For 24 summers in a row, since 1992, Dave Matthews Band have hit the road without fail. They could be the biggest worldwide ticket sellers of the past decade and a half, with a record 19 million sold throughout their career. And this summer, they're doing it all over again. Matthews, 48, called to talk about the band's latest amphitheater run, which stretches on through September, and the reasons for the band's enduring popularity.
You're nearing 50. How has your life changed?
It's always hard to leave home. My kids are getting older and smarter than me, so I toss and turn at night and need lots of coffee. It was much easier to get used to being on the road when we were always on the road. For a while there, I said, "Wait a second, I am making a reasonable living, I wouldn't mind a weekend of idle." Now I couldn't be more idle. I'm like the idlest part of a lazy fat man in a chair.
How do you spend your free time when you're home in Seattle?
We've been in the studio, trying to make a record. I have been trying to get home for dinner and wake up to take my kids to school. During the day, I try and write something that is not too pretentious and not like an old man trying to put on a pair of tight jeans – something that could have an appeal beyond my own doorstep – but it's a challenge. I have been filling endless pages with scribble and occasionally coming up with one or two things that I don't find enormously embarrassing and then I stick those to the wall. We will probably try a few new tunes over the summer and if they go well, then maybe we will try a few more and we'll discover things playing them live that we should have done on the recordings and maybe go back to the drawing board.
You're probably used to the process by now.
Maybe with cell phones, people are more accustomed to hearing their voices, but I remember the horror of listening to a recording of my voice when I was probably eight or nine, when I first recorded a cassette of my voice and I couldn't believe it. I very rarely listen to recordings of us unless I have to, and then we will play a song for ten years and I'll go back to the original and go, "Oh wow that was really different, I prefer what it sounded like when we first recorded it" and other times I'll go back to the original and go, "Ugh, what an awful song, now it is better." And sometimes I'll go back and say, "This is as awful now as it was when we started."
What's going through your head as you start yet another big summer tour?
It's a healthy combination of fear and excitement. I hope it doesn't bleed onto the stage. I am excited about the idea of the smaller acoustic set and then an electric set because I think it gives the band a chance to put some variety into the songs. It kind of doubles the amount of songs you have, because the personality changes quite a bit if you play them with a full blown band or if I play them by myself.
I definitely want people to walk away feeling like, "That was almost cool." I don't care if it is a really good-looking group of young people in the row in front of you that makes the show worthwhile, or if it is laughing at a bad dancer or if it is the show itself – as long as people leave feeling like they got more than they bargained for, I feel like I am off the hook. So my hope is there is something about the environment that surpasses people's expectations and encourages them to return if they were given the opportunity.
You guys put out your first record more than 20 years ago, and you still have some of the most dedicated fans around. Do you ever try to make sense of why that is?
I see a lot of faces that I have seen for a while and I see new faces, which is nice. In the States, we're like cockroaches, we're so common. But I think we are unique and a pretty badass band – maybe a little creakier than we once were.
I was at the grocery store the other day and I met this young guy. He looked a little like a hipster with his piercings and his facial hair. I expected him to say something kind of nice but at the same time dismissive: "I'm your neighbor, you seem like a nice guy, even though your music blows." And it was a little dismissive. He said, "I've never bought a record of yours but last summer my friend convinced me to go and you guys were unbelievable. I never would have believed it." And I thought, "Yeah. We are pretty fucking badass."
There are people who say, "That is a pretty nasty band." And there are still people who would say, "Make it stop!" but there are enough people who I think will be surprised. Radio just gives a pretty one-sided view. We are cursed and blessed with the fact that if you want to see what the band is like and get to know us, then you have to see us live or at least listen. But having said that, who gives a shit?
The Atlantic recently published an essay defending DMB, saying that you get a bad rap and are one of the great American bands.
Occasionally I will be like, "My band is pretty badass" and then other times I will think, "Oh God, my band is not badass at all, I am terrified. What am I doing up here?" I know that we have never been stricken with the label of hip, but I do sometimes wonder if we just keep going, at some point we will fall into the category of "Well they are still here, so they can't be that awful." Maybe like us and R.E.O Speedwagon. [Laughs].
You've promised to bring out guests on your tour this summer. Who are you thinking?
I'm trying to convince Gregg Allman, and our backup singers called the Lovely Ladies [who joined the band last summer for the first time in a decade]. Maybe we should try to get someone hip we can play with and give me some advice.
How is the band sounding right now to you? What can you guys do now that maybe you could not do before?
I am trying to be a better singer. Stefan [Lessard] is playing beautifully and we're just practicing all the time. I think the band is sounding, for whatever reason – it could just be my imagination – pretty funky. [We're] somewhere in between trying not to suck and not sucking.
I don't think you give yourself enough credit.
It's so hard to judge yourself. It is so much easier to be ruthless towards myself than it is to be ruthless towards other people. Inwardly, I am very very, very critical of everyone else. Outwardly, I am enormously critical of myself and in awe of all other efforts. Quite the contrary on the inside. On the inside, I am kind of a dick.