Q&A: Dave Matthews

Dave Matthews talks music, politics, lust ...and Alanis

It's a sleepy Dave Matthews who begins talking about the group's new album, Before These Crowded Streets, from his home in Charlottesville, Va. Perhaps it's the accumulated weariness from making the album -- by far the most ambitious of the group's five releases, with a greater dynamic range and more extensive instrumentation than any of its predecessors.

That's no accident. Matthews acknowledges that the quintet's other studio albums, Under the Table and Dreaming and Crash, were comprised of road-tested material and were generally extensions of the group's live performance. Before These Crowded Streets, however, is a unified work that Matthews and his bandmates -- reeds player Leroi Moore, violinist Boyd Tinsley, bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford -- approached as a studio-oriented creation. The goal was to give each song whatever it needed, whether it was in the group's own arrangements or by bringing in guests, such as Alanis Morissette, Bela Fleck, the Kronos Quartet and longtimecollaborator guitarist Tim Reynolds.

The result is a challenging record that shows growth without veering too far away from the spirited, organic attack that has been the DMB's trademark. Still road warriors after all these years -- with a double concert album, Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95, that's sold more than a million copies since its quiet release last fall -- the group plans to set out for more marathon touring in the coming weeks. But Matthews, 31, is clearly pleased with what the band accomplished during its time away from the road.

One of the most interesting aspects to this album is that you created these songs in the studio rather than road-testing them, like you have on the other albums.

We had a lot of songs we could have recorded, songs we had developed on the road. But [producer] Steve [Lillywhite] and I both thought it would be nice to have new stuff, even though some of the fans were expecting to see some old songs on it.

So when did these songs come together?

I just started working up some ideas, principally over the second part of last year. When we finished our summer tour, I began working on some tunes. I had a few ideas -- a lot of scattered ideas and a few more solid ideas. Then Stefan and I got together, and 'Roi and Boyd -- everyone popped over occasionally. I had all the basic melodies I was interested in. Then the whole band got together, and we rehearsed for about a month.

What was the biggest difference in doing the album that way?

There's a looser feel about the music, I think. For us, it was a little reminiscent of when we were first playing together. It's tight, but it's not as tight as if we knew exactly what the other person was going to do. It wasn't tight like the last album, where we'd been playing the tunes -- at least the majority of them -- for a while. And certainly on the first album,we'd been playing those songs for ages. It made it more exciting, this time, that we didn't know what to expect. [The songs] were constantly changing and constantly developing. It was fun. It was a great inspiration to sit around and play the guitar in the way I had five years prior to that, just playing and coming up with licks and coming up with ideas.

How come you hadn't done it this way before?

Once the first album came out and we toured behind that, there was no time to write. We were on tour all the time. And then in 1997, at the end of '96, we did our last New Year's show and then stopped. And I went and did a little acoustic tour for awhile, but we basically stopped ...That was the first time I've been able to sit down for almost six years. I just listened to the air to see if I hadn't completely scared away the muse in me by screaming around the road.

Did that looseness you described before lend itself to having so many guests on the album?

It might have. We did have more guests on this album, and friends from Virginia. We had a guy that Carter used to play with who came and visited us, Butch Taylor, and he played piano on a couple of tunes -- and organ. And a friend of ours we played with in the past, Greg Howard. And John Derth, another old friend and a great musician, who wrote the arrangements for the Kronos Quartet. The whole way it came together was, in a way, more of a single-minded project as opposed to a collection, which in a way is what the albums in the past were, almost -- not to belittle them, but this was a picture in time of something that was new.

How did Alanis Morissette come to be part of the album?

We met in San Francisco when we were doing the Bridge benefit, right before the album. We bumped into each other backstage and were talking. We were recording at the Plant in Sausalito, and she came over to visit us there and she and I hit it off. We spent an afternoon together, just talking about things. And when I was recording in New York, we talked and I said 'Well, why don't you come over.' She was in L.A., so she came and she sang. Initially she just did a sort of haunted voice in the background of a couple of things. Then we thought... 'Why not give her a verse (on 'Spoon')?' I think she sung it quite beautifully. What's important is that she was there 'cause she really wanted to be part of it, in any way, which is very cool of her.

There seems to be a darker sensibility to this album ...

I think there's definitely a darker tone to a lot of the songs. Heavier may be a better word for it. I think it still has the energy, the chemistry of the five of us playing together, which is a really positive experience for us, and hopefully that comes out, so even when we're playing something that has a feeling of burden to it, it's still, I hope, inviting. There's a real joy of playing. So I don't think the overall effect will be too depressing.

What does the title mean?

It's the second line of 'The Dreaming Tree,' but ... it has some sort of contemplative feel to it, a sense of stopping, of turning around and looking back -- not necessarily in a bad way, but remembering a time before. It just has a sense of reflection that I like about it.

There's quite a bit of lust on here, too.

Well, I am a worshipper of women -- no understatement. Usually my love songs end up being just that, almost like a reverence, sort of a religious reverence, almost -- an 'I am not worthy' kind of thing. I don't realize it, really, while I'm doing it. then I look at it and think, 'Ah, this guy must really like this girl.' I do my best.

Some of the songs -- 'The Last Stop' in particular -- are political in nature. Where does that come from?

Maybe it's partially from growing up in South Africa and seeing, in most ways, how beautifully South Africa has turned around and how a majority of the population has turned the other cheek and how much good can come from that. And then also being exposed to this East-West conflict that always seems to be growing a mistrust ... and this urge to over-simplify right and wrong, which is always the case with the media and politicians. We are aware that 'We are right' in a situation, and 'This is wrong,' and generally that wrong doesn't apply to our enemy of the time -- now being Iraq. I'm surely not suggesting that somebody like Saddam Hussein is a sweet man or anything other than a tyrant, but looking at history, maybe we created a monster in him, filling his belly with the good food of life and filling his arms with guns, and now he's sort of out of control. I find it sort of sad that because of this conflict, there's this whole burning distrust between people that reallyshouldn't be there, that's poured down from above -- an opinion that we receive as opposed to one that we gain or one that we learn. So the song is sort of a reflection of that.

At this juncture in the group's career, are you happy with the way things havedeveloped?

Yeah. We've had, like I guess anyone, some rocky periods. Mainly it was just being exhausted in some situations or whatever frustrations there are with living on the road or in the studio or being away from home. But I think, certainly, I couldn't have hoped two years ago or six years ago to be more happy with how the band is turning out ... just musically, how the five of us are turning out together. Our ability to stay musically on track has shown itself. I think, regardless of what's happened around us and what's happenedto us, the music is still our focus. And I think that's evident.

And the success you've had?

By no means had we anticipated that. In some senses, it's very easy to lose sight of what matters when there's all this other stuff going on. So far, I think we've managed -- particularly with the new album -- to keep what matters at least slightly above the water. We'll see if we can do it again, but right now we have to go and follow this one around.

Will you continue the live series you started with the Red Rocks album last fall?

Absolutely. These are little favorite tapes our soundman, Jeff -- who's been with us since our first show -- has, and he picks them out, and I think we'll release them. I think the next one we're going to put out will be an album from the Flood Zone, which is the club we played at in Richmond up until around '93 ... back when we had a keyboardist. That will come out; I'm not sure when, but hopefully a little later this year.