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The Salvation of Dave Matthews

Page 5 of 5

When it came time to record the finished tracks, Ballard used the band members essentially as studio-session musicians – a sharp departure from the methods of the past, and one that Lessard and Beauford both admit was, initially, threatening. Ordinarily the band jammed out on songs, finding their parts through improvisation. Now Ballard was presenting them with finished demo "sketches," with their parts already roughed-in on drum machines and synthesizers. Says Lessard, "My first thought was, 'OK, what am I going to do? There's already bass on it. Can I go home now?'" Beauford says he shared this discomfort: "Before, Dave would come up with a groove and say, 'Guys, check this out,' and then we'd all get together and tighten it up and shape it. He'd come with the clay and we'd use our hands to mold it. That didn't really happen this time."

But the band soon fell in with Ballard's method. Searching for rigorous "focus" of the album's musical ideas, Ballard had written out charts and arrangements for each member, and he nixed long solos. Ballard reminded them that they could embroider the songs when playing them on tour. "I kept saying, 'Look, we're making a movie, and when you guys go out on the road, that's a stage play,'" Ballard says. But while in his studio, Ballard was unbending. "If a Dave Matthews Band song is usually going to take six minutes to get there," he says, "my challenge to them was, 'Let's see if we can do it in half the time, and see if we can get as much music in there that's meaningful.'"

"As soon as we started recording," says Lessard, "it was like, 'Forget about it.' This was the best thing ever . . . He'd have me doing the simplest bass punch, just quarter notes – just born bom bom. But it sounds so phat. I listen to a lot of hip-hop. The bass lines are simple, but it's where it's placed. That's what people dance on. So I felt like I was in school again. It was a really good feeling." Beauford echoes this. A drummer who can handle any number of complex polyrhythms, he now found himself, much of the time, playing straight-ahead, balls-out rock. And loving it. "John Bonham was running all through my head the whole time," he says. "I've played in so many fusion bands that it's caused me to become busy – all this overplaying. Now I feel more comfortable with simplifying, because Glen has kind of OK'd it, in a way." Moore says the same about Ballard's influence on his sax playing. "Less is more," he says. "Way more." Tinsley praises the "discipline" of the process and how Ballard used his violin in a new, symphonic way, in overdubbed washes or with new textures – such as when he suggested Tinsley pluck the instrument, pizzicato, through a wah-wah pedal on the song "Everyday."

To a man, the band says that recording with Ballard has galvanized them. "It just gave me a new sense of hope with our future and the sense that we're still at the halfway mark," says Lessard. "We're not on the plateau, which I've seen a lot of bands at our level get stuck in." Such collective excitement has eased any lingering sense that, as Beauford puts is, "this one is really Dave and Glen's album."

"I have an image of someone giving me a hand up," Matthews says of his collaboration with Ballard. "That's why I say that what's come out of this album is the result of being saved." He speaks of the album itself with a similar, almost evangelical fervor.

"I think they're the best lyrics I've written," he says. "I've said things more clearly on this album than ever before. It's the best melodies. It's so musical, so thematic and so varied. I would be disappointed, obviously, if it didn't do well, but I would in my heart think it was other circumstances, other things; it would not be that the record is lacking. Because I gave everything I had, as honestly and as clearly as I could. It made a big space in my life. I'm not afraid of whatever happens, as much as I was – afraid of what would happen to me if everything collapsed around me, and left me standing in the middle."

Indeed, Matthews now speaks like a man who craves such a "collapse" of his former world. "I was really growing very tired of the circumstance that I'd gotten myself into," he admits. "I wanted to burn it down. And enjoy burning it down."

Among the biggest changes Matthews has made in his life since finishing the album is his decision to no longer live, at least in the short term, in Charlottesville, the town with which he has so much become associated. His wife has started graduate school in Seattle, and he obviously wants to be with her. At the same time, Matthews admits that a major part of his excitement about the westward move is that it puts him just a quick hop from Glen Ballard in Los Angeles – a city, he says, that he has now come to love. Matthews plans to make frequent trips there to write songs with his new collaborator. As to whether the band will tour with its former frequency, that, too, seems to be up in the air. While there's no doubting his honesty when he says that he still achieves regular highs when performing live, he also admits that the band's rigorous touring schedule is beginning to wear on him. "I think I'm older," he says, and he hints that the regular summer tours have been to satisfy the demands of his manager, Capshaw. "Coran will catch me on a good day and say, 'Would you mind touring for nine months next year?'" Matthews says, laughing." 'I'd love to!' My manager has a way of asking me the same question over and over until he gets the answer that he wants." But Matthews now states, with some firmness, that he wants to write more at this stage – all part of his new resolve to start putting some of his own interests above those of the organization.

"I wonder," he says, "if maybe my focus has been, for a long time, to protect the interests of people around me, and that means small circles and then getting bigger and bigger, and forgetting about myself inside that." Later he adds, "I love all the people that I work with, or for: the record company, the fans. But if everybody vanishes, if everybody decides tomorrow morning that I'm an impossible ass, then that's fine. You know. If the president of RCA says, 'Fuck Dave Matthews' – great. It would run off my back. I had an awakening like you only get a few times in your life."

When I express some surprise at all this, he insists, almost too vehemently, that none of these changes signal a withdrawal from the Dave Matthews Band itself or the larger DMB family – necessarily. While he is not, he says, unaware of the example of such stars as Sting, who departed from the Police to forge a still more successful solo career, he's not planning any such decampment himself. And he insists that his removal from Virginia is only temporary. "It's my home," he says. "And I'm happy here." Still, I can't help recalling a verbal slip he made when he first told me of his plans to move west. It was in December, at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, shortly before he went onstage. "I have to go where my life is," he said. Then he laughed. "Did you hear that? I mean, where my wife is."

"Wife," "life" – whichever Matthews truly meant, one thing is clear. He is embarking on a new path. And he's pumped. "If you try to keep everything the way it is," he says, "you become stagnant. You're not carrying on downstream." Whether his old fans, his band mates, his manager, his record label, his road crew or his merchandising team join him on his new journey is, he says, entirely up to them.

"The way I feel inside is, 'Come with me, I'd love to have you,' "he says. "That's true of every facet of my life. That's the option I'm giving to everybody. I haven't said it to anyone, but that's the way I'm feeling. In reference to people who listen to us, in reference to everything. Like, 'I'm going this way, and anybody who wants to come is absolutely welcome. But I'm going there, with or without you.'"

This story is from the March 15th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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