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Ike Reilly: Death Becomes Him

| December 30, 2005

In another life, Chicago roots rocker Ike Reilly probably hung around the gallows, or maybe that’s his cameo as the gravedigger in Hamlet, irreverently framing the differences between the quick and the dead. From nowhere else could songs like “What A Day” come.

“I have been to a million funerals,” he says. “As to why the song is upbeat is because a lot of times I end up writing celebratory music with darker lyrics, which is kind of funny to me in a way.”

His sly sense of humor colors everything he writes, witty enough to be a good time, but grim so as not to be a joke. The songs on his latest, Junkie Faithful (Sixthman/Rock Ridge), are fascinating testimonials for life, death and redemption, power and corruption, girls, booze, addiction, cars, racism, and failure. Reilly is a wise guy with a guitar, part Cake, part Dylan, part Westerberg, part Beck, and he lives next door. He speaks with confidence as he rants and hollers, not preaching but teaching that it’s all right to live life, make mistakes, have a good time, and, ultimately, die.

“The best days of my life have been at funerals,” he continues morbidly. “Really, when your guard is stripped down and you are not worried about how broke you are, how rich you are, who you are fucking, whatever. I like that when people are stripped away from situations.”

Now traveling as the Ike Reilly Assassination, the songwriter knows a lot about stripping away. Well before the IRA he was in a few Chicago bands of note, forming successful punk bands like The Eisenhowers (where he got the Ike moniker) and Community 9, after cutting his teeth in Celtic rock upstarts The Drovers (with the assistance of childhood friend Brendan O’Shea). He quit performing around ’94, but opened a recording studio where he would cut the demos noticed by The Dust Brothers’ Mike Simpson, which eventually scored a deal with Universal for 2001’s Salesmen & Racists.

“If that didn’t happen I wouldn’t be doing this,” he says. “I have been touring with my friends for five years and I am able to write songs. So for me it was a great deal. Are we making a ton of money?” He shakes his head. “None. I have been around guys making a ton of money and what they think about is the same as me, trying to keep being artistic and have a vehicle, whatever it is. I see some of my friends who are successful artists and they are able to compartmentalize and I am not able to do that yet. I am getting better at it.”

In five years, the Ike Reilly Assassination — Reilly (vocals, guitar), Ed Tinley (guitar, piano, organ), Phil Karnatz (guitar), Tommy O’Donnell (bass), Dave Cottini (drums) — have put out three full lengths and a couple of EPs, piling countless miles in their geriatric van, genuinely a big senior citizens bus.

His last release, Sparkle In The Finish: The B-Sides, was a digital-only offering that isn’t actually B-sides but rather a collection of songs that didn’t make his previous full length, Sparkle In The Finish, which arrived in October ’04. “My favorite is ‘It’s Alright To Die’; it really speaks of everything I feel. I love playing it. Musically I like the tempo changes, they are awkward.”

Junkie Faithful itself is titled after something of a B-side — what would have been the title cut didn’t make the cut. “But I still thought that the title was hot,” Reilly says, “that it had to be connected but had a good vibe to what the songs were about: addiction, God and hell, faith, all that shit. The record has a vibe, I like it, and my bandmates really like it a lot. It is a definitive record of what I want to do,” he proudly declares. “I enjoyed making the record because I never expected to make a record so melancholy, to be honest with you.”

And it is a record finding Reilly one notch down in lyrical cussing with more diversity in the music adding acoustic guitar sequences, some harmonica, scattered electronic looping, and even a touch of accordion. True to his word, he changes tempos and tone, with the aforementioned “What A Day” standing out: an upbeat, bouncy melody backdropping the greyest of days.

But going back to when he says “I am getting better at it,” in a bleak and moribound way, he’s right.

— Rodney Pawlak

Category: Features, Monthly

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  1. Holly says:

    Great article on a great Chicago artist that does not get the respect he so deserves.