Why Ryley Walker Wanted to Cover an Unreleased Dave Matthews Band Album

Evan Jenkins
Ryley Walker

Soon after Ryley Walker announced that his latest album would be a back-to-back cover of the Dave Matthews Band’s unreleased-but-leaked 2001 LP The Lillywhite Sessions, the 29-year-old indie guitarist headed over to Antsmarching.org, the site where Dave’s fans dwell.

“There were a few people in there that were like 'F--k this guy. He’s coming at this for the wrong reasons,'” Walker says. “[But] I made this record for Dave fans. It wasn’t born out of irony. It’s a loving tribute. Everyone who played on the record grew up in the suburbs and were big Daveheads. [He’s] part of the pop zeitgeist.”

Named after famed producer Steve Lillywhite, who Dave Matthews Band was working with at the time, The Lillywhite Sessions leaked to the internet in the spring of 2001, and featured a number of songs like “Busted Stuff,” “Grace Is Gone,” and “Diggin' a Ditch” — songs that had yet to make it to an official studio recording, though they had been worked into the band’s live set at that point. Many of the songs would eventually be re-recorded for Dave Matthews Band’s 2002 album Busted Stuff, which didn’t feature Lillywhite as the producer, but instead British producer Stephen Harris.

Walker recorded the 12 songs that appear on The Lillywhite Sessions in a four-day burst back in January 2018 in Chicago, while he was waiting for the release of Deafman Glance in May, his fourth album of original material. But the project wasn’t a spur of the moment endeavor; he had been kicking around this idea for a while. And it took months of pre-planning, where Walker says he listened to The Lillywhite Sessions “about 500 times” and worked for two months straight, getting down the arrangements. Initially, he just played along with the original recordings. But eventually, he found the creative direction he wanted to take it, describing it as “Dave through the filter of Drag City records.” He’s referring to the Chicago label, as well as a post-rock sound that bands like Tortoise and the Sea and Cake draw from — along with labels like Thrill Jockey and Touch & Go.

Covering an another artist’s album start to finish isn’t a new concept - the Flaming Lips released an album in 2014 called With a Little Help From My Fwends, a trippy track-by-track take on the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 2015, Ryan Adams’ covered Taylor Swift’s smash 1989, releasing it while Swift was still supporting that on tour (the two often chatted about it on Twitter while he was still recording it). Releasing an unreleased album that was leaked to the internet adds a twist to this, though.

At the time, Matthews wasn’t too pleased with the leak, telling Billboard in 2002 that it equated to “a painter finding his painting for sale in a gallery before he's finished it. It was a huge violation."

Dead Oceans, Walker’s label, alerted Dave Matthews Band’s management early on about the project — and getting their blessing wasn’t difficult at all. “It was greeted with open arms and supposedly Dave himself has put an ear on it,” says Dead Oceans’ A&R Eric Dienes. “And while it was most certainly out-of-the-box for us, the partners here were almost immediately into it. Budget was approved in, like, 24 hours. I imagined it as an even more experimental album than what Ryley turned in. He retained its initial integrity and feel — and used some of the themes of The Lillywhite Sessions to tell about himself.”

Walker says he doesn’t have any plans to work the music into his live sets, but he does hope that paying homage to the Dave Matthews Band will throw some people for a loop.

“Dave is the most punk as it gets,” Walker says. “He doesn’t give a f--k about radio hits. He has his own fanbase. What makes it more fun and fascinating is that we’re covering songs only hardcore fans would know. And it does make record nerds upset, which I appreciate.”