|And The Band Plays On...
Dave Matthews answers the door of his house, acoustic guitar in hand. "Sorry I didn't hear you at the door before," he says. "I've been practicing. These new songs are kicking my ass." Matthews is loved by many but not by all. The people--music-downloading, Temptation Island-watching ordinary folks--love Dave. The Dave Matthews Band is the hottest rock act on the road, and its new CD, Everyday (RCA), is hotly anticipated. But critics are divided. Some admire the group for its lack of pretense, its knowledgeable embrace of world-music influences, its mastery of concert performance in an age when a teen hottie lip-synching to prerecorded vocals she may or may not have ever recorded for a song she almost certainly didn't write passes for a live show. But a lot of critics, to put it politely, don't think Matthews is all that great. To put it not so politely, they think he and his band stink, in a Spin Doctors, two-weeks-old, dead-Phish kind of way. "I largely avoid reading critics," Matthews says. Still, he can quote verbatim from a review that compared America's love of his band with France's love of Jerry Lewis. His answer is to raise his game. On Everyday, he ventures in a new direction, with a new producer and a fresh sound.
The inside of Matthews' house is like his public image: straightforward, low key, funky around the fringes. His wife Ashley (they got married last August) is attending medical school in the area, and Matthews, 34, spends as much time as possible here, away from his usual home base of Charlottesville, Va. He is even thinking about starting a family. "I think I'm fertile," he says. "I'd love to have kids. I'd love to have someone to screw up." Ashley isn't in right now, but evidence of her is all over the living room. On one shelf is a textbook on organic chemistry; hanging on the wall near the door like one of Hannibal Lecter's victims is a life-size paper model of the internal organs of a human being. Hmm. Maybe this isn't the best vibe for a rock interview. "Let's get out of here," says Matthews, grabbing a leather jacket.
Matthews isn't the sole important member of the Dave Matthews Band (DMB for short). There's Carter Beauford, 42, the steady, disciplined drummer. Says Matthews: "One thing that drives me is trying to impress him." And there's Leroi Moore, 39, the saxman. "Leroi," says Matthews, "can make me cry onstage with something he plays." There's also bassist Stefan Lessard, 26, the youngest member. "He's so inventive and melodic," says Matthews. And finally there's Boyd Tinsley, 36, the showboating, show-stopping violinist. If a gig's going slowly, says Matthews, "It's usually Boyd that wakes me up."
Matthews formed the DMB in 1991. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he moved to Charlottesville at age 19 (he had family in the area) to avoid the draft at home. Says Matthews: "I wasn't interested in joining their army--hell, no!" But he was interested in music, a passion that dated back to listening to Beatles and Jackson 5 records as a child. As a bartender at a Charlottesville joint named Miller's, he came across a lot of musicians and gathered some together to start a band. The DMB won a local following and signed with RCA in 1993.
The secret to the DMB's success is not its CDs but its concerts. Only the big boys in rock--Mick, Bruce, Bono--can routinely fill 60,000-seat stadiums. Add Dave to that list. In 2000, according to Amusement Business, the DMB was the country's top-grossing touring rock band, taking in $66 million.
When a group features a fiddle and 20-minute jams and still draws huge crowds, it has to be special. From the start--like the Grateful Dead before it--the DMB allowed fans to tape its shows, spreading the word on its music one cassette at a time. For Everyday, it released a single on Napster. Says DMB manager Coran Capshaw: "We figured fans were gonna get the song anyway, so they might as well get a clean copy." In Charlottesville, the band has an 18,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and a large office complex to handle the demand for DMB T shirts, videos and paraphernalia.
Listening to a DMB album is like watching the tape of a playoff game--it's not the same as catching it live. For the new CD, the band recorded a dozen songs with Steve Lillywhite, who produced the DMB's earlier RCA studio albums and is known for his work with U2. But then Matthews and his mates decided to shelve that effort and start over with producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Aerosmith). "We were spinning our wheels a bit--musically the challenge was gone," says Beauford.
The change has been for the better. Matthews, on his previous CDs, played folky acoustic guitar. "When he walked in my studio in Los Angeles, the first thing I did was hand him an electric guitar," says Ballard. Matthews and Ballard, in a burst of creativity, composed 10 songs in nine days. While the shelved songs had meandered, the new tracks are fierce and focused, powered by Matthews' electrified lead guitar lines. "Usually we play a song for two years on the road and then record it," says Matthews. "It's nice to have an album of songs recorded at the time of their birth."
Mortality is a familiar DMB theme, and it surfaces on Everyday. When Matthews was 10, his physicist father John died of cancer; in 1994, Matthews' elder sister Anne was murdered. Says Matthews: "It had an effect on my outlook. Statements like, 'They're in a better place'--all that stuff is just junk food. Her death and the death of my father made me stand up and pay attention. It makes you not want to forget--not want to forget to live."
Matthews is perhaps the only white pop star--sorry, Eminem--who could legitimately claim to be African American. Yeah, sure, it's only technically true, thanks to his birthplace. But echoes of Africa do resound in his work. "I'm inspired by resilience in the face of adversity," he says. "And that's Africa. The continent has been so repeatedly betrayed by disease and by invasion that its contributions to the world are pretty amazing. The art of the 20th century--the stuff that in 200 years the world will look back on--a lot of it will be rooted back in Africa." With that inspiration, Matthews is more than an Everyday kind of rocker.