It is after 5pm at the end of a long day of promotional duties for Ryley Walker. It would be easy to forgive him for being a little grouchy or reluctant but he approaches discussing his life and recent work with enthusiasm and brightness (as well as with some of the deceptive brashness and petulance of his online persona). But apparently, this time of day is ideal, as he has by this stage more or less nursed away the inevitable hangover from the activities of the night before. He even speaks positively about his gruelling touring schedule, which this year encompasses two visits to Europe. “I’m self diagnosing madness,” he jests, “but I like travelling. It’s a cool hustle. Getting on the plane, wondering how on earth you’re going to make the train on time – the chaos of travel is a high in itself.”
“You often hear people brag that they made records in one day – yeah, that’s because there wasn’t enough money to do in two days!” – Riley Walker
As a touring artist, Walker often seems to be one step ahead of his audience. By the time of his previous UK visit, he had already tired of the endless comparisons to his influences (about which he has never been anything other than scrupulously honest – he speaks lovingly about them in his This Music Made Me piece) and was beginning to stretch out. Is this ever a problem for his audience? He responds with a mix of sardonic self deprecation and candid ambition that proves to be characteristic. “We usually just play new material. If you want new records, we’ve got to play the songs live. I really appreciate the gigs I have and what I get to do, but I’m still so far down the totem pole that it hasn’t really reached me that I actually have an audience! I like getting to write onstage, to improvise. I want to get better at what I do and this is what I have to do to do it. It should be an integral part of the show.”
Walker’s most recent work shows strong sign of thoughtful development. Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, his third album, is considerably more structured, focused and individual than its predecessors (Primrose Green and All Kinds Of You). Walker partly accepts and partly refutes this assessment. He claims it wasn’t “a big push to make something different” but seems keen to assert the album’s higher quality. “It’s just better, I think – I’m a better singer, a better writer. I’m not yet at my best – but it’s better, and that’s what I want.”
Although it has its twists and digressions, Golden Sings… is not the suite of four epic pieces Walker initially proposed. “Yeah, that might have been my original idea,” he admits, “but I was just being a dick. Who’s going to listen to that?” Part of Walker’s restless quest for self-improvement seems fueled by a highly self-critical approach to his own catalogue. Artists often seem unable to listen to their own output, but few are quite as brazenly dismissive as Walker is of Primrose Green: “I hate the last record. It’s just an awful record. Everything was just rushed, the singing was bad. We didn’t have much money. You often hear people brag that they made records in one day – yeah, that’s because there wasn’t enough money to do in two days!”
Walker views Golden Sings That Have Been Sung much more favourably. “This one has much more detail, lots of overdubs, real focus on each track. It’s meticulous.” Some of this emphasis on nuance has clearly come from Walker himself (although he half jokingly downplays his own role) but the role of producer LeRoy Bach (Wilco) has clearly been pivotal. “He was an integral part of the music,” Walker explains. “Leroy has been around Chicago for some time – he came from lots of bands that I love. He makes music every day. It’s great to have his focus, because I don’t have any focus.”
Yet in addition to this greater clarity and focus, Golden Sings also retains some of the loose, freewheeling quality that has characterised all of Walker’s recordings so far. Again, Walker has worked with a number of Chicago musicians well versed in jazz and improvisation. “I’m not a jazz musician,” he asserts. “It would be farcical to call myself that. But these musicians are my friends and the scene I fell in with.” But how did he get here from musical origins in punk and skateboarding culture? A lot of it seems to be inexorably tied up with the nature of the Chicago music scene, which seems uniquely open minded and symbiotic. “When I moved to Chicago, there was a lot of underground music and noise music, and that seemed to go hand in hand with the free jazz scene there.”
There are similar scenes in London (both jazz and free improvisation), but they often seem like separate communities. Whilst some artists are trying to bridge gaps, it seems harder to make connections here. In Chicago, this simply seems like the norm. “Oh 100%,” says Walker. “Bands like Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, Isotope 217, they’re all jazz musicians who moved in the context of rock music. A lot of venues make the point of not having the same bands play each night – it’s not like three punk bands, or three jazz bands. You might get a vocal performer, a harsh noise performer and then a singer-songwriter. Hopefully this spirit comes across in my music – I mean, it’s not bullshit indie rock or shitty singer-songwriter music.”
“It’s not bullshit indie rock or shitty singer-songwriter music.” – Riley Walker
At this point, Walker becomes quite animated and the self deprecation abruptly stops. He is as clear on what he wants to avoid as he is on his personal musical goals. “There’s so much singer-songwriter music that is just awful. Cuteness in folk music – especially if you go to Canada, there’s so much cute folk music there, it’s fucking weird. I mean I’m not getting at it too generally – there’s The Weather Station and Jennifer Castle and tonnes of really great songwriters – but the Canadians are creepy about it, they wear owls on their heads! Stop cute folk music from progressing, please!” While there can be a certain tweeness in some music defined as folk, Walker is emphatic. “Oh God, yes, that’s the word! I hate twee! And in America there’s this emo revival too, and Trump might be President! What’s going on? Twee can jump off a cliff!”
Walker’s music is not cloying or nostalgic. Instead, the songs on Golden Sings seem to speak clearly of his current life, with what is, in Walker’s words “a much sharper focus on words”. Where did the inspiration for this come from? “Well it’s all drawn from paranoia and anxiety in my own life, although they are always characters put through a lens or two, but it all comes from real life. It’s how me and my friends talk.” Perhaps ‘paranoia and anxiety’ risks underplaying the very real sense of humour (for example The Roundabout’s backhanded offer – “I could buy you a drink, though my credit is quite shit/We can all laugh and have tap water”). “Yeah, a lot of the songs are funny. It’s definitely self deprecating and it’s a dark and twisted kind of humour. Guys like Mark Eitzel are so great at this.” It seems as if Mark Kozelek might be an influence too, particularly in his more recent verbose and supposedly autobiographical narratives, although with his current lack of interest in any kind of self editing or restraint, Kozelek might now be more of a cautionary example of where this route could lead if left unchecked.
Musically, the work on Golden Sings sometimes seems far removed from folk music altogether. Walker and his band make effective use of both space (in neat contrast with the moments of dazzling virtuosity) and dynamics. The concluding track perhaps even resembles the minimal grooves of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock album. “Yeah, it does have that groove,” Walker agrees. “It’s kind of super stoned sounding.” Walker had also tweeted earlier that week about finally embracing Talk Talk’s earlier album The Colour Of Spring. “I think the synthesiser sound had just really turned me off but if you listen closely, it’s really micro-composed. Yet I think they really hit their stride on the later records. And that Mark Hollis solo album – that’s really his masterpiece I think.”
“Stop cute folk music from progressing, please!” – Ryley Walker
In addition to his solo work, Walker has also carved a parallel career working in collaborations, particularly duos (he has released recordings with fellow Chicago based guitarist Bill Mackay and recently toured with legendary acoustic bassist Danny Thompson). Do these offer Walker a different outlet? “It’s a vehicle to explore other palettes musically. I was doing these kind of records before my songs records, so it’s nothing new. I hope it doesn’t come across as douchey and too arty.” How was touring with Thompson? “Now he’s someone who takes tons of risks on stage, we’d just jam on everything and he’d keep telling me to play new songs. Every night was totally different”. Regardless of any aesthetic concerns, these seem to be avenues Walker is hoping to explore further. “I just met John Russell (prolific improvising guitarist who has worked with Evan Parker and who founded the Mopomoso free improvisation club night in London) the other day,” he says. “He’s someone who would really push me to get my chops up and push my boundaries.”
Walker’s relentless self mocking and mordant wit cannot ever quite disguise his obvious joy in what he does, and his restless drive to do more. “There’s so music I still want to do,” he says. “If I could put it all out tomorrow I would.” Fortunately, it appears he has enough ideas in store for many more years of high level creativity. What Ryley Walker does next will, as evidenced by what has gone before, surely be fascinating, and promises to distance him yet further from the psychedelic folk influences that initially inspired him.
Ryley Walker’s album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is out now through Dead Oceans. Tour dates and further information can be found here.