clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Eyes Have It: A Quarter Century of Watching and Being Watched by Dave Matthews

With an un, oo, un oo ee oh, Dave Matthews Band released their second studio album, ‘Crash,’ 25 years ago and never looked back

Dan Evans

Twenty-five years ago, in the whirlwind days before the late April 1996 release of Dave Matthews Band’s sophomore studio album, Crash, Dave Matthews the man was both savoring and confronting what it meant to be truly hitting the big time. A few years earlier DMB had been available for gigs at Charlottesville bars, fraternities, and debutante balls. By 1994 the band was opening for Blues Traveler and Phish. And now the band was at Saturday Night Live, its second visit in a year, to play the first two singles from Crash: the plucky “So Much to Say” (a-little-baaaay-by!) and the funky “Too Much.” Around the same time, the Richmond Dispatch-News reported, Matthews found himself having one of those pinch-yourself moments: a conversation with the red-hot Jim Carrey, just two flexi-faced, silly-voiced savants talking shop about their ascendence into the mid-’90s zeitgeist. All in all, not a bad little run for a 20-something singer-songwriter!

But Matthews and Carrey’s chat wasn’t just two dudes congratulating one another. It had more gravity: They talked about the consequences of fame. “He said the strangest part is that you sort of stop being a witness to the people around you,” Matthews remarked to the Dispatch-News that April about what Carrey had told him. “You lose the watcher, because you become watched, so that’s about the most difficult thing. In that sense, it’s an unusual place to be, where you’re not as much of a stranger as you were.”

As a bartender at a lively place called Miller’s near the University of Virginia in the late ’80s, Matthews had operated, for a time, as a kind of professional stranger: that guy with the towel over his shoulder and his eye on it all; that worker tasked with divining when to strike up a back-slapping, sweaty new friendship and when to maintain a dignified, nod-if-you-need-ice remove. He closed out tabs and he kept tabs on some of the locally revered musicians on the thriving live fusion scene, like guitar impresario Tim Reynolds, drummer Carter Beauford, and saxophone player LeRoi Moore. He observed and absorbed and finally casually-strategically approached them to share his musical ideas.

Reynolds remembers the first time he went over to Matthews’s place to mess around with the young bartender’s drum machine. Speaking by phone from Sarasota, Florida, with birds chattering behind him, Reynolds says with a chuckle that Matthews never picked up or even mentioned a guitar that was lying around, but at the end of the night he did sit down at a piano, mumble something, and start to play. “And it was like Paul McCartney or something,” says Reynolds. “It was a very developed piece of music. And I was like, damn, he’s way more than a bartender!” By 1991, Matthews had emerged from behind the bar, assembled a damn band, and started making music that magnified his curious gaze.

Crash, which came out five years later on April 30, 1996, wasn’t DMB’s first album, and you can reasonably argue for or against it being the band’s best. But it was clearly an important accelerant, peaking at no. 2 on the charts and containing a song called “Crash Into Me” that would go on to become the band’s most famous. “There’s so many great songs on there,” says Reynolds, comparing it to Peter Gabriel’s So. “It’s just a perfect record from the beginning to the end. Everybody in the music business wishes they could make a record like that, because it kind of defines people.”

By the end of that year, DMB was booking back-to-back nights in Madison Square Garden. Crash went septuple-platinum, and to this day remains DMB’s best-selling release. (Not captured in those statistics are the number of people like myself for whom Crash inspired entry into the vast concert bootlegs ecosystem.) Crash moved Dave Matthews Band from the ranks of observers into the echelon of the obsessed-upon, with all the attendant love and ridicule that brings. And it turned the band from a group of once-strangers with a cult-like following into a kind of cultural shorthand beyond anyone’s control.

It’s funny, the things we remember about our moments of discovery. Reynolds tells me about the first time he “felt a thrill.” His strict Pentacostal evangelical parents were out of the house doing something, and he and his sister turned up the Beatles on the record player louder than usual. “It sounded like the band was in the house,” he says, his voice still full of wonder. “That’s when I had to start playing guitar. My air guitar was a Tonka fire engine: I tore the ladder off the fire engine, and that was my first guitar for many years.”

For me, thinking about DMB brings a surge of memories of seeing the music in concert over the years: the sunny, muddy lawns; the Sprite bottles of vile Bacardi concoctions; the sea of slack faces struggling to comprehend whatever it was violinist Boyd Tinsley was up to with his bow and Dave Matthews was doing with his feet at that moment. But the associations that feel even more meaningful are the smaller and more solitary ones: lying in a tent at the base of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, braces on my teeth and Discman headphones in my ears, playing “Cry Freedom” over and over to drown out the adolescent fumblings of my cooler tentmate and her camp love. Or riding my bike to the Pennington, New Jersey, post office so I could send blank CDs and a self-addressed stamped envelope to a stranger from Usenet who would then mail me back hallowed rips of some old Flood Zone show with a sick version of “Minarets.” Or wishing I were alone as I scrambled to change the dial or at least the subject whenever “Crash Into Me,” that inescapable and voyeuristic and soaring and soothing and sleazy third single from Crash, began imploring the listener—the listener in most cases being tweenaged me sitting in the Volvo passenger seat next to my God-fearing mother, who was also the listener—to “hike up your skirt a little more / and show the world to me.”

This wasn’t a metaphor. Matthews later said, during a VH1 Storytellers show in 1999, that the song was about what it sounded like: a guy leering at someone. There was precedent for this theme in the band’s work: “Peeping Tom for the mother station,” Matthews sang in “Satellite,” a song first performed during the band’s hyper-local infancy in 1991, sounding frankly a little bit jealous. “Someone’s secrets you’ve seen.” In “Dancing Nancies,” written a few years later for the band’s studio album, he asked, again and again, “Could I have been anyone other than me?”, rattling off some examples—a parking lot attendant, a millionaire in Bel-Air, your brother, etc.—with the specificity of a guy who had spent time eyeing the lives of others.

But “Crash Into Me” struck a lasting chord and became something of a calling card. On Spotify, it has more plays than the band’s next top four songs combined. Stevie Nicks maybe deserves credit for at least a few of those; in 2008, in a live performance in Chicago, she covered the song. In the same way that Dave Matthews Band’s success turned the band itself into a synecdoche for its broader contemporary alt-rock-indie-jam-band genre, “Crash Into Me” came to represent DMB, whether a person sought to pay respect or, as would become increasingly common, poke fun.

In 2009, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig heard “Crash Into Me” in the wild and tweeted that the song had been “kinda divisive on the dancefloor.” (There were, he reported, “more supporters than haters.”) Before long, Koenig had established a minor ongoing meta-bit in which he played shitty versions of the song in the style of a clueless aspiring YouTuber. Around that same time, Bill Hader mimicked Matthews’s own mannered patter in an SNL segment called “The Mellow Show.” Matthews himself joined “The Mellow Show” at one point, aping a stammering Ozzy Osbourne; the man has always been an excellent sport.

Lately, buoyed by a cyclical re-appreciation for all things mid-’90s, the more normcore the better, a revival has picked up steam. In 2017, the celebrated young director Greta Gerwig wrote a personal note to Matthews asking his permission to let her use “Crash Into Me” in her feature film Lady Bird, calling the song one of the most romantic she had ever heard. He signed off on it, and the Oscar-nominated film featured the track twice: once over footage of a high school girl sobbing with her best friend over a boy, and again in a scene in which a cool kid, hearing it on the radio, says: “I fucking hate this song,” and the film’s protaganist has a character-defining epiphany. “I love it,” she says, speaking her, and my, truth.

Watching Lady Bird “rocked me to my core,” recalls Darren Criss, an actor from Glee and The Assassination of Gianni Versace as well as a musician in his own right, in a phone conversation. He too had grown up in a NorCal Catholic school world where “Crash Into Me” was “culturally ubiquitous,” he says, and as a youth learning how to play the guitar and perform hit songs for tips, knowing the tune was essential. In his performances, Criss found that people loved it when he crossed genres to do things like play Disney songs with a folk spin, and for years he had thought about how much he wanted to turn the “Crash Into Me” ballad into an EDM banger, he says. When he had a chance meeting with electronica producer Steve Aoki a few years back, Aoki was into the idea, and it became a reality in 2019. Criss made one key change: He removed the “hike up your skirt” line (even though, he says, it’s his wife’s favorite one). “I had to very consciously throw this out in the version we did,” he says, “because suddenly the music was no longer a hypnotic seduction, it was a pretty aggressive club sound.”

Of all the “Crash Into Me” memories, though, perhaps the most historically relevant is the one belonging to the album’s producer, Steve Lillywhite, who tells me in a phone conversation from Bali that he was, technically speaking, the first man to bone a gal while a recording of “Crash Into Me” played in the background, though certainly not the last.

There are other songs on Crash, of course, and Lillywhite has been momentarily delayed by one of them. He asks if we can push our call a few minutes so he can finish listening to “Proudest Monkey,” the album’s atmospheric nine-plus-minute closing song, in which Matthews is a primate who has climbed down from the safe limbs of his natural habitat to strut proudly around the dirty, pretty city and reminisce about the simple, simple life he just left. “Oh things were quiet then / In a way they were the better days,” the monkey songwriter croons.

“Bloody long song,” texts Lillywhite, who once decided to keep it that way because he wanted the album to evoke the DMB live music experience. “Same chords.”

The first time Lillywhite heard the music of Dave Matthews Band, he became extremely irritated and, as a result, mildly intrigued. A star British producer behind albums from U2, the Talking Heads, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Lillywhite had been sent, and finally got around to listening to, Remember Two Things, the 1993 EP that kicks off with a particularly lengthy version of the now-familiar “Ants Marching” snare drum intro. “After 10 seconds I go, this is fucking a little bit stupid,” Lillywhite tells me. “After 20 seconds I’m going, ‘OK, I’m going to keep listening because you are not going to impress me.’”

But when the song’s riff kicked in, Lillywhite realized “I had my rhythm turned round the wrong way.” He’d been hearing the endless beat on the ones and threes, and he’d been wrong. Something about the way the music rubbed his own misplaced dismissal in his face left him “absolutely floored,” Lillywhite says. “It just was the greatest thing I ever heard.” He flew to New York to see the band at Irving Plaza, woo Matthews, and gently but firmly elbow another producer pal who had already been hired to oversee what would become 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, Jerry Harrison, aside. “I said, ‘Jerry, I love you, you’re a great guy,’” Lillywhite recalls. “‘But, you know, all is fair in love and war. And I’ve got to fuck this band. That is the love part.’” Told in his wry British accent—Reynolds describes Lillywhite as a man who is “always just on the edge of a laugh”—the recollection practically feels romantic.

Under the Table and Dreaming, with its acoustic twangs and jazzy flute and raspy fiddle and spying cosmic flotsam and formicine antennae and way-less-drawn-out snare drum, was recorded at the same studio in Bearsville, New York, near Woodstock where Lillywhite and DMB and all their substances of choice would merrilly reunite in 1995 to put together the follow-up, Crash. The goals with Crash, Lillywhite says, were to showcase the band’s live swagger but within studio bounds; to highlight the band’s idiosyncratic instrumentals while also evolving their sound; and to draw upon a catalog of already-in-rotation road-tested music while also premiering new material. (“Quilted together” is how he describes the process.) Sometimes this meant trying to tease out words and phrases as Matthews stood at the microphone, scatting. “Dave, and David Byrne, and Bono, they all write phonetically, and they sing phonetics,” Lillywhite says, “and then they write words that sound like the phonetics.”

He was delighted when Moore busted out a big bad baritone sax at the studio. “This has got balls,” he recalls thinking. (In true ’90s kid fashion, I personally remember thinking the deep-bleating instrument sounded like a manatee when Moore kicked in immediately on “So Much to Say.”) Despite seeking a more “muscular” feel, Lillywhite shied away from going full electric, asking Matthews and Reynolds—who at the time wasn’t touring with the band, but who had contributed to Under the Table and Dreaming as well—to record with their acoustic guitars instead and then tinkering with those sounds.

“They are all acoustic guitars, put through some effects and things and amped up,” Lillywhite says. “I didn’t want to go the whole way to electric, because to me, the electric guitar can just cover over space. And what was so great about Dave Matthews Band was the space.”

There is space of all sorts throughout Crash, it’s true. The songs are afforded lots of it—only three of them come in under five minutes—and as with any good live show the result feels immersive and cohesive and only occasionally snoozy. The track “Lie in Our Graves” offers a whole instrumental mid-song recess, complete with the audible patter of people chillaxing in the background. (They were the voices, Lillywhite says, of some of the many randos the band would accumulate during nights out in Woodstock and bring back to the studio to hang out.) “Two Step” has “one of the great intros,” Lillywhite says. “You know, it’s just so trippy as hell, and I’m really proud of that. … It was a faithful reproduction of what they do on stage.”

These were the sorts of elements that captured the attention of longtime Dave Matthews Band fan Jessica Badgley back in the day. “I have synesthesia, and sort of ‘see’ music as moving colors and patterns,” she says. “Finding DMB as a kid was like this huge burst of different colors and textures and was totally addictive. So many instruments, interesting chords, and progressions and rhythms.” When I relay this to Reynolds, he chuckles and says “I didn’t have a natural version of the experience, but I remember, in the ’70s …” and proceeds to tell a story about dropping acid, sitting in a rocking chair with headphones on, listening to “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes, and seeing explosions in his mind’s eye.

My favorite adjacent pair of songs on the album explore the promise and torture of liminal spaces, segueing coolly and somehow noncommittally from one state of in-between to the next. “I will go in this way and find my own way out,” Matthews declares in “#41,” a quote forever captured in ’90s yearbooks across the land. (I don’t recall anyone going with “It used to be that you and me played for all the loneliness / That nobody notices now,” but damn, wish I had.) And then comes “Say Goodbye,” a smooch that doubles as a gut punch, with lyrics that understand what happens in the real world when those annoyingly blissful folks from Under the Table’s “Lover Lay Down” wake the heck up.

“Say Goodbye” captures the two intertwined moods that show up most often on Crash. It has the same gloomy, lonely interiority as songs like “Let You Down,” “Crash Into Me,” and “Proudest Monkey,” the songs from the album that pair best with furtive glances across a room. Back in high school, a day or two after making out with a pal of ours one drunken weekend, a friend of mine handwrote with a flourish the lyrics “… and tomorrow we’ll go back to being friends” in colored marker on a piece of construction paper and then hung it up on the wall next to her bed, one part sentimental excoriation and one part sheepish trophy, right there in her physical space. (Me, I generally saved this kind of stuff for AIM.)

But what distinguishes “Say Goodbye” is that it also shares an ah-fuck-it YOLO ethos with Crash tracks like the moody “Two Step” (“celebrate we will / cause life is short but sweet for certain”) and the buoyant “Tripping Billies” (Stefan Lessard, the DMB bassist who joined the band when he was only 16, has said that for a long time he didn’t know that the lyrics “Eat, drink, and be merry / For tomorrow we die” came from the Bible rather than the book of Dave). “Lie in Our Graves” is in this category, too: Another DMB fan named Andrea Wightwick tells me that when she and her husband decided to take the prudent life step of preemptively putting together their wills and estate plans just in case, “I left instructions to play ‘Lie in Our Graves’ at my funeral as I think it perfectly encapsulates how I lived my life,” she says, “and how I wish people would get up and enjoy theirs.”

Many Crash listeners were stoked to learn that if they liked that stuff, there was a whole lot more where it came from out there in the form of homemade and official Dave Matthews Band concert recordings. (Wightwick’s last wishes specify a version of “Lie in Our Graves” from Red Rocks; she likes all the sax.) CNN anchor Jake Tapper, a self-described huge fan of Dave Matthews Band, tells me in an email: “What I loved about Crash was that it showed DMB would be around for a while—it showed not just the continued knack for great music but the ability to grow. With songs like ‘Two Step’ and ‘Lie in Our Graves’ I was hooked. Stumbling into an NYC store later that year that had bootleg concert CDs was revelatory.”

Crash was a fitting album for a world in the midst of moving from the analog to the digital, from the grounded to the cloud. Today, it feels both fresh but also unmistakably like a relic from a distinct before-time. In 1998, Dave Matthews Band would record and release a third studio album with Lillywhite, the ambitious Before These Crowded Streets. Aware of the bustling bootleg market around their music, the band began releasing live recordings of their own, like 1995’s Live at Red Rocks, which came out in 1997, or Live at Luther College, a jaw-droppingly good acoustic Matthews and Reynolds duet that had been recorded in early 1996, a few months before Crash sent everyone flying.

In 2001, at the end of a packed Giants Stadium show in June, the skies opened up and soaked everyone with hail and rain during an unforgettable nine-minute encore. That this took place during a Crash song—“Two Step,” which fittingly dances and drives just like rain—was a sure sign that even the gods had a favorite. Or maybe it was an indication of the turbulence at hand and to come.

The band and Lillywhite had at the time recently collaborated on a dark fourth album before abruptly abandoning it and parting ways; the band linked up with another producer, Glen Ballard of Jagged Little Pill fame, to instead put together a very different album, Everyday, which featured short, poppy songs and a whole lot of electric guitar. Weeks after that release, leaked recordings of the failed “Lillywhite Sessions”—with a provenance that included a snowboarding trip, a Dave Matthews cover band, and an impersonation of Lillywhite on email—hit the internet, much to the excitement and intrigue of die-hard fans and much to the annoyance of the music’s creators. (As if this wasn’t already enough of a rip in the DMB metaverse, the band ultimately rerecorded the bulk of those lost songs, releasing them as 2002’s Busted Stuff.) When the musician Ryley Walker decided to release a DMB tribute album in 2018, he skipped over the low-hanging fruit of “Crash Into Me” and instead covered the Lillywhite Sessions, a thinking-fan’s move. Still, when Walker described his earnest appreciation for Dave Matthews Band to The Ringer last month, he chose a Crash song for emphasis: “I think for the remainder of my days I’ll go fucking shake my ass to fucking ‘Tripping Billies,’” Walker said. Somehow, two decades later, the band has endured and thrived, even if not always at the same time, in front of its legion of ass-shakers.

DMB looks and sounds different than the band once did; in 2008, Moore died of complications following an ATV accident, and 10 years later, Tinsley was fired after he was sued for sexual harassment by a young musician in another band, a lawsuit that was settled out of court in 2019. Reynolds began touring with the band in 2008. Solos once played on the violin are now often heard in the form of Rashawn Ross’s trumpet. In the studio, DMB has cycled through a number of producers over the years, even reconnecting with Lillywhite for an album in 2012. And yet in other ways, little has changed. Dave Matthews Band tours away, doggedly and lucratively, year after year, playing the old hits along with the new.

Recently they announced a number of new dates this summer, and one can only imagine the reverie that will bring. “You see the most hammered people in the world from up on stage,” Matthews told New York’s David Marchese in a fascinating, sprawling, forthright 2018 conversation. In some ways, he has the same vantage point now as he did when he was just some college-town bartender who liked to notice the people and chaos and music around him.

The difference is that in those days, most people weren’t staring right back, watching intently, trying to peer into his very soul the way they felt he had long seen into theirs. “I have no lid upon my head,” he once sang on Crash’s “Let You Down,” “but if I did / You could look inside and see what’s on my mind.” On “So Much to Say,” he practically begged: “Open up my head and let me out.” (a-little-baaaay-by!) But that was 25 years ago, and 25 years ago, Jim Carrey was right.

“I’ve come up with a defense mechanism for it,” Matthews told Marchese, the “it” referring to a lot of things, the same way the word “Dave” refers to a lot of things: fame, mockery, responsibility, shell necklaces, magnetism, appeal, king-dweebiness, familiarity, nostalgia, other people’s problems, other people’s hearts and minds and lives. “You know there’s the scene where an alien’s face comes off and there’s another little alien inside?” he asked, describing a visual from the 1997 film Men in Black. “I like being that little alien, observing from the inside.”

60 Songs That Explain the '90s

‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Depeche Mode, the Synth-Pop Gods Who Shaped the Decade

Sound Only

‘Like..?,’ Neal Stephenson, and ‘Resident Evil 6’

Jam Session

Shakira’s Jam, New York Times’ Nikki Finke Article, ‘Break Point’ and More

View all stories in Music