Ryley Walker discusses improvisation, touring and his Chicago home

Ryley Walker is one of modern music’s most arresting figures. With a sprawling discography already behind him, he’s an artist with an admirable work ethic at home – and an even more stringent one on the road. With a live show centred around free-form improvisation and expansive psychedelic panoramas, no two shows by Walker or his band cover the same ground. It’s at one of his Brighton shows – reviewed here – that we chat to Walker about everything from home-sweet-home – Chicago, in his case – to upcoming projects and his relationship with his audience – with plenty in between.

Your music is most commonly described as Folk but I think it’s blatantly obviously that you have a lot of influences outside of folk music, certainly in the strict sense of the term. Would you say Folk is an accurate description for what you do?

Well, I guess in essence it’s guitar music. I think I started out more folky and people kind of picked up more on the first record or two I did so that kind of cemented me as a folk person, which I don’t mind – I love folk music. I definitely take influences from folk but these days I think we’re trying to progress more into the weirdo territory. But, yeah, on record it’s typically folky, I’d say. You know, folk rock, rock ‘n’ roll.

Do you feel some people perhaps have the preconception that all acoustic music is folk in its nature?

Yeah, sure. I think that definitely falls in line and, to be true, I guess 90% of what you would call folky music involves acoustic instruments or stringed instruments without amplification, that’s kind of the tradition of it. It’s funny because, like I said, a lot of people kind of grabbed onto the first couple of records that I did, which were very folk influenced. Especially here in the UK, like a lot of UK folk stuff, which I still love. There’s this crowd of people who seek after that sort of sound and when [we] come up with a shreddy half hour song [they’re like] “what the fuck? I did not expect that at all”, so it’s really fun to do that.

You have a different line-up on almost every tour, is this done out of choice or necessity and, if it’s the former, what benefits do you feel that keeping the line-up fresh brings?

Other than choice, I’d say it’s out of curiosity. I know so many great musicians that I’m always wanting to collaborate with different people – and also logistically, because everyone I play with is kind of a jazz bone so they’re in so many different bands that [they] can’t always do it, which is great. I like the idea of a collective, you know?  There’s no set band and I love everybody equally that I play with and I’m very lucky to have such good friends who are willing to travel around and play music with me. I’m very lucky to be in Chicago, where there are so many great musicians. Yeah, it’s kind of out of curiosity; in the summer when we come back [to the UK] for a short tour, I have a totally different band in mind, just like “oh man, this line-up will be great”. So yeah, it’s always fun to change this stuff up and it keeps it fresh and it helps us branch out and change the songs and not have the same set over and over, so that’s always fun.

When you’re in the studio how much of what’s recorded is improvised? Live, a huge part of the show is about jamming out – I’m wondering how much of that goes on in the studio?

Not so much these days. We write the songs on tour – we’re playing a bunch of songs on this tour that are new – so we jam on those a lot live prior to going into the studio, once we get into the studio we cut them down into a record-friendly format. I think a few things here and there get on the record that come from a jam but mostly it’s kind of thought-out.

Back when you released [2015’s] ‘Primrose Green’, a lot of journalists compared you to the likes of Tim Buckley and John Martyn incessantly and [2016’s] ‘Golden Sings That Have Been Sung’ was a pretty drastic move in another direction. Was that partially done to distance yourself from such comparisons or were you going in that direction anyway?

I feel like, yeah, I kind of wanted to do something a bit different. I didn’t feel trapped by any means; being trapped is, like, [when] you work mixing cement 40 hours a week – that sucks, you know? I wasn’t trapped by any means but definitely I heard a lot of [those comparisons] and I love that music but I wanted to push forward and have more jazz focused sort of sounds. So that was definitely a conscious thing to be like, “yeah, I want to move forward and get away from all those things”. It’s been nice because people still seem to kind of dig it, I guess, [although] some of the older people that like my first records don’t really like ’em anymore.

Improvisation is a huge part of your live show. Does the audience affect how you and your band interact and improvise with each other?

Definitely a factor. The audience is part of the show, too, you know? A good example is that the other day in Cardiff was everyone was so wildly drunk – it was a Friday night – and people were just, like, screaming and they really liked it so we just kept going harder and harder and feeding back and [it was] a really enthusiastic crowd, [it] really brings the wild side out in you. The other day we were in some town way up in Yorkshire called Pocklington, that was a really quiet sit down thing so we took it real easy. The context of the the venue and the audience definitely has an influence on what we do in the show.

Do you have a favourite type of audience?

I have a favourite thing where it just sounds good, you know? If it sounds good on stage that’s the best, [but] as far as audience goes – and you find this in Europe and the UK more than America – I love a good, attentive crowd. That goes a long way. I mean, I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me [what the crowd is like]; we’re doing a job, we’re working. Some bands get pissed off if people talk and it’s like, I go to shows and talk, why am I fuckin’ better than them? If they wanna talk, they paid for the ticket, do what you want, sort yourself out, you know? It’s fine. But, yeah, I love a good attentive crowd, I really appreciate that and I’m sure they appreciate you trying your hardest to have a good gig and not waste their time and money.

Some of your previous work is quite obscure currently. [2011’s cassette only release] ‘The Evidence Of Things Unseen’, for example. Is that work that you’d be interested in perhaps reissuing at some point to give it an opportunity to be heard by a wider audience, or is it work that you’re happy to leave in the past?

No, I still love all that stuff. It’s kind of a cool document, I don’t really listen to it or anything but people have brought it up to reissue the me and Daniel Bachman tape [2011’s ‘Of Deathly Premonitions’] on LP or something.

That would be awesome.

Yeah, it’d be cool but it’s a matter of who wants to invest their own money and time into it, you know? It’s not something I would do personally but if someone who I liked at a label offered to do it then, yeah, sure. I have another record coming out with Charles Rumback, we finished another one and me and Bill MacKay have one coming out in the fall, coming out on Drag City.

Any idea when the Charles Rumback one is coming out?

That won’t be out for a while, we just finished that one but the me and Bill MacKay album one comes out later this year and we’re figuring out a small tour in the UK. That’ll be a great band, too. I’m really excited for it, we’re trying to do a tour, just me and him, in the UK.

Speaking of reissuing records, [2015 Bill MacKay collaboration album] ‘Land Of Plenty’ seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s impossible to get on vinyl now. Would you maybe reissue that?

Yeah, I love that record. Bill’s great on that. Probably not, I think there was kind of a snafu with that record. My friends at Whistler put it out and it’s kind of a boring story actually but there’s a good reason why it’s not reissued. So, we recorded it prior to me signing with Dead Oceans. This is nothing against Dead Oceans, they’re a great label and good people, it’s just they have the rights to put my name on a record, which is totally fair, they put a lot of money and time into my records. So [‘Land Of Plenty’] got put out, I was kind of a confused with the terms of [the Dead Oceans contract] and they were just like “we gotta do this one run and don’t do any more”, so that’s the reason it’s not out. They weren’t mad or anything they were just like, “if we’re putting out your record we don’t want to have competing shit” and it all got resolved, nobody was broken hearted over it. But that’s kind of a cool collector’s item now, I call it my famous illegal record.

There’s not even any second hand copies on discogs, it’s properly rare.

Yeah, whenever people have it I’m like “oh, this is great!”

How many did they make?

Maybe, like, five hundred. But the one that’s coming out in the fall is on Drag City and we worked all of it out.

So that one’s not going to be so rare.

No, it won’t be so rare – but, I mean, Drag City doesn’t make too many copies but it won’t be so hard to find but we worked out all the stuff [out]. The powers that be were like “cool, thanks for letting us know”, so that one will be cool.

Is it a similar vibe to ‘Land Of Plenty’?

No, we did it in a studio [and] Ryan [Jewell] – the drum player tonight – plays a bunch of tablas on it. Brian [Sulpizio], the guy who plays guitar with me recorded it. We did it in a studio over a year ago, it’s been done for a long time, [we’ve] kind of been sitting on it, waiting to get everything cleared. It sounds great, it’s really tight.

Was there one specific moment that triggered your desire to start making music?

Yeah, as soon as I picked up a guitar I wasn’t, like, that into it, I thought it was great [though, as] I always liked music obviously. Throughout Highschool I had a bunch of crappy bands and stuff but I never took it too seriously and I kind of put the guitar down for a year.First year I went to University, when I was 18, I didn’t do much with it but then towards the end of that year I started picking up [again]. When I was 19 I had a whole break-through of new music I’d discovered. 18 was a big year of discovering [people] like John Fahey [and] crazy jazz music. So I was really encouraged, by reading about a lot of people that had similar taste, to pick it up again. So, I’d say when I was 18, I was like “ah, fuck school, I gotta do this.”

You’ve been playing with an electric guitar a lot on your recent tours, was there any specific thought process behind the transition to more electric instrumentation?

Well, I think I just wanted to explore further sounds and a lot of stuff I’m writing now works better on electric guitar and plus it’s more fun to have a lot of cool guitars on stage, you know? Switch ’em up and have a cool collection of them.

Did I see a strat on stage earlier?

Yeah, I got a Stratocaster in there too.

I haven’t seen that one before.

Yeah, I just picked it up, actually. I’m really enjoying playing electric guitar, right now. It goes with progression and changing things up.

You self-released some of your earliest material, but all of your best known work has been put out through labels. Does the idea of self-releasing again appeal to you, perhaps through your own label if you were to set one up?

Yeah, definitely. I’d like to get a label going and a big thing is money, which I don’t have. I’m taking a long time off after this summer, I think I’m not going to tour for, like, a year or something. So yeah, I’ll have more time [then]. I used to put out some tapes, just a couple of small ones, you know, friends, way back… But yeah, I would love to get that going again, there’s something really fun about – I don’t want to say the entrepreneurial side – but, like, hustling to put other people’s music out that you love and sharing other people’s music. So, yeah, absolutely.

So could you see yourself putting out your own music, as well, or just other people’s?

Yeah, I talked about that. I’ve got a good thing with Dead Oceans, though, I love them and they take such good care of me. So, maybe not as far as my records [go] but as far as side projects of mine, I’d love that, man, to do that sort of thing.

What you’re doing at the moment is more in the fringe experimental/folk/jazz world, could you see yourself ever working in a more rock context?

This year off I’m taking, there’s a lot of plans, a lot of hypothetical bands with friends. I started recording with a bunch of different bands, too, last year – so, yeah, there’s definitely rock in the future.

You must have spent most of your life for the past half decade or so on the road, right? Do you have any tips for keeping morale up on the road?

Tour’s funny, man, it makes people bipolar. I’d say we’re lucky because we get along well; I mean, not every day is perfect. It takes a special type of personality to go on tour as much as we do – not everybody can sit in a van for 6 hours a day. I don’t mean to make it like a war story because we’re lucky – we’re on the other side of the planet right now and there’re two hundred people coming out later and we get free beer, you know? But you gotta learn to ride the wave – not everyday is gonna be perfect – and just realise that you’re lucky to be doing it. We’re here because we love music, so I guess, just play the best you can and it’s a real honour and if you go out in a foriegn country, make sure to take a business card from the hotel because you’re gonna get drunk and get lost, and then you’ll have the address on you.

To my knowledge, you haven’t toured solo for a couple of years. Are there any difficulties to touring solo that can be avoided when touring with a band?

Solo presents its own set of challenges: by myself I have to occupy nintey minutes to two hours, which is fun. I think I’m more interested in the band right now, we’re playing a lot of new songs [and] I want to flesh them out super hard. The benefits of playing solo is obviously a financial one, there’s so much overhead cost [touring with a band] – flights, gear, paying the band a fair wage and accommodation. That can be a bit stressful, sometimes, being like “shit, it’s so hard to afford these things” but the first tours I did were a lot of solo stuff and it’s really adventurous, I’d just go around on trains in Europe and I guess there’s something really romantic about it, so it’s really special. It gets kind of grating sometimes [too], you don’t have a friend to vent to but, yeah, both present their own set of challenges and benefits and I love them both. I’d love to do more solo tours in the future, though, I think that’s a great way to kind of develop new songs and it’s really nice to connect with an audience and learn to control the stage on your own.

I imagine also that solo touring would get easier once you can afford your own transport. You never know when public transport is going to be delayed…

Yeah, things like that can definitely throw a wrench in the old spokes.

Do you find solo performance limiting in comparison to band work?

I don’t find it limiting, it’s just totally different, you know? It’s like getting Italian food and then getting Asian food, they both fill you up and make you feel good but they’re totally different.

Do audiences react differently to solo shows in comparison to band work?

Yeah, totally. Well, solo is usually a bit more… I guess the word people would use is “intimate”, I dunno, I’m still playing in a room full of strangers, that’s not intimate to me, I don’t know anybody. But, it kind of depends. Usually solo will be kind of a smaller-ish show, too, a sit-down context – maybe it’s a bit more serious or a bit more… well, I don’t want to say serious as I don’t take myself seriously at all, just a bit more subtle, a bit more relaxed.

You’ve talked in the past about how Chicago is an influence on what you do, do you feel your music would have gone in a different direction had you stayed in Rockford?

Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m with people right now I met through [the] Chicago music scene. Had I stayed in Rockford, I don’t know, I might have been making music but not to the degree I’m doing now. It’s hard to say [though], [it’s a] total hypothetical. I never really thought of moving anywhere else besides Chicago so I don’t know, had I moved to New York or Minneapolis or Omaha, Nebraska, wherever, I don’t know. I’d like to think I’d be making music but definitely not what I’m doing now.

Was moving to Chicago always the goal?

Ever since I was a kid, yeah. I always loved going there, I grew up really close to it, like an hour and something away so, you know, it’s like, you grow up and you’re kind of like “fuck, man, I gotta get up here one day”. I’m a big city person, I love cities. Loud, big, giant cities.

So, is there always some gig or jam going on in Chicago?

You can go to a show any night you want. Not every night has the best show ever but [if] you want to go out, there’s always going to be a show. No matter what night, what weather, you can always find a good show. It’s such a big town, it’s not like you skip around all over, like, North to South, East to West, you kinda stick in your general area of the city. Where I’m at, there’s always something cool happening. In the other pockets of the city, I don’t know anybody. Chicago [has] a huge music scene, it doesn’t just involve me and my friends.

Is it kind of split up into little areas?

Yeah, totally. We live on the West side, the venue we go to is The Empty Bottle, that’s our home, or the Hideout or Constellation – those are all kind of, like, a fifteen minute drive of each other. [They’re] like the musicians’ bars, you know, too. Every musician I know or like, after practise or recording they’ll just go there and be like “oh, hey, how’s it going?”, everybody meets up. But if you go to the North side, it’s beautiful up there, it’s on the lake and it’s old-school Chicago but if I go to a venue there, I don’t know fuckin’ any of these bands. It’s so big, there’s so much happening.

Is Chicago so big that it’s takes ages to get out into the country? Do you even like spending time in the country or are you so much a city person that it doesn’t interest you?

Chicago is a huge, sprawling metropolis. It probably takes a good two hours of driving to really feel like you’re not in [the city]. Once you’re out in the country of Illinois, it’s a lot of corn fields. The nearest country I’d go to is up North, in Wisconsin, there’s a lot of good lakes and stuff like that. I’m not really a country person, I’m not really a camper. I dig seeing beauty, don’t get me wrong, Iike, I’ll hang out, but if we’re talking going to camp for a week [it’s] not my thing. I’d rather fly to Los Angeles and go see music and hang out with friends.

A lot of people decribe folk in pastoral terms and say how bucolic the genre is, so I think it’s interesting that you’re much more of a city person.

Yeah, folk music, I guess, definitely originated in old-school England or down south in America throughout slave plantations and stuff like that. And [it’s] been passed down through country [musicians] but then you think about the Greenwich Village scene in New York with Bob Dylan – those are people who love traditional music, Woody Guthry and stuff, they eventually went to New York. Same thing in London [with people such as ] Bert Jansch, they took from [American] music and ancient UK folk that they brought to London and they mixed it with the city sounds. [Folk] definitely translates to the city.

You mention plantation songs, are you into that first wave of recorded blues and folk from the early days of recorded music?

Yeah, of course. That music is beautiful.

Have you got any favourite of the older blues artists?

Yeah, absolutely. I like Chicago electric blues a lot, it’s not super old but people like Lighting Hopkins and all the stuff that came to Chicago. We started the electric blues, baby. Electric blues is ours, motherfucker! [laughs] But yeah, Lighting Hopkins, man, Lightning Hopkins all day.

Does your style of guitar playing change between electric and acoustic guitars?

Absotootlyfrootly, man. The acoustic is like a raw vegan diet whereas the electric is a giant slab of meat on top of everything. There’s so much to find within it, so absolutely, 100%. The way you pick it up, even, the way it feels. Physically and mentally.

Thanks Ryley.

My pleasure Martin.