They may be homegrown fellas, but Stefan Lessard and Boyd Tinsley are having trouble navigating Belmont. The bassist and violinist for Dave Matthews Band are late for a Monday afternoon interview at Mas, the tapas restaurant on Monticello Road that’s owned by their manager. Tinsley finally pulls up in a yacht-sized Escalade and later Lessard arrives in an Audi. “Didn’t the guy who used to make our cases work over here somewhere?” Lessard asks, marveling at the tucked-away neighborhood. “Yeah, somewhere. I haven’t been over here in a long time,” Tinsley answers.
So this is what happens when you sell 30 million records: You forget how to get around your hometown.
But you don’t forget about your hometown, your roots, at least not if you’re Dave Matthews Band. Examples: four of five players still live here (the fifth, Matthews himself, splits his time between Seattle and Charlottesville), and since 1998 their charitable foundation, BamaWorks, has distributed more than $3.5 million to local causes.
Big on that list is the Music Resource Center, an after-school music education program for teens that’s located in the former Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Ridge Street. On September 24, 2003, the band performed a benefit concert in Central Park in front of more than 100,000 fans that raised $250,000 for MRC.
The band, which also includes saxophonist LeRoi Moore and drummer Carter Beauford, was looking for a new beginning after 14 years and five studio records when they built Haunted Hollow Studio, their secluded Albemarle recording studio, and settled in there to make a new record last fall. Tinsley says, “We’re always just trying to take this music and this band to different places and not try to rewrite the same stuff we did the last time or yesterday.” That desire became even more urgent after Matthews and Tinsley made solo records and “everybody was just sort of venturing out and experimenting with different stuff musically.”
It’s no easy feat keeping anything together for 14 years—a band, a family, a business, never mind something that’s essentially all three things rolled into one. To get an outsider’s perspective and find a new way to work together as songwriters, DMB hired producer Mark Batson. With credits like Eminem, 50 Cent and India.Arie, he’s about as far from a straight-ahead rock producer as DMB had ever gone.
Reached by phone a couple of weeks before he was heading out to produce something with Pink, Batson said that when he heard he was going to produce DMB, “I was ecstatic.”
“To see these guys who play this eclectic blend of music, which has a little bit of pop, a little bit of funk, a little of folk, a little bit of rock, a little bit of music from West Africa, calypso, a little bit of reggae—I just dig it when they play solos,” he says. “So creatively, I’m a big fan of constantly pushing boundaries artistically, and the fact that they play so much great music is what makes me dig the band creatively.”
In the studio, Batson snagged small phrases from each musician individually to come back to later. Whole songs were built off a handful of measures, much as a hip hop tune might spring from four bars of sound discovered on some back-catalogue LP.
“When the guys get together and grab their instruments, something happens that makes this sound that they all make together, which is the Dave Matthews Band sound that everybody knows. They wanted that sound to evolve. They came to me and said, how can we alter that?,” Batson says.
The resulting record, Stand Up, released this week, takes off in some unexpected directions. The first single, “American Baby,” got its start from a plucking riff on electric violin that Tinsley played early in the recording process. “Hunger for the Great Light,” which finds Lessard on guitar, grew from a Tool-inspired riff he busted out one day. “Louisiana Bayou” gets all swampy, but in a good way, and “Smooth Rider” is downright menacing with Matthews’ vocals sounding purposefully rough.
“Stand Up,” with its layers of vocals and handclaps, comes off like gospel music. The message could be personal, it could be political. It’s likely both, given that the band’s social views are well documented and were highlighted last fall when they headlined the anti-Bush “Vote for Change” tour. “Stand Up” is catchy and rousing, backed by another one of what Matthews calls Beauford’s “smoking riffs.”
Indeed, the rhythm section gets a lot of love on this record, and on the DVD that accompanies it, too. By now the making-the-record DVD is pretty commonplace when major-level bands come to market with new product. Still, the DMB behind-the-scenes piece packs a lot of charm.
These guys seem really close and happy. They’re comfortable and casual and dig the process they’re undertaking to make Stand Up.
Fenton Williams, who has a long career as the band’s lighting director, directed the DVD, too. He spoke by telephone from a warehouse in Connecticut where he was working on the set for the new tour.
“Throughout their careers, these guys have been in front of the camera a lot. Our cameras were just sitting in the same spots for months on end. It wasn’t that they were acting for the camera. They just were being the way they were.
“The comments that they made in the DVD are very true to what the feeling was,” Williams continues. “Everyone supports each other. You might not see each other for a few months, but when you’re back there working you know you’re supporting each other.”
Talking about the new record and the upcoming tour when we finally settled into a booth at Mas, Lessard and Tinsley explained why it’s so important to the band to promote that message of mutual admiration right now. “It feels good to me to put us out there a little bit more,” Lessard says. “It’s a way of being, like, we’re still a band, we’re still having a lot of fun. I mean, this could be 14 years ago right now—the excitement and how much fun we are having just playing together.”
We talked for another 45 minutes and excerpts of that conversation follow.
Cathy Harding: You’re just back from Jazzfest. How was it?
Boyd Tinsley: It was cool, very cool.
Stefan Lessard: We played three new songs. “Louisiana Bayou” we had to play because if they’d found out that we went down there and didn’t play the new song all about their state, we might have had some repercussions from Louisiana. Jazzfest is one of my favorite festivals that I’ve been involved with—especially in America.
Clearly the message you’re putting across in making the record is about seeking some kind of renewal. Why did you need that?
BT: I mean, we’ve been together for 14 years, you know what I mean? And we’ve done so many things. It’s almost like when we played the concert in Central Park that was a culmination of maybe a whole career. This is the first time that we’ve sort of come back together to the studio since then. I think everybody was looking for a fresh new start. We’ve got this great producer, Mark Batson, somebody who, just a great overall musician, plays everything.
SL: And it was great to have a producer who really sort of sat in with what we were about musically right away. It was a learning experience, especially for me.
You’re all very accomplished musicians; do you need a producer to guide that new expression?
SL: You don’t really get that first draft when you’re just a band doing it on your own. You kind of have to just release it without any outside help and… You have anything on that?
BT: He really got this band, he got where we’re coming from, he got each individual and what he brought to the table and it was just good to have him just there. A typical day in that first week would be we’d come in and Mark would say, “Got your instrument?” And you’d say “Yeah.” And then he’d press record and he’d say, “Play.” He would have given us, you know, some warning on this. He’d say, “You’re just going to come in, just like this first weekend and you’re just going to play. So get some ideas together.” And you’d be ready and that’s literally what you did.
In your mind, what is the definition of what you do in this band? And another question: What do you listen to on your own?
SL: I remember we did Brown’s Island back in ’94 or ’93 or something and I think we were opening up for Live, and I remember distinctly there being mosh pits in the front of us. They’d be moshing. That’s where I’m from, my growing-up period, the whole grunge thing and that’s all part of my growing up.
BT: I mean, it’s about good music; it’s about music that moves you. It’s about music that gets into—and it can be anything. I mean, I’m the same way. I listen to…I have XM radio and I listen to Beyond Jazz…
I can’t really listen to mainstream radio that much these days because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the most part. There are a few bands that are out there that are really, I think, pretty kicking. But for the most part it’s just, like, the stuff that’s on mainstream radio just sort of plateau-ed for a while.
How ironic that soon “American Baby” will dominate mainstream radio.
SL: Won’t that be nice.
BT: Hopefully it’ll make it to XM, and then I’ll get a glimpse of it there.
But when is something a Dave Matthews Band song?
SL: The sound of violins and saxophones together with Carter in the mix, because he’s such a unique drummer…
Why is this an important message to get out—about how the record was put together and how you guys have come together?
BT: I think it has a lot to do with just the whole Internet age. It’s just, like, in these days, in these times, it’s almost a daily communication between just fans. I mean, our fans have been with us from the very beginning. They’ve been very much involved in the band. From when they were just, like, passing out tapes to each other and spreading the music around, they’ve been very involved in the band and what we’ve been doing. And we’ve been, I think, pretty open about that.
SL: It’s the age of reality TV, too.
Can you describe what happens to these songs at this point now that you’re about to take them out on the road?
SL: Practice and practice and practice and practice. Practice.
Do you like that process?
BT: I love it. To me that’s the best part. “Let’s just bring the sound out, let’s bring this song out and keep digging into the song more and more every night.” That’s what makes it fun.
I wondered if you wanted to reflect on the experience of getting out there and being overtly partisan in your politics with the “Vote for Change” tour last fall?
SL: We can complain because we did something.
BT: Probably half the audience were Republicans, and probably half or more of our audiences in general are Republicans. We didn’t come out making big speeches. I mean, it was really more about awareness. We wanted people just to be aware of this election because it was important no matter how they vote. Dave would say this pretty much every night: “No matter who you vote for, you know the important thing is to be involved. The important thing, especially now that we’re in war with a lot of kids as the same age as the kids that are coming to our shows out there fighting this war, you know it’s important for you to be involved. It’s very relevant to you.”
The audience came for the music. Definitely because it was a “Vote for Change” tour, it probably did at least make people aware that we thought being involved was important.
What does “stand up” mean to you, anyway?
SL: Step up to the plate.
BT: Step up to the plate.
SL: Everyone’s got potential.
Speaking of that, philanthropy is not characteristic of every band in your position. Why does it matter to you?
BT: We’re giving back to Charlottesville because we grew up in this community that’s always been about giving back. You know, we’ve been influenced by that. You know what I mean? So Charlottesville has helped create us and who we are.
So what keeps you still here? I mean, you could live anywhere.
BT: For me it’s great, having two kids in school here; this is a great town for school for kids. You know, it’s just a great place to come back to.
Well it sounds like building that studio, too, sank your roots a little deeper.
BT: I think it was a big part of this last album.
How do you guys gear up to get ready to go on a tour?
BT: Take a deep breath. And keep on taking it.
SL: Pretend. You pretend that it’s not happening until the last day.
I also like to have two weeks before the actual tour just to be at home, be with my family and garden. Put my plants in that I won’t see till the fall and just sort of spend time being real homey and stuff and then I get pumped up.
BT: It’s just, like, basically the night before I’ll get my gig clothes ready, I’ll get packed and I’ll get all the stuff ready. And I’ll just go, “O.K., it’s time to go, let’s go.”