Ryley Walker – Interview – 2015

It is once in a blue moon that a rare talent comes around, someone who is a free spirit, with the focus only on the music they want to make – Ryley Walker is that person. After learning his craft in bars and clubs of his hometown Chicago, Ryley has created a mammoth underground following and now is constantly selling out shows way in advance where ever he is playing. This is mainly due to his impressive improvisation and phenomenal guitar and vocals abilities, sounding like a Jazz/Folk protégé of Jeff Buckley and John Martyn. Although by no means is that the limit of Ryley’s inspiration as he is an avid record collector and seller, as well as producing a re-release of a rare folk vinyl he found in a Chicago record store. I talked vinyl records and influences with Ryley before his recent Brighton show to find out more.

What was the music scene like when you were growing up?
Punk Rock. Lots of shitty bands and nothing really that creditable. Once you got older in Chicago you realises that there is a sick Jazz scene, and there still is. When I got to the age of reason, I discovered things like The Big Black or The Jesus Lizard, and Tortoise. It was a tight musical community and it had a bunch of everything – you couldn’t miss anything.
 
How did you get together with your band?
Even though it is a big city of five million people, the jazz scene is still pretty small. You would go to the North West side to any bar and perhaps see five people a night, then meet them like that. Everyone is gigging nearly every night, it is so easy to make money as a musician there. Not tons of wealth as a musician, but it is also cheap to live there. You can flip records on Discogs and play two gigs a week, and you could have your rent.
 
So you do lots of buying and selling records?    
I am a record flipper and jammer by trade. You got to have everything, or nothing at all. It’s all back at the house in Chicago. I’m pretty backed up at the moment. I have a lot of people emailing me about their records and calling me an asshole right now, so I’m calling my friends saying “take the records out of the sleeve and wrap them in bubble wrap”.
 
What is your most cherished vinyl?
If I had to sell everything tomorrow, I would definitely hold onto a huge stack. I have a lot of records that aren’t even rare, but just the thought of me buying them is special. The copy of my Led Zeppelin III which I got from a friend of mine before he passed on, which is a very cherished record because the memory behind it – it’s one of my favourite records ever. I have a bunch of obscure cool psych rock, folk, jazz and weird guitar records too.
 
What have you been buying recently?
I am super into Canterbury Prog right now – Robert Wyatt’s stuff like Matching Mole live bootlegs that I’ll spend a $100 on each, a lot of his side projects too. Nick Jones is someone I’m really into at the moment, his album Penguin Eggs is amazing. He is an amazing British guitarist who doesn’t play too often these days as his hands are messed up due to a car crash just after the album was released, which is tragic as he is one of the greats.
 
I can imagine your tour van is full of records?
Yeah. There are a lot of cool charity shops about, so I’m always finding cool 45”s – a lot of old Northern Soul I’ve found here.
 
Do you get to go to many gigs in your free time?
I tend to be pretty busy when I’m on tour, but when I’m back home in Chicago I will make a point of seeing some bands as most of my friends are musicians. A couple of guys who are in my band have this other band called Health&Beauty who are amazing, it’s hard to describe unless you listen to them – to me it sounds like King Crimson if they were Dinosaur Jr.
 
Has your style of music always been the same?
I have had a few lives in music. I was in a lot of Punk and Noise bands for a while, playing a lot of the underground butt joints. The sleeping on their basement floor and waking up with scabies kind of circuit. That was how I got my chops. I always do collaborations and pick up improv gigs, I do that a lot as I feel like it make me a better guitarist. A friend will come to me saying, “We have got a gig at an Italian restaurant tonight. Two set, each an hour” and we will just jam. I love improvising.
 
Can you remember the first time you picked up an instrument?
My sister had a Casio keyboard. I would just play with the black keys, ripping on the pentatonic. I didn’t really like music till I was about twelve years old to be honest. It wasn’t like “the arts have stricken me at the age of four”. I was really in to sports and baseball which was all I wanted to do, but I was kind of a fat kid and sucked at sports so I played music.
 
What are your main influences?
With the newer stuff, it is definitely more literal – “here is my observation and here is what makes me bummed about it”, “here is the names, birth dates and social security numbers” you know. The great songwriters of England and America in the 60s and 70s is the foundation or basement. The first floor (or what you guys call the ground floor) you get to more of the out stuff; like Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock and Alice Coltrane. The combination of folk, jazz and world music I like a lot.
 
How do you approach writing music?
I will come up with a riff and then we will jam on that when playing live. I will make up words then keep condensing it, refining it, woodshedding it (sanding the edges off). It’s always like “oh shit, this could go really wrong” but its fun. Sometimes I will sit at home and write, but it is hard to finish stuff when I’m on my own.
 
I guess you have been thinking about the next release then?
We have a bunch of new songs and have recorded some of it. Hopefully it will be out by the middle of next year. It’s a little different, but also a little better if I was being honest and frank. It is not like I’m doing a dub record or anything, but I would say it is better words and music.
 
Tell us a bit about the John Hulburt Opus III re-release you have been involved with recently?
I found it in this record store in the West Chicago in the suburbs. Its about an hour away from my house by train but it is a cool store, I’ll make it out there once every couple of months. I know the owner really well so whenever they have vinyl they think I’d like they will hold it back for me, and they sold it to me for about $10. When I got home and I was doing my research, I realised it’s a really rare record. The record its self is really good and there are only 100 presses. The album was made in Chicago in 1972, when there wasn’t really a Folk scene in Chicago so it’s a really special record for its time. I tracked down John Hulburt’s sister through a string of record nerds to see if she would be ok with me re-releasing it, and she said “that would be amazing as he would have really wanted people to hear it”. So I put together a re-release with some cool liner notes done by some great Chicago writers. It’s great for the world to be able to hear a Chicago Folk artist of that time as there weren’t too many.
 
What had been a musical eye-opener?
There are lots of those kind of instances. I have a lot of good friends that I have met over the years. Some of my best friends I have seen live for the first time then have gone up to them afterwards and been “Wassup dude, that was great”, then sat around all night talking about records.
 
What would be your perfect line-up of any three acts for a concert you are putting on and where would it be?
This would probably change every time I think about it. Live at The Fillmore (San Francisco): Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and John Coltrane.
 
If you could work with any artist, who would it be?
I’m going on tour with Danny Thompson (bass player extraordinaire who played with Pentangle) in February across the UK where we will be playing together. That was a big dream for a while and now it’s a reality. There are a lot – Anne Briggs doesn’t play music anymore, so to have her come out of the wood work and play music again would be amazing. She’s is one of my favourites of all time, one of the best who only had a few releases.
 
What are you listening to at the moment?
I don’t really listen to music whilst on tour as it used to fry my brain, I try to read a lot more books. Peter who drives the van is in charge of the radio and has a cool music taste – a lot of compilations like Ethiopian and Moroccan psych and traditional bands, which are all home and field recordings.
 
What are your future plan?
We are going to Israel, which I’m looking forward to. In October I am touring with Michael Chapman (prolific folk/jazz artist) in the Sates. In November I might take a chill pill, play guitar at home, watch movies and finish the record. Then there’s the tour of the UK with Danny Thompson in February 2016.   
 
Buy John Hulburt’s Opus III from Tompkins Square Records: tompkinssquare.com/hulburt.html
Read a review of Ryley Walker's show at The Hope & Ruin HERE