“The Constant Pursuit of Something” | In conversation with Ike Reilly

Photo of Ike Reilly live at Off Broadway by Joe Johnson.

I got to meet with Ike Reilly before his show at Off Broadway on November 12, 2021. The place was bustling and things were a little tense. The person who was usually in charge of “All of this—he did all of this, forever”—was Trevor Engelbrekston, a sweet, funny, beardy fellow that I had the pleasure to hang with a few times. He did the hotels, set up, everything. Trevor sadly passed away in a car accident in 2018. This means that the band, the merch guys, and the man himself were putting the set together for their first show since the beginning of the pandemic. Their first gig at a venue in front of people in two years. They got it all together at the end, though.

Ike and Ike’s sons (Shane, Kevin, and Mick) were certainly not out of practice musically. Instead of laying the guitar down during the lockdown, theyjoined his longtime band at the Ike Reilly Family Quarantine Hour. Like some other artists, instead of taking the show on the road, it came streaming online for us. It was sheer joy watching from home as the young men found their footing vocally, and seeing the bond between the family and band was honestly like musical sunshine during some pretty dark times.

The boys have gotten TALL, too. It was very cool seeing how much they’ve grown. I felt like a weird auntie from the internet when I was introduced to them. Their voices have grown in confidence and nuance, and it’s a true pleasure to hear the family sing together.

The latest in Ike Reilly’s discography is Because the Angels, a rock album that takes our painful headlines and turns them into bops. That’s a special kind of mastery. If you listen to Reilly’s catalogue from 2001 until present time, you find twenty years of Ike getting better at his job. The lyrics were always good, but now the stories are fuller. The music and the words, he says, come to him at the same time, and it’s as if he’s now hearing a symphony instead of a band, and the band rises to the occasion.

If you’re a still-reeling ex-Catholic like I am, you can’t help but zero in on the iconography and religious references in some of his album covers and lyrics. An exceptional storyteller and song weaver, Reilly’s songs are a firm repudiation of the actions of the church we both grew up in, and the gilded exterior that so many refuse to see past.

With songs that invoke the sadness of losing an old friend to their racism and nationalism like “Laura,” the heartbreaking broken promises in “The Failure of St. Michael,” and the straight-up “Fuck the Good Old Days,” Ike isn’t going to let you refuse to see anymore.

Not that he’s ever given us much of a choice. His first album was called Salesmen and Racists (2001). Not exactly subtle. His music is strongly working class flannel with a satin ribbon of whimsy that makes it capricious and the musical equivalent of a huge grin and a raised middle finger.

The show was amazing. We heard songs from nearly every album and he played “Hip Hop Thighs,” which is my favorite. The band was tight and his sons made their old man proud. If he’s coming to your town, do yourself a favor. Mask up and go have some fun. We sorely needed it.

Melissa Cynova: This religion thing keeps coming up in your music. It’s like you’ve rerouted it for your life and your songs.

Ike Reilly: Yeah, the images and impressions that religion has on people is intense. I mean, I can’t fucking stop singing about it. It’s a part of what made me. I’m not a religious person at all. I have been but I don’t get comfort from it. I use it in songs. I’m not trying to ruin it for people, like people in my family who still get something from it. But I can’t shake it.

A lot of these songs are about the failures of religions. Especially “The Failure of St. Michael.” If he really exists, and what he’s supposed to do, he’s not doing his job.

well the arc angel st. michael stood guard at the door

looking holy and dangerous

leaning on his sword

it’s written here protect us

from satan and his snares

but charlie says he hasn’t seen st. michael much around here

A lot of your songs are blue collar. Do you consider yourself a folk singer?

Not like Pete Seeger, but I’m sure that’s a part of it. I participate in a lot of situations and activism but I don’t wake up in the morning as a folk singer.

It was really cool watching your family and band work together. The evolution of watching the shows is fantastic.

The boys had never sung before. My band has known these guys since they were little kids. Shane (the oldest, not with us in St. Louis) is writing and will have an album out next year. Some of the songs that you heard on the Quarantine Hour will be on future albums. I was pretty impatient when we first started singing together. I expected them to know what to do. I’ve been doing this for forty years, let’s go, kids! I’m a little more patient now.

“Someday Tonight (Ode to Kenosha)” really broke my heart. It made me cry, actually. We had a similar situation here in St. Louis.

These guys live in Kenosha. We were really affected by the shooting. Not as much as others, obviously, but I was so disgusted by the Christian right’s canonization of Kyle Rittenhouse, so that’s what that song’s about. It’s just an endless amount of shit that keeps coming. That song is about exhaustion.

But as tired as we are, I can’t imagine how tired brown and Black folks are.

Absolutely, it feels like it’s never ending.

and yeah those christians are raving mad

and now they’re raising defense funds

for the shooter like he’s a martyr or a saint

but i saw what i saw and i say what i say

i hope tonight seems like a long time ago someday

In that same vein, the song “Laura” is really polarizing.

You’re physically attracted to a person who can’t get out of her own way. You overlook things until you just can’t. This person can’t get out of her own way and realize that other people matter, too.

but she looks different now she’s angry

not so charming and so much sadder

what’s the difference laura

why you gotta be

so mad somebody else matters

How will your tour change with COVID? Traveling with your sons?

Ah, fuck ‘em. They’re fine. [laughs] They both got it a while ago and they’re vaxxed. It’s okay. This is my first interview and my first gig in two years.

I listened to your catalogue from beginning to end and your lyrics have always been strong and you’re getting to be like Frank Sinatra. Your phrasing has really improved and your songcrafting has matured.

Well, thank you. I’m deliberately crafting the feeling in the song. Like “Laura” and “St. Michael,” I intentionally made those country songs.

You packaged them in a red hat!

Yes! Yeah, to take such un-Nashville lyrics—the racist girlfriend and the failure of Christianity. I wouldn’t say that they’re totally cognizant but it works. The versatility and the varied nature of the album and the songs are just great to play.

Do you do quiet or loud activism?

I’ll show up if they need me. I’ve been playing benefits, Union events, and the head of the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin called me up for a show in Madison. I got Tom [Morello] and some guys from LA flew out. That stuff is in my music, and in my solo shows it’s really more prevalent. I just start running my mouth. Tonight, I have the band and I need to stay focused and play some music for you.

They’re making a documentary about the band, and part of it is about financial struggle and foreclosure and we’ve been filming for 25 years. The culmination, the story that comes together is that art and music have fed my family—not financially as much as spiritually. These guys do their own thing, but through osmosis they’re soulful people, and the film kind of leaves you with this really great performance. The first time they played with me was an anomaly. Two years ago, from this week, they flew to Minneapolis. I thought “Trick of the Light” would be a great song for trade-off vocals. They came up on stage—Kevin, Shane, and Mick—and the band was killing it.

In the film, we have recordings from CBGB’s in 1989. It’s all about the journey. It’s about art. This constant pursuit of something. Not about success, it’s about art and a lifestyle. It’s about not settling for something. Trying to evolve, and become the best communicators with my lyrics, and my sons and this band. And I don’t give a fuck man, we’ve done it. To have this record come out—it’s so cohesive. This new record we [the band] listen to and wonder, “How did seven jackasses come up with this?”

Well, how did you?

Love and not faith. Love, will, and science can help people. And we’ll keep playing the songs. | Melissa Cynova

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