Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Conversation with Ryley Walker & Bill Mackay

In January 2015, Ryley Walker and Bill Mackay of Darts & Arrows got together for a residency at The Whistler, known as much for its mixology as its live music schedule. Bill and Ryley, fixtures in Chicago experimental and folk music, collaborated once a week, playing both original compositions and covers, leaving room for improvisation where the duo saw fit. Land of Plenty compiles recordings from their fourth and fifth shows in January.

As is the case with guitar duos, wonder comes from the exchange of energies and thoughts. A melody picks up and another diminishes. Rhythm becomes lead and lead becomes bass. The Whislter, no stranger to music riding a theme, like jazz, became an evocative, effective setting for Bill and Ryley. The room, gracefully littered with polite tables and chairs, decked in candle light, took on a pensive mood as the two began their string-spoken dialogue.

We met at the J & M tap to trade tales on collaboration, coffee, and church groups. Our story begins, as all good stories do, in media res after Bill has showered us with cupcakes for Ryley’s birthday.

Ryley Walker (to Bill Mackay): What were you doing at age 15?

Bill Mackay: I was just reading a lot of books.

RW: Ah, man, you were the smart, intelligent guy like “Wow, the world holds so much mystery.” I was just like smoking pot.

BM: Oh, well, I was doing that too.

RW: Trying to get a fake ID and being a shithead.

BM: I had met some older guys when I was 15 and we became really close, back in Pittsburgh. They were 18 or 19. I naturally gravitated towards people who were older than me. They were into smoking and drinking too, but they got me into coffee. We’d hang out in these all night diners.

RW: First dose is always free. Coffee. I drink it religiously. Not in the morning, though, surprisingly. If I have it first thing in the morning, I feel paranoid when I’m drinking it. Once I’ve settled in, then I feel good about it. I prefer a noon coffee or a lunch coffee. I drink a lot of water in the morning. I’m talking like a gallon of water. Your stomach stretches out for the day, but it’s therapeutic. Just slam it. Have a few glasses.

Jordan Reyes: I think it jumpstarts your metabolism too.

BM: That’s huge. I have to do that. I always feel dry. If you wait until later, I don’t think it has the same power.

RW: I’m around Brian and Matt all day, and they make pot after pot of coffee, but still take naps. It’s like the coffee never stops brewing.

JR: Yeah, I guess it’s nine pm and here I am, drinking a Red Bull. It’s like that, ice cream, and now cup cakes, are my only vices, but they’re serious ones. They’re also social, though.

BM: Exactly. That was the great thing about the coffee thing, getting into that because of these guys.

RW: What year was that?

BM: Oh, it was in the 80s.

RW: I was just born then, but like…coffee wasn’t good at that time, right? One of my friends who is forty-five or almost fifty was saying that coffee wasn’t good until the mid 90s. He said that for a while that coffee was just the shit you got at a diner. Starbucks wasn't yet the national front where you’re like “Oh, wait, coffee’s actually good.” He was arguing that Starbucks, who, yeah, they’re corporate - they suck, in a way, inspired coffee to be good.

BM: That’s kind of true. We liked it because it was what was available and you could get it for free all night long at these places, and you’d drink it for six hours. But the only good coffee you had to get at Dunkin’ Donuts.

JR: Dunkin’ Donuts still has good coffee.

RW: I swear by it. I live next door to Dunkin Donuts. I can see the orange and pink from my door.

BM: Yeah, well, coffee went along with the Bohemian thing too - people were writers or musicians, getting together about ideas. Coffee sort of fueled the talk. There’s a good reason why coffee is tied in with Bohemian lifestyle.

RW: Was the term “Pour-over” in the National Dialogue? Was it part of the conversation every day? Cause it is now.

BM: You know, the only places you could really get serious coffee would be like in Boston in the Italian neighborhood, where they’d pour coffee the old way, where they’d have the old machines. They were making the real thing. I have this theory that coffee used to be good in the 30s and 40s, and then it got dumbed down, and now it’s back on the rise.

JR: When I was a beer salesman in Chicago, I had this account called the Rail on Damen and Lawrence and the guy who owned it was this Italian guy.

RW: I used to live next door to that! That was my first apartment when I was 18 - sorry to interrupt - but this guy would let us in even though we were underage. There was this old hippie dude who didn’t card us.

JR: Ah, cool. The guy who owns it is off his rocker. Once he threatened to pull a gun on me - he like reached inside his drawer and was like “I’m gonna shoot you if you fuck up my order again.” I was like twenty-two years old. And I was like “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that.” But anyway, after that, he got me this Italian espresso maker. I still have it. He also gave me a bunch of imported espresso from Italy - pounds of it.

RW: That’s a nice way to console you after threatening to kill you.

JR: Totally. It was really strange. I use that espresso maker all the time. Maybe he started feeling bad, but hadn’t gotten to the point where he knew he had to make up for it.

BM: There’s stages. There’s denial, then acceptance, then restitution.

RW: This is a weird thing I noticed. In Europe, iced coffee doesn’t exist. In Spain, I saw someone drop like a cube of ice in an Espresso, and I asked “Why don’t you just order an iced coffee?” and the guy was like “What?” "You know, cold pressed coffee?" You can’t not see it in America today, especially in the city. So I was talking to this guy, and I was like, “Yeah, they figured it out - you don’t have to dilute it anymore - they figured it out!” So I’m trying to bring it over, Reverse Christopher Columbus Style. Hopefully I’ll just bring back the iced coffee and not bring back like Small Pox or something.

JR: Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.

RW: Goddamn, those cupcakes! I can smell them from here. They are so good. Bill - eat one!

BM: I will eventually. We can close the box for a minute if you’d like.

RW: It’s crazy - do cupcakes usually even have a smell? You know - you smell sausages or like cookies, but I’ve never really smelled cupcakes before. I’m not ever like “Hey, you smell those cupcakes?” In my twenty-six years, I’ve never smelled these cupcakes before. I guess I’m getting all these new abilities.

BM: People go through changes like that, though. People will get in a car accident and then they’ll end up speaking in an accent. Savant things. It’s cool, but I wonder if the human mind can pick up enough of an accent just by hearing something in your life and then you base a whole accent, way of speaking on it. People have come from accidents and they end up speaking with a French or German accent. It seems a little disconcerting.

RW: Mine would be so lame. I’d hit my head and then I’d be a big Cory Feldman fan or something - I’d be obsessed with him. I wouldn’t be able to like play piano well or something after an accident. I would just really like the 80s movies with Cory Feldman in them. [Jukebox song changes] Whoa. Dave Matthews - Satellite.

JR: Song’s great.

RW: This jam’s fucking sick, dude. Nobody realizes how dark Dave Matthews’ music is.

JR: I worked the Dave Matthews caravan in Chicago - we sold thousands of kegs that day. That was my first 21-hour day of work. It was hot, too. It was on the Southside of Chicago out East though. It was just this big dust bowl in Chicago. Flaming Lips played, Kid Cudi, Liz Phair, and Dave Matthews played. It wasn't a great experience, but I worked it.

RW: These grooves are found in King Crimson songs though, man. Put a little bit of ring wear on the cover and say Robert Fripp played on it - same groove. [To Bill] You like King Crimson?

BM: Yeah, I especially like their early stuff, but I also like their tunes in the 70s.

JR: Ryley, how was your Pitchfork experience? 

RW: It was fun - can’t complain too much - had a good time. We played that show, you know - you were there.

JR: (To Bill) Were you there too?

BM: Yeah, I was able to go for a bit.

RW: I wouldn’t even eat food - I’d wake up and be like, “Well, time to go to Pitchfork.”

BM: I was really happy to catch about half of Ryley’s set. Were you there?

JR: Yeah, I didn’t see too much, just because I had to work the [Moniker Records] booth the whole time. I saw Ryley’s set, Steve Gunn, and about ten minutes of Bitchin’ Bajas.

RW: I got to catch Madlib & Freddy Gibbs, and then I caught some of Run the Jewels too. I just have a hard time fitting in with the thousands of people. Maybe it’s my problem. Being at a festival in the midst of tens of thousands people - “Oh, I’m surrounded by people, but I feel like an alien.” I get keenly self-aware at those.

BM: I get that too. It used to be a lot worse. I remember seeing the Kinks one day in Pittsburgh. I was probably high or something too, but I remember thinking that all the people close to me were watching me. I was experiencing this super paranoia, even though I was in a big anonymous crowd.

JR: When was their last show?

RW: ’81.

BM: (To Ryley) I wanted to ask you this. Do you think it’s easier to play for a larger crowd or intimate, small crowds? Is there a difference?

RW: Well, the large crowds I play for are only a couple hundred people. A fest like that is an anomaly - happens once a year or so. It’s a treat. It’s fun. It’s somewhat easy because there’s so many people there to help you. “What do you need? Can I help you?” People are giving you drinks or food.

BM: So your nerves aren’t that different?

RW: Maybe I get a little more excited, but if I play a fest, there’s, you know “Wilco” and “Chance the Rapper” and “And Many More!” and I’m still at the “And Many More” or “To Be Announced” level. I’m happy with that. So I’d just hang out with the more TBA crowd. We’re all so green and excited.

BM: No one’s jaded yet.

JR: When did you guys start writing songs together?

BM: Well, we met at Ben [Boye]’s birthday party and got talking. We got together shortly after that - I’d say it was two years ago maybe two and a half?

RW: We both just love music and found each other. (Bill laughs).

BM: We started getting together sporadically, every month or so, but it started to bear fruit when I got the residency at the Whistler. I had been thinking about doing it with someone. Ryley came to mind, and we decided to do it together. We would get together during the week. It was kind of beautiful, how it unfolded. We’d get together once during the week and once the day of the show. Sort of like workshops.

RW: We got smokin’ hot!

BM: Yeah, the new songs and improvisations would enter the set too. So each week we were adding a little bit and by the end we had all these songs. (To Ryley) Does that sound about right?

RW: Yeah, that’s right. It was never high pressure. I think Bill’s the god of all guitars. I can hang on riffs, but Bill can dance around. I’m the stinky cheese, but Bill’s the fine wine that pairs so well with it. You have a sip of Bill’s fine, sweet-headed wine, and you say “Ah, I guess this cheese can work now.” 

BM: (Laughs) Put it on record that I beg to differ. Mutual dancing. There was a lot of give and take, carrying the rhythm. That was the most beautiful thing to me - interweaving melody, and rhythm. Switching between bass and melody. The songs seemed to pour out. Almost as soon as we sat down, something would materialize.

RW: I think part of it was Bill’s living room. He has a very nice living room with wood floors and he had Fig Newtons. He’d give me these Fig Newtons and coffee. So we’d play a song and then we’d have a Fig Newton. So it’d be like “Wow, this song is really great.” Then we’d have some coffee, a fig newton.

BM: Yeah, it does feel a bit magical to me, too. I play in that room a lot. It’s a whole world unto itself, I think.

RW: It’s a good universe within this universe. It has its own ecosystem and God and Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

BM: Its own biology.

RW: Its own biology! But, you know, it has an existence - you get a little out of body. The space itself is cool.

BM: So there are things on the record that began as a bare theme, which we’d develop and improvise. Most of the things came out of there. We’d refine them as we played at the Whistler too.

JR: The recording is from the fourth show that you guys played at the Whistler, right?

BM: I think it was the fourth and the fifth, actually. Mostly the fifth. Five songs are from the last show and two songs were from the fourth. That was nice because we got the time to gel and roll towards that conclusion.

JR: I think I saw the first two or three shows you guys played and then I moved to Miami. I hope you don’t take it personally.

BM: Yeah, what’d we do? Did we play that bad?

RW: Played so bad you just had to leave the state.

JR: In so many words.

RW: Yeah, one day Bill was like “What do you want to call the record?” and the first thing that came to mind was The Land of Plenty.

BM: I think that was after the song,“Land of Plenty.”

JR: Is that the one on soundcloud?

BM: It is. The single.

RW: The number one, smash-hit single. I don’t think is political, though.

BM: I have a few thoughts about that. It came together kind of late. Maybe it’s because titles, and poetry to me, seems like it has a political, philosophical tone.

RW: I see it as the way the tunes were made coming from bountiful fields of fruits, and berries, and vegetation - how we play. It’s a little different read than yours. It’s the land of plenty and, boy, is it a good harvest. (All laugh).

BM: I like that interpretation. That’s probably a more positive spin on it then the sort of ironic way I was thinking, riffing on everything that’s going on today.

RW: Bill’s heavily involved in politics too. I am too, but Bill’s an activist. He’s on the front lines.

BM: I was thinking about interpretation on the way over. If you have a specific interpretation about something and you feel it’s about one thing, you hope people get that, but you can’t control it. It’s up to people to find an interpretation, and even if it’s violently opposed to the one you have, it can be valid. They’re entitled to the interpretation they have. But I agree with Ryley - I think there’s a beautiful richness to the record. Overall, it is a positive thing. I take away different themes from everything. Things are very symbolic to me. I can’t help but look at that cover and the back cover that play off each other.

RW: It’s great art. Bill drew it.

BM: I was doing a lot of colored pencil drawings from my Portland days. I regret dropping off a bit. Some of the things I was developing slipped away a bit from me. I was psyched that Ryley wanted to use some of my art for the cover. I was hoping that that stuff would find its way out somehow. I have a lot of drawings sitting in a suitcase, growing old.

RW: Something that was twenty years old found new life.

BM: Exactly, and it made me realize that all of a person’s work is one big piece. It all plays off each other. It takes on a new meaning - it has a lot of meaning for me.

JR: So when you drew that piece, what was going on in your life?

BM: I’m not sure if I recall. There were a lot of good times at the house where I was staying in Portland. We had this funky house where people played music and hung out. There was a period when people would do drawings around this big table. A lot came out of that. It was also a pastoral, beautiful time to be in Portland. A lot of young people and energy, and a lot of art. We were living close to downtown and bands played or rehearsed there. It was $500 a month for the whole house. People have told me that now it’s a $2000 or $3000 place. On the one hand it was a tough time because people weren’t very motivated to do anything - it was too easy.

RW: So you were part of the slacker generation that everyone talks shit about.

BM: That’s it! I was trying to draw my way out of that, into being a productive citizen (laughs). In a way, I really was. It was hard to get stuff off the ground, but there was a collective lack of motivation. People were creating, but it seemed like projects didn’t get off the ground easily. I did get a lot of ideas and material out of it.

JR: Certain eras seem to call for certain kinds of success. The 2000s were about software and the 2010’s are about websites and the 1990s were about getting the internet started and the 1980s were about hardware to make stories get told through some sort of media diffraction. And it’s like, if you’re not in line with what’s able to get success at the time, it’s hard to have success or be productive.

BM: That makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of paradigmatic, monolithic things that drive culture. Whether you’re stuck with it or not, it makes you have the reference and think of the big energy in the culture.

RW: What made you feel the traveling energy?

BM: Just whimsy, I guess.

RW: I feel like you’d had nine lives or something - Boston, Portland, and others. You’ve lived in so many places and done so much in your life.

BM: Yeah, I was lucky to work enough to survive. [My wife] Cheryl and I would be some place for a while and then decide to leave after things got static. We wouldn’t be able to feel the pulse anymore. I feel fortunate to have come here and had such a complete shift. I mean, my mom grew up here, but we didn’t really know people that well here when we moved. How’d you get here, Ryley?

RW: Oh, I grew up right outside. Classic story. By the time I was a teenager, I’d come downtown to go see Ska bands or something, nothing cool.

BM: How old were you when you picked up guitar?

RW: I was twelve, but I wasn’t good or anything. I didn’t pick it up and think it was awesome either because I couldn’t figure out how to tune it. No one would teach me. So I was just like “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” I really wasn’t into music until I was like 13 - I was into sports or whatever before that. My parents weren’t music heads either. We’d listen to the Eagles on the way to work. It wasn’t like “Hey, have you heard this Sun Ra live set?” I have some friends who had their dad’s awesome record collection and it’s like what the fuck? I had to work so hard to figure out who some of these people were and this was just given to you. All this knowledge! “Hey, my three year old son, check out The Love Supreme.” Whereas I had to research everything. I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course, but it blows my mind that some people have parents who are poets or into art. What are you talking about? My dad builds tractor parts and drinks beer and gets pissed off.

BM: The working man’s poetry!

RW: Yeah, the working man’s poetry.

JR: I started working when I was real young - I was a skateboard instructor and then worked in a warehouse and then started cleaning beer aisles when I was 18 or so.

RW: Beer has done well for you. It’s been your bread or butter.

JR: Pretty much - even since before I could drink it.

BM: (To Jordan) When did you start playing music?

JR: Well, I got my guitar when I was like 18 and I started after that. I only really listened to hip hop and Latin music before that. But then I heard “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan and it really kicked open the door to my mind. So, that was a big day. Then I got a copy of Sublime’s third record and Nirvana’s Nevermind and that’s how I fell into that. I was always a good kid. I got like straight A’s and was captain of the track team. All I was really preparing to do was go to a good college and after I did that, I was like, what the fuck do I do? I was sort of aimless. That’s when I started playing guitar and going to shows. I caught on late.

BM: And you got into writing as well.

JR: Yeah, well I was raised very religiously. My mom was Evangelical. We lived in this real wild house that backed up to this incredible forest in Virginia for a while. We had peacocks in our backyard somehow, snapping turtles - our dog took down a deer once there. When I was like 15 or 16, I went to these classes at Northwestern University in the summer and I took this creative writing course and the teacher had given us a prompt to write whatever we wanted. And I was like, “What do you mean, write whatever I want? How can I write that? Tell me what you need.” So I started writing horror stories and that was my way into more liberal, free-thinking ideas. I’m so different now. I had to like wear collared shirts growing up and recite Bible verses on the way to school. Been a bit of a wild ride, I suppose. All aboard the Jesus Christ Express!

RW: I played in an Evangelical Church’s band. I got $50 a week. I really enjoyed it. It was a bit of a “Come to Jesus” thing, but I got to play guitar and church songs - they were nice songs - and they’d let me do solos too. I had a nice time with the Evangelicals. My first gig was with them.

BM: A lot of peoples’ first gig is in the church!

JR: I imagine one day - it’s a dream - to own a church and live in it, and have bands that I like come in and play.

RW: Oh, man. Go to Europe. They have tons of things like that. If you go to Belgium, there’s a bunch of people who squat in churches. If you live in a place and save your receipts for the government and no one kicks you out, you can stay there.

BM: You get squatting rights.

RW: Yeah - they’re so far ahead. Basically in World War II, Belgium got bombed to shit, and the government wanted to fix all these places up. And if people fixed the places up, they’d get to have it. Many people died or left the country so all the left over people had houses. A lot of artists will move into castles and just live there.

BM: I can see that. When I was in Liverpool with Cheryl about ten years ago, I was surprised. It still looked like there was World War II rubble. It’s probably been picked up since because the economy has gotten better. It was really raw. A lot of it looked like it had never been fixed. But, if your economy never gets that great, and if the money is never there, then what happens?

JR: It seems sort of hit or miss in terms of which city gets the reboot and which cities are forgotten. I guess maybe that can be good for artists.

RW: Yeah, that’s like Detroit right now.

BM: So maybe you’ll find your church to live in.

JR: I really don’t like the cold, but I like the culture that comes with a place that is cold. If you go to a place like Boston or Detroit or Chicago, people are forced into being around each other and make good of a shitty situation. In Miami, it’s always good and it’s easy to be alone comfortably. In Chicago, you have to be around people. There’s pros and cons, of course.

RW: There’s the conflict of the cheap rent here. They call it the winter tax break because you have to suffer through the winter so you make sure your landlord keeps your rent manageable or affordable. That’s coming from someone who’s not living in total poverty, but if you do what we do, it’s manageable - you can work through it.

BM: There are always people grinding away, but I think the fact that it’s not unreasonable to live here has made it a haven for artists and musicians. It’s been great that way. If you keep enduring and meet more people, it gets better.

RW: I feel less sociable than I was five years ago, though. I used to go out a lot more. I guess I still do, but now I just go to bars.

JR: Instead of what?

RW: Shows, I guess. When I first moved to Chicago, it seemed like it was this Golden Age of basement gigs and house shows. Every night you could go out. It’s like that scene in Goodfellas where the main protagonist is walking through this restaurant, taking his date out, and he’s walking through all these places and he knows everyone there. “Hey, how’s it going?” It was like that for a while.

BM: That’s nice, the camaraderie.

RW: Now there are people who come to my mind once every few months and I wonder “What happened to that guy? What happened to that girl? They used to have a noise band where they’d fart into a microphone and use a hundred pedals on it.” Seriously. What happened? Some people dip out. I still know people from that first year I came here though.

BM: It happens. You know people from one thing, in this early period, and then it disappears like smoke.

RW: And, you know, it probably still is like that, but I’m just doing the whole “Back in my day” thing. It’s still sick. It’s sick right now.

BM: All eras have their thing. (To Ryley) I was wondering about the songwriting thing. Do you write about incidents or people directly? I feel for me it’s like a spill thing - things just spill out more in an unconscious way as opposed to having a theme.

RW: I think I’m better at being literal and truthful. I’ve had a sense of truth in the last few records I’ve done, but like a Halloween costume kind of truth. “Hey, here’s Ryley, but here’s this cool vampire costume too!” I’m a little bit of a character at this point. Obviously, taking situations that are good or bad and trying to convey them in a compelling way. Some people can write a song like “I woke up today and made an omelette and it was really cool,” but I can’t do that.

BM: But there’s a lot of that going on like that. I ask myself “What is the value of that? Why is there so much of that?” Not to be super critical, but why is there so much that doesn’t have much edge or personality. Maybe it’s the need for solace that people have - people needing things that are purely tranquil and non-confrontational.

JR: I think it’s an easy way to nod out of life. When you have music or art that’s innocuous, it lends itself to living that way.

BM: It’s sort of a drug to be that way.

JR: Yeah, and that’s fine. Some people need that. It’s difficult for me, but I can be a difficult person too. I need a lot of alone time. If I don’t get it….well, think about it this way. If you had arm hair that kept growing and growing and your alone time was the only thing that trimmed your arm hair, well, eventually, you’re going to be tripping on your arm hair.


  1. Interest mix of coffee talk & music including their experience. Just one thing (I'm just crazy about grammar) at almost the beginning there's this error:
    Bill Mackay: I was just reading a lot of book. (he meant books) right?

    1. Good catch! It's funny - even after a Duke University English degree, I still can mess up my spelling/grammar!