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Interview: Catching up with Dave Matthews as another tour winds down
Dave Matthews is tardy. Again.
Last time we spoke – seven years ago, a few months after the release of his band's sixth studio album, Stand Up, and shortly before the immensely popular group would fill up Home Depot Center – Matthews was understandably delayed by family matters while living in Seattle. To be exact: He had promised his daughters he would take them to a vegan doughnut shop called Mighty-O's, and the minutes got away from him.
This time Matthews was back in Virginia, where the South African native spent formative years as a budding singer-songwriter, and was home to unwind during a tour break before Dave Matthews Band returned to the road over Labor Day weekend with three gigs at the Gorge in Washington. Their summer-long stateside run is about to wrap up with a series of shows in Southern California, including Saturday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine and an encore performance at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday.
Again Matthews was behind schedule – and again it was because of family. "They're bigger now," he says of his children, "and they're more eloquent in their demands."
He got nothing but sympathy from yours truly, as a 4-year-old waited patiently outside my bedroom door eager to know just who Dave Matthews is. Sharing that detail brought back a recent memory for the songwriter, 45, from when he was devising ideas for the latest full-bodied DMB varietal, Away from the World, due Tuesday.
The group's first album in three years is only the second set of new material to surface since the outspoken Stand Up in 2005. It also marks the first time they have worked with legendary producer Steve Lillywhite, who helmed all of the band's reputation-establishing discs from the '90s, since they parted ways over the shelved but much-bootlegged Lillywhite Sessions at the turn of the millennium. (Much of that material was re-recorded with a different producer, Stephen Harris, for Busted Stuff in 2002. In between came Everyday, a considerably slicker Glen Ballard co-creation whose merits remain hotly debated among fans.)
"There's one song on the new album called … oh, what's it called …?" Matthews, who often talks with the same tangent-hopping pitter-patter that he displays on acoustic guitar, started humming the circular guitar riff of "If Only," already a live favorite. "I had just sort of come up with the musical line that runs through that song, and I was sitting on my steps at home in Virginia, playing on this child's-size, nylon-string classical guitar. I'm recording it on my little iPhone thing when my son came over and started talking.
"So I stopped and tried to explain: 'OK, you gotta be quiet, 'cause I just want to get this thing down so I don't forget it when I'm looking for ideas.' I start again, and he leant forward really close to my iPhone and says (in a whispery voice) 'helloooo … helloooo …' I found that later, and I really loved the riff – but I especially loved the sound of my son going 'helloooo' very quietly into the phone."
There's been more time lately for such happy interruptions to occur, as Matthews and his faithful band – fiddler Boyd Tinsley, drummer Carter Beauford and bassist (and O.C. resident) Stefan Lessard, plus auxiliary players Jeff Coffin (who replaced the late LeRoi Moore on saxophone), trumpeter Rashawn Ross and longtime associate Tim Reynolds on guitar – all enjoyed a slightly lighter 2011.
Rather than embark on another cross-country trek to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they asked fans to come to one of four destination festivals – in Atlantic City, Chicago, NYC and back at the Gorge, each featuring top-name opening acts like Ray LaMontagne, David Gray and the Flaming Lips.
"In some ways those festivals were more difficult," Matthews says. "It was a greater task, and the hype around a larger occasion made the whole thing more of an effort." By contrast, heading out this year with his "traveling family," including crew who have been on the DMB train for more than a decade, is "kinda like going to work."
"You wake up," he explains, "you walk into your work day, and it's the same people. The geography changes a bit, depending on where we are, and you have access to a different town if you have a day off …
He jumps to a tangent: "That's the really odd thing about being on the road. I have friends and family in different parts of the country who I'll want to see, and they'll say, 'Hey, don't you want to come have a home-cooked meal?' Not really. I have a home-cooked meal every night when I'm traveling.
"In this strange way, when we're on the road I seldom want to break away from our little communities, whether it's members of the band or the crew … we tend to stick together. I guess in some ways (touring) is like going back to school after summer vacation," despite their school year being all summer long. "Even if you're reluctant to go back at first, it's still nice to see everyone again."
And visit some favorite places. Has he developed an affinity for any Southern California amphitheaters, I wondered? "You seem to have a love of places like the Gorge or Red Rocks. I realize Verizon out here isn't exactly as scenic as those locations …"
"But places are unique," Dave stepped in. "Irvine Meadows is an oddly shaped place. It's very steep, and it has this funny lid that you can't see on top of, sort of a flat level up above that we can't see from the stage."
The Bowl, on the other hand, "is one of the strangest venues, because the audience is so spread out. Thank goodness that it's held onto some historic value – that keeps it unique – but I'm sure one financially driven developer could fit three times as many people in there, just through average seating. It's sooo big, but they actually don't pack people in there."
That's definitely "one of the most beautiful venues we play," he contends, "but it's got a strange backstage, a little bit like a cave, and the stage itself is deceptively not that large. It's actually very tight." And there's an intimidation factor about that landmark. "I owned The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (1977) … I had that when I was 10, so it was exciting to go back there for that reason – maybe the first time more than now."
Every oft-visited venue on their route has distinct traits; the rooms themselves become instruments the band must fuse seamlessly into the mix. "Like Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. If we just relax and play, don't get too caught up in the volume and the energy that comes off the crowd … the crowd can just carry us, because of the energy in that room and the way it sounds … it's very boomy, but it works.
"Madison Square Garden can be like that, too. If I don't get terrified, and if I don't try to keep up with the crowd, I just lean back and stay in the pocket. It's one of the most comforting audiences, or at least responsive audiences, which in its own way is comforting. But if you try to fight with it, it can be overwhelming."
There are some places, however, where DMB's typically fired-up fans are generally calmer. "Down in Florida, West Palm Beach … even though it's a destination and people travel to go there, when we play there it's often so hot that the audience is subdued."
And then there's Los Angeles: "It's different. A lot of our audience will be there, but there also will be a lot of people from that city who are constantly bombarded by entertainment and stimulation. There's a certain amount of cool that comes with that part of the world, too." The trick, he says, is to figure out "how to distract people from themselves, from their obligatory indifference. … I find it sometimes takes a little more energy to lift people up in the Hollywood Bowl. The first time was most difficult; I don't think it was as hard the last time.
Plus, "Maybe at this point in my life I feel like I'm better at just saying I can only do my best, and I can't beat myself up about things. Whereas maybe 10 years ago that wasn't how the equation worked out in my head."
Back then, Matthews admits, life wasn't so smooth for a perennial attraction that always seems to power along at full steam. It was certainly no place for Steve Lillywhite to be stuck. "We were in a dysfunction that lasted for a long time. Obviously we stayed together as a band," though Matthews did take time for a solo album (Some Devil, 2003) and a few acoustic tours with Reynolds.
"But that dysfunction … I think Steve didn't really fit into that very well. It was a difficult break-up, but I feel very good about where we are now."
Initially, when Matthews' manager floated the idea of re-teaming with Lillywhite, the idea was to cut official versions of a stockpile of unreleased live gems. That plan was quickly scrapped.
Matthews told the producer he wanted a challenge, so they set deadlines and returned to the fast recording pace Lillywhite brought to DMB's early releases: Under the Table and Dreaming (1994), Crash (1996) and Before These Crowded Streets (1998). The exact opposite, that is, of the drawn-out approach the group had indulged ever since a 10-day flurry yielded the uneven Everyday roughly a decade ago.
Almost immediately, Matthews says, "All the eccentricities and weird things that drew us together the last time came right back. Very specific things, too, like his ability to get the best out of Boyd, who really didn't get to feature as much in the albums without Steve. Boyd is such a unique musician with a very unique sound – live is where he really feels most comfortable. But Steve really knows how to capture his energy."
The process, he says, was "super enjoyable," and it shows: Away from the World, while sharing the thematic and melodic maturity that emerged with 2009's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, restores much of the crackling drive missing from the DMB sound since the end of the '90s. Among the clear standouts is a road-tested jam called "Gaucho," built on a whip-smart six-string squiggle that evokes the heady groove of "Jimi Thing" and the creeping feel of "Dancing Nancies" without imitating either of them, then layers in the sort of social commentary Matthews conveys so potently in pieces like "Don't Drink the Water" and "Ants Marching."
Most difficult to achieve for a track like that is a deft dynamic between the plainspoken efficacy of his lyrics and the tremendous power of the band, a force not always so easily harnessed.
"I think some people would say that I do overwhelm the words with the music," he concedes, "and sometimes thank goodness I do." When it matters, though, his words can cut to the quick, as on "Gaucho," an exhortation from the activist star to do more than passively believe in ideals, and a jam that builds to an almost gospel finish. Like "Stand Up" before it, the song seems designed to stir passions in a time of political tension – particularly as it arrives on the anniversary of 9/11 and roughly two months before the presidential election.
"I wanted it to be more aggressive and more specific, to look at the idea of just blindly following the way the world leads us. We look to our leaders once we elect them to either lead us in the right direction or at least not crush us. I think that maybe we can increase the chaos a bit more by trying to direct those leaders and demand more from them. Not just our political leaders, leaders in everything – leaders in education, leaders in all corners of our culture. We should demand excellence more than mediocrity.
"You have to do more than believe – I like that idea."
"But then," he concludes, getting at the crux of his creative existence, "how do you say that simply in a song?"
Dave Matthews Band has three shows coming up: Sept. 7 at Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre in Chula Vista, Sept. 8 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine and Sept. 12 at the Hollywood Bowl. The first two are sold out, but tickets remain for the Bowl, $45-$95. Retro-soul newcomer Allen Stone opens all dates.
IMPORTANT: Heavy traffic is expected for Saturday's show. Do yourself a favor and arrive early to avoid missing anything. Also consider side-street routes and, for those heading south on either the 5 or 405, consider passing the venue to get off at Bake Parkway or Lake Forest Drive, then backtracking to the venue.