Ryley Walker on His New ‘Four-Drinks Deep’ Record + Plans for the ‘Saturday Night Boogie’ Followup
Ryley Walker says his new record, Primrose Green, is a "four-drinks deep record," which sounds about right. It's folk music, and folk music of a pretty classic vintage, too -- inspired largely by the English revivalism of '60s acts like Pentangle and Fairport Convention. But the record is as much a vehicle for Walker's classicist, free-wheeling songwriting (think Van Morrison's Astral Weeks) as it is a lush showcase for his crack band, grooving and improvising over a dense, thumping rhythms -- in other words, dancing music.
"Griffiths Bucks Blues," a celtic fingerpicking number, flows right out of "Same Minds," a spacey number driven by burbling organ. "Love Can Be Cruel" is sheer body-wiggling euphoria, conjuring images of bare feet and hippie headbands. But Walker bristles at being called a "throwback" -- really, he's just chasing the same magic the top-tier bandleaders of days past captured on wax. He's already talking about Primrose Green's follow up, a record he imagines having more of a soul vibe. "It'll probably be more wild, to be honest," Walker says.
But to those of you who think he's not pushing the boundaries hard enough, Walker reads your album reviews, and it's not getting under his skin. "It's not the end of the f---in' world," he says.
I talked to Walker over the phone from Chicago as he got ready to fly to Europe to tour behind the release of Primrose Green. We talked about Saturday night boogie, recording his next record in the land of the blues, and the difficulties of writing lyrics on the spot.
Are you in Chicago right now?
Yeah. Yeah, I'm in Chicago.
And that's where you're based out of?
When do you leave for your tour?
I'm leaving for Europe in like four or five hours, actually.
Oh wow, okay. Crazy. Didn't you tour in Europe last year?
Yeah, I went there like five or six times last year.
Anything in particular you're looking forward to, going back there?
I have a lot of friends there now so seeing them is pretty great. It's exciting getting to tour in Europe finally on a new record. A lot of the songs are sort of old to me now, but it's a new record. I was touring on the last record forever.
Did you warm up the songs from Primrose Green last time you were in Europe?
Yeah, I actually wrote most of them in Europe. Now, I'm playing new stuff, from the next record I want to do. But yeah, I mostly played new stuff in Europe last time.
I've been listening to the record for the last couple of weeks and I feel like it has a drunk-happy kind of vibe, both lyrically and musically. Is that how you were feeling?
Yeah, I was feeling pretty good when I was making it. I feel like it's a four-drinks deep record -- not totally out of it, not totally sober, just a nice middle ground buzz record. A light head trip record.
And you have this crack group of musicians you're working with, and you're a great guitar player, but you have to be on your A game all the time when you play with these guys. Is it nerve-racking at all to play with guys who are that good?
I mean, it's awesome playing with them. We're all good friends, we all get along really well, so I don't really see it like that at all. I feel pretty inspired to play with them, it's always a nice push, and it's kind of opened up a lot of doors for me that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I wouldn't say it's nerve-racking.
Is this the first band you've led?
No, I've been in a bunch of bands over time. This is the first band under my own name, for sure, but I've been in a tons of bands.
I read that you make up the lyrics on the spot, or at least develop them on the spot, when you're recording. Why do you like to do it that way?
After awhile it just becomes natural, you know. It just comes out of riffing. It's not like I go into the studio and go "la-la-la-la -- here's the song" -- a lot of things are developed over the spontaneity of a situation, you know? It's just how I work best -- things come into my mind instead of sitting down for a long period of time. My mind's way too busy for those sorts of things. It's just kind of how I work naturally.
In the future, do you see the music going wilder improvisationally, or, for lack of a better term, are you tightening up the songs -- editing them down a little bit?
I think this record was pretty stoned. So I want the next one to be more of a Saturday night boogie record. I've listened to a lot of stuff like Sam Cooke and a lot of the soul, R&B Van Morrison records, Otis Redding, stuff like that. I see a Saturday night thing, lots of horns and stuff. It'll be the same kind of vibe, a lot of improvising and jamming -- I mean that's what we do. But I think it'll be more of a swing record. But I don't know. It'll be different. It'll probably be more wild, to be honest.
When you go into the studio and you have the framework for a song but it's not done yet, do you get anxious the night before, thinking, "Oh, I have to put together all these songs on the spot?"
It's definitely nerve-racking. There's no doubt it's stupid as f--- to work like that. I'll be nervous about it for awhile, but then I'll go into the studio and it'll just work out. Fortunately, I haven't had too much trouble with it.
Do you think you'll keep doing it that way?
Probably. I mean, there's just no way out of it. I just don't know any other way to do it.
You get a lot of comparisons to '60s folk, and I think it's apt to a degree, but to me, what's really a throwback is sort of the way that you look at the album. Critics are all about albums that make really definitive statements -- like Sufjan Stevens saying "here's my record about my mother's death" -- and your record feels more like a snapshot in time.
Yeah, I definitely take that from the things I like. I just kind of describe a painting, in the lyrics, describe an image, that's detailed. Yeah, it's confessional in the way a Sufjan Stevens [record] might be. But I take a lot from what you're saying -- that it's a snapshot in time, that I'm on to the next thing already. It is a little different.
But I don't really feel like a throwback thing. I like what I like obviously. But I don't think of it as the kind of record where I'm going, "Oh hey man, look at this -- 1960 was crazy," you know?
Yeah, because it makes it feel like it's not going anywhere.
Yeah. I'm always trying to do something new.
Do you read what critics write about your music?
Yeah, they come to me. I get a report of that stuff from the powers that be. I take the time to read them. Not every one. But they come to me. Sometimes a bad one can sting, but when it does, it can sting for two hours, but then you move on. It's not the end of the f---in' world or whatever.
You could also take the angle that they don't really understand what you're trying to do.
I don't really buy that. You don't have to understand what I'm trying to do. They're only writers, and they can only write from their own perspective. It's not like they have the codes and keys to my subconscious or anything. They listen to the record and they write a detailed review, and it's like, well, obviously they listened to it, and I appreciate that, even if it's bad. If it's honest, it's okay. Not every journalist is going to get what you're doing. I don't get what they're doing. I just know they listened to the record and they're doing their job.
After the recording of Primrose Green, is there anything you want to try to do differently on this next one?
Maybe just change the location, get out of Chicago. I've never had a location vibe, so I'm into that. But I'm not really into looking back or having regrets or anything.
Would you rather record it out in a barn in the middle of nowhere, or would you rather go to another city and pick up that kind of vibe?
I think I want to go to the South. Like Savannah, Ga., or something -- a town with a lot of soul music history, something like that.
A record like that would allow you to say to people who peg you as a throwback, "I can do more than just the folk thing. These are my songs, and it's not so easy to fit me into that envelope."
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I know this record just came out, but we recorded it a year ago. I'm ready to go onto the next thing. It's not like I'm doing this radical thing where I'm going to turn to everybody and say, "F--- you." My tastes evolve as much as I do, and I'm sure yours do to. What you listened to a year ago, you're probably sick of now. You're moving on to new sh--.
You can get more details on Ryley Walker's Primrose Green -- as well as his complete tour itinerary -- at his official website.