Songs come first for band Inspiration: Dave Matthews' writing is influenced by his bandmates' strengths.

August 31, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's easy to leap to the wrong conclusions about the Dave Matthews Band.

Because this quintet includes four exceptional instrumentalists, a lot of critics have called it a jam band. For them, the heart of the band lies with the lock between Carter Beauford's powerfully polyrhythmic drumming and Stefan Lessard's lithe, melodic bass-lines, or with the way Leroi Moore's jazzy sax solos contrast against the blues-to-bluegrass fiddling of violinist Boyd Tinsley. As these folks see it, the songs exist only to give the soloists something to play with.

Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees! Truth is, the songs come first with the Dave Matthews Band, and what the players do has less to do with jamming than with trying to find the best way to elaborate on songwriter Matthews' ideas.

"I think one of the reasons that I put this band together was so that I could walk in, and everyone could understand what I was trying to get at," says Matthews, over the phone from a tour stop in Indianapolis.

That's not to say he dictates what the others should do, mind. Instead, the relationship between composer and players in this band is intuitive and collaborative. "I was so impressed by each individual's playing that I really didn't want to say, 'You should play this,' " he says. "It was more like, 'This is the song. What would you play?'

"A song like 'Crash (Into Me),' it describes itself immediately. If I play it for you solo, or the whole band plays it, it's the same song. Everything that was added had to be something that improved the song. [Whereas with] 'Drive In, Drive Out,' the ideas were there, but if I play it alone, you could hear that it would sound good with a band. So in that instance, that song needs the band, and it needs everyone's part. It needs everyone's contribution to make the arrangement happen at all."

L In that sense, Matthews writes for his bandmates in much the

same way that Duke Ellington made sure his band's book brought out the best in such musical personalities as Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams and Harry Carney. It's not a matter of putting the spotlight on a player, so much as anticipating what he might do in a given situation.

"The more that we get to know each other, the more a lot of the writing is going to go on together. I anticipate that because we'll be able to find each other," says Matthews. "Take 'Drive In, Drive Out.' When I came up with that, I knew that it was a Carter song, and I wrote the very end bit knowing how Carter would make that happen. I knew that he would turn that into this 6/8 madness, because I'd heard him do it before. It's a gift that he has."

As much as Matthews loves to talk about how well his bandmates play -- "My praises for his musicality are endless," is how he finishes a discussion of Beauford's drumming -- he's still a songwriter at heart. But he comes by it naturally, having spent his South African youth surrounded by the music of great composers, both classical and popular.

"I think my mom was in a Vivaldi phase when I was in her womb, because I am so unexplainably insane about Vivaldi," he says. "But there was a lot of Tchaikovsky and Bach and Beethoven -- all the pop ones -- and Stravinsky a little bit. My brother was the one who started playing the weirder, strange, more contemporary things, like Stravinsky and Mahler.

"The first music that I chose, that I really fell for, was pop music," he adds. "I think it was the Jackson 5 for a little while, because I was 5. But I got very obsessed by the Beatles, because they made perfect things as far as I was concerned. I was very small, and I couldn't understand how anybody could make such perfect things."

But it was Bob Marley who most influenced Matthews as he entered his teens and started making music on his own. Why? "Because he was sort of on the edge, at least socially, but very accessible," he says.

Marley's music also had a sense of history -- of Jamaica and Africa -- and that was very important to Matthews. "Music that has history to it is not afraid of melody," he says. "Bob Marley made music that was aggressive, but not just noisy. Music that was angry because of a history. Music that was sorrowful because of a past. Music that had soul in it because it really had something to say.

"That inspired me to try and write guitar things that could be edgy, but still that were not blase. Because I think a lot of times when this heavy music comes out, it is sort of just like, Well, what's new? What are you trying to say with this?

"So I keep trying to -- not follow in the footsteps, but follow in the spirit of people that have inspired me," he says. "People like Bob Marley. People like Abdullah Ibrahim or Keith Jarrett. Stuff like that."

Hear the music

When: 7 tonight

Where: Nissan Pavilion

Tickets: Sold out

Call: (410) 481-7328

To hear excerpts from Dave Matthews Band's new release, "Crash," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 7174. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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