Interview: Ryley Walker – ”I’m pretty into anything far-out”
Written by Tommy Juto
– “Even the dog was good-looking!”
Daniel Bachmann is Ryley Walker’s tour support and best mate. This night the two of them are also roommates as there has been a misunderstanding when making reservations, so now they’re one hotel room short at a fully booked Scandic Grand Central in Stockholm. Bachmann and Walker are getting ready for their show tonight by enjoying a few drinks in the hotel lobby and at the same time asseverating their admiration for the posh appearance of the Swedish people. Earlier during the day they visited a restaurant in town with nothing but fancy, good-looking fellow diners, including one equally posh and well-trained dog. Bachmann makes a sweeping gesture towards the occupants of the lobby’s other lounge suites as to prove his point.
When Walker shortly afterwards returns from the bar, carrying a tall glass containing an unidentified alcoholic beverage with clinking ice cubes, I can’t help but jokingly ask: “Is it a Primrose Green?”, the title of his recently released second album titled after a drink he and his friends made up as teenagers. He smiles wryly and replies: “I should have asked them to do it! But no, it’s whisky and ginger ale.”
Half an hour prior to our profound conversation about looks and booze I’ve sat down in a conference room – ironic as it sounds seeing as he shared some opinions on “corporate bullshit” – for an interview with the twelve string prodigy. One subject I(almost) avoided was referencing all his spiritual ancestors: Tim Buckley, John Martyn, Nick Drake et al. Him carrying the torch is most evident during his gig later in the evening as I spot a man and a woman in their sixties standing in front of the stage nodding their heads in rhythm with Walker’s mantras, grey pony tails dangling compliantly.
It seems like you’re doing a lot of interviews and try to stay accessible to everybody. Is that so?
Yeah, a lot of people ask me to, and I’m quite happy to do so because I’m a big fan of music writing so I think to participate is interesting. So I try to if I can. I just like talking about music, I guess.
What’s your first memory of getting into music?
I remember my mom driving around in Illinois and we’d be listening to AM radio, hearing a lot of oldies, old soul music. We’re not a huge musical family, but I remember hearing Otis Redding as a kid. I looked him up in this encyclopedia of music at school.
Why did you choose playing the guitar?
It was pretty cool. I kind of liked to play drums at first, but some friend gave me this guitar so I got lucky, I didn’t have to save up for it. He just went “I don’t need this anymore”, so I just took it on when someone wanted to trash it and I turned it into a treasure.
You’re often seen as something of a guitar virtuoso, and it’s easy to imagine how you never hung out with your friends but instead you stayed in practicing.
No, I always used to hang out with my friends. I actually think I should have practiced more, to be honest. I always practiced when I got home after school, getting stoned. I always found time for my friends but the guitar came first. I still practice a lot, I do it all the time.
Do you play any other instruments?
No. I’m terrible.
You mentioned the drums, but that hasn’t happened?
No, I’m a fucking awful drummer. The worst drummer in the world. I don’t have the skill in anything else.
Seeing as you played in a lot of punk bands when you were younger, do you sometimes wish that you could go out stage just playing three chord Ramones-type songs instead of your usual stuff?
Yeah. I mean, I like what I do now, but the energy of punk rock always inspired me, the immediacy of it. I’d love to be in a punk band now, so if people need a guitarist I’m up for it. That music is really exciting and the energy carries over to what I do, I think.
Punk rock was always about going against the mainstream, and in a way, that’s what you’re doing now by playing jazzy folkrock. Is that how you feel about it too?
I’m pretty into anything far-out, any music that is against the establishment. Anything that turns it’s back on corporate bullshit. Not bad music, but any music that freaks people out I’m interested in.
What’s the worst thing somebody has said about your music?
I don’t like to google or anything, but drunk people sometimes go “You suck!”. Can’t please ‘em all, you know… Nothing to evil.
Have you ever been asked to go to hell?
Oh yeah, usually in America. Just asshole drunks in the south, but never over here.
Playing this type of retro folk rock, you must have seen all the comparisons with Tim Buckley, John Martyn and the others coming?
Yeah, I’m a big fan of their music. Especially with the instrumentation having a double bass, electric guitar, keys and vibraphones. All those things are a big influence, it’s a big starting point. I think a do a lot of different stuff than that, but yeah, it’s a huge starting point, but absolutely to be expected. These days if you sound like another artist you’re kind of hammered home. But if you sound like Bach or Mozart, it’s just tradition that carries on but you always move forward with things.
You’re from a city background but as a contrast the album cover is quite pastoral. Why did you go for that design?
I live in the city, but being outdoor is just a place I like to go in my mind, I guess. It’s funny, that cover was shot in Chicago in a forest preserve, a sanctioned place in the city which isn’t filled with garbage and shit. Chicago is a really dirty city, but that’s where it actually is. I know it looks pastoral but it’s still a city record, you know. The imagery of outdoor, Chicago is so dense and close together with five million people there, but there’s this one part that feels spacey and really outdoorsy. It’s in Garfield Park, a really, really beautiful place.
Did you get the inspiration for the cover from other albums?
Absolutely. It’s a hodge-podge of record covers I like. I think I want it to age well, you know, get ringwear around it. I like to buy records and those things just transposed into this I guess.
In this digital age, album covers sometimes don’t seem so necessary, but it’s still important to have some sort of trademark, isn’t it?
Albums are really important to me ‘cause I don’t release singles. To have an image and be able to hold it in your hands is really important to me personally.
“Sweet Satisfaction” is one of this year’s greatest songs so far. Could you tell us the story behind it?
Well, thanks. I came up with that in the middle of winter in a desolate Chicago last year, it gets really cold there, way below zero, three feet of snow, dangerous to go outside. I think it’s kind of a cover poet drunk song, a desperate song. You have seven or eight drinks and all of a sudden you think you’re this poet and can reach into a woman’s heart with this poem. It comes from that standing point. A drunk leaning against the wall poet. We had to cut that song down, because originally it was like fifteen minutes long. Maybe in the box set in twenty years! I like that version better but the label thought there was no room left on the record. We had to edit out that jam section in the end. It wen’t on forever, not in a bad way, I thought it was pretty cool with the strings and that bit that sounded like Terry Riley.
What song do you wish you’d written?
Wow, that’s a huge question. Nothing too obscure… Maybe a song like Anne Briggs “Go Your Way”. That’s my favourite song ever, it’s very personal. Or maybe a Tim Hardin song.
Nowadays everybody’s working hard to make a living and some people may perhaps go too far on their quest for success. Have you ever had to tell a lie in order to get somewhere career-wise?
No, I’m just brutally honest, not that I’m mean or anything. I’ve been fortunate enough to have good people around that want to work with me. I don’t really care about that, I just wanna make records and let other people I know do the talking. There’s no reason for me to put myself in the position where I need to lie, I don’t wanna do that. What’s a living? I live on a couch back home in Chicago by choice ‘cause I like it. I live to tour, I live to be in Stockholm and anywhere far from home. I’m comfortable with that.
Have you worked full time as a musician for long?
No. I had a job up until about a year ago.
What did you do?
I was on the phone all day with a computer, selling golf clubs.
Selling golf clubs?
Yeah, it was like a golf website, magazine kind of thing, people calling in to order golf clubs. It was a bit like reading a script on a customer hotline. But I’ve had so many jobs. Dishwasher, yard work, constructions, everything…
Do you play golf?
No. God no! You’d never catch me on a golf course.
Just before us sitting down to chat, you had a quick shot of whisky. Do you think alcohol is a catalyst for creativity or is it inhibiting?
Well, it’s definitely not good for you. I don’t know, I like a taste. It gets me by, I’m fine.
Your new album has had a lot of praise so far in the music press, which must be flattering. Do you get affected by that in any way?
Yeah, it’s nice, maybe not flattering or anything. People come to the gigs, especially in England and tell me they read about me in Uncut. But you know, there’s ten people in an office in London e-mailing about the album all day, so I applaud them, I gotta give them credit. So it’s a lot about their hard work, but of course I appreciate it, it’s really nice.
Have things gotten more hectic since the buzz of the album started?
Yeah, I’m touring a lot more. I used to book my own gigs, e-mailing a lot, but now the gigs come at you which is nice. I always say yes to everything, I like to be the example of working hard, coming from that sort of background. When I’m at home too long I’m going crazy.
What do you do when you’re at home not touring?
Play a lot of guitar, try to write new music. Running around town, hanging out with my girlfriend, trying to not sit around too much.
You never get fed up with music?
Well, yeah, some days are harder than others, but you know, my dad wakes up at five in the morning every day to make car parts. I’d rather be doing this, I get to be in Stockholm. It’s work, you know. Hard work.
Yes, it hasn’t even been a year since your first album came out, which proves your point I guess. Have you got another one lined up within the next year?
I haven’t recorded yet, I think I’m recording in June some time when I’m home for a couple of weeks. It should be out this time next year, hopefully. It’s always about the next album.
You’ve got the songs?
Yeah, I’ve got the songs. Still gotta tweak a few things, but I’ve got all the ideas laid out for it. Hopefully it’s out in a year so I can go out and tour some more. ‘Cause I mean this record it’s good, but it doesn’t have the potential for me to tour it for two years, it’s not that big. Hopefully I’ll just keep releasing and releasing so I can go on.
I know you’ve been practicing a lot on the guitar to get better and better all the time. Was it difficult in the beginning to play fingerstyle and sing at the same time?
No, that was never the problem. It’s not like B.B. King who can only do one thing at a time. I think just getting better and more confident with singing. I don’t think I have the best voice, but when I started it was just like a weak muscle. It’s there, I think I have somewhat of a natural voice. It was already there, but I had to work at it. If you saw me live a year ago you’d see a difference. I see a difference anyway. That was more of a challenge, just getting better at singing.
Have you ever felt that your songs could be sung by somebody else?
I’d love to do that, though I don’t think that tradition exists anymore. You know, like Judee Sill writing “Lady-O” for The Turtles, I’d love that, I wish it was still around but I definitely can’t imagine anybody knocking at my door for a song. I would do it, though, being a singer-songwriter like Randy Newman or somebody.
Yes, Randy Newman. Could you imagine writing for films like him?
Fuck yeah, man! Again, I don’t really see that opportunity anytime soon, but yes. Like a band like Popol Vuh, the german krautrock band in the seventies, they had cool records that were film soundtracks… Even Neil Young, he does amazing soundtracks. So totally, man, anytime.
Closer at hand maybe is letting songs be used in TV series?
Hell yeah, as long as it’s not about supporting republican assholes in America, then sure. As long as I can stand behind it. As long as it’s not funded by right-wing dicks.
Are you into politics?
I’m pretty unabashed liberal, I guess. I like Scandinavia a lot, you don’t occupy countries. I like socialism and progressive politics in America. I’m amongst a huge group of people in America who think like that, especially younger people like myself.