Dave Matthews: Gospel according to Matthews
January 20th, 2006
He's the biggest music star in the USA, but probably couldn't get arrested here. Tim Cooper meets a man for whom success means having the cash to do good
In America, Dave Matthews is so famous that when he goes out to dinner before a gig in Las Vegas it makes front-page news the next morning. Rolling Stone calls him "the biggest rock star in America" and he's sold 30 million albums and 10 million concert tickets to back it up. He's been called "the Bono of America" for the wide range of liberal causes he supports. And, to cap it all, he has had not one but two ice-cream flavours named in his honour by Ben & Jerry.
Yet in England... would you recognise his songs if you heard them? Would you recognise him, come to that, if he came round to your house? In the words of his last UK marketing campaign: who the hell is Dave Matthews?
He's a grass-roots phenomenon, and one whose genre-blending music is hard to define. A South African who moved to America after leaving school, he formed his racially mixed group in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1991. Their mellow fusion of pop rock, jazz and folk, with occasional hints of his African roots, sounds slick on record; in concert the songs are stretched out with a loose, jazz-like fluidity.
The Dave Matthews Band's following grew by word of mouth, college radio, and the exchange of bootlegs of their live shows between fans. In time, their constant touring brought them a nationwide audience but they've never played by the rules. Eschewing the normal apparatus of marketing and promotion, DMB (as fans call the band) have never released a single and are far from staples on music television, but they still sell records in their millions. Their latest studio album, Stand Up, sold 460,000 copies in its first week en route to the top of the US charts, and their recently-finished summer tour grossed them around $40m.
In Las Vegas over the Hallowe'en weekend DMB headlined the inaugural Vegoose festival in front of 40,000 fans. The previous night Matthews gave a more intimate performance at the Aladdin Theatre, all 7,000 tickets selling out in an hour. Accompanied only by his friend and regular collaborator Tim Reynolds and their acoustic guitars, he had the place spellbound from the very first note of each song. You could have heard a pin drop, were it not for the 6,999 other people singing every word with him.
DMB are loosely affiliated to the peculiarly American "jam band" scene, an informal association of bands - largely unknown here - who share a modus operandi of freewheeling musical improvisation and an inclination to support liberal causes ranging from peace to the environment. But their 38-year-old leader cuts a very different figure from the large and hairy members of most such bands. Clean-cut to the point of anonymity, with his neat appearance and slightly receding hair he could pass for an IT executive or a lawyer. Living far from the limelight, in Seattle with his wife and four-year-old twin daughters, and recording in away-from-it-all Charlottesville, he's as self-effacing as he looks. A hunched figure with an earnest demeanour and a slight stutter, he puts his success down to "hard work and a lot of luck" and expresses a desire to translate some of it to a world outside America - not to massage his ego, he insists, but simply because "it's fun to travel and play music."
So why have we so far resisted his charms? He feels his fame has proved an obstacle to converting the UK, where we tend to be suspicious of big shots demanding our attention. "The thing that has almost embarrassed me is the way we have been portrayed in the past over there as coming over and saying we're big-time. Every time I've travelled overseas the biggest thing that's been pushed is that we're 'big in America'," says Matthews. "I don't mind if people find that out but I don't want them to think that's the attitude we've come over with - that would be kind of repulsive. People would think: I don't like them already because of their audacity in assuming fame or success."
Matthews clearly won't challenge Robbie and Liam in an ego contest, but he's prepared to start small in the hope of replicating his band's "natural development" in America. "I'm not expecting to go to the UK and play clubs for a year or anything, but a certain amount of humility has a little more grace to it," he reasons. "The way we developed here was by going in the back door, sneaking in under the radar, and in all the years that we've played together we've been doing that. In a way, even though we're relatively enormous here, it still has a feeling of being slightly outside of at least a certain element of the mainstream."
Having lived briefly in Cambridge during his childhood, thanks to his physicist father's peripatetic postings, he has signed several British acts to the label he runs, ATO Records ("According To Our Records"). These include David Gray, Gomez and Jem. He's likely to find an appreciative audience here for his political views, which are as far removed from George W Bush as one can get these days without being deported by Homeland Security. Not that Matthews, who became a US citizen as a teenager, considers himself unpatriotic: "I like baseball and I like apple pie and I like double-scoop ice cream," he has said. "I like jazz, I like rock'n'roll and so I love America."
What sets him apart is his social conscience. He has his own charitable foundation, Bama Works, which supports a bewildering array of non-profit organisations, community programmes and charities around the globe, ranging from the Amazon rainforest to clinics and sports facilities in Charlottesville; he runs a separate charity, the Horton Foundation, with his sister; and he has performed at benefits for everything from Tibetan freedom to Hurricane Katrina. "It feels automatic to do benefit stuff," he shrugs. "We think: what do we do now? How can we better deal with the excessive success we've had in helping either raise awareness or assist people in terms of trying to improve communities or schools or, obviously, disaster relief? If comfort and luxury are as available as they are [to me], if I don't make an effort to be aware of what I might think are the downsides of our society, then I lose all purpose."
His social conscience, he concedes, was born in his native South Africa, where he grew up in Johannesburg under the apartheid regime. "Certainly I think, growing up there, I became acutely aware of the potential for a society to be so evil, so empty of morals, so aggressively unreasonable," he agrees. "And that meant that, when I came to America, the things about this society that are still very unfair, still very unbalanced, were much more apparent to me than they would be if I had just grown up here."
His concerns, however, are universal. "The one thing we all want is to be safe and not to be hungry and not to be afraid. And when you see those horrible qualities of being fearful or hungry or being afraid for your children, then you want to try and assist in changing those situations if it's in your power. I think that comes from coming from South Africa."
He adds: "When Reagan was president I was in South Africa and we were all so worried what was going to happen with the White House and how it would affect the developing world. Inside America he was good, but outside, the freeing up of unfair practices by corporations and the exploitation of people and the downgrading of financial assistance to nations that not only needed it but were entitled to it, we thought: what could be worse? And now we have this White House thatis managing to outshine him."
Matthews, along with Bruce Springsteen and REM, was a leading light in the Vote for Change tour, which aimed to mobilise young voters in support of John Kerry on the eve of the US election. "One of the things this country does is gloat daily to the world about freedom to speak your mind, to dissent, but I think America is in a very difficult situation right now, so when opportunities like that arrive at your doorstep you have to just to keep what little hope you have," he says.
"It has come to this point where it seems that America is claiming all these virtues repeatedly to the world - freedom and democracy - but... you never have a perfect democracy and you never have freedom - it's impossible because as soon as you have them they no longer exist. So that idea that we've got them and are therefore beyond reproach is frightening."