Introducing The Real Ryley Walker

“I was not made to be a Lower East Side model,” Ryley Walker cracks as I force him, for the purposes of splashy journalistic representation, to act like a Lower East Side model. We are walking around the Manhattan neighborhood in question, Walker a rapid-fire mixture of rapt observations on the city around him, jocular outbursts, tales of debauchery, and self-deprecating anecdotes. He has a lot of the latter, and he finishes the thought with one: “One time I walked through SoHo hungover and every guy was six-foot Scandinavian hot body and I never felt uglier in my life.”

He’s also full of those jocular outbursts. As we walk around taking photos, he interjects with mock commands as if simultaneously performing and undermining the stereotype of the difficult celeb shoot with hands-on PR. “Oh, yeah, get the cigarette in there,” he urges. “One looking goofy. Get my award-winning personality.”

At a certain point he becomes self-conscious about his outfit, turning his hat — which is red with white lettering — around. “You can’t even wear a fucking red hat, they’re done now, man,” he explains. Rather than a certain slogan, the faded white letters in question here say “Coke” — you have to wonder which coke Walker wears it as a reference to.

We’re walking around this part of town because Walker has an opening gig for Calexico later tonight. But that is not the occasion for our meeting, or for the photo shoot that is alternately causing him discomfort and amusement — Walker’s a young road warrior, no stranger to passing through one metropolis or another several times a year. The actual reason we’re talking is that he’s about to release his fourth solo album in as many years, the dark and fractured Deafman Glance. Out next week via Dead Oceans, it is a striking piece of work — arguably his best yet — and there’s a lot to talk about. That is, if you can get his mind to sit still with any one topic for long.

“I could use a good bourbon right now,” he says as we finish up the shoot and return to the venue. We duck into a bar next door with an array of fancy craft brews of high price points and correspondingly high alcohol content, and quickly retreat to a backyard friendly to chain-smoking, as Walker is friendly to himself.

At first, Walker speaks in a gravelly, obscured mumble. (Last night was a big one.) Dressed in nondescript jeans and a baggy item lost somewhere between a shirt and sweater along with the aforementioned red hat, he initially radiates a kind of burnt-out “The Dude Abides” persona, aside from the fact that he prefers uppers to weed. But that’s before he warms up. Attribute it to the first several jokes landing, or the first whiskey landing, or both, but soon Walker is a flurry of thoughts. Maybe still mumbling, but now leaping between direct answers about the making of his new album and all sorts of random asides about niche artists he adores or our mutual appreciation for food from Sheetz gas stations.

This is, to some extent, the way Walker’s always presented himself. Take one glance at his Twitter account, and you’ll see a series of self-effacing stories and witty observations that make him seem more like an upstart comedian than a folk-rock troubadour.

The latter qualification is what we initially understood him as. When Walker started getting more buzz around his 2015 sophomore album Primrose Green, the music he was making would tempt you to paint him as a psychedelic jazz-folk mystic, lost in the woods with his guitar conjuring up the spirt of the land around him.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

That, to him, is exactly the problem. Even back when we spoke for Primrose Green, you could see glimmers of the real Ryley Walker: That stately album title was actually a reference to a cocktail of whiskey and Morning Glory seeds that he and his friends had devised themselves, so you could get a buzz and a trip going at the same time. He was quick to talk about his love of Chicago’s noise-rock scene and his penchant for visiting nail salons to get fake nails to help with his finger-picking.

Though his Twitter account would seem an anarchic contrast to the academic, formally-trained guitar virtuoso he must’ve been, that was really the whole point. Walker was never that other guy, the reverent revivalist living in the past. It didn’t take too long after Primrose Green for Walker to start distancing himself from that image, especially during the press cycle for 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. But now, while presenting the broken-down Deafman Glance, he’s intent on burning that old Ryley away for good.

“I just thought it wasn’t a good record,” he says bluntly of Primrose Green, before elaborating that there were ways in which he felt like he was playing into, or hiding behind, an archetype. “I just wanted to be a cool ‘60s guy. ‘I sure hope people get my ‘60s references,’” he recalls. As much as he disparages his own past work now, Walker is grateful it caught on. “I’m lucky in the sense that a lot of people heard it,” he explains. “I get to be in New York and drink a whiskey and soda in the afternoon. I’m not fucking mixing concrete right now.”

Here’s the thing: All of Walker’s albums are good, and all of them have great moments. Primrose Green, though saddling him with a particular image, offered a lush and otherworldly jazz-folk that might’ve felt like an echo of a particular time, but also felt totally unique in today’s landscape. Still, it’s easy to understand where Walker’s coming from to some extent. Whenever he saw the criticisms of his earlier work, that it was pastiche or that it could be traced to a very specific handful of influences, he wholeheartedly agreed. That was the actual problem that needed fixing, and after the exploratory transition of Golden Sings, Deafman Glance in many ways feels like the truest, most honest representation of Walker that we’ve yet heard.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

Now, he sounds like an almost entirely different musician compared to his younger self. Letting his longtime adoration of Jim O’Rourke show, his vocals have become a sort of haggard sing-speak; his presence is completely altered, and so is the music surrounding him. Much of Deafman Glance is built on fried guitars wandering their way towards structure. Compared to the effervescent bursts of color Walker used to favor, his new work is muted and murky. It sounds like a man sifting through wreckage, piecing things together in search of beauty, rendered by the salve of flute accompaniment or the songs in which Walker appears to locate some kind of resolution.

One of those songs was also the genesis of Deafman Glance. Its closer “Spoil With The Rest” was the first thing Walker wrote for the album, with a newly-acquired electric guitar while he sat on his bed at home, and it struck him as a pivot. It reset the shape of the new music he was writing. In particular, he still gravitates towards one line from that song, a refrain that winds up defining the album at its conclusion: “Whenever I do my best/ I’ll spoil with the rest.” “I was really down,” Walker remembers. “I try hard and I fuck things up a lot. Those words come easy to me, but it’s a fun song — and it’s fun to write about something so self-loathing but [make the song] so cheery.”

In the context of Deafman Glance, perhaps “Spoil With The Rest” is what passes as cheery: It is, at least, more uptempo and direct, and its jazz-inflected guitar breaks do strike a more triumphant note than anything else that precedes it. But it’s still a bleary song, a denouement to an album that exists in a ragged haze. If it was the skeleton key to Deafman Glance, it perfectly set the stage for the new atmosphere of Walker’s music: After the psychedelic blooms of his earlier work, this is the comedown, strung-out and nocturnal.

Walker agrees regarding the album’s drugginess, its self-destruction. “The sun’s not up but you’re just doing key bumps on a window and can kinda see the sun’s about to come up — that sort of color in the sky,” as he characterizes it. Deafman Glance mostly does feel like it occurs in that place, in those kinds of moments. (Onstage later that night, he’d introduce lead single “Telluride Speed” by explaining it’s about when, well, he and his friend “did a ton of blow in Telluride … allegedly.”)

When the album was first announced, Walker shared an essay detailing his headspace and goals this time around. Part of it was that he’d decided to stop drinking and doing drugs, and he stayed clean for six months. I start to ask him if he found that helpful but barely get the question out before he jumps in. “Boring! I lost weight and I felt good about myself for the first time in years and we gotta undo this right now!” he says. “I was going to Target at 10 AM and I was like, ‘All these people don’t black out!’ Sign up for a rewards card? God, help me. That was my ‘sign up for rewards cards’ era of my life. Fuck that. Let’s make some tunes and boogie and get back to the party.”

Whether you read that as dismissive or light-hearted, he did also take something away from that period of time, when he stayed sober throughout the actual making of Deafman Glance. “It was a nice period of slowing down,” he recalls.

And while Walker’s always quick with a punchline, he’s also straightforward about the fact that Deafman Glance is certainly more personal, that he now feels like he’s actually communicating something. Walker was always good at coming up with riffs; words came harder. So in the past, his lyrics tended to be off-the-cuff, quick, but as he got older he took more of an interest in them.

“I think it has my personality in it,” he says of the new album’s themes. “Which I can’t say existed on the other ones, where there was a lot of allegory.” He credits the shift to influences like Destroyer and, once more, O’Rourke. “I like funny, astute observations. I like self-deprecation,” he adds.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

All around, a major inspiration on Deafman Glance was the city of Chicago. That is true in terms of lineage — with Walker delving into the town’s post-rock bands he grew up on — but also in experiential and abstract ways. In that same announcement essay, Walker talked a lot about the environment he lives in:

“Chicago sounds like a train constantly coming towards you but never arriving. That’s the sound I hear, all the time, ringing in my ears. Everybody here’s always hustling. Everybody who talks to you on the street’s always got something they’re coming at you with. It’s the sound of strangers dodging one another. And landlords knocking on doors to get rent that people don’t have. But it’s eerily quiet at night. This record is the sound of walking home late at night through Chicago in the middle of winter and being half-creeped out, scared someone’s going to punch you in the back of the head, and half in the most tranquil state you’ve been in all day, enjoying the quiet and this faint wind, and buses going by on all-night routes. That’s the sound to tune in to. That’s the sound of Chicago to me.
Chicago. More than ever I’m just finding little details about it that I love. There’s so many weird twists about it: the way that street lights look here is really peculiar, and a really bleak sense when you walk around. It looks gray, there’s not a lot of color, and I find a lot of radiance in that. And oh man it smells like diesel. And garbage cans. And in the summer when it really heats up it’s extra garbage-canny. And everything here looks like it’s about to break. It looks like it’s derelict. But that’s what I’m used to, that’s what I like. The amount of imperfection in this city is really perfect.”

There were so many things Walker said there that feel like the most effective, poetic ways of summing up the sound of Deafman Glance: the album’s elusive sound the train approaching and never arriving, its intricate yet frayed instrumentation the derelict imperfection that has its own beauty within it, its worn tones the timbre of listless and solo late-night meanderings. Once upon a time, Walker’s music sounded like open spaces and bucolic landscapes. Not anymore. Deafman Glance is a city album through and through, the sound of ancient subway rails keening below you, the sound of abandoned storefront corners and streets layered with a patina made from decades’ worth of grime and footsteps.

Look, before we get too serious here, Walker’s acquired a second whiskey and he has a joke for this, too. “The other albums I made were harkening to loving the open air, but I don’t wanna fucking fish, man,” Walker says, putting a bullet between the eyes of his old pastoral troubadour character. “I want bodega fish sticks, but you ain’t gonna see my ass in a canoe.” But, also, he just appreciates city life: He’s a social person, and sometimes he needs tacos at 3 AM.

There’s something tricky about talking to Ryley Walker about his music. If you haven’t noticed, he’s big on the concept of self-deprecation, something he’ll ready admit is baked into the existence of an artist, but especially into the existence of a Midwesterner. “This next song is called ‘Spoil With The Rest,’ it’s from the next shitty album I’m putting out,” he’ll say onstage later. “Do you like the album? Did I fuck it up?” he asks me at one point when I’m talking about Deafman Glance‘s opening track “In Castle Dome” as a fitting curtain rise on the LP’s harrowing little world. He’s big on saying he isn’t cool, that he’s just an OK musician who’s really still figuring out his shit, or that he isn’t a smart guy.

For example, when we talk about his early days, he has a quintessentially Walker monologue about his brief stint in college, equal parts self-laceration and equal parts coming across like the kid who was smarter than he let on, too smart, but couldn’t apply himself so he poked fun at everything around him. “I’m also just kinda stupid. I just failed every class,” he begins, describing his decision to drop out. “Most of my time was spent playing and going to gigs. I’m just not smart. I barely passed high school. I went to Columbia College, which is like, sign the paper and and they let you in. And you’re with people who are like, ‘I’m going to be on Saturday Night Live!’ It’s like, ‘No, you’re not, you’re the stupidest person I’ve ever met in my life. You’re just on the spectrum and watched Tommy Boy too much.’ It was just fuckin’ hacks, I couldn’t take it.”

In fact, he’s often most animated when we veer off path into non-sequiturs, like when I ask him about his affinity for Dave Matthews Band. “I love Dave Matthews,” he responds, with gravity. “I’ve always been ride or die. Dave gets fucking dark, man. He knows pain. But he’s goofy and wears fucking stupid sweatpants on stage and does stupid dances. He pioneered flip-flop acoustic guitar shit.” Later on, Walker jokes that’s what he’s really doing: He’s bringing back flip-flop guitar shit.

After we wrap up so Walker can go soundcheck, this stuff lingers with me: He’s a hilarious conversationalist, but you can’t help but shake the sense that, humility and bemused self-deprecation aside, he’s also underselling what he does. Across the four albums he’s made so far, there is a through line: This is mutating, adventurous guitar music unlike much else going on right now. (He does, however, feel a kinship to a lot of like-minded musicians out there today, like his friend Steve Gunn.) Yet as much as he disowns one thing or another he’s achieved, as much as he’s constantly upending his own rulebook, fans have stuck with him. There’s a sense that Walker’s music is just gonna be like that, that part of the fun is following him in all the unexpected directions he’ll shoot off into, whether while talking to you or playing in front of you.

That’s the other through line to his work: Pastoral or urban, it is traveler’s music, it is a soundtrack for moving through and beyond places and moderating your own experiences with the past you can feel around you and the possibilities around the bend. It’s music that invites you along on some kind of journey, and it’s music that has a lot more weight than its creator might give it credit for. And in the context of Deafman Glance, part of that weight comes from the fact that you can hear Walker. You can really hear him, and you can hear Chicago. It sounds like the album where he’s gone home, and learned how to sound like himself.

Maybe he’ll change his mind about this in a year or two, but right now Walker feels good about this new album, and where he could go from here. But maybe, this time it’ll stick. “[I think I] found my voice. I really do believe that and I’m proud of it,” he says. “I’m actually happy for the first time. I’m not flipping through record bins anymore. I’m just making Ryley Walker records.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

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