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“I guess I have become branded as the guy who has a funny Twitter and also makes music,” Ryley Walker tells me. “That’s way better than the guy who washes dishes and snorts meth off a toilet seat, you know?”
He laughs. He’s joking but he’s also serious — if he weren’t a musician who’s become indie-famous for being a wise ass online, the 29-year-old guitarist truly believes he would be stuck in minimum-wage purgatory, praying to porcelain gods for deliverance. Fortunately, kinder gods have smiled on him.
“You know, even when I’m touring there’s some sort of character [I’m playing],” he says later, near the end of a 40-minute conversation. “The music and the Twitter is definitely another character, a self-deprecating character. I’m self-deprecating Ryley. But the real Ryley should be smoking a fucking carton of Pall Mall Reds, while getting government stipends.That’s the real Ryley. The fucking character Ryley lucked it out and fucking gets to play gigs, have beer, and get free hummus backstage on a rider.”
Walker has checked in from the road, though he’s not far from home at the moment, he says. The Rockford native and current Chicagoan is navigating the interstate somewhere in Illinois while engaging in an amiably meandering interview that occasionally touches on his own music.
I’ve just asked whether the tendency of journalists to always mention his hilarious Twitter feed has somehow overshadowed his music, which started out as retro-leaning psychedelic folk and has since evolved (on his excellent new album Deafman Glance) into a kind of morning-after, cigarettes-and-coffee music that’s also surprisingly limber, veering from Walker’s tired purr of a voice to jazzy guitar interpolations that blossom unexpectedly. (Walker likens his music to “simple man’s progressive rock.”)
Based on his songs, it would be easy to slot Walker in the “sad bastard singer-songwriter” lane. On earlier records like 2015’s Primrose Green, he sometimes sounded eerily similar to the cultish ’60s jazz-folk star Tim Buckley, projecting his tired tenor over waves of fluttery acoustic guitars. But around the time of 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, Walker discovered his own wry voice, sticking to his lower register and leaning into the sleepy, somewhat sluggish parts of his personality.
In conversation, however, Walker is like the funniest guy you remember from your dorm, the jester-philosopher who chain-smokes in his room and watches Dawson’s Creek reruns instead of going to class. He admits that his Twitter persona is a reactionary move against being typecast as just another self-serous folkie. “For better or worse, I’ve never taken myself seriously, ever,” he says.
But in spite of his insistence that he’s “lazy and lethargic,” Walker is a road dog who tours constantly, and between gigs he manages to produce a steady stream of albums, both on his own and in collaboration with friends and co-conspirators from the Chicago music scene. And he’s dedicated to improving his craft — with Deafman Glance, he feels he’s made a decisive turn toward the music he wants to make from now on, in which barstool-friendly experimental music melds with personal, heartfelt lyrics. We spoke about the record, Christian rock, and how his peers influence his songwriting.
I love your new record and I have a bunch of questions about it. But the main thrust of my piece is to instigate a rivalry between you and Steve Gunn. You both are vying for the top “sensitive guitar wizard” in indie rock slot, and I think it would help your careers to gin up a little conflict.
I mean, my career’s very stagnant, but I could never speak an ill word about Steve, who’s a very dear friend of mine. Love him more than anything. But, hey, if you want me to have some sort of rivalry with somebody like Switchfoot or Jars Of Clay, I really want to get an all-Christian band to hate me vastly.
I would rather have Switchfoot and Jars Of Clay hate each other and leave you out of the equation.
I love either band. I really genuinely enjoy Jars Of Clay so much. I grew up kind of — not religious — but evangelical. That contemporary Christian bullsh*t, you know?
I have a similar background.
Jars Of Clay and even bands like MXPX were a form of rebellion at one point in my life. It was very rebellious to put on MXPX’s Chick Magnet. Like, this is a f*ckin’ way out, you know?
Did you go to any Christian music festivals as a teenager?
Not as a teenager. By the time I was a teenager I was kind of checked out of that shit. But actually relevant to where you and I are from, in the Midwest, I went to Lifest, which is I believe in Oshkosh.
I used to cover that festival when I worked my first job at a daily newspaper in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Oh yeah, I crowd surfed to Relient K. I bought the ticket and took the ride.
That Christian rock stuff ushered so many kids into the world of music festivals.
I wonder if people will be able to look back on DC Talk’s Jesus Freak with some sort of new way of listening to it, or talking about it. Because that record is as big as any of the records in the ’90s for a lot of people. That was a form of rebellion for some kids. I listened to it recently and there’s a lot of really good songs on there. They were trying to be a carbon copy of all the rock they heard on the radio, and repackage and repurpose it for Christian kids.
Right. It was this alternate world of music that your parents would allow you access, but it still felt a little naughty and subversive.
Oh yeah, that’s where I got started, way before I carved out any sort of identity for myself, or discovered records on my own or through my friends. We’re talking about being f*cking 10, 11 years old, going to see MercyMe or Sonic Flood, or any one of these garbage f*cking bands. And there’s a canteen, with somebody’s mom working at it. And you get a bunch of Laffy Taffy and nachos with the cheese ladle, and Mr. Pibb. They just want to keep kids docile and fat and listening to Michael W. Smith.
So, I didn’t expect to go on a Christian rock tangent with you, but it’s a good segue to what I did want to talk to you about. You’ve talked disparagingly about Primrose Green, which was your breakout release, as being overly derivative of cultish ’60s rock. I like that record, though admittedly the first time I heard it, you reminded me of Tim Buckley. At that time, were you self-conscious about having the “right” influences that would impress people, as opposed to some of these uncool Christian rock bands we were talking about, or someone like Dave Matthews, who you’ve talked up lately as being an influence on you?
Oh, 100 percent. That’s actually a really good question. I’ve never fully answered it, or come to terms with it myself. Yeah, I’ve always been kind of like that. I’ve always been a pretty self-conscious person, I guess. I’ve always been kind of a f*cking actor, and kind of a bullsh*t artist in some cases.
When I was in high school, I played in the Christian band at a church. I guess at that point I wasn’t super religious, I was pretty checked out. But they’d give me 50 bucks a week to play in the Christian band, to play all these worship songs. And I think I always wanted to emulate something cooler than that. But it’s funny, that’s kind of the most fun, interesting part about me. It’s these kooky parts of my childhood, being part of something like that. So, I guess getting older and caring less has helped me move on and be better. I made a career off of nostalgia. Which is great, I feel really fortunate. I count my blessings. But over time I’m getting better at what I do.
When I first received the promo for Deafman Glance several months ago, you sent me a message where you said that this was your worst record. Were you joking, or did you really feel that way at time?
Um, probably half and half. I really do enjoy this record, I think it’s an alright record. I think it’s different and it’s a starting point to the kind of music I want to start creating. And it’s an ending point to the old shit, the old kind of folkie “hey, remember when people put on fucking acid light shows?” shit.
But I really do enjoy it. Sitting on a record so long is kind of a thing. You work on something for so long, and then you let it marinate. Especially when you have mental issues like me, tons of anxiety and depression and shit, it’s hard not to call yourself out. I go see some people for it, and take happy pills for it, so I think I’m better.
What’s the kind of music you want to start creating? Do you have something specific in mind?
A record I point to a lot is the first Loose Fur record. Probably one of my five favorite records of all time. I’ve always just wanted to make stuff like that. I love Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting. I love Jim O’Rourke. It’s simple man’s progressive rock. Midwest prog rock. Like, a deep-fried prog rock, that’s not academic. It’s like “sitting at the end of the bar” prog rock.
That’s a great way to put it. That Loose Fur record has esoteric elements to it, but at its core, it’s just these heartfelt songs. It has the heart and the brainy stuff working at the same time.
It’s prog-rock with a sense of humor. You don’t need a fucking thesaurus or dictionary to get through it. You could just order a sampler platter at any dive bar on the west side of Chicago and talk about it. And I really enjoy that music. That’s always been the big influence.
I want to ask you about “Spoil With The Rest” because I love that song. There’s a lyric where you say, “Whenever I do my best, I will spoil with the rest.” Which I actually Googled, because I thought it sounded like an old-timey phrase. But, it’s not. You wrote that.
[Laughs] You seem surprised.
I thought maybe you actually did find an old-timey phrase. I’ve ripped people off again!
What does that phrase mean to you?
Um, well, it’s funny, I think that was one of the first songs I wrote, if not the first. It’s kind of the most songy song I’ve ever written, too. Or at least the most songy song on the record. I have a pretty bad tendency to not see things through. I’m pretty lazy and lethargic. Making this record, it took forever because of my unpreparedness and laziness. I’m really social and loud, but I’m kind of an insular f*cking private person. And I’ve never had much luck with relationships going far, or being honest or meaningful. So, I think a lot of trying and failing has been my whole life.
“22 Days” has a similar, “I’m trying to get my sh*t together” vibe.
Yeah, exactly. I hate the term “This is my most personal record,” but it really is my most personal record, in that I’m finally writing real sh*t. Because there’s a lot of bullshit metaphors on other records I’ve made. Really just being hugely influenced by Nick Drake, and talking about a cloud. It’s like, you don’t f*ck clouds, clouds are f*cking stupid. I don’t care about clouds in my personal life.
I want to keep getting better and learning more. I like the sort of songwriting thing going on right now. And not that the bands were ever bad or anything, but [in the past] I was really influenced by freak folk stuff, like Animal Collective and Six Organs. A lot of that stuff was rural based. Now, there’s this whole kind of honesty in songwriting, like brutal honesty, embarrassing honesty. Which I really appreciate. I’m just trying to put that in my songwriting. More than anything, I’m influenced by all my peers who are in the game, in the biz right now. It’s really great to be surrounded by so many great songwriters. And, I feel like I’m the dumbest one in the room wherever I go. I’m never gonna stop feeling like that. I love to just learn and get my brain wired.
Deafman Glance is out now on Dead Oceans. Buy it here.