Dave Matthews Band’s major label debut album Under The Table And Dreaming was a remarkable breakthrough for the Virginia-based five piece. Released in 1994, the LP featured some of the band’s most iconic songs like “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching” and “Satellite,” would be certified Platinum by the RIAA well over six times, and would be considered a fan favorite next to their 1996 effort Crash. While never the most critically acclaimed act with Dave Matthews Band getting lumped in with hacky sack-playing bros, upper-middle class suburbanites, and the jam band-lite sound, with the “Crash Into Me” Ladybird cameo, and his upcoming album Come Tomorrow, there seems to be a slight critical softening surrounding DMB. If not, it might even be a whole renaissance.
One artist who hasn’t ever listened to Dave Matthews Band is Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson. The New Zealand-raised, Portland-based frontman totally missed getting into DMB growing up and as he tells Noisey in the green room at Chicago’s Vic Theatre never even realized how divisive his brand of jam-and-jazz-minded folk rock was. Because of this, fresh off the release of UMO’s excellent new album Sex & Food, which features some of the band’s best songs like “Hunnybee” and “We’re Not In Love We’re Just High,” we made Nielson spend an hour of his pre-show time listening to Dave Matthews Band.
Nielson explains, “My main reference point about Dave Matthews Band was knowing Neil Finn, who’s a musician in New Zealand who I think is friends with him or collaborated with him. Other than that, the only thing I know is that UMO’s old drummer Julien Ehrlich, who know plays in Whitney, was big into Carter Beauford’s drumming.” He adds, “A lot of that world that Dave Matthews Band operated in didn’t really exist in New Zealand. I just grew up listening to R&B radio like Mariah Carey, TLC, and other stuff. The closest thing that was anywhere near DMB was like the Spin Doctors. I may be off base since I’m not quite sure what he sounds like.”
Read Nielson’s track-by-track reaction below.
1. “The Best of What’s Around”
This is very high quality music. I think the people have this history with Dave Matthews. He’s a thing for a reason. Musically, it’s not surprising that so many people like it. The chord changes are really nice and so is the instrumentation. It’s less poppy than the music I kind of like though I do like the proggy-ness and the musical sophistication. Another reference point could be those records that Sting put out around this time. He was using a lot of jazz musicians and everything was really lush.
When you mentioned that this didn’t really factor into New Zealand growing up, this band was huge in America around this time. It was a very big thing to be into Dave Matthews Band.
Culturally, I have no reference point for that. When people say, “oh yeah, he’s like college rock or hacky sack music” I have no idea what that means. When I was in college that’s when I discovered the Velvet Underground and Joy Division. I would hang out in the park and get wasted and not play hacky sack. There really wasn’t that wholesome Americana in New Zealand.
2. “What Would You Say”
Wow, these guys are actually really good. They’re a good band. The first thing that comes to my mind is, “how do they remember all those chord changes?”
They’re mostly jazz musicians so that might answer your question. But on this song in particular, the guy playing the harmonica is Blues Traveler’s John Popper. Were they ever a thing in New Zealand?
I’ve heard of them definitely. I think they had a big radio hit in New Zealand actually but I don’t remember who it was.
What about Michael McDonald? He’s also on this song.
Oh, definitely. That makes sense. I’m a big Steely Dan fan so I suppose this is kind of what fans of that band listened to in the ‘90s but DMB is much more folk-leaning. I’m not sure why this doesn’t grab me exactly in the same way as Steely Dan or the Doobie Brothers. I enjoy it but it’s not the same. If this came out in ’94, I think I would’ve really liked it.
This is very cool. It reminds me of Yes or something. It’s much more proggy than I thought it would’ve been.
Dave Matthews Band would get more proggy as his career went on. His live versions of this would stretch out several minutes.
And this was a single? Crazy.
This is one of his most well-known songs. I have a feeling this year Dave Matthews Band is going to have some sort of critical reevaluation and renaissance. With Lady Bird and his new album, I think people are going to soften their stance on him.
I still haven’t seen Lady Bird but I think things that are built to last can handle that cyclical nature of critical praise. Like this is kind of brilliant. I’ve heard this song before but it’s really interesting. Yacht rock is like that where it can go out of fashion but at the end of the day if the music is really interesting, it’ll always come back. This is an amazing riff. It’s so rare that something this interesting was this popular.
4. “Rhyme & Reason”
This has a similar riff. Wow…I really like this. I didn’t expect this at all. The guitar and the violin sounds really cool together.
Noisey has done this interview series for a while and to be honest, I did not expect you to like this.
There are so many people who’s musical taste I respect have told me, “no, try again” about so many records I love and have changed my life like Love’s Forever Changes.Some of the best albums of all time don’t really grab you right away.
If you take the vocals off this, it sounds like the Weather Report records my dad would play me when I was a kid. I grew up with my dad playing a lot of jazz and fusion stuff.
I know the Weather Report is a big deal of members of DMB. I might be mistaken but I think several of them, like Carter Beauford, have played tribute gigs for them.
Wow. So what does this sound like? Is this jam band music?
It’s close. It’s a much more accessible version of the jam band sound. I think jam band purists would bristle at me calling them a genuine jam band. They operate kind of outside that world.
Just to get an idea of what it was, I tried to get into Phish and it didn’t really hit me. This is definitely not the same. It relates more to the modern jazz stuff that I’m familiar with. There’s an easier way in here.
But like a lot of jam bands, Dave Matthews Band is first-and-foremost a live band. For their fans, they’re an every summer destination show. Many people have seen him over a dozen times.
I really like that idea of bands just being live bands.
5. “Typical Situation”
I think every time I’ve seen a picture of Dave Matthews, he’s with an acoustic guitar. Does he ever play electric?
Nowhere near as often as an acoustic.
I kind of think like that this style of record that can’t really be made today. This sound can’t be recreated today, either because no one is trying to recreate it, but the quality of it is of a certain time. Records don’t really sound this hi-fi these days. This is when people would spend $100,000 or more on just studio time. Records maybe won’t ever sound like this because people won’t want to fork over the money for it.
6. “Dancing Nancies”
This is pretty brain-melting stuff. I unironically love all the arrangements in the intros and outros on this album. What were the most popular records when this album came out? At this point in the ‘90s, I was probably super big into the Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang Clan.
Mariah Carey’s Music Box, Snoop’s Doggystyle, Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell , Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged , R.E.M.’s Monster , etc.
Wow. That makes sense but it also just blew my mind that The Division Bell came out in the ‘90s.
Me too. It’s very easy to forget that this came out later in their career.
Listening to this song, I feel like that band Live took that song and simplified it.
Live predate Dave Matthews Band but I think they both achieved success around the same time. I’m not a fan and haven’t thought about them in years.
I could be onto something here.
7. “Ants Marching”
This is his biggest song.
Oh yeah, I’ve definitely heard this. This is the kind of song I’d hear when I go to a sports bar to watch an NBA game and just assume that it’s Dave Matthews Band. What are Dave Matthews Band songs about?
He’s not known for being the most direct lyricist but this song specifically is sort of about the mundanity of going to the office every day. It’s a very low-key anti-capitalist anthem for a major radio single.
This record is definitely a vibe. There are a few hooks here and there. I just really like hooks and I think it’s missing a few of them. I’m a dumb pop music guy and just really want my music to be filled with hooks. Dave Matthews’ note choices are very nice though.
8. “Lover Lay Down”
What have you been listening to lately?
Well this morning I was listening to a lot of XXXTentacion’s early mixtapes, which is definitely a new kind of guilty pleasure where the guilt is about how problematic the guy is rather than aesthetic. I’ve also been really into Divide & Dissolve, which is a doom metal band from Australia, and Ty Dolla $ign, who recently said UMO was his favorite band on Twitter. He’s so talented.
Besides Ty, I was expecting more hooks in that list.
There’s also that Kanye West “Lift Yourself” song that just came out. It’s the most Kanye thing ever. Of course, he’s doing this. He’s always gone to the place that no one else would go. It’s so weird to talk about him now because he’s in such a dark residence in 2018. I don’t really know what’s going on right now. He’s not the first act to be really conservative. James Brown campaigned for Nixon! But it’s just disappointing because it’s definitely making everything more confusing than it already is in 2018.
I think more of the thing is the ahistorical and dangerous things Kanye’s been saying about slavery and other issues that seem to embolden the worst people.
It’s definitely irresponsible. But I don’t know how you can expect Kanye to be responsible. By the way, this song was nice. I noticed we haven’t said anything about it so far.
Thank you for keeping this interview on track.
9. “Jimi Thing”
This one is obviously a Jimi Hendrix reference and also one of the stoner anthems for Dave Matthews Band. It’s one of its five singles.
My family are big stoners but I don’t really smoke weed. It never mellows me out like it should. I just don’t like it. I think it’s more of me rebelling against my family smoking so much. It just reminds me of them in a weird way. It’s different for every person.
As we get closer to the end of the LP, because it’s an hour-long record, these songs are kind of bleeding together. What are your thoughts on this one?
This has a really specific sound and it does kind of bleed together. I really want a song with Dave and just a guitar.
Wait, maybe this is what he’s doing now.
This is one of their live staples.
It’s an epic jam, huh?
Yeah, a lot of fans have their own favorite version and many can list off their favorite live version date.
That seems like a very specific American thing where fans want to hear so many different versions of the same song. I really like that. There’s a huge dedication it takes to make music like that. It’s cool that people care about it so much. Do you think the Internet helps that impulse for fans?
It’s the same obsessive thing where people collect records, write down setlists, make mixtapes, and archive everything. It makes it easier.
I’m like that with Led Zeppelin. I’m really into a lot of their live recordings of their concerts.
I’m happy you like this music so much. I’ve had artists hate the LP I’ve played for them and I’m always worrying that I’ll ruin their pre-gig vibe.
I used to be really snarky about music when I was younger but at this point, you have to learn a different language for every genre. Like you don’t wear the same hat when you listen to dance music that you would when you listen to Bruce Springsteen. You can learn to respect things that you don’t love immediately. My dad’s a musician and I always have had this kinship to musicians and people who tour, no matter what the genre. There is a craft to it that if you don’t appreciate, you’ll never learn.
11. “Pay for What You Get”
Now that I’m listening to this, I do remember that I saw Dave Matthews perform with Stevie Wonder at a tribute show. Pharrell and Tony Bennett were there too. I remember being pretty impressed with him. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into with music like this.
This is the second to last song. It’s called “Pay for What You Get”
It’s this just him and a guitar?
For the first part.
Oh, so like all of them.
There’s definitely a loose formula for Dave Matthews Band.
Are there session musicians on this LP?
A few but the meat of the record was definitely his band. You had some people come in for additional vocals. Tim Reynolds, who’s now officially in his band, came in on guitar. It’s a band affair.
That’s really cool. It sounds like a session musician thing.
This is the last song and it’s an instrumental.
This is really an epic record.
Thank you for sitting with me for an hour, normally we try to find records that are around the 40-minute mark.
I’m just really excited we found a classic record that I wouldn’t have heard. I realized I’m so old and I’ve been doing music for so long it’s hard to find a bonafide classic I haven’t listened to left. I grew up with Mojo, Rolling Stone, and always listen to a classic record whenever I found something I haven’t listened to. This whole genre of music is really fascinating to me. I love bands with improvising because it’s so out of fashion. I think my band should do it almost as a prank. It must be so fun to play your own songs differently every night. I love Dave’s arpeggios. This is very jazz/fusion. It reminds me of my dad’s music taste.
It’s cool to see all these reference points come to you as the record went on.
I definitely had no idea what he sounded like until now.
This is very sophisticated, high-quality music. I think my favorite was the last one. With acts like Frank Zappa, my favorites of his are the instrumentals and I knew I’d love this. When the music is that interesting, I don’t want vocals to cloud my perception of it. When I listen to music, I want things that will disrupt myself so I don’t know if I’ll dive in too much to Dave Matthews. I will listen to it again at some point but on tour I’m listening to a lot of aggressive and violent music lately and this doesn’t really fit with my headspace right now. This record also reminds me vaguely of a ‘90s Sting record. It was such a chill time back then. I’m definitely going to try and see Dave Matthews Band live though.