Singer-Songwriter Ike Reilly Emphasizes Quality Over Quantity

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Veteran singer-songwriter Ike Reilly has said he thinks his new album, Born on Fire, sounds like it could have been made “somewhere between the mid-’60s and the early 2050s.”
It’s a strange description but also somehow appropriate as the album of crisp power pop tunes sounds both retro and contemporary.

“There are bands like Pearl Jam — you listen to them and you know when that music was made,” says Reilly via phone from his Libertyville, Ill. garage. “Even when they play now, it sounds like [their music] was made in the ’90s. Without being a Stray Cats band, which I love, I was trying to walk the line. I was happy we found that place that the songs can only be judged on the songs and not on any movement or genre. Sonically and musically, hopefully it will transcend this specific time.”

He says songs such as the waltz-like piano ballad “Underneath the Moon” could have been written “any time.” And “Do the Death Slide!” has a ’50s sound but “nobody was writing about death then,” so it also defies time and place.

The album is a joint release between Rock Ridge Music and Tom Morello’s new label Firebrand Records. (Incidentally, both musicians hail from Libertyville, Ill. and the two have even toured together when Morello, the guitarist in hard rocking bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, has taken his folk-inspired Nightwatchman project on the road.) The album is Reilly’s first release on the label, and his longtime friend and Assassination guitarist Phil Karnats (Secret Machines, Polyphonic Spree) worked with Reilly and the band on production.

While he might not be a household name, Reilly is a real veteran who started playing in bands in the Chicago area in the late ’90s. He signed a major record label in 2001 and issued Salesmen and Racists on Universal Records, but that deal was short-lived.

“It was cool,” he says of the experience. “It came from nowhere. I had a big record deal. I had a record come out. I got dropped and didn’t have to give any money back. It was great. I was 37 or 38 when I got signed to a major label after coming from obscurity. Even though I was mature in some ways, I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. I don’t think I was a very good performer then either. I have no regrets about any of that. It changed my life in that I was able to put out six records since then.”

Born on Fire, the follow-up to 2009’s Hard Luck Stories, has a particularly long gestation period, but Reilly was plenty busy between albums. He was working on turning his Where Is My Goddamn Medicine podcast into a show for AMC. He wrote the show and “shot a bunch of stuff,” but the program never aired.

“It was about me as a broke, failing musician scraping to get by,” he says. “There were other characters in the story too. It was real cinematic and dark. It was funny and poignant, and I thought we would go right on the air. They chose something else. They had us in the reality world, but it wasn’t reality. It was shot like that but we didn’t cut away and talk about ourselves. It was all scenes. The upshot was that it did take my time. I had songs recorded, and the hard drive crashed. That went away. That slowed things down. It wasn’t like I stopped writing. We were still playing a handful of shows though it would be like [finding] a cockfight trying to see us. It was disappointing because you hate to work on something that takes you away from something else you like and have it not pay off. It had all our music in it too.”

One constant through the years has been Reilly’s incredible band, the Assassinations. He calls them “the most incredible musicians,” and they certainly make the live shows into raucous affairs.

“It’s hard to find that combination of musicianship and improvisational balls,” says Reilly. “I’ve been lucky enough to be around it but I couldn’t make these songs come to life without these guys. I have a super creative guitar player and an unbelievable rhythm section. To be able to eke along financially and keep a band together is a testament to their loyalty and good taste.”

Despite the long time between albums, Reilly says his creativity is at an all-time high.

“The one thing that is kind of cool about never been viewed as successful is that no one can ever say, ‘He’s gone downhill,’” he says. “People have tattooed song titles of mine on their bodies. I think that’s incredible. That kind of thing is cool. I feel really great about this record. I have no doubt about following it up with another great record and another great record. I wouldn’t put anything out if it was going to shame the family.”

The Ike Reilly Assassination, 8 p.m. Friday, July 10, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets; $8 ADV, $10 DOS,
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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