Milan, February 22nd. I am in a taxi toward the Palasharp, where Dave Matthews Band is going to play its first of three Italian gigs. In my bag, together with the ticket, a recorder and some sheets of paper: I am going to interview Dave Matthews for the music magazine Buscadero before the concert.
I arrive early at the Palasharp and together with Corsina we start looking for the tour director. It drizzles and I'm really cold in the light spring jacket that I brought with me in Milan, hoping for good weather. A smiling guy with long brown curly hair comes out of the catering container and asks us if we need anything. Corsina tells him that she should meet G. and he offers to go look for him. He disappears inside the big grey dome of the sports arena and comes out again a few minutes later telling us that he had him called via transceiver and he's coming. That night we are going to find our kind helper onstage. He isn't a crew member, he is Terry Wolfer, Alberta Cross's bass player.
Another brief and cold wait and finally G. comes out of a little door. Corsina enters the arena with him and I part with them because in ten minutes I have a meeting with Warner Music Italy representatives. I reach the press desk and together with other journalists I am escorted inside the pavilion. From the still empty terraces I see the impetuous entrance of the Con-Fusion wave, that pours out next to the barriers in front of the stage. One of the journalists asks: "who are these people, foreigners?" Maybe he doesn't expect such enthusiasm from Italian fans.
We are told that the interviews are going to be held in Dave's dressing room. As soon as television networks are done, it's my turn. I will have 15 minutes face to face with Dave.
Someone from the staff takes me backstage and I wait ten minutes in a narrow alley, in which I can hear the sound of Jeff Coffin's saxophone reaching from behind one of the many closed doors. Carter arrives with a big smile on his face and a pair of huge headphones. After a while Jeff comes out, with his sax hanging from his neck; he peers inside the arena, talks a little with a crew member and then goes back toward his dressing room. As he passes in front of me we lock eyes and greets me with a "Hi!" and an infectious smile that makes me smile, too. The atmosphere is full of good vibes. A door on the left opens up and the man that's accompanying me beckons me to go inside. The journalists of La7 TV, with their big equipment, leave the room and I enter.
Dave is standing in the middle of the dressing room and the first thing that strikes me is his hugeness. It's not just his height and stateliness, it's something more: an intangible emanation makes him seem even bigger, as if his presence expands, beyond physical boundaries, in the whole room. He comes toward me and receives me with a smile, while his eyes, more than just staring, really scan me but not in an embarrassing way. A member of the staff asks the name of the magazine I work for and when I answer 'Buscadero' he tells Dave 'you were on the cover of this magazine, last month'. I hand him a copy of the February issue of Buscadero with Benedetta Copeta and Carla Melis's translations. Dave points to the picture and comments about the awful hair he had that day and we burst into laughter. He asks me my name and when I answer 'Elena' he repeats 'Eléééna?', stressing the second 'e'. I correct him jokingly annoyed, 'No, Èlena!' with the accent on the first syllable. He tries again 'Eléééna!'. Now it's a matter of principle: 'No, &Eagrave;èèlena!' Finally he pronounces it correctly and when I congratulate him with a resounding 'Yeah!!' he starts repeating 'Èèèlena! Èèèlena!' with exaggerated intensity, accompanied by pantomimic gestural expressiveness. It's definitely a funny opening for my interview and I couldn't ask for more.
He sits on the sofa; in front of him, beyond a table full of sheets of paper, are two chairs. I ask where I can sit while at the same time going toward one of the two chairs. He, however, points at the sofa and says 'here, here!' I sit beside him and while I put the interview and the recorder on the table I ask him how he feels and if he is happy to be here in Italy again. He is, and a lot. Before beginning I explain to him that, other than being the interviewer for Buscadero, I am also a member of Con-Fusion. He nods while smiling: 'Oh, nice!' I cast a glance at the sheets of paper: they are full of drawings and doodles. He is sketching the set list for the concert on one of them. I ask him if he needs a moment or if we can begin and he immediately raises his eyes from the sheet and exclaims 'No, no!! You can begin!!' as if I shouldn't even have asked.
Dave listens to my questions while intensely staring at me with an expression that seems to be saying 'what in heaven are you asking?' On the contrary, it is his typical highly concentrated stare. When I ask him about his acting he suddenly raises an eyebrow, so that I stop for a moment with a questioning glance to understand if I have said something wrong. He realizes that he as an ambiguous expression so he lower his eyebrow and relaxes, telling me to go on.
At the end of each question, his magnetic silence turns into a stream of words, accompanied by a lot of gestures. He answers with an enthusiasm and an energy that reveal all his seriousness and kindness. Every once in a while, he stops to reflect, trying to find the right words: moments of suspense in which his gaze seems lost and I almost hold my breath not to disturb his concentration with any little noise. In a couple of instances he scribbles on a sheet of paper before replying, until the key word of his answer comes out of his pen.
I've got a pen in my purse, but I don't take notes: the recorder is going to work properly and I don't want to ruin the atmosphere that is halfway from an interview and a long chat. It would seem out of place to stare at a sheet of paper while he talks to me. And also, after obtaining a face to face interview, the least I can do is to look at his face! Being on that sofa seems like the most normal thing in the world, it's like we have already met many times before.
In the article I'm just going to write down his answers, but during his answers and between questions there are many exchanges between us. When we talk about Big Whiskey's artwork I cannot but compliment him for that masterpiece. When he talks about LeRoi I remind him the wonderful quote from Sam Erickson's documentary in which it is said that when he played he gave the impression of being somewhere else, and from this cue Dave begins his beautiful comparison between Roi and Jeff. As soon as I say 'Lucca' he immediately shows his enthusiasm. He doesn't even let me finish my question and he starts recalling that 'great night'. I tell him that it was the longest concert of Dave Matthews Band's history and he turns attentive and impressed, because he didn't know it. In following interviews, with Rockol and Radio Due for instance, he will tell it himself to the interviewers, when answering the expected question on that epic concert.
The time flies and when they tell me I have two minutes left, I still have many question I'd like to ask Dave. I choose three of them, one that was requested by the magazine editor and two of different subjects, in order to keep the variety I tried to create in preparing the interview, albeit with a smaller number of question than I was prepared to ask. Dave's kindness knows no boundaries: looking at the sheet of paper with the remaining questions he excuses himself for the long answers he has given me. At the end of the interview he stands up to thank me and tell me what a great pleasure it was to meet me. The exact contrary of what I would have expected to happen.
I ask if I can take a couple of pictures for the magazine. Despite the fact that my time is up and staff members are entering the room to prepare the following interview, they are all very helpful and allow me another minute. I take a couple of pictures of Dave and a picture of me and him together and I quickly go out.
Sitting inside the arena I think back at the interview, at the ten members of Con-Fusion that are taking part at the meet & greet with Dave, at the many others that will be able to meet him, greet him, give him their artworks, see him play close by. The following days are full of memories from the Milan concert, but are also full of the accounts from the friends who attended the Rome and Padua concerts, each one better than the one before. What can I do? Simply to fly to London on March, 6th.
I manage to organize my trip to London in a couple of days and on Saturday morning I find myself at Luton airport, where I am kidnapped by Corsina that puts me on a purple cab that takes us to London. The driver, an Indian man with an incomprehensible pronunciation, insists on telling us where to find Harrod's.
After meeting our other Italian friends we head for the O2 Arena, where we receive backstage passes. In addition to the ones for Corsina and Benedetta there's also one for me, if I am lucky I am going to meet Dave again. We reach the backstage, where Corsina greets J. and explains him that she would like to introduce me to the tour director. We wait for G. and I see from of the corner of my eye an unmistakable shape coming out of a door: it's Dave, a little tired and sleepy. He recognizes me, which I didn't expect although just a few days have passed since Milan. He asks us how we feel, kisses me and Benedetta on the cheeks while Corsina disappears in his embrace. I am happy to meet him in a more informal situation than in Milan: although the atmosphere wasn't tense, there we had the roles of interviewer and interviewee. Here we are just Èèèlena and Dave.
Corsina gives him a copy of Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back and we ask him why he hasn't taken part in the project, since Peter Gabriel wanted to contact him. He answers a little astonished that he didn't know anything about it. We exchange a couple of jokes, we tell him that maybe Peter forgot to call him and I ask Dave if his answering machine works properly. He smiles and answers positively, while J. laughs heartily. A little disoriented Dave then asks 'so I'm not in this cd, right?' 'no...' 'ok'.
We say goodbye and give up the idea of meeting G. While we walk through the long alley Tim Reynolds passes by and, with a kind gesture, holds the door for us and invites us to go first. Then he asks with a smile 'How are you today?'. In the short time spent in the backstage in Milan and London all I recall from everyone I have met are feelings of relax, kindness and friendliness. While we go out I think how funny it is that in the end we haven't been able to see G., but we accidentally met Dave and Tim.
We go back to the parterre and me and Benedetta immediately go toward the front row. Around us is a diverse group of fans from Canada, Germany and England. When they see the backstage passes hanging from our necks they ask us how we got them and they listen attentively when we explain them about Con-Fusion and all the initiatives organized thanks to the invaluable work of the staff. On one side of the stage Corsina appears. She wants to introduce us Rodrigo Simas, the webmaster of DMBrasil. Unfortunately we can't chat for long, but the brief encounter is enough to confirm the impression that he is a wonderful person.
A little later, a few feet from our noses, Dave and his colleagues play the best DMB concert I have ever been present to. Before the concert I considered going to Manchester the following day; at the end of the night, on the cab headed to Victoria Station, I don't feel the need anymore. There are good concerts, the ones that leave you with the sensation of still wanting more. And then there are unrepeatable events, that make you feel satisfied for a whole year. In my head, however, I can't stop wondering the same thing everybody around me is wondering: when are they coming back?
February 22nd, 2010. It's been eight months since the release of Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King and seven since the epic concert in Lucca, immortalized in the Europe 2009 boxset. The Dave Matthews Band is back to Italy, ready to pour its kaleidoscopic river of sounds on the stages of Milano, Roma and Padova.
I meet Dave Matthews before the show at the PalaSharp in Milano to talk about the latest record, the death of sax player LeRoi Moore, the renewed sinergy of the band and his variegated interests. His well-known "antistar" attitude is immediately proved: he welcomes me in his dressing room like a neighbour would and he repeats my name three times until he proudly pronounces it with the accent on the right "e". I give him a copy of February's Buscadero and he points at the cover photo laughing: "I had terrible hair that day!". I ask him if he's happy to be in Italy again and he answers with an enthusiastic "Yeah!": with no doubt it's true. His table is covered with papers filled with song lists, sketches and drawings. His pen will trace countless scribbles throughout the interview. He adds a couple of titles to the setlist, then we start. His answers alternate overflowing streams of consciousness to long, thoughtful breaks in which he stares at the ceiling searching for the words. As background music, the sax of Jeff Coffin, who's rehearsing in the next room.
Compared to Everyday and Stand Up, Big Whiskey has a sound and groove which recall your first three records. You worked on it in a very tough moment, but you managed to find a fantastic sinergy. Do you think it was a kind of rebirth of the band?
Yeah, it was certainly a rebirth. We had some tough years, but I think that's normal if you work together. Everyday was sort of me working with a producer. In Stand Up it was all of us working with the producer but not in the same unity as we did in the earlier records. The first one and the second one were eager (Under The Table and Dreaming and Crash, editor's note). The third one (Before These Crowded Streets) was tough, we had to fight with each other to get it done. Working together on the next one was impossible and so we left out and tried to change something completely. I like Everyday and I like Stand Up, but they're very different records. While working on Big Whiskey we have gone through a deep discovery of each other again. The band had nearly fallen apart so it was either we fell apart or we came together. I think this record is a result of that, of coming back together. Not only it's going back to, returning to something. It sort of follows a road from those first three records. It's all of us. I worked really hard on this record and I also expected the same from them.
The importance of this record is also evident in the booklet artwork, which you entirely painted and handwrote. You also drew the album cover for Danny Barnes' Pizza Box. Are you going to do it again in the future?
Yeah, maybe, if I come up with something good. A lot of things were fortunate on this record, a lot of things were unfortunate but all of them worked together to make it in the end. I had seen some ideas for the cover and I just hated them all, so I said "I'll do it!". I talked about different artwork with Rob Cavallo (the album's producer, editor's note) too and he said "I see you scribbling things, you should do the cover". Then it sort of fell into place. I first found a face. I didn't intend it to look like LeRoi but it just looked like him. The name too… all of these things fell together in a way that may seem synchronized, but I think it was just fortunous.
The album starts and ends with LeRoi playing sax. Sam Erickson's documentary The Road To Big Whiskey features other unreleased recordings of his. Are you going to include similar tracks in the next albums?
I don't know. That might be a nice avenue, a connection that we could make between this album and the next one. It would have to be natural, not forced. We made so much great music with Roi. I would like to find more inspiration from the recordings of his over the years. I'm not averse to it, but it's not a clear plan.
What did LeRoi have that you know you can never find in anyone else? And what did Jeff Coffin add to the band's sound?
We had no idea that Roi was dying when Jeff joined us. We intended to work with Jeff for a while. When Roi died - we played a show that night - it seemed like a natural thing that if Jeff was available he would finish the work with us. It just unfolded that way. There was no way we could replace the voice of Roi because it was very a specific one. He was very difficult but he was very magical too. Jeff is an entirely different man. The only thing they have in common is the saxophone. Besides from that, their approach to music is opposite. Roi was very internal, he faced inwards and the horn was the way that he could say that. Jeff is very open, outwards and so it's like they play different instruments.
A few days ago Steve Lillywhite (DMB's producer from 1994 to 2000) stated he would love to work with you again. Are there any chances for this to happen?
Absolutely! I hadn't heard that, but I now that Coran (Capshaw, DMB's manager, editor's note) keeps in touch with him. When we stopped working together it was just not a good time for us, but I spent one of the best times of my life with him. I think it would be great fun to work with him again. We'll see if it pans out. I love working with Rob Cavallo too, he likes to make a joyful noise as well. Maybe we can do both.
You've got many unreleased songs. The deluxe edition of Santana's Supernatural features Rain Down on Me, written by you and Carter Beauford. On stage you play songs such as Sister and Shotgun. Have you ever thought about releasing an outtakes boxset?
I have a funny way of looking at music. I just wanna go forward and sometimes people get disappointed with me because I say "I don't wanna play that anymore". Some of the old stuff I love. Some of it stays with me and some of it goes away for years and then it will come back. Other songs I just don't like anymore. It's a relationship. My manager says to me quite often "you should make a record with all this material". A couple of guys in the band would really like to do that, I think Stefan would love to. Then I have to find the time and I think I just want to make a new record. But the idea of taking those recordings and put them in an outtakes set together is kind of nice. Maybe we'll do that sometimes.
You have a long time career in the movies and tv series. The Other Side, In The Woods and The Pretend Wife featuring Adam Sandler are in the making. What does acting offer you that music doesn't?
It's just very different. In the case of working with Adam Sandler I like it because he's a friend of mine, we have a good time together. But some day I would like to do something really well. Acting is a different experience, a different way of expressing yourself , it's another outlet. It's nice to indulge different sides of our personality however we do it. I tend to do it in front of people, whether it's one or the other.
In an interview from the early 90's you defined DMB's music "con-fusion", word that the Italian fan club adopted as their name. If you had to define your music in one single word today what would it be?
(Editor's note: before he answers he writes on a sheet the words JOY and HONEST and he contemplates them for a while) Maybe "joy". Something between "joy" and "honest". That's what I try, what I want to be: I want to be honest. But I think joy is what's infectious. We have a lot of fun when we're making music. It's like running on a broken track and still managing to stay forward.
Last year's concert in Lucca was the band's longest concert ever…
Really?! Oh..! That was a lot of fun that night!
It was also chosen for the Europe 2009 boxset. What do you remember of that night?
It's hard to remember. We had been carried away, we weren't in control so much. When it's that special it just feels like you don't have to do anything. It was effortless and it was flying. I remember the square, the statue, I remember people sitting on the statue and around it. I remember the energy. Everything was very favorable, it was a good night.
The decade is over. What artists, in your opinion, left the deepest mark in the music history of these ten years?
That's tough. It would have to be the Radiohead. And maybe Jay Z. I'm in the dark so I don't pay attention to a lot of anything. If it was for me it would be Danny Barnes. In a right world Danny Barnes would be the man! But there's a lot of good ones, so many good bands, so much great music.