Ike Reilly Gives Track-by-Track of Writing, Production, and Drug Notes For ‘Because the Angels’

Ike Reilly, inspired and standing on the stoop of his recording studio with his arms wide open, the songwriter claims the whole street as his musical kingdom.For the former gravedigger and doorman, Music Row is just one house.

It’s a 100-year-old bungalow — wedged between a nail salon and an insurance agency in Libertyville, Illinois — it’s where Reilly makes his records, including his latest, Because the Angels.

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Reilly has stayed true to the music has always created. Because the Angels continues the tradition of a rebellious punk-folk-country-blues-influenced rock ’n’ roll record that combine the poetic with the cinematic.

And, like on all of Reilly’s records, the imagery, the locations, and the characters are authentic, unique, and unforgettable. Because the Angels is home to racist girlfriends, killer cops, drunken candidates, swindled mothers, slandered brothers, and struggling lovers, all right here in the modern era.

Reilly took to explaining the details of what went into the recently released album for readers of American Songwriter. (BUY THIS THING!)

The distance between some chaotic idea, an unfinished thought or melody, and the final recording and mix of a song can be a long, long way. What gets tossed out is as influential as what makes it onto the recording. Should a listener ever know what was lost along the way? I think songs should stand on their own, as is. The mystery and ambiguity of a recording has often been what drew me to the song in the first place. As the maker of songs and recordings, I think that the explanation or the catalyst of a song can kill the mystery and deny the listener the joy of their own discovery. That is what I believe, but I also know that if nobody ever hears what you write, then what’s the point?  

So, I’m pleased, without killing all of the mystery, to give the readers of American Songwriter a little insight into the ass backwards way that some of my ideas became the songs recorded for “Because The Angels.”

Why the fuck would anybody run for public office? Easy money? Power? Fame? The need to serve? I’m not sure really but the flaws of candidates and politicians, and their perverse motivations, have entertained folks since before Caesar got stabbed. “Little Messiahs” is a mashup of candidates and rigged elections, campaign promises and the lies that are told when these creatures pander to some constituency. The opening standalone lyrics in the introduction come from a different place than the voice follows. Who will really answer to the people who need answers? Who will provide services and keep the promises after the candidates roll outta the town, outta the neighborhood? When shit gets tough, folks rely on the myth of a greater force — blame, gratitude and justification — and the angels can be the scapegoat or the savior.  

PRODUCTION NOTE- When I first started singing this song with only my guitar it sounded just fine, but as usual, I was pushed to try to go beyond what was there for the recording. The pushing that I’m grateful for usually comes from my bandmate, Phil Karnats. The sonic chaos in the musical breakdown hopefully takes the listener away from the pedestrian confines of alt-country, Americana, or whatever ya wanna call it. Of course, when it’s convenient, I’m happy to steal the musical tone or sonic treatment of any genre that throws the dogs off the scent.

Nothing thrills me more than not having to hear my own voice on a song that I wrote or recorded. I did a duet with Shooter Jennings a while back on a song called “The War On The Terror And The Drugs,” and I love the vocal on that song half the time — like the half when Shooter is singing; man, he sings great. I love the shared lead vocals on the song “The Weight” by The Band, and when I started to put together “Trick Of The Light,” I thought it might lend itself to a shared lead vocal. The melody, the verse lyrics, and the chorus all came quickly one morning — I wrote the bridge a bit later. I had just kinda started fucking around singing with my children at this time, and we had a show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, and it was a school holiday so they were on the road with us. They hadn’t ever performed really anywhere, and they joined me and the band on stage. Two of my boys, Kevin and Mickey, took lead verse vocal lines, and another son, Shane, harmonized with me, and it sounded pretty great. 

Shortly after the pandemic hit, I was forced to start shaking folks down by internet busking — live streaming (The Ike Reilly Family Quarantine Hour). Like everybody else, my family and I were locked up together, so they all started joining me on this half-assed musical variety show. My boys’ singing got better and better, and when it came time to track “Trick Of The Light,” the boys were ready and willing to sing on the recording. The result is a pretty festive recording of a song based on family dysfunction and false hope. There is an innocence in my boys’ individual voices, and I think there’s power and joy when we all sing together. 

PRODUCTION NOTE: Like most of our recordings, we played the basic tracks in the same room being recorded to tape on a 2″ 16-track tape machine. There are horns overdubbed on this recording. They are played by young Henry Carpenter.

I woke up from a rough night’s sleep on the floor of a church in the village Xochitepec in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico. All night long, I heard donkeys making those donkey noises — I don’t know if they were fucking or fighting, but man, they’re passionate — they go all night long. I got up and put on my boots, went outside and took a piss, threw some water on my face, and I went running with a priest. We ran for about 30 minutes, through the gate and by the post with armed cops that marked the edge of this little village. Along the way, we saw a few makeshift shrines. The priest told me they were built to honor the dead — mostly victims of vendettas. 

Before we turned around, we stopped and walked down a steep, rocky slope to the banks of a low-lying river. Up above our heads was a walking bridge –wooden planks suspended by cables — and walking towards us through the ankle-high water just behind the weaving scent of fresh soap was a young woman named Karina. She recognized the priest, and, in fact, had been heading into the village to find him. She told him her father was sick and asked the priest if he could come to their house — she invited me as well. In the recent past, I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself up in this area about once a year, and two things stand out to me: there are religious and secular reminders of death everywhere and the people are beautiful, tough, warm, and kind. Meeting Karina may have been an aberration. I don’t really know anymore, but I can still taste the dust on my lips and smell that fresh soapy smell that rolled across the top of that stream that morning. 

I worked at a cemetery for seven summers when I was a kid, and I must have worked over a hundred funerals during that time. I’ve been singing death songs (and life songs) for a long time, too, but the brain doesn’t allow people to dwell on their own mortality for too long — they say if people feared their own death too much they wouldn’t take the risk ya need to take to find a partner to mate with. Maybe, maybe not? I’ve seen great wealth and warmth in the absence of prosperity in the mountains of Guerrero. Death is always on display there, and running back to America wasn’t gonna get me away from the final outcome. We all end up in the same place, and that outcome, and the knowledge of it, should bind us together — our common and undeniable deaths should unite us.

There is a band called Cracker, and I run around a bit with this band. I was a fan of David Lowery’s before I was even writing songs, and I got to know David and his charming sidekick, Johnny Hickman, much better after they recorded a song I wrote called “Duty Free.” I’ve been their guest on stage many times, and I’ve opened for them quite a bit as a solo act. When I go on before them I sometimes tell the audience that I’m pleased Cracker is closing for me. I’m really pretty close with both David and Johnny and we sling a lot of shit at each other and laugh at the same things, so any slur given or received is no big deal. But sometimes, loyal fans don’t take too kindly to that kind of thing. 

One night, I opened for Cracker in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a good club but a shit gig — some chick was trying to have a full-on conversation with me in between and during my songs, like a loud conversation as if nobody else was around, and I thought it would be inappropriate to kick her in the mouth so she went on and on until I lost my will to give a shit. Security never came, and I skated out early. I did come back to join Cracker on stage, and I think somebody tossed some shit up on the stage, and then David got pissed. Generally a shit gig.  

The next day was a day off. I stayed in Louisville, so I was drifting around downtown and went into the Muhammad Ali Museum. If you haven’t been there, I recommend that you go. Its centerpiece is a multimedia ring and many interactive displays. One display allows you to shadow box with the champ. I spent hours in the museum and felt pretty inspired as I walked out — forgetting what I was doing, how I was living, and where I was going.  

As the evening wore on, I was punched in the face again by what my life was and what it is. I was punched in the face by what I was doing for a living and why I wasn’t doing it better.  The visit to the Ali Museum was inspirational, but like any self-centered American human, I found myself comparing my life to the life of the Champ. Needless to say, mediocrity carried the day. They sold t-shirts at the museum that said something like TRY TO BE GREAT or TRY TO DO SOMETHING GREAT, I didn’t buy a shirt because I couldn’t make that promise. 

PRODUCTION NOTE: The guest pedal steel guitar player who appears on this recording is Matt “Pistol” Stoessl from the band Cracker.

I read a book called “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.” The book includes letters written during the Civil War, and I thought one day I may work up a song that was based on one of those letters. I wasn’t sure that a song that goes on some obscure trip into the personal business of somebody who lived and died 150 years ago would seem authentic. Still, I liked the way these letters began, and so I started with the opening salutation, “My Dearest Love.” I sat on that opening line for a while with no body of the letter written — really, no song yet — but I knew the letter would come from some battlefield, real or not. 

I live in a town that is pretty homogeneous, ya know, white. A lot of good people live here. The town can appear idyllic, and in many ways it is, but like anywhere in America, you can scrape through the sparkle in the finish and see hypocrisy, the denial of history, and you sometimes hear shit that makes you think it’s 1952… ya know, the good old days? 

I have high aspirations for my town. I don’t want everybody to believe exactly what I believe, but I hope the people that I live with, my neighbors — ya know, the fortunate, God-fearing town folk I walk among — also believe that people with less in this world should get a fair chance to get more, and that people who have been beat down and oppressed now get a fair shake. I hope that the same people who dwell on their “up-from-boot-straps” bullshit mythology can see that their paths, like my path, weren’t really that difficult. I hope that folks have the desire to leave this place more just than when they got here. I hope we can all see beyond the edge of town.  

In the volatile confines of last summer, I could feel some folks clamoring for simpler times — clinging to what they remember as better times. The good old days are certainly relative, and you can welcome change that brings everybody up or fight change and drag everybody down. “Fuck The Good Old Days” is a letter from the battlefield in the civil war we are fighting right now in my hometown and all across America.  I like where I live, and, like I said, I have high aspirations for the whole place and for anybody who calls it home. So I found my battlefield, and not just for the song. The battle is with the mindset of privilege, complacency, and exclusion, and with the blind attachment to the past. The thought of people holding on to a false memory or to an incomplete version of the truth was really what drove me to finish this song. It gives me hope to say “Fuck The Good Old Days.”

PRODUCTION NOTE – My very versatile band decided that the music for this track would be the most shit-kicking, country-gospel-punk mess we could muster. That’s America.

I see cancer cells as criminals that will threaten, extort, steal, and eventually kill. Like gangs or the mob, they run in packs and they operate with organized chaos. The whisper of these gangs puts everybody on edge. Unlike most things where the fear is greater than the reality, these cancerous-criminal-cellular enterprises often create more destruction than anyone could ever imagine. Medical and scientific advances have done so much to combat this scourge, but when love and will get involved, there is a real chance of victory, of healing. This song is about the battle of two people harnessing their love for each other to beat down criminal cancer. I don’t believe in prayer, but I do believe in the power of love and sacrifice. Love is the willingness to bear somebody else’s pain — to sacrifice for them. Take somebody’s hand and lead them to the healing side of the night.

PRODUCTION NOTE – This was the last song written and tracked for “Because The Angels.”

I’ve known a lot of folks who lean pretty heavily on booze and drugs to dampen down the pain of their past traumas.  When that trauma is caused by the most trusted people or institutions in somebody’s life, that pain runs long and deep. Vicki and Charlie are from the same place and time, and they share a secret from their past that binds them together. For Charlie, booze and drugs help him deny what may have happened to him at the hands of some pious predator. Keeping himself fucked up and foggy has been his MO, but flickering lights jolt his memory and force him to sometimes look truth right in its satanic face. 

The archangel St. Michael is a warrior — a warrior and a protector in the battle against Satan.  Where was St. Michael when young Charlie needed him? Where is St. Michael now as Charlie fears the devil is gonna steal the drugs that comfort him? The outcome for Vicki and Charlie is uncertain and unspoken. I wouldn’t rule out a “happily ever after” future for these two, but I wouldn’t bet on it either.

PRODUCTION NOTE: Like all of the recordings on this album, we tracked to a MCI 2″ 16-track tape machine. We thought copping the Johnny Cash/Tennessee Two vibe might work for the sonic setting of this song, so my bandmate, Pete Cimbalo, switched over to a standup bass, and Dave Cottini switched from sticks to brushes, and Adam Krier moved off of the organ to upright piano, and we tracked the whole thing live and in the same room. Tommy O’Donnell decorated the song with electric guitar, and he and my sons overdubbed the background vocals. 

My phone lit up with a call late one night. I saw the face of my son on the screen. It was a little late for a normal call. I picked it up, and he asked me if I had seen or heard anything about the shooting in Kenosha. I hadn’t, and I had been in Kenosha earlier in the day dropping my other two boys off at school. It turns out a man named Jakob Blake was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  My son sent me a video of the shooting. The cop shot Blake seven times in the back, and the video was now spreading all over the world. It was a mind-boggling shooting, difficult to watch. No surprises here, a white cop and a black victim, although it would soon be apparent that not everybody saw Jakob Blake as a victim. His criminal record and behavior at the scene justified this shooting in the eyes of many. Not me. At best, it was a terribly trained policeman.   

As the city became the focal point of protests as well as a destination for the Proud Boys and other random armed militia, a 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse armed himself and killed two people. As soon as Rittenhouse was taken into custody, groups were raising money for his defense. This kid, who clearly broke the First Commandment, shits on the First Amendment, and distorts the Second Amendment of course becomes a martyr for all these crackpots — it was a disturbing paradox. On the heels of the George Floyd shooting and all the other police shootings in America, the whole thing was ugly and exhausting. So much hate, a lot of bad luck, a lot of shoddy police work, bad behavior, and, like EVERYWHERE IN AMERICA, a history of racial injustice.  

I was up in Kenosha during those days — the curfews, protests, violence, murders. The store windows were all boarded up, and the fires burned down and out. There was a  real fatigue that I felt, that I thought everybody must feel. I hoped the exhaustion for me was temporary, and it would be, but for those folks who bear the brunt of racial profiling and police brutality from the minute they are born, that fatigue must exist all the time. I hope someday that nobody will have to live with that constant fear, with that burden to carry. Never have I been so sincere than when I wrote or sung the words, “ I hope someday tonight seems like a long time ago.”

PRODUCTION NOTE – During the pandemic, I had to send this track to co-producer/bandmate Phil Karnats so he could overdub at his studio. The song came back with the strangest and most delightful guitar part. A buzzing anti-solo.

Before I sing “Laura” out in the clubs, I sometimes ask the audience if anybody out there has ever dated a racist. Some people laugh, some don’t, some folks point at each other, and a few have even walked out. After the unofficial poll is taken, I tell them about the Laura in the song — she’s a former lover, a Christian, and she’s white. She’s also got a problem with the value of people unlike herself. The catalyst for the song “Laura,” written before Trump was elected, was a conversation I overheard at a local joint I used to hang out at. I heard a woman I kind of knew speaking to a man that I didn’t know, and she was ranting about the Black Lives Matter movement. She sounded angry and petty, pretty stupid and hateful. Like many, she understood BLM to mean that her life might not matter as much as she thought it did or that black lives mattered more. She never considered what historical shit went down to create such a powerful movement against police brutality and racial equality. Lust and attraction oftentimes kick integrity to the curb. Not this time. Our main character prevails here; his lust for Laura is gone, as anger and ignorance contort the beauty he once saw in her.

PRODUCTION NOTE – We veil this tale of Christian hypocrisy in the trappings of a genre. A pedal steel played by Matt “Pistol” Stoessl, Phil Karnats’ honky tonk guitar licks, and the low end provided by the Italian Two-Step Rhythm Section made up of Dave Cottini and Pete Cimbalo.

“Racquel Blue” had been lost in my memory for a long, long time. I had broken verses and different versions of the chorus; I’d play it in different keys and tunings. My wife, Kara Dean, had heard pieces of it for a long time, and she always wanted me to get after it and finish it for a recording. I slipped into it late one night when I was hotel-room-jamming-drinking-smoking with my band, and my bandmate, Adam Krier, really dug it too; he said we should record that one. I just didn’t really have a version that worked for me yet. I wanted it to sound like an Ennio Morricone kind of thing — including space and delays and chanting — but things rarely end up sounding the way you thought they would. This one, however, came really close, maybe not Morricone but as close as Lake County, Illinois could get.  

We were set up for tracking to tape at a studio in Grayslake, Illinois that my friend Dave Maratona owns and runs. We were all in the same room. Phil Karnats on electric, Dave Cottini on drums, Adam on organ, Pete Cimbalo on bass, and I was standing up singing and playing acoustic while I faced the band. I had finally worked up a version of the song that I liked, but the band hadn’t heard it yet. We ran through it for about 20 minutes while Dave dialed in sounds. The band immediately knew what to do with this song — they created that cinematic vibe, and I just sang and played a few little acoustic runs. We did three takes, and the third one was the one. 

The characters and specific relationships in the song are fictional, but they are based on some real people that my wife and I love, a real place that we have mythologized, and a series of events that may or may not have occurred. As I said at the outset of this fucking manifesto, none of that should matter to the listener. There is a sense of longing, failure, and heartbreak that my family and I have shared that turns up in the song, and I hope that is felt by anyone who hears it. I can’t tell you what or who Racquel Blue really is. I can’t betray the people and places involved — can you betray a place? A memory? I think you can. Anyway, the answer may be found in a bar called Leroy’s down the hill from Duncan’s.

DRUG NOTE – The first time we played it out live, some needy soul came to the table where they sell our merchandise and asked if he could score some Racquel Blue. He thought we were selling weed and the song was a cryptic advertisement that guided him to our merch table. Oh, to be that high.

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