Walker Lukens hopes his upcoming sophomore album Tell It To The Judge, premiering exclusively below, displays the benefits of having a dedicated band and a strong producer (Spoon’s Jim Eno) — and a new appreciation for ZZ Top and other forms of classic rock.
Tell It To The Judge is not a classic rock album, mind you; The 11-track set holds true to Lukens’ penchant for blending genres and techniques, from rootsy organic to ambient electronic. But this time out he’s also incorporating influences from musical corners that the Austin, Texas-based auteur once had no use for in his creative sphere.
“I finally came around to liking these old rock records my dad liked when I was a kid that I thought were the worst rock records ever,” Lukens tells Billboard with a laugh. “On this record I’ve been playing live a lot, and I wanted to make something that was more fun to play live. It’s like getting into two different things at the same time. Before I was getting into a lot of electronic music and a lot of hip-hop, but then I’d sample three-second pieces of audio and make a song out of it and that connects back to old blues music to me. That’s why I was able to come around to ZZ Top at the age of 28 when I couldn’t stand it at 12 years old.” That may be heresy for a Texan, but Lukens saw ZZ Top play a few years ago, and it came as a revelation.
“I was sort of blown away by how awesome it was,” he recalls. “For whatever reason making music that sounds like that was always the last thing I ever wanted to do. Then all of a sudden it became this thing I felt kind of called to do, in some way — make rock music. Now I understand how (sampling) really connects to that early bluesy thing that’s unstructured and melodically very simple. It all melds itself nicely with hip-hop production, that simplicity to things you have to work with that I find really compelling.”
Lukens gives Eno full credit for helping realize the synthesis. “We had a song like ‘Never Understood’ that started out as a Jackson Browne kinda piano ballad — all these full chords, a really sweet melody,” Lukens says. “I did have a beat I made with my mouth, and that’s what the demo was, beat-boxing rhythm and piano and vocals. And Jim was like, ‘What if we try to do this song with no piano?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, Let’s try to eliminated the piano from this.’ At first it seemed like the craziest thing that could possibly happen, but as we put it together it made the beat stronger and it really started to take shape, and we put some piano back in there from my original demo tape. So it transformed from this classic singer-songwriter sort of song structure into more of a hip-hop thing and seemed to work better like that. We did that on a lot of the songs.”
The sonic combinations were perilous at times — “The biggest joke for me was, ‘How do you not make it rap-rock?’ How do you bring this stuff together and not end up being in the worst genre of music that ever existed?” Lukens cracks — but the goal of the set never wavered. “I’ve always tried to make things I’m interested in but am still committed to making a catchy song at the end of the day,” says Lukens, who begins touring during November, with plans to be on the road into the new year. “Let Portishead be Portishead. I just want to make good songs that are rhythmically interesting and use a lot of hip-hop techniques and not look like an idiot.”