In the next issue of Uncut, I’ve written a big review of Ryley Walker’s terrific third album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. To go with that review, I called him up in Chicago a couple of weeks for a chat. A longish extract of that interview will appear in the mag, but Ryley is a generous and entertaining talker, and so I thought the full transcript – in which he discusses Chicago, Eitzel, Kozelek, his wild years, God, the touring life, being a “dumbass”, being a “giant dick”, being a guitar “fraud”, being a “total idiot”, being immensely self-deprecating and so on – would be worth parking here. It begins with Ryley at breakfast, having just made a smoothie.
“It’s mango and banana, man, a little yogurt, a little ice. I’m trying to live a long time…”
I figured we should talk about what happened after Primrose Green, and how you got fairly quickly from Primrose Green to Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. Pretty soon after the album came out last year you were talking to Uncut about how you’d moved on and weren’t interested in those songs any more. How soon did the ideas that became Golden Sings start formulating in your head?
Well we recorded Primrose Green about a year before it came out, so I’d probably heard those songs about 500 times before it came out. When the tour for Primrose Green began in March or April last year, we had half this record written. I knew I wanted to make an album a year, so come the summer I was fixated on having the songs recorded this year and out next year. Three records in three years; it was a huge goal of mine.
You were saying at the time that it was going to be just four long songs and that you were listening to Stormcock a lot.
Oh man, I totally forgot about that. Thanks for reminding me. It was important I did something different, so at first it was like, ‘Oh, I’ll do a four song suite’. Everyone else in the band said ‘that sounds stupid’, so they kinda talked me out of it. I had this song “Sullen Mind”, one of the first ones I wrote, and I originally wanted it to be one side of the record. More ideas kept coming to me, and I needed more songs on the record. I think I just wanted it to be weird at first. I wanted my label to be like, ‘What? What in the hell are we going to do with this?’ I thought that’d be interesting, to not have a single, and not have anything that could be played on the radio, something like a Coltrane record or Stormcock, but I just kept writing these kind of baroque songs.
It still kind of works as a suite, though.
The songs do flow together nicely, for sure, but there are definitely no 15-minute sprawlers. Since I recorded Primrose Green I’ve changed so much as a songwriter and as a guitar player. I feel like kind of a fraud in the guitar business, theres so many great guitar players out there today. I just wanted to focus on songs rather than be a guitar player.
I guess the Bill Mackay and Charles Rumback duet records are outlets for you to concentrate on the guitar stuff?
Yeah those are important, too. It’s important for me to keep people close who are way better than me; Bill Mackay is just an unbelievable guitarist and a very good friend. He’s going to start playing in my band on tour. All the guys who play in my regular band are so busy, and they have a band on their own. It’s always nice to change the band too. It keeps it refreshing for me live and I guess the audience too. The personality of the music changes so much with different musicians, they improvise differently, their approach is different. Some drink more, some drink less; that can have an effect too when you’re sitting around in a bar in England for six hours before a show. The DNA of the music can be altered, and that makes four months of touring pretty bearable when you know every night’s going to be completely different.
The Primrose Green record’s OK and it connects with a lot of people, I don’t dislike it. I just got in the groove last year of writing lyrically. I didn’t want a picture on this record, I wanted everything to be different; a fresh start.
It feels more composed and less jammed. Is that fair?
That’s really fair. We usually write on the road, I come up with a riff and we just try it, and a lot of times we fall flat on our face doing that, but it works. As far as recording, pretty much every note was accounted for and calculated, and that was a nice rigid structure. We also took a lot of time, at least for me. The last record, aesthetically, was ‘let’s do this really quick’ – economically as well. But with this one we took 10 days instead of one or two, so we had time to listen back to things, and we had Leroy Bach as producer and as an objective voice. He had the perspective to say ‘that’s shit, that’s cool’; he had so much wisdom and confidence from making far-out records for most of his life, and it was nice having him in there to guide things.
It strikes me he’s one of the key reasons why this feels like such a Chicago record.
Yeah, for sure. He’s done so many great records, and not just the Wilco records. It might be a cliché, but he’s really in it for the music. He was in the biggest band in the world and he stepped out to play free jazz at the California Clipper, which is a bar four blocks from me. He curates the live music there and he’s there every night to see everything, he plays most nights too. He’s just a fantastic dude to have around, a really smart and cool guy.
There are some real echoes of Chicago music in there as well, like the Jim O’Rourke feel of “The Halfwit In Me”.
Oh yeah, definitely. Playing all these baroque structures and adding a clarinet or whatever, Leroy really shaped that song. It was real different when I wrote it last fall. We recorded the record in December and I think I started going to Leroy’s house in October. I hadn’t seen him for a long time and we were at Bill Mackay’s birthday party last March. I was hammered and like, “Leroy man, you’d be a great record producer,” and he said, “I haven’t done that in a long time.” I was like, “Will you do it?” and he said, “I dunno, I’ll get back to you,” then I totally forgot about it.
He has a little house in Humboldt Park on the west side of town and a big practice space in there with a piano, so I brought my guitar over in October last year and he was like, ‘What ideas do you have?’ “The Halfwit In Me” was one of the first songs I brought to him, and that whole first part he kind of composed, wrote the piano part and the bass parts. He brought a veteran Chicago sound to it, which is great; I grew up on those records – The Sea And Cake, Gastr Del Sol, Shrimp Boat, they were all very important to me in my upbringing.