Q&A: Dave Matthews

Talking with Charlottesville's most famous ex-bartender about summer touring

Dave Matthews of Dave Matthews Band performs as part of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival 1996 at Shoreline Amphitheatre , Mountain View, California, July 28th, 1996 Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The road, Dave Matthews, the summer. It seems it has always been thus. At least throughout the Nineties. The unprepossessing former Charlottesville, Virginia, bartender says he can't remember a summer since the band began, in the early part of the decade, that didn't bring with it a slate of shows in bars or theaters or, this year, stadiums. "We've been out every year," Matthews marveled recently from a stop in Dallas, where the band that shares his name was preparing to entertain another capacity crowd. "I don't think we've taken the summer off, ever. This year we're stopping in mid-August. That's the most of a summer we've had."

After playing to sold-out crowds in stadiums in the Northeast (more than 160,000 people attended three shows at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia), DMB has hopscotched between stadium and amphitheater dates, with a stop at Woodstock. They've been offering cool minifestivals on some shows along the way (with the Roots and Santana supporting) and spicing things up with visits from special guests — like banjo master Bela Fleck or Alanis Morissette, who turned up in Denver to sing backup on "Don't Drink the Water."

This nonstop performance agenda is cited as a key element of the band's meteoric rise: DMB is one of a handful of acts that have emerged in this decade to progress from tiny dives to headliner status — and, of that select group, the only one that consistently draws crowds rivaling those of classic-rock acts of the Sixties and Seventies.

And the band has done it with suite-like compositions that shift meters more than jazz-fusion skronkfests, rely on tense dissonances and explore textures and colors that are worlds away from the typical rock-guitar crunch. Matthews describes his job as that of a conductor who balances the contrasting interests of the musicians while encouraging individual expression: "Hopefully it comes together in a fairly seamless union."

What kinds of summer things do you do when you're out on the road?
We'll play golf or volleyball, get into some sort of fun. On days off, we try to find something interesting to do. Have a big barbecue to exploit the good weather.

What is it about being on the road that is so stressful?
It's like working a regular workday... but you're never home, so work can be sort of 24-7. We've got a healthy way of dealing with it that allows each other space. Some are always better than others in allowing space. I'm a fairly invasive person; I try not to be too irritating.

So you guys aren't living out the hotel-trashing stereotype?
People will say that they wanna come on the road, and I always say, "No, you don't. You'd last a month." Just like with anything, there's a side of things you see, a side you don't.... I guess there are bands that go on the road and just get wild. They probably only go out for a month, or else they'd die. Because we're on the road so much, we've got a method of dealing with it: Everyone is as respectful as possible of everyone's space and professional position.

When you started playing stadiums, did you discuss "crowd management" and steps you might take to ensure a mellow vibe? The shows I saw really felt different from other stadium shows.
I'm glad that came across. I think it does. We're trying to create a certain amount of joy. We have a lot of fun playing together, and if we're trying to do something beautiful in the music, then, as much as possible, we should let that leech into everything else. If behind the scenes we're all throwing bottles and kicking tables over and saying, "This is bullshit," which I've heard has happened in the world, that would certainly affect how we feel about the music.

How much time do you spend putting together the set list?
I don't spend much time; Stefan [Lessard, the bassist] does 'em. I'll just write down a list of songs within an hour before we go on. I like to have a nice curve; it's been pretty varied. We've been avoiding some songs people would be into hearing. It's always that way. There are some songs we have a good relationship with at the time. Some we're not fond of right now. It's like a friend you go camping with for two months. Afterward, you might not want to talk to him for a week.

Critics have not always given you credit for it, but you guys are subversive. It's incredible to think that you're entertaining some 70,000 people.
That's what makes it exciting. We have a simple foundation we're working from, and the idea is, we're trying to be clear with what we're doing. We're not out there to show off. In a certain way, it's about being musical foremost. Being able to play with someone as great as Carter [Beauford, the drummer], or a spirit like Boyd [Tinsley, the violinist], or musicians as melodic as LeRoi [Moore, who plays saxophone] or Stefan – it's an honor. All of us feel that way. Like we're in something that, collectively, is more than just the five of us. We all want to be tight, but at the same time we're trying to be adventurous... getting it more airtight and letting it breathe. So you wanna keep the arches and waves and the natural side of music in it, but with real clarity.

How important is eye contact during a performance?
It's a huge part — not only for the playing but for the humor, and maybe for the frustration with how we're playing. If I get frustrated, it's obvious. Carter can tell. When we stare at each other, a grin or even just a glance can speak volumes and be really precise. And sometimes, if things are changing, we have to look to each other. Those times when I'm facing the audience and I start a train wreck, I'm lucky enough to have Stefan and Carter listening so carefully ... so they'll somehow know which wrong turn I'm about to take.

There's a lot of communication without words. It's also about having confidence that if we do drive into a wall, the wall will come down. There have been times when everything has collapsed and we just ended up driving until we found our way back. Often those are regarded, at least by fans, as really important. They'll go, "That thing you did, that change you made in that one song that one night, that was really exciting." We're going, "That's nice that you thought that. We were just trying to pick up the pieces."