September 19th, 2006
Issue #18.38 :: 09/18/2006 - 09/25/2006
Taking time from Dave Matthews Band's 16th summer tour, which will end with two shows in Charlottesville this weekend, Dave Matthews talks about politics, the Downtown Mall and Shangri-La.
When Dave Matthews finally telephones from the West Coast, he’s 30 minutes late. And full of apologies. “On the rare occasion that I can say it had nothing to do with me I will claim complete innocence,” he says, placing guilt elsewhere. “I hate being late. It makes me sick.”
Generally speaking, timing has not been a big problem for Matthews and his four bandmates in the Dave Matthews Band. For the past 15 years, like clockwork, they’ve gotten their act together and taken it on the road. As their fame grows, and record sales climb (over 30 million sold to date), their summer festival gigs and charity concerts have become a summer mainstay. It’s a long way from the dinky surroundings of Trax, the erstwhile Charlottesville nightclub where they played every Tuesday night at the start of the ’90s.
In fact, so high has the demand been across the country for some DM time that it’s been more than five years since the band played live in Charlottesville (their influence is felt in other ways, notably the local philanthropy of Bama Works, their charity fund). That changes on Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23, when they close out this summer’s tour with performances at UVA’s John Paul Jones Arena. This conversation with Dave Matthews took place a couple of weeks prior to the show.
Cathy Harding: From what I understand, today is LeRoi’s birthday.
Dave Matthews: Yes it is, I haven’t seen him yet... I’ve only been awake for a couple of hours.
Are you going to give him something?
I probably will say happy birthday.
Sing the song, maybe?
I don’t know if I’m going to sing the song. I think he’s probably heard that before.
Is it hard to be on tour and have those kinds of personal events take place?
Birthdays, wedding anniversaries or whatever. It’s not an unusual life or situation for us to be on the road. I wouldn’t know what an anniversary is like other than on the road, and I wouldn’t know what my children’s birthdays are like other than at least close to on the road. I haven’t had a birthday in, you know, 16 years that hasn’t been close to being on the road or on the road.
I think we are very fortunate to have a remarkable group of people that travel with us that sort of hovers around 50. It’s unusual because it’s such a superb collection of people that I can’t imagine that every touring organization could have this or else the world would be named “Shangri La.” I’m sure I get treated a little bit more sweetly than some of the people on my crew, but overall I think we’ve got a pretty exceptional group of characters out here, and I can certainly think of worse places to spend my birthday—alone in a stinky apartment in Queens might be more depressing—than out on the road with a traveling circus.
Dave Matthews Band is playing two nights here for the first time in more than five years, and I’m interested in your perspective on how the city has changed in that time, let alone since the time when the band was playing Trax every Tuesday night.
Your thoughts on that?
Someone connected the timeline between the success of the band and the changing face of Charlottesville, but I think that it may have been “Good Morning America” and USA Today saying it’s the nicest place to live and raise a family in America. I think that may have had something to do with it too. What happens is people find gems and in this day and age of information moving at the speed of light or the speed of our fingertips—the speed of thought—it’s hard to keep a secret. It’s very difficult to keep a place like Charlottesville a secret. I think the best we can do is try and make the evolution of community, you know, specifically Charlottesville, make it as bearable as possible, because to stop things is impossible.
I remember when they were putting the road across the Downtown Mall years ago, wasn’t that many years ago, but I remember someone saying to me, “Sign this petition to stop the road from going across the Downtown Mall.” Now I know there are people that are sentimental about things, but I thought—and I’d worked there at Miller’s for years before that and the Downtown Mall was sleepy at best, at very best. You know, it was a place where people who’d recently gotten a sabbatical from Western State and a couple of people who were looking for a drink could go and walk and everyone else couldn’t have anything to do with it. It was a shadowy spot.
And so the idea of a road that would at least alert somebody, some passersby, that there was in fact a place there to go and walk I think was not a bad idea.
And then we should also remember that in the ’70s, before they paved that with brick, that was sort of the center of the black community in Charlottesville and then they changed it. I guess the town thought it was better to turn it into a community center and really did a quite environmental relocation of a very central part of Charlottesville’s community. So I think there’s been a lot of changes in the last 30 years, 40 years in Charlottesville that we could talk about.
We always miss what’s gone, but to see the Downtown Mall bustling, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s kind of a good thing to see it being a place where you can go out and see a lot of people. One of the things that’s being lost in a lot of the American landscape is the pedestrian walkway, so when you drive around the Corner and you see all the students or you go Downtown and you see the amount of people that are walking around, there is a sense of this beautiful evolution—at least something alive. When things change there’s an uncertainty about it, so I think the best we can do is try and make it as a—keep it as sort of beautiful as possible, those changes.
On the subject of change, you and the band were involved in the Vote for Change concerts and have been outspoken politically. You did the ad for The Nation recently, you’re on the board with Farm Aid. Do you expect to get involved in the midterm elections that are coming up?
You know, I’m hopeful for the next election, though I think it’s remarkable, in general across the country, how poorly the Democratic Party has squandered an opportunity. To call it a political party at this point, in the national landscape, is sort of almost comical to me. I think there are some very strong characters in both parties but they’re sort of overshadowed by just a shambles on both sides of the aisle.
But I haven’t even for the midterm elections or for the next elections thought of anyone that I would have thrown myself behind. I have a few ideas—I just hope that they’ll become a little more clear and I think there is a little bit of time. I know where my political allegiances lie, at least philosophically, and I’ll see how much I can compromise as little as possible before I throw my name behind anybody else.
On a political level in this country I think we’re in a deep crisis. Maybe the façade has to shatter completely before people will get off their asses and actually realize that there is a responsibility to democracy besides just having a flag on your front lawn.
The lack of debate in the state and federal government is just, it’s just, I can’t even, I don’t even know how to talk about it. It just amazes me that nobody raises their hand and says, “Wait a second.” Not only are we doing nothing for our own people, but we’re doing nothing for the world. I was watching this wonderful documentary on Paul Wellstone and thinking whether you’re Left or Right, to see somebody with such remarkable character stand so clearly on what they believe without flaw and without political ambition, it’s almost unheard of nowadays.
Well, to change gears a little bit and talk about changes in another area, specifically the music industry…with increased consolidation of businesses, vertical integration, declining record sales, it seems like the barriers to entry are so much higher now for young bands than they were even 15 years ago when you guys started out. Would you agree?
Well, maybe but I also think that it’s changing: I don’t think that the record industry has got 10 years.
The band is doing this Live Trax series, which seems to be in part about different distribution channels than a record label, for instance.
We have to, contractually and otherwise, I guess at this point it’s almost “pay our respects to the record industry,” because maybe there are going to be some areas that it will survive. It will still have a purpose but to a large degree I think it’s going to be obsolete. So for us it’s just sort of trying to think of ways to stay viable in new stages, which I think are much more small and efficient musical productions. I’m glad the music that I’m interested in playing after I write it is live. I like to play in front of an audience so that one element is the one thing that we’ve always sort of had control of and that we can keep control of.
It is a very different environment but everything goes in waves. Music is obviously not going to vanish and requires new bands. There has to be music coming out of young people all of the time; that’s one of the essential parts of being a person, or being people, is that we create songs. There’s no stopping that. It may be a challenge but I think the people most fit for the job are young musicians. So I think they’re going to, and they won’t have a problem with it: “Make a video and we can put it online, we can make a song and put it online.” In a way it’s like a dream come true for young musicians, it may not have a big payment up front, get some giant record deal but in a way if you want to play music in front of people it’s a pretty good and efficient way of advertising yourself. There may be some growing pains but I think it’s just a revolution.
The whole DMB catalog is on iTunes now. Do you have an iPod?
Yeah, but, you know, I’m incredibly boring. I don’t listen to a lot of music. I’d rather listen to the silence.
So do you have a lot of silence on your iPod?
I have a lot of silence in my head. I think the iPod’s amazing. There are a lot of critics on it but I haven’t taken a position on any of that stuff. I think it’s phenomenal to be able to take my CDs and pour them onto my computer. Then I go through phases, “oh I’ve got a spare hour” and I’m just sitting throwing money into my, into iTunes just because I can. It’s pretty amazing.
What do your daughters like to listen to?
I try and play them good music. They like The Beatles a lot. That’s, I guess, a standard thing. They like Bob Marley a lot, which I think is pretty good. They like Led Zeppelin. I’ve been playing a lot of Led Zeppelin for them. They’re 5 years old they’re not at a point where they’re going to the record store by themselves. Got a Kool and the Gang Greatest Hits that they’re listening to a lot, too.
On the subject of records, will you be going back into the studio with Mark Batson after the band finishes the tour?
Yeah, I think so because we were hanging out with him in the studio before we went on tour and he’s a good friend. We’ve been playing some new music on the road and we hung out a little bit in Los Angeles when we were playing down there and he heard some new stuff. So yeah, our plan is to get together with him. The last record we made we all had a great time, but, you know, it was really fast. It was a really new experience, it was refreshing, but it was really quick. So this time looking forward to being able to stretch a little more with him in the studio and combine the writing and the playing a little more than we had the opportunity to last time because there’s no deadline. I think the last thing on earth that RCA wants us to do is to come up with a new record.
You mean right after the “greatest hits” comes out?
Yeah, whatever, and that’s another thing. That’s just something in our contract. In this time of music flying digitally around the world, record companies begin in some ways, at least for us, to represent a ball and chain as much as they do… Needless to say there’s no deadline to make a record. So we’ll take our sweet time, but probably come up with one faster than they want us to.
So what’s it been like playing on the road and having Robert Randolph sitting in?
We’ve known him for a good while. It’s fun to have someone that shares a love of playing live that we do. We’re all different characters but from the school of, if there is one, a school of music just that being truthful and playing what you mean as best as you can. It’s great to find people that believe that and that live that way.
Last question. As a much younger man, Mick Jagger famously said he didn’t want to sing “Satisfaction” when he was 40. Are there any songs that you think you would shelve as you get to be that age?
But wait, he’s still singing it. But maybe he didn’t sing it when he was 40, you know.
He just skipped it that one year. I’m not sure that there’s any songs that I plan to shelve before next year, specifically because of the decade but I hope that I can for as long as possible write music that somebody will like to listen to. If they want to listen to music that I wrote 15 years ago I don’t mind that. I just hope that I’m not empty of imagination to the point that I can’t come up with anything that people want to listen to now.