JD Walsh’s ‘Shy Layers’ Debut Is A Nod To Art Galleries, Kubrick, And Kraftwerk

JD Walsh is one of those dudes who is only comfortable if he’s uncomfortable. He’s a living, breathing example of Newton’s first law, and his constant motion leads to bouts of inspiration. Whether he’s working on a multimedia project, sculpting, looping, dubbing, recording, or parenting, there’s no real warning of what’s going to come next.

So if it feels like Walsh’s recent self-titled LP under the Shy Layers name came out of nowhere, that’s only because you didn’t know about him until now. For Walsh, this is a record that was many bands, countless hours working in After Effects, and two years of laying down tracks in the making.

But there’s plenty of time to catch up, and you’ll likely be happy you did. Walsh created an album that’s at once in the moment and unstuck in time — drifting between ’80s teen movie soundtracks, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and the referential nature of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Pedro Almodóvar.

What Walsh has managed to do is make an album that’s just for him and still equally as accessible for everyone else. It’s the perfect complement to our current fascination with Stranger Things and the resurrection of Crystal Pepsi. It’s for today, yesterday, and whenever.

We got a few minutes to peek inside Walsh’s mind, running through his process, the inspiration for Shy Layers, and more.

Let’s start with the name: Shy Layers. Can you give everyone a background on why you named the project that?
My day job for many years has been editing video and motion graphics and that kind of stuff for other people. In After Effects, if you’ve started working on a composition, you have a lot of layers. If you need to simplify the project and only look at one, you can designate certain layers as shy layers. So, in my day-to-day drudgery of editing videos, I’d sort of look at that term as a poetic sounding term, and thought it could be really apt for a music project. 
When I started this project in late 2014 I needed a name, and I thought this would actually work. Especially with the veiled nature of the vocoders and the vast quality of the vocals. It’s just one of those things that seemed to work out.

You got to the vocoders a little earlier than I was going to, but what was the inspiration behind using that on the record?
A lot of it is wanting something other than my voice. My voice is okay. It can get the job done, but it’s also referential in some way. I thought it would be more indie rock or have a rock referentiality to it if it was just my voice. I wanted to sort of open it up and blur the lines a little bit. A lot of people hear vocoders and they think of Daft Punk if they’re a bit younger, but I wanted to take it to the place of like a Kraftwerk or Parliament, or some funk. I wanted to take it to the place as well. I wanted it to be a little more anonymous and a little less about me.

It also brings a timelessness or an ambiguity of when this sounds. With some bands you can hear a time period, or even a specific year, stylistically. It seems like you’re referencing other bands in passing, but you can’t quite place when this is set.
That’s a good observation. I don’t know that I did that intentionally. I do wear my interests on my sleeve a little bit, and I think part of it is the time periods I’m interested in are all over the place, so that comes out. I can’t say it was super intentional, but if something like that creeps into it, I’m completely comfortable in letting it stay.

With a lot of the video editing you’ve done, and the art works you’ve put together, between loops and dubs, it’s clear you have a rich film background — and there’s plenty there that you enjoy. Are there any directors that tend to stay with you?
I can name filmmakers and directors I’m interested in, and I’m not exactly sure how they relate. But I’m sure the aesthetics are probably applicable. I can say Stanley Kubrick has definitely been a longtime favorite of mine. I even just watched Eyes Wide Shut again the other night for probably the first time since it came out. It’s funny because it still feels like a Kubrick movie. I thought it was a quirky, kind of interesting thing. All the check boxes of being a Kubrick film were there. Anything where there’s a DIY nature because all of my stuff is done in my art studio, and everything is done with whatever tiny, tiny budget that I have. That ethos of an independent filmmaker is something that I admire as well.

I love Pedro Almodóvar. I don’t know how that translates to music at all, but there’s something so stylish about him, and he’s another guy where his references are just so evident. He has this great love for Hitchcock, and it’s so much more twisted, modern, and melodramatic. It has this strong, suspenseful, swooping narrative arc, and I admire how much he’s into what he does as well.

Most artists eventually end up trying something else — they’ll wander off. An oil painter will try sculpting. A filmmaker will make music. When I see certain artists working outside their comfort zones, their styles change. Parts of you are going to come out in music that will be different from your other art, right?

That’s absolutely correct. That’s something I think about all the time. It’s a never-ending source of fascination for me. If I’m in the art studio or I’m in the music studio, a lot of the decisions I have to make are very similar. Whether it’s texture or juxtaposition or scale or references, these are the same kinds of things I’d have to encounter if I was making a painting or a sculpture. What is so freeing about working in music is that you’re outside the sort of accepted art vernacular. There’s no grad schools or résumés or galleries. That really is a big part of the art economy, and today’s art scene. I just did find something freeing about going with something as primal and abstract as music. There’s something liberating about that.

Composition is composition. It’s about putting things together. When putting this together, how much of it was you alone?
As far as the instruments, it’s all me. I hired a female vocalist on two of the tracks, “Too Far Out” and “Holding It Back.” It was just a Craigslist. I wanted another voice on the record. I didn’t go too far into what I was doing because I thought that might influence the type of people I would get. You know, the people who would gravitate toward it anyway. I didn’t want that. I wanted someone outside of that. I said I’d pay for two hours of work, and people sent me demos, and I hired the woman I liked best. She came over to my art studio, and she was probably freaked out because she was in this studio in an industrial part of Brooklyn. “Oh great, what did I get myself into.” [Laughs.] But she was really great. She was willing to try different things, and we recorded more than we needed to so I could edit and pick and choose. It was great.

You recently moved, correct?
I have a 4-year-old boy named Oliver. My wife has family here in Atlanta. And we were in New York for 15 years. I still go back and forth a lot, and I have an art show in New York now. But for life, and school, it seemed like the right time to do it.

How does the art scene in Atlanta compare?
I’m glad I lived in New York, and I’m glad I had that experience before coming here. I was able to make those friends and make those connections. But once you have those connections, it doesn’t matter where you live in today’s day and age. With the internet and social media, and those sorts of things. I’m so new here, I can’t really say how it compares. I know there is a thriving art and music scene, but I’m still between the two places. I’m just excited to explore.

Are you able to contrast the release of the album to, say, a gallery opening?
A gallery opening, nobody goes to see the work. You go to hang out, to meet people, to do a little networking, maybe glance at the work. But it’s not the same as taking a Sunday stroll through Chelsea or the Lower East Side where you can actually have some time. The rollout of the album, I think people do get to listen to it. It’s not as socially fused as an opening is. They’re really two different things. There are similarities as well, in terms of preparing for it, and wanting to promote both things as best you can. You send it to all your friends, and there’s that word of mouth stuff that goes along with it. There’s still a push to meet a deadline. That’s an interesting thing to compare.

Do you have plans to take this project and tour with it?
I’m trying to figure out how to tour right now. I did a little bit of performance with it in New York, but mostly at galleries and things like that. It was a live synth improv mixed with a deconstruction of the tracks. But I want to play more. It’s something I’m definitely interested in. I just don’t have plans for it at the moment.

What was your background musically?
I come from a musical family. My dad taught me to play guitar when I was pretty young. Just chords. I never took any lessons. It was sort of passed down, but my parents came up in the early ‘70s. My dad was a big Neil Young fan, Crosby Stills and Nash. Graceland was on constantly. I’m sure that affected me.

That came through on the album.
For sure. I just watched that Paul Simon documentary about the making of Graceland, which was pretty good. I’m sure that was on my mind when I was making the record. But I’ve always been in bands, and it’s something that was a part of my life forever.

How did you end up getting signed?
It’s a good story. At least I think it’s a good story. Bosso, who runs the label, is based in Hamburg, Germany, and he ran a blog for many years called the Growing Bin, where he’d post these MP3s of these long-forgotten, self-published albums and a lot of weird stuff. It was all over the place, from far-out jazz to R&B, and I really loved it. I was a big fan of this blog. When I finished the record, in my first half-assed attempts to promote it, I’d send it to people who I admired. (I didn’t know what I was doing.) He was one of them. He had just started putting records out of his own. I told him, “Hey I just finished this. What do you think? Mind checking it out?” And he got back to me the same day or the next day and said “I love it. Would you like to do a vinyl release?” This was back in January of 2015. To get that level of personal touch and correspondence was amazing. It seems like it’s increasingly rare. Maybe I’m just jaded or cynical, but there was something refreshing about that. I just saw the record for the first time recently. It came in the mail and I was holding the vinyl. That’s so very cool.

Anything you’re working on now?
I’m making songs for the next record. I don’t know if it’s going to be an EP or an LP, but I’m midway through that. And then I’ve got an art piece in a place called Brennan & Griffin in Manhattan right now. That just came up. In the studio, I’m working on some visual art stuff, like wall relief paintings. That’s about it. The rest of the time, trying to pay the bills.

That’s about it. Just visual art. Music. Sculpture. And trying to raise a kid. That’s all though.
[Laughs.] Yup. No big deal.