Ryley Walker is a new voice on the acoustic guitar scene, but with connections to both the past and the present. He’s got a spiraling, joyful way of leading his band through every nook and cranny possible, mapping out the details with incredible precision and determination. Just two records into his career, Walker has landed on the radar screen with this year’s Primrose Green, a richly detailed foray across Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and others without being a slave to what’s come before. In fact, his two performances at this year’s Solid Sound Festival show a tenacity to carve out his own space.
You’re from Chicago. Had you been in contact with Jeff Tweedy or any of the Wilco guys before this, or was the request to play the festival kind of out of the blue?
I don’t really know them personally, but Chicago’s got kind of a small scene so you’re always a degree separated there. I’ve met a couple of them in passing but not we’re not super tight or anything like that.
Did you look to structure your set any differently for playing to a festival crowd that may not know you versus a regular show?
We’ve been super into jamming, so we’ll play really long songs right now which is fun. We’ve been listening to a lot of Can, Neu!, and [Grateful] Dead.
It was interesting to see the two ends of the range in your performances today. The more jammy, long song stuff that’s close to the studio recordings in the regular set, as compared to the more improvisational set in the gallery.
We just wanted to change it up in the gallery. We thought it would be cool to do a weird set. And we were already weird on stage, so I think it would be a ripoff if we just played the same songs.
I saw John Moloney (Sunburned, Chelsea Light Moving, etc) sit in with you on that set. Have you know him for a while?
Yeah, John is like a god to me. Sunburned Hand of the Man is one of my favorite bands ever, so I grew up worshiping that dude. We’re real tight friends now. He’s a legend, for sure.
Looking back, in 2003 The Wire had the New Weird America issue that chronicled mv+ee, Sunburned, etc. Ten years on, do you feel a connection to that scene? Or do you feel what you are doing is totally separate from that?
I’ve had a lot of good conversations with people starting out right now, like with me, kind of coming up together. That music was huge for us because they were punk rock but playing folk music. You think about bands like Espers, Wooden Wand, mv+ee, Hush Arbors, early Animal Collective, stuff like that. All those bands were huge for me, personally. And my good friends who play guitar music now, like Jessica Pratt or Dan Bachmann, we came up listening to that stuff. I mean obviously we love the classics.
Like Fahey and Kottke?
Yeah, that’s like the father. The son is like seeing these people when I was in high school, like Sunburned Hand of the Man tour the fuck out of their records and they had a punk rock ethos. They really mixed it up, like a noise band and a folk band. Jack Rose is especially a good example of that. He came up with Pelt.
Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles, and Black Twig Pickers.
You’re talking about my people right now! They’re playing folk songs. You think about Jack Rose playing delicate, gorgeous guitar. He was one of the best guitarists of all time. But his background was punk rock, so the whole business ethos of it was “Fuck the man! We play basements, we play houses, we sleep on floors.” That was inspiring, really huge. All that scene was really important. Sky-green Leopards, Six Organs of Admittance, all those bands are playing ‘out’ music but they came from punk rock. So they made ‘folk’ music, delicate, beautiful, bad-ass jams. But they had to work their ass off at it. In the early 2000s, you talk about the record industry just melting and they are like, “Fuck that! This is what we do!” They made folk music as punk as shit. Yeah, it was huge for me.
Today was the first time I’ve seen you perform live, and it was interesting to see you give the songs space to stretch out and breathe as compared to the studio versions.
Yeah, I’ve got a great band. I’m on the lower totem pole as compared to them in that they are all great improvisers. Experimental music and jazz from the Chicago area. That’s just second nature. It’s really fun to jam. Even taking it from a band like The Dead, we like to jam a lot live. I think it’s highway robbery for me least- I know some bands don’t (jam) and it’s fun, but for me, if you just play the same stupid ass song every night, it’s just not rewarding. So jamming around the defined structure of the song is an important factor for the live gig.
I don’t hear that much of a difference, sonically, between your first and second records, but your profile’s been lifted considerably. What do you attribute that to?
Well I just signed to a label (Dead Oceans) that has more money; it’s all politics. But I’m just fine with playing shows in houses and stuff. I don’t care. I think I’m as big as I’ll ever be. I don’t have star power, I’m not that handsome. I’m doing this because I have to. I’ll sleep on a couch. I’m not out here playing to get bigger. I’m happy where I’m at.
How’s the tour been going?
It’s been really great. We switched the band up so much, and I think this band is on fire. We all read each other really well.
Your drummer, Ryan Jewell, seems like he comes from a pretty strong jazz and improv, free-playing background.
Yeah he does, but he’s also been in some of the best noise bands in the Midwest. He’s played with Wasteland Jazz Unit, Burning Star Core, Psychedelic Horseshit, all these legendary Midwest noise bands. We all come from noise. Obviously jazz is part of that, but not all of it.
I’m sure that you must be a fan of experimental drummer Chris Corsano.
Oh man, he’s god. For sure.
He’s been at a couple Solid Sounds as an audience member before, but I haven’t seen him this time.
He’s another guy on the circuit. All this folk music bullshit… do you want another dumpy white dude playing acoustic guitar and singing about his girlfriend? No, let’s go far out. And that whole scene, it was a huge influence when I was a kid. seeing them playing basements. That’s work. I’m glad to just work all the time. Gigs are cool but it’s work, and I like working.
Who were you looking forward to seeing at the fest?
Parquet Courts, Jessica Pratt. I saw Richard Thompson for a bit. I’m down for whatever. Obviously Nels Cline is gonna be sick to see. Whatever he does, I’ll be there.