When I told friends and fellow editors here at GQ that I was interviewing Dave Matthews, they chortled and snorted. Two guys broke into damning imitations of Matthews’ raspy singing voice. Another pantomimed Matthews’ bizarre, spastic, onstage version of the Charleston. A friend called the music “soft prog.” One coworker just put his head down on his desk. Okay, dudes! I get it. Dave Matthews is not cool.
But you know who doesn’t care about cool? The 31 million Americans (and counting) who have bought Dave Matthews Band albums. My many friends in high school who got to first, second, and third base for the first time on the lawn of Lakewood Amphitheater in Atlanta while DMB ran down “Tripping Billies” onstage. And people in towns across the U.S. who got hand-me-down Allman Brothers, Genesis, and Steely Dan albums from older brothers instead of records that put you on the shortcut to cool like Fugazi, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols.
This Tuesday, the Dave Matthews Band released its seventh album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (it’s named, in part, after the band’s saxophone player LeRoi Moore, who passed away last August from complications after an ATV accident). It’s their best album yet, and a return to form for the band. Their last three albums were painfully laborious: Dave seemed blocked, and big-name producers were called in to coax hits out of him, with mixed success. On Big Whiskey, however, the band is once again its weird, bombastic, over-stuffed self. The album is charging, muscular, and just plain dense. Plus, lyrically, Matthews sounds like his silly, existential self again: He’s back to singing about sex and monkeys and having sex like monkeys. The simple idea is carpe diem, for tomorrow we monkeys turn into worms.
Will everyone like Big Whiskey? No. Will you like it? Maybe. You’ll like it if you can forget the connotations that come with DMB and ask yourself what “soft prog” might have to offer. A couple years ago, it became cool to drop all the tired punk rock pretensions and admit that Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone” and other well-crafted pop songs have real merit. Approach Big Whiskey’s “Why I Am,” “Dive In,” and “You and Me” with a similar open-mindedness, and you might find yourself doing your own spastic version of the Charleston across your living room floor.
What follows is a candid conversation with Dave about DMB’s return to form, the trouble with hip new bands, and what it’s like being the single most un-cool rock star on planet earth.
You seem charged up about the new album.
Yeah, in a laughing way I feel like everything was right for us. There’s a chemistry in this band, and for whatever reason, after being together a decade, our time together got a little strained0. This album is the first time we’ve gotten close to the middle of the target. I can put it on the counter with confidence.
What do you think was holding you guys back?
For years, LeRoi was saying, “We should be a great studio band! There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to make records with the reputation of our live shows.” He’d say, “You gotta lead this band!” We were in a rough period and weren’t communicating the way we should, and I was like, “How?” But then it came to a head. We realized we just had to leave the small shit out of it.
You talk about the band writing songs together. Do you think of yourself as a songwriter?
In the past that has been a confused area. I love writing songs—sitting in a room and writing or sitting at a desk writing lyrics. But there are so many ways to achieve goals, and in [the case of Big Whiskey] the most important thing was for the band to get together and see what really honest music we could create.
We went in and had spontaneous improvisations—these little jams that would happen. I mean, we would stop after ten or fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a lickfest. That’s not my cup of tea. Anyway, we had hundreds of those, and whittled them to like twenty favorites, and then we constructed song forms from those. I’d take the song forms and bend them and twist them a little bit and write melodies and lyrics over top of those. When we had the first four songs, Roi said, “This is gonna be the best album we’ve ever made.” I’ll never forget when he said that. He said, “Lyrically, you’re confident. You’re writing lyrics like you used to.”
Some of the tunes on the new record are super-coherent. But a song like “Squirm” is obtuse. I wonder if you lean on the band sometimes and don’t necessarily bring your A-game lyrically.
No, I worked really hard on that song. Maybe it’ll miss people completely, but for me it’s a clear idea. If you miss it, then maybe you’re listening too hard. That song is about the struggle between our high opinions of ourselves with that fact that we’re just fucking monkeys. Which we are! I think there’s enough evidence that even a mildly reasonable mind can conclude that we are as significant as a blade of grass or a mosquito—and to think otherwise is very foolish. So the idea for me is that we embrace that and scream the thing that’s the deepest inside of us. I guess that’s what I was shooting out of my heart.
This morning on the way to work, I was reading about a band that has a ton of hype right now. But more people will see your show tonight than will buy that band’s album over the next month. What’s your reaction to the shit you guys take for being uncool?
We’ve been getting that for a long time. I do think this new album is an exceptional album, so I have a little more confidence now than I might have had at other times. We certainly don’t dress the part. We don’t have the new edgy haircuts, and we don’t have the right attitudes—or at least we don’t lay them out on the red carpet.
Sometimes the flavor of the day is actually cool, but bands that have an edge and express the new moment in time become sacrificial lambs. It’s, Look at this cool thing we found! Let’s blow it out of the water. And it happens, what, nine times out of ten?
Probably 999 times out of a 1000.
Right. Some of those bands suddenly think, “Oh my god, we’re the shit!” Because they get told it so often. Then they go flying up their fundamental orifices. They’re a success and they’re vast and huge—and that’s well deserved in most cases. But the success is short-lived. I see accolades being poured on people, these little indie things, and I mostly think, “Oh, that’s cool.” But there’s an element of me that wants to be a little voice that comes to those young, easily-influenced kids who are throwing their hearts out on the stage: Be careful of the beautiful, smiling, adoring people that are surrounding you and telling you that you’re the best thing to happen to music for 30 years, because those people will leave you to be eaten by cockroaches. In a week and a half.
The other side of the coin is that you guys had room for error. You had fans who would tolerate a period where you weren’t firing on all cylinders.
Well, our fans tell us what they think. Our fans don’t go, “Oh, that’s a good record!” When people don’t like a record we make, they use every method to communicate it to us.
I’m a fragile ego, probably, and I like people to like me. I like people clappin’ their hands for me like I’m a good monkey. So I’ll carry on doing my little tricks. I get to shout from a place that most people don’t get to shout from. And I don’t care much for critics—I mean for what they say—because it doesn’t really matter. And what I do doesn’t matter! But I’m not going to stop doing it because I don’t feel valid after somebody says, “Look at his hair, or the lack of it.”
Is it weird that this massive juggernaut of a band carries your real name? It makes you seem so approachable.
I’m amused by the fact that people think I’m just a nice, regular guy.
Because it gives you the space to be supremely irregular?
Yeah. The life I live is nothing close to regular, and never in my life, until I was in this position, had I ever been accused of being normal. I mean, of course I’m as normal as not. But I think people get confused because I’m a kind person. I treat people with respect when I meet them, regardless of whether they’re an important journalist or someone who just wants an autograph. Maybe people confuse that with being normal, but I don’t think it’s normal.
In your music you sound like a champion of the underdog—someone who has always been on the side of the have-nots. But the band has brought you an enormous fortune.
I do find that thinking people trying to make sense of it all—and I mean really make sense of it, not just get on top of the pile of bullshit—are much more compelling than people who feel like they’re standing in the circle of winners. I hate the circle of winners. The awards ceremonies and bashes where all the mediocre musicians like myself gather together to say how awesome we are for being awesome, I hate it. It’s like a bad after school special. The person who’s trying to get their kids through school and figure out how the world works is far more interesting than what flavor latte some douchebag is drinking in People. Maybe I’m lucky that I avoid that world. And maybe that contributes enormously to my lack of cool.
A lot of that music industry bullshit is unavoidable for bands having success, even if they don’t really want it. But you guys basically circumvented the music industry entirely.
I remember we sent tapes of ourselves—back when there were tapes—to South By Southwest. We wanted to see if they’d let us play. After we were turned down the second time, we said, “Fuck ’em.” The only time record companies started coming to us is when we stopped looking at record companies and started looking at an audience. When we drove around and played to people. It’s funny to have become one of the most mainstream bands in America and still sort of feel...not included.—will welch