Posted July 5, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Q+A with Ike Reilly: Born on Fire

Ike Reilly, photo by Crackerfarm
Ike Reilly, photo by Crackerfarm

For his seventh studio album, Born On Fire, singer-songwriter Ike Reilly teamed up with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. The album is a joint release between Rock Ridge Music and Tom Morello’s new label Firebrand Records. (Incidentally, both musicians hail from the same hometown—Libertyville, Illinois.) Reilly’s first release in four years features his band, the Ike Reilly Assassination. In fact, his longtime friend and Assassination guitarist Phil Karnats (Secret Machines, Polyphonic Spree) worked with Reilly and the band on production.  Reilly said his hope for the record was that it sound like it could have been made “somewhere between the mid ’60s and the early 2050s.”  He recently phoned us from his garage.

I know you’re from the same hometown, but how did Tom Morello become such a big fan of yours?
I didn’t know him when we were kids. His mother was my teacher. He went to school with my wife. His first professional gig was an eighth grade graduation party in my wife’s backyard. Rick Rubin was playing him some music. He asked the name of the guy singing and Rick said, “Ike Reilly.” He said, “I know that guy.” We got connected and have been hanging around since then. I toured with him as The Nightwatchman. He’s been here in Libertyville this week. We drove around Chicago on Tuesday and sold records out of the trunk of my car. He’s a great guy.

In the early 2000s, you had a brief stint on a major label. What was that experience like?
It was cool. 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.

The record got great reviews but it just didn’t sell?
All my records get great reviews but don’t sell. That’s why I’m hesitant to talk to anyone. What’s the point? 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. Why don’t we just talk about how the new album is going to be great and successful and not why that one wasn’t?

It didn’t sell and I got dropped. It’s very astute of you to make that connection.

But I don’t know what their expectations would have been. I would have thought it could have sold modestly and then they could have built up on that for the next album.
Yeah, but I went with a label that didn’t operate like that. I have no regrets about any of that. It changed my life in that I was able to put out six records since then. There’s no record industry to speak of now anyway. I was at the good end of what they gave me in terms of money.

This is your first new album in four years. What was the deal with the AMC program?
I did all these podcasts called “Where Is My Goddamn Medicine.” We wrote a show called “Where is My Goddamn Medicine?” and we shot a bunch of stuff. It was loosely based on a Jack Benny skit. It was about me as a broke, failing musician scraping to get by. 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 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.

Will it show up at some point?
I don’t know. I have another idea for a show I want to do that’s more talk show-ish but not Jimmy Fallon-ish, Kind of a weirder show. The guests aren’t celebrities. They’re fictional characters. I would have some of the same storylines I was working with but the show would be easier to understand. The other show was pretty esoteric and a little sophisticated. We all know that wouldn’t work.

The new album features your band, the Ike Reilly Assassination. When did you put the band together and what do they bring to the table?
They’re the most incredible musicians. It’s hard to find that combination of musicianship and improvisational balls. 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. We added Adam Krier. He was in the Lucky Boys Confusion but they were more of a ska/hip-hop act. They were really poppy He was in AM Taxi got signed to Capitol. The cool thing was that I have influenced people and he was one of them. He plays organ, piano, guitar and sings and is the frontman of his own band. He was familiar with almost every song I’ve ever written. You can hear him on “Born on Fire” and “Notes from Denver International Airport” has a jazzy weird vibe with piano. The background vocals are done by my drummer Dave [Cottini]. He has this Black Rebel Motorcycle Gang vibe to the background vocals. Phil was in Secret Machines and produces records all the time. To be able to eke along financially and keep a band together is a testament to their loyalty and good taste.

Your friend and bandmate Phil Karnats worked with you on production. What was that process like?
He’s real smart. He’ll give me good direction in the way I should write. We recorded “Born on Fire” and he tracked those pianos in his kitchen. That song had a great vibe. It sounds like we really know how to play music. Phil gives me great confidence as a performer. I like having him next to me. No one plays guitar like him. He has an “out there” Television guitar style but he understands the history of American music enough to add ‘50s soul riffs in there too. It’s great. Pete [Cimbalo] and Dave [Cottini] on the rhythm section are great. Dave adds the ferocity to the band. He’s a super hotwired human being and a dynamic drummer and when he puts the pedal down he takes it to another level. I don’t know how we could get it any more intense. He could front a band too. Pete is rock solid bass player. He’s creative. He’s my neighbor too so it works out. He was in the Gin Blossoms back in the day. He toured with them. Pete gives us total stability. I go off the rails occasionally live. I don’t have to worry about anything. When you first start playing with bands, you don’t want to make mistakes. We’re so beyond that now. If I change anything, these fuckers are there.

What other line of work are there grown men and women who have a mutual knowledge of something? It’s pretty cool.

You said you hope the album sounds like it could have been made “somewhere between the mid ’60s and the early 2050s.”
There are bands like Pearl Jam. You listen to them and you know when that music was made. Even when they play now, it sounds like it 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. Some smartass writer somewhere would rip that quote apart. Sonically and musically, hopefully it will transcend this specific time. There are references to pop culture a little bit. Not too many. “Underneath the Moon” could have been written any time. And “Do the Death Slide!” has this ’50s sound but nobody was writing about death then. Until the Rolling Stones came out, nobody was doing that kind of shit. That’s Shooter Jennings doing that radio introduction on that song.

I have a hard time figuring out what your influences might be. I hear a lot of Dylan in your songs. Is that fair?
I like him a lot. He’s the best songwriter that ever lived. That’s my humble opinion. It goes back to a little bit of everything. Thematically, I’m influenced by people and conversations. Musically, the founders of rock — Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Those were huge influences in my life. I went to a Butterfield School when I was young.  I was a good harmonica player. My little brother convinced me the school was named after Paul Butterfield. It’s not. There’s a country road it’s on called Butterfield. He was trying to ease my fears. My brother and sister turned me onto music. The Clash too. I don’t know if those are my influences. That’s the music I listen to — a lot. They’re all great lyricists. Paul Butterfield was a great harp player and John Lee Hooker was a great lyricist, or communicator.

It seems like the creative juices are really flowing. Is that the case?
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.” That’s why Morello has signed us. That’s why things are happening. I’m not embarrassed by the body of work. 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. We’re not fucking idiots. We listen to music and we care about it and we could capture these songs and put them together. “Am I Still the One for You?” is so different from “Do the Death Slide!” In the past, I might have wanted to do two records. My kids were listening to Beggars Banquet. It starts with “Sympathy for the Devil” and goes into “Factory Girl” but it is tied together by the groove of the band and Mick’s voice. That “Born on Fire” is an earnest song and then you get into “A Job Like That” is what holds my album together. Also, I could incorporate the Assassination who sing with me.  It’s the first time I recorded them and that worked out really well.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at