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Dave Matthews: Conscience and Craft

6/12/2014 Alan Light

The singer, songwriter and band leader ponders family, career and his music's emerging influence on younger artists

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Dave Matthews Band (©RCA)

"I'm from a very politically and socially conscious family," says Dave Matthews. "My mother always made a point of making us look at what was going on around us and take stock of our part in it." So while he denies that he set out to write more overtly political material on the new Dave Matthews Band album, "Away From the World," perhaps it's no surprise that a number of the new songs reveal a strong sense of social engagement and personal responsibility.

Yet when Matthews, 45, saw where these songs were going, he also didn't want them to turn bitter. "A lot of the time, I write a lot of angry stuff," he says, "but then I don't want to be a finger-pointer -- I'd rather be a cheerleader than a judge. I don't want to preach as if I'm in some position of righteousness, but I do want to speak my mind and scream at the clouds and shout out of the pit of hopelessness that I sometimes think the human race is in."

With the sonically diverse "Away From the World," Dave Matthews Band -- Carter Beauford (drums), Stefan Lessard (bass), Matthews (vocals, guitar), and Boyd Tinsley (violin) -- reunites with producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads), who oversaw the group's first three albums but was dismissed from their fourth project in 2000. Many of those unfinished tracks were leaked online, leading to extensive debate among the fans over whether the originals were better than the album which eventually resulted, "Busted Stuff."

Listening Booth:Hear the new album

With album and DVD sales approaching 40 million, and 17 million concert tickets sold, the mild-mannered Matthews is undoubtedly (if still somewhat unexpectedly) one of the biggest rock stars we have. He's now at the age, though, when he's thinking about getting older, a theme which turns up on the new album. Fortunately, there are plenty of role models for a middle-aged rocker nowadays.

"It is a younger man's game, but thanks to people like the Rolling Stones, I'm still just in the middle of the bunch," he says. "You see the people that do it gracefully -- someone like Neil Young, who I don't think I could have more admiration for. If I survive a few more years and I'm still doing this, I hope that I'm at a point where I can do it in a way as unpretentious as him. Thanks to people like Neil and Dylan and Willie Nelson, I can still look up to somebody."

MSN Music: Though you titled this album "Away From the World," it actually seems to be very much in the world, in the ways you write about social issues and personal relationships.

Dave Matthews: That phrase came from a song ("The Riff"), but I think that by itself it has a different meaning. In that song, whoever the character is -- which I guess could be me -- feels the separation that maybe we all feel from everything around us, which leads to a lot of the mistakes we make. It seems as though we don't think too much about the consequences of what we do; I know that's the case with me personally. I try to think about it, but I'm certainly not guilt-free. I think we tend to be a little disconnected from the truth, and in that confusion, manage to make poor decisions, as a group or individually. So maybe that's why I chose it as the title.

More:Dave Matthews in New This Week

Did you go into the album with the idea of writing more politically charged songs?

When I was looking for lyrics to "Mercy," a lot of times what I do is improvise melodies on top of things, and the only word that kept coming back was "mercy." And maybe once you have that word, everything else follows. For me, it's more about searching until I find lyrics that stick to me. I throw everything I have at it, and whatever doesn't make me puke, I leave. Not to say that it won't make other people puke ...

So with songs like "Mercy" or "Gaucho," I didn't set out and say, "This has to be a political song." There was just as much chance it would be about a ham sandwich. But once it starts to go down a way, it gets clearer and clearer until the last lyric is written. The only thing I tell myself when I'm writing is, "Try not to write another love song! Enough with the love songs!" Because that tends to be where my heart goes most quickly. I can write a love song about the world or my kids, I'm OK with that, but I try to make at least every other song not just about sex and love.

A number of the lyrics bring up the idea of getting older. Is that in the forefront of your mind these days?

I woke up the other day and the thought that popped into my head was, "I'm going to be 60 in 15 years." It was a nice thing to think about -- not that I'm looking forward to having my mortality stamped into a headstone, but it is interesting. I do still get shocked every once in a while when I catch my reflection when I'm walking past a glass building, but it's in my mind about getting older and finding out what I'm going to look like as it unfolds -- or as it folds, depending on where the marks and scars land. Hopefully, my face wrinkles up more in favor of smiles than grimaces.

Bing:More on Dave Matthews

This album reunites the band with Steve Lillywhite. How was it to work with him, after more than 10 years?

It was very different, and a lot has changed since we last worked together. Maybe I wasn't in the best place in my life then, or maybe I've just grown out of a lot of the baggage that I carried around with me. He's a very positive, really eccentric, brilliant man, he has great ears and a really encouraging disposition, and he works really well with this band. We're all fragile egomaniacs -- it's hard to get that many delicate, selfish people into a room and have it all work out, but he's a great guide.

The album ends with a sprawling, epic nine-minute song called "Drunken Soldier." What's the story with that one?

My father used to say to me, "Find your bliss, and that's what you should spend your life on" -- at least, my mom always said that's what he said. He died when I was really young. I was kind of trying to say the same thing to my kids but with more words, which I'm apt to do. I have this image of a beaten-up soldier at a bar, sort of thinking about telling his kids this, more than actually being able to. And the war or whatever experience is the music in between. It almost reminds me of a '70s musical, how much stuff is going on -- it's almost over the top. It's the one that I've wrestled with the most, as far as justifying it. I love it and then every once in a while I really hate it, and that's OK. At the end, there's this image of surrender, lying on your back, whether on a battlefield or not, staring at the stars. There's a line my wife has said to me: "That's not a star; that's a satellite." I like that idea, I like that phrase, that's why I repeat it five or six times. I think it's a nice way to say goodbye.

As you keep adding material to your catalogue, is it a challenge to figure out how the new songs slot together onstage with the older ones?

When I write the set, I try to create something that will not only be interesting for the audience, but will have a flow for the band, too, so we don't get boring. As a rule, the way that I make songs play nice together is to stick the ones that are most unlike each other next to each other. So then it's sort of like changing channels: If a song gets boring, at least you're watching another infomercial, instead of staying with the Swiffer.

You're now at the point in your career where other artists talk about the impact you had on their formative years. How does it feel to hear someone like the new "American Idol" champion talk about you as an influence?

We were touring with the Zac Brown Band, and Zac sat in on a song we've probably been doing for too long, the cover of "All Along the Watchtower." Dylan does it his way, Hendrix did it one way, and we do it our way, but this was the first time that anyone has sat in with me where it was clear to me that they were most familiar with my version of the song. It did make me think, that's kind of out, it's a little crazy. A mixture of good and bad, but good, mostly -- the good part being I'm glad that he must have been listening to me for a while, that's nice, but the other thing was, I'm getting old. And that's not a bad thing, it's just bittersweet. Hey, in 15 years, I'm going to be 60!

Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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