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The last time I spoke with Ryley Walker, he wasn’t far removed from the darkest period of his life. In the spring of 2019, the inventive guitarist and songwriter — who’s also known for his hilarious social media presence — checked himself into rehab for drug and alcohol dependency. The decision came after Walker came close to taking his own life while on tour in New Mexico.
Thankfully, times are much better these days for the 31-year-old Illinois native. On Friday, he will release Course In Fable, his finest studio album to date. A die-hard fan of the English pop-prog band Genesis and a devout student of Chicago post-rock, Walker has somehow merged these influences on Fable, stitching together multi-part songs heavy on wonky guitar solos and unexpected time signature changes. In the studio, he was assisted by John McEntire, a Chicago indie legend known for his work with Tortoise and The Sea And Cake. The result is one of 2021’s most unabashedly gorgeous and grand indie records.
Having recently parted ways with his label, Secretly Canadian, Walker opted to put out Course In Fable on his own. That means he also doesn’t have a publicist or any other infrastructure for promotion and distribution. Nevertheless, Course In Fable has garnered some of the best reviews of his career. More than that, it feels like a creative breakthrough for Walker, who’s already recognized as one of the leading lights of the contemporary indie jam scene.
“Things are great,” he told me. “I’ve got a great relationship with my mind and body and spirit. I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m living in some sort of solution. Living is the big keyword there. I’m very happy and there’s no heaviness to my life. The only heaviness is 1970- to 1975-era Genesis.”
I caught up with Walker at his temporary home in western Massachusetts, where Walker moved after New York City proved to be too expensive during the pandemic. (He noted that the region is best known for spawning butt-rock kingpins Staind, about whom he’s expressed genuine appreciation.) In May, he plans to move ever farther north to Vermont. In a way, the pastoral vibe of Course In Fable presages these changes.
“I thought I was just going to die in a gutter as a martyr like, ‘I am a city person.’ But man, I just want to drink water from a well and live,” Walker said.
In our interview, we talked a lot about Genesis and a little about his own music.
Selling England By The Pound or Foxtrot?
Well, I pick Selling England by the Pound. Foxtrot is Genesis reading the book of Genesis in their own story of Genesis. And then we start to get into Exodus — we’re just keeping it in a biblical theme here — and it’s just so much more exploratory. And their sense of humor, which I think is underrated. Peter Gabriel has this amazing sense of humor. Obviously on stage he looks like a total idiot, and is just very boisterous and loud and obnoxious with what he wears and I think that comes through way more on Selling England By The Pound. It’s performative, but it’s not some “arty proscenium stage” thing. It’s really accessible and funny. It seems like average people doing prog rock rather than scholars and people who dig too deep into a Thesaurus or something. It’s very much working-person’s prog, in my opinion.
I know you love Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, but can we also talk about the Phil Collins era? I don’t like it when people are snobby about the Phil years.
I mean, it’s a real shame. We have all these great documents of how great of a band they were, so I don’t really feel like I need to prove anything. The records are a dollar apiece if you go to a record store. There’s enough live footage out there to show the power Phil Collins had. And that’s a big job, man, to take over for Peter Gabriel. But all in all, I think they made the right decision, because we got A Trick Of The Tail out of it, which is probably my second favorite Genesis record. It’s a master class; it’s like AC/DC’s Back In Black, but with more dragons and shit, man. It’s the comeback record nobody thought would be so good and perfect, and it’s their formula. They didn’t change the formula at all. It’s uniquely Genesis.
I think Phil Collins, he’s a really brilliant guy. And, obviously, for his contributions to the band to just be boiled down to whatever shit people want to talk, is completely unfair. He took on, in my opinion, one of the hardest jobs ever and he did it very well. And the pop direction they went is also just genius. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I can’t help you. I don’t know what sickness you have, but I can’t help you and I encourage you to explore more.
I celebrate everything all the way up to We Can’t Dance, which is goofy and as anti-establishment as you can imagine. That was in the peak era of rock ‘n’ roll and they made a record that was just so them. They were wearing big, dumb suits and they had a dance and everything and it was just all in their hands. They weren’t listening to anybody else except themselves and I think it was for the better.
A few years before that, in the mid-1980s, you had that magical confluence where Genesis, Phil Collins, and Peter Gabriel separately put out huge albums.
Yeah, absolutely. You had Peter Gabriel’s So, and you had Genesis’ Invisible Touch, and then you had Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. All three of those are just punishingly beautiful records, and I think they set new standards for recording technology. These guys had millions of dollars. I’m sure they bought Porsches, they did the rock star thing, but they were also like, “Hey, let’s figure out how we can make recording better.” So today we probably\ wouldn’t be having this conversation were it not for Peter Gabriel inventing all these new studio techniques accessible to everybody.
Steve Hackett also went on quite a tear with his solo records. He has like 50 of them. His solo records are pretty phenomenal even up to the last 20 years. There’s a really good late-career peak for Steve Hackett right now and he tours around Europe and America just playing Genesis songs because he’s like, “Fuck you. I want some money. I’m going to play these better than those three oafs who are left over.”
What’s your stance on Mike + The Mechanics?
Mike + The Mechanics is a psychotic experience that should only be viewed in the rearview mirror as a fatal mistake. It’s one of the worst bands I’ve ever heard.
“The Living Years” may be a top five most hated song for me.
They’re totally bad. And it just goes to show to leave the leading to the lead person. You get a quarterly check. Just put a pool by your pool. You can do whatever you want. Mike + The Mechanics, god bless you, but it seems like you need to go under the hood on your own jams and really do some work there.
The only Genesis album I haven’t heard is Calling All Stations …, the one they made without either Gabriel or Collins.
That is like Saved By the Bell: The New Class times 100 and it’s evil. The only reason to listen to is to be like, “Wow, we had it pretty good with Phil, didn’t we?” They didn’t even try to bring in a ringer, like how King Crimson brought in Adrian Belew, or anybody to sing. They just brought in a guy who probably was pissing his pants with the band going like, “Well, he’s got gel in his hair and he can hit a high note. Let’s take him.”
At this point we should probably talk about your record, Course In Fable. This is a really accomplished album. This is an overused word but is it fair to call this your most ambitious record to date?
Yeah, I hate to use the word “ambition,” especially with a capital A. But I did strive to have a little ambition here. Usually [my music] is just like a really crappy Old Country Buffet-style slop I put on the plates. I feel like it’s always half-baked ideas that you have to pay $16 to hear. And it’s like, “Well, the pizza was interesting and they have a dessert part of the buffet …” But here I just wanted it to be a really well-rounded, full record and for every song to have some sort of ambition, whether that’s multiple parts or better lyrics. The work and the vision that Genesis puts into their music is a very big influential point for me, especially in recording quality. I love the sound of all the records I’ve done, but John McEntire has this really clean, front-of-the-mix style that I 100 percent wanted.
John McEntire is a major figure of Chicago post-rock, which I know is also a big influence on you. Do you see any connections between that and ’70s English prog?
A thing I told myself was I wanted this to sound like if Peter Gabriel was on Thrill Jockey. It’s a marriage of those two worlds. I mean, obviously, it’s 2021. Nobody has million-dollar budgets anymore, but I feel like Chicago post-rock came out of punk. And so they did all of these ambitious records on a budget and figured it out on their own. And I think that’s kind of what the early stages of prog were. It was this really exploratory music that maybe seems a bit closed off, but it’s all working-class people who do it. Chicago post-rock music, all of that is really based in experimentation through the studio. Live performance is obviously a big thing, but John is a master of using the studio as an instrument. So he’s influenced by dub music and prog music and all that stuff.
To what degree was your writing influenced by not having a record deal?
Well, I don’t have any good label fallout stories or anything. We’re all still friends. I had every intention to submit this to a label. So I wrote it per usual. I think I was better at writing this round because my head is clearer and I’m not living in my own shit and piss.
How do you like running your own label, Husky Pants?
I’m a big fan of Thurston Moore. He always had Sonic Youth records. But in between that, he has a hundred different weird records. Pitching these weird records to labels is tough. Not because they hate the music, but it’s hard to sell. It’s not worth their time to press 250 of these things. So starting a label that I can curate myself and work on my own dime and not really have to answer to anybody, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s a really fun, creative source for me. I’m sure there’ll be moments where I’m like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” But for now it’s been really rewarding seeing the whole process from start to finish. I want to get as much stuff out as possible in a short amount of time. If I lose money on it, whatever. It’s just me in the end.
When you are able to tour again, do you expect to be back out ASAP?
I don’t want to be the first to go on tour and have it blow up in my face. If I go back on tour, it’ll be way, way scaled back. Three months in a van, surrounded by fucking fast-food wrappers and Big Gulps, is not my style anymore. There’s plenty of people who want to do that and who are eager to do it. And I say, godspeed. Touring is going to be really duking it out as far as booking agents go. Getting a gig will be pretty tough, I think. But heck, I hope I’m wrong.
I have completely realistic expectations for this record. I don’t expect it’s going to have this big, long shelf life. It’ll be a blip and gone. And with me, that’s cool. My goal with Husky Pants is to put out shit and break even. I try to have some sort of humility about music-business stuff. I’m just glad to be doing it. I work other side jobs. I was working at Target all winter, doing box stuff. It’s just great to detach from music and work with people who have never heard of Syd Barrett. I’m just stoked to be more present for family and friends. Anything else music-wise is a just gift and I’ll take it as it comes.
Course In Fable is out tomorrow via Husky Pants. Get it here.