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World's woes bedevil Matthews

October 5th, 2003

EDNA GUNDERSEN, Gannett News Service

Dave Matthews goes solo.

Seated in a dim corner of a hotel bar, Dave Matthews orders 18-year-old Glenfiddich -- on the rocks.

"I like to ruin it," he tells the bartender.

Matthews, whose new solo debut attests to personal and professional growth, cut back on drinking before it could ruin him, he says.

"I still drink, as you can see, but moderately," he says. "I don't want to drink like I did for a while. It wasn't necessarily to escape or hide; it was just a sad habit with the consequence of making me foolish. As you get to the bottom of a bottle of whisky, the likelihood of screwing up is greatly increased."

Matthews, 36, nurses his Scotch for the next hour as he relays the musical ideas, family bonds and political views that shaped the 14 deeply romantic yet dread-tinged tunes on "Some Devil."

The album "is a little dark, maybe because the world without question is a darker place," Matthews says. "That weighed heavily on me. If I made an album today, it would be really bleak. Maybe I'm getting older. Earlier, I was singing whoopee-we're-all-gonna-die songs, and happily they were mistaken as extremely joyful whether I was being cynical or not. Now the darkness is upfront and less tongue-in-cheek."

Matthews isn't overt or literal in conveying opinions on current affairs, often disguised in relationship scenarios.

"I try to tell a story without fabricating emotion," he says. "Death and love are the only things I can sing about without feeling like a preacher. The death of a family member or even the death of innocence is in some ways better described as the death of a lover.

"It's very difficult to express my political ideas in music because they're so specific. I try to write songs that invite people to be caring or thoughtful and to engage in imagination and conversation. I think the solutions to problems that face the world are ones of inclusion, not opposition. You split the world into pieces with catch phrases like, 'You're with us or against us,' which is the attitude of a small child, not a thinking human being."

Born in Johannesburg, Matthews was brought to the United States when he was 2 and returned to South Africa at 13. His upbringing and exhaustive tours with the Dave Matthews Band exposed him to cultures that broadened his perspective.

"CNN is an easy source of information, but it's such a surface painting," he says. "The enemies of this country would become much smaller if they weren't painted in such broad and simple strokes." Becoming a father intensified the trauma and grief of 9/11.

He wed Ashley Harper in August 2000, and their twin girls were born a year later. (Stella and Grace, now 2, "are excellent and hysterical dancers big on air guitar," dad says.) Weeks later, the terrorists struck.

"I feel a greater obligation to state my opinions because of my daughters. The urgency to take an inventory of my life and of America has grown a great deal since 9/11 and events that unfolded since then. A horrifying, brutal and savage attack inspired this amazing unity the world over. What has happened since then is possibly the most criminal squandering of hope that the planet has ever seen."

Careful to distinguish between criticism of government and respect for soldiers, Matthews says he strongly opposes the war in Iraq but feels admiration for forces that dutifully streamed into combat. He could zip his lip and avoid offending anyone, "but it's anti-American to shut up."

Open-minded parents shaped his belief system, as did his discovery of the arts in exotic cultures.

"I would not have been as curious about the world if not for music. Bob Marley was an enormous influence. He was uncompromising, whether singing about love or about fighting the white cops in Jamaica."

From hymns to rap, Matthews found rich lessons in all forms of music. The gorgeous Sufi devotional music of Pakistan's late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sparked curiosity, awe and sympathy for distant lands. Eminem "grabs my heart really hard and makes me want to get up and scream, too," Matthews says.

Political awareness also keeps Matthews, ranked the third wealthiest rocker in 2002 by Rolling Stone, humble. While juggling a family and a frenetic work schedule, he resists bellyaching.

"I watch documentaries on the West Virginia coal miners and remind myself that I've got it so damn easy," he says. "I get sick when I hear entertainers complain that they have it tough and need their privacy. Then get a cottage in the mountains. I am enormously overpaid. I'm like triple-fat Brie cheese filled with triple-fat Brie cheese on two big lumps of triple-fat Brie cheese. When I start to whine about being tired, I tell myself, 'Bite your lip, boy.'"

2003, articlesdbtp