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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ike Reilly's Hard-Luck Tales

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Even though he's only in his late 40s, Ike Reilly speaks like a man strangled by the Great Depression. His voice sounds antiquated and gruff over the phone; wise beyond his years, he could easily double as a radio station's self-help talk-show host. The Libertyville, Ill., troubadour frequently reminisces about his rough-and-tumble past, a life spent working dour odd jobs at places like car dealerships, hotels and even a cemetery. The way he tells it, he's trudged through hardships that make or break men, and in his case it's strengthened him into a more effective songwriter and person. For someone who's ostensibly so nostalgic, however, Reilly insists he's too comfortable in the present to ever return to his beatnik days.

"I'm making a living now," Reilly says. "I did that—it's cold and it's hard. I do not think about going back. My memories of those jobs are great, but I think my left arm got too long from carrying Japanese businessmen's 200-pound Samsonites."

Reilly's story mirrors a common theme of today's world: educated yet unemployed. After he finished college—he graduated from Marquette University—opportunities were far and few between, and, even worse, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He doesn't necessarily condemn his tutelage; he just didn't see the need. "Any real learning I did after I got out of there," he says. "The curriculum I needed, no one offered."

That stubborn attitude and his various jobs understandably bleed into his band's aesthetic. The Ike Reilly Assassination's output contains a definite graveyard mentality. The group's work would garner more comparisons to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska if Reilly didn't cover up that down-on-your-luck gloominess with such bright pianos and jovial guitars. And his songs are heavily based on characters, many of which come from the interesting and abominable hotel guests Reilly encountered—although he admits that writing about other people often comes from a desire to be someone else.

"I didn't really want to be a musician or a performer," he says. "I wanted to be a character in books and movies, like Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront. I was more interested in those characters that connect. I was always interested in the real characters, like union bosses."

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the Ike Reilly Assassination attempts to convey the distress of the working class. Reilly perhaps best describes his mission during a duet with Shooter Jennings off his latest record, 2009's Hard Luck Stories, titled "The War on the Terror and the Drugs." Before beginning the song, he half-jokes, half-sings the track's meaning: "It's about wants and needs and death and sex and love and lust and kids." That's a dragged-out way of saying it's about the common man.

While Reilly is resting easy with his current situation, he can't shake that everyman ethos. "I'm one of those people just trying to stay above water," he says. That might be a bit dramatic. Since 2001 saw the release of his acclaimed debut record, Salesmen and Racists, Reilly has been putting out quality albums every couple of years and touring modestly behind them. His podcast "Where's My Goddamn Medicine" was recently optioned into a pilot for AMC ("It's a combination of 'The Honeymooners' and Don't Look Back"), and he's in the early stages of recording a new album.

"It's finally going to be good," Reilly deadpans about the new record. "No, I don't know what it's going to be like. I know what the songs are like, but I don't know how we're going to approach them. I also have two batches of songs. Some are more eclectic and some are more driving, and I don't know which songs will actually make it on the record yet."

But there is one thing that's for certain. "It will be more similar material of the struggles of regular people in the Midwest,” he says. “I guess.”

The Ike Reilly Assassination headlines Shank Hall on March 15 with openers Brendan O'Shea. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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