Kinds Of You. You pulled a “Houses Of The Holy.”
WALKER: It’s totally a tip to Zeppelin. Totally. I got the idea from them. I had the All Kinds Of You record, and right when it came out [last year], I was like, “Oh, man, that’d be such a cool song title.” But I guess it was a song that was written too late. I was going to change the title, but then the engineer was just like, “No, dude, make it like Zeppelin where you call it the same as your old record.” I was like, “Isn’t that confusing?” He was like, “Whatever! Zeppelin did it.”
STEREOGUM: So I read that you go to nail salons a lot? I’d never really heard of that before, so I was wondering what that does for you as a guitar player.
WALKER: Oh, the acrylic nails. Some guitar players do it, not a ton. I know a few. A lot of the dudes use fingerpicks. It’s all personal preference. It’s like painting something with different materials, it’s just something I prefer. But yeah I’ve gotta go to the salon … whenever I go to a new one everybody’s always creeped out and I’m like, “It’s for guitar.” I guess acrylic nails are what, like, girls do when they go to prom. But they work for me. I like the sound of them. It helps if people don’t want to use fingerpicks. I don’t like the sound of fingerpicks too much, they can have a weird scrape-y sound. I go once every few weeks. They fall off after a while, you go in, it costs like five bucks, takes ten minutes.
STEREOGUM: It seems a lot of people refer to you an “old soul,” or say you operate outside of time and place in relation to the music world. How do you feel about being characterized like that? Do you think of yourself that way?
WALKER: No, not at all. I think I’m definitely in 2015. I think they’re just relying on the sound of the music. But when we play, it’s not based on this nostalgia thing. Like, “Hey, man, remember the ’60s and how fun it was?” I hate shit like that, where it’s like, “Hey, man, we’re a ’60s band and look at our fucking pants.” Here’s what I take from that whole generation, what all those people are referring to: They reached really far in writing music. It wasn’t standard folk tunes, which I love, but a lot of those heads were really into roots music and stuff, but they’re also into, like, free jazz and northern Indian music. There was a lot of innovation at that time. I take that from that era. You can be really far out and make really unique stuff, but while taking from the past but always trying to go forward and look to the future.
Primrose Green is out 3/31 via Dead Oceans.
[Photo by Dusdin Condren.]