Backstage with Acoustic Rock's Power Duo
Acoustic Guitar 1999
On this crisp spring afternoon outside the Berkeley Community Theater, there's no mistaking the preparations for the ritual called the Big Rock Show. Roadies are unloading a truckful of gear through the closely guarded stage door, and teen- and college-age fans—some of whom have traveled from several states away—are milling around, hoping for a glance, an autograph, or a photo op with the Big Rock Star known as Dave Matthews.
The show tonight marks the end of Matthews' and Reynolds' latest acoustic tour, following the release of their double CD Live at Luther College, recorded in 1996. With two acoustic guitars and Matthews' alternately wailing/whispering voice, this duo brings to life the knotty, intense songs that have made the Dave Matthews Band such a compelling and surprising force in contemporary rock.
As Matthews and Reynolds grab guitars and sit down with me to talk and play music, it's immediately clear that despite their surface differences, these are very close friends and partners in crime. Reynolds has played on all the DMB albums and frequently joins the band on stage, in addition to pursuing his own projects in freewheeling solo guitar improv, rock, and funk. In conversation, Reynolds and Matthews feed off each other's kinetic energy and quick humor (sly and urbane one moment, locker-room adolescent the next), and when Matthews starts playing something on guitar, Reynolds locks in with him in a microbeat.
I've heard that you two met when Tim was playing in a bar in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Dave was the bartender. Is that a true story?
MATTHEWS Mmm, sort of. I think we met before I started working at Millers. We lived in the same town, and I love watching music, and Tim was one of the Charlottesville musicians—
MATTHEWS Posers. I just loved Tim's playing, so then we just got to know each other. The cool thing was that people like Tim had [the trio] TR3, he was doing his solo thing, he was playing jazz gigs, he had tons of gigs. All the musicians were sort of wrapped up together. Carter [Beauford], who's with [the Matthews Band] on drums, played in Secrets and Tim was playing in Secrets, and they probably crossed paths in a lot of different situations. And two of the guys who sat in on this last album [Before These Crowded Streets] were also old friends of ours from Charlottesville—Greg Howard [Chapman Stick] and John D'earth [string arrangements].
Tim, were you playing free-improv acoustic guitar at that time?
REYNOLDS At that point I was probably doing electric, but that evolved. I did that gig for over ten years. It started out solo electric guitar with effects, and somewhere I started playing sitar and did that for a long time, and then I started playing acoustic.
MATTHEWS Monday night at Millers . . . I remember coming in, it was electric for a while, and then all of a sudden violin, and then all of a sudden cello, and then sitar. And then he'd even play drums for a while—it was cool.
REYNOLDS I learned to play a lot of instruments on this gig. And that kind of led to the acoustic guitar as encompassing all the earlier stuff. I got way into that with the effects.
MATTHEWS And then he'd play a lot of Eastern-sounding scales and weird drums on the guitar.
Tim, did you play more acoustic or electric on the early band albums?
REYNOLDS A lot of acoustic. I'd spend about two months playing acoustic and three days playing electric.MATTHEWS It was us sitting next to each other, strumming madly. It was so much fun.
REYNOLDS We sat in the studio just like this [moves chair right in front of Matthews] with a glass thing [between us], and that's how we did the whole first record. The band was all on the second floor.
MATTHEWS And then they'd inevitably turn his acoustic guitar way up and mine way down! That's [producer Steve] Lillywhite—I'm not saying whether he was right or wrong, but he'd say [affects British accent], "OK, let's turn David down and Timmy up" [laughs]. I love how with the last album, he said, "David, you don't really feature on this album at all, but don't tell anyone." We'd learn it, we'd all play, and then he'd turn me down.
Were you playing the same parts?
REYNOLDS On the first album we played the same part and then doubled it—like four acoustic guitars playing the same thing.
MATTHEWS And it made it sound really huge.
REYNOLDS I would just overdub a little bit. I did more electric overdubs as the albums went on.
MATTHEWS The last one has a lot more production. We still recorded the rhythm section live—guitar, bass, and drums—but then much more stuff went on top. Oh, put Stick there, piano . . . it doesn't matter if they're not in the band. We had a lot of other people. And Tim taped his face up and played lots of electric overdubs [laughs].
Dave, have you always played exclusively acoustic?
MATTHEWS I never really played electric. Sometimes when I pick one up, I'm surprised. It's amazing how suddenly you're just like [makes wailing rock lead sounds]. Yeah, I know what that feels like now! And then I put it down, and I just sit back down with an acoustic.
What drew you to playing an acoustic in the first place?
MATTHEWS I think in the first place it was a percussive thing. Also it's lighter and there are less things you need with it, so when I was younger and just traveling around, doing a lot of walking, it was always easier to have an acoustic. So I sort of grew attached to how portable it was. And when you're 16 and you can play "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens, [sings] "It's not time to make a change . . ." all of a sudden you're making out.
It's interesting that you've always played an acoustic, because you hardly ever play standard acoustic guitar open-position chords. Instead, you favor closed positions and up-the-neck things that are more typical of electric playing. How did that style evolve?
MATTHEWS I think one of the biggest inspirations was John D'earth. He's a trumpet player and a great teacher as well; he did the string arrangements on the last album. But he once said to me, "Guitarists always write everything in E or A or D." So I started playing as many things as I could that were a half step away.
Do you come up with those closed-position patterns by hunting and pecking?
MATTHEWS A lot of things that I do come out of trying to find circular motions. I'll just go around and around with something—unlike Tim. I think one reason we're complementary is that I can play the same five notes in the same order for an hour and find it absolutely satisfying. And Tim can swim around; I don't know if Tim ever repeats himself. So then the two of us kind of land comfortably together.
One of your signature guitar parts is the staccato "Satellite" riff, which opens up a lot of possibilities for Tim to play more sustained or legato types of things. It's not like playing over a big strum.
REYNOLDS Yeah, exactly. It's clearly different, especially where there are just two guitars. With a band you can come up with a really simple part, because everyone else is laying down a lot of other stuff. But with two acoustic guitars, you have to be more aware of [the other guitar part].
Tim, do you come up with the guitar melodies you play in "Satellite" and other songs when you're jamming?
REYNOLDS I just come up with it in the studio, and Steve, the producer, says, "Stick with that." And that becomes the theme. It becomes part of the song.
MATTHEWS It really does. And people get excited when they hear that. When the band is live and Tim is not with us, I don't think people generally miss things, but people definitely react [when they hear that guitar line]. With "Crash," when they hear the little signature things that Timmy does, the pull-offs and stuff, they go "Yaaaah!" It's almost more familiar than everything else.
REYNOLDS The [duo] thing is like a band. Because we play with bands, we hear a lot more in our heads than what we play. The psychic vibe of a band comes in, and we just lock in like a band.
MATTHEWS Sometimes I'm amazed by how it locks in, really amazed.
Tim, do you ever feel limited when you're using effects with an acoustic guitar?
REYNOLDS No, it's the opposite. I play so much electric guitar that I get my ya-yas out with that, and when I'm playing acoustic, I don't ever feel I need that. I get off on doing both.I can play acoustic guitar without effects—I practice that way, and I've made records without them, but I like to have more colors. I have lots of records of acoustic guitars, but I don't listen to them as much as I listen to other records that have a lot more sounds. But that's just my own taste, and my tastes always change, so that's only today.
When you're playing with just two guitars, do you find that you play more percussively?
MATTHEWS Yeah. It doesn't come out as much with a band, you know. If I were using one of these [full-body acoustic] guitars, I don't know if it would work. I use a Chet Atkins because it's like [makes sharp sound].
REYNOLDS It's hard for an acoustic to cut through with all the instruments.
How would you compare the whole experience of performing with the band versus the duo?
MATTHEWS I love playing with the band. I really, really love it. But there are more personalities, obviously. . . . There's still the joy, there's still the generosity, but it's more like there's a choreography about it. You have to be more aware of each other, and there's sometimes the threat of falling a little too much into habit.
With Tim, though, it's so intimate, it's like going out for a candlelit dinner, except we're not eating. And I also feel that to a certain degree, if I was to suddenly go [makes jibberish noises], in this environment, Tim would probably laugh. I don't know if it would be an appropriate thing to do with the band. There's a certain looseness about when the two of us are playing that's really beautiful and really different from the band. I feel like this is real precious, you know. The band, I'm amazed how quiet we can get, but Tim and I can get [whispers] real quiet.