In July 2012, as Wicker Park Fest wound down, Chicago guitarist Ryley Walker was riding his bike south on Damen below Division when a hit-and-run driver clipped him from behind. He woke up in the hospital. “I cracked my skull, and I’m pretty much deaf in my left ear,” Walker, 25, says with equanimity. “Luckily, I was still on my parents’ health insurance.” As he recuperated at home after a couple days in Illinois Masonic, he made a decision: Though he’d been throwing himself into music since he was a teenager, his ravenous, equal-opportunity ears had made it tough for him to stick to any one sound, instead leading him by turns into punk rock, noise, folk, free jazz, and anything else that caught his interest. Now, he resolved, it was time to start focusing.
When I first wrote about Walker for the Reader in May 2011, he’d just released The Evidence of Things Unseen via local cassette label Plustapes, which had earlier put out a tape of blown-out noise called Tiny Cancer that Walker made with Tiger Hatchery bassist Andrew Scott Young (under the name Wyoming). On Evidence he plays impressive albeit slightly derivative John Fahey-esque fingerstyle guitar, but if you went to one of his gigs at the time, you’d be more likely to find him strangling the strings of an electric at one of Myopic Books‘ improv sessions or using it to whip up an unholy din at underground space Mortville—he did most of his acoustic playing in private.
While in high school in his native Rockford, Walker discovered the polyglot music of former Chicagoan Jim O’Rourke. To this day he calls O’Rourke’s 1997 instrumental album, Bad Timing, an all-time favorite—its constantly transforming four-part suite, though rooted in a Fahey-esque fingerstyle approach, adds brass fantasias, drones, tape-music disruptions, and marches, among other things. But not till the past couple of years has Walker assimilated his own array of musical interests into a sound as unified as O’Rourke’s.
Now this onetime stylistic drifter, who’s never stuck for long to any clique or scene, is about to reach what could be his biggest audience yet: on Tuesday, March 31, high-profile indie label Dead Oceans releases his new album, Primrose Green. Its breezy, psychedelic folk-rock glides with the buoyancy of jazz, while extended front-line improvisation embroiders Walker’s soulful guitar excursions; the music’s spirit recalls the likes of Tim Buckley, John Martyn, and Tim Hardin. This weekend Walker performs at the genre-busting Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and on Monday he plays a local release party at the Chopin Theatre. His spring and summer will be filled with further appearances at prestigious stateside music festivals, among them Austin Psych Fest, Pitchfork, and Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival.
To paraphrase Joe Strummer’s lyrics, Walker’s career wasn’t born so much as it fell out. As a kid he was bored and unmotivated. “Rockford really sucks,” he says. “It’s a terrible place to grow up. There’s not much to do there. All I had was skateboarding and guitar.” Skateboarding came first for Walker, even though he says he was terrible. “I would ride and fall over, hurt my knee—I was the chubby little schoolkid running away crying.” Yet the culture appealed to him, and when he watched skate videos online, he started waiting for the end credits to find out who was playing the music that soundtracked them. As a teenager he got into punk and hip-hop.
“The whole time you grow up there, the vibe is such a bummer,” he says. “It’s ingrained in your head: ‘This place sucks, but we have Cheap Trick.’ There would be billboards all over town, like, ‘Cheap Trick is great.'” Walker and a friend spent hours at record shops, including one in nearby Loves Park called Musical Memories that was open for only two hours one Saturday a month. He talks nostalgically about shop clerks who turned him on to records. “I think everyone has one of them,” he says. “Someone you stumble into but have no connection to, yet they become your musical mentor.”
At 17, Walker left Rockford and moved to Chicago, enrolling at Columbia College in fall 2007. He pursued television writing, and he lasted one semester. “I’m not good at college,” he says. “My brain is too insane for it.” He transferred to UIC, but after another semester or so he dropped out, never to return.
Walker’s interest in Chicago’s underground music scene ate into the time and attention he was willing to give to school. “I was going to Heaven Gallery, Enemy, Elastic, all these places, and I’d be out until four in the morning,” he says. “How was I supposed to go to college? Music definitely ruined my life.”
At first Walker stuck mostly to psychedelic noise on electric guitar, though he admits that his enthusiasm outstripped his aptitude. Friends suggested he focus on acoustic guitar, but because he felt like an odd man out bringing it to shows, he rarely played it in public. That changed when he first saw Virginia fingerstyle wizard Daniel Bachman, at a Mortville show in 2009. “It was really cool to see him, because in my mind it seemed like fingerstyle guitar was for old people,” he says. “It felt weird that I didn’t know anyone my age doing it.”
Bachman remembers meeting Walker at Mortville. “After I was done, he came up to me drinking this big beer and said, ‘I thought you were going to fucking suck, but you were all right. Do you wanna get pizza tomorrow?’ And we did.” The two became fast friends, and in 2011 they recorded a collaboration for Plustapes called Of Deathly Premonitions. They’ve toured together frequently over the past five years, and Bachman even came along when I met Walker for our interview at the Logan Square Intelligentsia—he was on the road himself, and he’d been staying with Walker between gigs in town.
By the time of his bike accident, Walker had already begun to pull away from solo fingerstyle guitar in favor of loose-limbed folk rock, though his music still contains elements of both. “In 2012, I think, he seriously started writing songs,” says Bachman. “The British stuff he dug into hit harder because he started playing in less typical American picking patterns. Makes it hard for me to play with him now, but it sounds great. He’s really capable of playing a lot of different styles, though—if he wanted to play like Billy Gibbons, he could.”
Walker added his own singing to his music and began playing with jazzy rhythm sections—both appear on last year’s All Kinds of You (Tompkins Square), his first widely distributed recording. As he admits, though, he was still working through some hero worship—you can hear a bit of Davy Graham here, some Bert Jansch there. His singing, though a huge improvement over what I’d heard him do live in 2012, feels measured and self-conscious. “I think the last record was shit,” he says, “like I was wearing masks.”
Not long after All Kinds of You came out last spring, Walker’s present working band began to coalesce—he’s enlisted drummers and bassists here and there, but his core sidemen are guitarist Brian Sulpizio (Health & Beauty) and keyboardist Ben Boye (a regular collaborator of Will Oldham). Boye accompanies Walker’s acoustic guitar with dreamy arpeggios and driving lines, while Sulpizio adds probing, tightly reined-in electric leads.
Walker had been touring extensively in the U.S. and Europe, solo and with the trio, when in May 2014 he and the band met Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas) for a session at Ben Balcom’s Minbal studio in Humboldt Park. They made Primrose Green in two days, including overdubs and mixing, joined by upright bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly to become a quintet. Rosaly had never played with Walker before entering the studio, but that didn’t slow anyone down: “I feel Ryley hired everyone in the band because he has faith in our instincts,” he says. “When we recorded, he didn’t give me instruction on how things should feel or sound. He let me be me without any hindrance or guidance. I was free to make choices compositionally, with the momentum and color.” Rosaly and Hatwich enhance the jazzy spring of the music, making its connections to Tim Buckley’s most expansive work more obvious.
Buckley pushed his folk-oriented songs into the stratosphere, working with jazz-bred musicians such as guitarist Lee Underwood and vibist David Friedman, whose advanced sense of harmony and sophisticated improvisational skills helped him turn his pretty melodies into soul-searching excursions—his collaborators let him get lost in the chord changes. Walker doesn’t yet sing with Buckley’s freedom or clarity, but he’s clearly found a similar comfort zone with his band. When vibist Jason Adasiewicz—one of the guests on the album, alongside violist Whitney Johnson, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and others—drops his shimmering chords over the propulsive groove of “Summer Dress,” the Buckley connection is unmistakable. Walker seems to be moving beyond those similarities, though, embracing a more visceral openness, with everyone improvising at once yet hanging on to the thread of the song.
“I witnessed the only real ‘rehearsal’ for the full band the day before the recordings took place—it seemed to click pretty well,” says Crain. “When we actually were tracking it was like magic: the tones were great, the energy was amazing, and everyone was super relaxed, playing really well off one another.”
In the studio, Walker was still finishing some of his lyrics, and he and the band hatched new arrangements on the fly. “The songs were sketches when we went in,” he says. “I love it when a song becomes a living, breathing thing. In the studio those guys helped write the songs. My level of confidence is much higher, and there’s no longer much second-guessing about the music. We all understand each other, and if something doesn’t work it’s not a big deal.”
Earlier this month, when Walker played at Schubas on a tour with Kevin Morby, his band extended just about every song, adding lengthy introductions and stretching out instrumental sections. The kernel of the pastoral title track, for instance, remained intact, but the musicians turned it into a trippy epic. “The band thrives on spontaneity,” he says. “The songs are never really done with a band like this—you have sketches, but they constantly change. Every night is different, and that’s really exciting. How many beers did you have, how many beers did you not have, is your girlfriend pissed at you, are you cool—anything can affect the songs.”