The Dave Matthews Band sold more concert tickets than any other artist this decade. Their new album, Away From The World, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200, as did their last five studio efforts – a historic first. We talked to Dave Matthews about staying inspired, battling his inner critic, and hitting the high notes.
For someone who doesn’t obsess about success, how does it feel to have your album go to number one?
It feels good. In an odd way, it makes me think, okay, now I gotta get back to work. For me the greatest sense of achievement is when you get to the end of recording and I look at the songs and I think, “I like every song.” I feel like I have a good relationship with every song, even the lyrics that I’ve struggled with the most.
I think of songwriters that I really love, like David Byrne or Tom Waits, and how they can say and get so much done with so few words. I still ramble on a lot. So the best of what I can do is try in my ramble to make sure that I feel like it belongs.
How did you come up with the songs for this album?
There was talk when we first stated working on the album about recording a lot of songs that were written a long time ago, because we have a lot of music . . . there’s probably as much that we’ve written which we haven’t recorded as there is stuff that we have recorded. But as we got closer, this nagging inside me, that’s always there, really, became a firm commitment to not regurgitating an album. So I did my best to write some new music, and some new songs and new lyrics. And then get with the band and see how everyone reacted to things and how everyone’s ideas unfolded.
There’s a certain authentic sound to this record that I really like. The last record was very muscle-y and very slick, and I loved it. It was a magical experience. It was a monument to my friend. It was trying to respectfully pay homage to someone who had changed my life.
With this one, the new lineup has been playing together for years but we haven’t made a record as just the seven of us. We’re all a lot older, more experienced, we all have more scars as adults, and that makes the dynamic different.
The falsetto male vocal is all over the radio these days. Do you think you helped invent that?
I don’t know. I always liked that sound, it’s just the way I sing. It may come from the fact that I have a deeper voice than I really wanted to have. So I spent a lot of time in my falsetto because I wished I could sing up in that range of the people I admire. When I think of Earth, Wind and Fire, or Stevie Wonder, or David Byrne, there’s a lot of people I love that are comfortable up there. I don’t think I started it, but maybe I kicked it down the road a bit.
Have your old songs changed much over the years, arrangement wise?
With us, there’s a spontaneity, every performance changes. A mistake might change into an arrangement. Some songs evolve more than others. If I listen to a song like “Jimi Thing” from when we recorded it, or a song like “Two Step,” I’m sure there’s no resemblance.
There’s an element to how the life of the song moves when we play it live, and we don’t work with click tracks or backing tracks or anything like that. So there’s room for it to change, and because I have no reference to where it’s been really, I can’t remember, when you’re ten years away from a song.
I know a lot of artists say I don’t want to play the old stuff. I can understand that. But if the people in my life are different, everything about the song changes. And what’s happening to me or what’s happening to the guys in the band, that also changes what the song is about and what the song means to us.
I played “Don’t Drink The Water” at a fundraiser in New York six months ago, and it was amazing, my favorite performance of that song ever. I think it was too loud in the house, and so I ended up playing it really quietly. It was such a different song, it had such different emotion. It wasn’t planned that way. It just, when I walked out and started playing, it was like, Oh! It’s really loud in here, the music is loud, so I must play and sing it very quietly. In the end, it said the same things, but it was much more of a prayer, with this regret and melancholy and heartbreak. It was really beautiful, and really fun.