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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?