The Chicago folk musician explains the concept behind his absurd-but-beautiful reworking of The Lillywhite Sessions.
For someone who seems to really relish in being a total goofball online, Ryley Walker approaches music with an endearing sincerity.
Walker has made his name as a prolific, folk shapeshifter whose prowess on guitar has always been central to his appeal. With each record, the Chicago artist expands the conventions of his songwriting, experimenting with free jazz, psychedelia, Americana, and fuzzed-out rock.
It’s “smart” music that sometimes delightfully clashes with Walker’s waggish, “I like what I like” persona. After all, this is the same guy whose review of Leonard Cohen, upon listening to the critically adored songwriter for the first time, was “fuck this guy.”
So it should come as no surprise that just six months after dropping the intensely personal Deafman’s Glance, Walker has released The Lillywhite Sessions, a loving, song-by-song reimagining of a lost Dave Matthews Band record. We talked with Walker over email while he was on tour in Europe to learn whether this latest record was yet another gag, or something closer to a loving tribute. Walker swings by NYC at Baby’s All Right on December 14.
AdHoc: What was your introduction to Dave Matthews Band? What’s been the extent of your fandom?
Ryley Walker: I think anyone else my age just heard them on the radio a shit-ton. Kind of omnipresent in America for a good 13 years there. I loved them a lot as a 12-14 year old, before I was smitten by Drop D guitars and weed.
It’s difficult to have a lukewarm opinion of Dave Matthews Band. It seems like you’re either a diehard fan or snarky critic. And you decided to make a full covers album of a record that’s the favorite for many diehards. Why The Lillywhite Sessions, and not Under the Table and Dreaming or Stand Up?
Would have been too easy to play the hits. The absurdity of the project got more elevated doing strictly B-sides. The only way to make it more absurd is to get Steve Lillywhite to produce my next record, but I don’t think I could afford him.
Why do you think DMB is so polarizing?
The fan base and his popularity. I think they are all fantastic writers and musicians, but their place in pop music history throughout the ‘90s—against things like Nirvana or Pearl Jam or whatever—could definitely split his perception into the “soft” camp. But fuck that.
I love your take on “Digging a Ditch,” which doesn’t sound anything like DMB, but also seems pretty removed from your typical sound. What was your reference point for that arrangement?
I think something Dinosaur Jr.—def had a slick Chicago indie rock sound to it at first. Upon further deconstruction, it just seemed like a fun option. The good thing about these covers is that the very idea of doing Dave covers is completely disarming to anyone who knows my tunes. So no rules beyond that. Was fun to make shit completely different.
Which song was the most difficult to interpret in a way you were happy with?
I like “Monkey Man” the best. Most reviews I’ve read say it’s unlistenable, and that’s cool. I like Gastr Del Sol a lot. One of my favorite bands. For that I was saying, “Let’s do Gastr Del Dave.”
What kind of creative overlap do you see between Deafman Glance and The Lillywhite Sessions?
Not much. There’s no calculated lineage between the two. Just time and opportunity. I finished Deafman Glance, and this opportunity came up like immediately after. And if I was gonna do it, it had to be done then and there. Cranked it out.
If you were to do another cover album, which record would you choose?
I have no idea. It sounds like bullshit, since I just released a DMB covers record, but I’ve never been much of a covers guy. Maybe Genesis. I like them a lot.
What’s next for you? Are you currently working on any new music?
Nothing in the works. Few shows here and there, but I don’t have any new songs or anything. I just moved to NYC, and I’m trying to settle in and get a regular job. My resume is no good. If anyone has any leads, get in touch. I’ve been a dishwasher and call center agent but was fired from all of them. Not looking good.