May 27th, 2005
The Dave Matthews Band may be the most successful group you've never heard of, writes Andrew Murfett.
In their native US they've sold tens of millions of albums and play to almost a million fans a year; yet somehow the Dave Matthews Band has managed to remain virtually anonymous in Australia. Even though their likeable brand of rootsy rock predates, and in some ways supersedes, the immediately recognisable likes of Ben Harper and Jack Johnson.
Here, the DMB have sold only 110,000 records and enjoy what is described as a cult following.
Ask Australian radio programmers or music fans why they have has not achieved local success and many suggest they are yet another bland American concoction. But that contradicts the unadulterated fanaticism of the band's diverse group of US followers.
Sydney-based Triple M announcer Byron Cooke was told by his American girlfriend, who had seen them play live a committed 32 times, that she would not marry him until he had listened to the entire Dave Matthews back catalogue.
''Yeah it's dramatic," Cooke says. "But I get it. My impression was: how is it that they haven't made an impression in this country?
''The musicianship and songwriting is phenomenal. I saw them (in Australia) in a room of a thousand people; they hadn't played rooms that size for a decade. I don't think people realised the importance and significance of their last Aussie tour.''
Matthews himself is surprised that his band is tagged as mainstream.
''It's unbelievable," he told EG during his March tour. "We do everything our way and go down our road, it's just that lots of people come along with us and know about us.
''We're not following any rules in the industry by any means."
The DMB have had their share of tepid studio moments, but live they are nothing short of a revelation, with the exquisite drumming skills of Carter Beauford and the players' preternatural cohesion.
South African-born and raised a Quaker, Matthews, now 38, had been playing guitar and piano since he was nine and harboured the idea of bringing a band together since hanging on the periphery of Charlottesville, Virginia's eclectic live music scene as a college stu dent-turned-bar tender.
''The band I had the idea for was a cool, smooth sort of band with a laid-back acoustic guitar," he says, "kind of sweet and rootsy".
Along with DMB violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist LeRoi Moore, Matthews recruited drummer extraordinaire Carter Beauford and 16-year-old bassist Stefan Lessard to record a demo in 1991. A Tuesday residency initially attracted a handful of regulars before wordof- mouth ensured regular sellouts.
''People would be piled up on the sidewalk it was so packed," Tinsley says.
"So we were like, screw the demo tape, let's just keep playing and we haven't stopped since."
After two years of touring, the DMB released their independent label debut Remember Two Things and sold an impressive 500,000 copies.
A switch to a major (RCA) for Under The Table and Dreaming began a slow build that after sustained touring, culminated in sales of 4 million. Twelve years into their career, a DMB album is essentially guaranteed to sell 2 million copies regardless of airplay.
Wearing a well-worn pair of jeans and a tatty white T-shirt, everything about Dave Matthews is lowkey.
He talks mostly in hushed, husky tones but bellows when he gets excited. He admits to smoking and drinking too much.
Most of all though, Matthews, who is married to his college sweetheart and has three-year-old twin daughters Grace and Stella, likes to make those around him laugh.
But this casual, informal aura surrounding Matthews and his band belies their wealth. Last year the band grossed more than $38 million on the road and sold almost a million albums and DVDs. And that was a year without releasing any music.
Matthews' personal assistant Ty Johnson says that at home the band are refreshingly laidback and particularly informal."
It's still strange to me," Johnson says. "Most of them drive beat-up old cars and wear the same clothes all the time. You think of how successful they are and it's just amazing watching them do things like car-pool to the studio."
The homespun, folksy nature of the band defies the massive financial infrastructure set up around them. On their US summer tour the DMB is a travelling circus employing 70 staff.
Then there are Matthews' own interests outside the band. He runs a winery in Virginia; he has ATO, a record label home to My Morning Jacket, David Gray and Jem.
There's also a burgeoning career as an actor (Matthews plays a dishevelled drifter with a mysterious past in the film Because of Winn-Dixie).
This week marks the local release of Stand Up, the band's sixth studio album and first serious crack at the Australian market.
Stand Up is an impressive, divergent work, yet the DMB's biggest selling point is still their incendiary live show. With their last overseas assault thwarted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (a Melbourne show booked for 2001 was cancelled the week before it went on sale), another tour will build on the strong word-of-mouth from March's impressive shows.
Their choice of producer, Mark Batson, (who has worked with pop and hip-hop names such as Beyonce and Eminem) suggests the band is finally shooting for some mainstream appeal outside the US.
The band also scrapped their previous studio and built a new one with high-tech equipment, a bar and, as all studios should boast, a personal chef.
''This is the first record we've all been of sound mind and body," Matthews says. "Our other records all have this quality of dysfunction in them and in their creation. This new one, this is like group therapy. This shit is slamming."
Regardless, Stand Up remains a tough sell."
It'll be difficult because of the quality of music they've already released," Triple M's Cooke says."
It's all so strong and I don't see how after 10 years now will necessarily be the time. I hope so, though."
Our music directors are conscious of Dave and they're aware of his significance," Cooke says.
"But we don't really play a lot of new music on Triple M now so it's hard for anyone, let alone Dave Matthews."
At the conclusion of their third day of Melbourne-based promotional duties, Matthews and Tinsley spilt on to St Kilda Road for a smoke. Talk turns to fellow South African superstar Charlize Theron.
''Well," Matthews sighs, "she came to lose her South African accent in a day and a half! It's unbelievable! I mean, at least I grew up in both places."
Do you know what she said to me the first time I met her? She said 'I couldn't get a job here, so I got an American accent' so I says, well you could have just faked it.
Naomi Watts doesn't speak with an American accent when she's walking down the street.
''I ask if Dave Matthews is as famous as Charlize back home in South Africa?
"Not really," he says. "In Africa we have more of an underground following. It's not like America, but they know about us."
We thought you would be some sort of home-town prodigal son like Mel Gibson is here in Australia?
"Well," Matthews smiles mischievously and draws back on his cigarette. "There's a little bit of that."