King of the road
August 23, 2007
NASHVILLE - From the humble beginnings of drummer Carter Beauford's mother's basement and a crucial Tuesday night residency at Trax in Charlottesville, Va., the Dave Matthews Band has become the biggest touring success story to emerge from the 1990s.
Riding and then surpassing a wave of success from a rejuvenated post-Grateful Dead jam band scene, DMB has become, quite simply, the top-drawing American band in the world. In fact, only one act -- the Rolling Stones -- sold more tickets than DMB did in the preceding decade.
Band founder Dave Matthews was a reluctant frontman as he made the switch from Charlottesville bartender. The band has not been dependent on radio airplay (though it has enjoyed some) or platinum record sales (which it has enjoyed as well). DMB is a touring band, one of the most successful that has ever hit the highway, and its connection with its fans is via the live-performance conduit from stage to audience.
Billboard spoke with Matthews in the downtime before a May show in Dublin, as the band was about to embark on yet another massive North American tour. Matthews was relaxed, thoughtful and humble as he discussed the past, present and future of DMB, and how important it is to "get it right."
Q: From the band's first rehearsals in the early 1990s in Charlottesville, could you sense a special chemistry?
Matthews: Very early on it had a "life of its own" sort of quality. When we first got together, it was pretty strange. I think a couple of heads turned outside of Carter's mom's basement. But pretty soon after that, certainly by our first gig, when we played even we were surprised by how people lit up.
Our first couple of gigs we only had four songs and we stretched them out, and that became part of defining what was to evolve from us. It wasn't planned, and it sort of continued that way, and at its best it still continues that way.
Q: Was extensive touring always part of the game plan?
Matthews: It was the only thing we could rely on in the beginning, and in a way it has been the only thing we have relied on since. We've had good fortune with CDs and we've had some good fortune with radio, but it never really took. It sort of always followed more than led, that side of it, the industry side of it.
There was a strange independence to the way we got here, to where we are now. I know some people would say we're pretty mainstream, but we certainly got here in a pretty unique way and have maintained it in a pretty unique way.
If the record industry went belly up I certainly don't think it would kill us and, hey, it might even help us.
Q: It seems your recording career and your live career are sort of on parallel courses.
Matthews: That's very true, and the one that's sort of more faithful, the live thing, seems thus far to be the place where things are worked out in a lot of different ways, whether it's music, relationships, songs. The evolution seems to happen there. One day we'll make our best record, but it hasn't happened yet. But they are two separate things. On the one side, the touring side, we're sort of formidable, and on the side of record sales, not so much.
Q: What's the band approach to set lists?
Matthews: It's varied. Right now, I've been tending to write down an idea for a set and we pass it around the room and we change things here or there and come up with something that's comfortable and still a little adventurous.
Certain songs fall out of favour with us for whatever reason and don't appear for a while, but they come back around eventually and reappear. We look online or hear through conversations maybe what songs fans want to hear, and if they're songs that also we don't mind playing or we start getting back into, then we try to bring those in.
Q: Is performing still fun?
Matthews: Oh, yeah, it's fun, and it's pressure, it's both things. You've got to do it, you've got to get it right. You have to get it right, you can't go out halfway. Even if I feel exhausted and I haven't slept, you have to go out and give it everything.
Q: Only one band has sold more tickets than DMB in the past decade, the Rolling Stones. What do you think when you hear stats like that?
Matthews: It boggles my mind a little bit. In some ways my response is to sort of just keep my head down and not pay too much attention to that sort of stuff, because that makes it more intimidating. Just come to work as often as there's work and then go home and try to raise my kids right.