HAVE A BEER WITH TALL WALKER
Tall Walker is a three-piece indie rock faction from Chicago, IL with a sound that is pop sensible and rock friendly. Brought to life by Chicago transplants Nick Bays and Chris Hershman, Tall Walker spent most of 2012 in the fetal stages. With the addition of Ben Johnson on drums the trio has since recorded a four-track EP, played multiple shows at venues in Chicago and now, they're building a lot of buzz in both the Windy City and Bays’ home state of South Carolina. We drank some beers at Rocking Horse Bar and chatted about their debut EP, the beauty of a three piece and why Chicago is the perfect place to build their fan base.
The Bar: Rocking Horse Bar
Drinks of Choice: Bourbon // Evan Williams (Nick Bays, guitar and vocals), Old Fashioned (Chris Hershman, bass), Hot Green Tea (Ben Johnson, drums)
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: Let's start with the band's history. How long have you been together?
Nick Bays: We've been together since January 2013.
Chris Hershman: We were writing music together, maybe six to eight months before that, just Nick and I.
Nick: But not as Tall Walker. It didn't have a name yet.
Chris: Yeah, it didn't have a name, so we had been writing for a while but we kind of officially started playing together in the beginning of 2013.
Kristen: Are you all originally from Chicago?
Chris: I'm from Indiana, Nick’s from South Carolina and Ben’s from Nebraska.
Kristen: Interesting. So you’re not Chicago natives. What brought you guys here in the first place?
Nick: I went to school about an hour south of here, so I had been in Illinois for about four years. I had been up to the city and I randomly ran into Chris hanging out one time. We got to talking and he was like, "Hey, you look like you play music. Do you play music?" I did, so we started playing together. I would drive up for a weekend and hang out. I moved home back to South Carolina for a little bit the summer after I graduated in 2012, but through a lot of conversations with Chris, we decided we should be in a band. So, I just moved up here and we did it.
Kristen: Was being in a band something you had always considered?
Nick: It's something that I've always really been into. I started playing guitar when I was around ten and grew up singing. My family is pretty musical. I played a lot back in South Carolina in the music scene and had bands growing up. When I met Chris, we had a lot of mutual interests and played each other a lot of these old demos we had and it was like, "Okay, I like what you're throwing down." It felt like a fit. It ended up evolving into a lot of late nights, just hanging out at his apartment and playing guitar. It just felt right. I took a leap and moved up here and I think it's been working out pretty well for us.
Kristen: What about you, Ben?
Ben Johnson: I'm from Nebraska, but I actually moved to Chicago for a job in trading. My undergraduate degree was in investment science. That was a while ago now, but that’s why I came here originally. I was always looking for a reason to get out of Omaha and into a bigger city. I was looking at New York, maybe L.A., maybe Chicago...and Chicago was the best offer I got out of school, so I came here and I traded. I always played music, too. Actually, I met Chris pretty early on in coming to Chicago and we were kind of jamming together. Never really officially in a band, but jamming. And then Nick came along and it's been happily ever after.
Chris: I was working in a store and had the opportunity to transfer to Chicago. Over these past seven years, I met these two dudes and I don't know, it just kind of came to a point where it felt like the right people to do this with. This is our first band with each other. I played with Ben for a little bit, I played with Nick a little bit, and we realized, "Why aren't we all playing together?" Nick and I took road trip together with Ben, and when we got back we were like, "Why aren't we playing with Ben Johnson?" That's when we decided we were going to start a band.
Kristen: It's always interesting to me to hear the story behind bands. I know it's a cliché question, but I always wonder whether or not a band sort of naturally falls together. It's cool when that happens and it's an organic process.
Nick: I think we definitely feel that way. It is really funny how it worked out, with all of us just jumping in together.
Kristen: You guys put out an EP together last year. What was that creative process like?
Chris: The EP was released in December of 2013. It took us about a year to come out with these four songs. We wanted people to know what we were about. But when we got into the studio, the songs shaped into something that was bigger than we anticipated. We realized we were onto something really good, so we slowed things down, took our time and really developed those four songs. Over a couple of months we really honed in on the recording process. I would say in that process is where we found and developed a lot of our sound and started making fundamental decisions on what we were going to sound like through that collection of songs. We're happy about the way the EP came out and I think it's a very strong indication of who we are.
Kristen: It's really cohesive, too. I was surprised that this was your first EP together, and I was also surprised that you only came together as a band in the last year. To me, it sounds like you’ve been together for a while. I think there was a really clear direction with the songs on that EP.
Chris: Honestly, it's a combination of a lot of similar musical tastes. I think we have a lot of years of playing under our belts and by keeping it smaller—by limiting it to the three of us to write the music and play—it really helped move the process along more smoothly. I think we were able to face less resistance. We were able to make something that was really us, and I think it makes a louder sound that way.
Nick: And I think writing as a three piece, you have one person on each of the core instruments that's really guiding the actual sound. So, for the structural integrity of the songs, writing with a three piece just works really, really well. It's a really cool process for me as a writer—and it's actually new for me, because a lot of the other bands I would just bring ideas to the table or already had an idea of what I wanted in my head. With Tall Walker, I'll generally bring an idea to the table, whether it's a guitar line or a chord or lyrics or a melody or whatever, and develop it with these two guys right out of the gate. With a three piece it's really cool because nothing really gets in the way of the other instruments too much. You don't have a lead guitarist who might be shredding all over the vocal line. I think that’s what really gives the EP such a cohesive feel, because we write with that mentality. We want these songs to transfer really, really well live. It worked out nicely.
Kristen: And you’re working on new stuff. How is that taking shape?
Nick: The direction of the new stuff we’re writing now is going to embrace a lot of the things people like about the EP, in the sense of it being very accessible. It's pop sensible but rock friendly. We’ve definitely still kept that character with the new songs, but they’re just a little more grown up. Not that the EP isn't mature musically or content-wise, but you can sort of trace our progression as a band and where our heart is with these new songs.
Chris: I think it expands on where the EP left off...There isn't a lot of space on the EP. You listen to it, it’s really quick and then it's done and you're back at the beginning. I think the upcoming songs are going to have a lot more to digest. I'm excited about expanding on the new sound.
Kristen: Where did you record the EP?
Ben: Steve Shirk's studio, SHIRK Studios, over in Ukrainian Village. He's got a great space. He actually had just moved there when we started working with him on the EP, so it was kind of cool to get to explore the space with him as a band and see him exploring it, too. That led us into some really cool sounds we wouldn't have found if we weren't all working together in that exploratory space.
Chris: I would say it was Shirk's first studio album that he produced in that space, so yeah, it was both a challenge for us as our first album as a band, and he was pushing really hard to make it excellent because he wanted to use it to show people what his new space could sound like.
Kristen: How did you guys find him?
Chris: I met him about five years ago. I was working in an office that was a couple floors above his old studio. One late night I had walked down the stairwell with a guitar on my back and he was walking up the stairs. He said, "Oh, you're a musician? I have a studio. You should come check it out." I said, "Oh, where's it at?" Turns out it was on the second floor. I had no idea. This was five years before I met Ben and Nick, so there was no real need to use his talents. I kept in touch with him and when it came time, I was like, "I'm gonna call that guy I met in the stairwell." Luckily, he's actually a very influential tastemaker in the music industry. He does a music blog called HearYa, similar to Audiotree, but there's a heavier emphasis on the recorded audio. He goes back and mixes it. The final product could be a well-mixed and released live album. It's so excellent. He does really good work.
Kristen: He worked with The Lumineers, didn't he?
Chris: He filmed The Lumineers in a session for his blog. And I actually worked with Shirk before Tall Walker was a thing. We filmed The Alabama Shakes music video together. So, that was another big reason why I wanted to work with him. I had some really good past work experience with him.
Kristen: And you're a filmmaker correct?
Chris: Yeah, for Chicago Music Exchange. It's part of the band in a sense. It's home base for me. I'm a musician and I work in a music store and I film live band music videos. We also have a company called Reverb.com that's similar to Ebay but it's just for selling musical instruments. I've been commissioned to basically do all the filmmaking for those companies and to supply the website with visual content.
Nick: And when Chris says it's a part of our band, it really is. It’s a local music store that has such a standard of excellence. They sell a lot of great gear that actually really influences our sound. We all trade and sell gear at CME and Reverb.
Chris: It's less of a retail store and more of an active community for musicians, which is why I really love being affiliated with it.
Kristen: That's awesome. What's your favorite piece of gear you've owned?
Chris: I owned a Firebird. I sold that thing. It's on the EP, but I play bass in the band and I'm originally a drummer, so there wasn't really a need for it. The thing went out of tune a lot and it was time to go. It was like, hey man, this EP isn't gonna pay itself. See ya, firebird.
Nick: My favorite piece is actually the guitar that I play now in Tall Walker. It's kind my dream guitar that I've always wanted. It's this G&L Telecaster that’s a natural blonde color. I had always wanted a blonde Telecaster since I was in high school. I ran into it and was like, "Wait, how much do you want for it?" I was like, "This is a steal. I can't pass this up." It's one of 25 that have been made of that model. I got a killer deal.
Ben: Honestly, I have this snare drum that's a 1970s Ludwig. It was actually just a steel marching drum originally. Marching drums these days have a lot of heavy hardware on them, but this one has really light hardware, so it looks like a normal snare drum. It's big, like 10 inches deep, standard width, but it's got a nice, fat pancake sound to it.
Chris: I don't know if it sounds as much like a pancake as it does like a rainy day on a wet piece of cardboard over a hollow garbage can.
Nick: I feel like it sounds like a desert eagle being shot into a mattress.
Kristen: My brother is a drummer. So he'll understand all of that. He's in his 30s now, but it's funny because my parents still have all of his old gear down in their basement.
Chris: Sounds similar to this guy's story. I visited this guy's house in the summer because I was doing a small photography tour. His parents put me up and they were like, "Oh yeah, we've got Ben's instruments down in the basement that he sells online.”
Ben: But seriously, when I moved to Chicago and got the offer, I was playing drums very heavily when I left. I had the whole basement full of drums and studio gear and crazy stuff. So, when I left I boxed everything up, labeled it and made an Excel spreadsheet with everything listed. When I got to Chicago, I put like hundreds of items on Ebay. Stuff would sell and I'd email my mom and be like, "Mom. B42, C67 and A21. Here's the address." So, she would drive it all over to FedEx and ship it.
Kristen: Oh man. You owe your mom.
Ben: I owe her a lot.
Kristen: You should give her a cut.
Chris: Or a call.
Nick: Call your mom, Ben.
Ben: This was a few years ago, so I've probably accrued interest. I need to figure out how to make good on that.
Kristen: What do you think of the local music scene?
Nick: I love it. Back in South Carolina, downtown Columbia is like four blocks of Chicago, so it's not even a big thing. But I got to grow up near a lot of venues and there's definitely a big sense of community in that music scene. All the bands know each other. What I like about the Chicago music scene is that it's definitely got that same feeling. The bands here are really, really loyal. And the music fans are, too. They'llcome out to shows and support local artists, which is really great. I think where Chicago really excels is that people really come out to shows.
Ben: I'm a numbers guy. So, the thing about Chicago is that the ratio is heavily in our favor as a band, as in the ratio of music fans to really solid bands that are giving it a go and putting out great material. I just think we have a leg-up in Chicago. We're working hard, we're putting out great stuff and people really, really appreciate that. They'll buy your music, they'll come out to your show and they’ll tell their friends about you. I spent a decent amount of time in Nashville and L.A. and there's great music there, too—awesome music—but it's so saturated. There's so much talent there that it's really hard to get people excited about something when you're competing against all these other artists. I love Chicago for that reason.
Chris: I think Chicago is the perfect place for Tall Walker right now. It's not overpopulated with bands trying to make it. If your band is good, you can get far and you can do well here. And I'm excited about that.
Kristen: You’ve played a ton of Chicago venues including Schubas, Lincoln Hall and Subterranean.
Chris: Yeah, we had a show at Lincoln Hall at the end of January. It was a Tall Walker sandwich. We played right in the middle. It was our second time playing at Lincoln Hall and it was really nice. The first time we played we opened for bands called The Dig and Leagues. We opened for Leagues at Schubas as well. We've been really blessed to hang out and play with really good bands. That's what we really want to keep going—playing with really good bands and giving our fans the opportunity to come out and see us live.
Kristen: What are you listening to now?
Nick: I kind of go between a couple of different genres. Right now I'm really into a band called Snowmine.
Chris: You took mine bro. That's the only thing I'm listening to right now.
Nick: To be fair though, I heard them like a year or so back. Chris actually brought them up to me and was like, "These guys are great." I also really like a band called Lucius and a band called Disclosure.
Ben: I'm not going to give the bands I gave in the last interview. I listen to everything, but I've been dipping back into Phantogram a little bit lately. A friend also just turned me onto this band called Bonobo and they've got an electronic element with some pretty sweet beats. Have you ever heard of them? I literally just started listening to them within the last week and I'm really digging it. And CHVRCHES, too.
Chris: I've been listening to this songwriter named Steven Fiore who Nick turned me on to because they came from the same music scene. When I first met Nick, he would play a lot of his covers. Most recently, we saw a live stream of him performing and I don't know...There was something about what I'm going through in my life that connected to a lot of what he sings about. So, it's kind of literally been the soundtrack of my life for the past week.
Kristen: I'm not familiar with him. What does he sing about?
Chris: It's borderline country. But mostly about falling in and out of love with girls. It's straightforward, well-written music that you knew started on an acoustic guitar and was maybe embellished with a few other players. I love it.
Kristen: Where did the band name Tall Walker come from?
Chris: It came from a band I was in called I Am a Nation. That name was based off of Obama's speech that every single person is important; each individual person speaks for this nation. Tall Walker was one of the songs on the I Am a Nation album. We never got around to releasing it. There was something about the name that we feel like we could grow into, and out of all the names it was the one that stuck for us.
Kristen: Do you mind me asking what the song was about?
Chris: It was about Nixon and the Watergate scandal actually. I do have to note, that song was about Nixon as a crooked man doing bad things, and that’s not necessarily the translation that we took on for Tall Walker.
Nick: We’re quite the opposite.
Kristen: So then tell me, what's the least rock-'n'-roll thing you've done in the past year?
Chris: I cut my hair off. I had really long hair. It was down to my nips, had it for about 10 years and I cut it completely off. I went out to L.A. and I saw all these rocker dudes with long blonde hair, still living in the '80s, you know. I grew up in the late '90s scene, and I wanted to know that I could detach myself from that era of time. I did.
Kristen: I can't picture you with long hair at all.
Chris: I'll get you a picture.
Kristen: How about you Nick?
Nick: I'm pretty much rock-'n'-roll all the time.
Chris: You're the lead, so that's allowed.
Nick: I think probably like asking my roommate for toilet paper when my toilet paper is out in the bathroom.
Kristen: Last question. What's the best advice you've ever received? It doesn't have to be related to music.
Nick: Never ever let your talent take you farther than your character can hold you there. That's always really resonated with me.
Ben: That’s a good one. I don't know if this is the best advice I've ever received, but it's kind of ironic how it worked out. I was in music school in college, and about halfway through I was struggling. The music program I was in was more of a classical training with some jazz—not pop or rock or anything that I was really passionate about. I was struggling with whether I should finish that out or get a business degree. I was having a conversation with my dad about it and he said, and this was just for my situation, but he said, "I think it's smart for someone in your shoes to follow the money." So, I went into finance to learn how to manage money and it's weird that it's coming full circle. I ended up going into a job in trading and all that, but through that, I find myself back doing music full-time. That kind of allowed me to get established and have the resources to take some chances in music that I would have never been able to take if I had been a starving artist. But I think you can apply that advice to every skill. Even if you apply it to us as Tall Walker. Follow the money doesn't mean we need to go out there and sell ourselves out and make music we don't believe in, but it means that we need to be smart about our financial decisions and set ourselves up to be able to do this for a long time.
Kristen: Not something I would expect to hear from someone in a band, but it makes sense.
Chris: We're glad he made that decision because we really enjoy having band meetings at his loft apartment [Everyone laughs]. The best advice I've ever been given is...when you first start dating someone, don’t talk about marriage or have the conversation until you're at least one full year into dating. It lets you work on what you need to do right now instead of getting too overwhelmed with possibilities of the future. Bringing marriage up too early can easily lead to asking too many questions too early on.
Kristen: I think that applies to life, too. Give it a year. You have no idea how something is going to pan out. If you doubt yourself, or if you force things...
Chris: It's been exactly a year for the most part that Tall Walker has been around, and it's so hard to make a decision based on where you're going to be in a year. So, I can see the same thing going for a relationship. You have no idea where your relationship is going to be in a year. It could be nowhere near where you want it to be, but giving things time and allowing people to become, grow and become the people they’re meant to be...giving them that time and being patient is really important.
Kristen: That applies to a band, too.
Nick: I think what he's trying to say is that the three of us are actually trying to get married.
Kristen: What’s next?
Chris: We're really excited about this new release. We recently came out with a music video with Nikon. Since I'm a filmmaker, they asked me to make a film with their cameras and we had the opportunity to go into basically any studio we wanted and film. So, we went into Steve Albini's studio Electrical Audio and filmed a song that's not on our EP. If you really enjoy the EP and you're looking for a little bit more, check it out. We had our friend Andy from Minor Characters step in on bass and I ended up filming the music video. It's all live and it's a good taste of what Tall Walker as an overall band sounds like. That's something we're really excited about right now: the fact that we were able to work with such a big company so early on just doing what we do. Art. We're more than a band. We're a group of artists. Tall Walker is the time in our week that we get together to come up with our collaborative art, and we're really excited about life right now. And Nikon—that whole feature—wrapped it all up for us.