The Devil in Dave Matthews: Rolling Stone's 2004 Cover Story

As he mounts a tour behind his first solo album, 'Some Devil,' Matthews settles down to explain why death is on his mind so much

June 23, 2011 3:55 PM ET
The Devil in Dave Matthews: Rolling Stone's 2004 Cover Story
Photograph by Martin Schoeller for RollingStone.com

"That's right, kitty. You're beautiful, But I'm not going to touch you. I don't know where you've been, and I hope you're not related to the devil." These days it's hard for Dave Matthews to trust anything, not even a small black cat desperate for attention. He doesn't need any more bad luck. "Trouble, get behind me now," he sings on his solo debut, Some Devil. "Trouble, let me be." He acknowledges that his best album with Dave Matthews Band is five years behind him and says no God gives a shit about him and that suicide crosses his mind more often than you may think. "I've been in situations where I haven't been able to see how I'll get by," he says. But Matthews also says he has a "pretty solid sense of joy." He is happily married, his two-year-old twin girls, Grace and Stella, worship him, and, as he puts it, he makes "an exorbitant living," estimated to be north of $20 million annually. In order to stay out of a lunatic asylum, Matthews has resolved to distract himself with projects, big and small. There's the solo album, which expands on Matthews' constant themes of loss, death and love; a craft project that involves designing and hand-painting a deck of cards; a president he vows to remove from the White House; the winery he operates on his Virginia estate; and ATO Records, the label he oversees (David Gray, Ben Kweller, My Morning Jacket and five others are signed to ATO). "I want to, as desperately and joyfully as possible, fill my life with unusual experiences — make my life full of challenges and accept them," he says. "Change is like a vacation." What's taking over his fantasies at the moment is the thought of writing the next DMB album at the band's brand-new studio complex in Charlottesville, Virginia. "It's, like, my crazed ambition."

In Thibodaux, Louisiana, a bayou town fifty miles southwest of New Orleans, Matthews, who will turn thirty-seven on January 9th, has diverted his short attention span to acting. Sporting a full beard, he's on the set of Because of Winn-Dixie, directed by Wayne Wang. Matthews plays an ex-con drifter who arrives in Naomi, Florida, and settles in as the owner of a pet shop, where he imparts his wisdom to a young girl. He'll also contribute new songs to the soundtrack. "I always said that if I ever do a part in a movie, I would refuse to play music," he says. "But I realized that this is the perfect part for me." His character, Otis, has trouble stringing thoughts together without a guitar in his hand.

The day after the movie wraps, Matthews races back to his home in Seattle — where the family is living while his wife, Ashley, studies holistic medicine — to begin rehearsals for a tour supporting Some Devil. The beard is gone. In the kitchen of Studio Litho, where he spent seven months recording the album, Matthews welcomes guitarists Trey Anastasio and Tim Reynolds. They spend the afternoon listening to potential covers, playing along to Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" and the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek."

"This song is eerily appropriate," says Anastasio, as Paul Simon's "American Tune" blares through the monitors.

Matthews begins singing along: "And I dreamed I was dying." Two creases form between his closed eyes, and a large glass of Scotch and a cigarette are nestled in his right hand. "And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly/And, looking back down at me, smiled reassuringly."

There's a lot of death on "Some Devil": "Gravedigger" kills off four people in three verses, and in "So Damn Lucky," you describe an elongated moment before a car accident. Does that song stem from a near-death experience?
Well, I've been in a few car wrecks. I think five — one or two serious — before I ever drove a car. I was growing up in South Africa at a time when the youth was reckless, irreverent and excited knowing that the future of the country was uncertain. My circle of friends was very aware that the welcome demise of apartheid was all but upon us, and that made for a reckless kind of abandon that made for a lot of recreational excess.

Like getting high and driving fast?
Yeah. I never drove. I was always in the car with some maniac. I'm familiar with that feeling of silence that comes with a very imminent catastrophe, when you know you have absolutely no control over a situation. Most recently, I was with my wife in the back seat of a friend's car. It was raining, and there was all this traffic and chaos in Johannesburg. A car came flying past us, through a red light. Then we heard screeching tires, and I looked behind us to see another car piling toward us. I remember thinking, "I should tell everyone in the car that we're about to get smashed." Then, bam! It couldn't have been more than a second or two, but there was so much time to look around. Maybe when all responsibility for anything is taken out of our hands, then suddenly we have a lot of time to bear witness. So I thought [for "So Damn Lucky"] it was funny to make that analogy with your life spinning out of control.

How do you feel your songwriting on "Some Devil" stacks up against your work with DMB?
Some Devil
has a clarity. The lyrics are more complete than any album I've done before. A lot of times I get in this corner where I say, "Now I've got to finish these lyrics." That wasn't the case with Some Devil.

"Gravedigger" is about slavery, a mother losing her children in World War II and the death of an eight-year-old. How did a gloomy song like that become the first single?
The songs I was most drawn to — "Gravedigger" and "Some Devil" — were the ones that would be the least likely to fit the mood of radio nowadays. And people were like, "What do we do? Christ. Put the one with some drum beats on it." But I'm glad. It's a lonely song that dwells on the topics we're more inclined to escape. One radio station said it didn't want to play the song anymore because a woman had phoned in saying it made her cry. I was like, "Oh, thank you. I succeeded." If I induced vomiting — that would be different.

You include a bit of "Ring Around the Rosie" in "Gravedigger." This is not the first time you've incorporated a children's song in your music. What's the attraction?
Kids come up with really great songs. I didn't know what to do for a bridge in that song, and I hadn't used that nursery rhyme before [laughs]. I believe "Ring Around the Rosie" was something that kids would sing during the plague. It's the classic of classics about dying. Nowadays, can you imagine what kids in Sierra Leone or Baghdad are doing? Probably picking up pieces of buildings or body parts and dancing around with them. Just like singing songs when everyone in your European town is dropping dead.

How will you approach the next Dave Matthews Band album?
So much of the writing on Some Devil was done by me — or [producer]Steve Harris and me — playing a click track and getting ideas down, building songs piece by piece, taking things apart and rearranging things on the computer. It's something I'd like to get into with the band: all of our heads facing the same task at the same time. We did that with Before These Crowded Streets, which I think is our best album. It had a lot of surprises.

Is that your game plan, or the band's game plan?
I think it would become everyone's idea [smiles]. This summer was the best tour we've ever had. The music was so on. Carter [drummer Beauford] was driving like a maniac, and everyone else rose to the occasion. This next record, we'll build around Carter. When you have such a strong hand in the rhythm section, then you can be a little more aggressive and experimental.

DMB uses a microphone system that allows you guys to communicate with one another onstage. What do you talk about during shows?
We talk about rude shit. Just bad humor.

Do you talk about girls in the audience?
Yeah. Sometimes we're kind of brutal. We might just laugh at someone who can't dance, the size of breasts. We talk shit about each other. I spend a lot of time asking Carter how much I suck.

Speaking of touring, Clear Channel has monopolized airwaves and venues across the country. Ticket and parking fees have gone through the roof. Do your fans complain about that?
We're not going to exclusively tour with Clear Channel. We may work with them because in some markets it's hard not to. They often approach us to tour exclusively with them, and that's absurd. We certainly keep a healthy distance. Like, "We'll give a show or two at the new amphitheater in Seattle, and we'll do a show or two at the Gorge — because you don't own that one." Just to say, "Well, fuck you."

You have a pretty dirty mouth....
I'm trying not to do that anymore, because my girls are gonna start cursing pretty soon.

Yet you rarely, if ever, swear in your songs.
I was thinking the other day if I could write a nice song about the word fuck. It's such a great word, and such an ancient word. Ryan Adams and Liz Phair are good at putting fuck into songs. It's so beautiful and conversational. You need a certain kind of confidence. I don't think I have the cool.

You've got such a massive fan base. But you rub a lot of people the wrong way. Why do you think that is?
Success turns a lot of people off. I have a pretty solid sense of joy and respect that irritates people, and can irritate me, too. You can't please everyone, although I'd probably like to, which makes people hate me, as well. I'm a fairly tormented artist, and I'm less willing to indulge myself in self-pity, outside of songwriting. I don't think I've got it hard at all, so I keep my more unusual qualities to myself. That, and a strong, strong effort to be warm to strangers, is often misconstrued as me being a regular Joe. People think, "Well, he's just fucking boring." But I'm not boring. It's so fucking weird to live in here! God! I'm about as fucking regular as Mao Tse-tung!

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