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“It’s Nice to Be Alive and Making Music”: Ryley Walker Is Back and Putting in the Work

The virtuosic guitarist and Twitter funny man discusses two years of sobriety, Genesis, and his excellent new album, ‘Course in Fable’

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Content warning: This article discusses substance use and mental health.

When I reach Ryley Walker by phone earlier this week, the first thing I notice is the sound of birds chirping. The 31-year-old Chicago native and preternaturally gifted guitarist is speaking from his temporary home in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he has plenty of space and a lot of nature to take in. At this stage of his life, that opportunity for tranquility serves him well—he recently celebrated two years of sobriety, and he’s moved beyond the self-proclaimed “sad bastard” (yet strikingly beautiful) music that captivated the indie world with 2018’s Deafman Glance. But before the pandemic shut down much of the music industry last year, Walker had never considered relocating to such a serene setting as Western Massachusetts.

“I was in New York City for a few years,” he says. “I moved there so I could go see a killer show every night and play music with the coolest people in the world and do all the cool New York things. You can still get a really good lo mein there and stuff, but is it worth $1,400 a month? So I moved up here where it’s way cheaper. And I’m pretty cool laying low.”

Walker’s tone matches his words. He speaks warmly throughout our hourlong conversation, alternating between gentle self-deprecating sarcasm and wide-eyed earnestness, all with a certain Midwestern charm. He’s extremely funny—something anyone who follows him on Twitter would expect. (Come for the Sigur Rós fanfic, stay for the harsh truths about SXSW.) He’s also open, as willing to discuss his love for Dave Matthews Band as he is the plight of the pandemic-era musician. But mostly, he’s eager to talk about his new album out Friday, one that finds the troubadour exploring a new genre for him: prog fucking rock.

Course in Fable, Walker’s fifth proper solo LP, offers a markedly different listening experience than Deafman Glance. While the earlier release was folky, dronelike, and punctuated by lines like “It’s not very fun / Being a fun person,” Course in Fable is immediately vibrant and, well, fun. Produced by John McEntire of the legendary Chicago post-rock outfit Tortoise, the album incorporates synthesizers and vibraphones seamlessly alongside Walker’s virtuosic playing. Over seven songs—five of which stretch past five minutes—he and his bandmates shuffle through tempos and movements, often sounding like the world’s best working jazz-fusion group. But beyond all the heady music-nerd bait, Course in Fable finds a groove in ways his previous albums rarely did. Opener “Striking Down Your Big Premiere” is pure AM Gold, while single “Axis Bent” stomps along like a long-lost Steely Dan hit, with Walker’s soaring, smooth voice beckoning the listener. The new album is quite possibly his best work to date. At the very least, it represents a major evolution for Walker, who prepared more for Course in Fable than he ever had for a solo album.

“The music on this record is stuff I had always aspired to do, but I was still hiding behind influences, or just wasn’t tapping into any potential, and just going along with the motions,” he says.

Between the bird chirps earlier this week, Walker offers his thoughts on the new record and a whole lot more, including the tao of the used CD and how he’s worked to get sober. He also addresses the most burning topic on rock Twitter: whether the guy from Eve 6 has taken over his corner.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Is Course In Fable actually a prog record?

You know that episode of Family Matters where Steve Urkel goes in the machine and becomes cool?

Stefan Urquelle.

Yeah. It’s like the Stefan Urquelle of prog records. I feel like I went into a machine and I came out with a bald ponytail and now I’m a prog artist.

That’s beautiful. How did you come to that?

I’ve just made these cyclical folky records for years, which is fun, and I’m grateful to have done them. But I just kind of stay in one chord and sing verses and stuff. I wanted to try something different. I’ve always liked prog rock, but that’s kind of been mostly what I’ve listened to in the past few years. Not like in a smart, brainy sense. I’m not some accomplished, amazing musician. I don’t know how to read music. I’m really an idiot. I’ve just been influenced by all that more so than singing about the shire and stuff like that. I wanted to move on to finding gnomes in the forest on a magical mountain.

You’ve brought up Genesis a bunch on Twitter and in interviews. How did you get into them?

Well, I’m 31 years old, so I definitely wasn’t there. I remember seeing the stupid music video for “I Can’t Dance.” And Phil Collins is a classic-rock radio staple. I guess I got into them maybe in my early 20s. I was dollar-bin shopping and the guy was like, “Selling England by the Pound is pretty far out and good.” Where I thought of them as more of a joke, or a dad band. I’ve found a lot of creativity and innovation and great sense of humor in their music. It’s not like you have to have a thesaurus. It’s not prog with a capital P. It’s pretty innovative and magical in its own sense. They made a bajillion dollars doing that.

You tweeted that they had the perfect streak of albums from 1970 to 1980, which I think would pretty much make you the anti–Patrick Bateman, in a sense. Do you have love for stuff like Invisible Touch?

I got love for the entire catalog, man. Invisible Touch is hilarious at points, but I think they were earnest about the whole thing. They probably had a lot of yes men in their corner, but there’s a lot of great songs in there for sure.

What was the process like recording your new album?

Before, I just had half-baked ideas and went into the studio and hope they work, which has produced incredible art throughout history. But I’m not one of those people who can do my best work in those circumstances. I think I waste a lot of time and money previously just throwing shit at a wall and seeing if it sticks. This time around I demoed the songs, which I had never done. All the words and the music were written. And then I did a second round of demos with the band in Chicago. And so the whole band knew the songs. And then once we went in the studio it was pretty easy, actually.

You worked with John McEntire from Tortoise on this. You’ve cited them as a big influence in the past. Was it hard not to go all Chris Farley Show on him?

I had met John in Chicago over the years. I don’t think we’re really tight friends or anything, but I had known John and always said hi. But I was always a crazy fanboy for sure. He’s a nice, humble, quiet guy. So he was always like, “What? OK. Yeah.” But getting to work with him was a dream come true.

What did he bring to the recordings that might’ve not been there in your previous work?

His recording style is so up front and hi-fi, and the references that I gave him were ECM jazz fusion records from the ’70s, where it’s all really bound and mixed, really clean. The production style is so clean. I love it. And that’s what I definitely wanted. I have great recordings of songs with tons of different engineers. Maybe it’s just the way the songs were—these drone-y folk things. But he really emphasized new direction in the music with all these chord changes and different parts, and carved out some really wonderful details in the quiet parts.

I hear that clean production you’re talking about on “Axis Bent,” which for my money is one of your best songs. Does it represent a new direction for you?

This is going to sound crazy to people playing music, but I had never changed chords before. I always stayed in key. It’s what I do to make drone-y folk music. So for there to be key changes and tempo changes in different parts is really the secret to any step forward I had. And it clicked really quick in the studio and everything. I think Ryan [Jewell] and Andrew [Scott Young], on drums and bass respectively, really drove that one home. And me and Bill [MacKay] just sort of dance on top of everything. I like that the guitar isn’t the thing pushing the songs—it’s this cohesive element and hodgepodge of everybody working together.

Course in Fable is your first album, in a traditional sense, that you’ve recorded since going sober in 2019. How did that change things for you?

The most obvious thing is I wasn’t fucked up. I was present. But in a deeper sense, my psyche and physical health of my brain could operate and make decisions and be more present. There’s a lot more gratitude in the music. I’ve been an egomaniac in my past, and just expect music to work because, “Hey, it’s me, and I can write a drone-y folk song and let’s do it.” But those ideas kept becoming more and more stale and bad. So it’s nice to be alive and making music. And the music is secondary to physical health at this point, so I think that just makes it better.

Congrats on two years, man. I believe I mentioned it to you, but I’m at five myself. I don’t know what your experience has been like, but in mine, it gets easier as it becomes more second nature.

Totally. It was hard at first, but you become farther and farther away from picking up, and things start to open up. I still am no guru and haven’t solved everything in my life, but I’m definitely more present and living in some sort of solution. It’s really nice.

You tweeted recently that you recommended for anybody struggling that they should find sober people and ask them what worked for them. What worked for you?

I went to a psych ward, and a lot of therapy, and I’m on medication. I go to these special meetings every single day, and I keep a sober network of people. I ran away from this thing for such a long time, so that willingness to get help was just the biggest thing. Eventually, I came around to realizing it’s totally possible to navigate life without substance of any sort.

Mental health and addiction, and how they relate to musicians, is back in the news a little bit right now. The Demi Lovato documentary just came out, and obviously she’s a megastar, but it affects musicians on every level. I’m curious about what resources you think musicians need that you wish you had earlier in life.

I feel like I chose everything that I did. Obviously, playing shows and touring, you get free beer and shit. But nobody forced me to guzzle 30,000 beers a night or put dope in my body. That was a choice I made for myself. And that’s a sickness that I was born with and never dealt with, and I had to seek out help on my own. I guess what saved me was that I knew sober people. Do I wish to God I had gotten sober 10 years ago? Yeah. Jesus Christ, that would’ve saved a lot of trouble. But I think making it more known that there are sober networks of people out there and help is out there.

There’s plenty of people in my life years ago that were like, “I’m sober, and I do things.” But I wasn’t willing at that time. So I guess just the general knowledge that it is possible to navigate the music business or play shows or whatever without these things.

How tough has the pandemic been as an independent musician?

I’m managing. I had stuff booked last year. I was going to make a decent chunk of change, and get to travel and play cool shows and all that. And when that went away, it’s like, “What’s my purpose?” So yeah, it sucked at first. There were a lot of questions about: What am I doing? What is this? Who am I? But I’m glad I had the tools to just keep managing. I’m fortunate that I’ve found I don’t really need to tour to stay happy. I’m pretty stoked to be at home. I feel obviously terrible for the industry and the world at large, but in my own life, staying home has become a blessing in disguise. I like my home life. I like downtime. I like the menial work of emails and pressing and producing records.

So I’m OK personally. But it was treacherous at first, and sometimes you have to deal with it one hour at a time. I wish to God for everybody else that shows would come back safely. It sucks for many bands I know who have put out awesome records in the last year to have to sit on their asses and watch the record come out and fade off into the ether. That’s tough, and that’s traumatizing in a way I’m sure for a lot of people. But I’ve been OK. I had to adapt. That’s why I started my own record label, Husky Pants Records. I was on Dead Oceans forever. We’re all still great friends, and I don’t have any good label drama or anything. No killer pull quotes shitting on the label or anything.

Around the time of Deafman Glance, you spoke a lot about not being interested in revisiting your earlier work, such as Primrose Green. How do you feel about Deafman Glance three years later?

I think that record’s pretty cool. It sounds a bit weird, and I wish maybe we mixed it a bit different or something. The songs are kind of sad bastard shit. That’s what I was feeling at the time, and I guess maybe I was true to that feeling and put it out there. But it’s not this sad bastard record that has any redemption arc to it. It just kind of was a sad fucking suicide note or something. And I feel like a much different person now, and I feel like I can make better songs with better lyrics and manage those dark feelings better.

You tweet regularly about CDs, whether it’s Discmans or dollar-bin finds. Do you really still buy CDs regularly?

Yeah, I do. I never stopped buying CDs, even in the late 2000s probably, which was the lowest low point of sales for CDs. I don’t know. I’ve always liked CDs. I grew up on them. And the reason I like them so much now is because they’re so goddamn cheap. I like to collect music a lot, and if you go to any record store in the USA and for a dollar, you can get the coolest music ever. So I always like to share that joy. It’s like, “Check it. I got all this sick music for five bucks.” I like to celebrate the dollar bin a lot, especially ’80s and ’90s indie rock stuff. It’s cool that people dump their collections and I get to reap the benefits of it.

I saw you mentioned Frank Black last week, but also R.E.M.’s Monster. What else are you finding the dollar bins these days?

If you go to any dollar bin, there’s always R.E.M. Monster, there’s also Frank Black Teenager of the Year, there’s always the Lemonheads Come on Feel the Lemonheads. Dollar-bin CDs are what got me into Teenage Fanclub when I was a teenager. I remember getting Sonic Youth Murray Street for a dollar a few years after it came out and being like, “Wow this is amazing.” So I have personal connections to dollar bins that are amazing. Maybe not the deepest cuts or anything, but just very profound experiences that record stores and dollar bins bring. I think dollar-bin CDs are pound for pound better than dollar-bin LPs.

Especially these days, right? You used to be able to find Rumors in the dollar bin, you could find all these records. And now records like that go for like 15, 20 bucks a pop.

Usually, it’s just Hotel California by the Eagles, or The Very Best of Bread or something. I’m sure there are outliers in there, and I’m sure there’s times where you can find a sick one. But dollar-bin LPs are totally dead. Whereas dollar-bin CDs are thriving. And I encourage anybody and everybody to join the gang of dollar-bin CDs.

That could work against you though, because if we do have a used CD renaissance, that might push those albums out of the dollar bin.

You’re very right. But right now, we’re at the crux of it. We’re ahead of the rest of society. When we all live on Mars and have spacesuits and kids are getting dollar CDs, we can say, “Oh, I found that fucking Modest Mouse CD for one dollar in my childhood.”

How did The Lillywhite Sessions—where you covered a collection of lost Dave Matthews Band songs—come about?

Well, I like Dave Matthews. I always did. Even in the height of indie rock in high school and my early 20s or whatever. I always flew the flag for Dave. And Dave Matthews music is generally not liked by my peers, or people I hang out with. But I was never quiet about it. I was always like, “Man, Dave fucking gets dark, and it’s real.” At the end of the day, it’s fun.

So, me and Eric Deines, who works at Jagjaguwar, he’s also a true-blue Dave head. He brought the idea to me. He’s like, “What if I got you some money to re-record The Lillywhite Sessions?” And I was like, “Yeah, OK. Sure.” We took the songs, my friend Andrew [Scott Young] and I, who plays on the record, and the new one, because he likes Dave too. We have all these great memories of seeing Dave when we were kids. So we just put him through our lens, which is weird Chicago improv meets indie rock or whatever.

What came out was our rendition of The Lillywhite Sessions, which I think is sick. Obviously there’s context when you listen to it. You have to know what it’s about in order to truly dig it. Like European people, because Dave isn’t big over there, who’ve heard it are like, “Yeah, it’s cool, but what’s the point of it?” Well, you guys weren’t blessed with having the caravan come to your town once every summer.

What do you think the perception of DMB is now?

It seems like the music business has ebbs and flows right now with pop and renaissances with artists. I think about a band like Steely Dan, who’s the most loved and respected band ever. For good reason. They’re great. But that shit was like lounge music and hated by punks and indie rockers for generations. But maybe a bit younger are like, “I don’t know. This shit’s sick.” So maybe that was the marketing of the Dave Matthews thing. It’s like, “Hey, he’s actually kind of sick.”

And Dave’s heard it, right?

Yea, I have a friend who works at his management company, and she passed it off to Dave. I got a really nice email back. I wasn’t expecting him to hear it or ever hear of me. I didn’t make the record seeking that out. I imagine he’s got a lot of things to do. But he really liked it. He was like, “This is sick, dude.” He was really confused by it, and I think obviously was curious about my motives. But he’s a really sweet guy, and I got to meet him. I went to one of his concerts because we were both in Montreal at the same time. He’s so cool. And he’s a down-ass dude. He likes great music. He can talk deep records all night. And we had a blast. And we text every now and then. We don’t hang out or anything, but we keep in touch. He’s a cool-ass motherfucker, and I think for the remainder of my days I’ll go fucking shake my ass to fucking “Tripping Billies.”

You’re one of the funniest follows in music Twitter. Do you find it amusing, silly, kind of stupid, whatever else that people may follow you for your tweets as much as they do for your music?

That happens a lot actually. People are like, “Oh, I thought you just had a Twitter. I didn’t know you made music.” At times, I look at it too much. But I don’t take myself seriously. And yeah it’s a bit of a poison, and ego boosting when you say the right thing and get all these likes. There’s no doubt it’s a disease on society. But overall, it’s just I use it to be stupid, and I’ve always been kind of annoying and loud, and now I guess I have a platform for it where people actually want to see it. And that can be pretty funny.

The Eve 6 guy became a thing on Twitter late last year for tweets about music and touring that felt like they were in the same vein as yours. I have to ask: Who’s funnier, you or the Eve 6 guy?

Well the Eve 6 guy is pretty funny. And I guess he has more street cred on being a wash-up, because that was kind of my bit. Like, “Oh yeah, I’m the middle font of the festival post.” But Eve 6 invented the middle font on a poster. I like to think I’m the Nirvana of music Twitter and he’s the Eve 6 of music Twitter.

I read once that when you were younger, you wanted to be a TV writer. If you play your life out again, do you end up as a musician? Do you end up a TV writer? A comedian?

I actually went to college for TV writing. I went to this school that accepts everybody. It was a dumb art school. I think I didn’t have the drive at the time. At the time it was so much easier to go to a show and play noise guitar rather than get jokes in on a live comedy show or a sketch show or something. So I went with what was available and more exciting at the time, and that was music. Had I done it all over, I don’t know. I was completely directionless at 18, as everybody is. But I don’t think I’d change a thing.

Given the state of both streaming and music nowadays, I think it would be easier to get jokes in on a TV show than actually play a noise show.

Yeah. So if anybody wants to hire me to punch up a Family Feud episode or something, I’m here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.