Ryley Walker: Busted Stuff That Has Been Sung
photo by Evan Jenkins
He’s not trolling you: Ryley Walker takes a deep-dive into Dave Matthews Band’s lost album The Lillywhite Sessions that’s all love letter and little irony.
Onstage at Brooklyn’s Union Pool during a flash-flood filled August Saturday, Ryley Walker invites the packed room to come visit him in Chicago and stay on his couch. The crowd laughs politely. Then, the guitarist gives out his home address, emphasizing that he really means it, and the laughter gets a little more nervous. He and Bill MacKay launch into another acoustic guitar duo, spidering and complex.
“I don’t take myself very seriously at all,” the 29-year-old Walker says a few days later, hanging out by the South Williamsburg waterfront, speaking in a charming slacker-stoner drawl. With a Twitter account that reveals him as one of his generation’s sharpest collectors of folklore from what he happily calls a “low-totem-pole, indie-rock career,” his public persona is the type that sometimes distracts from the content of his music. It’s a career that includes four albums of original songs since 2014 (including this year’s Deafman Glance), as well as studio collaborations with improvisers like MacKay and Charles Rumback, and a catalog of unofficial live recordings documenting a rapidly changing musician. But those tweets.
“Greta Van Fleet sounds like a free mp3 download card that came with a chain wallet,” he shit-posted recently about the Michigan rock band. Another favorite: “Please pirate my music from a torrent website. We work hard to make them sound good Spotify stream sound like doo doo pie.” He is, as they say, a loose cannon. And on his newest album, his Twitter persona seems, at first, to finally overtake his musical self.
The Lillywhite Sessions is a complete-album cover of Dave Matthews’ infamous recordings of the same name, originally tracked in 1999 and 2000 with producer Steve Lillywhite, scrapped from a fall 2000 release, and partly reworked into 2002’s Busted Stuff. In some quarters—the many music fans who’ve never heard of Ryley Walker, for example—this might not sound like anything remotely controversial.
But, at least where Ryley Walker comes from, musically speaking, “Dave Matthews cover band” sounds like the cue to leave a bar. In the indie-rock world, Walker’s Lillywhite Sessions might be dismissed as “troll-folk”—or perhaps “troll-jazz”—and tucked into a drawer with Father John Misty, Kanye West and other artists vying for too much psychic attention. But that would be a mistake because perhaps the most absurd thing about Ryley Walker is that his music isn’t absurd at all.
Escaping an evangelical upbringing, Walker moved to Chicago at 18 and dove into the local noise scene. “That was the first form of improvising or jamming that I had. It was very psychedelic. I had played in rock bands as a kid, but going to a shitty basement on the south side of Chicago and seeing someone with a rod and a contact mic, and someone with a saxophone, it was this bizarre new underground. And it was kooky and hokey and absurd, but that’s where I got ideas about jamming. I knew about jambands, but I had never been in one.”
He quickly started to develop his own music on the side. “While I was in those noise bands [including Heat Death], I just always worked on fingerpicking or writing songs,” he says. “I was way into John Fahey and Bert Jansch and Nick Drake.” Though it took a few albums to find his singing voice, when Walker opens his mouth to sing, out comes a booming richness that makes crate-diggers blink and classic-rock lovers swoon. (Though Walker disavows 2015’s Primrose Green, lovers of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks should check it out.)
No matter how many times he tweets something like “*eats 2/$3 hot dogs at I-80 gas station and blows the bathroom up with a turd so big that the paramedics come and put one of those big warm blankets around me while they fish it out*” (as he did recently), it is his musical personality—singing, guitar playing, improvising—that negates nearly all tweets. It is almost impossible not to take his music seriously. It scans as sincere because it sounds sincere, but also because it is sincere.
“It’s done out of love,” Walker insists multiple times about The Lillywhite Sessions. “I think if you’re a fan of Dave Matthews, you’ll like this record.” It’s a case he makes convincingly, citing Dave Matthews Band as an absolutely pivotal act of his generation, a stadium-rock band in an era when stadium-rock neared extinction, creator of anybody-can-play riffs like “Crash Into Me,” comparable to “Smoke on the Water.” Walker remembers hearing the outtakes collection for the first time. “It was taboo,” he recalls, happily imitating the furtive hand-off of a burned CD-R from a classmate. “Like: This wasn’t supposed to come out. You’re not supposed to have this.”
His obsession with Matthews wasn’t necessarily a lasting influence, though. “I kind of discovered more music through Phish and the Dead,” he shrugs. “They’re musicologists as well—you think about Jerry digging so deep into the American songbook and Phish loving so many esoteric bands. It never seemed to go as far with Dave.” Walker would wind up hanging out with the Dead Freaks, Phishheads, hippies and classic- rock fans in high school as he started to draw his own musical lines. (Yes to Trey and Jerry. No to Béla Fleck and Widespread Panic.)
“What I like about jambands is that it’s a tradition,” he says. “Phish fans are getting older now and bringing their kids, and there are Dead fans who go with their parents. I think Dave is like that, too. He was a good way into jambands.”
It was similar for Walker’s longtime rhythm section, bassist Andrew Scott Young and drummer Ryan Jewell, both heavyweight contemporary jazz weirdoes who made it through Dave Matthews en route to their own musical paths. “Because he was so big when I was a kid, everybody has a personal history with him,” Walker says. “Ryan said he learned drumming from Carter Beauford’s drum technique videos, like Under the Table and Drumming. Get it?!”
Young was such a Matthews fan, in fact, that when he first received a copy of the original Lillywhite Sessions bootleg, he refused to listen out of reverence for Matthews. “Like he wouldn’t want me listening to his unfinished work or something.”
On a recent duo tour, before the idea for an album had even hatched, he and Walker spent time listening to old Dave Matthews Band live recordings for the first time in a while. “Ryley and I had both been doing some revisiting before he approached me about the cover record,” Young says. “It was great remembering some of those songs and singing along with them, even though I hadn’t thought about them in years. I definitely heard stuff that I didn’t realize had influenced me so much. Listening now, I, of course, hear some cheesy moments or things I’m not as into.”
With a shared vocabulary, they set out to make what Walker calls a “Gastr del Dave” record, a reference to Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs’ Chicago-based ‘90s experimental duo Gastr del Sol. “I’m a big fan of how [they] did shit,” Walker says, “this off-kilter avant-folk with pretty pop melodies filtered through that lens, with crazy, drone-noise passages. Dave Matthews has these big jams, so we kept those, but also did something fucked up.
“There’s a conversation about the reassessment of everything right now,” Walker adds. “The internet has decentralized or destabilized hatred of music. I’m sick of music snobs, and I say this speaking as a recovering music snob. Fuck it, who cares anymore? I’m not trying to be the forefront of Dave revisionism, but it’s been fun talking about him again.” Turning hippie world-beat into more restrained indie jazz, Walker certainly isn’t the first musician to reclaim pop music.
“I’m drawn to when singer-songwriters are supposedly the shittiest,” Walker admits. (photo by Evan Jenkins)
Walker can easily see both sides of the Virginia songwriter. “The only song we had trouble with was ‘Monkey Man,’” he recalls. “That’s a bad song. It’s such a lame groove. It’s such a cornball song, even in Dave’s world. We decided to try to just make it sound like we put it through a deep fryer.” (It is also the first ever officially released version of the song, never even performed live by Matthews.)
“But ‘Bartender’—the original is amazing and I wanted to play it like that. It’s like a droney rock song,” he says. “That’s my favorite shit. Like Akron/Family or John Fahey or the Velvet Underground!”
With Nick Mazzarella on saxophone, Walker and company play it surprisingly straight on several songs, not even sounding particularly off-kilter. On the nearly 11-minute “JTR,” they even approximate Dave Matthews Band’s global bounce, at least before self-immolating a third of the way through, sailing off into a vibraphone-touched Chicago space-out.
“Our vision was for us to have it sound like our own thing,” Young says, “not us doing our impression of DMB.”
Despite the big set-up of making a Dave Matthews cover record, the punchline is perhaps that it’s neither a troll nor a radical critical argument for Matthews, just another mile marker in Walker’s rapidly truckin’ career and an acknowledgement of who he is as a contemporary musician. One of the guitarist’s achievements with The Lillywhite Sessions is that he has figured out how to simultaneously be a bratty millennial prankster and also a serious guitarist and songwriter.
Though people started shouting for Dave Matthews songs as soon as the album was announced, Walker insists he’s forgotten them all already and doesn’t have any plans to perform them live. He’s still touring with his last album, Deafman Glance, and insists that The Lillywhite Sessions is most properly thought of as an extension of the soft-edged, flute-dabbed spaces he started to explore on that album. “The last record was a hungover-and-stoned record,” he says, “and this is like a coming-around-and-getting-a- second-wind-and-drinking-Miller-Light-and-breaking-shit-Dave- Matthews record. It’s sort of a come up after the last one.”
On Twitter, Walker is fond of referring to his “weight-gain era” and throws out other self-aware rock codes, but it is clear that he appreciates music on the day-to-day level of someone who is a talented musician completely in love with music, obsessing over how it was that his favorite artists were able to create the magic they did, and what happened after.
“I’m not a contrarian, I don’t think, but I’m drawn to when singer-songwriters are supposedly the shittiest,” he declares. “I love [Pink Floyd’s 1994 post-Roger Waters album] The Division Bell and love seeing people’s faces when I say it’s one of my three favorite Floyd albums. I love artists and their masterpieces but also their train wrecks and hidden gems.”
It is at this level of fandom that Walker’s authenticity rings truest, a fan of every kind of recorded music. “It sounds so lame and simple, but I’m just a huge live-music fan,” he says. “I’ve met my best friends at gigs. Records are important, but live music is my favorite fuckin’ thing on the planet, and the documentation is really important.”
Put another way, Walker’s tension between pranksterdom and discipline—his simultaneous commitment to and reticence at having a Dave Matthews era—might be seen as a way to create the freedom (and audience) to one day build a Division Bell of his own. For now, he’s happy to keep blowing through different musical periods, jumping from lyrical, acoustic-guitar instrumentals (2014’s All Kinds of You), Rhodes duets (2015’s Primrose Green) and prog- folk (2016’s Golden Songs That Have Been Sung) to abandoning the acoustic guitar entirely (2018’s Deafman Glance).
Ask about his past and one discovers that there are, in fact, topics that that Walker takes seriously. “There’s old records I just hate and am embarrassed of,” he admits. “I’m a very self- conscious person. There are just songs I don’t like anymore. I want to keep progressing and getting better.”
But to that end, he’s very happy that recordists have started showing up at his gigs, especially the gang from NYCTaper.com. For a while, Walker ran a blog that collected his own and others’ recordings of his shows, and many are now gathered on the Live Music Archive. “It comes from a big love of the Dead,” he says, and makes a point of putting tapers on his guest lists. “It’s a big desire on my part, and a big influence from the Dead and Phish. I truly appreciate that people take time out of their lives and get all that gear and come to shows.
“I have a revolving door of musicians because everybody’s playing in lots of bands, and I always try to make sure that no two shows are the same. We have songs, but always jam on them, and always cut loose. Everybody who works with me has carte blanche to go off the rails.”
From Walker’s point of view, though, the recordings are purely educational. “I listen to my own shit differently,” he says. “It’s like a coach watching football tapes, working on plays, listening to strengths and weaknesses.”
Someday, presumably, The Lillywhite Sessions will go the same way, a far-off project to be disavowed—perhaps just at the point in Walker’s career where his earliest albums begin to make sense to him again. For now, though, he assesses: “It’s an insane leap to do this Dave thing. It was a challenge to do it right.”
Walker’s show at Union Pool in August comes the same weekend as Phish’s cancelled Curveball event, and the festival diaspora can be spotted among the crowd. The lines between genres and music scenes tumbled down long ago. Everything changes, and Walker’s Lillywhite Sessions speaks to the present moment of canon deconstruction.
But it also speaks to Ryley Walker personally and, in some ways, it’s as confessional as any singer-songwriter album he has put out, if not more, despite the fact that he didn’t write a single lyric on it. “I love connecting with the shit-on records,” Walker says proudly, a form of appreciation that he has turned into music of its own.
Whether or not the world around him is ready for, or in need of, an indie-jazz Dave Matthews tribute album remains an open question. For some listeners, it might well be their first exposure to the songs of Dave Matthews. And for some of those, it might even be too soon. For others, it’s just as likely to be their first exposure to Ryley Walker. In the past, he’s debuted album tracks via National
Public Radio, but The Lillywhite Sessions could find him a different audience, and turn Walker into his own gateway—the same way Dave Matthews was for him.
“It’s all I’ve been doing this year,” Walker says. Arranging Dave, playing Dave, listening to Dave. He enthuses over 2005’s Stand Up and its oversized drum sound, made with hip-hop producer Mark Batson. “I get so much joy out of listening to Dave Matthews,” Walker says. “I haven’t thought this much about Dave Matthews since I was 10.”
This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.