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Sat September 8, 2012
Music Interviews

Dave Matthews On His Band's 'Unique Sort Of Love Affair'

Originally published on Sat September 8, 2012 6:55 pm

For many people, the definitive soundtrack of the mid-1990s was a band out of Virginia with unusual instrumentation and an unmistakable sound. Born and partially raised in South Africa, Dave Matthews was a bartender in the college town of Charlottesville when he founded the Dave Matthews Band in 1991. Two decades on, the group has sold 40 million records and become one of the biggest live acts in the world.

The Dave Matthews Band has a new studio album, its seventh, called Away From the World. Things have changed for the group since 1991: Matthews is a father now, and this album is the group's second since the 2008 death of founding member LeRoi Moore. Here, Matthews speaks with NPR's Guy Raz about what has kept the other members together — and performs two songs from the new album on ukulele and guitar.


Interview Highlights

On the title Away From the World

"It kind of is suggesting that all of us are sort of removed from the world, in a way, in our minds. That we're all in the same boat, even though we're sort of locked in our own heads."

On growing up in apartheid-era South Africa

"Being a white South African, I enjoyed the better things that that country gave to a small percentage of its population. But [I had] a mother that was so devoted to making sure that we knew that to be credited or discredited for something about yourself that you were born with, that you had the inability to change — whether it's the color of your skin or anything about you — was just the worst kind of crime. ... The guys who worked at my uncle's dairy, I'd sneak over there and — I was in Africa so we didn't have to worry about it — and smoke pot with them when I was a teenager, and drink with them and play music. And more than play, I'd listen to these guys play music. That felt almost like a revolutionary act, and then, at the same time, I got all the gift from it."

On the song "Gaucho" and the new album's themes of change

"I don't think that 'good can win.' I don't think everything is going to get peachy ever. But I think we have to fight for what we believe in. I also get very disheartened by the shallowness of the debates we have. Nothing is black or white, nothing's us or them. But then there are magical, beautiful things in the world. There's incredible acts of kindness and bravery, and in the most unlikely places, and it gives you hope."

On the future of the Dave Matthews Band

"I can remember saying 'I can't imagine that I'm going to be doing this when I'm 45' — and I'm 45. And so I don't know if there's a place that we need to go to. But it's also a sort of interesting challenge to try and work with the same group of people because there's a uniqueness to it — of trying to get past all the things that relationships have when we're working together. ... There's four of us that have been in the band for more than 20 years. It's interesting that our love for each other really revolves around the music we make together. We're not in the same age group, we didn't come up in the same places, but we really do have a unique sort of love affair when we're playing music together. And it gets stranger and stranger, but it's good."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRASH INTO ME")

DAVE MATTHEWS BAND: (Singing) Come crash into me baby...

RAZ: For many people, this is a sound that defines the mid-1990s. It's music by the Dave Matthews Band. Back when he founded the group, Dave Matthews was a bartender in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. Today, the Dave Matthews Band is one of the biggest live acts anywhere. They've sold millions of records. Their new one is called "Away from the World."

Dave Matthews sat down with me recently to talk about the new record and play a few songs for us. He made the three-hour drive to Washington from his home in Charlottesville - no entourage, no drama, just Dave, his technician, a guitar and a ukulele. And the first thing he told me was about the album title "Away from the World." It comes from a line in one of the tracks. It's called "The Riff."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIFF")

BAND: (Singing) Sitting on a box away from the world out there...

DAVE MATTHEWS: It kind of is suggesting that all of us are sort of removed from the world in a way, you know, in our minds or however. And so we're all in the same boat, even though we're sort of locked in our own heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIFF")

BAND: Take me out, shake off the dust, shake off the fear. Please don't leave me, baby. Please don't leave me here...

RAZ: What is this record about? What stories are you telling?

MATTHEWS: Maybe it covers the same sort of area, as always, a lot of romance, I don't know, with love or sexuality, that sort of intimacy. But then also, there's things that are in my mind, you know, the state of the world, and so you think about where we're going. I have children now, so I think about it more. And there's a bit of that.

RAZ: You have your ukulele with you and a guitar with you. And I'd be foolish not to just shut up and let all of us hear you play the first song, which is called "Sweet." This is from your new record. Before you play, can you tell us something about it?

MATTHEWS: I was in a hotel in Chicago with my family. And all my kids were getting ready, and my youngest child who's 5 was learning how to swim. And they said: Are you coming? I was also in my swimming gear. I just thought: I'll be right there, because I've been playing with this ukulele and thinking about this melody and I had an idea. And so I sat down and wrote this song, in a way, inspired by teaching my son how to swim.

RAZ: The song is called "Sweet," and here's Dave Matthews performing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET")

MATTHEWS: (Singing) Try to swim, keep your head up. Kick your legs, never give up, boy. And if I could, I'd turn it around. Let me out, I wanna get out now. You know the feeling when you're in too deep. And then you make it out the taste so sweet, sweet, sweet. Oh, too high, I wanna come down. And I'm too old to wanna be younger now. And if I could, I'd turn it around. Let me out, I wanna get out now. You know the feeling when you're in too deep. And then you make it out the taste so sweet, sweet, sweet. Cover me, cover me, cover me till I'm gone. Cover me, cover me, cover me till I'm gone. Cover me, cover me, cover me till I'm gone, gone. And if I could, I'd turn it around, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know the feeling when you're in too deep. And then you make it out the taste so sweet, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

RAZ: That's Dave Matthews in NPR's performance Studio 4A with a song from his new record, "Away from the World." That track was called "Sweet." It was just lovely. It's such a visual song, and when I first heard it reminded me of being in the pools with my kids, that keeping your head up and kicking in the water. That's a really beautiful song.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. It's kind of straightforward. It doesn't leave too much to being interpreted, but then it does, as well, in a funny way.

RAZ: I want to ask you about you. You were born and partially raised in South Africa during the apartheid years. And I wonder how that has influenced the way you see the world now.

MATTHEWS: I feel very grateful for all the time I had in South Africa. I credit my mother a great deal for - and my father, but he died in - when I was very young - for instilling even if - being a white South African, I enjoyed the better things that that country gave to a small percentage of its population - but still having a mother who was so devoted to making sure that we knew that to be credited or discredited for something that you were born with, that you had the inability to change, whether it's the color of your skin or, you know, anything about you was just the worst kind of crime.

And I think the friends that I made and the people that inspired me from all different walks of life, it made me feel - in my heart, not outside. I didn't take risks, like, you know, standing in front of tanks or anything. But I did...

RAZ: You refused to serve in the military.

MATTHEWS: I refused. I left the country for that. But I did feel great about the fact that - and it inspired me - was that I made, you know, the guys who worked at my uncle's dairy, I'd sneak over there and drink with them and play music - and more than play, I'd listen to these guys play music. But that felt almost like a revolutionary act. And then at the same time, I got all the gift from it.

I'm really grateful for my time there because I think when I came back in America, it makes me not believe that nationalism is a really good idea. It makes me think we're obligated to question our government, whether we're for it or against it, all the time.

RAZ: On this record, you have several songs that touch on this issue of change, this theme of change, including a track called "Gaucho."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAUCHO")

BAND: (Singing) We gotta do much more than believe if we really want to change things. You gotta do much more than believe if you wanna see the world change...

RAZ: You haven't lost hope. You still think that it's possible to change the world.

MATTHEWS: I don't think that good can win. I don't think everything is going to get peachy. But I think it's - we have to fight for what we believe in. I also get very disheartened by the shallowness of the debates we have. Nothing's black or white. And nothing's lesser than. But then there are magical, beautiful things in the world, and there's incredible acts of kindness and bravery and in the most unlikely places, and it gives you hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAUCHO")

BAND: (Singing) We gotta do much more than believe if you wanna see the world change...

RAZ: Where do you see Dave Matthews Band going? I mean, can you imagine the band continuing for a long, long time, decades, doing what you do until you kind of just get tired?

MATTHEWS: I can remember saying I can't imagine that I'm going to be doing this when I'm 45. And I'm 45.

RAZ: You're 45 now.

MATTHEWS: And so I don't know if there's a place, you know, that we need to go to, but it's also a sort of an interesting challenge to try and work with the same group of people because there's a uniqueness to it of trying to get past all the things that relationships have. (Unintelligible)

RAZ: And you were working with many of these guys for more than 20 years.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, the same guys, the surviving members. There's four of us. And it's interesting that our love for each other really is - revolves around the music we make together. We're not in the same age group. We didn't come up in the same places, but we really do have a unique sort of love affair when we're playing music together. And it gets stranger and stranger, but it's good.

RAZ: So, I mean, as long as it works, it works.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. And there's something about those moments of bliss. My dad always said: Find your bliss - at least my mom tells me that's what he said - and then pursue it. But the moments of bliss that sort of make it hard to walk away from, I guess, it's - maybe in a way, it's akin to an addiction. But it is really - when things happen, when the joy is so big, it's like being a kid, you know? That laughter and that spontaneity, that's hunger-inducing.

RAZ: That's Dave Matthews. He's the front man, of course, for the Dave Matthews Band. Their new record is called "Away from the World." And now here in NPR's performance Studio 4A, the song "Mercy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERCY")

MATTHEWS: (Singing) Don't give up. I know you can see, all the world and the mess that they're making. Can't give up on hope God willing to see... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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