Dave Matthews has long been one rock’s most successful artists and, in a low-key way, also one its most polarizing. And while the success part 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 positive thaw. (That’s no surprise to anyone who saw Lady Bird; and the May 18 kick f his summer tour as well as the arrival 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 fices. “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 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 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 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 f. 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 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 ten something much darker — but we are about a party. It’s almost like what people might think 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 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 the rock star as someone who ruthlessly follows his or her own artistic vision. But there’s another kind 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 f 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 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 Stars and I worked on the music. I remember when I first played Anthony some music I’d thought 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 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 my life trying to get answers from the people around me instead 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 yours who didn’t fit any the negative clichés. And also, that movie kicked f such a nice wave 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 them just go, “I hate the Dave Matthews band” because they saw someone they didn’t like in one 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 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 people — you included — seem to have serious extra-musical feelings about the Dave Matthews Band. How much 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 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 whatever box they’re in. That brilliance is what I look for. There’s great every kind music just like there’s great every kind 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 against what was viewed as the legitimate rock music 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 spontaneity. There was comfort in the togetherness not belonging, if that makes sense. And I say that understanding the irony 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 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 wine or some whisky, but she’s quite moderate relative to my uncles — South Africans are pretty big drinkers. I’ve seen a lot 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 their lives.
That’s right — however you can move forward. A lot people deal with drinking] beautifully and a lot 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 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 fset 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 a bottle Jameson with a friend feels like some sort poetic achievement — even if it’s really just two people getting drunk. I don’t know if any 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 fun.
Given what you’ve said about drinking, is it at all weird to spend your summers getting up in front crowds where you know a bunch 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 revelry around me. I’ve reined a lot 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