From packed gigs at Miller's, they graduated to Trax, a local nightclub whose owner, Coran Capshaw, signed on as their manager. A serious Grateful Dead fan, Capshaw emulated the Dead's route to success. Spurning a record deal, he grew the Dave Matthews Band grass-roots-style, fan by fan, booking it first at frat houses, colleges and beach parties across Virginia. Word – and bootlegged tapes of the group's shows – traveled fast. After three years of building a fan base through a punishing tour schedule of 200 nights a year on the road, the band finally signed with RCA Records. Its first album, 1994's Under the Table and Dreaming, went to Number Eleven on the Billboard 200. Two years later, Crash debuted at Number Two. And two years after that, Before These Crowded Streets shipped Number One. By the end of the Nineties, they were rock's biggest touring act, selling a staggering 170,000 tickets in two straight SRO nights at Chicago's Soldier Field and packing stadiums from Boston to Los Angeles – feats matched only by the biggest names in rock: the Rolling Stones, U2, Pink Floyd and the Dead. Outed in Forbes' 1999 Celebrity 100 as among the biggest earners in showbiz (they were at forty, right behind Will Smith and Metallica), they began to travel to concerts in their own private jet. Their self-owned merchandising arm (run out of a specially built 20,000-square-foot warehouse in the Virginia countryside) ships more than a quarter of a million DMB T-shirts every summer – and grosses an estimated $80 million a year.
But away from the eyes of the public, Matthews was suffering a personal crisis. "I was," he says today, "feeling remarkably alone."
From his earliest days with the band – indeed, from the moment he stepped out from behind the bar at Miller's – Matthews had been grappling, inwardly, with the warring parts of his nature: the goodtime entertainer, the self-described "ambitious motherfucker" who wanted to take the band to the top, and the private, solitary songwriter who views his own "massively overfed ego" with true contempt and who, even when ripping it up onstage in front of 75,000 people, can yearn to be, as he once put it in a song, "by myself again."
The magnitude of the band's financial, artistic and critical success, by late 1999, had only intensified the problem. In career terms, Matthews had realized every goal a musician could have. Financially, he never needed to pick up a guitar again. Money, in any case, had Matthews himself did not realize the depths of his malaise until he sat down to write songs for the next album.
Lugubrious, downbeat, emotionally muffled, not a single one had the euphoric musical and lyrical liftoff of his best songs. Not that Matthews' earlier work had ever been mindlessly optimistic. The early loss of his father, and the later loss of his eldest sister in a circumstance that would leave her two infant children parentless (and which Matthews has asked not be revealed until his niece and nephew are old enough to absorb the news), had long infused in the recording studio that they had built in the basement of a large converted house in the countryside north of Charlottesville, and their longtime producer, Steve Lillywhite, was again behind the console. But it was soon clear that Dave's mournful songs about feeling trapped and directionless were sapping the band of inspiration. The atmosphere turned dark.
"We all felt kind of closed in," says bassist Lessard about the six months they spent in their isolated basement studio. "After a while it seemed like we were playing more baseball and riding more ATVs, because no one wanted to go into the dark studio and get into this mood." Drummer Beauford also felt the gloom. "We were spinning in our spot and not moving anywhere, musically," he says. "It got to a point, for me, where I was like, 'Man, I need to say something, because I don't know if I can take this!'" Moore agreed, but also hid it. "Everybody else seemed like it was cool," he says. "So, I'm just going to go with the flow. Nobody wants to bring bad vibes and negativity in."
Bruce Flohr, the band's A&R man at RCA, was making trips every two weeks from Los Angeles to see how the album was progressing. Or not progressing, as the case may be. He detected, right away, a change, especially in Matthews. "For the first time, I saw Dave burdened by the process," Flohr says. "Dave always approaches things with enthusiasm, whether it's a show or a recording or a video. But there was a heaviness to him, and it concerned me." Nevertheless, Flohr was obliged to tell Matthews that the album needed some upbeat numbers. "
RCA was saying things like, 'Where's that "Tripping Billies"?'" Matthews recalls, referring to the hit song from Crash. "I knew what they were saying, but it pissed me off no end. Because what I was saying was, 'Don't you think I'd love to be in a frame of mind to write something upbeat?' But I wasn't. I was feeling as if I had run out. And there was nobody around me – as far as I could see – who could help me in any way." Trying to take his demons head-on, Matthews moved from his secluded, eighteenth-century mill house south of Charlottesville and established himself in the studio, where he tried to find inspiration. "I was depressed," he admits now. "I lived upstairs in the playroom and really lost . . . " he pauses and resumes. "It was not a good time for me. I usually find that when I'm in one of those slumps, I do the better part of my drinking. I was going out and getting shitfaced. And I was staying in and getting shitfaced. I don't drink alone. But it's always surprising how easy it is to find someone to drink with." Meanwhile, the songs he was writing only grew more despairing.
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