As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Into the mystic with the Chicago-based guitarist and songwriter.
Ryley Walker is a left-handed guitar player from Rockford, Illinois, who plays righty and can only hear out of one ear. Following a series of tours, limited-run releases, and collaborations with neo-American primitivists such as Daniel Bachman, Walker released his celebrated debut LP All Kinds of You last August on Tompkins Square Records. This month, his second album, titled Primrose Green—for a cocktail of whiskey and morning glory seeds—is out on Dead Oceans, and he will hit the road with Kevin Morby to support it.
Toggling between Burt Jansch-inspired Anglo-folk and expansive, jazzy freak-outs, Primrose Green features performances from some of Chicago’s top players, whose improvisational jams are marbled through with Walker’s almost supernatural fingerpicking. His style has attracted two classes of admirers: Guitar Player Magazine subscribers who love to hear him shred, and admirers of ’60s and ’70s UK folk, who cherish the renovations Walker is making to the music they love. Beyond its broad appeal, what I find most striking about the record is how it achieves a sense of controlled chaos that few today do; listening to Walker lead this band on Primrose Green is like watching moths caught in a lampshade.
On a Tuesday when a blizzard was called for but never came, I called Walker from New York—he was at home in Chicago—and discussed Cheap Trick, his UK influences, open tunings, and tips for convincing established musicians to join your band.
Andrew Cedermark So, where is home for you?
Ryley Walker I’m in Chicago, in the South Side.
AC What is the scene like there?
RW It’s really like we’re aliens here. We’re in this kind of weird spot in Little Village, which is a Mexican neighborhood, and we’re just these creeps on the block hanging out on the porch smoking cigarettes all day. It’s really great, though. There’s not a lot going on here. You have to take a bus or bike a few miles to get any action, but I like it.
AC It sounds like a little slice of country life in the city.
AC I noticed when I was trying to get in touch with you yesterday that my phone showed showed Rockford, Illinois. Is that where you are from?
RW Yes, that’s where I was born and raised, about sixty miles northwest of here.
AC Is that not Cheap Trick’s hometown?
RW Hell yeah, it’s Cheap Trick’s hometown. Cheap Trick is like propaganda there to make people think it’s a cool town. There’s a big billboard of cartoon caricatures of them. I mean, yeah, their music is great. But it’s pretty much all Rockford culture has to it.
You’ll just be eating a burger, and there’s Robin Zander or Rick Nielsen, and you’ll be like, “Wow, that’s cool.”
AC You play a fairly specific kind of guitar, and I wonder if there are any guitar players that the average Ryley Walker fan would be surprised to hear you’re psyched about.
RW Oh, man, good God, there are so many, I’m obsessed with so much different stuff. I think the weirdest one might be … You know who I really, really dig? What’s the dude? Rick Nielsen. I love Rick Nielsen!
AC What else is happening in Chicago right now? When I used to tour, I would always leave there with the feeling that I was making a tremendous mistake in not living there. Restaurants heap the food on your plate, you can swim in a Great Lake, everybody lives in a fabulous apartment—it really seems very nice.
RW I think what keeps people here is that it’s just really inexpensive to live here, you know? If you spend over 400, 500 bucks a month, you’re kind of a chump. Obviously, there are more expensive places, but to be a broke artist here is pretty inexpensive. There’s not too much hustle involved, so people have a lot of time on their hands to make their art.
I think there was a kind of golden age here that faded away maybe a few years ago. There were tons of cool warehouse things going on, and that stopped happening as much the last few years. It’s been mostly going to bars, and going to see music there, which can be fun but also exhausting. There’s cool stuff going on though. There’s always really good jazz music going on here—tons of opportunities. Right now though, it’s winter and people are mostly kind of sad.
AC I think that’s true here as well. Speaking of jazz, Primrose Green—which I have really been enjoying—has a lot of jazz players on it.
RW Pretty much the whole band is all guys picked out of the contemporary jazz scene in Chicago. They’re all good friends too, but they’re all involved with the in-crowd of the jazz scene here in Chicago. That’s why I have them on board, because they make the music really adventurous and different every time we play it. We all kind of improvise together to make tunes and—live especially—the emphasis is on improvising and going off on different tangents every single measure.
AC What was the process of getting guys like that to play with you? I feel like if you’re a young guitar player and you approach a seasoned jazz musician, he or she might look at you and say, “Uh, I have a gig that night,” or “Are you going to pay me?” Something like that.
RW All of them are really seasoned dudes, and it was like that for years. When I first got to Chicago I would just go and annoy the shit out of them, go to their gigs and say, “Hey man, I’m a guitar player!” And they’d be like, “Cool man, see ya.” But over time I got involved with a lot of people in the scene. Some of the guys—all the guys in the band now—I would consider my best friends. I think I just annoyed the shit out of them until they agreed to play. As I got better, they just hopped on board, and it worked out pretty nice. But yeah, the beginning was me just annoying the shit out of them, no doubt.
AC In interviews, you talk a lot about your favorite guitar players, but I haven’t heard you talk much about the jazz you like.
RW I listen to plenty all the time. There’s so much. God—out jazz, European jazz. I’m super into Wayne Shorter—I guess the big ones would be Wayne Shorter and Paul Bley, stuff like that. It’s my favorite music.
AC I wanted to ask about your songwriting process. I am also a guitar player who writes maximally filigreed guitar parts, nothing with your proficiency, but I find that I love playing guitar so much that the song itself tends to suffer as I doodle on and on. One thing I like about your records is how you are able to manage to balance expansive, wild guitar playing with a sense of constraint. I get the impression, but only sort of, that everything has been planned. Is that the case?
RW Not a whole lot of planning goes into it. I’m not a classic Bob Dylan type, where I wake up and say, “Oh, I just wrote a song!” I mean, songs are a really painstaking process for me. I don’t ever really finish one, you know? And I really write my best stuff when I’m under pressure. So I booked studio time for this record, and I didn’t really have anything fully planned. When I make a song I’ll just kind of sit down and play guitar every day, but mostly just jamming with my roommates. We’ll play ragtime songs or improvise. Most of the time I’m in a weird tuning, so I’ll just riff on that forever until finally I play it live a bunch.
Even then it still never ends. Even in the studio it’s a constant jam. I’ll show it to the band and I’ll kind of make up lyrics as I can—make the nicest sounding poetry I can in the shortest amount of time. I’ll bring it to the band and say, “How can we do this?” And jam on it forever. I don’t know, writing under pressure is how I do it the best. When I’m anxiety-filled, that’s when I write songs, especially with the new stuff. Does that make sense?
AC Yeah. So when you play live, are you trying to re-create what you’ve done in the studio, or are you just, again, jamming? Would it be possible to re-create what you’re doing in the studio?
RW Yes, that’s totally possible. It’s just boring to me. It’s not really earnest for me, and it wouldn’t be honest for me to go on stage and pretend I’m happy doing the same thing every night. I like to switch it up a lot. The background I come from musically is all built on improvisation.
Somebody else who does that a lot live with this kind of guitar playing is Steve Gunn. He’s amazing at that shit too, and I think I see eye-to-eye with him on that. Every night the songs are going to change, and there’s a whole new life to them. That’s the point of a live show for me—to make it new every time, to make it refreshing for me.
AC You were talking a little about the words you write under pressure, and I wanted to return to that. You write a lot about nature. You have an urban life, so I wonder if songs like “Primrose Green,” “Clear the Sky,” “Hide in the Roses,” and “Twin Oaks,” parts one and two, take something from city life and filter it through nature …
RW Yeah. The songs are really personal. They’re all my tunes, and I mean them all, big-time. I really do have this tie to nature, and I’m really inspired by poets like Yeats, all those classic UK poets who write about nature. I grew up in cities, with pollution and shit, and I think when I write about things like that it kind of takes me away, you know?
I’m a pretty anxious guy and somehow I still live in the city. It’s where I belong. It’s therapeutic writing about these places that are mostly unfamiliar to me.
AC Your second verses often repeat the first, and when you’re repeating the words you’ll get lost in the tone of your voice, and finally lose the words entirely, then start using your voice as an instrument.
RW Totally. I’m definitely inspired by Tim Buckley. His lyrics are beautiful but his voice just had a deep-rooted power in it. So much soul, you know? Same with Van Morrison. The voice is there with the guitar. Words are important too, but voice is huge. It’s got to be there.
AC There are also more lyrically-driven moments on the new record too, like “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee.” That’s a new one, right?
AC You said these songs are personal. Is there a story behind that one?
RW The Kishwaukee River is actually in Rockford where I’m from, where I grew up. There are always all these Christians being baptized, it’s like a Southern Gospel thing, and I would always see this happening. But it’s this really polluted river; there are cigarette butts and beer cans everywhere. It’s funny, I have nothing against Christians or baptism, but they are finding salvation in a dump, pretty much. People are always smiling when they’re down there, and I’m like, “Do you realize they’re dumping every awful thing into this river?”
It’s just a funny memory I have, and I guess it’s dedicated to people who had their sins washed away. It’s just a sweet song about a nice memory I had as a kid.
AC That’s a great image. I wanted to ask you about your tunings. I saw in another interview you were talking about DADGAD.
RW That’s the classic one. The Kishwaukee song is in that.
AC What is your process like as far as finding new tunings is concerned?
RW There’s no doubt that tunings are part of the palette. You’ve got to have a palette of tunings as a finger-style guitar player. I’m not doing anything too crazy or Sonic Youthy. The big one I use on this record CGDGCD—“Primrose Green” is in that. I don’t exactly know what it is, but I guess I could ask somebody in the band.
It’s like a painting—you can have different brushstrokes, you can take out different materials and push your craft and just explore. The guitar is like the most popular instrument in the world and everyone has one, but you can make yours unique with these intricacies and by playing with different tunings. With some, you can get a really crazy range that you can’t get in standard tuning. And when you find your own that nobody else has, it’s like somebody shows up to school with a really rare baseball card and is like, “Check out what I’ve got.”
I’m not a big gearhead or anything, but I love talking tunings with guitar players. It’s a hot tip. You know Daniel Bachman?
AC Sure, yeah.
RW We’ll talk, and he’ll be like, “Dude, you’ve got to check out this tuning,” and I will, and I’ll be like, “Whoa!” I like that. It’s a fun part of finger-style guitar culture.
AC As you were saying before, the guitar is such a popular instrument, and part of the reason for that is because it almost caters to the savant in all of us. You don’t have to know anything, but if you have your guitar in open D, basically anything you do is going to sound good.
RW And I love standard tuning so much, but it’s the most complicated tuning for me. I can play in it, but it’s really weird if you think about it. It’s a far-out tuning. It really makes no sense. When the monks or whoever decided the guitar should be tuned that way … it’s just really far-out. There are so many dense chords in it that are so far-out and make super avant-garde sounds.
AC It’s funny also that standard guitar tuning is so far-out when most other stringed instruments are tuned to something more forgiving. Like the banjo, for example, is in open G.
RW Cello or violin are something like CGDG. You can play it openly and it works.
AC You were talking earlier about being a younger guy talking to these jazz musicians. But you used to play noise music, right?
RW When I got involved in music in Chicago it was mostly doing noise stuff. It’s definitely not some cultural touchstone of contemporary free jazz as much as it’s six tall boys of Miller High Life in a basement, shredding with a dude on saxophone for an hour. That’s how I met a lot of my friends and how I got into the touring circuit.
AC How did the change—from what you did, to what you’re doing now—come about?
RW I always did the two concurrently. I never preferred one over the other. I started doing this type of music five years ago, and my friends in noise music were the ones that encouraged me to do it. I just wasn’t that good at it until, I don’t know, maybe four years ago. I didn’t really have the confidence to step out. I was playing my guitar and started doing a John Fahey kind of thing, opening up for a dude playing a Metal Zone pedal through a mixer, and it worked out great. Those were my favorite shows I ever played.
Somebody else was asking me about whether my music is nostalgia-based. I love Bert Jansch and that music, and I’m directly inspired by it, but it’s not a nostalgic thing I’m after. I think I chase after the same thing those artists did, which is drawing from many influences in the world, not only American blues and traditional English music or traditional Scottish music. They reached out to East Indian music, they would take Asian influences and jazz influences and put that into a folk song. All that I really admire, and they kept it super-tight.
If you look at the bands from that era, they were so inspired by everything in the world. They weren’t just locally keeping it within the realm of the music they grew up on. I think I’m really influenced by how far they reached in writing a song. But it’s not a nostalgia thing, and I’m not trying to carry anything on, for that matter.
AC When you are talking about “those guys” in England and Scotland and Ireland, who do you have in mind?
RW I’m thinking about John Martyn, Anne Briggs … I mean, all the music from that whole scene was just incredible. It’s so good, and they relied so heavily on this music from all around the world. Not to diss the Greenwich Village American folk music thing—which is some of my favorite music—but it wasn’t just like, “Here’s a cover of a postwar blues song and Vietnam sucks,” you know? The music there was so far-out. And they were inspired by the poets I love, the 17th and 18th and 19th century English poets. I love it so much.
AC Are you left-handed?
RW I write left-handed, but I play guitar righty. I’m not a lefty guitarist. Fuck that shit. That concept is too insane. I can’t believe anybody falls for that.
AC Is it true that you can only hear out of one of your ears?
RW Oh, yeah. That wasn’t a joke. I’m deaf in my left year since a bike accident.
AC Are you okay now?
RW No, I’m still deaf in my left ear. I didn’t go crazy from it or anything. It sucked for a while, but I’m used to it now. But it’s weird when I go to see loud music at a show now. It’s sort of this weird fade-in fade-out thing now. My left ear is pretty much shot.
AC Has that changed your relationship with music in any way?
RW No, not at all. It just made me want to play music more, to be honest. At that time I was just basically going from bum job to bum job, and had something like seven dollars to last a week, eating bread out of the dumpster of Panera. Then I got into that wreck, and I had a lot of time to sit around because I was so busted up. I had a lot of time to write tunes, which was great.
AC You just got off tour with Cloud Nothings, and you’re heading out with Kevin Morby soon.
RW I played a bunch of shows with Cloud Nothings last year, and me and Kevin are going out in the beginning of March.
AC Your first full-length was called All Kinds of You.
RW Yeah, that came out last year.
AC The song with that same name does not appear on that album, but appears on the new one, Primrose Green, right?
RW I wrote that song too late. I tied up the record, then I wrote that song. But it’s just a song written a little too late. It’s kind of confusing for me too. When I wrote it I was like, “I’ll change the title of the record,” and everybody said, “No way, man. You’ve got to keep it that way.” It’s just a song written a little too late.
Ryley Walker’s Primrose Green is out March 31 on Dead Oceans. Walker is on tour now.
Andrew Cedermark is a guitar player, writer, and teacher living in New York.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.