One of the best kept secrets at THING Fest was Ryley Walker. Instead of performing from one of the outdoor stages, he was booked in the intimate Wheeler Theater, which seats less than 300 people. He came out on stage sans shirt, saying it was just too hot, and proceeded to launch into a jaw-dropping set of tracks spotlighting his most recent release Deafman Glance. The audience was enthralled. Throughout the entire performance, they were cheering before the songs were even over. There was a point where it seemed like Walker and the drummer were improvising and playing off each other like jazz musicians. After the performance, walking back outside, I could hear attendees still marveling over what they just witnessed.
Deafman Glance isn't the only thing Walker released last year; he also released The Lillywhite Sessions, an irony-free cover album of an unreleased Dave Matthews Band LP. (Both are out now via Dead Oceans.) Sadly, 2018 was also the year he began to self-destruct from drugs and depression, a pit he's since proudly managed to crawl out of.
Walker was gracious enough to chat with KEXP after his performance, covering his addiction recovery, his love of Dave Matthews, and the joy of the big city.
KEXP: Your band is fantastic. How did you find those guys and how long have you been playing with them?
Ryley Walker: I found them through the Midwest noise scene. Ryan, who plays drums, he was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time about 10 years ago and I was getting really into improvising and noise stuff. Mostly noise. I don't want to call it serious contemporary music or anything. And Ryan was really big in that scene. He put on a show for me in Columbus and then we just decided to do a collaboration set. We played an hour of fried but [makes explosion noise and hand gestures]. It was really cool. And then I wanted to have him on board in a band because he's really into jamming and stuff.
He was totally keeping up with you. It was awesome to watch. So I read that you can't listen to Deafman Glance anymore because it kind of "broke your brain." Does that make touring hard?
No, what made touring hard was I was a heroin addict for years. I'm clean now and I thank whatever out there for it. That press release was written in a pretty dark zone. I wasn't very happy. I was really sad. I was deep in a really dark depression.
But, now, I went to rehab and I cleaned up and I have almost six months sober right now. And I'm in an NA program and I have a sponsor and I have all this accountability in my life right now. So I like to listen to that record now. I enjoy it quite a bit actually. I think the songs are really fun to play live because the record sounds so sad. When I play them now, it sounds kind of happy, because I'm somewhat happy. There's still bad days, but yeah, I'm a much happier person than I was.
That's so cool you can hear the songs in a whole different way now.
Yeah. You know, they were written just so bummed out. You want to remember where all the songs come from, but most are just drug use and being really negative. But now it's fun to play them and bring them to a new light.
You play them so well, it's seems like it's coming from a great place.
Yeah, it's great to re-contextualize that music and put it in a good spot. I'm very grateful for that because it took a lot of brain work. I went through a lot to get here.
You also wrote, "put me in a camp site for more than two days and I'll flip the fuck out." So how long have you been here in Fort Worden?
[Laughing] OK, good.
I was just raised in the city. And again, I love nature, I think it's really special. Especially here, you know. But I'm a city slicker. I like how dirty cities are and I like walking around late. My hike is like walking to the taco place.
Obviously, I enjoy nature and appreciate nature and I want to conserve nature and protect nature. But to me, I'm just a city guy and that's where I get all my inspiration from is just being surrounded by all sorts of people all the time.
I love what you wrote about Chicago in your press release. It's a really special city. I've never been to any other city like it.
It's definitely its own wheelhouse. I'm glad I don't live there anymore because I lived there for 11 years and I grew up right outside of it so it feels nice to be on the East Coast now but the Midwest to me is, you know, that's home base. I like the flat cornfields. Everybody else I'm touring with always wigs out, "We're on hour nine of cornfields!". I'm like, this is heaven. This feels good. I can drive through Iowa like nobody else. I love the Midwest.
Where is home for you now?
I live in Brooklyn. I moved out there for a myriad of reasons — some good, some bad, some to escape a drug problem, but I just ended up having a worse drug problem. [Laughs] Which is so dumb. I had to crash real hard to get my ass in shape, which I'm working on now. Moved out there and a relationship fell apart and I just became kind of a mess, but now it's like a fresh start, and I'm really, really grateful for that. I like being out there. There's a lot to do. And I like how big it is and how anonymous you can be. I just blend in there. Not that I'm like some omnipresent character anywhere else but like, you know, I could just walk around all day and not see a person. And I really enjoy — despite how big and busy it is — you can have a lot of quiet time there. Which I really enjoy. I think what keeps people able to find a quiet space is nobody wants to be bothered. And I mean that in a good way, you know, not like people are all jerks.
For the Lillywhite Sessions, I was curious how did you come to cover that album? Were you thinking, "I want to cover an album by another artist" or were you specifically thinking "I want to cover this particular Dave Matthews Band album"?
Well, the whole idea was just based on absurdity at first. Because I've always been like a Dave, like... "head." Dave-Matthews-Head. And I really enjoy his music still. Even despite getting into other weird stuff. I never moved past my Dave Matthews phase, and I think he's great. It's like how people getting are getting into Phish now, and the Dead. All this stuff coming around, because you never listened to it, you never gave it a chance. So, I've always liked Dave Matthews for that sense and I enjoy it un-ironically. And I think one night, I was like, I should cover all the Lillywhite Sessions but make it like an insane psychedelic record, you know. It kind of came about like that and for a while it's just like, "ha ha." But then I was like, hey I think we can actually do this.
And then you did!
And then we did it really quickly and I'm glad we did it quickly. We didn't like take forever on it or anything. It was just done within a matter of like a month, from start to finish, from rehearsing to mastering it.
What was the timeframe between Deafman Glance and Lillywhite Sessions, because they both came out last year. Were they recorded close to each other?
Yeah, they're really close. I think Deafman's Glance was done at the end of 2017 and Lillywhite Sessions was done February 2018. So I rode it back to back. And they're both different studios. My only gripe about the [Deafman Glance] record is it doesn't sound the way I want to. I think the songs are cool but the sound is just kind of weird and lo-fi for no reason. Whereas if we did this in a sick hi-fi studio...
So, I know I was more energetic and happy about that record [Lillywhite Sessions]. I guess, there wasn't the weight of me writing songs. It's just recontextualizing. So we kinda just go, we didn't have to mull over everything.
Are there any other artists whose albums you would want to cover?
I think I've definitely exhausted my album covers stuff, but I mean, yeah, there's all sorts of stuff like that. I've always enjoyed covers records. I mean, I like John Denver a lot, so I'd love to do a John Denver cover, or Karen Carpenter sorta thing. Something like that. I don't want to do, you know, a cool record. And that's the thing with the Dave Matthews' record, it's like nobody would ever expect me to do that. It wasn't like, hey let's do Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn. That's a record everybody likes. Let's do a record that recordheads wouldn't like and no famous Dave Matthews songs, only unreleased b-sides, which makes it even more absurd.
I read that you got to meet him at the end of last year.
Yeah, he's cool. We're friends. He's nice. We were in Montreal the same night he was on tour and I hit up his tour manager or somebody, "Yo, can we get some Dave Matthews tickets?" Because I had heard he'd heard the record, he enjoyed it, and he sent a nice email to me. It was really cool.
And I saw his Facebook statement, which was really nice.
Yeah, right? So, we were both in Montreal, his tour manager is like, "We can get you in." Then he's like, "Dave wants to hang out after." And I was like [sports-crowd-style cheering], so we all hung out. It was super nice.
So obvious question, next. What about future Ryley Walker music? Are you able to write on the road? You need time off?
I don't know. Now that I'm off of heroin, honestly it's just like I'm taking everything really slow. I used to feel the need to put everything out all the time, good or bad. But I'm just kind of happy to take life as it comes, which I have never done before ever so I'm really excited to just take things slow right now and we'll see what comes of it.
Deafman Glance and The Lillywhite Sessions are out now via Dead Oceans. Ryley Walker Presents... Imaginational Anthem Vol. 9, a curated collection of some of Walker's favorite guitarists, is out this Friday, September 20th via Tompkins Square. And later this year on November 8th, Thrill Jockey will release Little Common Twist, a collaboration between Walker and jazz musician Charles Rumback.