Dave Matthews Band took most of 2011 off, but their frontman spent more time hanging out than writing new songs. So Matthews considered cobbling together an album from some old unfinished material. “Then I decided I didn’t want to do that,” says the singer, 45. Instead, this year, DMB hit the studio with Steve Lillywhite – who produced 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming and 1996’s Crash – and cut Away From the World (due out September 11th), their strongest album in years. Newly written highlights range from the Al Green-inspired “If Only” to the trippy, 10-minute epic “Drunken Soldier.” Matthews checks in from Virginia, where he spends summers with his family. “I’m still desperate to try and make something beautiful and not redo what I’ve done in the past,” Matthews says. “It’s good work, but it’s not easy for me.”
Your violin player, Boyd Tinsley, told me this album feels like the old days. Do you agree? I’m not sure Boyd and I live on the same planet. Nowadays, I have to dig a lot harder when I’m writing. I’m more critical. There’s a freedom to being young that is harder to come by as time goes on. I try to justify what we do with our lives, and that question becomes more difficult to answer. And I don’t have enough time to be as drug- and alcohol-soaked as I did 15 years ago.
Do you still do any drugs?
Some of the new pharmaceuticals out there would help me focus, but I haven’t used any. What’s the one, Adderall? Everyone talks about how it gets you so focused. That sounds good. I got too much shit to do. I’ve had too much coffee, though. I have to stop it. How can I ever go to sleep again?
How do you get your brain working so you can write songs?
I take it too far sometimes. When I listen to my favorite songwriters, they have such simple melodies and chords. I occasionally manage to stop at the right time, but all too often I keep on going until I have way too many notes and words. But that’s just what I do.
You talk a lot about future generations on this album. Why is that?
I like the image of a sort of torn-up soul trying to give advice to his kids or whoever. My daughters and I were watching a documentary on Yellowstone, which talked about how the volcano erupted 600,000 years ago and covered a third of North America in ash. My daughter said, “Would that kill us?” I said, “There’s a far greater chance human beings won’t survive long enough to see the next time it erupts.”
What about the future of the band? Where do you see DMB going from here?
I don’t know. There are two sides to everything. I feed this beast that I’m part of, and in some way I worry that it loses legitimacy. Then there’s the other part of me that says I’m really lucky to be part of something that turns a lot of people on and still turns us on.
One of your fan sites made an app that tracks your set lists in real time. How do you feel about your hardcore fans?
It makes it harder for us to get any new fans. People are like, “I don’t want to be part of that!” There’s certainly an obsessed core, and I have to be grateful. But I don’t pay any attention. I’m a bit of a caveman – I don’t go out into the digital space very often. I lie facedown on the grass and count how many bugs I can find.
It’s been four years since your saxophonist LeRoi Moore died. Do you still think of him when you’re onstage?
He was a great friend of mine, so I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. I don’t think I’m going to stop having his presence in my heart.
You played some rallies for Obama in 2008. Are you supporting him this time around?
I think so. I saw a bumper sticker that had his name and a peace sign on it. I was like, “What does that mean?” He’s kicked more ass around the world than most presidents I can think of! There’s a lot I wish he had done differently. When people accuse him of being a socialist, I’m like, “Who?” I’m a raging, pink-hatted, flailing-arms liberal. I don’t necessarily support all of Obama’s actions – but he’s closer to me than that other fellow is.
What’s the last song you want to hear before you leave this Earth?
I don’t care what it is as long as it’s AC/DC. I fucking love them – you know, Jesus Christ. If I’m about to die, I hope I have a needle sticking out of my arm and, like, two powdered doughnuts up my nose and half a bottle of whiskey. Either that, or I’ll be really clear and I’ll be surrounded by everybody that I love. One of the two.
This story is from the August 30th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.