Ryley Walker Is Experimental Music’s Merry Prankster
The hilariously self-deprecating musician speaks about his third album 'Deafman Glance,' and premieres its driving second single "Opposite Middle."
Ryley Walker is sipping a cappuccino at Gaslight Coffee, a pricey but cozy coffee spot in Logan Square, one of Chicago’s hippest neighborhoods, when he starts telling me how things used to be. “This whole block used to be empty,” he says. “I'm getting to that point where I've lived in this city long enough that I'm that doing that jaded fogey thing: ‘I remember when this was a mom and pop restaurant or an empty storefront! It wasn't always brunch!’” He asks if I ever went to a now-shuttered underground venue called the Mopery, which was located just blocks away from us.
“The first fingerpicking show I did was there,” he continues. “It’s now a gym. It's funny to look up and see people running on treadmills exactly where I'd literally rip gravity bongs. Now these people are bettering their lives there?”
Times change, and while Chicago’s neighborhoods have gentrified and familiar storefronts have been replaced with bougie brunch spots and four dollar coffee shops like the one we’re sitting in, Walker has also drastically changed since he moved here from Rockford—a quiet but unmotivating Illinois city 80 miles northwest known for being home to Cheap Trick—11 years ago. Though he came to the city at 17 for college, he quickly dropped out of both Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago to, in his words, “become the scene’s annoying little brother” and make music. “I just feel like I rolled the dice and became an indie rock dude,” he says. “It's just dumb luck. By all means I should just be a fat load on a couch with my career choice being the check from a truck company that hit me or something.”
Throughout Walker’s career, he’s never been one to stick with a single sound. He’s done everything from specializing in noisy squall with his earliest noise bands like Heat Death, to being 60s-inspired open tuned fingerpicker, and a collaborative open-ended improviser. With his excellent fourth album Deafman Glance, out May 18 via Dead Oceans, the 28-year-old guitarist has finally settled into his own voice after years trying to find what works. In other words, when he hears the new LP’s electric and freewheeling nine songs, like the propulsive single “Opposite Middle” Noisey is premiering below, he doesn’t instantly hate it like he does his early catalog.
“What kind of psychopath likes their own music?” he muses as he bites into a scone. “How deep fried is your jalapeno popper that you like your own records? I love making music but I just hate looking back on it.”
After long bouts of playing basement noise shows and putting out fingerpicked jam sessions on small tape labels around the city, Walker’s first record 2014’s largely instrumental All Kinds Of You positioned himself as a woodsy folk bard, complete with press photo outfits that were a few steps from being Ren Faire pastiche. “I don't even remember what my first record was called,” he claims. “That and [2015’s follow-up] Primrose Green are terrible records. When you hear those two, that was just me thinking I could sing and being like, ‘I'm a fucking troubadour. Check out my pants!’ It had this whole thing that wasn't me.”
Despite Walker’s self-lacerating wit, there were moments of folk-rock inspiration on both of his first LPs. But he is right that there was a disconnect between the self-serious aura of Ryley Walker, the musician, versus Ryley Walker, the goofball dude. After all, this a guy who over the course of our digression-filled and lively conversation would lean closer to my recorder so it would clearly pick up that his face looked “like an elderly man’s slow-pitch softball mitt” after eating several footlong hot dogs on tour. He’s also very likely the first artist to ever shout out Tesco Coleslaw in his liner note thank yous. “I like self-deprecation,” he explains. “I hate cynicism and when people take themselves so seriously. I hate the idea of patting myself on the back by putting a song out and yelling, ‘look at my deep art!’”
On top of Walker’s early struggle to match up his personality with his music, his older catalog didn’t quite square up to his sprawling, jam-minded live show. His band is populated by players steeped in Chicago’s jazz, improvisational, and experimental communities who mostly still perform with him to this day. They’ve always specialized in these thrilling exercises that spread out his often-straightforward folk songs. “I write dumpy white-boy folk songs but I always want to include more experimental things in there,” he says. “Having these far-out jazz or improv players on my songs was always important to me.”
Though Walker’s not trained in jazz, he’s gravitated towards improvisational music, often playing improvised jam session residencies around town. On top of that, his studio collaborations with guitarist Billy MacKay (2015’s Land of Plenty and 2017’s SpiderBeetleBee) and drummer Charles Rumback (2016’s Cannots) were largely fleshed out on the spot. “I learned that if I can shut up, stop playing, and listen, the better it is,” he says. “It's better to react to what's going on between the notes because it's a living, breathing, spontaneous thing.”
This sentiment carried over to his 2016 LP Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, which was produced by former Wilco multi instrumentalist Leroy Bach. It’s also the first of his albums that doesn’t make Walker cringe.“Immediately after Primrose came out, I was like, ‘Fuck this’ and recorded the Golden Sings record as a direct reaction to that”, he says. “That's where I found my footing.”
The single “The Roundabout” reconciled his humor (“And I'd buy you a drink / But my credit is quite shit / We can all laugh / And have tap water”) with his virtuosic guitar playing and proclivity for rustically stretched out arrangements that marked the first time Walker felt truly at ease as a frontman and songwriter. But it was the epic, unwinding six-minute opener “The Halfwit In Me” where things really clicked. The way that track organically unfolds further showed a young artist getting truly comfortable. “After that song, I was no longer in that hippie-dippie chicken pickin' folk stuff” he says. “It was a real Ryley Walker song. I wanted to make a whole record kind of like that.”
For these songs, Walker drew from the adventurous and experimental 90s Chicago scene, where bands like Gastr Del Sol, The Sea and Cake, Tortoise, Isotope 217, and Jim O'Rourke pushed the edges of indie rock and folk into weirder and knottier territory. But while he wanted to continue the vibe he felt on his 2016 effort, when he started recording Deafman Glance with Bach on breaks from his arduous tour schedule, things didn’t work out immediately. “I was not living well and when I’d get back from tour, we’d have a session and I’d be really hungover and not in the mood to do it at all,” he explains. “My hat goes off to Leroy Bach and my band for pushing me to not be so lazy and lethargic. The first few sessions all fell flat.”
Due to the staggered out and tour break-dependent nature of the Deafman Glance sessions, the album took almost an entire year to be completely fleshed out. The constant gigging wore Walker out and he coped by getting fucked up every night, which carried over when he was home and recording. “Man, it was really killing me being on the road for so long,” he says. “I went too hard and had horrible addictions to drugs and alcohol, which was my fault—not the touring's fault. My brain just went crazy.” In fact, it got so turbulent that Walker didn’t think the record would ever come out, something he chalks up as his own “tortured artist bullshit.”
When Walker was on the road last summer, flutist Nate Lepine laid down tracks over the working tracks. “Lepine’s playing made me realize that there’s a common thread in all these songs I was writing,” he says. “He added this good pastoral—which is a good word to put in your article—vibe to it. When I heard it in the van, I said to no one in particular: ‘Boys, we have a record!’”
Lead single “Telluride Speed” shows how much Lepine’s contributions color the album. When the song was released, a rave Pitchfork track review called it “flute heavy” which Walker quote tweeted: “Ya damn right we get heavy on the flute.” But Lepine’s playing really does tie the knot between the disparate proggy guitar freakouts and delicate arpeggios. It’s one of the most ambitious offerings of his career and it’s absolutely mesmerizing.
But what Walker really needed to finish the album was a break from the road. Knowing he’d experience even more intense burnout if he agreed to another tour, he cleared the next six months of his schedule and went to work on the album. “Finally something clicked for me, he says. “The words I was writing were actually cool and thankfully had nothing about a stupid-ass mountain or trees like my old songs.”
Knowing his body would keep hurting if he continued, he drastically cut back on his substance intake while home, mentioning in the album announce statement that he “got sick of being a party animal — I don’t want to be 19-gin-and-tonics-Ryley any more.” To break from the cycle of getting drunk and hangover-induced self loathing, Walker started seeing a therapist which he says has really helped clear up his thoughts.
While Deafman Glance is always an exciting listen for the wealth of competing ideas and its freeform experimental bent, Walker notes that it’s also possibly a challenging listen. “I just pulled from being in a room with my friends and kind of losing my mind in the process” he says. “I don’t think the old folkies who found me on Primrose Green are going to like it.” He’s ditched the acoustic guitars in favor of an archtop electric and the songs feel much more open because of it. Unreleased songs like “22 Days” morph from a subdued to a noise-laden freakout on a whim where “Accomodations” boasts gorgeous ambient flourishes which turn menacingly psychedelic by song’s end.
But there’s also more accessible moments, like album highlight “Opposite Middle.” It’s a propulsive track with rapidly cascading oddly tuned guitar riffs (in case you’re curious: it’s FGCFAF with a capo on the fourth fret) that sounds like the most compelling The Sea and Cake offerings. When Walker remembers that this is the single he’s premiering he’s ecstatic. “Fuck!” he exclaims. “I think I did a good job on this one. I knew I wanted driving percussion so there’s two drummers on the track and it’s really straightforward and punchy.” While Walker often denigrates his singing voice, it’s a much more polished and welcoming croon than his previous efforts. Where Walker’s most exciting songs have always been open ended jams, this track manages to be efficient and fast-paced while still sounding like himself.
Since he finished up the album, Walker moved to the south side to Woodlawn, a relatively quiet neighborhood. He’s been enjoying the solitude and the time off from touring. “I don't do anything,” he says with a laugh. “I don't have internet and don't pay for gas but I do have a very functional microwave and a store with Totino's pizza rolls that’s about 100 steps away.”
Though he says he’s not going to be touring as much off this record, he’s still excited at the prospect of coming home after a long run away. “Something about this place keeps me here,” he says. “I’ve learned to appreciate the way the buildings look and the way the sidewalks smell. If you look at the skyline it’s all angular, there’s nothing round. It’s kind of like how [the city’s] music is: all sharp objects that can poke your eye out.”
Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer based in Chicago, he's on Instagram.
Josh Terry isn’t as good at Twitter as Ryley Walker but he’s still on that website anyway.