Published Nov 14, 2018For the uninitiated, you'd be forgiven for thinking Ryley Walker was trolling when he announced, back in late September, a full covers album based on the Dave Matthews Band's most famous bootleg, The Lillywhite Sessions, especially after releasing his latest studio album Deafman Glance already this year.
Less than a month earlier, Walker broke the brains of music nerds everywhere with a now-infamous interview where he talked shit about Leonard Cohen while listening to his music for the very first time. As an artist who's also often described as a capital-S songwriter, things didn't compute with the shallow minds on the internet, who expected nothing but reverence.
"I'm not trying to be a total provocateur," Walker tells Exclaim! "I thought it was just an entertaining article, but some people took it really far and they definitely want me dead."
Then there's his Twitter account: a heady and hilarious soup of vicious takedowns, pop-cultural musings, and self-aware statements about his all-around unhealthy lifestyle.
"Back when Starbucks had CD racks… I would shoplift maroon 5 discs and resell to FYE to buy drugs," he tweeted when Adam Levine and the boys were named Super Bowl LIII halftime show performers. "Without hits like 'she will be loved' I wouldn't have smoked crack in abandoned warehouses."
As Walker tells it, none of this behaviour is new — just a continuation of the personality he's had since he was a child, in which he would "say dumb shit, do dumb shit."
But his love for the Dave Matthews Band is no joke.
"I hate the idea you can't like something because it's popular," the Chicago singer-songwriter says from his new home base in New York City. "I've been accused of being a record nerd or snob, so I think this is kind of a rallying cry against that: sort of disarming that taboo of hating something because it's not great. And I really think Dave Matthews is great. It comes out of a total place of love.
"It's funny," he continues. "I love all sorts of music, and I pride myself on having this vast library and knowledge in my head of music, but I haven't been listening to a lot of music outside of Dave Matthews."
He's not joking.
As Walker tells it, when he's driving around town, he listens to the DMB. (He estimates he listened to over 100 Dave Matthews Band concert bootlegs while touring up the West coast recently.) When he leaves his apartment to get coffee, he throws Dave Matthews on his headphones. And every morning he wakes up, he goes on the DMB subreddit.
"Dave's been a part of my life since I was very young, and I think the intrinsic, beer-drinking party dog is still in me," Walker admits. "Dave brings that out a lot."
Like a lot of 30-somethings, Walker got into the DMB as a teenager.
"My access to music at the time was the radio," he recalls, reminiscing about growing up in suburban Chicago. "I didn't have a cool record store or any sort of reference to Pavement or Built to Spill."
Most of the music he found was through friends and older siblings, who would share CD-Rs of the day's hits, often downloaded through Kazaa.
In early 2001, a classmate mentioned they'd been listening to unreleased Dave Matthews tracks online and gave Walker a burnt copy of them.
It was his first introduction to The Lillywhite Sessions, an album recorded in 1999 and 2000 by producer Steve Lillywhite that was ultimately shelved after the DMB's label deemed the songs too dark for the band's party-hearty audience. A number of the tracks would be revisited a few years later for 2002's Busted Stuff, but the initial sessions would never officially see the light of day.
But in the early 2000s, like a lot of anticipated albums (think Radiohead's Kid A), the songs were leaked and traded around amongst fans.
That's how Walker got his hands on a copy, and it obviously left an indelible mark on the songwriter. When a friend and fellow DMB fan at his label, Dead Oceans, pitched him the idea of doing a full Dave Matthews Band covers album, he couldn't say no.
"I wanted to cover a bunch of Dave songs, but the idea of covering 'Crash' or 'Ants Marching' sounded a bit too easy," Walker says. "That would probably be a joke to most people."
Described as "a nice, loving tribute" to the Dave Matthews Band, Walker's version of The Lillywhite Sessions is for true heads.
To prepare for the album, he sat next to his stereo for weeks and learned all of the songs, track-by-track, on the guitar, then began breaking them down one-by-one to understand their elements.
Recruiting bassist Andrew Scott Young and drummer Ryan Jewell (himself a disciple of DMB drummer Carter Beauford), the band sat down three nights a week last November and December to iron out the songs before stepping into the studio.
Inspired in part by the Chicago bands they also grew up listening to like the Sea and Cake and Tortoise, the songs took on new shapes, some drastically so (standout "Diggin' a Ditch" could be a Dinosaur Jr. song), while others retained much of their original form ("Grace Is Gone").
At one point, much like the original Lillywhite Sessions, they thought they'd never be released.
"I remember during day two of the recording sessions, one of the guys at the label called me and said, 'Dude, there might actually be a hang-up with this legally,' because we had to ask permission, because all these songs, or a few of them at least, are unreleased," he says.
Walker's label had sent a letter to the DMB's handlers early on in the process explaining the project, but had yet to hear a response giving them the go-ahead. But they ultimately got their blessing, and Walker still has "fingers crossed" that Matthews himself gets to hear the songs soon.
Even if he doesn't, Walker is still amazed by the outpouring of affection he's received since the album got announced and a few of his renditions have trickled out online.
"The amount of people who've come out of the woodwork, like old pals of mine… people you'd never expect, like metalhead dudes, or whatever," he says trailing off. "It warms my heart to do these songs and cover them and have such a nice reaction."
The fact that Matthews and the band were discredited for so long by people like the mainstream media only adds to the experience.
"You know what, 'Crash' is actually a beautiful fucking song, but Dave Matthews was the butt of the joke for a long time there… everyone's coming around and softening up to these things," he says, also citing a renewed interest in the Grateful Dead and jam bands in general.
"Every Dave Matthews concert I've been to is just people having fun and drinking beer, which is what I like to do," he adds. "I feel the same way when I go to a fucking drone show. Everyone is wearing black and like, 'Yeah, we're different,' but I don't know though; you guys are actually all kind of the same. At least when I go to a Dave Matthews concert, I get to do a beer bong and nobody will think twice about it."
The Lillywhite Sessions is out November 16 on Dead Oceans.