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In the Studio With Dave Matthews

An exclusive preview of DMB's "purest" album ever

April 17, 2002 12:00 AM ET

At a recording studio in Sausalito, California, Dave Matthews stands silhouetted in a doorway leading to a sunlit patio, smoking as he listens to his new album's opening track, "Busted Stuff."

The song rises and falls, casually crescendoing into bluesy flurries of guitar and violinist Boyd Tinsley's wah-wah effects. When the last note fades, Matthews crushes out his cigarette and flops happily into a chair at the control board. "Oh, I like that song," he says, grinning across the panel at producer Stephen Harris. "For something written by such a sad bastard, I do like it."

Matthews was indeed a sad bastard when he penned the melancholy "Busted Stuff" -- also the new album's working title -- the day after his stepfather died. It went on to become one of a dozen tracks that were included in Dave Matthews Band's now-famous never-released sessions with producer Steve Lillywhite, which were shelved in favor of last year's multiplatinum Glen Ballard-produced Everyday. But the unfinished Lillywhite album -- known to the band as "The Summer So Far" and to fans as "The Lillywhite Sessions" -- refused to die. The group performed many of its songs live, and thousands of bootleg copies made their way onto the Internet. Now, nine "Summer" tracks join two new compositions (including the gentle midtempo love song "Where Are You Going") on the new album, due out in June or July.

DMB fans will likely have a field day comparing old and new versions. With their wistful piano, blues-infused guitar and LeRoi Moore's alternately plaintive and jaunty saxophone, the rerecorded tracks are at once more languid and upbeat than their earlier incarnations. "Captain" alternates sly jazz flourishes with rocking guitar; "Grace Is Gone" and "Bartender" are transformed from glum lamentations into sweet-and-sour odes enlivened by the funky interplay between Stefan Lessard's elastic bass lines and Carter Beauford's rolling drums.

According to Matthews, the new versions are "truer to the spirit" of the band. "This time we felt that we were doing the songs justice," he says. "As they were, the sweetness of melancholy was missing, and they had a burdensome quality that was suffocating. When they first got out on the Web, it was like walking into a gallery and there's a crowd of people standing around looking at an unfinished painting and judging you for it. I can't blame the fans for wanting to hear the thing, but it can't fix the feeling that you've been robbed. There was an ugliness to it that left me feeling violated."

The current album's mood is the antithesis of the despondency of "Summer," and its jammy in-studio work ethic is the opposite of the one on Everyday. For that record, Matthews and producer Ballard jettisoned the band's usual collaborative approach in favor of meticulously scripted parts.

Tinsley, for one, welcomes the return to a more collective dynamic. "We had sheet music going in, which we'd never had before," he says of the Ballard sessions. "There were definitive parts laid down for us. This was much more open-ended, and the band had more freedom. We work best when we can contribute ideas and come up with parts from just playing together."

Matthews says recording Everyday with Ballard showed him that "there are lots of ways to look at music, lots of ways to play, to be musical and express joy," and he credits the experience for rousing band members from their post-"Summer" stupor.

"That album allowed us to get into this environment where there's more confidence about cutting off fat and trusting your instincts and making bold, quick decisions," he says. "With this album, we got to a space where everybody was present and the songs could fly. It wasn't like you had to get your part right; you could just buckle your seat belts and let songs carry themselves. It's a fun trip, and Harris really let that fun and spontaneity come through."

The group chose the Plant studio in part for its idyllic Marin County location, outside San Francisco. Having recorded 1998's Before These Crowded Streets at the site, DMB deemed it the perfect setting for returning to its jam-based roots. The bonding exercise worked: This album will mark the first time the band has recorded a full album without guest musicians, with a resulting intimacy that Tinsley says has created "one of the purest albums we've done. This was also one of our shortest sessions; we found that six weeks is a good time to make an album. Beyond that, we start to lose sight of the music."

Recording began January 20th and lasted two months, fueled by strong coffee from a local cafe ("I think it gave us some of the most memorable nights in the studio -- though maybe not the most productive," Tinsley says). At times the studio was transformed into a high-tech rec center, with visits from band members' families, including Matthews' wife, Ashley, and their eight-month-old twin daughters, Stella and Grace.

"A lot of things have changed, musically and in my life," admits Matthews. "I long for my family when I'm not with them. And as much of the time as possible, I'm going to have my family with me. I want to be around them more than I want to do anything else."

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