A Band That Built a Career From the Ground Up
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
EACH member of the Dave Matthews Band tends to recall a moment in the early 1990's when he realized that the group's offbeat blend of jazz-style improvisations over high-revving world-beat rhythms had a good chance of making it big.
At the time, the band was a long way from stardom -- lacking even a home-recorded CD, driving an overstuffed red van and trailer to 200 shows a year at fraternity parties, beer bars and beach clubs around its home base in Charlottesville, Va., down through Georgia, and, occasionally, up to Manhattan.
For Dave Matthews, the puckish 31-year-old vocalist and leader of the quintet, the pivotal moment came in December 1993, after the group had driven snow-blind over a mountain road in the Berkshires, arriving two hours late for a show at Williams College.
''As we played, we realized that all the kids in this college were singing the words to our songs,'' he said. ''I asked, 'How in the world do you know the words?' They said, 'We've got tapes.' ''
The band, in the style of the Grateful Dead, had always encouraged fans to tape its shows, and now those tapes were being circulated from campus to campus, town to town. The musicians kept driving farther afield to shows, from Alabama to Colorado, and kept meeting fans that they didn't know they had, said Boyd Tinsley, 34, the group's violinist. ''The whole band just realized that this thing was a little bigger than all of us,'' he said.
Since then, that thing has become just a little bit bigger. Dave Matthews Band is a rarity in an industry that is more interested in generating hits than nurturing the careers of young bands. (They range in age from 23 to 40.) Largely without radio hits, MTV glitz and much acclaim from critics, the group has shrewdly attained rock-star status from the ground up. It built an enormous following not through image-building publicists but by grinding out one hyperkinetic concert after another.
''They would play anywhere, for nothing,'' said Tim Reynolds, a guitarist who sometimes plays with the band. ''They'd look like the living dead when they finished a tour.''
Behind the band's folky informality is its aggressive business strategist, Coran Capshaw, who helped it forge an identity and maintain control of everything from T-shirt sales to publishing rights to its songs.
For three years, the band relied on fans' word-of-mouth and trading of tapes along with one independent CD to spread its loose-limbed, funky sound. Then in late 1993, it signed with RCA, which at the time was not known for its rock roster. The band has since released three million-selling albums. Earlier this month its latest release, ''Before These Crowded Streets,'' sold 422,000 copies its first week, knocking the ''Titanic'' soundtrack album from the No. 1 spot it had occupied on Billboard's album chart for 16 weeks.
In the process the band has gone from playing bars and college auditoriums to arenas like the 53,700-seat Giants Stadium, in East Rutherford, N.J., where it will headline a show next Sunday. The concert sold out in 90 minutes.
For the most part, Mr. Matthews and his band mates credit Mr. Capshaw, who owned the clubs in Richmond and Charlottesville where the band got its start, with pushing them to build an audience first before seeking a record deal.
''Coran was a genius for helping develop them while keeping them out of the major media, making sure they didn't end up overexposed,'' said Christopher Zahn, the booking manager for Wetlands, a New York Club. ''That way, they're selling a lot of records and people love them, but not like Hanson or the Spice Girls. They'll be around for a long time to come.''
Mr. Capshaw also kept the band focused on the importance of making money. The result is Dave Matthews Band Inc., Bama Rags (its label and merchandising arm) and about 18 other incorporated entities are all controlled by the band.
Now the group has two dozen employees on the road during tours, and 20 more back home in Charlottesville at a 10-acre spread outside town, working the phones and Web site, where several million dollars a year roll in from the sale of hats, stickers, CD's and other gear.
OCCASIONALLY the band's business savvy has trod on its low-key image. Last year, for example, it sent a lawyer from record shop to record shop with a Federal marshal, threatening court action if bootleg recordings of its concerts were not withdrawn from the shelves. It was apparently one thing for fans to trade tapes, but another for anyone to sell them. This year, the band cracked down on Web sites that leaked recordings of songs from the new album.
Mr. Matthews said he left the legal maneuvers and deals to others. ''I'm not a hard-driving businessman,'' he said, smiling. ''Instead, I've surrounded myself with hard-driving businessmen. They're always saying, 'Dave, we need to talk. This is business. You've got to stay on top.' ''
He insisted that his focus was all on the music. His distinctive sound reflects an upbringing during which he bounced between South Africa and the United States. He was born in 1967 near Johannesburg, where his father, a physicist, was developing superconducting circuits. The family moved to Yorktown Heights, N.Y., two years later, then returned to South Africa in 1977, after Mr. Matthews's father died of cancer.
To avoid compulsory service in the South African Army, Mr. Matthews returned to New York in 1986, taking a clerical job at I.B.M. That year, though, he joined his mother in Charlottesville, where she had settled.
Mr. Matthews said he listened to all kinds of music, everything from the Clancey Brothers to African folk songs to Motorhead. ''I went through my 15-year-old heavy metal phase,'' he said, ''when I needed to scream really hard.''
He played guitar from the age of 9 but mainly in his bedroom or with a few friends from high school. Only in Charlottesville did he begin to perform publicly. Occasionally, friends like Mr. Reynolds, the guitarist, pulled Mr. Matthews on stage to play and sing a Bob Marley tune or two. Another friend, Ross Hoffman, encouraged him to record four of his own songs. The band came together in 1991 essentially as a result of those basement taping sessions. At the time Charlottesville, a college town of about 50,000 people, had a thriving music scene that was both multiracial and diverse. Mr. Matthews, then a bartender at Millers, a hangout that was popular among musicians, invited some of the town's best players to record with him.
Carter Beauford, a drummer, and Leroi Moore, a saxophonist and flute player, had grown up in the same neighborhood and shared strong jazz roots. Mr. Tinsley, the violinist, had played in a variety of rock and folk bands after abandoning years of classical study. Stefan Lessard was a 16-year-old high school student who displayed unusual talent on bass fiddle. He took up the electric bass guitar just months before the band formed.
Mr. Reynolds, who has played on every Dave Matthews Band record, said that Mr. Matthews had a clear musical vision long before the band was born. ''His songs were always the way they are,'' Mr. Reynolds said. ''His music thing was kind of fully developed in his head, and then it all came together when he got together with these monster musicians.''
In April 1991 -- with Mr. Lessard leaving rehearsals early to sleep before returning to high school in the morning -- the newly minted Dave Matthews Band began performing at local restaurants, then pubs, then larger halls. Mr. Capshaw, a longtime devotee of the Grateful Dead, sent the band out on the road, urging its members to focus on playing, not recording. The recording was left up to the audience.
IN 1993, Peter Robinson, then a talent scout for RCA, recalled hearing the band during a series of visits to Wetlands. He was struck by the appeal of this unconventional ensemble. At its core, Mr. Matthews resembled a charismatic dervish who charmed listeners not only with his songs but also with rapid-fire banter not unlike a Robin Williams quip that fans have taken to calling Davespeak. ''Did you know that Preparation H is the No. 1 shoplifted item in the U.S.?'' he asked an audience several years ago. (On Web sites devoted to the band, samples of Davespeak are traded along with tapes of the music.)
''The first time I saw them, there were maybe 30 or 40 people in the audience,'' Mr. Robinson said. ''Two weeks later there were 150.'' On the next swing through Manhattan, 500 people turned up to see Mr. Matthews sing. ''It was amazing to see this audience grow so fast and these kids so into it,'' Mr. Robinson. ''It gave you goose bumps.''
He began taking higher-echelon executives to shows and flying to Virginia to see the band at the Flood Zone and Trax, its two main haunts. After an eight-month courtship -- ''They filled our stomachs with great frequency,'' Mr. Matthews said -- RCA signed the band. A few other labels had approached them, Mr. Matthews said, but most of the executives wore sunglasses even on cloudy days. ''I could never see their eyes,'' he said.
The RCA deal gave the band complete control over the music and allowed it to release its first CD, ''Remember Two Things,'' on its own label. The group also retained the right to release a series of live recordings on Bama Rags, distributed by RCA, a more profitable arrangement for the group than if RCA produced the records.
Now, things have come full circle for the band. It hopes to find bootleg tapes of shows that have achieved legendary status among fans so that those performances can be included on future concert CD's.
''There's a night I'm sort of after,'' Mr. Capshaw said. ''It was at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1995. It all clicked that night. When they are on, powerful things happen.''
Photos: FUNKY JAMS Dave Matthews Band (from left Carter Beauford, Boyd Tinsley, Leroi Moore, Mr. Matthews and Stefan Lessard.). The band blends jazzy improvisations with world-music rhythms. (Danny Clinch)(pg. 32); BUSINESS GURU Coran Capshaw, center left, and staff at the band's home base in Charlottesville, Va. (Andres R. Alonso for The New York Times)(pg. 37)