“I love Coldplay!” Ryley Walker yells in the middle of a crowded bar in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. “There, I said it.” It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but after years of disavowing his passion for bands like Coldplay, Switchfoot and DC Talk in order to pursue an identity as know-it-all indie rocker, the singer-songwriter has finally reconciled who he is today with the music he cherished growing up. “All I want to do right now is go back to the music I heard when I was fucking 15,” he says. “When I listen to it, it takes me back to a place where things were very simple and I was very happy.”
At 29, Walker has already released five albums and three EPs. His breakthrough was 2015’s Primrose Green, a kaleidoscopic record that expertly combined Van Morrison–flavored soul-folk with sprawling, Chicago-style noise and jazz. With Deafman Glance, released in May, Walker zeroed in on a groovy exploration of the intersection of folk, jazz and good old indie-rock guitar worship. But on November 16th, he’ll unveil a very different project: The Lillywhite Sessions, a song-for-song cover of the Dave Matthews Band’s famously abandoned 1999–2000 studio material, recorded with veteran rock producer Steve Lillywhite. “We were going to approach it in a different way, possibly. Like, ‘Oh, let’s do it super fucked up. Like, what if we did a Sonic Youth kind of album, or like a noise band doing Dave Matthews,’” he says. But what he ended up with was closer to the source material than he’d expected.
In a conversation with Rolling Stone, Walker returns often to a very particular moment in American music history: the massive cultural upheaval that came with the advent of file-sharing. Like Radiohead’s Kid A and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, two of the first major releases to be leaked and downloaded piecemeal by rabid fans via programs like Napster and LimeWire, The Lillywhite Sessions’ fate was also bound up with downloading. As Dave Matthews Band mythology goes, while working on the album, drummer Carter Beauford told an RCA Records executive that both he and the rest of the group weren’t feeling the songs, which were uncharacteristically dark. “The vibe wasn’t there,” Beauford told Rolling Stone in 2001. “It was lacking everything the Dave Matthews Band was about.” So they put the songs on the shelf for another time. After being scrapped by the label in favor of 2001’s more straightforward, mainstream-sounding Everyday, The Lillywhite Sessions were resuscitated by an Internet leak, its songs quickly becoming some of the band’s most beloved. Many of the tracks were later re-recorded for the DMB’s excellent 2002 LP Busted Stuff.
“There’s legends of records that never get out,” Walker says. “My brain was warped by this. A kid presented me with a blank Memorex CD-R and it was cool that this wasn’t supposed to come out. They scrapped it, but it spread like wildfire. It got all over.”
Walker spoke to RS about The Lillywhite Sessions and reckoning with his teenage tastes.
Did you go through a period where you didn’t feel comfortable saying you liked Dave Matthews Band?
Oh, yeah, I absolutely dropped it when I was like 17. I’d either outgrown it or it had just kind of become passé, kind of lame. And definitely when I was 18 in 2007 and moved to Chicago. I was just full-on into noise and indie rock at that time. I stopped listening in my late teens, and I wouldn’t ever admit at that time that I liked Dave Matthews. So, I definitely had shame of my past. What would these cool kids in college think if they knew that I was jamming “Two Step?” At that time, he’d become the butt of every joke. It’s like, “Oh, a Dave Matthews fan. …” He was a soft and easy target.
What were you listening to when you started writing songs?
I was like 12 years old. You know, Zeppelin, all the classic-rock-radio shit that my parents put me on to. I wasn’t a cool kid, I didn’t have, like, Miles Davis records. It always blows my mind when people are like, “I have Miles Davis records and I’m 13.” Like … what? Jackson Browne and Weezer, shit like that. Funky suburban white-boy music. All the classics. I liked indie rock a lot in high school, like Pavement, Built to Spill, bands like that. Those were like my big “16 years old, getting a car” CDs. Definitely indie rock and classic rock and shit.
I was a big Sonic Youth fan, and at the same time I was listening to Dave Matthews. That’s kind of one thing I never dropped. I guess I got into Dave because he was just ever-present in my youth, where I lived. I don’t think kids are getting into Dave anymore, unless their parents are, or something. But I mean, I was just 13 years old in 2002, at the height. It’s definitely not his peak, it’s not his best year, but he was as popular as he’s ever been. Everybody I knew, like their friends’ older brothers and sisters all liked Dave. It was like an “older sibling” band.
Are you from a suburban area?
Yeah, from Rockford, like an hour away.
Same here. Everybody there liked Dave Matthews.
It definitely seeps more into the suburbs, for sure. It’s like townies and suburban people liked it a lot. I mean, I think bands like Radiohead and all that, it was kind of the same concept for me. Like Dave Matthews Band was pitched to me, and when I first heard it, it was like, “These are all the best musicians in the world.” They’re great at what they do, but I don’t think they’re the best musicians in the world. It was always pitched like, “Carter Beauford’s the best drummer on the planet. Dave Matthews is the best guitarist. Boyd Tinsley is the best violin player.”
What do you think ultimately makes the DMB so compelling for you?
I think there’s a lot of nostalgia for me, that I grew up around it. What I enjoy about Dave Matthews is that there seems to be a lot of self-awareness within him. I don’t know him personally, but it just seems like he’s very self-aware of what’s happening. And it’s like any other jam band, like Phish or the Dead, you know? There’s an element of hokeyness in there, and they know that it’s hokey. They know very well that there’s goofy [elements] … and they’re just making records for their fans, because there’s a huge base. Like, they don’t make records for popular radio, something like “Crash.”
I mean, I really just enjoy the chemistry of the band. I think it’s incredible. I do a lot of things live that kind of stop on a dime and change tempos and stuff. I started that when I was playing Dave Matthews songs as a kid. I learned to jack off and play Dave Matthews songs at the same time. It’s part of my life. I really do enjoy him. I think he doesn’t get enough due on his songwriting. There’s obviously a bunch of corny shit, but I think he’s an amazing songwriter. There’s that song “Grace is Gone” that’s up there with some of my favorite songs.
You’ve mentioned that you started as a second-generation Dave Matthews Band fan, the period that began after Before These Crowded Streets.
I love Everyday. That’s the record that’s like the most reviled. Dave Matthews fans are like, “This is a big piece of shit.” I love that record. I like later Dave more. I like Stand Up — I think that’s my favorite one. It’s so good, man! Like, [singing] “Bring that beat back to me.” I haven’t heard the newest one a lot, I listened to it once; it’s pretty good. I was too young to see him at, like, Red Rocks ‘94; that was my like my older siblings and stuff. That was the generation above me. So when I was like 12 or 13, my friends’ older siblings would go to Dave Matthews [shows] and come back and be like, “That’s the best shit I’ve ever seen in my life, man!” And then by the time I was 16, I could go to see Dave gigs. And by that time, Busted Stuff had come out, Stand Up. I love those records, so I came into Dave as a second-generation fan. Tales of getting fucked up and drinking a 30-rack of Keystone. Just like … debauchery was told. And nobody in my town was hip enough. There were definitely Deadheads, but I think the Dead was even kind of too hip for where I grew up. There were a few Deadheads I knew, but everybody liked Dave. All walks of life enjoyed his music.
What do you hope your album will reveal about Dave Matthews to the non-fans and the haters?
I did this more for Dave Matthews fans. Cause our numbers are strong. So I made the record for them, mostly. I’m not trying to change anybody’s opinion or mind. It’s a record that if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I get it. If you hate the source material … hey, it’s not for you. It’s not for everyone. You know, I like it on both sides, because there are also people who have reached out to me who are big Dave Matthews fans who heard about me through this, like, “This is a great take, man. Thank you so much. I’m gonna check out your records now.” I was in Denver, the jam-band capital of the world, and Dave Matthews fans were like, “Hey, man, we saw this and wanted to check you out.”
On one hand, it’s definitely a great feeling, and on the other hand, there’s people who know my music who hate Dave Matthews, like they can hear it … ’cause I hope I did a nice spin on it and they can enjoy it. It’s not so far removed from the Dave Matthews universe, but it’s also in his wheelhouse, too. It’s the best of both worlds. There’s big, weird, stoner parts on there, there’s really slow jams, there’s fast, fun ones. It’s kind of a mixed bag, but I think it flows together really well.
Did you go into the studio with a particular aesthetic in mind? Or did you work it out more as you were playing it?
We were actually really prepared, because the last few records I’ve done of my own tunes have been kind of nightmares. I wasn’t prepared at all, going into the studio, paying five-hundred fucking dollars, shitting money out of my ass. I’d be like, “I have some half-baked ideas, let’s try to fucking make brownies out of this.” But for this one, we were super prepared. As soon as the idea was pitched to me, I got ahold of Andy, the bass player on there, and we sat down for like two months beforehand, a few times a week at his apartment, kind of viciously rehearsing these and re-recording them.
And I think both of us are sort of big free-jazz and indie-rock fans. I mean, I love Chicago music a lot. Anything like ‘99-’02 here is my favorite. Like Jim O’Rourke. I love bands like the Sea and Cake. Chicago has this really unique approach to songwriting in indie rock where it’s not on the coast — it’s not as paranoid as the East Coast, or not as sunny and valley-ish, like a Joni Mitchell, Laurel Canyon kind of thing. So we kind of get the best of both worlds, and I want an approach it like that. It’s kind of a cold sort of way to look at music, I guess. The way I write songs, it’s like a happy thing, it’s like a monotone, somewhat distant and out-of-body [experience], it’s kind of like looking down at the song. I guess the records I make are just records that are totally influenced by the idea of making records in Chicago. Definitely wanted to have a Chicago sound. I love guitarists like Derek Bailey, and John Fahey was always a big one when I was a kid.
“It’s absurd that I’m doing a Dave Matthews cover album, coming from the sort of community that I’m in.”
Through studying and playing these songs, did you learn anything about Dave Matthews’ songwriting from this period?
I’ve listened to Dave Matthews more this year than I have since I was 15 years old, so I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that his newer stuff, I enjoy somewhat more. I love the new live band he’s got right now. I’ve learned that he’s pretty fucking dark. It’s funny, all the music [I listened to] growing up, even if it was kind of a sad song, a bummed-out song, it’s like, “Yeah, we’re fucking partying!” I never listened to Dave Matthews when I was feeling low.
So why The Lillywhite Sessions and not Busted Stuff? It’s got to be more than just that couple of songs difference. What is it about that original recording that’s more attractive to you than the album that eventually came out?
The big one is that it’s absurd. In the first place, it’s absurd that I’m doing a Dave Matthews cover album, coming from the sort of community that I’m in. It’s so far removed from Dave Matthews and Dave Matthews fans. I don’t play in amphitheaters. I sometimes get to play with jam bands, but for the most part, I just hang out with other dumbass songwriter people. My friend Eric pitched it to me as, “You should do The Lillywhite Sessions because it’s infamously unfinished.” We’re not trying to cap it off as, like, “This is the better version.” We can’t hold a candle to how good they were on that record. It’s from a grim era where Dave was obviously pretty down. All the lyrics are about getting fucked up and stuff.
A lot of alcoholism.
Yeah, he’s a fucking partier. I mean, I know people who have met him and have hung out with him and who’ve been like, “Oh, yeah, dude parties. He’s a rager. This is sick.” Cause I party too. I’m fucking feeling it right now. To do an unfinished record, it’s like, the whole concept is bizarre. I guess that from a commercial standpoint the selling point is … you know, we could have done “Crash” or “Ants Marching” or any popular songs, but it’s like those songs are so well known. The only people that know these songs are Dave Matthews fans.
Especially songs like “JTR.”
Yeah, that’s a fan fave. Never officially recorded, right?
Right. So how do you explain the discrepancy between the fact that the album was originally scrapped, but that these songs ended up becoming some of the band’s most beloved music?
Yeah, it’s a deep fan favorite, and we’re covering deep fan favorites and B sides and unreleased songs that nobody who isn’t a Dave Matthews fan would necessarily know. And for whatever reason, they scrapped it. There’s an interview where they’re on Carson Daly or something like that, some talk show, and he asked them about the leak. ‘Cause it was a big story. I remember watching MTV and like, “The album leaked!” Big music news. And they looked pissed. They were not in the mood to talk about it. They were like, “Yeah, it’s an album that’s not done. You don’t want to, like, show your unfinished shit that’s mostly ideas, kind of figuring shit out, like, why would we want that to come out?” I have tons of rough mixes, and if they got put out there somehow — obviously not on that scale — but yeah, I’d be pissed. Rightfully so — I’m not done with this shit. I also think it’s a fascinating point in music history, ’cause that’s at the same time as Metallica getting pissed at Napster. So, yeah, there’s this whole early-2000s … everybody on the planet got the Internet finally.
Having studied both The Lillywhite Sessions and Busted Stuff, what do you think are the actual empirical differences between them?
I really enjoy Busted Stuff, that’s one of my favorite studio records. I don’t like how there’s more of an Americana feel on it. I forget the producer of Busted Stuff. But for the most part, there’s this weird — and I love Dave acoustic — but it seems like there’s slide guitars on there. The version of “Bartender” is good. But when it comes to Busted Stuff, [The Lillywhite Sessions] just pops way harder. It’s more rockin’, I guess. Busted Stuff seems to be — not lazier, the songs are still good, but there’s this rootsy, folky approach to it, other than, like, “Let’s be fuckin’ University of Illinois’ fuckin’ Genesis, or something.”
Definitely. There’s an openness and a levity to the sessions that is lost on the studio versions. Your album really captures that. The Lillywhite Sessions were kind of like the end of that sound for them.
I guess that is a good way to put it. I’ve never thought about that. The Lillywhite Sessions was the end of their big funky, fun, party rock/jam band. And I mean, I can’t read Dave’s mind, but all signs point to him always having artistic crises. I think he’s aware that people kind of shit on him because of how popular he is. Like, “This shit sucks.” So, I think he really wanted to be taken more seriously as a songwriter, so these songs are all dark and fucked up. And The Lillywhite Sessions is kind of this transition where it’s like, “Hey, let’s have fun with this music,” became “I’m a genuine songwriter.” And I think a song like “Grace Is Gone” is a good example. That’s an amazing song. It’s like him trying to be Dylan or Neil or something like that. Be one of the greats. And I think at that point, too, not that he was irrelevant or less popular, but the Nineties sort of party rock like Blues Traveler, Phish or whoever the fuck … all those sorts of funky college bands had kind of died out, and hip-hop became bigger than that. All the kids wanted to start listening to fucking 50 Cent or Nelly, or whatever.