Dave Matthews Band: ...For Tomorrow We Die (Relix Revisited)
With the Dave Matthews Band Caravan set to take place at Governors Island this weekend, we’ve decided to revisit our July 2009 cover story on the band.
“We were not in the best state.” Dave Matthews is veering close to bluntness, describing tensions that had built up in the band that bears his name over the last decade, things that weren’t really talked about and resolved until a year or two ago. “Our relationships in the band…” He is trying to come up with the gentlest possible synonym for strained. “It’s five men—at least five men—living together and trying to work together, and things can get in the way of that. We’re all different people, we all have our own opinions and our own problems, but we needed to put all that away. And we did, and were facing each other in a very different and very serious way when it came time to do this album. Our obligation to God—and whether or not I believe is not the point—is to be the best we can be at what we were made for.” He describes their mood from the outset of the sessions as “joyful and unapologetic—like, ‘This is my band; like us or don’t like us, there is no band in the world anything like us.’”
Hallelujah! The strong personalities that make up the Dave Matthews Band talked out their differences. After the longest layoff between studio albums they’d yet taken, the pride, determination and group unity were back.
Except that then, in the great tradition of if it ain’t one thing, it’s another far, far shittier thing, somebody died.
Most albums by veteran acts working out their personal or musical issues in the studio might have one dramatic arc, if that. The saga of Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, DMB’s seventh studio album, is a definite multi-parter, dramaturgically speaking. Act one had to do with how to get the band on one page; act two centered on what to do when that page had a severe rip in it, following the shocking death of sax player LeRoi Moore, the member of the quintet who arguably always carried the greatest mythos.
Chronologically, the group was midway through the creation of the album when Moore died on August 18, 2008 from complications resulting from an ATV accident on his farm weeks earlier. Although very little could’ve been considered actually in the can at that point, not moving forward never seemed like an option given the interpersonal progress that’d already been so hard fought. Anything less than full-speed-ahead might have constituted a relapse.
Moore’s passing “shook all of us: What do we do now? It’s still a little bit like that,” Matthews figures. “At least we knew we had one thing we had to do: We had to finish the tour”¬—at the time, the group had put recording sessions on pause for their usual summer road work—“because he would have. Not to say I know his thoughts, but what else are we gonna do? We’re musicians. And then, also, to go and finish this record that he knew was great. So all of us went back into the studio thinking: We can’t fuck around. Because this one is an ode.”
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King pays overt homage to Moore in its title, since “Grux” is an old, nonsensical nickname some of the band members used to call each other that finally stuck to the sax player. It also plays covert tribute by being largely steeped in an awareness of mortal fragility—although you could say that just about every other collection of lyrics in the Dave Matthews oeuvre, too. (If the Old Testament writers hadn’t gotten around to coining the phrase eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, Matthews surely would have.) The record is steeped not just in feelings about a band member’s death but also the lingering depression afflicting post-Katrina New Orleans, where the final recording sessions took place in the first quarter of this year.
“Spare a couple of tunes, lyrically, it’s a pretty dark album,” grants the band leader, “but I don’t think that’s unusual for me. But there’s also a real joy in the performance of it. There’s no real point in mourning all the sadness and suffering in the world. Whereas if you acknowledge all the things that are happening in the world and you fight them as if it’s your first priority, then you still are allowed to laugh maniacally at it all and dance like a madman. And so this is my therapy, to sing about the end of the world and dance. We don’t find solutions in despair, we’ll find solutions in the defiance of it. All we have to do is turn the TV on or open the newspaper to see how much disaster and horror there is. Everybody needs a little horn section.”
Did he just use world suffering, theodicy and the problems of evil and pain as justification for sticking a big ole brass section on the new album? That may be some fancy footwork in itself, but Big Whiskey makes good use of possibly contradictory impulses. As helmed by big-time producer Rob Cavallo (whose credits include Green Day, David Cook and My Chemical Romance), is this an attempt at doing a fairly straight-ahead, highly commercial, ridiculously catchy and accessible mainstream rock and roll album? Or is it a slightly experimental progression into unexplored territory? Or is it really a return to an organic, eclectic signature sound hasn’t been heard much on record since the 1990s? The answer to all these questions, weirdly and paradoxically, is yes. Bigness befits the band, this time; after some awkward fits and starts throughout this decade, it’s really the first time they’ve been able to meld a fuller and, yes, brassier production approach with the rough-and-tumble live feel fans crave.
Of course, this could just be the whiskey talking. (The first part of that title is a command and not just a description, right?)
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