photo: Sanjay Suchak
It all began rather casually, as these things often do.
Dave Matthews was sitting on a couch in his band’s home studio, fumbling with an acoustic guitar in search of a lick.
He soon landed on something that prompted longtime Dave Matthews Band recording engineer Rob Evans to take the initiative and move a microphone into position.
“As soon as he turned the microphone to face me, I said to him: ‘What are you doing?’” Matthews recalls. “I was a little irritated and he said, ‘Well, what if you play something good?’ We cackled at that, and I carried on playing. Then I quickly came up with the foundation of three sections and the idea for ‘Walk Around the Moon.’”
That song would go on to become the title track of Dave Matthews Band’s 10th studio album, which Evans would produce.
This narrative roughly echoes the means by which many of DMB’s nine prior releases came into existence. Except this time around, outside the comfortable confines of their Haunted Hollow studio in Charlottesville, Va., the situation was anything but casual.
In the early summer months of 2020, the world was still coming to terms with the global pandemic—a situation that would inform both the substance of the music and the means by which it was created.
“The song quickly took on its own form. We put Mellotron on it, and that was a good day,” Matthews says. “By that point, we had a couple of ideas floating around that we’d been messing with already. But that was the song where Rob said, ‘We should get Carter [Beauford] to play on this.’ Rob’s also a drummer so I can understand where he was coming from. This was in the hot seat of the pandemic, though, so the question became, ‘We have this lovely studio where we all like to work, but how the hell can we go there and not be near each other?’”
The initial answer, in this pre-vaccine era, was that the band members would appear at Haunted Hollow individually, while under stringent medical oversight.
“There were doctors and nurses— people were swabbing our noses and pricking our fingers,” Matthews remembers. “Then, after we organized all of that—our fingers were pricked and we were all wearing masks—Carter sat down and played. It was sort of a dream. We were stunned by how much movement he put in right away. He played it as if he’d been playing it for a decade. The way he moved, every section had its own personality on the drums. The sections on the guitar, that’s one thing. But he came with such clarity, and these odd bars that I had thrown in all over didn’t even give him a moment’s pause. That song had its own momentum and it all went from there.”
Beauford then began work on some additional material that Matthews had crafted, and when he was done, the call went out to their five bandmates.
Bassist Stefan Lessard notes, “I was in Idaho with my family for most of that. I haven’t had a home space in Charlottesville since 2005. I got a call from Dave asking if I would be into flying out and going into the studio. He told me that they had this whole COVID protocol so that it would only be me, the engineer, and no one else. There would be as few people in the studio as possible. We’d do all the blood tests and then mask up. But, at that time, my family and I were still trying to deal with the changes in the world because things were so crazy. Finally, by the time September came around, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it out.’”
Lessard’s contributions would eventually close the circle, after the four other musicians made their way to Haunted Hollow.
Matthews explains, “The order was pretty consistent: me, then Carter, then the horns [Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross], then Tim [Reynolds] and Buddy [Strong], then Stefan. That wasn’t so much about how I wanted it to happen. It was more about the way we could make it happen logistically—the way we could get it to unfold. I would have wanted Stefan after Carter, but we were in a pandemic, and there were families involved. We were in a different situation than we’d ever been in, so everything wasn’t in an order that we chose. There was no rhyme or reason to it beyond the fact that we were trying to figure out how to record during a pandemic. There was also a COVID scare in the middle of it all, and everything came to a grinding halt while everyone went home for a couple of weeks.”
But for the exigencies of this unprecedented situation, one would imagine that the bass player would follow the drummer to define the bottom end. Still, Lessard states, “The good thing is that I was being sent a lot of this music—these weren’t quite finished pieces but finished parts. Then I sent it all back to them to get a feel for what I was thinking. I have a little office studio at home and I recorded a bunch of ideas. I went from having some crazy bass ideas to having the simplest bass ideas.”
“What I’ll often do is throw everything I have at the song at first,” he reveals. “That’s my way of saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been practicing these ideas and techniques.’ I’ll want to include those in this music because I want to show what I’ve learned and how I’ve progressed. Then what typically happens is I end up subtracting everything and it comes back to the essence of a bassline. So by the time I got out there, they knew what I might be throwing down and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with most of the tunes.”
In listening to the final results, from the full-on soul explosion of “After Everything” to the swinging psychedelia of the title track and the rich Middle Eastern textures of “Madman’s Eyes,” it certainly doesn’t sound as if the songs came together piecemeal.
As Matthews considers the dynamic, celebratory “All You Wanted Was Tomorrow,” he remarks, “I can’t believe how much it feels like we are all in a room together, when you hear all the chaos. It sounds like a live performance. Obviously, that happens through the magic of overdubbing. But if you listen to Carter and me, for instance, it sounds like we were looking at each other while I was moving my guitar and he was swinging his sticks at the same time and we landed together.”
Walk Around the Moon’s sequencing underscores the vibrant and complementary nature of the material. “We had an order of how we were working, but every time I’d listen to the record, I’d say, ‘This order again?’ So at some point, I juggled the songs,” Matthews says. “I like the idea that things will fit together most reasonably if every song is a palate cleanser. When you go to a party, it’s more interesting when the dazzling, feathercovered guest comes in and you’re like, ‘Wow!’ Then the ornery poet who says, ‘We’re all fucked!’ enters, and you think, ‘Ooh, that guy. I want to hang out with him, but let me get a couple cocktails first.’ Then the nervous artist and the tortured soul come in, and they’re worried that just by being there they’re invalidating themselves. Then the scientist walks in and if you pry a little bit, they want to tell you why everything is the way it is. So they’re all standing alone, but if given a chance, they’re a little more profound together.”
Just as Matthews references the relationship between the songs, the album’s success also turns on the familiarity of its creators. “I’ve been playing with Carter and Dave for more than half my life,” Lessard observes. “I started in this band at 16 and now I’m 48. So I can put myself into the same room as those guys when I’m recording, even if I’m halfway around the world. There’s an immediate sort of connection that I have with the way that Carter plays the drums and the way that Dave plays guitar. They’re such great musicians and I’ve tried to rise to their level. I know what I’ve done in the past when it comes to those situations.”
Beyond Matthews, Beauford and Lessard, most of the current roster has enjoyed an extended tenure with the group. Trumpeter Rashawn Ross joined in 2006. Jeff Coffin has been contributing sax and flute since 2008, stepping in after the death of co-founder LeRoi Moore. Guitarist Tim Reynold also became a member around that time, although he had appeared intermittently over the preceding years.
The newest addition is keyboard player Buddy Strong, who debuted in 2018 after violin player Boyd Tinsley departed. Walk Around the Moon is his first record as a full participant after contributing to a single track on 2018’s Come Tomorrow.
“It’s kind of amazing how long Buddy has been with us and the kind of impact he’s had,” Matthews declares. “After Boyd left, I didn’t want to do the most obvious thing, which was to get a violinist to play his parts. Not because there aren’t violinists in the world that could cover that area—I just didn’t want to try that because with the way that the band has evolved, it would be disingenuous. I don’t think that Boyd is replaceable in that sense.”
“Buddy was friends with Rashawn— they’d played with Usher and I think Ariana as well,” he continues. “What struck me right away is that he’s a remarkable musician. Then as I got to know him, I discovered he has a really beautiful, celebratory spirit that’s infectious, and he’s an incredible technician, too. Sometimes he plays things he’s heard that are missing, and other times he just plays whatever moves him. Either way, though, he always does it with joy. All of that has lifted our live performances and lifted our spirits. As friends and bandmates, we needed that infusion more than we knew. Through his arrival, our friendships sort of reignited and the excitement about playing together magnified and multiplied.”
Lessard adds, “What I call the classic vibe—which is Dave, Carter, Boyd, LeRoi and me—was a very special moment in the history of this band. That being said, I think this is the best band we’ve had. I love how we play together and how everyone is enjoying each other’s company. Buddy has brought an amazing, positive vibe to the stage and it’s infectious. It’s like having a new best friend all of a sudden, so every night you’re excited to go do something with that person. We all enjoy being able to do this and we also saw what happened in 2020 when things were taken away from us. I think the older we get and the older this band gets, the more we realize how precious our time is with each other.”
Was there something specific about the song “Walk Around the Moon” that set the process in motion to record this album?
DAVE MATTHEWS: I happened to be in Virginia when things were locked up extremely tightly. Rob was there as well. So, at some point, we started working to see what we might come up with.
At first, I felt no need for anyone to hear the stuff we were doing. That changed when I started playing the lick that would end up as the beginning of “Walk Around the Moon.”
Since we were in this forced vacation or forced sabbatical, we had been eating the occasional mushroom. So there was this lighthearted idea of turning the mushroom into a character.
I wrote the song about meeting a woman who would change my life, change the way I looked at things. She would sort of blow apart my world. It’s interesting that while I was saying that I was actually in a world where this thing—that wasn’t a mushroom—had come in and blown everything apart.
So there was this funny dichotomy, but it seemed to reflect what was happening— “How could I go to bed/ Think I’ll walk around the moon instead,” meaning we were suddenly on this alternative planet.
I hope it was subtle, but maybe it wasn’t so subtle to say, “It’s blue and it’s red/ Found a new door inside of my head.” So there’s this willingness to participate in the new chaos because everything is different now. We’re in this crazy place and you might as well pour yourself a cup of whatever it is you want and see what it’s like.
Even before we had an album, when it was just this one song along with some bits and pieces, I had a sense that the album was going to be named after it. Wherever it lies when people listen to the record, for me, it was like a door opening.
As you began work on the song, did you intend to explore that subject matter or did it manifest itself during the process?
DM: It’s funny because I don’t think I would have gotten very far if I’d said to myself, “I’m going to write about where we are right now—how we were pulled out of a normal world and placed in this sort of unexpected, crazy world where everything that you take for granted is not guaranteed and everyone is afraid of each other.” It was a pretty intense time, amplified by our political discourse. If I’d planned to write a song about that, I think I would’ve thrown it away. I would have felt, “I’m so earnest. I can’t stand myself.” [Laughs.]
But the good fortune of going on this tangent to this altered state kind of place— sort of meeting a dark angel—was that it’s a much more enjoyable route. So I do feel like I was following this song, but it took a while.
A song like “Madman’s Eyes,” I’d been playing those changes while I was sitting in my dressing room on the road. I played through an orchestral move and then this sort of rock move and then this kind of prog-rock thing with the little bridge, and then back to this Turkish kind of drone.
I’d been playing around with those licks for a while. I’d actually sent them out to the guys and said, “This is an idea I have.” I had no clue where that song was going, but the musical idea of it was sitting there.
Then, when it finally came, it was such a clear idea—it was about gun violence. Now, it’s not like that’s not otherwise on my mind, but when it came, I realized “Now I know what it’s about.” I kept trying to steer it because I thought maybe it could be about more than just that. But it kept steering its way back. Even when it started with the sort of innocent idea of a kid shooting bottles off his wall, eventually it would go to a place that’s a little darker.
So with this song, the music had come somewhat effortlessly, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with the music until this dark thing came to it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my writing is often haphazard.
The last song I wrote that went on the album is called “Something to Tell My Baby.” That one came like a lightning bolt—all the lyrics, everything was done almost as fast as I could play it.
So sometimes I have some immediate clarity, like with “Something to Tell My Baby,” where I was hit with this idea about what I owe my children or what we all owe to the future. It came quickly.
But with “Madman’s Eyes,” I had this music that I was playing over and over again, asking myself: “What am I gonna do with this?” Then this lyrical idea came sharply onto it.
With “Walk Around the Moon,” I sort of picked up my feet as it took me on this lovely journey of, “Oh, that’s what I’m gonna say.” At times, it sounded like nonsense. There were moments when I writing “Walk Around the Moon” where I asked myself: “What are you talking about?” But I was like, “I have nothing to do with this.”
“Big stack, jump back”—some of it felt like gobbledygoop. But it also seemed like part of the world was gobbledygoop. So I was just singing along.
You might say gobbledygoop, but, to my mind, there’s a real psychedelic feel to that one, which seems like a fitting entry point given the circumstances.
DM: That song was like these big, creaking doors opening onto this possibility— “Where the hell is this? What the hell’s happening?” So it did have a real psychedelic feeling.
It’s funny you say that though, because early on, I was isolating in the country with a small group of people, so that we could still see each other. I played it for a friend of mine, but I hadn’t said anything to him about it. Then the first time he heard it, he said, “That song makes me feel like I’m tripping on mushrooms.”
It’s interesting because really, that’s what it is—it’s a psychedelic song. I’m not saying that you have to be on mushrooms to experience these sort of surreal or magnificent imaginations. But it does feel to me, like the song has this reeling, psychedelic vibe to it.
It did feel like creaking doors, though, telling me: “You have nothing to do with this, let it go.” That’s a nice feeling if you’re enjoying the process.
Returning to the idea of how these songs came to you, what was the process like with “All You Ever Wanted Was Tomorrow,” which starts with a more hushed feel, then builds to a celebratory close?
DM: “All You Ever Wanted Was Tomorrow” is interesting because I had this guitar idea, then I wrote lyrics very quickly and played it. It was quick but chaotic.
That song is also sort of strange because I’ve only ever played it once. The vocal and the guitar on the record are the first time I ever sang or played it because there was something to that performance.
There’s no click track, so when Carter got on it, he had to figure out how to play along with my casual adherence to time. So he had to do a couple subdivisions here and there—not because I was changing time signatures but because I was lazy with the time. But he ended up making it sound live with his performance.
I think it’s one of my favorite arrangements because what’s interesting is how small it is when it starts—like a whisper. But, by the end, you’ve got a baton, you’re throwing it up in the air and a bunch of people are going bananas. It has this circus-celebration feel, reflecting on the idea that if we were free to let go and see all the beauty in ourselves and all the beauty around us—if that’s how we could exist all the time—then what a magical world it would be.
Unfortunately, if there were an opportunity for that, someone would probably get in the way and go, “Actually, we’ve had a meeting and although you’ve discovered the most wonderful way that you can see living, while also not interfering with anybody else, we have decided that it’s best for everyone if you don’t do that at all.”
I love the idea that this song is reflective, but it’s got this sort of “what if” quality to it. Then that “what if” quality takes control. The beginning of the song has this sort of resigned nature but then, by the end, it sounds as if we’ve been in the party the whole time. It takes that journey, yet I think somehow remains honest.
That song also demonstrates what a brilliant musician Carter is. He made my performance sound natural so that nobody who came in to play after him had to think about the rhythm, since he had laid it out so clearly. He landed on everything with such a light effortlessness.
I find it astounding how open and concise he can be at the same time. We weren’t playing together in the studio, even though it sounds like we were, thanks in large part to him. But when we are all playing together, Carter can deliver what he means to deliver with such clarity, yet he’s also able to listen and answer to any spontaneity that is in the room. Whether it’s Jeff, Tim or Buddy soloing, the delicate way he supports everyone else while he’s doing his job is kind of amazing. When people sit in with us, it’s as if he’s been playing with them forever, how he pays attention to the nuances.
Since you just mentioned your live performances, to what extent do you anticipate how something will land in that setting when you’re writing new music?
DM: I think this applies to every aspect of my life, but I feel like I’m kind of falling down the stairs and trying to catch myself. Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s my excuse for my enormous amount of mistakes. So I don’t really plan. I can’t plan anything.
As I now reflect, when we were working on “Madman’s Eyes,” I was thinking, “This is going to be great live.”
With “Walk Around the Moon,” I was like, “I really love this recording. I think, at some point, it will grow into itself.”
A song like “After Everything” will get a life of its own when we play it live, but I didn’t write it with that in mind. I was just thinking , “Oh, I like the way that sounds. Oh, I like the way that sounds. What do I do now? Oh, that sounds cool.”
Lyrically, that also happens quite often. Sometimes I manage to get an idea undeniably on the page. Other times, I’ll think, “That sounds like it feels.”
But musically, I think that once the songs are done, they decide. I’m sometimes surprised by songs that get a life onstage that I didn’t expect them to get. Then there are other songs where I’m like, “That one is gonna kill live,” and then it sounds fine, but it doesn’t quite explode.
Sometimes as I’m writing, I’ll be like, “Oh, this is going to be good with Carter.” That’s something I do.
There are also times when I’ll write something and I’ll think, “Whether that sees the light of day or not, it’s pretty the way it is.” Then I’ll put it on the shelf somewhere, and maybe it’ll find a home one day or maybe it’ll just stay on the shelf, which is perfectly fine, too.
This was Buddy’s first full studio experience with the band, albeit under imperfect circumstances. Can you talk about his role?
DM: I think we’re in year six with Buddy in the band. I guess there was a pandemic in there, but it’s still kind of amazing.
With this recording, what was so odd about it was that we spent the last few years playing together and now we had to be there separately, although Buddy actually came in with Tim.
So Tim Reynolds and Buddy came into the studio together all masked up. In the song “The Only Thing,” there are two solos that are sort of a back and forth between the guitar and the keyboards. The two of them were sitting next to each other at this island while they played. I was on the other side of the island just staring at them in awe. One of the high points of the session was being there in front of those two guys. We recorded it many more times than we needed to because it was so much fun— back and forth, back and forth between the two of them.
Buddy brings such an effusive, joyful energy to the studio, but he also wants to work. So he was lovely and playful but also very efficient. If I had any nutty ideas, I’d tell him and he’d go, “I wouldn’t have thought of that.” Then he’d jump in and sometimes, they would land like a turd and sometimes, they’d be magical. Of course, he had his own ideas, too.
In the case of “After Everything,” I had those three sections of music around for a while. Then for the last section, I said to Buddy, “Just go and sing something in there.” So he wrote down some ideas—he just reflected not only on where we all were, but also where he was in his life.
It’s such a classic idea—after everything that we’ve been through, everything’s gonna be alright. I mean, they sang that in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s and then the 2000s. [Laughs.] But it’s perfect because it’s honest.
Then I thought, “What I can do is sing some very me lyrics in between.” I got to exaggerate even more by singing these strange ways of trying to tell someone you love them—“You are badder than the baddest bad/ Badder than the baddest bad baby.”
So after, he would sing this beautiful “After everything we’ve been through/ I want you to know everything is going to be alright,” I would sing my strange lyrics of adoration, which had a nice, bizarre duet quality.
I also love how we start that song in such a manic place. It’s almost a little bit uncomfortable. I can’t wait to play it live because it’s going to be so much fun.
It’s almost forcing you to feel happy in the moment that goes, “Looove.” But for me, it fits so well with the opening release into this 6/8 rock-joy shuffle. It reminds me of Chicago, almost like, “Saturday, in the park…” It’s so feel-good, it’s over the top.
“After Everything” is one of the most interesting songs on the album. It’s also a very beautiful way to start the second side of a record. I have to give credit to my producer for that because it’s kind of a nutty way to start it.
When you flip the record over, it feels like you’re living in 1979 or something. It comes in kind of heavy with this different vibe. But just when someone might not be sure whether to keep it on, it goes, “Looove.” Then they say, “Not only am I going to keep it on, but I’m gonna play it a second time.”
Vinyl offers an opportunity to start anew— you’re given a second opening track. The live analogue to that is a second set, where you also have a fresh chance to set the tone. Early in your career, you performed two sets and then you revived that practice a number of summers ago. What led to that change, and is it possible you’ll revisit it again?
DM: When we started out, we were doing two sets because a lot of jazz bands would do that. You had to play a night in some club, so you’d play an hour and a half, then you’d leave the stage and come back to play another hour and a half. It seemed like that’s what everyone was doing.
Then, a bit later, it got more formalized for us, where one set made sense.
We did go back to two sets for a little while and that had to do with openers. I enjoy having openers, but quite often, these openers didn’t get to play for many people. Sometimes they were playing for almost no one because people would wait in the parking lot. I still enjoy bringing out bands that I love and I still do it sometimes, but I like to choose my venues, where I know they’re going to get a bigger audience.
So I believe we brought the two sets back with the thought that we could be our own openers so to speak. Tim and I would go out and play a couple of tunes, then Carter would join and it would build from there. Other times we’d all go out and play this acoustic set, then it would change into an electric set.
I still think there’s something interesting to that, but right now, I like the way the energy feels when I write a set with one or two waves that builds and falls. I can’t speak to what it might feel like in three or five years. But I like the momentum that happens with two and a half hours of straight music. Then it all comes to a clean fruition.
In addition to all the new songs on Walk Around the Moon, you also recorded “Break Free,” which has been in and out of your live rotation every few years since 2006. How did that tune find its way onto the album?
DM: Songs go through cycles with us. They’ll vanish and then they’ll reappear and then they’ll vanish again and then they’ll reappear again. But that one came up in conversation, then I heard the recording, which was leaked. I remember being very disappointed that it wasn’t on a record at that point. [The Batson Sessions appeared in 2018, collecting a series of tracks originally recorded in 2006 for a projected follow-up album to Stand Up, which Mark Batson had produced.]
It’s one of my favorite licks that I’ve ever written, so it’s an exciting song to play. It’s got a lovely beginning that is instantly recognizable in a heavy but joyful way.
At the end of every recording session, we’ll have numerous extra songs. It happened again this time. Then I’ll think, “Damn, I’ve got another album. I should go back to the studio and put that out.” But what’ll happen is, I will write a bunch of new songs that I’ll add to the pile. So I’ll take one or two songs out, put the new ones in and I’ll end up with more. I guess it’s an embarrassment of riches, but it’s also a pain in the ass because there are plenty of songs that don’t make it onto an album.
But we’ve been playing “Break Free” lately and we’ve been enjoying it. I rearranged it a bit. It’s the same song, lyrically, but now I think it moves in a way that it hasn’t moved before, so it has a place on the album as well.
I liked that it was an obsessively passionate sort of song because there wasn’t anything like that on the record. It was a feel that we didn’t have, so I said we should put it on this record.
Some people told me: “It’s been out forever,” but I didn’t care. It hadn’t been patted on the head and told, “Well done.” I was like, “I want it to get a formal gown and be marched out into the world in a way other than, ‘Somebody leaked this; let’s make a different record.’”
I don’t mind that things escape. That’s fine, it’s how the world is now. I’m not going to hold anyone in contempt unless I find someone who says they did it with malice in their heart. But I doubt that’s the case. Someone just wanted to be first in line and they thought, “I’m going to leak this and put it out there.” So it goes; no big deal.
When we recorded “Break Free” for this album, that was the moment when the most of us were ever in the room together. It wasn’t all of us, but it was Tim, Buddy, Rashawn and Jeff.
That was the closest we came to having all of us in the studio at the same time. The horns came down and played. Buddy got to put his voice on it. Then Tim did this maniacal thing at the end of it—I can’t wait to play it live again because I want to do it all the way through.
I don’t think that we’ll ever again be so spare, unless there’s another situation that requires us to be separated.
It was an interesting experience though, with all of us going in separately, because I felt very connected to every person in the process.
Even so, I look forward to next time, when we’ll all be in that room together.
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