Lady Bird taught us a lot, you know, as a society, but mostly it taught us that the Dave Matthews Band was better than we remembered, and evoked a lot of feelings and complicated emotions about what it was like to be a teenager and to first be interrogating yourself about why you loved what you loved. It was a welcome reminder to regularly check, reevaluate, and revisit long-held opinions, but it also made clear what a whole lot of people already knew: The Dave Matthews Band has a lot of jams, and some of the best ones were never even officially released.
In the interest of not reductively — and inexorably — tying DMB to a (very good, but still …) movie forever, Vulture asked musician Ryley Walker to explain himself. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, some backstory: Up until this point, Walker has showcased his brilliant musicianship across a number of records and collaborations, but it was still shocking to learn that he was covering DMB’s the Lillywhite Sessions in its original form, and then releasing that record.
The Dave Matthews Band version of the songs that made up the Lillywhite Sessions were never released in their original form, though they did officially (and, uh, unofficially) find their way to release over the years, but even without their scarcity, the songs occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of DMB heads. Written at a time when Matthews was drinking pretty heavily, the songs were dark and sad, and eventually the entire record was scrapped. To get some insight into how and why Walker — who is much younger than Matthews and has no personal connection to Matthews that we’re aware of — was so compelled to undertake this project, we asked him to write about the Lillywhite Sessions, what they meant to him, and why he decided to do this in the first place.
Can you imagine how annoyed Dave Matthews’ bartender must be in The Lillywhite Sessions? Jesus. Dave’s the worst kind of patron in its songs — yammering on and on to this poor bartender about his broken heart and broken spirit, wagging his fist at Heaven above. He’s not violent. The only harm he’s doing is to himself. But it’s some Leaving Las Vegas sloppy-drunk poetry. You have to call his ex-brother-in-law or his new young girlfriend on the phone behind the bar: “Yeah, he’s on that dead love and lost hope shit again … Yep, asking me for ‘the wine we gave Jesus’ again … Yeah, if you could come get him that’d be great.” After he’s picked up, you kinda feel awful for making the call. And everybody left at the place just does the live-action shrug emoji and moves on. He’ll be back next week.
So on one hand, you sorta get why the Dave Matthews Band felt compelled to stash these tunes away and instead opted for a shimmery, people-pleaser McPop album (Everyday). The Lillywhites are ugly, dark, beer-breathed little dirges — almost completely without the lithe arrangements and bright edges of DMB’s previous stuff. I think fans who got ahold of this shelved record on Napster heard something else there below the murk. Like what Rust Cohle says at the end of True Detective, something about the deeper, warmer substance being beneath the darkness, as he was about to die. I think sonically and lyrically these tunes almost get there. And if finished, maybe there was a true revelation awaiting DMB and its fans. So the myth gets deep-fried in the What Might Have Been and fans just can’t stop themselves from believing this was the One. I totally get it.
Reimagining this unfinished, lost DMB album was in no way meant to be us saying, “Here’s what this thing could have been,” or a “finishing the masterpiece” thing for Dave. DMB was and is an American institution for lots of midwestern kids from near ghost towns. DMB was your first concert, your first wasted-at-a-concert concert. You’d spend a whole summer paycheck on two tickets, ditch weed, and beer — so you made the most of it. We wanted to honor that time, to underscore it as just as important as when you discovered Sonic Youth. DMB gets so much flack from independent music critics and fans. Lots of people betraying their musical journey, rewriting their personal history to keep their record clean. Well, no one’s record is squeaky-clean. I guess we wanted to say, “Enough of that shit.” You should be proud of the journey that took you from DMB to Van Morrison to Tom Waits to Aphex Twin. That’s not an easy journey. Most people don’t make it — which is okay, too. That’s one reason why we did this.
And if you really think about it, the leap from The Lillywhite Sessions to cool kid isn’t so far. What is “Bartender” but a heady Swans ripper? And what are “Grey Street” and “Raven” but Gastr del Sol remade to fill an amphitheater? Or what is “Kit Kat Jam” but the amphitheater Jim O’Rourke? The main riff on “JTR” isn’t so far removed from Jack Rose or David Grubbs.
Sometimes I think “Captain” is the skeleton key to this whole thing. DMB’s version sort of sounds like a sex jam, kinda similar to “Crush” from Before These Crowded Streets. We stretched and bent the song a bit into something like Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas — dehydrated, cactus-trippin’ desert-jazz. It gets at the “deeper warmth beneath the dark” that Rust was talking about. It’s more heartbreaking than “Grace Is Gone” in some ways. It’s full-on nihilistic. But it’s a soulful nihilism — Dave sorta taking the bull by the horns, finding strength and courage in the meaninglessness of this whole affair, wagging that same fist at that same Heaven above. But his fist is tighter here. I have no doubt that on any given weekend there are people camping out all over America jamming to The Lillywhite Sessions while they share a fatty around the campfire. If I had one wish for our version of this album, it’s that these same fine folks give it a chance with that campfire spliff, and maybe, just maybe, we get a “Hell yeah” nod from a couple of them. Or maybe, just maaaaybe, one DMB hater and one DMB head, say “Hell yeah” at the same time. This is an exercise in camaraderie, a real bridge builder.
The reason why we focused on The Lillywhite Sessions and not one of the big, official albums like Under the Table and Dreaming or Crash is because, well, those songs are so big and well-known. We wanted to capture the imagination of DMB fans, not necessarily our fans. Even though most of these Lillywhites were rerecorded for the record Busted Stuff, I don’t think they ever trumped these Lillywhite versions in the culture consciousness. These (albeit even in their sketched form) are the versions the heads hold on to. So this is dedicated to the heads. To Antsmarching.org, with love, Ryley Walker.