INTERVIEW: Ryley Walker 3

INTERVIEW: Ryley Walker


“No way man! That’s awesome!”

Ryley Walker is reacting to the news that not only has GIITTV given his stunning new album Primrose Green a perfect score in the reviews section, but also that me, the missus and our 5 year old son have been listening to said work of art in the car pretty much on a loop for the past month. He is particularly pleased that the youngest member of our family is being exposed to his music, and seems both flattered and humbled by the mention of how much junior loved ‘Hide In The Roses’ in particular. Those two words describe Walker perfectly, as he chatted from his hotel room somewhere (in Southern Georgia, he thinks, but isn’t sure) about Primrose Green, what children’s television show he liked most and his favourite colour. Admittedly, those last two were ones my son wanted me to ask, but just for posterity, it’s Power Rangers and green, should you care.

Given the obvious reference to your music – John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Van Morrison and their ilk, how did you manage to create an album that wasn’t just a lazy pastiche of those artists?

Oh man, well let me say that I am a music fan first and foremost, a record collector, so of course, I’m gonna take some of these things in. It’s who I am and it’s what I do, but you know, all of these people, Van especially, he took a lot from all those old blues and jazz records, those amazing Billie Holiday records and everything, and he just took what he needed and carved his own identity into it. That’s what I’m trying to do too – always pay respect to the old heads but at the same time I’m really happy to be trying to do something new with it.

And you’ve assembled a quite astounding band around you. How does a relatively young man like yourself go about persuading a group of seasoned pros that you’re their guy?

They’re all my good friends, man. I’m lucky enough to live in Chicago and there are great musicians all over the place here. Since I was an eight year old kid, for as long as I can remember, I was attending underground spots all over the city, whether it be a noise band or a jazz group or whatever, and really immersing myself in the scene. Chicago really prides itself on collaboration, you know, there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on, so I went to a lot of shows and eventually got up the courage to go up and speak with the performers. I built up a lot of friends and contacts that way over the years.

Do you remember who the first artist was who really grabbed you at a gig?

Oh man, I have to go way back. I have to think about this. I know – I saw a punk band years ago called Egan’s Rats at a skate park I used to go to with my friends. It was the first time I went to a show without my parents. They gave me their record, which was a big deal to me. I was like “but I don’t have a record player”, and they just said “It doesn’t matter man, just take it”. So of course I had to get one then but that whole DIY thing stuck with me. Punk was how I started, you know, that whole Midwest thing was a big deal in Chicago – the whole energy and the blue collar background that surrounds it.

Quite often these songs seem to paint a romantic picture of a lonesome troubadour. Is that you?

Yeah, I guess that’s a fair assessment. There’s someone I love back home but I’m constantly on tour and it’s hard, you know. I guess the lyrics sometimes point that way. Often I have no idea what I’m doing or where I am. I mean, I think I’m somewhere in Georgia at the moment, at least I’m guessing that’s where I am, ’cause there’s some guys outside who look like they’re gonna kick my ass. But you know I do try and steer clear of all that biz shit. That kind of stuff gets me down. It sounds like a cliche but I feel like what I’m trying to do with my music is just destroy all that biz stuff. I don’t make ANY money from this. I’m pretty much broke. I do it for the music and I do it for the stories – there are some AMAZING stories when you’re doing this, and I try to show that. You fall in and out of love so much when you’re on the road, you’re always gonna have stories to tell. It’s all about the stories, man.

You don’t sound like you’re merely singing these songs. It comes across like you’re getting lost in them, really kind of ‘feeling’ them. You even sing the words “feel it, feel it, feel it” over and over again in ‘Summer Dress’…

That’s a great assessment. These tunes are like – there are so many parts to them, but those parts are all really spiritually linked. It’s all about the sum of the parts, like an embodiment of power, so yeah, it’s easy to get lost in the music.

‘Primrose Green’ itself sounds somewhat mythical, like a place you keep returning to in your head as a kind of Utopian wonderland…either that or it’s just weed…

(bursts out laughing) Most people think it’s weed! It’s not. First and foremost it’s about a time in my life . I went to Uni for one year and then quit, and I moved back into my parents’ house. That summer was a real good one, temperatures of 27, 28 degrees Celsius every single day. Me and my friends made this cocktail with Morning Glory seeds. You mix them with water and you get kind of an LSD trip from them. I haven’t done it in years but that’s what ‘Primrose Hill’ is to me, in my mind. Those were real good times.

‘On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee’ talks of “getting baptised by your daddy. All the love was there“. Coming after the first half of the album, which is often intense, it’s quite a relief to have something as laid back as that song.

Yeah, it’s the come-up, certainly. The Kishwaukee is a river I grew up near in Northern Illinois, a place where Pentecostal Christians go to get baptised. It’s meant to be a sweet song, you know, I have no problem with Christians or religion or whatever, but that river is like the most polluted, disgusting river in the whole world man! I’m pretty sure if you swam in it, your leg would turn green and fall off after five minutes. But some of my friends went there and believed they had their sins washed away and I thought it was sweet that they felt they’d found salvation. It’s meant to be my Philip Glass type of come up thing, you know. Anyone who wakes up, feeling a little hungover. I like to think those people could think yeah, I’ll put ‘On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee’ on.

Then you’ve got ‘Sweet Satisfaction’, a song that builds and builds until you have this wall of noise that wouldn’t have been out of place on the main stage at Woodstock…

Ha ha well thank you for saying that, man, it’s very flattering to hear. That song’s super groovy. I remember when we first practised it and all I had was these first few chords. Then the keys player, he just started playing this ‘dum dum dum dum’ thing over and over and really going for it. We thought “Holy shit!” and we just went with it, you know, it’s lustful! It’s desperation! It’s…drunk! It’s like Canned Heat in some ways and I’m proud of that.

You certainly don’t seem like the shy, Nick Drake type figured that’s being portrayed in the video to ‘Primrose Green’.

I’m not too shy at all. I’m one of those guys who falls over and yells as loud as hell. I can be loud and obnoxious as well as the next guy. I’m not the kind of guy who goes to a party and sits and stares at the wall all night. That video, it was filmed by a friend up in Woodstock, Illinois, and he had a bunch of lambs so it was just a nice, fun thing to do.

What was this tweet all about? “John Fahey still awful, Jack Rose still God”? I thought you’d be a fan of Fahey…

Oh, I’m a HUGE fan of John Fahey. Honestly, I owe my whole career and love of music to that guy. It was just meant to be a joke, you know – it’s time that we recognised that Jack Rose is the new god! If it weren’t for him, I’d still be in my bedroom playing fucking Led Zeppelin riffs all the time. I mean, I LOVE Zeppelin, of course, but there’s only so long you can go on doing that.

Well that’s a relief then. For Primrose Green is an absolute beauty of a record, arguably the finest album you’ll hear all year, and why wouldn’t it be, given the pedigree of its ancestors?

In between all this, we discussed Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album (“that album was huge for me growing up, and I could relate to it too, being where I’m from), his debut for Dead Oceans (“They let me have freedom – I can do whatever the fuck I want”), Bob Dylan‘s John Wesley Harding (Ryley brought this album up in conversation, which made me do something of a double take, as it was the very same album I’d been playing in my car prior to listening to Primrose Green!) and the fact that my son and his little cousin share a mutual love of Tom Waits (“kids love all that Swordfishtrombones stuff. I think it’s down to the characters and voices”) and really, half an hour just flew by. He may think Jack Rose is the new god, and while I acknowledge the brilliance of the late axeman, I feel there’s a new pretender for the crown emerging…

Primrose Green is released by Dead Oceans on March 30th 2015.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.