Dave Matthews has long been one of rock’s most successful artists and, in a low-key way, also one of its most polarizing. And while the success part of that equation is inarguable — the Dave Matthews Band is reliably among the country’s most popular concert draws and has earned six No. 1 albums — the polarization part has recently shown signs of positive thaw. (That’s no surprise to anyone who saw Lady Bird; and the May 18 kick off of his summer tour as well as the arrival of a lovely and reflective new album, Come Tomorrow, due out June 8, should also keep the momentum going.) “I do wonder about the success I’ve had and whether I deserve it,” says the 51-year-old Matthews, his beard flecked with gray, looking pensively out a conference-room window at the New York offices. “I’m humbled that anyone still wants to take the time to listen to my music or hear me talk.” He grins. “But I’m happy to have the opportunity.”
I’d been planning on starting with a question about the new album, but just before you got here someone I work with was telling me how much he’d been obsessed with your music — and how much he felt like he didn’t jibe with your hard-core fans. So why don’t we start there, because I’ve heard other people say similar things. Where does the antipathy towards the cliché of a Dave Matthews fan come from?
This is a delicate thing for me to talk about. I’m grateful I have any fans, but I don’t understand how my fan base grew or what sort of cultural elements dominate. You know, I was on tour in Europe recently, playing with Tim Reynolds, and in Prague we played an opera house. The audience there was deathly quiet. Playing for an audience listening absolutely to everything that you do makes you focus as a musician in a beautiful way — you can achieve different dynamics. And that kind of audience attention is very, very flattering because you know they’re not there for a party, which I happen to think Dave Matthews Band fans are — that’s what butters my bread. And that’s great, by the way. I’m glad to be able to give people a party.
Is the music you were making in Prague impossible at your typical gigs?
It’s very hard to pull off. When Tim and I played for 20-something-thousand people in Saratoga Springs last summer, the crowd was jumping around and having a great time — and we were having a great time — but it was like “Holy shit!” You’re just trying to ride the energy as best you can. So to answer your question — and I’m trying to answer without attacking the culture that’s grown up around us — I could imagine that someone who had heard a recording of ours and liked it and was faced with our big, raucous audience might think, What is happening here?
What’s the best way you like to hear live music?
When I go to a show, I go with an obsessive desire to hear everything. I went to see alt-J recently: They’re very deliberate musicians and their audience is so quiet. We’re a party band. That’s not all the music is — it’s often something much darker — but we are about a party. It’s almost like what people might think of as a Jimmy Buffett concert. And don’t get me wrong, Jimmy Buffett is amazing. But in general there’s a connect and a disconnect: People are coming to see the Dave Matthews Band
and dance and sing — and that’s a good thing for there to be in the world — but when I listen to music I sort of want everyone to be quiet. So respect is being paid at our shows, but maybe not exactly the same way I would pay it.
There’s this romantic ideal of the rock star as someone who ruthlessly follows his or her own artistic vision. But there’s another kind of star, someone like Jimmy Buffett or, in a different way, the Grateful Dead, who become vessels for a subculture, and their vision involves attending to that subculture. In your experience are those two modes necessarily oppositional?
I think I’ve been lucky enough to follow my instincts. Or at least try to. I tell you what: I do question myself.
What’s the question?
Can I justify doing this?
Driving this career. Am I challenging myself? Am I eating my own tail? Am I just feeding off the thing that allowed me to be doing so extraordinarily well? That’s always the tension. Maybe you want to be a painter but to make money you do commercial art. Maybe you want to be a landscape photographer but for a career you take wedding photos. I’ll write a funky song about lust and sex and it makes you want to dance. I feel like that’s okay. But I also have to write songs about the dilemmas of being alive. This same question is something I talk to my wife and kids about.
What do they say?
They love what I do, but they also know that I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to put myself out there by, say, following my heart with visual art or going on a very different musical adventure. Maybe I need to follow those instincts. Maybe I’m being dishonest if I don’t.
When have you felt most gratified by following your instincts?
Well, right now I’m working with a friend, Anthony Lucero, who wrote this beautiful story about a clown. That story has become a small film called Halo of Stars and I worked on the music. I remember when I first played Anthony some music I’d thought of for the film: We were sitting in the same room and I was thinking, I hope he’s not expecting music like my band’s. And Anthony was thinking, God, I hope he doesn’t play music that sounds like … Then I played the music, which was very different for me, and Anthony really responded to it. That was a very beautiful experience. I wasn’t answering to anything other than the act of making new music, and that music was made with pure intention.
Are there times when it wasn’t?
I think sometimes I … Sometimes I spend a lot of my life trying to get answers from the people around me instead of listening to myself. But after I turned 50, something happened. I’ve realized that there are more important things than saying “okay.” An example is the last album I made, which is fine. It’s called Away From the World. I think it was a great album and then I let people convince me it wasn’t finished. I did a disservice to the music. I kept working on it and it lost a lot. It’s too bad I didn’t say, “No, you’re wrong. The music may be flawed and splintered but it’s genuine. It’s done.” The new album, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but I managed to say “No.” People were saying things like, “I don’t know if we should put this song or that song on the album.” And I was able to say, “You’re wrong. We’re leaving it.” But I hope I never feel like I’ve got it “right” creatively. That probably wouldn’t be a good sign.
How satisfying was Lady Bird for you? Both for way it used “Crash Into Me” so warmly and also for how it showed a fan of yours who didn’t fit any of the negative clichés. And also, that movie kicked off such a nice wave of affection for the band.
There was a great headline I saw online: something like “Lady Bird Somehow Resurrects the Dave Matthews Band.” Without question — and some express it with more vinegar than others — there are people who truly don’t like my band. I think a lot of them just go, “I hate the Dave Matthews band” because they saw someone they didn’t like in one of our T-shirts. But everything to do with Lady Bird was flattering. It was so lovely to see the song used as a central tool in someone else’s story. And the moment in the movie when it plays is so beautiful: Lady Bird takes a stand, you know? It was also nice for me to see the song through someone else’s eyes because I have a strange relationship with a lot of music that I’ve written. I listen to it and I’m like, “What am I talking about? This is bullshit.” So seeing “Crash Into Me” in Lady Bird allowed me to hear my music without having to impose myself on it.
A lot of people — you included — seem to have serious extra-musical feelings about the Dave Matthews Band. How much of a hindrance is that?
Yeah, it used to be “If you like Nirvana you can’t like the Dave Matthews Band”; “If you like Pearl Jam you can’t like the Dave Matthews Band.” But if I can like all those bands as much as I do, then why can’t someone else? I guess we all have our tribe and you’re not supposed to be in more than one. I remember the Miles Davis quote when he’s asked, “What kind of music do you like?”
And he answers, “Good music is good music.”
Good music, yeah. I love some country music because there’s great country music. I love some heavy metal because there’s great heavy metal. Someone is going to have brilliance inside of whatever box they’re in. That brilliance is what I look for. There’s great every kind of music just like there’s great every kind of liquor.
What do you think was going on in the ’90s that allowed for bands like yours, Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, and so on, to find a big following? Was it just a coincidence that jam bands broke out back then?
There was a scene, and we were kind of against what was viewed as the legitimate rock music of the time. “Jam band” was pejorative, you know? It was never “the critically acclaimed jam band.” We were dismissed. But that also made what we were doing feel like a response to something and that made it exciting. There was also the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones — all these cool, amazing musicians that didn’t fit into one box but that had an element of spontaneity. There was comfort in the togetherness of not belonging, if that makes sense. And I say that understanding the irony of my saying “I don’t belong” when I’ve got so many people listening to my music.
Now, you tell me if this is something you don’t want to get into — and this could entirely be based on my misreading between the lines — but going back and reading old articles about you over the years, there were a conspicuous amount of references to drinking. Sometimes those references were playful and sometimes they weren’t. So the question occurred to me: Has alcohol ever been a problem?
I’ve had a lot more drinking in my life than I would’ve if my job hadn’t put me in an environment where everybody was celebrating drinking. All the years we played clubs and frats — every single night we would be drinking and doing whatever else was happening. I still drink, and I keep my center better. I do worry about destroying my mind sometimes.
By anyone else’s standards but my own I am a raging alcoholic.
The way you said that — I can’t tell how serious you’re being.
I mean, I’m talking about the amount I drink. But if I don’t have a drink for a month, I don’t — it’s harder for me to give up bread than it is to give up alcohol. But I like a drink. I grew up in an extended family that likes to drink. My mom, she enjoys a glass of wine or some whisky, but she’s quite moderate relative to my uncles — South Africans are pretty big drinkers. I’ve seen a lot of people around me go sober. The fish always gets bigger when they tell their drinking stories again, but I understand that as well.
Sometimes people need exaggeration in order to make sense of their lives.
That’s right — however you can move forward. A lot of people deal with [drinking] beautifully and a lot of people struggle with it. But I worry. I don’t drink like I used to, I don’t think. But I like wine. I like the culture of it. I’ve pulled back, but I like it at the same time. I like it.
I appreciate how candid you’re being, and I don’t have any specific questions about that, but is there any more context you want to give?
I will say, as an example, that I haven’t had a drink in three days. As aggressively as I’ll drink is how aggressively I’ll then make an effort to offset it with exercise and things like that. Maybe I’m lying to myself, but the reason I don’t really think I’m an alcoholic is because I don’t miss it when I don’t have it. There’s no question that my favorite thing about mowing the lawn is drinking the beer when I’m done, and getting to the bottom of a bottle of Jameson with a friend feels like some sort of poetic achievement — even if it’s really just two people getting drunk. I don’t know if any of that will convince anyone that I’m not an alcoholic, but I don’t have any friends who’ve said, “I think you have a drinking problem.” Maybe that’s just because when I’m drunk I’m a lot of fun.
Given what you’ve said about drinking, is it at all weird to spend your summers getting up in front of crowds where you know a bunch of people are absolutely loaded?
There’s probably not as much drinking at our shows as there are at heavy-metal shows — and our crowds are probably better looking! But yeah, you see the most hammered people in the world from the stage. There’s a lot of revelry around me. I’ve reined a lot of mine in over the years.
When a show isn’t quite working, do you have a fail-safe move? Is that when it’s time to bust out “Tripping Billies”?
We probably should come up with a plan for when that happens, right? When I’m having a hard time, I’ll usually turn to [drummer] Carter [Beauford] and say something like, “Bear with me.” And like a brother, he usually goes, “Oh man, you’re doing great.” But I never know if that’s true or if he’s being nice and trying to coax me along. So no, there isn’t really an automatic go-to. The truth is that you can’t win every race, but you can get to the end.
Okay, so this question is related to things we’ve already talked about a little, but any musician at your level of success — whether it’s Bruce Springsteen or the Eagles or whoever — is usually tapping into something mythic that complements the music but is also bigger than it. Do you have any theories about what that might be in your case? What are people projecting onto you that makes so many of them so dedicated?
This question made me think of the first show we played. This was in Charlottesville, years ago. We were supposed to play first, but all the bands had other gigs they had to get to so we kept getting shoved further down the lineup. By the time it was our turn to play a lot of the audience had dissipated. But when we did start playing, everybody who was there started dancing. And we were like, “What the fuck is happening here?” So we learned very quickly that whatever it was that we were doing was something that translated well to audiences. It didn’t necessarily translate well to tape — we didn’t even hear back from most of the record companies we sent music to back then. There was not a lot of saxophone and violin and acoustic guitar happening in rock and roll at the time — or now. But this was pre-Hootie and the Blowfish even. We didn’t fit in at all with what record companies might be looking for.
You’re talking about being a good live band. That’s obviously a huge part of what’s gotten you so far, but there are lots of good live bands that haven’t had nearly as much success as you’ve had. What is the thing that makes people who fall in love with the Dave Matthews Band fall in love so hard? I realize I’m asking you to pinpoint something that’s maybe ineffable.
You’re right: The whole thing that’s sprung up around the band has to be at least partly about something other than the music, because the scale of the success doesn’t make sense. But I don’t know what the fuck is happening or how it’s happening.
Is it strange to feel that way?
I’ve come up with a defense mechanism for it. The analogy I use to explain it is something I took from Men in Black. You know there’s the scene where an alien’s face comes off and there’s another little alien inside? I like being that little alien observing from the inside. That helps me feel distance from everything going on around me.
Why do you need that distance?
Fans come up to me and say the most incredible, generous things. I understand that because I’m a fan and feel connections to the artists who I love. But fans are also going to think stuff about me that I can’t really digest. I need to feel some distance in order to have a more real perspective about who I am and what I do.
I understand that your fans’ feelings about you and your music might be incomprehensible, but do you have clarity about what your music makes you feel?
I mean, I love my band. I remember hearing Carter play drums for the first time. He was in a fusion band in Charlottesville. It was a killer band, but my attention was all about him. Carter could never truly know how outrageous he is as a player. And LeRoi [Moore], my late sax player, is one of the unsung heroes of that instrument. He could play the most stunning, beautiful melody as I was singing and it wouldn’t even partly get in the way of what I was doing vocally. I’d hear him play at Miller’s, this bar I worked at, and all I wanted to do was be his friend. So I insinuated myself into his life until I had the courage to play him a tape of music I’d written. I played him that and I played Carter some of my music and then we said we’d all play together. Stefan [Lessard] came to play bass with us — he was just a kid. And [violinist] Boyd [Tinsley] came along. I was so awed by these guys. I could never have imagined the sound that they gave me. It’s overwhelming.
Having spent so much time in Charlottesville, how shocking was last year’s riot?
The horribleness of it was shocking. And I think it changed the notion of what that town’s image is. When I moved there in the mid-’80s, it felt like such an enlightened space. There was so much great art being made there, and so many different kinds of people all getting along — students and musicians. I was completely seduced by Charlottesville. It was a great place to have conversations, you know? I obviously knew there was a history of racial crime there, but that’s America, isn’t it? It’s a sad thing.
What did growing up partly in South Africa mean for how you see American racial dynamics?
Coming from a blatantly hyperracist society to America made for some consistent surprises. In my mind, when I came back to America I was surprised at how often race came up, because having been in South Africa, I was looking forward to coming back to a country that seemed to have solved its racial problems. Obviously I was pretty naïve.
To get back to the subject of the band: Things had to change after LeRoi passed. Now things have to change again because Boyd’s not around. How difficult is that shift going to be?
I have a deep love for Boyd, and he has to deal with his stuff. In many ways I’m sure it would’ve been a lot easier for him to just say, “I’m good. Let’s go play.” But you can’t just throw yourself away, your wellness away, because you play violin in a band. It doesn’t make any sense to do that.
I follow what you’re saying about why Boyd isn’t around, but how anxious are you about how his absence will affect the music?
I’m used to turning to my right and seeing him going bananas — some days doing it better than other days. You know there’s that idea of genius as something that, like, comes into a room through the window and into a person rather than lives in the person all the time? Sometimes I’d hear Boyd and I’d be like, Holy shit, you are good. Other times it’d be like, Clearly today you left the window closed. But that’s beside the point. We’re all like that. I have terrible nights. The answer is that I don’t know how it’s going to be without him there.
And are there plans for him to come back?
I can’t say, “I can’t wait till he comes back,” because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But right now being away is better for him. Nobody is happy about this situation. Except that we’re happy he can figure some stuff out. I hope he does. But I’m going to miss having that whirling-dervish Adonis-Muppet over there on my right. I know the audience is, too. But we can’t serve that desire.
You have to serve the human being on the end of that desire.
Doing that is the only thing that makes sense.
Why did it take six years to make Come Tomorrow? That’s the longest you’ve gone between albums.
It was a bit of what I was saying earlier: I get disheartened thinking, Why am I doing this? What the hell does my career mean? I’m grateful, but am I doing it for good reasons? And also, like I was saying, I was frustrated with the outcome of the last record. But I had some songs that I’d worked on with Mark Batson — songs with LeRoi on them — that were never finished and sitting there on the shelf. Then I started a record with Rob Cavallo and I lost my steam with that. Then John Alagía and I were working together and finally I said to him, “Let’s get all the music that I made with Batson and Cavallo, and whatever it is you and I are doing, and see what we have.” It was way too much stuff for one album, but we started to chisel away, all the while making new music, and here we are. The newest music on the record is only a few months old and the oldest is from 12 years ago. But I think it’s quite an artistic record. It’s got love songs to my children. Love songs to the planet. There are songs about lust. I think my wonder at the universe is on the record. It’s got things that deal with death. It took a long time to make, but I feel good about the result.
If this is too difficult a territory let me know, but how much has the tragedy you’ve dealt with in your life colored your feelings about your success? The discomfort you’ve talked about almost makes it sound as if you feel guilty about what you’ve achieved. Is there any way in which the tragedy and the guilt are connected?
It’s an interesting question, because I think about the injustice of things. I wonder why I’ve been so fortunate when I’m as undeserving as anybody. When I hear people that are excessively wealthy or excessively successful saying, “Well, I’ve worked for everything I have…” Hang on one second. What are you talking about? You think you’re working harder than the guy who digs ditches for a living? Trade places with him for a week and then talk to me how hard you worked. Again, I’m so grateful for what I have, but the amount I’ve been rewarded does not square with my beliefs. It’s hard to wrap my head around how perversely well-paid I am. But I do think in my actions — in going out and bringing people joy with music — that there’s good purpose in what I do.
Pleasure isn’t a small thing.
Yeah, I don’t see what I do as nothing. I think there’s importance to it. But I look at people in my family and I look at friends and I think, Why not them? What deception have I managed that has allowed me to get this far?
I think you’re being way too hard on yourself. Even if your success is luck, you’re as entitled to that luck as anyone else. It doesn’t have to be that you pulled a fast one.
I suppose it takes just as much ego to say, “I’ve faked myself into this” as it does to say, “I’m here because I’m a badass.” Maybe those are two sides of the same thing. But I do still think I’m going to wake up one morning and everyone is going to be like, “We were wrong about you.” And I’d be like, “I’ve been trying to tell you that the whole time!”
Do you do therapy? You talk like you do therapy.
Maybe it comes from the therapy I’ve done, but I’ve always looked hard at myself. The last therapist I went to was after a dear, dear friend passed. It was very unexpected and very traumatic, and I went to a therapist who dealt with trauma. I went and I talked at her for about an hour. She asked a couple questions and when it was done she said, “Well, you can decide whether or not you want to come back here, but I think you’re doing okay.”
That’s a good therapist.
That’s an honest therapist: She wasn’t going to get a penny out of me! But yeah, I don’t want to lose perspective. I guess, in a way, sitting here with you and talking is about getting perspective. Believe me, I know how lucky I am but you want to feel like you have an honest sense of who you are and I worry about getting lost in the fantasy celebrity world. So I find it comforting when I can convince myself — repeatedly — that any attention or acclaim I’ve gotten should be taken with a grain of salt.
What’s the most satisfying thing about being in the Dave Matthews Band in 2018?
When I play music with Carter and the guys, I do have to remind myself that there is nobody else in the world having the experience that I’m having. The incredible level of unspoken musical communication that we have — and the ease of it — is amazing. I’m still surprised by how many people have embraced us and what the business of the band has become, but at the core of it is a very honest creative event. The excitement of that is undeniable. It’s something I can still feel in my heart. It’s magical.
This is a stupid random question: Do you ever run into people who think you wrote “All Along the Watchtower?”
[Laughs.] I’m sure some people do think that, but I’ll give you a different answer: The band’s version of the song is something that evolved from when I was busking in Amsterdam. I would just play that song in a circle, over and over. I wouldn’t stop. I would keep doing it and doing it and I’d change little parts. It’s one of those songs everyone knows and usually they go a little bit Hendrix or a little bit Dylan — I think I’d also heard Michael Hedges’s cover and may have tried to embrace some of what he did. But I remember Zac Brown was opening for us and I asked him, “Will you come up and sing it with me?” And he sat in and sang “Watchtower” and it hit me: “He’s doing my version!”
Like he’d learned it from you and not from Hendrix or Dylan?
Yeah, that was my roundabout way of answering your question. I remember something similar happened when I covered “Wild Horses.” A girl shouted from the audience: “I love the Sundays.” And I said, “It’s also by the Rolling Stones.” I hope I wasn’t too snide.
What are listening to you lately?
I hate to — no, I don’t hate to admit it.
I can’t stop listening to the album Fragile by Yes.
Are you kidding me?
I can’t stop.
You’re talking to a Yes fanatic.
[Laughs.] I’m glad. I don’t know why it’s that one album, but I’m just like, “Good God.” I’ll be sitting somewhere and that music will pop into my head and then I have to go put the album on.
I know exactly what you mean. Close to the Edge is the better album, but yeah, Fragile is a mind-blower.
I should try Close to the Edge, right? I just keep coming back to Fragile. A friend of mine was playing me a few tracks from the new N.E.R.D album, and it was great. Then I said, “Let me play you this.” I played him Fragile and after he goes, “Fuck man. You win.”
When you picture your life without the Dave Matthews Band, what does it look like?
I like to imagine myself strolling around with an unkempt beard and painting pictures, maybe writing music for other reasons. I fantasize about those things, because even though I do what I do for a living, I’m quite quiet and reserved as a person. It’s like there’s nighttime me and daytime me: Nighttime me is Dave, who I don’t really like very much, and David is the other me, the one my mother gave birth to. The two conflict, because the greatest things I’ve managed in my life have actually been done in the calmer situations.
Can you tell me about one of those situations?
I remember being in the studio with Batson. Some friends were there, too, and, man, they were playing the music loud and having fun. But I left and I went into this little isolation booth and wrote what I think is one of the best songs I’ve written, which is a song called “Sister.” It’s about my love of my little sister; a genuine thank-you to the universe for making someone who knows me so well. After I wrote it I went back to the party in the studio and said, “Do you guys mind if you record this song I’ve got?” And I sang that little song about my sister. After, it was dead silence. Then Batson said, “Damn. That shit was gangster.” And I was like, “That’s a very nice thing to say. [Laughs.] I think that was pretty gangster, too.”
Do you see a finish line for what you do at the scale at which you’re doing it?
At this point in my life, I don’t see dancing on a stage forever. “Dancing” is too strong a word for what I do. I shake up and down sort of in correspondence to the music while my head sticks out awkwardly. It seems unimaginable that I would do that endlessly. When I look at someone like Neil Young, he’s like Thor. He’s slaying monsters with his guitar. It’s unimaginable that he would ever stop playing music. But for me, no, I can’t see doing this forever — and not because I’m ungrateful.
But because you have other things to do?
For a lot of other people the greatest things I’ve done in my life have been when I was hopping up and down onstage and singing. Those people are just as valid as I am in deciding what’s real. I accept that. But, like I said, those very quiet moments of creating things are for me — for me — the most meaningful.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Annotations by Matt Stieb