Bayou City

The Evolution of Walker Lukens

Walker Lukens evokes more in one song than some artists do in a lifetime.
Walker Lukens evokes more in one song than some artists do in a lifetime. Photo by Chris Corona
If you look at the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, it doesn't fit with the rest of their catalog, says Walker Lukens.  He uses this example as a way to make his point about any artist's evolution.

"I think what makes artists evolve is that they have to," says the Houston born and Austin transplanted multi-instrumentalist over the phone last Friday. "When I look back at what I did on my first record, there are two songs we still play all the time, and two that we never play. But of those two we never play paved the way for what I do now.

"There's a quote from David Bowie that's something like, 'every one of my records leads you to the next one,' and early on I was getting a handle on how to work with rhythm. Those two songs were the last two to be added to the first record, and they essentially lead you to what I do now."

In many ways, the rhythmic sounds that Lukens makes are the stretching of the canvas. His lyrics are a mix of how Tom Waits was an observationist and a sultry love affair with whoever is listening like the early works of Prince.

"I used to play just an acoustic and be the sincere singer songwriter. Nowadays, it's about getting out of the way. I feel more now like my true self after years of trying to be clever with it. Being more real and vulnerable in my lyrics, I'm not direct but it's still true and honest."

The last record that Lukens made, Tell It To the Judge was a piece de resistance full of catchy beats and hook filled riffs alongside his signature lyrics. Working with Jim Eno of Spoon as producer was part of something special for Lukens, who's been a lifelong fan of the band. "I was so excited to work with Jim. I love Spoon; some of their records were what I always thought a rock record should sound like. It's safe to say that he has the best studio, and it's in town. They don't build studios like his anymore, the type of place that you need a producer and an engineer for. I like to bring in unfinished songs to the studio, and he'd be there so we could do some cool stuff to finish it. There's plenty of ways to get a great song, and a lot of times I'll make an iPhone demo that the average producer wouldn't get. But Jim gets it. In fact, the song "Lifted" was originally recorded as a demo on my phone in Houston."

There's almost a mathematical equation to the work that Lukens has done in recent years. It's indie rock you can dance to. "For the song "Baby," I had an idea of a beat that I made with a beat maker app on my phone. I thought it should be a song saying I love you, but saying it in all the wrong ways. For "Tear It Out My Heart," I've been obsessed with Chicago house music, and I really just wanted to make a house song. You know, have sultry lyrics and just make it something like that. I worked with Mobley on it and he asked, "what if we make it hyper specific?" Like if it's for someone specifically and that's the route we went."

Both were released as singles only, rather than releasing them as an E.P. or on a record.  "Man, I think how you release music is an ever moving target.  People are nostalgic about how they receive music. What it means to be an album or music in general. An album used to just be a collection of seven inch singles. I think years from now, people will see that how we used to get our music was just a narrow way of looking at it. The people I respect the most leave a wake whenever they release something, where they will have others copy their work for years to come, until they drop something else. Kanye West is that way, Kendrick Lamar is quickly becoming that way as well, and Arcade Fire was that for indie rock for a good while. I've been into James Brown, and he was a singles guy. He put out like four different versions of "Mother Popcorn" before it was a hit. He was always chipping away and that's what I try to do to get the best song.

"I was telling a friend of mine in the industry that I hope one day I can get on cycle. If you're dropping things like I have, you aren't holding resources for one thing. You don't have to do what your heroes did. I wanna' sound like what came before me without adopting their careers."

 "I grew up in Houston, I left for Austin for school. The Houston that I left is nothing like the Houston that's there now. When I was a teen, playing gigs downstairs at Fitzgerald's on a weekend, just letting us have the club like that wouldn't happen today. It's evolved a lot as a city and there's more of a scene. There were acts like Spain Colored Orange I saw at their first show that shaped me so much, that I wouldn't be playing music if it weren't for them. After school, I stayed in Austin. Even though Austin is obsessed with itself, there's a culture here that looks after its musicians. I get my healthcare paid for here through HAAM, and I don't think that happens anywhere else."

"We're doing this thing called the song confessional. It's a camper trailer with a mobile recording studio inside. When you buy a ticket to the show, you get entered into a raffle, and if you win; there's artists and an engineer on hand to make your story into a song. In Houston I'll have Dollie Barnes, Wrestlers, John Allen Stephens, MIEARS, and myself to make songs. Getting all of these artists together to make a song on the spot. I've had it set up to where we'll be there a couple of days prior to make all of that happen. I'm doing this all over Texas, just trying to stay fresh."

You can purchase all of Walker Lukens' music and merchandise from his web store, and you can stream all of his music on all platforms. You can see him in person as well as get raffled for a chance at the song confessional, when Walker Lukens performs on Saturday August 11 at Continental Club. The 21 & up show has doors at 8 p.m.; tickets for $12.
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David Garrick is a former contributor to the Houston Press. His articles focus primarily on Houston music and Houston music events.