Noise

Modern folk hero Ryley Walker talks sobriety, Twitter persona and Genesis bootlegs

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Ryley Walker plays the Bunkhouse on December 5.
Photo: Evan Jenkins / Courtesy

If you've heard Ryley Walker's music but hang out on Twitter, you might have the 30-year-old Illinois native pegged wrong. "When I first came on the scene and got a record deal and some notoriety, it was this really quiet, folky Nick Drake sh*t—but that's never been my personality," Walker says. "So I guess Twitter is my actual personality coming through, for better or worse."

On December 5, the prog-folk troubadour, who has drawn favorable comparisons to Tim Buckley, Bert Jansch and yes, Nick Drake, stops by the Bunkhouse, where he'll open for Vancouver psych-rock outfit Black Mountain. (He's scheduled to go on at 8 p.m., so don't be late.) Walker spoke to the Weekly from his home in New York City.

You've played the Bunkhouse once before, back in 2015. Do you remember much about that? That was my first time ever being in Las Vegas, and I haven't been back since. It's kind of a tough place to tour, I think, but I'm dying to get back there. I remember the show was great, but I was more enamored by being in Las Vegas. I'd always wanted to go, since I was a little kid watching Vegas Vacation with Chevy Chase. I remember the show was good, and then I took mushrooms and went all over town and looked at lights and stuff. I had a blast. There's so much mystique there, and the locals are far out. It's probably the show I'm looking forward to the most.

You've been very open about your recent sobriety. Does Vegas present an extra challenge? Well, I'm in New York where it's the same deal. I'm an alcoholic and a recovering addict, so I have to adjust to the environment, instead of expecting the world to slow down to me. I've been touring a bit since I cleaned up, and it's been a total blast going around the world sober and being present in places like LA or San Francisco or Vegas. It's a gift, man. I'm finally living the life I've wanted to live for a long time. And to be more professional and play better for audiences—I get a lot of joy out of that.

I've gotten f*cked up in Vegas. I've gotten lit up in pretty much every corner of the world. It's like a bad movie I don't need to see again.

When I mentioned you were booked to play here again, one of our sports writers said you were a great Twitter follow—and that he hadn't heard your music. Does it seem weird that there are people out there who only know you through social media, rather than through your music? Yeah, people come up to me like, "I thought you were just a funny Twitter account." It happens a lot more as that account grows. I got on Twitter really late actually, like five years ago. I originally just got it because me and my friend would always make fun of bands and my friend was like, 'You've gotta do all this stuff on Twitter.'

Social media is pretty evil. It definitely hinders people from growing. But that being said, it's a lot of fun, and just being absurd on there kinda works out. I enjoy music, and I take it very seriously, but I don't take myself very seriously, and [my Twitter] is just an extension of that. It's an extension of the stupid jokes I've been making since I was in middle school.

I've listened to some of your live shows posted at NYCTaper.com, and your personality also comes through in your between-song banter. I use so many different guitar tunings, and when I was first starting out I would lose the crowd when I would tune the guitar. What better way to keep the crowd on your side than some sort of absurd entertainment? I hope people come and enjoy the music, but I know they'll love the banter.

Is it accurate to say you're also dedicated to making each show unique, rather than trying to come up with some perfect formula? I came from a noise underground, and the performances were always wild. Then when I started doing "sing songs" more, I used free jazz and noise musicians as my backing band, so that was always a given, leaving room for improvisation in the music.

I like that the personality and vibe of each day changes the show. When we have an eight-hour drive through a sh*tty snowstorm, there's this kind of dark energy in the set, and when we're all having fun and things are going our way in life, there's a happy joy kind of sound. Maybe a bad buffet in Vegas will affect the way I play that night.

How do you approach opening for Black Mountain—and playing mostly for their fans—rather than headlining and playing for your own? I don't think I sell enough tickets to headline Vegas, so it's great to open. I obviously give it my all, but the expectations are a bit lower as the opening band. We get 45 minutes each night, so it's kind of ideal. We're clocked out [early] instead of at 2 in the morning, so my mental health and physical health will be in peak performance mode.

I'm gonna be playing as a duo with my friend Ryan [Jewell], a free jazz drummer based in New York. I'm planning on jamming a lot and improvising and trying to write new stuff onstage. I think we're gonna let the music get super far out and get people ready to see Black Mountain.

Last year, you released an interpretive version of Dave Matthews Band's The Lillywhite Sessions album. I know you're a DMB fan, but did you choose it more for the material or because of its legend—having been rejected by RCA and never officially released? I really do enjoy that record. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so you couldn't really avoid Dave Matthews Band. I've always really unironically enjoyed it to this day, much to the dismay of my friends who are not into Dave Matthews. Even in my heavy indie rock snob years I've always been like, Nah, man, Dave rules.

The idea was originally to cover Dave Matthews songs, but I wanted to take it a step further and only do unreleased songs and B-sides. And then leveling up the absurdity, let's cover the entire unreleased Lillywhite Sessions. The whole thing is a bit performative, in that here's this indie rock person covering a rejected Dave Matthews record, which is on paper just crazy. But I think we pulled it off really well. I like the sounds we got out of it a lot.

Have you heard anything from Dave or his camp about your version? Yeah, he really liked it. Long story short I guess some people he worked with sent it his way, and he reached out to me. We've hung out, and we keep in touch a bit. He's a great guy, and his support means the world.

You've got a new collaborative instrumental album with Charles Rumback [Little Common Twist], but as far as proper Ryley Walker stuff featuring your compositions and lyrics, your latest LP [Deafman Glance] came out about 18 months ago. Safe guess the next one's in the works?

Absolutely. It'll be fun to road-test a lot of new stuff on this tour. More than anything these days I have a lot of time on my side, so I'm really grateful to take a lot of time and a lot of care writing. I'm learning to write songs in this new way, with a clear mind. So hopefully a lot of new material will come from this tour.

Is it strange to go back and listen to music you wrote in the past, now that you're more clear-headed in your approach? I try to live this life right now of not having too many regrets, but yeah, I listened to some records recently, and they're so damn self-deprecating and depressing. And I don't feel like that anymore. As far as writing goes, this is best way I've ever done it. It's a total gift. Some people would see not being able to have a substance as a burden, but I was gonna die. So every day I get to play guitar, sit in a van and eat gas station food, that's a victory for me.

Judging from your Twitter posts, you seem like a voracious listener. How do you consume music at this point—streaming, or do you prefer physical objects? Are you a collector or just a listener? I'm a big-time collector. I kind of slowed down on LPs, but I'm doing CDs again. I'll hit record stores on tour and go straight for the dollar bin. Like, I got every Built to Spill CD for a dollar the other day. I love the dollar bin CD surprises. So I've just been racking up CDs again.

My favorite music in the world right now is Genesis bootlegs, so I cruise Discogs for Genesis bootlegs all day.

I'm also out every night at a gig here in New York, always trying to find something new. There's a wealth of great improvised music and jazz music here in the city, so I'm never bored.

Since you brought up Genesis, you tweeted that you consider every Genesis album from Trespass to Duke to be perfect. Two-part question about that: Why stop at Duke? Because Abacab is a pretty strong album, too. And then you said everything after Duke was a solid B+ ... does that include Calling All Stations? Because I'm not sure I know anyone who likes that album.

I think it rocks, actually. I find gems in there all the time.

Obviously, the '70s period is just perfect. A Trick of the Tail is one of my favorites, front to back. Abacab is good. It's just the production .. it's just so confident. It's so Phil discovering leather jackets to me. The songs are good, but there's just this energy in there that's really just Phil singing in front of his receding hairline, like he can't accept it. It's great pop music, but it doesn't sound progressive to me.

That probably is where the prog officially came to an end, but I do think it's a lot better than We Can't Dance. We Can't Dance is a little rough.

RYLEY WALKER Opening for Black Mountain. December 5, 8 p.m., $18-$20. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-982-1764.

Tags: Music, Bunkhouse
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Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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