Dave Matthews

Just Your Ordinary Rock Star

Music Features Dave Matthews
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Dave Matthews is trying to get to the bathroom. He’s spent the past 30 minutes in his Manhattan hotel’s restaurant-bar, discussing his new solo album and the future of the band that carries his name. When he stood up a few minutes ago, the door was only 20 paces away. Now it’s about 15, but with each step someone recognizes him and—encouraged by his easygoing demeanor and kind grin—stops to shake his hand and gush.

A middle-aged businessman stops him on the steps. “My brother isn’t going to believe this!” he says.

An über-confident, pimply-faced twentysomething—accompanied by a starstruck and speechless buddy—low-fives Matthews and raves about how sweet last night’s show at the nearby Continental Airlines Arena was, calling the singer “bro” twice.

Though he wants to excuse himself, Matthews shows no sign of impatience or anxiety; he looks each fan in the eye, giving them his full attention until they’re finished talking and thanking each twice, before finally hittin’ the head.

Matthews knows fans like these have helped his band sell more than 10 million concert tickets and 25 million CDs and DVDs in the U.S. over the past decade. And these are people he hopes will continue supporting him now that his solo debut, Some Devil, has hit record stores. But even if these three fans at the hotel bar didn’t, more than half a million just like them helped Matthews realize his hopes for the album. Some Devil sold some 469,000 copies in its first week alone. And, perhaps more importantly, Some Devil’s success thus far may indicate how Matthews’ career will unfold over the next few decades.

The album is his first solo record after more than 10 years with his Dave Matthews Band compadres, though it could be the first of many. That said, Matthews vehemently insists Some Devil’s release in no way means the band is on the outs. That couldn’t be further from the truth, he says. In fact, the day after the solo album was released, the Dave Matthews Band played one of the biggest shows of its career, a concert at New York’s Central Park attended by a sold-out crowd of more than 80,000.

“This band is like my family,” he says. “You can go out to dinner with friends, but you always come back to your family. There is no way I will find another group of people that I’ll play music the way I play with this band. It’s not possible. I may have fun playing with other people, whether it’s the Blue Man Group, or Emmylou Harris or the guys I worked with on this solo project, but there is no possibility that I’ll be able to create in another setting the magic that I think is alive in this band."

Some of those he “dined” with while making this record include longtime Matthews collaborator Tim Reynolds, Phish’s Trey Anastasio—who co-wrote several songs and added guitar to the album—and Emmylou Harris’ rhythm section, bassist Tony Hall and drummer Brady Blade.

While Some Devil finds Matthews stretching out, delivering both some of the most lavish and sparsest songs of his career, the album doesn’t sound like much of a departure. After all, at the core of everything is Matthews’ unmistakable voice.

The album’s jewel, its spare, tender title track, features Matthews delivering an emotional lyric while slowly sliding his fingers up and down an electric guitar. There’s no percussion, no overdubs, as he repeats in the chorus, “You said, always and forever / And I believe you, baby,” One of the best songs he’s written, and certainly among the most heartfelt, “Some Devil” could potentially be for Matthews what “The Wind” has become for Cat Stevens.

“It’s such a lucky little song,” he says. While other songs on the album and a slew of the ones he’s penned over the years have been laboriously created, this one spilled out of him naturally and quickly. It’s a song about universal loss—“the loss of your innocence, or love, whatever”—and “vast emptiness,” he says. When you’re at a casual point in a relationship, he notes, “the idea of ‘always and forever’ is sort of something you take for granted, but when it’s gone, ‘always and forever’ is much more profound.

“Sometimes a song, for me, it’s like, I get a little idea of a melody over a little guitar idea and it just keeps growing and … it could take months, it could take years—if it lasts that long—before it’s finished. And then those songs are real precious at the end. But then there’s other songs that are the opposite extreme, where I’ll have like an idea, but it’ll almost come to me too quickly—too quickly to grab hold of what’s happening, but I’m enjoying it, and a melody will come in and everything. ‘Some Devil,’ was an example of that.”

He and Stephen Harris, producer of the last DMB studio album, Busted Stuff, were torn as to whether they should embellish the track with extra guitar or percussion tracks, since it’s the only song on the album that’s completely bare bones. Other cuts feature multiple guitars and some even have an orchestra.

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Initially, he and Harris experimented with drum loops on the song. “Finally, [Stephen] turned off the loops and the computer, and it was just me and the sound of the guitar. And then the song just fell out. It was just like, ‘Bang, here it is,’ the parts and everything in a couple of hours. And within 24 hours, it went from stumbling around to the finished song. We spent a lot of time after we recorded that song, sitting and listening to it, saying, ‘What are we going to do with it.’ But the more we listened to it, it was more like, ‘Why? What would ya? What could we do with it?’”

When Some Devil began taking shape, neither Matthews nor Harris knew they were making the singer’s first solo record. Matthews was simply using a band break to record and experiment with some songs and ideas. He had a few songs that hadn’t quite gelled with the band and was coming up with new ideas all the time.

As the sessions (done in Seattle, where the singer lives much of the year) continued, he and Harris realized they were on to something. And it wasn’t long before his first solo record was on RCA’s release schedule. “Going into it, it just seemed like good therapy,” Matthews says. “And then it started to really take on some personality. [After a few months] we started thinking, ‘We might be making something worthwhile here.”

Sitting here in this restaurant-bar in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, Matthews is unrecognizable to most. A half-dozen businessmen in charcoal suits have walked past him numerous times, oblivious to one of the biggest rock stars of the past 15 years. A pair of teenage girls pass by a couple times, unable to muster the courage to say hello. Instead they steal sideways glances at Matthews, giggling after they think they’ve gotten out of earshot.

As he talks about how he, Harris, Anastasio and the others crafted and obsessed over such songs as the dark “Gravedigger,” a portly African-American man approaches the table with a wide grin. Reaching out to shake the singer’s hand, he exclaims, “Is that Dave Matthews!? How you doin’, man!?”

Matthews looks over, shakes his hand and in a stern, slightly arrogant tone, says, “Good, man. I’m in the middle of something.” Unfazed, the visitor nods and begins to walk away when Matthews gleefully shouts over to him, “Naw, I’m only kiddin’,” as he starts laughing. “Did you like that? That’s a diss right there!” The man smiles and continues on his way. Turns out the guy’s a Dave Matthews Band security guard, and has been for ages. As he walks toward the hotel’s front door, Matthews notes, “He’s a good dude.”

Earlier, when Matthews ambled into the restaurant, his eyes looked tired, his hair ruffled, his clothes slept-in. Unassuming as ever in a gray button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and cargo pants, he looks as though he could have been sleeping for 12 hours straight after the previous night’s marathon set. (The evening’s show was the first after a break of more than a week, and drummer Carter Beauford remarked backstage that coming back after days off, “My hands were killing me.”) But then again, Matthews could have just as easily been up until the wee hours kicking back cocktails.

Some seven hours later, he’ll walk onstage wearing the same clothes and deliver a set nothing short of rapturous to the thousands packing the Continental Airlines Arena, home to the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. The crowd will remain riveted for nearly three hours, during which opener and former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts will join in for a song. The band slays, delivering deep album cuts alongside such hits as “Everyday” and “Satellite.”

Whereas the songs on each DMB album—with the exception of 2001’s Everyday (composed by Matthews and producer/songwriter Glen Ballard)—were co-written by each of the five DMB band members, Some Devil was created somewhat in solitude, Matthews says. It is perhaps his most personal release yet because of his bandmates’ absence. “I didn’t have a chance on this one, as often, to ask someone that was looking over my shoulder, or to look over someone’s shoulder as much as it was … me looking at the page.”

As he, Harris and the others pressed forward, finishing some of the tracks just two months before the album’s release, Matthews composed the next inevitable chapter in his career, one that finds him advancing yet again—climbing one more rung on a seemingly endless ladder of success. And, at the moment, it seems as though there’s nothing on the horizon but more rungs, more pimply “bros”—and more interrupted trips to the bathroom.

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