August 27th, 2006
Dave Matthews is a worrier. Despite earning $57 million in touring receipts last year and coming in a respectable ninth on Rolling Stone magazine's annual list of the richest rock stars, the musician just doesn't sleep that well at night. "I worry about it drying up," says the South African native. "I still wonder where the next song is coming from."
You'd think that Matthews would be immune to those kinds of thoughts, given his track record. The Dave Matthews Band's very first studio album, "Under the Table and Dreaming," sold a whopping 4 million copies, and almost every album since has gone gold. But chart success and record sales don't necessarily dispel the demons that bedevil sleep.
"I have to say that maybe I've become more comfortable with the process of songwriting. At least this phase. But that doesn't mean that I know whether it's going to get better or worse," Matthews says from his Virginia home, one of the two houses he shares with his wife, Ashley, and his twin daughters, Stella and Grace, 5.
"I know the feeling that I have when I come up with a lyric that I like. But I think now I'm maybe more critical of what I put around it, and then I keep thinking that I need to simplify everything more and more. I don't think I've always had this kind of access (to my muse), but I think that in some ways that means that I can't look at myself and say I'm better or worse or the same as I've been. I don't like to doubt myself, and I'd like to not look at the future as an uphill climb. I'd rather look at the future as a nice, long, flat stroll."
Except he doesn't.
But it's that sense of restless uncertainty that impels the onetime bartender to near-workaholism, whether it's furiously scribbling lyrics on the backs of napkins, renting a Pittsburgh recording studio while the band is on tour to get some songs down for their impending 2007 release, or collaborating with the likes of hip-hop revivalists Jurassic Five, the Blue Man Group, Emmylou Harris, Santana, Angelique Kidjo, Soul Live and Mike Doughty.
He just doesn't seem to rest, or want to. And that's even before discussing his role as one of the directors of Farm Aid, along with Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp; being a co-owner of ATO Records, a label he founded with his longtime manager, Coran Capshaw, in 2000; establishing Blenheim Vineyards, a 4-acre winery that uses an innovative gravity-flow winemaking process; or buying 1,340 acres of farmland outside Scottsville, Va., that he calls Maple Farm, where Matthews provides organic vegetables, flowers and herbs through a community-supported agricultural program.
"Well, I do that to make money, too," he says, uneasy with the idea that anyone is trying to anoint him a modern-day saint on par with his pal Bono. "We want to make it a profitable and viable thing. We have lots of people who come to work on it as well, to defer some of the cost of the vegetables. I think that builds a sense of community for those people more than anything. It helps us get the vegetables out of the ground, but for the people, they get the sense that their food belongs to them and they also belong to the food."
Almost as important as his music is his commitment to building community. Whether it's participating in 2004's Vote for Change Tour or putting forward a $1.5 million challenge grant for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Matthews has a keen sense of social responsibility.
"I don't think I'm that much of a saint," he says. "Overall, I'm a very selfish person. But I don't think I view the world all that positively. ... I never was thinking, 'Well, boy, if I could make this much, or if I could do this much (for the community), then what I would do is this.' But I also wasn't ever really thinking about how much money I could make (as a musician). I wasn't driven to success as much as I just was drawn in a somewhat undisciplined way to things that made more sense to my heart and to my head. So I would rather draw a picture than I would play a sport."
His uncle, Dave Matthews Sr., seems to disagree.
"Dave was aware of the huge gap between the haves, which were the whites, and the have-nots, which were anything other than white," his uncle said in an interview on VH1's "Driven." "He was determined not to fall victim to that prejudice."
"I guess it comes down to I'm losing faith and gaining faith all the time," the musician says. "But I think I have a lot of faith and I have enough that I can lose probably all of it and still have a little bit left. But I definitely have faith in the perfect design of the world, of nature. But I have no faith at all in the human being." So he overcompensates by giving tirelessly to charities and touring relentlessly. Like the message at the end of E.M. Forster's "Howards End," Matthews' goal seems to be to "only connect." He often talks to his audiences so much that he has to shorten the band's set list.
"Yeah, I tend to talk a lot between songs," he says, laughing. "Sometimes it's just because I'm nervous. I think that I find comfort, or I find a security in making myself and the audience feel similar, where basically everything about us is the same. There's far more we have in common than we have differences, and I might go a little further and say that I probably have far more in common with a mosquito than I'd like to think." He lets those words hang a little too long before continuing.
"I hate it when I hear artists complain about how tough they have it," says Matthews, who wears his celebrity lightly. "Don't bring a posse around if you don't want the attention. I think very often people who find themselves in the public eye haven't prepared themselves for what fame can do to you, and while I don't think people in that position necessarily deserve empathy, I do think they deserve our pity. I think there's a very pathetic quality to someone who feels that once they're famous they're entitled to different treatment. That they lose it if the doorman doesn't recognize them. I would love to be that, if it didn't make me want to throw up on myself. I think the funny thing is, if I had built a wall around myself -- which I'm sort of incapable of doing -- I think the desire of fans to get at me would be far greater. I don't want a security guard walking with me, let alone four, because that makes people look at you. If you just walk around by yourself, nobody looks at you."
That attitude has made him extra popular with fans.
"I'm very polite to fans, not because I don't want any bunnies boiled outside my house or anything. I think you can keep a very comfortable level in general with people if you're just respectful," he says. "And I do respect people -- especially our fans. There's an element of comfort about our band when we're onstage. It's like being at home in the way that our band plays music, and I think we bring that feeling out in our fans, too. And at the same time, it's an escape, not only from their lives, but it's also an escape for us from our real lives. They're getting away from their lives the same way that I might be getting away from mine."
Wait, but that is his real life.
"Well, yeah, I just got carried away," Matthews says in the self-deprecating way that has earned him plenty of adoration.
"OK, well, it gets me away from the news," he adds. "But there is this communal joy that we experience along with the fans. And we never know if or when it's going to happen. But when it works out perfectly, it's like walking on water. That's how it feels. I feel like I could fly, essentially. But then sometimes it really is work. Then we have to struggle, like you're onstage and you feel like you don't have wings. You're jumping up in the air and you just land, or you're having a nightmare and you can't move. But I think our fans appreciate that, too.
"But what keeps me doing this is that feeling that sometimes I really can fly."