Dave Matthews Band – Before These Crowded Streets: Finding The Groove With Dave Matthews
Dave Matthews attacks his acoustic guitar as if he were playing a drum kit. “Percussions are my obsession. In fact, sometimes I see myself as drummer trapped in a guitarist’s body,” states the South African native, who is rarely caught standing still when performing with the Dave Matthews Band.
A true genius on the acoustic guitar, Matthews really prefers to be viewed more as an ensemble player–a brilliant and yet distinctive instrumental voice, but still just one of the bright threads that help to weave the complex sound of the Dave Matthews Band. The antithesis of the flashy guitar extrovert, Matthews chooses to let his fingers bounce around the fret-board almost as quickly as he dances around the stage. In the end, both the musicians and the audience are witness to the birth of music that is completely fresh and new.
My telephone rings promptly at 12:15 on a Monday afternoon; it’s Dave Matthews calling from the band’s small studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, ready to talk about the new album, his worship of women, the marketing of the band–and oh, yes, his guitar playing.
The new album, Before These Crowded Streets, is a view of your more intense side. Why such a dark and brooding tone to this album?
Dave Matthews: “This is most definitely a darker album than what we have done in the past. There is even a certain level of desperation–a fear of loss in it as well. Overall though, I think, in certain elements, the album seems to present a fear of blindly losing hope. Sometimes I think we so eagerly storm toward the cliff edge, not ever really noticing that it’s there, mostly because we are too busy looking out at the horizon. With that view in mind, there is a certain degree of clarity on the album as well.
“In many instances, we are much better at fixing our mistakes after we’ve made them. In some situations, it is easier to sweep things under the rug and forget about them. People are not very pro-active in general, I think, because we are too busy rushing blindly towards our own goals. In relation to the album, there are bits of reflection and a lot of greed. Some of the characters represented on the album are selfish and greedy, but in a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ sort of way.
“But as for the overall feel of the album, the songs just developed that way. Maybe it’s just a place I’m in right now. At one stage there was more of a separation between my music and what I think about, but, at least for now, the two seem to have come together. It was more often an escape than it was something that needed to be addressed. Mostly, it’s just a greater level of frustration that has leaked into the music, especially on this album. For example, there are songs like ‘Crush’ that are more of a worship-of-women-type of song. I feel that I have worked my whole life to get to the point where I should have a good understanding of women. But I’m still trying, and although I think I’m a little closer, as any guy knows, we still have a long way to go.”
The song “Halloween,” a dark number that is somewhat reminiscent of a Vincent Price movie, seems to be an extreme reflection of this level of frustration.
DM: “True. Initially, the song was about a past lover. The main character is frustrated because he can’t control the subject of the song, the woman he desires. This infuriates him to the point where he decides to infiltrate her dreams–ultimately making her life a nightmare. The lead character thinks he’s in love, but he’s actually just frustrated that his affections are not being reciprocated. He has focused all his anger on his own inadequacies. And he’s doing a damn fine job of it, and it’s a little bit humorous, too.
“He’s angry at triviality as well. Although he seems much more vicious now, at the origin of the song he was much more frustrated with the blind leading the blind. Those sorts of images that are feeding our simple appetites and not looking for something more, that is where the song originated, but has now taken somewhat of a crash turn. The change probably came after listening to the song and realizing that he didn’t sound as lofty as he thought he was. He sounds much more like a crude version of a control freak to me. At his base though, he is simply a sad soul who is not as conniving as Marilyn Manson, but one who is much more of a victim. Besides, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”
Although, lyrically, the tone created has a much darker feel, the music itself is played with such a high level of energy and emotion; a counterbalance is created within the music. Is this type of yin-yang relationship something that you constantly strive for in your music?
“Sometimes it’s nice to be able to reflect on the music itself and then write lyrics that I feel anyone can relate to. It’s not my dreaming tree that is dead. The feeling of a loss of hope is universal. There are moments that we’ve all felt a little bit of it, so I don’t think it is something that is too hard to identify with.
“We try and capture a ‘seize the day’ feel within the music itself. Even though lyrically the song may have a dark feel–songs like ‘Pig’ and ‘The Last Stop”–in a way, it is also addressing the topic in a positive fashion. Even though the music is somewhat furious, the song is really saying things really aren’t as bad as they seem.
“Other songs, like ‘Stay (Wasting Time),’ are so blindingly happy. It’s like sour candy that makes the back of your mouth water. Overall, the music on this album shouldn’t give off a sense of sadness, because it is played with so much intensity and emotion that you can’t help but feel good after listening to it. Music is supposed to make you feel good, and that is our goal!”
The song “The Last Stop,” reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” is sonically different from the rest of the album. Why experiment with such a radical departure from your core sound?
“Personally, I have been listening to a lot more Eastern singers, especially from Pakistan and North Africa. I have been moving towards this type of music because the sounds of their scales tend to be more desperate in nature. Eastern prayer, for example, allows for a certain level of loose improvisation, which can be very overwhelming. Combined with a certain [intangible] element–maybe because it is somewhat foreign–that ultimately makes the music inherently holy. Almost as if the scales themselves hit you right in the center of your soul.
“So, I thought, to turn something like that into a rock song, with a heavy Zeppelinesque style, would be quite a challenge. Musically, the song has a much simpler guitar sound than some of our other songs, almost like a stereotyped movie soundtrack. We wanted to make it rock, but we also wanted to make it serene. Lyrically, the song describes a level of frustration with how easily we blindly follow our leader’s opinions without making sure we have a complete understanding of the big picture. The hook of the song, ‘Black And White,’ is somewhat of the idea behind it as well. Life is really a lot more complicated than simply seeing it as black and white. I personally think it is dangerous to easily dismiss [societies] as bad, yet this type of bigotry slowly creeps into our culture. Ultimately, we tend to judge others based on the way we view the leaders that represent them. As a result, we are teaching each other how to hate. It is this type of stereotype that gets ingrained within our society in a self-perpetuating cycle.”
Although the Dave Matthews Band has never been classified as a “political band,” it appears that you have some pretty politically charged views. In the past, you’ve tended to be a little more reserved; is it now a matter of needing to voice your opinions?
“I grew up in a very politically aware family. My mother always taught me to question everything, never believing anything simply at face value–especially the nicest, most adamant politicians.
“I’m still having as great of a time as ever playing, but this time around we approached everything a little differently. Because we weren’t preparing the new material on the road, I had more time to listen to the music and write lyrics according to what situation the music reminded me of. In the end, I try to maintain a little bit of ambiguity so that I can covertly sneak the notion of being less judgmental into people’s heads.”
The lead single, “Don’t Drink The Water,” gives some pretty potent imagery about one’s loss of self-identity. Is this a result of being too judgmental toward other cultures?
“There is a certain level of ambiguity to the song. The song could revolve around a Native American just as easily as it could be about a new arrival to our soil. If it comes across that it is about someone who has forgotten whom he or she is, and is now struggling to find an identity, then my aim for that track was true. In order to help promote the song, we employed the help of Dean Karr, who shot a wonderful video done mostly in the Amazon, with a few clips from the States. The point being, the character portrayed is not clearly identified as a native or not. It has been done in a surreal sort of way, but that is as much as I’m going to say–you’ll just have to wait until it comes on MTV to find out the rest.
“At its core though, the song is lyrically about the frustration I have with cultures being dismissed because they are different. It seems that the easiest way for people to deal with differences is through fear and, ultimately, hatred. To me, that is the mark of someone who is very shallow and narrow-minded.”
What prompted you to bring in outside artists for this album? Did you feel there was a missing element in some of the songs that only a certain artist could fill?
“I don’t necessarily think anything was missing from the music. Because it was a sound that we haven’t had before, I just thought it would be fun to include other artists, and that was pretty much the level of it. I wanted to bring in some strings on ‘The Stone’ from the moment I wrote it just, because I thought it was a logical element to be included in the song; but I don’t think it was desperately missing anything.
“I was very sure about the Kronos Quartet, I just wasn’t sure if they’d accept the offer. Bela Fleck has sat in with us a few times on the last couple of tours. Being a good friend, I just felt it would be great to have his contribution on the album as well. I met Alanis Morissette while visiting San Francisco for a benefit show. She came by to visit while we were recording the music, and again while we were laying down the vocal tracks. She was mainly going to do some background vocals, but because she was into the new stuff we ended up giving her a few verses.”
Let’s shift gears here. You have been very instrumental in the marketing and promotion of the Dave Matthews Band. How did you know it was okay to go outside the norm, to cultivate a fan base without the initial support of a major label?
“I think it is very key to keep a bit of control over how much exposure you receive. Personally, I don’t want to burn out on the whole scene. It’s not about having the best record deal, or winning awards or even being on television–we are here because we enjoy making music. We have been playing together for years before being approached by the industry, which has helped give us a solid foundation in regards to the whole scene. As a result, the same crew, for the most part, has been with us from the very beginning.
“I think inside the industry there is an urge to ‘blow your wad,’ so to speak, right away. Our popularity has grown quickly, and we are very grateful for that, but we are also very hesitant in regards to complete exposure. Although the stages may be larger, the lights brighter and the audiences bigger, we are still the same band making the same great music.”
Is the ultimate success story the Live At Red Rocks 8.15.95 CD, which has been certified Platinum with very little promotion?
“We just felt this was a good way to give something back to the people who care about the live shows, including the improvisational elements. It’s not that we have a problem with bootlegs, because nothing could be further from the truth. We have no intention of stopping people from bootlegging our shows. The trouble comes with the idea of some guy, who really doesn’t give a crap about the band or the music, just simply trying to cash in on an easy buck.
“We were real specific about who we went after in that regard. In fact, some stores had the complete opposite reaction–grateful there was a good live album they could sell without having to deal with the hassles of selling mediocre multi-generation bootleg recordings. Besides, with that kind of recording quality, it just irritated us that people would spend their hard-earned cash on live albums that sucked. The fan could probably get a better mix if they taped off of the radio using an old tape recorder.”
With the cross-format success the band has seen, what genre of music does the Dave Matthews Band best fit into? Are you cautious as to how far you’ll delve into the mainstream, including Top 40 and Adult Contemporary?
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but to define what type of music we play, for example, Southern rock, would only confine and constrain the whole creative process. If we were to limit ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to play a song like ‘The Last Stop.’ It would kind of be like Picasso saying his next phase would be the Cubist phase–that’s simply absurd!
“Whether or not there is an obvious song on the album which could eagerly be put into the Top 40 realm is irrelevant if radio is unwilling to play it. All we can do is make the music and, if they like it, it would be stupid to say, ‘Well, you can’t have it.’ I just try and write reasonable music that will fall into many different genres, reaching the most people as possible. Music has always appealed to people in many different ways. But it is also unrealistic to think that everyone will like us. If they came to a show because they like the song ‘Crash Into Me,’ but found that we didn’t meet their expectations, than we’ve lost someone along the way.”
The focus of the Dave Matthews Band has always been on the group as a whole and never on you as an individual player. Do you intentionally steer the spotlight away from yourself and keep it focused on the band as a whole?
“We sort of have to. Obviously the name of the band doesn’t make it any easier, but it was more for the lack of a name that we ended up as the Dave Matthews Band. It just seemed to be the easiest thing. Like some bands that are named for a fictitious person, people were surprised there really was a person named Dave Matthews.
“Certainly, when we are playing, it unfolds the way it is going to unfold. So there will obviously be more instrumental sections, but you also want to focus on the vocals and not necessarily on the guitar playing. The attention really should be spread out amongst us all, because there are some very accomplished musicians within the band. It just makes it more interesting for everyone, the fans as well as the members of the band, because it allows different voices to be heard.”
I think you are one of the most underrated guitar players making music today. Do you feel that your playing ability has received the recognition and credit it deserves?
“First of all, I don’t touch electric guitars. It’s just not my thing–I stick with acoustic guitars only. Secondly, I know I have a very unusual style of playing, where other more recognized and technically proficient players might look at me and wonder what the heck I’m doing. The purpose of my learning to play the way I do was more to accompany my singing. I figured out a style where I’m mentally playing the drums over a simple melody. I just try and put it all together and then not mess with it. For me, it’s a real obvious way to play, but to others it is simply technically wrong.
“Personally, I have always been drawn to percussion and drums, to bass and piano, in music much more then I am drawn to the guitar and the other lead instruments. The melodies are always the most important part to me. I am pulled more to the groove than the chord progression. After you find the groove, you find the most simple chord progressions and then sit inside that groove.” ^m^
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dave Matthews now makes his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he put together a multi-racial band consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, violin, sax and drums.
Dave Matthews – Vocals & Acoustic Guitar Stefan Lessard – Bass
Boyd Tinsley – Violin Carter Beauford – Drums & Percussions
LeRoi Moore – Saxophone
Tim Reynolds – Electric Guitar & Mandolin) Alanis Morissette – Background Vocals
Bela Fleck – Banjo The Kronos String Quartet – Strings
How Label Deal Came About:
We often talk about how most successful bands in the ’90s have largely set themselves up for the success they now enjoy. The Dave Matthews Band has perhaps become the best example. Through constant touring, releasing projects on their own label and by careful thought, they placed themselves into a position where major labels took notice.
To RCA’s credit, the A&R staff, the promotion department, the sales and marketing people, publicity and everyone else involved were willing to go along with the momentum Dave Matthews and his very talented band had already set in motion. Perhaps the biggest leap of faith was in trusting that DMB had a sound that the public was hungry for; a sound that didn’t neatly fit into any our convenient categories.
About The Current CD:
Four RCA releases and over 11 million albums sold later, the Dave Matthews Band is ready to take us to a new level–both in musical awareness and lyrical integrity. It is clear that his dream for us is to be more open-minded — not only about music, but also about how we deal with each other as human beings.
Before These Crowded Streets (RCA, 1998)
Live At Red Rocks (Bama Rags/RCA, 1997)
Crash (RCA, 1996)
Under The Table And Dreaming (RCA, 1994)
Remember Two Things (RCA, 1993)