Dave Matthews Band: Making sh*t up on the fly

Dave Matthews Band, officially the biggest touring act of the decade, finally play South Africa, and feature special guest star, Vusi Mahlasela. It’s all about making sh*t up on the fly, says Dave Matthews.

Dave Matthew Band (L to R): Leroi Moore - saxophone; Stefan Lessard – bass; Jeff Coffin – saxophone; Tim Reynolds- guitar; Dave Matthews - guitar; Carter Beauford – drums; Boyd Tinsley - violin

Dave Matthews Band (L to R): Rashawn Ross (trumpet) ; Stefan Lessard (bass); Jeff Coffin (saxophone); Tim Reynolds (guitar); Dave Matthews (vocals, guitar); Carter Beauford (drums); Boyd Tinsley (violin)

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the “Weekend Argus” of 2013/11/24.

When Dave Matthews Band’s latest record, “Away From The World” debuted at No.1, the group made history as the first group in Billboard chart history to have six consecutive studio albums debut in the top spot. They’ve sold 37 million CDs and DVDs, and done that despite garnering limited radio play. They’ve also sold 18 million tickets to their live shows since they started performing together in 1991, and ranked as North America’s biggest selling touring act of the decade 2000 – 2010, and it’s highest earning, a fact made all the more impressive since they charge less than many comparably sized bands. And it is definitely a band, a true group, despite the South African born Dave Matthews having his name in the title.

“We can’t change the past, but the name certainly betrays something that’s not the case,” says Matthews, sounding decidedly relaxed and contented, by ‘phone from the USA. “When I first went to Carter (Beauford, who plays drums) and Leroi (Moore, who was the group’s saxophonist), the band I imagined in my mind was more from hearing them play. I’d heard Leroi play straight ahead (jazz), and Carter playing straight ahead and fusion. When they agreed to get together with me, it took on a life of its own – and I guess this is not uncommon, for an ensemble to have it’s own power and personality, and later too, when we added Stefan (Lessard, on bass) and on to Boyd (Tinsley, on violin). It really is a group, and I couldn’t carry on without them. It’s been a strain to keep the band together without Leroi (who died suddenly in 2008 after on accident on a quad bike on his ranch). His presence is still very much felt in the band, and it really requires all of us to make this sound.”

“What was going to drive the band was the combination of this ensemble cast, and each of our contributions that would make up this weird sound – which, maybe, doesn’t seem that weird now people are hearing more of it.”

– Dave Matthews on the sound of Dave Matthews Band

When the band – which now also includes guitarist Tim Reynolds, trumpeter Rashawn Ross and saxophonist Jeff Coffin – first began performing, their sound was an unusual blend of acoustic-based rock, along with folk, blues and jazz improvisational elements. It’s a style of music that’s more widespread now, but Dave Matthews Band deserves credit as a pioneer of returning such elements to the rock ‘n roll mainstream – and they remain popular with loyal legions of fans as much for their songs as for the extended “jam” sections of their shows. “From the very beginning, it became apparent that what was going to drive the band was the combination of this ensemble cast, and each of our contributions that would make up this weird sound – which, maybe, doesn’t seem that weird now people are hearing more of it,” quips Matthews.

Dave Matthews Band interview in the Cape Argus "The Good Weekend" on 2013/11/24

Dave Matthews Band interview in the Cape Argus “The Good Weekend” on 2013/11/24

Vusi Mahlasela: “The Voice”

Featuring with Dave Matthews Band is Vusi “The Voice” Mahlasela, who is signed to Matthews’ ATO Records label in North America, and has shared stages with him across the United States. “I’ve travelled back to South Africa many times over the years, connecting to the musicians a little more over the years as I’ve got older,” says Matthews. “I’ve brought my family over there, and my kids, to keep a connection in this sort-of dual citizenship. Vusi has become a great friend of mine. From even before the revolution in South Africa, there was something in his voice. It’s the case in much of the world that people are separated by their taste in music, or the way they dress, into cliques. Sometimes they’re religious, or sometimes it’s age, or sometimes it’s racial. But someone like Vusi, he holds this place that makes him sortof a bridge across and between people that are normally separated. He opens doors into people’s hearts. He’s hard to peg or fit into a category – except ‘world music’ as some sort of non-committal term for what he is – but his music is so much from the heart that it doesn’t follow any sort of pre-defined, clearly-cut path. He’s one of the most generous people I know, and it is always a joy to see him, and also to play with him.”

“We always try and mix the material up a bit, doing things from all through our history, and to have moments where every musician on stage can really shine.”

– Dave Matthews on creating a setlist

As to why it’s taken him so long to bring his band to the country of his birth, Matthews is disarmingly candid, in his dry-humoured way. “I’m a little bit anxious to come back and play. I’ve been selfish before, knowing that if I bring the band I won’t be able to see my friends and my family, because I’ll be working. Now I’m really excited to finally bring my other family back to South Africa. We always try and mix the material up a bit, doing things from all through our history, and to have moments where every musician on stage can really shine. We think of the things – even though we’ve never really had much in terms of radio success – that would fall into the category of hits, and put some of that in because they tend to elevate people’s excitement a bit. Leroi always said, ‘Just have an arc’, and we also know there are a handful of songs that are good closers. ”

“We’ve been playing together so much, and for so long, and there’s such an open-ness to it, that we surprise each other a lot. But there’s also a safety in that, because the nature of the band has always been tied to the fact that we’re able to make sh*t up on the fly. It almost feels like we’re cheating. You have a framework, or a scaffold or a skeleton, and each night we try and vary how we build the bricks and put the muscles on it, or whatever strange metaphor I’m trying to make up.  We’ll hopefully have two completely different shows in Cape Town, and then in Johannesburg do something that’s also got some changes, without much repetition. That’s the only rule we’ve figured so far, so we’ll be getting maybe 45 songs ready to play that weekend – and hopefully it doesn’t fall as flat as a pancake.”

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the “Weekend Argus” of 2013/11/24.

* Dave Matthews Band play the Grand Arena with Vusi Mahlasela on Saturday 30 November and Sunday 1 December (tickets R400 – R600, Computicket.com) before a show at Johannesburg’s Coca-Cola Dome on Tuesday 3 December (R400 – R675).

Dave Matthews Band (L to R): Dave Matthews - guitar; Boyd Tinsley - violin; Carter Beauford - drums; Tim Reynolds - guitar; Stefan Lessard - bass; Leroi Moore - saxophone; Jeff Coffin - saxophone

Dave Matthews Band (L to R): Dave Matthews (vocals, guitar); Boyd Tinsley (violin); Carter Beauford (drums); Tim Reynolds (guitar); Stefan Lessard (bass); Rashawn Ross (trumpet); Jeff Coffin (saxophone)

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10 responses to “Dave Matthews Band: Making sh*t up on the fly

  1. Pingback: Dave Matthews: ‘It’s been a strain to keep the band together without LeRoi’ : DMBnews.net·

  2. Awesome article! Thanks. Very excited about this. 45 different songs over 3 nights is awesome.

    Just one thing, Leroi Moore is on neither of the photos, it’s Rashawn Ross (trumpeter)

    • Thanks Pieter, for noting this. Unacceptable error on my part, based on not double-checking the captions supplied. Apologies to LeRoi (rest in peace) and Rashawn.

    • Thanks Josh, for noting this. Unacceptable error on my part, based on not double-checking the captions supplied. Apologies to LeRoi (rest in peace) and Rashawn.

  3. The caption under the first photo is incorrect. That is Rashawn Ross on the far left, not Leroi Moore.

    • Thanks for noting. Unacceptable error on my part, based on not double-checking the captions supplied. Apologies to LeRoi (rest in peace) and Rashawn.

  4. Thanks for the article. Very excited about the shows.

    Just one thing,it is not Leroi Moore in the photos, it’s Rashawn Ross. Please fix it!

    • Thanks for noting. Unacceptable error on my part, based on not double-checking the captions supplied. Apologies to LeRoi (rest in peace) and Rashawn.

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