The Boys of Summer
June 16th, 2005
Dave Matthews Band is back from the brink and back on the road
By JENNY ELISCU
The Mudhouse, a cafe in Charlottesville, Virginia, that employs the pierced, tattooed and generally bohemian, is not the kind of place where you pay for your mocha with a $100 bill. To do so would be to invite a sneer that says, "Why not just go to Starbucks, you corporate asshole?" To do so if you're Dave Matthews, whose band got its start fourteen years ago playing gigs at a tiny restaurant a few miles away, would be even more gauche. This is a fact of which Matthews is well aware, and when he opened his wallet on a balmy mid-May morning and saw that the only currency it contained was the Benjamin he'd been given as his per diem a few nights earlier, he panicked. "I had to borrow five dollars from my daughters' nanny," he says in a deep, gravelly monotone. And five dollars barely covered his mocha, which he takes with four shots of espresso.
Matthews is not just the biggest rock star in America -- since 1993, Dave Matthews Band have sold more than 30 million albums and 10 million concert tickets -- he is also one of the richest. DMB's new disc, Stand Up, sold 460,000 copies its first week, and the group is expected to rake in more than $40 million during its summer tour, which began June 1st and will roll straight through September. Even so, Matthews is loath to flaunt his riches. To buy coffee with a $100 bill, he says, would be like "making out in a room full of lonely people."
"I have my extravagances," he admits the following night, busying his hands by folding and unfolding the corners of a piece of paper. His posture is, as usual, hunched, and his brow, as usual, furrowed, creating two sharp pleats in the middle of his forehead. We are seated in the dining room of Haunted Hollow, the sprawling house -- with 140 acres of land and its own lake -- that the bandmates have converted into their private recording studio. Everyone in the group has homes in the area -- violinist Boyd Tinsley's got two -- though Matthews and his family currently live in Seattle, where his wife, Ashley, is studying holistic medicine. "I got land, I got a big bathtub, and I travel easy," he says, that last part referring to the private jet he uses from time to time. "But what the money hasn't changed is the fact that we're still determined to kick ass. There's not a lot of bands that can say they've been together fifteen years and working as consistently. We got where we are in a pretty honest way and built the wall with our own hands."
For their first studio effort in three years (Matthews released a solo album, Some Devil, in 2003), DMB knew it was time to shake things up. They gutted their studio, then rebuilt and customized it to state-of-the-art specifications. There were some ghosts lingering in Haunted Hollow following their previous two records: In 2000, after much hand-wringing and months of studio work that went nowhere, they split with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, scrapping sessions he'd done with them in favor of a more slickly produced effort by Glen Ballard called Everyday. The album sold well, but DMB superfans were not happy. In 2002, the band revived the Lillywhite sessions with engineer Steve Harris and issued those as Busted Stuff.
"There was an underlying apprehensiveness going back into Haunted Hollow," says Bruce Flohr, the A&R man who signed DMB to RCA Records in 1993. "The concern was, 'Is this going to be like the Lillywhite sessions all over again?' Each guy felt there was a challenge on this record to somehow reinvigorate themselves as a band."
The catalyst came in the form of producer Mark Batson, who has worked with Eminem, 50 Cent and India.Arie, among others. "We knew we had to work with someone different this time," says Matthews. "We're a great live band, and we've done good studio albums. We needed to find a way to become a really smoking studio band."
To that end, Batson suggested that each member of the group come into the studio individually. The goal was to capture the instant quality that Matthews, Tinsley, bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist LeRoi Moore have when they're onstage, weaving rock, jazz, funk, bluegrass and world beat into extended jams that take them places even they never imagined. "I have always seen the Dave Matthews Band as a slammin', hard-hitting rock band," says the Brooklyn-born Batson. "Some people perceive them on record to be smooth, and since I make records that bump and bang, the band felt I might be able to help them capture their vibe. But they also wanted to begin a new era with a new sound. So Stand Up, in a funny kind of way, was like approaching a first album -- like an introduction to the twenty-first-century Dave Matthews Band."
Often, Batson would have a microphone on and the musicians wouldn't even know it. "I could just be sitting right here and Mark would have the tape going," Tinsley says, reclining in a lounge chair on the studio's second-story deck. "American Baby" began with a simple plucked violin riff by Tinsley. "I definitely wasn't thinking that could be the major hook of a song when I was sitting there playing it," says the forty-five-year-old Charlottesville native.
The experience was in stark contrast to the making of Everyday, in which Matthews and Ballard constructed the songs almost entirely on their own before the rest of the group showed up in the studio. "This has opened our eyes that 'Hey, Dave can write songs, but the rest of us can also bring in ideas that will be just as strong, if not stronger,' " says Lessard, 31, who cranked out a grunge-inspired guitar part that became the basis of the ode to oral sex, "Hunger for the Great Light."
Tinsley compares the method to how the group works during sound check, where off-the-cuff jams develop into new song ideas. "If you keep going back, you miss what was cool about an idea initially," he says. "With this band, generally the first reaction is it."
"That's the magic of this band: shooting from the hip," says Matthews. "The lights have to follow our cues, because we're not going to follow their cues. We're not going to stick to a song the way it's supposed to be. Everything is up to us. That's music to me. That's American music. We're an American band."
(Excerpted from RS 976, June 16, 2005)