How to be Dave Matthews in three steps:
First, there’s the way he dances – like a puppet whose handler hasn’t quite learned how to operate the feet.
“I’d feel like a complete idiot if I danced like that intentionally,” Matthews says with a short laugh. “I don’t know where it comes from.”
Second, there’s the pinched vocal style.
“I think of it as an instrument,” he says.
And, finally, there’s the music. It’s a mix of rock, funk, folk and jazz influences that’s jam oriented and college friendly.
A club act just two years ago, the Dave Matthews Band is very much a collaborative effort with violinist Boyd Tinsley, saxophonist LeRoi Moore, bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford. There’s no electric guitar; Matthews, 29, uses an acoustic one.
He stumbles to describe the music.
“Our sound came together as a result of us,” he says, “but also regardless of us.”
Formed in 1991, Dave Matthews Band became an alternative to alternative rock. Relentless touring developed a fan base without radio support or a major label deal.
By spring 1994, the group made its Madison debut at Club de Wash. Despite playing on a Tuesday night with little advance notice, fans packed the place largely on word of mouth.
That kind of grassroots support made record companies salivate, as sales reached 90,000 for the Virginia-based band’s independent release.
“When we first sent out tapes and got no response, we really became very cynical of the industry,” says Matthews, speaking before a show in New Haven, Conn.
“Then we held off signing for a year. They’d ask, `Why?’ We’d say, `Well, you’re parasites.’ Through negotiations, we wanted to be safe from too much exploitation – while at the same exploiting the record company.”
In fall 1994, the group released “Under the Table and Dreaming” on RCA, and it made an amazing rise. With nearly 5 million copies sold, the album remains on the current Billboard album chart.
“Crash,” the band’s follow-up last spring, is one of this year’s best-selling albums.
On Monday, Matthews and company performs at the Dane County Coliseum, where nearly 10,000 fans are expected at the general-admission show.
The show was rescheduled from Sept. 18 after the death of Lessard’s 3-week-old daughter. The cause of death was never announced publicly, and it’s the only topic Matthews declined to discuss.
But the tragedy shook them.
“We’re like a real family,” Matthews says. “There are no four people that I would fight harder for than these four.”
Matthews lived in the United States and England before attending high school in South Africa, where he was born.
Aside from soaking up African music (King Sunny Ade and Hugh Masakela were two favorites), Matthews became exposed to a culture bravely facing apartheid.
Moreso than talking about his career, Matthews becomes passionate when describing what he perceives as Americans’ narrow worldview.
“It would be great if every American could be taken out of America and put somewhere else to get a perspective that’s not so focused on them,” he says. “It’s almost propaganda here: `We know everything. We know how people are living in the world.’ “The perspective that we’re the center of the world is a complete illusion.”
Matthews’ music, however, isn’t always heavyhanded. It ranges from the sexually charged new single “Crash Into Me” to “Cry Freedom,” which focuses on South Africa’s struggles.
Comparisons to the Grateful Dead’s music aren’t apt – other than to note the devoted nature of both groups’ fans. One fan’s Web site on Matthews, in fact, features virtually every one of the band’s concert set lists since 1991.
Thanks to MTV and ample radio airplay now, the Matthews Band finds itself earning young fans.
“We’ve got 12-year-olds in our audience,” Matthews says with astonishment, “and 16-year-olds and college students and others.”
Why the appeal?
“We have a good time. There’s that infectiousness. We also appreciate the fans.”
He pauses, then continues: “I can’t say why they like us, but I know they’re a good boss.”