An interview with Ryley Walker

"I think if God was real he’d probably think I was a giant dick..."

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One of the things I like about that sound is there’s a real compositional meticulousness, but at the same time it’s loose and spacey in its feel. You’re aware that everything has been carefully planned out, but there’s still a roll to it, this measure and space which still feels intuitive.

Absolutely, the whole Chicago sound sits somewhere weird between rock’n’roll and jazz. There’s definitely a groove element to it, but at the same time it’s super-out, and in a weird time, and everyone’s playing weird things in different measures. It’s like a big stew that you add a little sugar to or a little salt, maybe some basil, because basil’s my favourite ingredient. It just kinda ties everything together. It’s complicated music for simple people, and everyone fell into it nicely.

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It also seems predicated on a deep and profound knowledge and love of music. There’s always a sense of record collectors finding new ways to reinterpret the music they’ve absorbed.

Yeah absolutely, you’re damn right there. I’m so lucky, the amount of jazz music here in Chicago it’s just unmatched, it’s the most creative place in the world. There are two or three places where every night you can see great gigs, everyone has like ten bands here, everyone’s in everybody’s band. I’m a total fucking dumbass compared to these guys, they’re so educated and hardworking and talented. It’s always nice to be the dumbest person around because I’m permanently inspired by all of them. This is the most Chicago record I’ve ever made, for sure. The surroundings definitely affected the recordings, in the dead of winter, in an ugly part of town which is just industrial warehouses and the occasional bodega.

It feels like Chicago has had an effect on the lyrics as well. On “The Halfwit In Me” especially, there’s a certain attitude and self-deprecation in the words that also remind me of Jim O’Rourke. There’s quite a thing on this record of writing about yourself in wry terms, which maybe hasn’t been so apparent on the previous things you’ve done.

Yeah, lyrically the first couple of records were kinda lacking, and that was important too. I was trying to write some nice couplets on how big an idiot I am, and those came kinda easily. I just reached a nice headspace where I could write better. I didn’t have to write about a goddamn mountain or trees or nature, I wasn’t really interested in those things. I’m not a sad person by any means, but my sense of humour’s still dry, and here in Chicago and the Midwest, the person you have to make fun of is yourself. A self-deprecating sense of humour is really common amongst me and my friends, it’s how I grew up.

It’s also seems kind of reflective; “The Halfwit…” doesn’t seem to be a celebration of being dumb.

I think most of the songs are kinda funny. Like when you wake up hungover. In my early 20s it was great, now it’s like, ‘Why did I do that again? Oh god!’ It’s kind of a homage to that dumb shit I’m going through now: getting older and being crankier. I can’t eat a hot dog without feeling it for a few days now. Things are changing in my life. A lot happened in the last year – I travel so much and I constantly leave behind family and friends. My girlfriend’s back here. I love touring so much, and I think sometimes I just put it above my personal life, and that causes problems. Everything that’s happened in the last couple of years has led up to this record, and I feel like finally I’ve woken up from this fantasy of trying to be some kind of troubadour. I don’t want that; I just want the record to be me.

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I keep coming back to that line, “Wise assed wisdom, wasted on the young”…

I like that line, too. I was such a smartass and so full of myself, and the more I look back on the dumb shit I’ve done, the more embarrassed I feel about it. I’m sure in five years’ time I’ll look back and say when I was 26 I was a real dumbass. I dunno, I’ve become reflective and nostalgic for how I was in my early 20s, I was constantly raging and being a total idiot. I thought I had all this wisdom in me and that I knew about the world, that I knew everything about my immediate surroundings, politically and spiritually and what have you. but it was just false wisdom, it was totally wasted on me. I really didn’t learn anything. I think the point is to try and learn something and be honest. I just want to be a good person and be nice to people. I think depression and anxiety caused a lot of issues I brought upon myself, and any sort of wisdom I gained was just totally wasted on me. A lot of times people tried to help me, so now I’m just trying to move on and be a better person.

The Growing Up Record; there’s a subtitle.

Yeah sure; something like that.

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