January 1st, 2001
The Dave Matthews Band's first live public performance was at a small concert on Earth Day, 1991, in Charlottesville, Virginia. They played outdoors. The audience couldn't stop dancing. And they had a lot of fun together. Little did they know then that ten years later, those same three elements would become a way of life for them. The big difference now, of course, is that they play in stadiums, such as they did in January at Brazil's massive outdoor "Rock in Rio" concert; their audiences now number in the hundreds of thousands; and not only do they still have a lot of fun, but they make a great living from it, too. While Matthews, drummer Carter Beauford, bassist Stefan Lessard, saxophonist LeRoi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley are considered one of the hottest live acts in the world, their record sales and chart success are equally impressive. Their first RCA album, Under the Table and Dreaming, is certified four-times Platinum; their second album, Crash, debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and their last studio album, Before These Crowded Streets, debuted at #1, ousting the Titanic soundtrack's extended run.
By mixing folk, rock and jazz and playing it to feverish effect, nurturing a loyal grass roots following through their web site www.davematthewsband.com and committing themselves, through their own Bama Works Foundation, to charitable works at home and abroad, DMB have gone from being a quintessential college band to being an international sensation. Upon the release of his band's fourth RCA album, Everyday, Matthews talked to Playback about his new producer, Glen Ballard, his songwriting development and why he decided to create his own independent label, which launched the U.S. success of singer/songwriter David Gray.
For your new album, you went right from being on the road to being in the studio with Glen Ballard. How was that experience?
It couldn't have been better, really. For nine days straight, Glen and I had a great deal of fun writing stuff. We got together before the rest of the band came out to start playing and refining, and in those nine days, we wrote an album's worth of tunes. We hadn't really known each other prior to that, but it became such an easy partnership.
How did you end up choosing Glen as a producer for this record?
We had been working with Steve Lillywhite with whom we've worked for years and who is such a dear friend of ours, but I think we had fallen into a habitual way of doing things.
So you wanted to shake things up?
We wanted to see what it would be like sailing on another captain's ship. We looked around for a while for a producer, and then a very edited version of Glen Ballard's resume came to us when we were flying home for a small break from our summer tour. The list of people that he has worked with and the list of songs that he has written blew us away. From Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson -- and that stuff is monumental -- right up to his collaborations with Alanis Morissette, his contributions have been riddled with quality. So often there's quantity, and not quality -- rarely do they come together. But in his case, they are just there. Both fountains are mixed together with him. He's also such a worker.
Is his approach completely different from how you have made a record before?
I'm sure that a lot of his methods are tried and true, but for me, personally, the experience of working with him was like a swimming pool on a hot day or a really fun jungle gym. I first walked in the room and I didn't know what to expect, but it was immediately apparent that I was gonna have a lot of fun. It was so much fun, that it didn't feel like work. And everything felt like it had substance. The pace at which we worked didn't negate the quality at all in my opinion. I felt like I was involved in the best writing of my life.
Musically, many of your songs are built around your unique acoustic guitar playing style, which is very percussive, such as in your hit "What Would You Say?" Was that something that was there from the start when you began playing the guitar and writing songs?
Yeah, because I was such a closet guitarist for so long. I never really played with anyone. But I love drums. I also have a passion for rhythm. That is one of the reasons I'm lucky enough to be with Carter and his incredible musicianship. It endlessly fills me with joy and is also one of the reasons that I don't spend as much time on the guitar stepping out in front melodically. I just try and keep the music going in a circular kind of way. I don't know if that comes from my listening to a lot of music from different cultures, which affects the sort of droning kind of things that I like to play a lot.
What styles of world music do you draw inspiration from?
When we're in a big city, I'll just switch the channels on the radio to see what's out there. But I do have a couple of favorites that I like listening to. Whether it's Irish music or South African or Moroccan or Indian like Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, they all have themes that repeat over and over again. They don't lose anything musically because there's also a dance that's going around it. I love the idea of a circle because I think that is what gets people mesmerized. But then you mix that in with giant chord changes -- and the two blend together.
Lyrically, are there certain songwriters that you admire and use as a guiding light when you are writing your own lyrics?
Yeah, I've got people that I love, but you can't compare yourself to other people and be remotely objective. But I do try to compare myself to the people I admire. However, I judge myself more severely. I'm critical. I try to set a standard for myself. And I hope that I get better and better as time goes on.
Your bandmates are such outstanding musicians. When you write a song, do you keep in mind their eventual musical contribution to the material, such as leaving spaces for Boyd to go off and do his thing?
Sometimes, but that stuff usually finds itself. When we're playing live, often those spaces develop themselves a bit more. And they also break themselves down. There are moments for solos that always rear their heads. All I really need to do is stop and someone can step in. We've emphasized it in different ways throughout our career. But one of the more impressive things for me is when all 5 instruments or all 6, including my voice, are playing and there will be textures and counter melodies and counterpoints, all those sort of things. That's when I really think that we are at our best as a band. Although, it's not as explosive as when Boyd comes flying out of the cannon, which is for me, and I'm sure for everybody else, an exciting event.
It is the unity and the synchronicity of our spontaneity -- when it is the result of the five of us together -- that really blows my mind.
You're coming up on 10 years now with this band. When you first started, how much confidence did you have as a songwriter?
In the beginning, I'd only written 4 songs. But I had something that I was pretty proud of that I'd worked on with a friend, Greg Howard, and another friend, Ross Hoffman, who was sort of my mentor for a while. The two of them pushed me to write. Then I said I'd love to get a band and record this stuff. So I approached Carter and Leroi.
Based on the fruits of that little connection there, was it enough for them to say, "Hey, I think there's something special here?"
Yeah -- it certainly was enough for them to put the time aside for us to work on it. The big moment came, I think, when we first played together live on Earth Day. I think all of us saw a reaction from the audience that none of us expected. We were all like, "Wow. That was pretty cool."
You realized you were on to something?
Yeah. On that Earth Day gig, it was a cold day, and all of the other bands scheduled to perform wanted to go first because they had other gigs that day. We were all ready to start the show early in the day, and slowly, as the day went on, we were pushed back later in the day. We didn't mind because we were anxious to play. We only had 4 songs, maybe 5. But when we went up and started playing -- and the crowd had thinned because it was cold -- we got the most people dancing out of the whole day. It really hit us that we did one song and suddenly everybody was jamming. We were all surprised.
Then it happened again the next time we played, and again. That's sort of how it happened. We worked together because we had time to work together and we liked working together, but it was inspired by these moments that raised our confidence, and our determination.
At what point did you become ambitious in terms of knowing what you wanted to do with your music?
That's what I wanted to do. I didn't know how it was going to happen, but I had my confidence. I was playing with Carter and LeRoi and Stefan. And on that first day, Boyd was with us too for a couple of tunes. I knew that if I had these guys with me, then we had some muscle. Then it was just a matter of playing and hitting these launching pads and getting those moments where we could sail.
I remember we did one awards show and there was nobody in the audience because we were first on the main stage. But we were still fired up. There were probably a couple thousand people in the audience. But we had that feeling of just absolutely rocking what little house there was there and it was just such an enormously gratifying feeling. And there were just enough of those moments through our career where we felt good, and as many moments that knocked us down. But one is reluctant to fall when you get hit back with true inspiration.
In the first five or six years of your rise in popularity, you created a blueprint that many other bands have followed in building a grassroots fan base. Before you ever signed a major record deal you had a major following. Was that something that was calculated or did it take on a life of its own?
Well I think it was a combination of things. Our manager, Coran Capshaw was much more into live music and was very into spreading us around that way because that's the way we got the most reactions. We had made some recordings and sent those out, but we couldn't have gotten a response if we had put a bomb in the package. And we couldn't get into any of the conventions, such as South by Southwest. Our local newspapers and local radio stations gave us a lot of support.
But from the more corporate, national side of it, there was nothing. So we really didn't have a choice. Then on top of that, we were making good money. We were making a living. And it was good in comparison to what we'd been used to.
So you really had to start building your base from your own region.
I think being in a college town and near some of the other college towns, the word grew quickly. Then people started taping our shows, which was a huge part of it. We hadn't even been past New York before and we'd go to a college in Maine and to every song that we played, the audience would be singing all the lyrics. So, inside the college circuit, we got gigs because people asked us to play, and when we would do a circuit of gigs we just had to choose the gigs and put them in our routes.
So when it came time to sign with a record company, we had such a following, we could pick and choose what we wanted at that point.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about your new label, ATO (According To Our) Records, and the success of your first signing, David Gray. How did this all come about?
Well, Michael McDonald and Chris Tetzeli, two very good friends of mine, had the idea. They asked me if I wanted to join with them and start up a new record company. And I said, "sure." The goals were simple. We wanted to have a bit of control. There are also a lot of great musicians out there that don't get anything. And then there's a lot of bad music that gets everything. And we wanted to change that.
I've known David Gray for years and I've listened to all his records. He was looking for a label to release his record in America and I knew this record was out all over the world, but he couldn't get it released in America, which shows sort of how messed up the industry is. But this is an album that is overflowing with greatness.
Do you think we might see more unknown artists hooking up with established artists in order to get a foot in the market?
Yes I do. But in a lot of ways I think that's the way it's always happened. I think people have been giving other people a hand-up out of respect. I find inspiration in David Gray and so therefore I think that other people will find inspiration in David Gray. I think there will always be artists that are going to support other artists because it's the nature of music.