Next month's Ringling Underground concert is going to be special. Headlining the show, which takes place underneath the stars (and underneath David's junk) in the Ringling Museum courtyard, is Walker Lukens, an on-the-rise singer from Austin, Texas, whose most recent EP, Never Understood, was recorded with longtime collaborators the Side Arms and produced by Jim Eno, drummer for one of America's greatest bands, Spoon. We spoke with Lukens Wednesday to find out more about how he transformed from "acoustic troubadour guy" into "groove"-oriented artist, why he's selling coffee on his website and what he thinks of his first gig at an art museum. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sarasota Magazine: On your tour, you're playing six dates in Florida, which is pretty unusual.
Walker Lukens: Bands don't go to Florida very often, but it's actually a great place to build a fanbase because of that. Audiences are a little more appreciative of people coming. Especially when you get farther south, off of I-10, people are just more stoked to see bands.
Sarasota: You live in Austin, the "live music capital of the world." Is it difficult to break through in a city that's so known for great music?
Lukens: I love living here, but Austinites who like to go see music are so spoiled. They don't buy merch. They don't want to pay a lot of money to see you play.
Sarasota: But at the same time, you met Jim Eno of Spoon there and got him to collaborate. Do those kinds of encounters happen a lot?
Lukens: Austin's a small town. I met Jim at a bar because a mutual friend at one point was his personal assistant for a few weeks. Those encounters happen really easily here.
Sarasota: How did that relationship develop?
Lukens: At that point I had put out one record under my own name, and I met Jim, and then Spoon went to record a record, so it went from, "Let's do something," to him getting very busy with Spoon, and I was promoting the album I was putting out. The timing ended up working out. We started recording in 2014 and the first thing we did together came out in January 2015 and then an EP came out last year and by the time we get to Sarasota another single will be out.
Sarasota: The recent EP Never Understood has some unusual instruments and sounds on it. You use your voice as percussion a lot.
Lukens: That's something that I used to do a lot more of, actually. I spent a long time trying to be the acoustic guitar troubadour guy and I just never liked it. I never really found my groove. I was living in New York City and was pretty down on myself musically, because I didn't like performing. So I got a loop station and I started looping my voice. I got really into this Tom Waits album, Real Gone, which loops Tom's voice to do some of the percussion stuff. It's so unnerving the way it was recorded. So I thought it would be cool to use my voice.
Sarasota: Your new material is so up-tempo. It's hard to imagine you as the troubadour type.
Lukens: That was like my Red Headed Stranger period. I was just so in love with Willie Nelson and was trying to do that. It took two or three years to really digest that music and that songwriting and realize I don't do it well. When I started writing more songs using the loop station and trying to be more rhythm- and texture-oriented, I think the songs got a lot groovier and that has stayed a central focus. There's always a groove.
Sarasota: How did you come up with some of the other sounds on the EP?
Lukens: My guitarist, Kyle Vonderau, gets all of these sounds out of his guitar that don't sound like a guitar. A lot of the crazy tones on that EP come from working with Jim. With the keyboard hook on the song "Lifted," we were playing that on an organ and then Jim had the idea of putting it backwards and playing it on a different keyboard. That's how a lot of the crazier sounds came to be. It's definitely a thing Jim thrives on.
Sarasota: Does that take a lot of studio time?
Lukens: For sure. When you're making music that is four or five people playing in a room together, making sounds that you can recreate live, there are certain elements you shut yourself off to. Whereas if you're going into a studio and you're open to making absolutely crazy noises, you can make records that are a lot more engaging, but then it's harder to play live. The big thing we've had to learn is, "OK, we made this recording. We think it's cool. Now how do we play this live?" That's a new challenge.
Sarasota: In addition to the usual T-shirts and stuff, you sell coffee, coffee mugs and flasks on your website. How did that come about?
Lukens: I guess we've tried to get creative with merch because nowadays nobody really buys music, or not like they used to. I still buy vinyl, but I very rarely buy CDs. There's a funny thing that happens now at concerts that didn't happen five years ago. People buy your CD and you know they're never going to listen to it. They're going to stream it and watch your videos, because nowadays YouTube is the radio and Spotify is your record collection.
Sarasota: What do you like about vinyl?
Lukens: You can find stuff that's slipped through the cracks and I love that. "I have this on vinyl and it's not on the internet." That's a cool feeling, a cool new feeling. Ten years ago, we had that all the time. Now it's rare.
Sarasota: In Sarasota, you'll be performing at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Have you ever played an art museum before?
Lukens: We have played a lot of unusual venues, but we've never played at an art museum. I'm excited. Some of my friends in the band Hank & Cupcakes played at the museum and they were raving about it. [Hank & Cupcakes performed at The Ringling earlier this month.] You guys are in a sweet spot in the state, and lots of friends have said this is a fun gig.
The next Ringling Underground concert begins at 8 p.m. sharp on Thursday, March 2, at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota. Tickets are $15 and free for museum members and college students.