Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 26, which explores the history of Dave Matthews Band with help from Yasi Salek, host of Spotify’s Bandsplain.
Here we have the singing voice of David John Matthews, in all its twee, growly, octave-leaping, quirky but also quite soothing glory. “Ants Marching” was the first song on Remember Two Things, the independent and mostly live album Dave Matthews Band released in 1993. David John Matthews was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1967. He left South Africa in the mid-’80s, to avoid military conscription in the apartheid-era South African government. He ends up tending bar in Charlottesville, Virginia—home, of course, to the University of Virginia—where he forms what would become the Dave Matthews Band in the early ’90s. The classic DMB lineup, which perhaps needs no introduction: Dave Matthews on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Carter Beauford on drums, LeRoi Moore on sax and clarinet and such, Boyd Tinsley on violin, and young Stefan Lessard on bass.
Not to belabor this, but, this arc, on its own, is staggering when you think about it: He left apartheid-era South Africa, and wound up in Charlotttesville, Virginia, which in 2017 was the site of a white-supremacist rally that became one of the uglier moments in recent American history. And there, in Charlottesville, in 1991, he formed the most outlandishly successful multiracial rock band of his generation. At least. You make nearly half a billion dollars touring in one decade, and you’re in the all-time conversation. However pervasive the Dave Matthews Band fan cliché might be, whomever you picture when you picture a prototypical DMB fan, love him or hate him, thrill to his voice or cringe at his voice, this guy was the change he wanted to see in the world. And it was all there, musically and philosophically, before the big bad music industry took over. DMB get signed to a major label, RCA, and they hook up with a hot-shot producer, Steve Lillywhite, who worked on the first few U2 records and a ton of arty ’80s pop stuff. And DMB’s official debut album, Under the Table and Dreaming, comes out in 1994, with a rerecorded but basically identical version of “Ants Marching,” which becomes one of the band’s breakout hits. The major label, the hot-shot producer, the MTV videos: very helpful, these things. But the song was already there. The sound was already there. The band was already there. The lifestyle was already there.
And so the Dave Matthews Band explodes, and Dave Matthews Band CDs become comically ubiquitous. Side note: If you were paging through somebody’s CD book, in the mid-’90s, one of those giant zip-up Case Logic deals with sleeves for four CDs per page, if this person owned Remember Two Things, that’s how you knew they were truly about that DMB life, and just about that life in general. Side note to the side note: Paging through somebody’s CD book, in the mid-’90s, was the single most intimate activity you could engage in with another human being. It was like drinking beer out of someone’s mouth. Paging through somebody’s CD book was like 75 percent of the way to just making out with them. You might as well make out with them at that point. No modern equivalent.
What is evident, from Under the Table and Dreaming, is that the members of the Dave Matthews Band, as individuals, are phenomenal musicians. What amateur guitarist among us has not stumbled through that spidery-ass opening riff to “Satellite”? Who among us has not been stuck at a party talking to a drummer raving on and on about Carter Beauford, who’s one of these guys whose drum kit looks like a Hoarders episode. Just buddabuddabuddabuddaboo. But they’re phenomenal musicians who don’t sound like five soloing individuals constantly trying to remind you how phenomenal they are. They have capital-C Chemistry. You wouldn’t call it restraint, necessarily, but there is a cohesion. There is a higher purpose. As jam bands go, Dave Matthews Band are especially committed to structure, to pop-song structure. Within the ’90s jam-band boom—their friends Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, proud Canadians the Tragically Hip, moe., et cetera—the Dave Matthews Band stood apart, rose above, rose far above, thanks to their relative mastery of pop-song structure, their acumen with hooks, with legit radio hits. Phish, of course, created their own ecosystem, their own lifestyle. But they don’t have a “Crash Into Me.” It’d be a little weird if Phish did, honestly.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.