The Dave Matthews Band has been at the top of the charts with Grammy-winning hits like "So Much To Say," but the group has been press shy ... at least until our Anthony Mason talked with them about their new album, and the tragedy that inspired it:
It's a strange and improbable fusion of folk, jazz, funk & rock that has made the Dave Matthews Band one of the most popular groups of the past two decades.
"We're still pretty strange in the whole picture," Matthews said. "Not a lot of people sound like us."
But it can be good to be strange. Forty-two-year-old Dave Matthews is frontman, lead singer and songwriter of the group that bears his name, a bar band born in a college town that's become one of the icons of arena rock.
But after 30 million records sold and four number one albums, Matthews admitted to us, the band was in trouble.
"There's not a lot of chain gangs that last 20 years, but I'm willing to bet that, after 20 years, if you're in the same gang, tied together with a chain, you might start getting a little tight on each other," he said.
Then last summer, just as the band was trying to regroup, .
Bassist Stefan Lessard and violinist Boyd Tinsley were on tour when it happened:
"We didn't know what to do that day," Tinsley said, "and we had a gig in L.A. and Roi dies, and, you know, we get there and we were in shock."
"He was maybe my most difficult friend because he loved and hated with such passion," Matthews said. "But he played music just ... from the first time I heard him ... it froze me, you know?"
"How would you describe what his role in the band was?" Mason asked.
"I wish I knew everything that I'm realizing he was inside the band now," Matthews said.
"Because you miss him now?"
"Because I miss him. And I also wish I could've told him, you know?"
The five members of the Dave Matthews Band first came together nearly 20 years ago in Charlottesville, Va.
Today, when the band returns there to play, fans make pilgrimages for the homecoming party:
"This like the holy land for the Dave Matthews Band," said Dan Holm.
If Charlottesville is the holy land, then Miller's Restaurant is Mecca ... the band's birthplace.
The South African-born Matthews was a bartender at Miller's back in 1991 when, after secretly writing a handful of songs, he approached Moore and Carter Beauford, who played at the restaurant.
Mason asked Matthews if he were nervous when asking them to listen to his songs.
"Yeah, I was really nervous, embarrassed, ashamed almost," he said.
But Beauford was intrigued by what he heard.
"There was just something there in Dave's music that kept pulling me and pulling me," he said. (15:51)
Stefan Lessard recalled joining the band when he was 16 ("I think my dad drove me!").
"They had one rehearsal, and then they came to me. So I was there at the second rehearsal," he laughed.
Soon they added Boyd Tinsley on violin.
"Every week, we couldn't believe it - more and more people would come, you know?" he said.
So many people that, within a year, Lessard had to quit college:
"And I remember I put a note on the head of the jazz department's door: 'I'm sorry, I won't be able to go to school anymore here. I've decided to play with the Dave Matthews Band. Thank you for everything you've done.' Tacked on the door. He was furious!"
By 1994, they'd cracked the pop charts. And by the end of the decade, "DMB," as their fans dubbed them, were the biggest touring act in rock. A free concert in New York's Central Park in 2003 drew 120,000 people.
In all, their tours have grossed more than a half a billion dollars.
But by the middle of this decade, the group was losing its way. And before he died, Moore confronted Matthews:
"And he said, 'You know, you have to lead this band or else we're not going anywhere,'" Matthews said.
"So what was your reaction when he said that?" Mason asked.
"I said it's impossible to lead this group of people."
Instead, Matthews fired off a message saying he was finished.
"Sent everybody a letter - which was the very opposite of being a leader - and said, 'I can't handle it anymore.'"
"'Cause it just wasn't fun, you know, at that stage," Matthews said. "We were all not communicating. And everyone was sort of bitter."
"What were you bitter about?"
"Each other. It had nothing to do with the success or how grateful we were for the success that we had. We just weren't talking. If you're in a relationship with people, little things become big things. Big things become little things."
"What did you say in that letter?"
"I can't remember exactly what it was. But it was fairly final."
Mason asked Beauford what he thought when he got the letter.
"I thought he had lost his mind!" he laughed. "It's like, 'Where is this coming from?' There were some turbulent times, for years actually. But that's all part of it."
They talked over their differences and decided, as Lessard described it, "we weren't ready to get a divorce."
"But did you think about it?"
"Well, yeah, think about it. But then you remember how great it really is."
The band retreated to Haunted Hollow, house on 140 acres in the Charlottesville countryside that they converted into a studio. "We just wanted a place we could all concentrate," Matthews said. "It's far away, so people we bring out here to work with, they're like, 'Where the hell are we?'"
Here they began work on a new album ... "rehearsing," as Matthews put it. LeRoi Moore was in on those early improvisational sessions. The album was still developing when he died.
"But being in the studio now, it's like that booth behind me, you know, he wasn't there," said Tinsley. "I probably had the biggest breakdown I ever had about this."
Matthews, now married with 3 kids, was already all too familiar with unexpected death. He was 10 when he lost his father to cancer; his oldest sister, Anne, died suddenly 15 years ago.
"How did that effect how you dealt with this?" Mason asked.
"I don't know if I've dealt with my father's death - should probably talk to an analyst - and my sister's death properly."
"But you've never been afraid of writing about it."
"I do write about death a lot," he said. "I don't like to overuse that whole 'seize the day' thing. But I think, you know, the fact that we're gonna die is a pretty good reason to stop complaining."
"And when my story ends,
it's gonna end with him
heaven or hell
I'm going down with the GrooGrux king"
- "Why I Am"
Four years after their last studio album, the band will release "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King" this week. (GrooGrux was Moore's nickname.) Matthews himself drew the album cover, and made sure the record opened with a solo by their friend.
Somewhere in the recording of the album, the Dave Matthews Band rediscovered what brought them together:
"Do you feel like you're starting all over again in a way?"
"I do," said Beauford. "I also feel like we've grown up a lot. We've matured. And it took something like this for us to see the light."
"I get the sense this record is very important to you," Mason said.
"Yeah, I think it's the clearest statement of what this band can be," Matthews said.