The eponymous front man chats with Billboard exclusively about not playing the hits, the magic of the Tuesday night gig, the art of making the perfect set list and how DMB's best album is yet to come.
From humble beginnings in drummer Carter Beauford's mother's basement and a crucial Tuesday night residency at Trax in Charlottesville, Va., the Dave Matthews Band has become the biggest touring success story to emerge from the 1990s. Riding and then surpassing a wave of success from a rejuvenated post-Dead jam band scene, DMB has become, quite simply, the top-drawing American band in the world. In fact, only the Rolling Stones have sold more tickets in the last decade than DMB has.
Band founder and namesake Dave Matthews was a reluctant frontman as he made the switch from Charlottesville bartender to leader of one of rock's tightest, hardest-working ensembles. This is a band not dependent on radio airplay (though it has enjoyed some) or platinum record sales (and it has enjoyed that, as well). DMB is a touring band -- one of the most successful that has ever hit the highway -- and its connection with its fans is via the live performance conduit from stage to audience.
Billboard spoke with Matthews during the downtime just prior to a late May show at the Point in Dublin, as the band hovered on the brink of yet another massive North American tour. Matthews was relaxed, thoughtful and ever modest as he discussed the past, present and future of the Dave Matthews Band, and how important it is to "get it right."
What do you remember about the shows at Trax in the early '90s?
Dave Matthews: That gig was our bread and butter because it allowed us to venture away. We had the Tuesday night [slot] that was paying us pretty early on. We started actually in a smaller bar called Eastern Standard, and we moved to Trax. But when we made a little money on Tuesday, that meant Friday, Saturday and Sunday were free. After that we had a gig every Wednesday night in Richmond, so those two gigs on off nights of the week gave us some freedom to spread it out.
I remember those gigs being a lot of fun, but they were also kind of like school or work, in a way. It was fun, and most of us were smoking cigarettes and drinking and whatever was going on, but every Tuesday we had a gig. It also pumped us up -- every week we had this crowd from UVA and colleges around central Virginia that would fill the place. There were these sellout crowds, 1,000 people. It was shocking. None of us had really experienced this sort of vibe, and I also think the Tuesday gigs got the word out. It was unique that in a relatively small town we could pack a crowd in like that.
Was extensive touring always part of the game plan?
It was the only thing we could rely on in the beginning, and in a way it has been the only thing we have relied on since. We've had good fortune with CDs and we've had some good fortune with radio, but it sort of always followed more than led. That side of it, the industry side of it, always felt like it was following. There was a strange independence to the way we got here, to where we are. I know some people would say we're pretty mainstream, but we certainly got here in a pretty unique way and have maintained it in a pretty unique way. If the record industry went belly up I certainly don't think it would kill us and, hey, it might even help us.
How did having albums and hits change the way DMB approached the live show?
I think our first single was "What Would you Say," and we were doing a tour and had a show in Los Angeles. We played our set and pretty early on, that song was in there. When we played it the whole crowd left; it filed out. It was one of our first shows in Los Angeles, and we stopped playing that song completely. I don't think we played it for years after that. From then on when we'd go play in L.A., everyone would stay, thinking at some point we'd play the hit. And then we wouldn't, and they'd stay for the whole show anyway and hopefully we'd win at least some of them over.
Sometimes I get frustrated by singles or songs that I'm not crazy about, for whatever reason. "American Baby," I was really reluctant [about]. It tested well with certain people, but part of me was reluctant to even put it on the record because unless you really listen to the lyrics it runs the risk of being misunderstood. And the song became such a big production that the smallness of the guitar and voice and the irony that was so thick in it, was lost. To me, that was one of those songs I didn't want to be a single and because I'm kind of easy to flip around, it ended up getting there anyway. I'm so grateful to be where I am, so when someone pushes me hard I say "OK, what the f*ck."
But singles really haven't been a driving force for me. If I was looking through the band's career, the songs I would have chosen for singles I think would have been the wrong ones just because the ones that were chosen generally were not my favorites and I don't feel indebted to that part of the culture of music. I think one of the reasons we haven't really struck a chord outside of North America is because we haven't really focused on singles. Our strength has been more [in] our live shows and [in] the body of work rather than individual songs being particularly catchy.
I think your recorded career and your live career are sort of on parallel courses -- one doesn't have a lot to do actually with the other.
That's very true. And the one that's sort of more faithful, the live thing, seems thus far to be the place where things are worked out in a lot of different ways, whether it's music, relationships or songs. The evolution seems to happen there. One day we'll make our best record, but it hasn't happened yet. But they are two separate things. On the one side, the touring side, we're sort of formidable, and on the side of record sales, not so much.
What's the band's approach to rehearsals and set lists?
It's varied. Right now I've been tending to write down an idea for a set and we pass it around the room and we change things here or there and come up with something that's comfortable and still a little adventurous. It depends on where we are. If we're in a place where people are not as familiar with us -- like right now I'm in Dublin -- we might play a show that maybe throws in a couple of songs they may have heard on the radio here.
But in the States, this is the kind of sets we've been doing. Certain songs fall out of favor with us for whatever reason and don't appear for a while, but they come back around eventually and reappear. We look online or hear through conversations maybe what songs fans want to hear, and if they're songs that we also don't mind playing or start getting back into, then we try to bring those in. At this point I write down what I feel like playing and see what everyone else thinks.
I try to make it sort of a musical arc to the evening. You want to end it with something strong that gets people excited. Sometimes we start by jumping in the deep end, sometimes we start kind of slow, sometimes we climb uphill the whole night, other nights we bounce around. Usually we're pretty lucky. It comes out pretty well and on occasion we ride a doozy.
Rehearsals, if we're apart for a couple of weeks, we get up at soundcheck and that's cool. But if we're apart for months, it's a good idea to have a couple of days together. It's more about just getting familiar of being in the environment of each other, playing a few songs to make sure we still have them, then do a couple of new ones. We've never been much of a rehearsing band. Most of the rehearsing happens at soundcheck and a little bit when we've had a lot of time off. But we don't go into a month of rehearsals before a tour. We do that month of rehearsing usually on tour.
How involved are you and the other band members in routing the tour?
There are our favorite spots to go but really we don't have much of anything to do with it. We might say, "Hey, we haven't been to Canada for a while." Even from the beginning, our manager and our agent would say, "Here's where the gigs are." And it has been very smart the way they've done it. Our manager has been an intricate part of the evolution of the band because of the focus on performing. He knew from the beginning that was the way for us to impress ourselves upon people.
He's really sharp and very on top of the environment of live music. Some years are good years for the stadiums, some are good for the amphitheaters, some years the music market is good, some not so good. He's really good at reading that. That's not to say that we're going to be in stadiums or in amphitheaters forever; that's presumptuous. But measuring our audience against the market, he's always been pretty successful at that, mainly in thinking of the fans, thinking of the band before he thinks about who owns the building.
We don't want to be tied to anyone because what happens when they go belly up in the water? I feel like if our connection is to our fans and their connection is to us, once that's made we just try and do our part of the job.
Do you have a preference for specific venues, crowds or regions?
They're just different. The New York audience is sort of more rowdy and the Chicago audience is a little bit like that. Strangely, in the Southeast, particularly when it's hot out, they're a little calmer. Obviously, [Colorado's] Red Rocks is a beautiful venue, the Gorge [in Washington state] is a beautiful venue, [Wisconsin's] Alpine Valley, is an incredible venue. Those are our favorite places and they all have their own sort of mood and bring their own feeling to the night. Giants Stadium is a very cool building to play in -- oddly it has a very intimate feeling. Madison Square Garden is an awesome room to play in. It has a great feeling, as well.
We were just down in Australia and the audiences down there were really quiet. It was surprising how quiet they were. It's a different appreciation compared to our American audiences, who are much louder, singing their hearts out. Which is great, however you want to do it.
Is there a new focus on international touring?
Well, you know, it's been slow crossing the ocean. I love traveling, and always have, around the world. I was fortunate to travel as a kid and with the band, but we've sort of gone through the doors that have opened. Going essentially without the industry in the States has been easy -- you get on your bike and ride. But it's a bigger jump over here and the drive for a band from the States to get over here to Europe is often singles driven. The ease for the word-of-mouth thing to spread is hindered a little bit by the Atlantic Ocean.
But we're starting. We're playing to about 7,000 people in Dublin tonight and I think about 17,000 tomorrow night in Lisbon, so things are going well. I can't complain. Our feeling is sort of go, where they'll have us.
What do you want out of an audience?
I want people to have a good time, however they go about it. And look after each other. Don't be a dick. I want them to think about the people next to them and to have a good time -- that's what I really want. I want to be a part of something that people will remember. So if their response to a show is to sit quietly and listen because they're loving it, that's great. Or if it is to scream, that's great. I really want people to enjoy themselves. You pay me, I want you to have a good time. And I'll do everything I can for them to have a good time.
Is performing still fun?
Oh yeah, it's fun, and it's pressure -- it's both things. You've got to do it. You've got to get it right. You HAVE to get it right -- you can't go out halfway. Even if I feel exhausted and I haven't slept, you have to go out and give it everything because if you don't then YOU'RE a dick.
Do you see a time when the band would step back from touring?
I don't see it. But I don't know what the world has in store. We've been fortunate and I may have flipped the metaphor, but I think we still have to pay the piper for the good fortune we've had. And so we'll keep working at it for the moment.
Only one band has sold more tickets than DMB in the past decade: the Rolling Stones. What do you think when you hear stats like that?
It boggles my mind a little bit. In some ways my response is to sort of just keep my head down and not pay too much attention to that sort of stuff, because that makes it more intimidating. Just come to work as often as there's work and then go home and try to raise my kids right.
Since 1995, DMB has played close to 700 shows for more than 12 million people.
That's truly substantial, but I think there's some people that have come more than once. I doubt that it's the same 20,000 people everywhere we go, but some of 'em are. I tell ya. I'm grateful and I can't believe I'm 40, but my body does. But certainly I'm very grateful for the good fortune I have and that our fans have given us the honor of doing what we love to do.