Ryley Walker Is Trapped in the Heartland and He Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way
The 25-year-old Chicago musician talks cornfields, and check out the premiere of his video for "Sweet Satisfaction."
Photo by Dusdin Condren courtesy of the artist
You know the type: long hair, kinda cute, likes flannel, drinks cheap beer, plays guitar, is a dude. But Ryley Walker knows it too. “I get some shit sometimes for wearing my influences on my sleeve,” he tells me over the phone after finishing up a recent tour. He’s parking his car, and I can hear the dinging of someone leaving the driver door open. “But it’s a pretty fair argument. I like who I like a whole lot.”
It’s a pretty basic concept. The thing that makes Ryley Walker is that, well, he is Ryley Walker. He’s not flashy. He makes folk music that is not flashy. He writes songs called “Same Minds” and “Love Can Be Cruel” that aren't flashy. He plays guitar well. There's just is no pretense behind his music; he’s not acting like he’s reinventing the wheel. The 25-year-old musician is doing what he knows how to do, and that’s playing sharp and enjoyable—what he calls—“boogie jams.” His debut record Primrose Green, which released yesterday, is a collection of simple songwriting over dynamic guitar-playing, fitting nicely into this recent weird 70s-inflected singer-songwriter movement of Steve Gunn, Jessica Pratt, Kevin Morby, and more. But what’s more is that Walker’s music truly reflects where he’s from—the Midwest, and in particular, Chicago—perhaps more than we’re used to seeing in the internet age where everyone is influenced by everyone else (like a kid in Sweden making rap music that sounds like it’s from Houston). Like any true Midwesterner, Walker both loves and hates being trapped in the heartland, a friction you can hear in his songs that deal with loneliness, struggle, and frustration with the monotony of daily life.
Below, Noisey is premiering the video for “Sweet Satisfaction,” which fits nicely in the mood of Walker’s music for wanderers. During our conversation, he and I chat about the current state of guitar music, cornfields, and beer. Here's what he had to say.
The album is out. What is it like reading your reviews?
It’s not a bad thing; there are a lot of nice reviews, but it’s like, reading reviews is like being butt as naked in front of everybody and your mom always likes it. It’s like, mom, I’m naked on stage. Why would you like this? “Well, because it’s you!” What the fuck. It’s far out. It’s good though. Maybe it’s not always like that. It’s weird. You shouldn’t do it, actually. You should never do it.
There’s a lot of sweet indie guitar music these days—you, Steve Gunn, Ty Segall and his crew, etc.—what’s it like to be a part of that and what do you think is driving it?
Yeah, man. When I first started to go see shows that my friends would put on, everybody was doing their Animal Collective thing. That’s really great music, nothing wrong with it. But everything’s getting stripped down, and this is a terrible thing to say, but that’s a basic sort of thing. We’re getting back to boogie jams now. “I’m outside, we’re all crazy, we dance around a fire and we’re in the woods” kind of music. It’s a lot of city people doing it, actually. City people are doing folk tunes again. It’s cool.
Are you from what you consider a city?
I’m from Rockford, the second biggest city in Illinois. I grew up in the city.
I’m from Iowa originally.
Heavy, heavy. Very nice.
Seems like the priority in indie rock for the last few years was the narrative versus the music. Like, “this dude went to the woods to write this so you should care about it.”
For sure. The indie rock thing, it comes in cycles. Forever, people are into the bedroom synth thing, it was kinda just evolving. It’s cool to see so many great guitarists and songwriters. Jessica Pratt or Steve Gunn. There’s so many. I think everybody was just like, “I’m sick of loner bedroom things.” For me, at first it was like, the character, “Oh, I’m a loner. Here’s my loner bedroom thing.” I don’t know. We’re just making Saturday night folk tunes to jam to. It’s not any better or worse.
Where do you see yourself fitting into that scene? Into those people that you’ve been listening to?
I don’t know, man. I know that we’re all pretty good friends that get along. It’s easy to hang out with those certain people. I don’t feel any sort of competitiveness. It’s funny, I didn’t realize it was a big group like that until I did interviews recently. “Oh man, what’s up with Steve Gunn?” It’s a whole new thing going on. We’re all just byproducts of the music we like. I don’t think there’s any collective goal or political, obviously. It’s just, we’re all guitar fans, and I think people are drawn to it again because for the last ten years it’s been a freak out with the bedroom synth stuff. I don't want to shit on any music like that because I love it. But it’s kind of refreshing. I see myself as a cog in a machine of great musicians. I fully support all my friends to do their thing right now. I’m happy to be up here. Always find something new. I’m happy for everybody that’s doing that shit right now.
Looking at the album again, what are you hoping to accomplish?
I don’t know. I hope people realize it was just a snapshot of that day we recorded. I’m really proud of it. I think all the performances on there are really cool. It was an incredibly easy record to make. I mean, we recorded it in a day. I think I get some shit sometimes for wearing my influences on my sleeve, but I hope people can see that I really love music. I love making it. It’s really fun.
Maybe we can go back to what you said earlier, about catching shit. Is there anything specifically that you as an artist feel misunderstood about?
Nah, I don’t feel misunderstood at all. I think it’s a pretty fair argument. I like who I like a whole lot. But you know, what I take from those guys and girls is that they really liked all sorts of music. I draw from their influences, you know? The folk musicians, they like everything. I like everything. I’m kind of this hodgepodge.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I’m 25 now, I probably started when I was 12 or 13. A teenager. I went to college for, like, a year and a half. I dropped out, though.
Then did you just start pursuing music professionally?
“Professional” is a pretty loose term. Professional is probably a way better term than I would use to describe it. [Laughs.] I was just playing music nonstop around then. I met a lot of cool people who were into jamming and stuff. There was, and still is, sort of a Chicago thing. A really special time. 2007 through 2010 or 2011. There’s still great music here, but there was a lot of cool spaces around that time. Big warehouses. It was really talented artists and nobody was doing it “professionally,” it was just out of pure love. Then everybody would go to their shit day job, or school, then we’d stay up until four in the morning. That was a contributing factor in not wanting to go back to school, was this new weird open lovely psychotic subculture of Chicago that I’ve been drawn to.
This feels like a Chicago record. How do you see the city reflected?
Totally. I feel like I made a big Chicago record. Not pretentiously, nothing like that. I feel like it’s very traditional in the sense that it’s very collaborative. Everybody that plays on it plays in a variety of different bands. I like that. It’s encouraging, while everyone’s working on my record they’re working on theirs. It’s also easy to lose your mind here. I’ve never lived anywhere else. It’s where my life is. I love it here. I love it with a passion. It’s a great city to freak out in and love at the same time. There are people everywhere involved with Chicago music in some facet.
When I first heard your music, I didn’t know where you were from, and when someone told me Chicago, it made sense.
It’s cool. We don’t have a goofy ass ocean. There’s no coast here, man. When you’re here, it’s so cheap and easy to live here. If you have a crappy job and work 20 hours a week, you don’t have to hustle so hard. We’re blessed in that way, and it’s like once a year you have to train your mind to stay happy during the winter. It’s like teaching a dog to sit that won’t. You’re telling your brain, “love it here in the winter,” then spring day rolls around and you’re like, “OK, alright. I’ve got this shit.” It’s really dense here. Everything’s super close together, but it all feels very far apart at the same time. I don’t know, man, maybe that’s something to do with the music. I’m talking shit about Chicago but I love it here, I really do.
The Midwest winter fucking sucks, man.
There’s never been a winter in my life where I haven’t been in the state of Illinois. It’s all I know, man. I know it’s flat for a while, then you hit traffic and tall buildings. So you know, that whole vibe is my entire existence. I traveled a lot, was lucky enough to tour around the world , but my entire life has been corn fields, highways, shit traffic, big city. Between the McDonalds and the big buildings, there’s just corn, man. You drive forever and all you see is corn. There are no other cities in Illinois. Chicago is all we got. It’s so hard to get out of the state of mind of Illinois. It’s totally encompassing, we’re in this weird bubble. There are no destinations in the state of Illinois. The capital of Illinois is not cool, man. Rockford is a big city, but it’s a dump. I can’t believe my Irish/German ancestors were like, “let’s go to the middle of the country!” What? Why did you do that three hundred years ago when you actually had to chop wood? You knew California was out there! From a long line of people that like to be cold, I’m still here. There are no signs of leaving.
What’s your beer of choice?
Ah, man. It would be a slap in the face to the city of Chicago if I didn’t say Old Style. I know there’s good beer out there. I’m not a fancy beer fan. I’ll drink whatever my grandpa drank.
Eric Sundermann drinks Budweiser and sucks at guitar. He's on Twitter.