Chicago-based musician Ryley Walker has a tendency to combine downright lyrics with mellifluous melodies, perhaps it’s an allusion to the play-off between his proclivity for introspection and his self-deprecating humour. In this interview Ryley tells us about his new album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.
The album was released in August. Did you have any particular expectations with it?
I just play music, it’s hard to think about that shit. It’s kind of useless to think about shit like that. I’m not on a mission like that. My mission is to play shows a lot. Obviously, I’m thankful to anyone who buys the record. I don’t know. It blows my mind. I don’t belong in this world, not the world, but the music world. It’s too many numbers. I just grew up with basement shows and stuff. The whole music world I don’t really try to delve into too much. I just like playing shows and making records. I fully expect everything to tank all the time.
Thematically, what’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung about?
A lot anxiety I guess. A lot of drugs, a lot of anxiety, a lot of sadness and a lot of happiness. It’s a stew of fucked up shit in my head, but there’s a nice spice of joy.
Your lyrics are vivid, often narrative, but they’re very funny. So, for songs like The Roundabout what’s that about?
No one thing in particular. It’s cut from conversations I had with friends — all my friends are really funny. We used to go out in Chicago a lot. There’s a zen hour where you walk home from a bar alone in the winter in Chicago. It’s more introspective than you think it would be. I have a mile long walk back home from the bar — that’s like my zen time and therapy. It’s some weird, icy sidewalk that I could slip on or a weird man or crazy person down the street. Those are therapeutic to me — kind of out things in the city, and I’m not even a nightcrawler necessarily. Living in a big place like Chicago there’s just so many bells and whistles to it. I think finding things beneath the surface informs a lot of the music.
Where was the album recorded?
Something you said after you did Primrose Green and the subsequent shows was you weren’t looking to go back to Chicago…
…I love Chicago. It’s my home. I’m not good at anything. I’m not really good at this. I have to work in order to make things happen. I don’t think I have the stature to be like ‘Oh, I’m going to sit at home for a year.’ I have to play gigs. I’ve had a job since I was 13, so if I don’t have a job I always feel like I’m going to lose something. Working is fun. It’s a joy.
Personally, how different do you find this album to Primrose Green?
I think it’s better. More me. Not as much fucking shitty put on. Maybe, more in tune to what I feel actually. Musically, it’s really cool to. We did a lot of shit. A lot of meditation. It’s like we were having microwave dinner before, but now we’ve finally upgraded to frozen dinner. Next, it will be freshly prepared.
Do you improvise a lot or follow a particular structure with your music?
When we write it we always write it live. It’s fun to improvise. In the context of a record you only get 40-something minutes, so you have to be calculated in that sense. But, there are still bits of improvising and freedom with the music. But, live we let loose. The live show’s always got to be different. If you play the records it’s a fucking waste of my time and their time. We don’t have hits. What hit are we going to play? We don’t have any songs people are dying to hear, you know. So, why not fucking freak out? The people I play with are improvisers within the jazz community around the world, so it’s fun to see what we can do with the music and turn it inside out. It’s a really nice ritual piece of gum.
Who’s influenced your musical style?
That always changes. I’m into a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Ferris Andrews.
What’s the creative dynamic been like working with LeRoy Bach?
He’s just a good friend. He was going to come on this tour, but couldn’t make it. He’s old and weird. He’s just a good friend. We’ve been making records forever and he’s a really smart guy. He doesn’t really have a filter that’s like: ‘that was good.’ Everyone in the band is like that, we fight a lot because of it. A lot of tension, which is really important. I think so many bands play the show, but don’t talk about it. We take a lot time with soundcheck. We talk about everything. I don’t want to go back to washing dishes, I want a good life, so everybody has a really open and honest relationship. It’s good to work with people like that.
You’ve done quite a bit of instrumental work, Land of Plenty etc. What conveys an emotion more simply lyrics or music?
Lyrics are harder to do, that takes effort to convey emotion like that. Saying words is so easy, you see right through the bullshit. Music I feel like I can fake it ’til I make it there. Lyrics are a fucking challenge – it’s like you’re naked in front of everybody. Whereas you’ve got a nice winter coat, scarf and hat with a fuzzed out guitar. You are see through with lyrics. Making instrumental music that actually touches me or can get my rocks off is hard to do. Lyrics are harder for me because I don’t like bad lyrics. So, I try to write nice ones. And writing nice ones can make you have an aneurysm.
Is the process of coming up with lyrics quite difficult? There’s something Mark Knopfler once said about having a junk yard at the back of his head and pulling couplets or verse fragments of lyrics…
…I think that’s really cool poetry within the music. There’s a lot of characters and stuff. I just write down one or two lines every few days. I’ll think of something really funny that sounds cool. I don’t have an exact example right now. I don’t want to pull from my fucking hard drive. I’ll write a funny phrase in my journal and I’ll have another phrase usually in couplets. They come by two.
Are you more at home recording in the studio or playing live?
I play live more whereas the studio I’ll be in there 20 days a year. So, definitely better live. Recording in the studio is like – I didn’t really like peas when I was a kid. My mom used to have to force feed them to me – after a while you kind of get used to it. Music is kind of similar to being a child and having a picky diet. You have to grow into it. I’ve never been great at it, but I do enjoy it. It’s also some isolation – you’re in a windowless room for weeks at a time with the same people who are driving you crazy. I do love the studio.
Who are you currently listening to?
I like the new Cass McComb’s record a lot — he’s a personal hero. There’s a band here in London who are good friends of mine called Ultimate Painting. My friend Natalie plays in Weyes Blood – she’s put out a great record. Kayla — the girl who’s toured with us — she’s incredible. I feel stupid playing after her.
Are you a modest musician?
No, I’m a fucking clown in a clown costume. I don’t really have a place. I’m a dumpy, white dude — there’s too many of us already. It’s like: ‘what am I giving the world that it doesn’t already have?’ I’m trying to hide in the shadows while I can make it happen. I’ll probably fade away some time soon. This is so temporary. I’m happy to get to this point.
Do you wish things were how they were 30 or 40 years ago?
30 or 40 years it probably would have been the same. 30 or 40 years from now sure they’ll be somebody who says: ‘man, I wish I could have played then!’ It’s important to be here today. In the seventies there was great music yeah, but there was a lot of opportunity for people to play music. Now’s kind of a cool time to see a bunch of different apples from a bunch of different trees. I enjoy it quite a lot. 30 or 40 years I don’t know, I don’t care about money. I don’t give a shit.
What lies ahead in the next year or so?
We’re making a new record now — it’s okay, we’re trying to make some cool songs. I think they’re really good songs, they are really sad, but happy. Hopefully touring and staying busy. Ride my skateboard when it gets nice out again. Maybe move somewhere.
Do you always go back to Chicago?
Yeah, that’s where my mail goes. That’s where my landlord calls me from to tell me I’m late on rent.
Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is out now