The Dave Matthews Band’s new album, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” (out June 2) is a tribute, in large part, to saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who passed away last August at the age of 46 following injuries incurred in an ATV accident. Just a couple of years ago, however, relations between the group’s members became badly strained.
“As far as our friendships, we’d not been in top form,” admits frontman Dave Matthews. “And in the last few years we have taken the time to rediscover each other, so to speak.”
After the break, Matthews talks about “Big Whiskey...,” how the band dragged themselves back from the brink, and his fond memories of Moore’s foul-mouthed ways.
Entertainment Weekly: “Grux” was LeRoi’s nickname. But where does the “Big Whiskey” part of the CD’s title come from?
Dave Matthews: LeRoi certainly liked “big whiskey.” But that came from a drunken harmonica player walking down the streets of New Orleans when we were recording the album who would play harmonica and then announce that he needed a “big whiskey.” That was his way of courting cash. We thought “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” had a sort of a grown-up fairy tale-sound to it.
It also sounds like a buddy comedy about a cowboy and an alien.
It sort of does, doesn’t it? It certainly invites one to imagine a story. I think this is the band’s best album. We have the spontaneity of our live performances but mixed in with some carefully, carefully crafted music. I’m sure there are fans that will argue. But I don’t care what they say. They’re wrong.
At what stage in the making of the album did LeRoi pass?
We had written the music for the lion’s share of the album and I had lyrically finished three songs. We were halfway. But LeRoi’s playing is all over the record. We did these spontaneous improvisations a little over a year ago, then we went to Seattle a couple of months later and twisted those into song forms, and then I wrote the lyrics and the melodies on top. The good fortune was that we had LeRoi playing in both those sessions. He has a real presence. The lion’s share of the saxophone is LeRoi and we were very careful about that.
While the album acts as a tribute to LeRoi, it isn’t a downbeat CD.
Well, there’s a lot of joy that was happening in our relationships before Roi died. And Roi was part of that process. It’s sad that the time when he was maybe the most happy I’ve ever known him was the time he was taken from us. But in another sense, I guess that was a good thing.
How bad did things get within the DMB ranks?
It actually came to a head a couple of years ago. We hadn’t put out an album for a while and the album that we did put out (2005’s Mark Batson-produced “Stand Up”) wasn’t us. I feel like it should have said “Dave Matthews Band featuring Mark Batson.” There’s some great songs on (2002’s Glen Ballard-produced) “Everyday,” but I think that should have said “Dave Matthews Band featuring Glen Ballard.” I think we started to get lost right around towards the end of making the third album, (1998’s) Before These Crowded Streets. The stuff after that, although there’s many good things about it, I think it was not our best work. For a while we’d been in a holding pattern as far as how we were playing with each other. And it did get to a point where I threw my hands up in the air and said “There’s no point to this.” I had a lot of conversations with Roi, a lot of conversations with Carter [Beauford, DMB drummer] about, “How the hell do we go on if we can’t all communicate?”
What exactly was the problem?
I think it was just we’d been together for so long. When you’re in a marriage or a work relationship for more than a decade small things become big things. I’m sure when I first met Carter and Roi it didn’t really matter that I snort like a pig quite often. But I bet you after 12 years it sounded like fingernails against a chalkboard. You forget to count the blessings. I think the music suffered. Or at least it didn’t accelerate, like I feel like it has on this album.
Did the improvisational sessions help rekindle the band relationships?
It happened a little before that. It came to a head. I blew up and threw my hands up in the air and everyone basically said, “Exactly!” We all said, “Let’s fix it.” That was about two years ago. We began to talk openly about everything, and that’s what allowed the music to explode again.
It does sound like you’re having fun on the album: the opening instrumental. “Grux” is fairly mournful instrumental that showcases LeRoi, but it leads straight into the sex-drenched “Shake Me Like A Monkey.”
“Grux” was one of the spontaneous inventions from the very beginning of the sessions, and I always loved it. Quite early on I had this idea that I wanted that song to run straight up against “Shake Me.” For some strange reason I thought that honored Roi in a way that would have made him laugh really hard. Going from “Grux” into this almost Earth Wind & Fire kind of lusty, late-night song, I think he would have laughed pretty loudly if he had heard that. He might have cursed us out too. But in a good way. When he was in good form he would say “F--- y’all.” One of the last conversations I had with him, he’d just been injured and we went to see him at the hospital. Carter and I were on either side of him and he hadn’t been communicating. But we started teasing him and he said, “F--- y’all.” That came out in this weak little voice. But there was no doubt what he was saying.