Ryley Walker is good at playing guitar. He comes from the tradition of finger-picking wizardry a la Michael Chapman or John Fahey or Bert Jansch - impressive licks thrown into a hew of pleasant, meditative steel-stringed whispers. Occasionally a voice emerges from within, though it isn't necessary. On his album All Kinds of You on Tompkins Square, one of my most consistently listened-to records of the year, Ryley fills his songs with string sections, piano, and more, though it doesn't take much of an imagination to know that these songs are also impressive without the additional orchestration. It's a good thing too because I've seen Ryley just as often play solo as I have seen him with his band of improvisational gurus, though he seems to be able to play music with just about anyone from Daniel Bachmann to JR Robinson of Wrekmeister Harmonies.
He's an interesting cat though, and also one of the funniest people that I know. I remember his performances for their musical prowess just as much for his, well, almost stand-up comedian routine. He interacts with the crowd, swears, and tells one helluva good yarn. That's the Ryley I know outside of shows too, smoking an American Spirit and shooting the shit with every dang person he sees. Thinking about it makes me happy - an extension of the medieval bard so to speak, entertaining and edifying.
The guy also tours a metric fuckton and has been to Europe twice this year already, I think, in addition to all over the United States. And I think I've seen him in Chicago about six times too this year, each one better than the last. I suggest picking up all the records of his you can find and following him on his Facebook Page to keep up with the traveling troubadour.
Jordan Reyes: When we talked the other night, you talked about coming out of the hardcore and noise scenes. Do you think that has affected the way your make or play music?
Ryley Walker: It made me value live performance. I like recording and nice albums, but a gig is where the power lies. So much of that music, for me, is about completely losing my mind and channeling the psycho part of my brain to come out in a hellfire of guitar tunes. It definitely carries through.
JR: Did you travel a lot as a kid? Do you enjoy the semi-nomad life?
RW: Not too much. A couple small vacations to Florida and I think maybe Pennsylvania? My folks were really busy workers growing up. I do have nice memories of busting Chicago though. That was only 60 miles away. Always loved that.
RW: To answer the second part of your question, I really do enjoy traveling. It's hard being home sometimes.
JR: How did you learn to play guitar?
RW: Formal lessons gave me basic things and nice regiment and Discipline to practice. Hanging out with talented musicians and going to see live music all the time helped me find a voice.
JR: What comes to mind when you think of what essentially makes a good "Ryley Walker song"?
JR: I’ve seen you play solo and with up to four other people. What determines who plays with you? How do you meet these cats and know they're well-suited for your music?
RW: The people I play with are all dear friends from various backgrounds in all sorts of music. Specifically, improvised tunes. Musically and personally, we all get along great. It's important for all of us that the songs remain very open ended and have room for every part to explore and dig deeper. All of them excel really well at what they do and make me want to be better. I'm constantly inspired by their genius.
JR: Tell me a little bit about recording and putting out your last couple solo 12"s. Where and how did you record these releases?
RW: Those were tunes written from an early point in my sing song days. Some are made up on the spot. I think it was assembled in a nice way and I got lucky enough that somebody wanted to put them out.
JR: You also just put out a collaborative 12" on American Tapes. How did that one come to fruition? Had you and John Olson been friends for a while?
RW: I met John some years back but got to be pretty cool when Stare Case played my old house show space in Pilsen. They were really great. John asked me to do a split with Chris and I was more than happy to be on board with such a cool dude.
JR: Would you ever make t-shirts that just said your name on them?
RW: Probably not.
RW: My ugly mug on a shirt sounds like a poor fashion choice.
JR: You were telling me you live in Little Village now. You must have a favorite Mexican joint. What would you say is your favorite or at least what's in your top tier?
RW: They are all consistently good but I gotta hand it to el burrito feliz and el patron. I can look out the window and see both of them. The convenience factor weighs in heavily for me here.
JR: You’re going to Europe soon for a tour with a full band. I think you were recently there if I'm not mistaken. Are there any places or people you're excited to see? Do you think audiences are much different over there?
RW: The audiences are the same everywhere. Cool people and drunk assholes every now and then. I think the venues are just more prepared for my type of tunes over in Europe. Often in the states I play rock clubs, which I'll do no problem, it's just the context is a bit lost. I'm not really bar music.
JR: What all is in the future for Ryley Walker?
RW: New LP in March...covers record in the works...lots of gigs I hope!