Dave Matthews: An Unlikely Rock Star At The Crossroads
When Dave Matthews Band formed in the early 1990s, the group primarily provided entertainment at bars and for college students. Matthews met up with some talented musicians early on, and the group that formed around him developed a unique, jazzed-up take on the pop-rock band, which includes a violinist and saxophone player as core members. Nearly 20 years later, the group has won Grammys and has five No. 1 albums in its repertoire, making Dave Matthews Band one of the most commercially successful rock acts in recent history.
After all this time, members of the Dave Matthews Band are still close, onstage and off -- especially after the 2008 death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore. Moore had an accident while driving an all-terrain vehicle on his farm and later died of complications from his injuries. The title of the band's latest album, the Grammy-nominated Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, is an homage to the late musician.
"It was a nickname," Matthews tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. "Friends and musicians, mainly, called him 'LeRoi Grux.' After he passed, I wanted to use 'GrooGrux' in the album title. The band all agreed it had a nice ring to it, and so we thought the 'GrooGrux King' was kind of nice."
Dave Matthews Band has continued to make music and is touring heavily this summer with a new sax player: Jeff Coffin from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Nevertheless, Matthews says the band and the music have changed without Moore.
"Definitely a big element of the sound that we make together came from him, and a spirit of how we play together -- a lot of that came from him," he says.
"Funny the Way It Is" is a powerful, driving song from GrooGrux King, and Matthews' lyrics accomplish a gripping and unadorned style of storytelling.
"It just states the obvious. Sometimes it's good to take the easy route," Matthews says. "That's a pop tune, boy, that's one of those pop songs."
Matthews, who grew up partly during Apartheid in South Africa, says "stating the obvious" often communicates difficult subject matter most clearly. In the case of bigotry and racism in South Africa, he says, he felt better informed to confront those issues home in America.
"When I came back to America, it opened my eyes to just how ingrained bigotry and fear are and how conformist we are here," Matthews says. "We pride ourselves in not being all those things, but it's really, in my opinion, a fight that you have to have against the nature inside of us to fear things that we don't know."
Matthews says that success has given him an enormous forum to confront those forces through music.
"I find a therapy in playing music, in many different ways," he says. "At this point, I'm incredibly grateful for the relationship that it has given me with the men I play music with -- I'm very grateful for that."
Sometimes, however, it's the most guttural release that communicates best for Matthews.
"Being able to scream at the top of my lungs in front of people is very therapeutic," he says. "It is a great gift for me to be able to do that."
SCOTT SIMON, host:
When the Dave Matthews Band formed in the early 1990s, they were bar entertainment for college towns.
(Soundbite of song, "Ants Marching")
THE DAVE MATTHEWS BAND (Music Group): (Singing) He wakes up in the morning, does his teeth, bite to eat, and he's rolling.
SIMON: Nearly 20 years later, they're a world-famous, Grammy-winning band with five number-one albums in their repertoire, and they remain as close off the stage as on it.
The Dave Matthews Band's latest and seventh studio album is the Grammy-nominated "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King."
(Soundbite of song)
THE DAVE MATTHEWS BAND: (Singing) I grew from monkey into man. Then I crossed 15 million with the wave of my hand.
SIMON: Dave Matthews joins us now in Studio 4A. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. DAVE MATTHEWS (Musician): Thank you very much. It's a great honor to be here with you.
SIMON: Help us understand that title.
Mr. MATTHEWS: It was a nickname that our late and great friend and band member, founding band member LeRoi Moore - friends, musicians mainly called him LeRoi Grux. After he passed, I wanted to used GrooGrux in the album title. The band all agreed it had a nice ring to it. And so we thought the GrooGrux King was kind of nice.
And turns out even to be more appropriate 'cause certainly, LeRoi enjoyed a large whiskey. After his death, we were doing a photo shoot, and this guy came down the street - not entirely sober. He was playing the harmonica - and very well - and he was saying, I need a big whiskey, I need a big whiskey. And he was shouting it, and sort of looking at us because we were certainly the stranger of the two down on Bourbon Street. And I gave him a 20, and I think he thought it was a dollar.
And so at first, he said: I said I need a big - and then he stopped when he noticed it was a 20. And he said, that is a big whiskey. Then our trumpet player, Rashawn, said, big whiskey - that's a good name for a record. And it sounds like New Orleans a little bit.
SIMON: Which is where this album was recorded.
Mr. MATTHEWS: Yes, sorry. Yeah, Bourbon - I mentioned Bourbon Street. I think we were just off Bourbon Street.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: We'll explain that LeRoi Moore died in 2008. He had some injuries on his farm, right?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah, he had an accident driving across the field, from one part of his farm to another.
SIMON: Does your music change when...
Mr. MATTHEWS: Definitely a big element of the sound that we make together came from him. And a spirit of how we played together, a lot of that came from him.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MATTHEWS: We had assumed after the accident that he would survive, and we'd have him back. So I think if he died at the moment of impact, that maybe things would be very different right now. But as it is, we have a new and wonderful sax player playing with us at the moment - but he's very different, an entirely different musician.
SIMON: We want to listen to one of the songs that you have on this album.
Mr. MATTHEWS: Sure.
SIMON: "Alligator Pie."
(Soundbite of song, "Alligator Pie")
(Soundbite of dog barking)
Mr. MATTHEWS: (Singing) In the middle of night, when (unintelligible) you might sell a smile sitting on the road eating alligator pie. The first day the water arrived, the second day the sun is high, the third day (unintelligible) cried 'cause nighttime is gone, he has the dead man's eyes. Yeah...
SIMON: Is the dog we heard union scale or...
Mr. MATTHEWS: Well...
SIMON: ...did you have auditions? What did you...
Mr. MATTHEWS: No, there was a dog at the studio that would was just all would bark and just stood by the door, this hound - I think it was a walker hound. And no matter who came through, it had a really bad attitude. But it was a really sweet dog, but it always, it got on our nerves. When we were doing that song, we thought - it had a sound to the building that we were in.
(Soundbite of song, "Alligator Ride")
SIMON: Let me ask you a little bit about your background. You grew up in a few places: born in South Africa, quite young when you moved to the United States. And then at some point, you spent some time there again. And you were in London, also.
Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, in Cambridge.
SIMON: Your father was a physicist.
Mr. MATTHEWS: From what people tell me, he was quite good at it. I don't know if people are just patting me on the back but apparently, he did some important work. And now that I'm getting toward the age that he was when he passed away, maybe I should make a little more effort to understand it. He certainly found something that he loved, and it was abundantly clear that he loved it. So I think in that way, he was a big inspiration to me.
He said to me, though, when I was a little kid - I was jokingly singing out of tune and he said, wow, you sing so well that you can sing out of tune. For whatever reason, I feel like I understood him. And I always remember that as something that made me think, wow, I sing well. I think he may have been trying to get me to shut up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MATTHEWS: I don't think it was as important to him as it was to me. I think it made me not want to sing out of tune.
SIMON: I want to hear another song from "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King." This one is "Funny the Way It Is."
(Soundbite of song, "Funny the Way It Is")
Mr. MATTHEWS: (Singing) Lying in the park on a beautiful day. The sunshine in the grass and the children play. Sirens pass and fire engine red, someone's house is burning down on a day like this. And evening comes, and we're hanging out on the front step when a car goes by with the windows rolled down. And that War song is playing -"Why Can't We Be Friends" - someone is screaming and crying in the apartment upstairs. Funny the way it is if you think about it. Somebody's going home and someone else is eating out...
SIMON: Very powerful song.
Mr. MATTHEWS: That's nice of you. I like that song because, well, it just states the obvious. Sometimes, it's good to take the easy route. That's a pop tune, boy. That's one of those pop songs.
SIMON: Does it come from some of what you've been through in your life?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah. I think making things that aren't necessarily shiny, happy feelings, putting them in that environment is sometimes an easy way to deal with the ugliness. Like, I know that as a kid, that I found - I think I learned this a bit from my mother - that if I could be as warm around strangers, no matter how strange or what different environment I was in, that people tended to be warm back.
So in South Africa, I really made a - I was really curious about people, too, and then in an environment like that, under apartheid, there was these really absolute social lines that were drawn not only geographically but everywhere you went. You know, you didn't necessarily walk into someone's house and say hello to the maid. In fact, you didn't. But I would always do that just 'cause I would have my mom in the back of my head saying, shame on you.
What it made me notice is, coming back to America, that it was the same here. One of the gifts of living under the oppressive regime of apartheid was that because bigotry was so glaringly obvious there and because it was so - it was so unsubtle, then coming back to America, suddenly - I think it opened my eyes to just how ingrained bigotry and fear and conformist we are here, you know? We pride ourselves in not being all those things. It's really, in my opinion, I think, it's a fight that you have to have sort of against a nature that is inside of us - to fear things that we don't know.
(Soundbite of song, "Funny the Way It Is")
Mr. MATTHEWS: (Singing) The way your mouth feels when lovers kiss, like a (unintelligible) bird on a reef or water to a fish, a bomb blast brings the building crashing to the floor. Hear the laughter while the children play war. Funny the way it is, if you think about it, while he walks 10 miles to school and others dropping out. Funny the way it is (unintelligible) or a soldier's last breath, and babies being born.
SIMON: Talking with Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band, and that's "Funny the Way It Is," a song on the new release, "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King."
You've got a vineyard. Is it Blenheim Vineyards?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah.
SIMON: Was that named after...
Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, it's named after...
SIMON: ...Winston Churchill's...
Mr. MATTHEWS: ...yeah.
Mr. MATTHEWS: It wasn't named by us. It was named before we got the farm, where my mother lived for many years. And so we plant - there had been a vineyard there, so we planted grapes. And we have a farm there that principally is directed at feeding people who don't have access to great food like that.
SIMON: Where's that food available?
Mr. MATTHEWS: There's a food hub, and we try and distribute food to the people that need it.
SIMON: What do you find enjoyable about a life in music?
Mr. MATTHEWS: I find a therapy in playing music, in many different ways. At this point, I'm incredibly grateful for the relationship that it's given me with the men that I play music with. It's a great journey, and I'm really grateful for that. And also, being able to scream at the top of my lungs in front of people is very therapeutic.
SIMON: When you're on stage?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah, it's really a very - a great gift for me to be able to do that.
SIMON: Dave Matthews, thank you so much.
Mr. MATTHEWS: Thank you very much for having me. It really was a great pleasure.
SIMON: Can you take us out in a song?
Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah, I will play a song - hopefully well. It's early in my day. This song is called "Stay or Leave."
(Soundbite of song, "Stay or Leave")
Mr. MATTHEWS: (Singing) May be different but remember, winters won't let you and I, kissing whiskey by the fire, with the snow outside. When the summer comes, the river swims at midnight, shiver cold. Touch the bottom, you and I, with muddy toes. Stay or leave, I don't want you not to go, but you should. It was good as good goes. Stay or leave, I want you not to go, but you did.
SIMON: Dave Matthews, performing his song "Stay or Leave" in NPR Studio 4A. You can hear more new music from the Dave Matthews Band, including his full set at this summer's Bonnaroo Music Festival, on our website, NPRMusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Mr. MATTHEWS: (Singing) ...we used to laugh under the covers, maybe not so often now. The way I used to laugh with you was loud and hard. Stay or leave, I want you not to go, but you should, it was good as good goes. Stay or leave, I want you not to go, but you did, what to do with the rest of the day's afternoon, hey, well, isn't it strange, how it changed, everything we did. Did I do all that I could, what I should have done... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.