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Dave Matthews: On the Road Again

One of America’s best jam bands gets ready to rule the summer tour circuit again

Dave Matthews

Dave Matthews, 2001

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

Even with a namesake singer who’s as unassuming as a street busker, Dave Matthews Band is putting up some of the gaudiest numbers of the concert season. By summer’s end, the quintet will likely play to more than 1.5 million fans in thirty-four cities, including sold-out stadiums in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In the Chicago area alone, Matthews is expected to sell 170,000 tickets, including two straight sellouts of Soldier Field, the latter a feat accomplished only by the Stones, U2, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.

That sort of success is nothing new for Matthews and band mates Carter Beauford, Stefan Lessard, LeRoi Moore and Boyd Tinsley, who before they even released an album had built a large and loyal fan group by constantly touring the East Coast from their home base in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though the band will return to the studio in the fall to record its fourth studio album, Matthews and Company are road warriors: In the last two years, they’ve piled up more than $88 million in tour revenue. Matthews took a break from a recent sound check to discuss how they’ve done it.

You built a reputation as a live band by stretching your songs into jams. How do you decide when jamming becomes wanking?

We’ve never had a conversation about it, but I know what you mean. If there are two major musical ventures in a night, that’s enough. If Boyd plays one ten-minute solo, that’s enough. We don’t need to do that eight times. But at the same time, we all come up with sections and parts, and it would be a shame to waste such spectacular musicians on playing songs just like I wrote them. I love these players and I love my songs, and my hope from the start was that the two of them would work out together. I don’t tell them how to play, and they don’t tell me how to write songs. This band consists of five people with really strong, often very different ideas about music. The musical style that comes out of us, or the lack of a style that comes out of us, is the result of a coincidence.

So how does that work? When you stretch a song like “#41” to seventeen minutes on the current tour, how does that new, longer arrangement get worked out?

It evolves into that because there is an audience that is pushing it. We don’t plan it out. The song changes night to night without us noticing, almost. We won’t work on stuff like that at sound check, because it’s pointless to try to recreate the energy of playing it live in front of an audience. Other bands do work these things out in advance, but we’ve never done that with any song we play live.

You make the band sound very democratic. But the band is named after you, so people assume that you’re giving the orders. How does it really work?

We’re equal partners. Maybe I’m the voice, but it’s never been a case of dictating parts, because none of this would have happened if we had some kind of grand plan. I just found this letter some producer wrote to me seven years ago, and he had the grand plan. He was talking about controlling this and doing that, and how there was no way in hell anyone would ever hear us unless we became more professional. The grand plan is, there is no grand plan. I don’t want the responsibility of being the person that decides the fate of five people that I love.

But getting five people to pull in one direction all the time over ten years can’t be easy.

We have our differences, but we talk to each other. We discuss things that matter to the band with each other. We aren’t guys who grew up together, who went to the same school together. We were very different people from very different places when we met, and there was that recognition from the start. Five distinct people were involved, and we either respect each other or we don’t have a band.

It all sounds very reasonable and mature. How reasonable and mature are your fans? Do they ever stalk you?

If they do, they meet me and they realize I’m not exciting enough to stalk. Occasionally people take photos of my mailbox, but nobody has lobbed a dynamite-filled rabbit through my window. Don’t I sound boring? If I die before my time, it will not be on the altar of rock & roll. It will be because I slipped on a pencil and smashed my head on a fire hydrant. I can safely predict I will not be found lying face down in a puddle of my groupies’ vomit.

Your groupies, Dave? Are they lining up outside the tour bus as we speak?

It would be hard for groupies to line up outside a bus that is moving seventy-five miles an hour down the highway. We don’t wait backstage in our portable lounge with our incense and cocaine, wearing our sunglasses. We’re not Aerosmith. We leave right after the show and read a book. The most exciting thing that happens on our tour is what happens onstage.

How do you maintain that excitement when the stage is in a stadium and you’re the size of an ant to someone in the back row?

I don’t want people sitting in the back going, “Oh, man, it sucks that we can’t see or can’t hear as good as we could in a club.” We play big venues because we can’t tour anymore and play small venues. We could play a small club in a big city for a month and still not accommodate all the people that want to see us. But it’s not impossible to turn a big place into a bedroom. If we try to blow the roof off, or play louder, or play harder, you just shrivel up or look smaller in a stadium. If you play relaxed, as you do in club, you can fill the place up a little more.

But all things being equal, you’d rather play the club, right?

It’s not like I miss the tiny places. The places we fill now, if I can make the people enjoy the music, that’s a good deal to me. No matter how much I’m trying to convince myself that it’s not true, I don’t really like playing in little clubs with shitty toilets. When I see that, my first thought isn’t, “Oh, good, I’m home. I’m back to my roots.” You know what I really miss about playing the clubs? Going to a club where they charge me half-price for beer and pay me fifty bucks for the entire band. That’s what playing clubs is about: not being able to make a living. I couldn’t be luckier playing the places I do now.

Your ticket prices have been creeping up toward fifty dollars. How much is too much?

I think tickets are too high. I don’t like that our tickets are as high as they are, but I know our tickets are lower than a lot of bands that are touring. We’re not extravagant, and we’re not cheap. We’re not completely screwing anybody. I don’t think it’s fair to charge more than fifty dollars. People can afford it, the economy is good. But so is the bands’ economy. I don’t think it’s necessary for any band to charge seventy-five dollars to see any rock concert. I don’t see any expenses that would justify that.

It’s not like bands are powerless. How active should bands be in setting limits on ticket prices and service fees?

It was a good stand for Pearl Jam to take. But I think their fans wanted to see them play. In the end, I don’t think it helped their career, and Ticketmaster probably came off better than they did by a substantial amount. Right now we have a deal where we keep some of the tickets to our shows and sell them directly to our fans on our Web site (dmband.com). We try to give people an opportunity to buy tickets at face value, without service charges as extreme as Ticketmaster’s. We can sell as many as half the tickets to our shows that way. At least, so I’ve been told. I’ve never been on a computer in my life.

You’re kidding.

Ignorance is bliss.

You still allow fans to tape your shows. But where do you stand on Napster?

I would be upset if someone put one of our studio CDs out on Napster. I’m sure Limp Bizkit would be upset if their first album was available on Napster before they got a chance to put it in stores. But I’ve got a great job, and there are a lot of bigger problems in the world than whether Napster succeeds or fails. I’m sure Napster is hurting our sales. But at the same time, there is really not a hell of a lot to be done about it. I don’t think there is a malice coming out of Napster. We allowed people to tape our concerts from the beginning, and the record company questioned us about allowing that. But my thinking was that it only makes people want to buy more and increases the devotion of people who are going to listen to us.

You’re popular enough where you probably don’t even need a record label anymore.

In hindsight, I wish we hadn’t signed a deal. The career we’ve had is not entirely the result of our record company’s efforts. You wonder if maybe we could have done it in a different way, and done it entirely ourselves. But our relationship with the label has been great, and that’s where we’re stuck now. Not many people have the strength of character and forethought that Ani DiFranco had to build their careers by themselves. I’m happy to be handing over the responsibility of running a label to someone else, which is like my attitude toward Napster: Let someone else think about it. That may sound like a weak position, but if I’m going to take a position on something in my life, it’s not going to be about whether people can download music onto their computers at home. “Goddamnit, he lived and died fighting Napster.” Who gives a damn?

So what do you give a damn about?

If I’m going to scream about something, it’s going to be about something like the decimation of the rain forests or the ancient forests in the Northwest, or land mines in Cambodia, or the plight of Indians in Guatemala. I know there are people more interested in the financial side of the music business that can take care of Napster. I’m more than well-compensated for my efforts, and with the platform I’m lucky enough to have, I want to use that for something I feel passionate about.

But you’re not a particularly political band.

I try not to become too preachy. If you want people to look at something, you have to make the seeing of it somewhat attractive. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You can’t make land mines in Cambodia a pretty thing. But you can make it seem less a source of guilt and accusation, and more a situation that needs to be dealt with. I try to make people feel powerful in the telling of a situation, rather than chaining myself to a tree … although that could be pretty cool. 

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