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Simply Dave

May 8th, 2005

Down-to-earth reality belies star status

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI

050805.jpgIt's edging toward 1 pm and Dave Matthews is sipping his first cup of coffee for the day. Cream, no sugar. Sipped, not guzzled. The natural assumption is that he's just stumbled out of bed, like a good rock star would. But, as Matthews wryly notes later, "My mom is more rock star than I am."

The reality is that he's been awake for hours, and he's spent time tending to his 3½-year-old twins, Stella and Grace.

"I forget to feed myself," he says, that one eyebrow involuntarily reaching toward his hairline. "I'm feeding my girls and dressing them and getting a bag ready because I know I have to take them to my mom's and we're running and playing and having quality time and I throw them in the car and drop them off and 'Thanks, Mom,' and I realize I haven't put anything in my stomach. I think I had a bite of their eggs, though."

Matthews, seated at a small table at the Starr Hill Brewery in Charlottesville, has just finished apologizing for the second time for being slightly tardy to this meeting. He really did have to take his kids to his mother's home in Scottsville, and offers more words of contrition than you would expect from a good friend, never mind one of the most famous musicians in the country.

But while a slew of other adjectives might have followed Matthews during his 15-year career, arrogant and pretentious usually aren't among them.

This is a guy who set up a second house in Seattle a few years ago so his wife, Ashley, could attend medical school. She's a few months from becoming a naturopathic doctor, and Matthews gestures excitedly when discussing her study of preventive medicine and how it has applied to him on occasion.

"I'm not a cat person," he offers as an example. "I'll put up with a cat, but I used to have a really adverse reaction to them because not only did I think they were in charge, or at least they thought they were, or maybe they were. I love my cat, but I wish it would DIE is the only problem with it. Or have its voice removed."

Here comes that mischievous curled-lip grin that lets you know he isn't completely serious. And then he returns to making a point.

"But I had problems with allergies to cats, so my dislike for them was tangible. But then my wife gave me a couple of droplets of some voodoo and it worked almost instantaneously."

 

It's common for Matthews to drift off on tangents when answering a question. Or to pause midway through a response to think about his next set of words. Not in a cautious, distrusting way. More like someone who actually ponders a reply before opening his mouth.

The Dave Matthews Band formed in Charlottesville in 1991, cut its chops playing watering holes in its hometown and Richmond (mostly at the defunct Flood Zone), developed a tremendous grass-roots following on college campuses and in 1994 released its official first record for RCA, "Under the Table and Dreaming." Six months later, "What Would You Say" killed at radio, the album moved more than 4 million copies and, presto, DMB was a superstar.

It wasn't quite that simple, but there is no denying that the band owned the college-into-20s crowd in the mid-to-late'90s with its genuinely eclectic brand of world beat pop.

The fat rhythm section of Carter Beauford and Stefan Lessard secured the whirlwind of sound coming from violinist Boyd Tinsley, brass master Leroi Moore and Matthews, whose intricate guitar picking was often overshadowed by his odd - yet extremely distinguishable voice.

The band released its sixth studio album, "Stand Up." Recorded at its new studio in Charlottesville - it represents a funkier, darker-hued DMB.

Matthews credits producer Baston, noted for his work with India.Arie and Gwen Stefani, among many others, with instilling a newfound spontaneity in the band.

"The record is a little more groove, but at the same time, that's always been big for us. We've just kind of been manic," Matthews says. "Bonnie Raitt once watched us live and said, 'You guys have got that jungle funk.'"

Another sly smile as Matthews looks at the ground somewhat sheepishly. Or maybe longingly.

"She makes me want to drop to my knees, anyway, and when she said that, it made me want to devour her. Or be devoured, more accurately."

Before work on "Stand Up" began, Baston took each member aside to get their thoughts for the album, then naturally let them flow into one another with ideas.

"We didn't practice anything. There was this very immediate quality to it," Matthews says.

The results begin with the Sting-like first single, "American Baby," which, when a comparison is suggested, prompts Matthews to cheerfully rant, "I love Sting, but I could eat him for lunch and still have room for dessert." But then the upper lip curls into a grin and the hazel eyes flash impishly.

"I just mean that I'm much bigger and fatter than he is. Sting has very good breath. It's tremendous. Remarkable. Seriously, I love Sting. He's a phenomenal musician."

Then there is the appropriately titled "Dreamgirl," a wistful tapestry boasting some of Matthews' most poetic lyrics, the gruff riffing of the title track and the swampy, "nightmarish" "Louisiana Bayou," studded with Matthews' trademark yelps.

Even though DMB's albums sell decently (2002's "Busted Stuff" has sold 1.9 million copies), the stage is where the band commands respect from music industry wags. A recent article in Billboard magazine singled out DMB and Jimmy Buffett as two exceptions to last summer's dismal touring landscape, while Rolling Stone magazine estimated the band's road earnings at $21.7 million in 2004 - and that was with no new music to entice fans.

Instant sellouts are the norm for these guys -- so it was seen as a pinch even to DMB when a few shows last summer didn't sell out until the day of the event. "There were a lot of funny moods [in the industry] last year. There can be lots of different theories. I think people were tense for whatever reason," Matthews says as a semi-explanation.

At this point, the band could cruise on its catalog for years, stuffing amphitheaters with the now-grown-up college kids still eager to hear "Ants Marching" or "Satellite". But boredom doesn't suit Matthews and his mates; restlessness and eagerness seem to propel them.

"I think we've been satisfied with our records," Matthews starts. "But we've never had . . . I mean, everyone feels great about this record, but at the end of the process, we go, when are we gonna go back in the studio? We were just talking about this yesterday. We just finished this record, it isn't even out yet and we're talking about when we can go back to make another one. Because it's fun. It's fun to make stuff.

"One of the things that's driven the band - and not to come off the wrong way - is to sort of want to prove the naysayers wrong. A lot of artists, whether they admit it or not, know that the thing that drove them was hearing 'You can't do that.'"

But really, that still applies to DMB now? "Well now, people say, 'Uhhh, yeah, I always knew,'" Matthews says, returning to talk of the band being fired up in the studio and what keeps them hungry. "Even when I'm at my tiredest and don't want to be on the road and feel emotionally drained, I think, in this band, something always makes me know I can't walk away from it. It's like you can't walk away from your family. I can't even consider leaving everybody."

Spoken like a rock star who really isn't one at all.

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