Photo: NIck LaRoche / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Leaving Room: Ryley Walker and Charles Rumback on Collaboration and Listening

Little Common Twist, the latest improvisatory album from Ryley Walker and jazz drummer Charles Rumback, sounds like listening. The two musicians are locked in intuitive communion that confines neither guitar nor drums to their pigeonholes. We ask them how they do it and why.

Little Common Twist
Charles Rumback and Ryley Walker
Thrill Jockey
8 November 2019

“Playing with Charles is like playing a nice slow game of cards,” says Ryley Walker, when asked what he likes about his collaboration with Chicago jazz drummer Charles Rumback. “The way we play music feels like two old-timers sitting in a park somewhere just playing cards, watching traffic go by.”

“The give and take represent our own personalities,” Walker adds. “We both listen a lot, and reaction is a big focus of the music. When one of us has something to say in the music, the other one reacts. This fluidness of motion. Both of us are really good at planting seeds for one another. That, to me, is the sign of a great working relationship, how we both approach it with delicacy and caution. We’re reluctant to push the song into someplace it doesn’t want to go to.”

The Duo Comes Together

Walker and Rumback both made their mark in a thriving Chicago improvisational scene, though Walker has since made a string of gorgeous jazz-into-folk, song-based albums and moved to New York City. Their partnership began nearly a decade ago when Dustin Drase, who had put out one of Walker’s earliest albums on his cassette label PlusTapes, gave Rumback a tape.

“Dustin had put out some of Ryley’s weird experimental stuff, and he was raving to me about Ryley,” says Rumback. Soon after, the two met at Cole’s, a Logan Square bar with music, and Walker suggested they play together. Rumback sat in on sessions for Walker’s three-song debut EP, The West Wind on Tompkins Square, the first of the song-based recordings that earned Walker comparisons to Tim Buckley and Bert Jansch. “After that, we started just doing some duo things, and it was really fun, so we just kind of kept with that,” adds Rumback.

It comes through even in casual conversation that the two musicians appreciate each other. “Charles plays like a combination of Jon Bonham and Alvin Queen, some hybrid you know? Because he has such a big drum sound but approaches it with this kind of Blue Note jazz precision,” Walker answers when asked what he likes about his partner’s playing.

Rumback says, “What I like about playing with Ryley is that even though he’s not an improvised jazz guy necessarily, he’s comfortable just going for it, and he will just go for it, and he listens, and we trust each other when we play. We can push each other.”

Walker and Rumback recorded their debut Cannots for Secretly Canadian in 2016. Released on Record Store Day, it passed largely under the radar, though video for “Dhoodan”, the single, showcases a similar languid, collaborative feel. Says Rumback, “When we did the first one, we had just started improvising together. We were just dipping our toes into the water.”

Walker also sees Cannots as a working draft. “I haven’t listened to it since it came out, but I think that one was a bit more ad hoc and kind of, hey, we’re buddies, let’s go into the studio,” he says. “Whereas this one had a bit more of a clear vision.”

All Vibe and Feeling

Little Common Twist was recorded in bits and pieces over two years just north of Chicago, as Walker and Rumback worked around their separate schedules. “I have to thank Charles for pushing it more and more. I was kind of lazy. He was the one who really kept it going. I felt very invested because of his passion for it, and I got more on board. His energy kind of carried it. It was amazing,” says Walker.

When they did get together, though, the work was concentrated. “The sessions we did were so fast. We did the record in two or three sessions, but I think it was like three or four hours each. Not long,” Rumback observes.

There was also not much verbal discussion of what the two musicians were going to do next at any point. “There was never a concept. We just went into the studio and that’s what happened,” says Rumback. “There was no preparation for this thing with Ryley; zero.”

“Not having a plan has always been the best plan,” adds Walker, “That’s the joy of working with someone like Charles who’s such a great improviser. It’s all vibe and feeling, as cliched as that sounds.”

Rumback and Walker both give credit to John Hughes, the recording engineer, for shaping and capturing the sound. “John, the recording engineer, is such a talented guy and has such a great ear for music. He’s one of the best listeners I know,” says Walker.

“With all these records with Charles, I was just trying to make guitar sound like the Tom Verlaine Warm and Cool record. I really like that record. That’s kind of who I try to rip off … with a lot of respect. I love that record Warm and Cool and also Around that came out on Thrill Jockey in the 2000s. It was close to what I was going for … and really still has that angular Chicago sound.”

“I think the biggest part of it is getting comfortable leaving space, which I think is tricky sometimes for drummers or guitarists,” says Rumback. “When you have a rhythm that you’re carrying, it’s kind of scary to just kind of leave a hole in it, because you think you could lose that momentum. But I think when you’re playing with the right people and you’re listening right, you find those kind of spaces to pass in between each other. Ryley’s awesome at that. Ryley’s really good at letting a really simple idea patiently develop.”

Living Inside the Sound

Walker’s favorite part of Little Common Twist comes in “Self Blind Sun”. And as he explains why, you can start to see his vision for the record taking shape. “I’ve always been a fan of Gastr Del Sol and David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, and that song wears that sort of Gastr Del Sol sound,” he explains. “And I love the way John recorded the guitar. It sounds like you’re living inside it. Do you know that Derek Bailey record, Ballads? That’s a really wonderful — it’s a covers record, it’s Derek Bailey approach to covers like ‘My Funny Valentine’ or whatever. But the sound feels like you’re living inside the guitar. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the room. It feels like you’re a little tiny action figure stuck inside the guitar. I really love that.”

The song is in some ways, the key to understanding Little Common Twist. “That song is the absolute epicenter of action and reaction and how two people play together on that record,” he says. “It’s really wonderful how we communicate on that song. It’s bleak and it’s really pretty and the pretty elements are so far out and psychedelic and mysterious. That song, to me is, my favorite.”

It’s crucial, he adds, that the song isn’t just pretty. “I grew up in the Midwest, and everybody in my family looks like a minor league baseball catcher, but they all have these shining personalities,” he observes. “As weird as it sounds, I think midwestern music always has a sense of humor to it. And especially the way I play music and approach it and the way Charles plays music and approaches it and the way we approach it. And sort of minimal and pretty as the record might be, I think everybody in Chicago plays with a sense of humor. The weight of the world isn’t involved in the music. The relationship between the two people playing the music outshines the actual performance sometimes, and that comes through in records and that’s a wonderful thing.”

“Chicago always has a friendlier approach to music, especially improvised things. And I love when that comes through in records, you can tell that people are really enjoying being there with other people, You can tell there’s a sort of joy and you can tell that people like to have fun with other people,” he adds.

Walker scored critical raves for his last three song-centered albums, Primrose Green from 2015, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung from 2016, and 2018′s Deafman Glance, but Little Common Twist leads him back to the improv roots of his early years in Chicago.

Back to Improvising

“Before I started writing the song records, I was mostly into improvised music. I felt like I was pretty okay at it in my early 20s. I’m better now, but in my early 20s I wanted to be like Derek Bailey,” says Walker. “When I go back to improvised music, it spikes some really great nostalgic feelings.”

“I’m mostly just focused on improvised music now,” he continues. “I don’t have too much interest in writing songs anymore.”

Knocking Down Icons

If you’ve ever gone to see Walker live or checked in on his Twitter feed, you’ll know that he’s often rudely funny, irreverent (his “Fuck this guy” reaction to hearing Leonard Cohen for the first time, reported by Vice, earned him death threats), scatological and silly. That’s partly just the way he is, but also a reaction to the worshipful, over serious (at least to him) coverage that his song-based albums earned.

“I’ve never been one to take myself very seriously. I think people want me to be more serious. Which I am. I take music very seriously. But I’ve also always been incredibly obnoxious, even going back to the lunch table in middle school,” he explains. “That’s why I feel so weird about the old song records I made, even though there’s some cool music on them. The whole persona was a bit forced and that kind of got to me. It’s hard to complain, because there was a lot of success with those records and I paid my rent with them. But I really hate the idea of the whole serious persona. Like, hey, remember the groovy 1960s, man? That kind of bothered me a bit. I’m really doing my best to push away from that. And I’m really happy to have some new-found freedom in not being that, in not being a promotional image on a record sleeve. That was a bit of a bummer for me personally. People kind of expect me to be that. But that’s 100% not who I am.”

Asked if his goofball personality takes attention away from his music, Walker replied, “I sure hope it doesn’t take away because I spend a lot more time saying stupid shit than I do playing music.” But, he adds, it’s not an act. “That’s kind of my real personality. I like that people come to the shows expecting to laugh. I might not always be that funny or deliver on point. I’m not a professional comedian by any means, but I think it’s wonderful that people come in expecting to laugh. That’s a gift. It’s a real joy.”

A New Start in New York City

Both Walker and Rumback want to perform live together, though there probably won’t be any note-for-note recreations of Little Common Twist. Arranging a tour is difficult because Walker has been living in New York City lately, and he’s focusing more on his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction than on promoting records.

“Chicago to me is always the most creative and cool place and I learned everything I know there, but it was kind of time for me to go for a myriad of reasons, mostly drug addiction and trying to get my life a bit straight,” says Walker of the move. “It wasn’t like I was running away. It was just that I’d had my fill.”

So far, it’s going well. Walker is working and going to meetings and connecting with other musicians and people in recovery. He’s playing a lot of improvised music, some of it with post-rock innovator (and one-time Chicago guy) David Grubbs. He’s putting more structure into his life.

“When I moved, I was not in the best state of mind; it was not my best state of mind that got me out of there. But I’m in my best state of mind right now, and it’s really great. I’m grateful to be in New York. I really enjoy it. I have a great support network, musicians and other friends, that I love. And I love big cities, so I figured why not move to an even bigger city?”

New York is expensive and competitive, and you have to work hard just to stay even, but Walker says that’s part of the appeal. “I’m glad I moved there at age 30 rather than at age 21. I wanted to move there when I was a lot younger. But had I moved there when I was a lot younger, I would have really struggled. So, I’m glad I moved out there with some sense of balance. I’m definitely not a mature person, but I’ve gained some maturity so I wouldn’t be working there as a busboy at 10 different restaurants. I’m glad I moved out there with a bit more clarity and more goal-oriented.”