In describing “Away From the World”, the sometimes heart-rending, often seismic, always ambitious new record from Dave Matthews Band that arrives Sept. 11 on RCA/Bama Rags, perhaps the easy — if accurate — thing would be to call it a record about love.
Matthews himself, phoning from a studio in his hometown of Charlottesville, Va., wouldn’t disagree. “Certainly, it’s a very personal album, and when I listen to it, every once in a while there would be moments of, ‘Is there too much of this one sentiment?’ Then I’d think, ‘No,'” he muses in his circular fashion, never in a hurry to reach his destination, but always getting there.
The sentiment of which he speaks is indeed love, whether it be global, personal, parental or just straight-up sexual, as is the case in the album’s funky R&B workout, “Belly Belly Nice.”
“It is all about sex,” Matthews says of that particular song, “but sex is an act of love, right? At least when it’s done right. I don’t ever want to leave that out. I always say, ‘If there’s an innuendo of sex [in a song], even if it’s not blatant, more than likely that’s what I’m talking about.'”
Clearly Matthews has thought about this particular topic a lot. “At first, love was tied with the way the cave person next to you smelled,” he says. “I could be in the most spiritual moment of my life and then I smell my wife going past me, and I will redirect my spirituality. It changes the shape of my jaw. But when we were putting the album in order it was very funny to go from [“Belly Belly Nice”] to “Mercy”, which is about love of the world and merciful love.”
Reunited (And It Feels So Good)
If love seems a familiar theme for the band and its leader, well, this entire project has a sense of return to it.
“Away From the World” found the band reuniting with producer Steve Lillywhite, who was the first to attempt to capture in the studio what has always been and remains one of the most dynamic live bands ever. Lillywhite produced the band’s landmark first three studio albums — “Under the Table and Dreaming”, “Crash” and “Before These Crowded Streets” — before being “fired,” as Lillywhite puts it, during the making of the fourth album.
The results are, at least on this day, pleasing to Matthews, who showcases some of his most stirring, vulnerable vocals and lyrics to date on the new album. “I’ve gone through phases, but I’ve been listening to it the last couple of days in the car, and I feel good about it.”
When it came to writing songs for the record, Matthews says it was part craft and part chase: “If I find something I like, I’ll chase it and see what comes out the other side. Once a song gets momentum and gets away from you, that’s a good sign. Especially when I work with the band, I have to allow something to unfold in its own way. Every once in a while I have to choke it to the ground and say, ‘No, that’s all wrong, let’s start again.'”
By all accounts, that happened infrequently during the recording sessions. The album may be a more subtle effort than 2009’s boisterous, bold “Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King”, but it sacrifices nothing in terms of power or overall musical ambition. Recorded in Seattle during a three-week period early this year, the new album delivers a diverse musicality, including the atmospheric, melodic “Broken Things”; the folky “Belly Full”; the building beauty of debut single “Mercy”; the alternating chaos and peace of “Gaucho”; the pure Parliament-style R&B funk of “Belly Belly Nice”; and panoramic set pieces like “Snow Outside,” “The Riff” and “Drunken Soldier,” all sure to be live classics when they get their due onstage.
The band-which includes founding members Matthews (guitar, vocals), Stefan Lessard (bass), Carter Beauford (drums, backing vocals) and Boyd Tinsley (violin), augmented by DMB road stalwarts Tim Reynolds (guitar), Jeff Coffin (horns) and Rashawn Ross (horns, backing vocals)-rose to the occasion, harnessing their onstage alchemy and discovering ways to add the DMB dynamic to the demos Matthews brought to the studio.
“We didn’t start with a lot, so it was a very focused period of time,” Matthews says. What ultimately became Away From the World, a completely fresh take of where the Dave Matthews Band is right now, began as something completely different: a low-key re-examining of previously written but never recorded gems that longtime band manager Coran Capshaw envisioned as a gift for hardcore fans that could be released with little promotion and the accompanying pressures.
“At one point there was a push — there has been for years, and I’ve been a naysayer — for us to record songs that we’ve been playing live or written for studio records that never made it to the record,” Matthews recalls. “I was always, ‘No!’ But this time I was nearly convinced. My manager said, ‘What if we got Steve Lillywhite to do some of these older tunes?’ and I said, ‘Sure, it’s been a while, maybe that would be a good idea.'”
But then Matthews’ creative juices began to flow and the idea of reimagining existing tunes was soon abandoned. “As soon as I got on the phone with Steve, it was like, ‘I don’t want to do old songs, or even newer songs that we almost recorded,'” he says. So Matthews sifted through musical ideas he had recently recorded on his iPhone with friend/producer John Alagia and in the end came up with 14 songs he felt good about.
“They mostly didn’t have lyrics…but they had core ideas,” Matthews says. When the band convened in the studio, Matthews said, “‘I have some skeletons we can hang some meat on,’ and everyone reacted really positively to what I had. That enriched the experience for me from the beginning, and we went through those almost in order of how I put them on the demos.”
Bassist Lessard says those skeletons were constructed with plenty of DMB meat. “There had been situations before where I come in and hear more music on top of the song, but this was just Dave’s guitar and vocal and melody and chord ideas,” he says. “It was real simple and basic, but also very cool, and pretty much all the parts were there. So we as a band just started to listen and think, ‘How can I support this song?’ The musicianship between the band and the way we’re playing off each other is happening live, and it’s all right there.”
Lessard says one of his objectives, in addition to breaking out his ’64 Fender P bass for the sessions, was playing his role in cutting songs that would translate seamlessly to the stage.
“My goal was to have parts that really supported the lyrics, the songs and the melodies, but were also written so I knew that I could rock them out live,” he says. “Sometimes I try to write super intricate stuff for a recording, and then it just doesn’t translate live. This one I was really conscious about every song that we recorded I could get up onstage and rock it live. I think that’s what happened, and with Lillywhite the way we work in the studio, we’re playing these tracks full band take after take, and he caught all the different takes to create the best of the best.”
The recording process was “tidy, focused,” Matthews says. “It was so different from the album before. Of course, it didn’t have the catastrophe in the middle of it, but it just had a different focus, a different method, and it made a really interesting picture in time. I feel very fortunate that it unfolded the way it did.” (“Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King” features the final recorded performances of founding member/saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died from injuries sustained in an all-terrain-vehicle accident in the summer of 2008.)
Matthews adds, “I think of ‘Drunken Soldier’ — there’s a simple, beautiful melody that Boyd came up with, and I don’t think if we were in the studio with anyone else that Boyd would have felt the comfort in himself to open up enough to get that. It’s just, ‘Who can put up a net to catch it?,’ and Steve Lillywhite really can do that.”
In fact, Lillywhite’s “net” catches a hell of a lot, to hear Matthews tell it. “When we’re all recording together and just looking for the rhythm section, Steve would never let the horns that happen then go,” Matthews says. “He will always be recording, listening, putting it into different places so he doesn’t miss anything. When we worked with Steve this time, it happened again with the same magic of the earlier albums.”
Reaching The Fans (And Making New Ones)
Dave Matthews Band has cultivated one of the most passionate, connected fan bases in all of music. Its concerts are one-of-a-kind celebrations. It has sold more tickets than any band on the planet in the first decade of this millennium: Since Jan. 1, 2000, DMB has grossed nearly $613 million and sold more than 13 million tickets to 650 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore. And it pretty much defined the direct-to-fan model as the flagship act of pioneering fan site Music Today, founded by Capshaw and now part of Live Nation.
“It’s a great artist brand, so you obviously go to the fan base, which is substantial, to say the least,” RCA president/COO Tom Corson says. “You do have to come up with a new story every time, and this time it’s getting back with Steve Lillywhite, with whom they had such success, following in the footsteps of Rob Cavallo and a Grammy-nominated record. More than anything, it’s about the music, about ‘Mercy’ already hitting No. 1 at triple A [radio], about engagement with the fans after kind of taking a year off [from touring] last year and reigniting that passion that is the Dave Matthews Band fan.”
DMB has a database of around 1 million fans that get weekly e-blasts, and its fan club, the Warehouse, may well be the biggest fan base out there. (It doesn’t release numbers.) The DMB Facebook page has 2.8 million likes, and there are nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter, not counting those of the most active tweeters, Lessard and Tinsley. DMB boasts more than 6 million YouTube views and another 28 million views on Vevo, where official videos reside.
“All those numbers tell you a lot about our marketing plan and how we’re reaching out,” says Red Light’s Patrick Jordan, who oversees much of the day-to-day management duties for DMB. “We’ve worked very closely with Gogi Gupta, [founder of] Gupta Media for the last eight years. They do all our digital advertising for [albums and tours].”
Yet, awareness remains a challenge, as it does throughout the music business. DMB has been around some 20 years, and Capshaw, who helms the second-largest management company in the world in Red Light, says that even at this point in the band’s career, the challenge “is to keep the long-term fans engaged and excited about this and to turn new fans on. I think we are.”
How? “New music certainly helps, and the amount of touring the band does is very helpful,” Capshaw says. “You have an opportunity for people to continually be engaged.”
Given the structure of the band’s deal, the bulk of marketing duties are handled in-house by Red Light, which ultimately means marketing expenses are covered by, in fact, the band’s money. With that in mind, Capshaw, Jordan and the team are scrutinizing the marketing budget this year in an attempt to make it as efficient and effective as possible.
“I divide it into a pie, and in this instance, certain pieces of the pie got bigger while other pieces got smaller,” Jordan says. “Overall, we’re serving a smaller pie than we ever have, as far as the marketing spend. A lot of the retailers have refined and adjusted their programs for the marketplace, so you don’t find yourself spending as much on straight co-op. And a lot of the online and digital retailers have smart marketing and advertising programs. Both Amazon and iTunes have digital advertising programs that you can plug right into, which we’re either doing or planning on doing.”
Jordan estimates Red Light will spend double what it did on the last album for new media, and “the traditional lanes will certainly decrease by double-digit percentages,” he says. “We’re looking at who our fans are, where they are and how they’re interacting with us. We’re spending less money flying the band to do TV. We’re still doing TV, but we’re building it around our touring opportunities.”
Rather than a lesser marketing plan, Jordan says it’s a smarter marketing plan. “We kind of did it all last time, and this time we’re really focused on when the band’s out there working to complement that, instead of putting everybody on a plane,” he says. “It’s more efficient, more thoughtful, and the one thing we’ve always been good at is connecting directly with our fans and helping marketers at retail connect directly with our fans.”
Any perception that DMB is a great ticket seller but sells much fewer albums is misguided. For example, according to Nielsen SoundScan, “Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King” has sold nearly 1.2 million copies. “That’s a really substantial amount of sales,” RCA’s Corson says. “When you have an act that’s this far into their career and has released this amount of product, it’s actually pretty impressive that they have a shot at selling a million albums every time they put out an album.”
Triple A radio’s embrace of “Mercy” has made Corson enthusiastic. “The nature of radio, especially the adult format, is so pop, more than ever, that we’re going to rely a lot on triple A,” he says. “We are going to make efforts to get on adult radio and [adult top 40]. I think there are more singles on [“Away From the World”] than most Dave Matthews Band albums.”
The label will go “very aggressively” at retail, Corson adds. “We’re at Starbucks, we have an album streaming preview on iTunes, we have full backing of physical retail, preorders at Amazon are clipping along nicely. We have something for everybody. We’re in great shape.”
But, in the end, DMB’s status as one of the most popular touring bands in the world is the ace in the hole. “When you go to the shows, you can see their audience gets refreshed every generation,” Corson says. “It’s just an institution when you work that much and you have the kind of artist integrity that DMB has, and then you put out the high level of music, and that has its own integrity, it just locks in. And there’s the hard work that goes along with it. They nurture that fan base with live recordings and other pieces of product they make available. It just continues to cycle through because of timeless music.”
Predictably, Matthews’ goals for the new record don’t lean toward the commercial prospects. “Obviously, not everyone’s going to like it, but for the people that do like it, I hope it gives something to them,” he says. “I hope it opens up parts of their heart and parts of their mind to things that weren’t there.”
Asked about more commercial aspirations like No. 1 chart spots and platinum sales, Matthews says, “If it comes out and it’s No. 1, that’s great. I don’t mind that. I’d be psyched. But what I do hope is the people that do get into it, it inspires them to find the things that they love, inspires them to feel good, to feel love, or ambition, or feel powerful. Whatever they need.”
Back To Love
What Lessard needs is to take these “Away From the World” songs out and drive them in front of a crowd, which DMB will do in earnest on Sept. 12 at the Hollywood Bowl. “To have a whole record of a new songs I’m ready to bring to the stage and audience is a great thing,” he says. “Every single song on this record is ready to go-they’re made to play. It’s like a fine car that’s made to be driven. This record is made to be played live.”
And Lessard hopes the album is heard as a whole. “Take your time, that’s the thing,” he says. “The record’s called ‘Away From the World’. If you can put yourself ‘away from the world’ for as long as it takes to listen to it from beginning to end, you’re going to get something out of it.”
Asked about the DMB legacy, Matthews immediately knows what he doesn’t want the band to be remembered for. “I don’t want to be just remembered as a jam band,” he says. “What does that mean, even? There’s a certain amount of people that dismiss us because of that. There’s a spontaneity in this band, and maybe an overall love of music, that drives us more than any other thing, and then the good fortune of being able to play music together that we love more than we could find music by ourselves.”
Which leads us back to love. “Maybe that’s what people see in us: the love and joy we have playing together,” Matthews says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what I’m singing about when I’m writing lyrics, but I do think that’s what keeps this band together, the love of what we’re doing together.”
Matthews says he manages to keep his personal and professional ambitions separate, but when asked what motivates him, he says that, while it is his biggest hope to be a great husband and father, music does something for him nothing else does. “There’s no feeling that I get like when I start being taken away by something musical or creative,” he says. “My head feels like it belongs the most when I’m being carried by something, whatever the result. So I hope I get to keep doing that, and that’s what I’m inspired to keep doing.”