by Jake Muncy
Photos by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
“I lived in New York,” Walker Lukens relates to me, picking at damp wood with his fingernail. We’re sitting at a picnic table under a sky lazy with recently fallen rain.
“I moved there right after college. I was following a girl, as a preface”– Walker raises his eyebrows–”so I obviously wasn’t thinking anything through at all. But I played for myself for like two years. The kind of gigs I was playing, it was such a fight to get anyone’s attention. So when I started working on the music for Devoted…I was like, I’m just never going to do this solo troubadour acoustic thing again.”
That would have been a couple of years ago, now. At the time, he was uncertain what shape it would take, but he was writing with a band in mind, trying to bring something more lush and energetic to bear. Out of that ambition came last year’s full-length record, Devoted. It was an exploratory, yearning sort of album, varied and experimental in layering sound around Walker’s songs. It got him the audience he had trouble finding in New York– American Songwriter dug it, NPR’s Robin Hilton counted herself a fan, and we liked it too: Devoted was one of Ovrld’s choices for best albums of last year. Walker suddenly had the support of new fans, some good press, and a backing band.
Now, on the rough one-year anniversary of Devoted, Walker Lukens and his band, the Side Arms, are ready to move up another gear, with a big tour, fresh material, and a new release: Devoted Remixed, out this week.
A native of Houston, Walker Lukens has been playing music basically his whole life, and has been recording since he was a teenager. But when I ask him when he knew, when he realized that this was the thing he wanted to do with his life, he squirms a little bit. He says there wasn’t an epiphany moment. He had a lot of moments. He gives me one: When he was studying at Southwestern University, he took a semester to study abroad in France. There, studying French music culture, he befriended the instructor, who was a record producer. Walker showed him some of what he’d made up til that point.
Somewhere between a grimace and a smirk, Walker explains how his instructor reacted to his rough, basic recordings., “He was like, ‘Your songs are really good, but you kinda suck at performing them.’ Which at 21 was a huge blow to my ego, but he was right.” Walker had grown up with the old-school indie rock aesthetic, a vibe that was more interested in making music than it was in making sure that music was performed well.
“So it was really good to meet someone who was older, who was like, yeah, your songs are really good, but you suck at ‘em. We recorded, and nothing ever came of it, but it was a really encouraging experience.”
That insight into the importance of craft has stuck with Walker. When he discusses music, he avoids abstractions, focusing more on elements of production and sound, the way music feels when you’re right there hearing it. I suspect it’s this interest that led him toward his most recent project, the Devoted Remixed EP, featuring six reworkings of Devoted tracks by different producers.
The EP is an interesting beast. Devoted is a creative, dexterous record, one that we praised last year for “fluidly operating in a multitude of styles,” but it’s still, at its core, a singer/songwriter joint, not the sort of record that would typically lend itself to the remix treatment. In spite of, or perhaps because of that, however, the remixes work well, forming an engaging companion piece to the original record.
“I love electronic music,” Walker says. “I have no real desire to make electronic music, and I don’t really know how.” So when the idea was suggested to him– using his network of musicians to play with and rework some of his tracks– he jumped at it. “I feel like I tricked somebody, y’know? How did I get these people to spend so much time with a song I wrote?”
The EP opens with a highly percussive reworking of “The Night I Was Kissed by Patti Smith,” perhaps the least transformative remix here, but it still subs in a jittery energy for the smoother flow of the original. This is followed by one of three remixes of the song “Lover,” this one by James Koo. Koo chops and screws it, slowing the vocal track until it comes out like a ghost haunting a jar of molasses, backed by screeching guitar and heavy, syrupy beats. It’s surprising and it works.
When I note my enthusiasm for Koo’s track, Walker laughs. “Are you from Houston?”
“I knew [Koo] from high school,” he explains. “He does hip hop production, but I thought it was a funny little joke that he made it chopped and screwed, cause that’s Houston’s one contribution to hip hop. He sent me a twenty-second clip, and was like, if you like this, I’ll go ahead and finish it. And I was like…” At this point, Walker just vigorously nods at me with wide eyes, the U.N.-recognized symbol for hell yeah.
The rest of the EP continues apace, a showcase of diverse production, from the Lonely Child remix of “Brunch People,” focusing tightly on the vocals and rewrapping them in new instrumentation, to the operatic, brassy closer, Michael Harran’s take on “Lover.” As a unit, the EP flows remarkably well for such a disparate set of tracks, and it’s worth grabbing if you liked Devoted but lamented that you couldn’t play it at parties.
The remixes, however, are just a start, and Walker Lukens and the Side Arms are gearing up for an exciting rest of the year. Walker has “a ton” of new music in the works, some of which will be showcased at the Devoted Remixed release party this Saturday before the band heads out on tour later in the summer.
How has Walkers post-Devoted life shaped the new material, you wonder? “With Devoted, it was just me and this guy Roger, basically, who made that…This is the first time I’ve made music with a band, really knowing what that band sounds like live, and wanting to take what that is live and make a good album out of it.”
A different experience, for sure, and one he hopes will produce a different sort of album.
“All the music I’ve made has been with an audience in mind,” Walker says. “I would say that this time, who this audience is is a much more tangible thing. Right now we haven’t written any music that we don’t want to hear live. So more high energy, definitely a lot of looping stuff. I’ve got two ways of singing. One’s more a ballad thing, one’s more a rock thing. Doing a lot more of the rock thing.”
That’s not his only project, however. His newest windfall isn’t quite on the scale of a big summer tour, but he talks about it with equal excitement. “My, they’re like my second family, they just moved, downsized their house, and they gave me their piano. So I have a fucking piano in my house.” Having the new instrument has opened up some new doors in Walker’s head and working with it has become something of a side project. The material will probably see the light of day, but not with the Side Arms.
“I’ve been writing these really schmaltzy ballads,” he admits. When he talks about his music, Walker has a talent for being both earnest and self-effacing. “Your grandma would love’ em. It’s all like, from when your grandma was 30 or 40, it’s this music.”
It’s been quite a year for Walker, and it’s one that he knows very well may not have happened. “It was definitely one of those things where, I think had [Devoted] not done well, had there been no positive reaction, I might have had to make music just a hobby,” Walker says.
He worries the chipped wood on the table some more, switching between making eye contact and looking away in thought. The rain, fortunately, doesn’t return.
“Sometimes I feel like I make music in a vacuum,” he finally continues, after a few starts and stops. “And there’s just a handful of people that it’s relevant to, and I think with Devoted, the circle got just a little bigger. Also I think it’s really a seductive idea to think that, like, music or art is a meritocracy, but it’s definitely not. In the process of putting Devoted out into the world and going on tour and having to keep a band together, I learned so much about what it really takes.”
“But I think the great thing,” he adds, “the great thing that’s resulted from putting that out is getting such a better idea about what to do next…Not just stylistically, but what’s the important stuff to focus on.” The answer, it seems, is to keep playing and to keep stretching in new directions. Sounds like a good lesson. We’re looking forward to those grandma ballads.
Walker Lukens and the Side Arms will be playing this Saturday, May 31st, at Stubbs, with opening performances from Ruby Jane and Hellow Wheels. If you’d like to go to the show for free, check out our ticket giveaway! Devoted and Devoted Remixed are available now.