‘Under the Table’ at 20: Revisiting Dave Matthews Band’s Most Important Record
Saturday marks exactly two decades since Dave Matthews Band released its breakout, image-conjuring/creatively titled major-label debut, Under the Table and Dreaming. Yes, the classic blue-and-purply album cover showing a Wave Swinger; the record which includes “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching” and “Satellite” is now 20 years old. Twenty. This is indisputable evidence you are much older than you’d wish to be.
Also, you really miss college.
I find something about this occasion surprising. Have you heard anything about UTTAD’s anniversary? Not really, right? Nothing substantial from the band or its management. With the practically mandatory 1990s nostalgia-induced remembrances of records released a score ago, there hasn’t been much reflection on the undeniable breakthrough and genre-shifting success of one of the biggest American “rock” outfits ever. Outside of this piece, it seems there’s a noticeable lack of rose-colored lookbacks at what it means for DMB to arrive the way they did; to sell more than 2 million albums almost out of nowhere in less than a year’s time; to do it with unconventional methods toward publicity; to bloom a fan base, and keep it, in that tried and true, bottom-up way.
To date, there haven’t been inklings of reissues, remixes, box sets or new vinyl pressings. (In a way, this is refreshing.) The Dave Matthews Band’s red-letter day is certainly nothing like what Oasis, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Weezer, Outkast, Green Day, Wu-Tang Clan and others have been lauded with regarding their noteworthy album vicennials in recent months/years.
Yet DMB has outsold all those acts and is arguably occupying the largest American fan base of any of them, evidenced by the like-clockwork touring revenue the group brings in every friggin’ year. They do this despite offering average ticket prices that are much cheaper than other annual touring breadwinners who cluster the top of Pollstar’s lists. The playful irony here is, while plenty would say few “alternative” bands from that era evoke more of a 1990s aura than DMB (and we know you’re still out there, Gin Blossoms and Spin Doctors), the truth is, Dave and Co. monetarily hit their prime a decade later. DMB earned more money touring in the aughts than anyone: $530 million, which, given the economy, is likely a record for any artist in any decade.
And in 2014, the tours and money and fans keep on. DMB is still relevant to the modern music landscape, they just happen to singularly occupy fairly large, previously unowned territory.
Despite the band continuing to tour, record a studio record every few years and put live albums up for purchase/download with the turning of each season, for whatever reason, it long ago stopped being cool to overtly like — or even hate — Dave Matthews Band. (Community viewers will note the show made reference to this notion last season.) The band’s fans aren’t yet old enough to claim seniority status like Springsteen’s equally devoted concert-counting vets. The group doesn’t take drastic artistic chances/isn’t the critical darlings like a Radiohead. They aren’t as market-savvy or as hellbent on publicity as a U2 or a Coldplay. Even Pearl Jam, who once was synonymous with music-purist instincts, seems to have been more aggressive in presenting their music and image with their past two record releases than DMB.
Still, the band’s carefully cultivated and absolutely dedicated, massive fan base — as well as all the other ever-young high school-age bros who continue to pass down the regrettable tradition of showing up to shows just to stupefy themselves in the parking lots of amphitheaters across the country — show no signs of diminishing. The machine keeps churning, leading the band to amass millions of records sold and setting unprecedented album-sales records in the process.
Putting that in context, it’s clear Sept. 27, 1994, is a significant date for American music. It signaled the arrival of a band comprised of a lineup unlike anything that had ever been signed to a major label: a crowd-pleasing, goofy-yet-physical freak of a black violin player; a mysterious sax maestro; a shy teenager on bass who looked like he lived in the band van; a lanky South African frontman who didn’t play electric guitar and preferred to wear pajama pants on national television; and the oldest guy in the band, oh by the way, would prove to be one of the most dynamic and talented drummers in the history of popular music.
So that seems like something worth reflecting on.
Under the Table and Dreaming, for many fans of the Matthews Band, who found themselves as fans of the band prior to 1998, remains the preeminent DMB LP. So it usually goes for diehards and smash-hit debuts. The first love is often the hardest fall. Objectively, UTTAD has the purest capturization of what the acoustic-driven sound of the band was at its eager best. By the time the record was released, DMB had already made a self-made debut album, the 10-song, half live/half studio effort, Remember Two Things. Then came the five-song EP, Recently, which is reportedly getting the Black Friday vinyl treatment later this year.
The legacy of DMB will ultimately be how the band relentlessly toured and established a reputation of its undeniable musicianship, setlist variety and openness to audience taping — while redefining what it means to be a hard-working and insanely profitable tour-first-tour-second-tour-
DMB is a band of patience, and really always has been. Had it chased money and immediate gratification, the group could’ve easily had its major-label debut by early 1993. They fielded myriad offers from plenty of record companies for more than a year, all the way up until Nov. 1, 1993, when they signed with RCA. They inked with RCA, the story goes, because that label earnestly pursued them longest — and didn’t have a loaded roster of clients at the time. A lack of heavy hitters (big bands that would compete within the label for marketing time and money) appealed to the group and its intuitive manager, Coran Capshaw, who is now one of the biggest names in the music business and could probably own a small country if he really wanted to. Another crucial component to the band’s success, and this would continue through the ’90s, is how they came to choose the man who produced UTTAD.
Steve Lillywhite is still more known for his association with U2 than any other group (he’s entirely or in part helped produce nine of their 13 studio efforts, plus won a Producer of the Year Grammy for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). But in the eyes and ears of DMB fans, the Brit is King Midas. Lillywhite, 59, was behind the board for UTTAD, Crash and Before These Crowded Streets — “The Big 3” per DMB honks. He was at the helm for a fourth record, affectionately known after the fact as The Lillywhite Sessions, a dark and doomed project that infamously got leaked in 2001 and remains a fan favorite.
(Even a few critic reviews at the time gave the incomplete sessions high marks; The Lillywhite Sessions never getting finished inarguably altered the trajectory of DMB. After more than a decade away from each other, Lillywhite and the band married up again for 2013’s Away From the World to the delight and exhale of the band’s seasoned sect of a fan base.)
Fans see Lillywhite as a DMB whisperer of sorts now, but his ability to capture and enhance DMB’s sound is all the more amazing considering he was totally out of his comfort zone heading into the UTTAD sessions — which is exactly what he wanted. Lillywhite made his name and money in the 15 years prior off mostly new wave and punk rock. Hell, he’d never even recorded a soprano saxophone, LeRoi Moore’s best instrument. Naivete to DMB’s sound is what appealed to him.
“I produced Rolling Stones and didn’t do my homework with them. I wasn’t going to do my homework with Dave Matthews Band,” Lillywhite said in an interview with Relix this week.
Lillywhite quite easily could have never become the band’s producer, and had that happened, who knows which direction the DMB would’ve gone or how perception of the group would’ve been different. By late 1993, the quintet narrowed its list of prospective producers to five or six names, Lillywhite being one of them, but the Remember Two Things disc took way too long to reach him. Eventually he listened while in his dining room, an ocean away, sipping wine.
“It’s so burned into my mind,” Lillywhite said of his now myth-like introduction to the group. “I don’t really so much remember about [the beginnings of] U2, but I really remember Remember Two Things.”
He was initially annoyed, thinking his copy was scratched, that the first track was skipping because there were too many snare hits on the intro to “Ants.” But after hearing the record in full, he was dead set on connecting with the group. Lillywhite called Pete Robinson at RCA, who told Lillywhite he thought the band had already made its choice on a producer, but said if he wanted to meet them, to get to New York. He got there in time for the Nov. 10, 1993, show at Irving Plaza.
“They had already decided they were going to use Jerry Harrison as a producer,” Lillywhite said. “Jerry was a good friend of mine. I didn’t know they’d chosen him. I found that out afterwards. … I was last entering the race. A lot of producers did not, would not, put their money on Dave Matthews Band because they did not see a history of music like that being successful. I look at it like, this is good, and there’s nothing like it. That is a fantastic thing! I see that as much more of a positive. Not, Oh, this sounds like Toad the Wet Sprocket, so it will be a hit. Fuck that.”
Lillywhite also insisted I include dispelling the myth he ever promised the band UTTAD would go platinum.
“I don’t even know what platinum is. Is it a million?” Lillywhite said. “That’s the sort of thing the sort of producer I hate will say. … We left that night, there was no sign this band was going to be huge. My friend, another producer friend, Hugh Padgham, turned them down because he said the drummer was too jazzy.”
Lillywhite’s giddy pitch won the band over, and the following May they convened for two months in Bearsville, N.Y. — near Woodstock — recording through mid-July. It was the biggest lull in live gigs the group faced since forming in 1991. The band scratched the itch by playing at the quaint Tinker Street Cafe, in Bearsville village, where they were an unknown. UTTAD was turned around and released essentially less than 10 weeks after the final take. Lightning speed by modern standards. Of course Blues Traveler frontman John Popper sat in on the sessions, as his harp contribution is an undeniable part of what made “What Would You Say” a distinct hit.
Popper and the band had gotten to know each other thanks to the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. The story goes he recorded his harmonica parts almost immediately after Matthews told him the song was in G or A, went upstairs to use the bathroom, and by the time he got back down to see Popper again, the big man had already laid down the takes you hear on the song.
Popper recalls, “I never did hear it before and I did only take one pass because the Gremlin they had rented to pick me up broke down on the New York Thruway. I had to hurry so I could catch a plane to England for Blues Traveler’s first tour there. I ran in and blew a track along with a safety and then I was out of there in eight minutes. It wound up being the first time I ever heard myself on MTV.”
Lillywhite mostly went about slimming up, but not slicing down, DMB’s tunes. He trimmed jams and opted to cut certain sections, like “Typical Situation’s” 7/8 syncopated bridge, which the band still plays live 20 years later. What was also interesting: Lillywhite recalled the group only really sitting down and recording 14 songs, 12 of which made the LP. Lillywhite said he believes only “Granny” and the flash-in-the-pan “Get In Line” were given a go. The latter was only played live 26 times by the band, all of which came in 1994 and after the sessions were over.
Eliminating “Granny” from the tracklist has always been seen as a curious decision given its uplifting nature and setlist-staple quality during that era. Yet Lillywhite didn’t recall any serious discussions about building a first single around “Granny,” as has been rumored by fans for years.
“I don’t have any recollection of Granny being mooted as the first single, although I do remember thinking “love, baby” was not the greatest chorus ever, so I think it was me who put the dampers on it making the cut,” he said.
The irony: Though Lillywhite’s production touches are undeniable, nine of the 12 tracks ultimately on UTTAD weren’t Lillywhite’s mixes. RCA hired Tom Lord-Alge to tweak Lillywhite’s levels, cutting out things like the sound of Boyd Tinsley inhaling a joint on “Jimi Thing.” At the time Lillywhite was going through a horrid divorce, having been kicked out of his house, and he didn’t have the ability to fly from England to Los Angeles to oversee the tweaks. At the time he was too embroiled in personal hell for the changes to bother him, but 20 years on, he wishes less refining had been done to his mixing choices.
Upon UTTAD’s release, American music was as varied on radio as it had ever been, really. Alt-rock stations were popping up by the week, and hip-hop was coming into its own as well. Kurt Cobain had been dead for almost six months. Notorious B.I.G., whose Ready to Die was released two weeks prior to UTTAD, was about to usher in 1990s rap zeitgeist. Beastie Boys were in their prime. Boyz II Men, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Ace of Base were dominating the pop charts, while Beck, Counting Crows, Green Day, R.E.M. and Cranberries were finding the most success on Modern Rock Radio. Even weird things, like the Friends theme song, became something people sought to listen to.
And, yes, UTTAD’s debut essentially falls in line with Friends going on the air. We are so old.
Under the Table’s popularity was a climb that picked up speed as it went up the hill into 1995. “What Would You Say” wasn’t really even well-known in the fall and winter of 1994, and didn’t really even put DMB on the mainstream rock charts until the spring of ’95. Hell, DMB played Letterman in February of ’95, giving the band and “What Would You Say” its biggest exposure to that point, as it was the first time either appeared on national television. By May 8, just as “What Would You Say” was blipping on multiple radio formats, UTTAD eclipsed a million records sold.
Another million units left the shelves just three months later, when “Ants Marching” started charting as a single. By the time Crash was released in the spring of 1996, UTTAD surpassed four million records sold. At 117 straight weeks on the Billboard 200 chart, UTTAD is also DMB’s longest-running record on the charts, outpacing Crash by 13 weeks.
These are statistics that no longer exist in the modern music-purchasing age for any rock band. But despite chart longevity, DMB’s past six studio LPs have debuted at No. 1 — a record dating back to Streets, the band’s most powerful, dynamic and lyrically strongest effort.
UTTAD is one of the biggest debut records of the ’90s — from a powerhouse band that’s still steamrolling its way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet the album’s become a cultural afterthought, a blurry, small star born in a universe of music that was being defined and redefined by the month. I think this is in part because DMB was essentially unable to be duplicated. Whereas the grunge scene easily birthed a litany of copycats and hunger-dunger-dangers, assembling a band with both a violin and sax player would come off as wannabe more than inspired evolution of the style.
Twenty years removed from its inception, Under the Table still evokes a pep and happiness that’s fairly obvious. The most underrated aspect about the record is it contains one of the best track 1s of any debut album of the past 25 years. The rolling smack of Carter Beauford’s snare into they “Hey, my friend …” of “The Best of What’s Around” is an infectious arrival punctuated by the cushiony group chorus of hey-la-las and Moore’s buoyant sax that carry the opener to outro.
“One thing you are not able to punch on a computer and get is joy,” Lillywhite said. “Joy is the one element in music you can’t quantify. A good sound will not get you joy. A good chord sequence will not give you joy. When you actually find joy you’ve gotta make sure you bottle it. Oh, god, when I heard that, I thought: It has to be first [on the album]. The joy it gave off. It was really, well, Bearsville, it was fantastic.”
It’s easy to recall “What Would You Say’s” recurrence on radio, but the band actually resisted even making it a single. The album was released without a lot of promotion and no song to blare to a national audience. That weird video was filmed at a gig in Colorado well after the album was released, and in fact “What Would You Say” didn’t even begin to chart until about six months after UTTAD dropped in stores.
In this sense, the way the album was released and spread followed how the band slowly but surely grew its following. And even without relentless promotion, the LP sold approximately 30,000 units out of the gate, landing at No. 34 on the Billboard 200 charts, which was remarkable for a major-label debut.
Hearing it now, the album unquestionably has the ability to propel you back to a younger version of yourself. It’s fun vintage. Outside of “What Would You Say” and “Ants” — and this is purely because they left such an impression on alt and pop radio in 1995 — the songs don’t sound dated. From the aggression and growl of “Rhyme and Reason” (a very underrated studio track) to the album’s only love song, “Lover Lay Down,” to the tension-and-release of “Warehouse” and finally the serene and beautiful instrumental of “#34,” the songs on UTTAD are fairly varied while being based in that dual acoustic mold (virtuoso Tim Reynolds came in at Dave’s urging, and Lillywhite doubled their tracks). Lillywhite said the choice to not include lyrics on fan-favorite and seldom-played #34 came during the sessions.
I’m of the belief DMB could’ve been formed in 1974, 1984, 1994 or 2004 and still found an audience due to the dynamics in play, Matthews’ humble approach to running the band and Beauford’s amazing-in-any-era talent. But in the melting pot of 1990s alternative music, there was probably no better time for the band to arrive and exist.
“I think one of my strengths as a producer is not just making the record, but enabling the band to see how they can plot the future,” Lillywhite said. “And giving them some life lessons and giving them something that they can understand. And I would like to think my experience with Dave Matthews Band has enabled them.”
For plenty, including me, Under the Table and Dreaming is not DMB’s best record. It’s beloved in part because it was their first and it was true to their spirit. There was a playfulness and tone to that album that latched its hooks into millions of fans, and it’s a sound that DMB still carries with them, albeit in altered and older forms.
The legacy of UTTAD is: 20 years later fans still want something of a return, while misinformed drive-by observers of DMB still believe that’s what the band still sounds like.
In reality, it’s a sound they’ve never truly abandoned, but also one they intentionally never fully made their way back to.