The celebrated live act the biggest touring band on the planet in the first decade of this century plays their first concert here on Saturday at Cape Town’s Grand Arena (the first of two nights) before coming to Johannesburg on December 3.
It’s now standard practice for music fans to record performances, but DMB acolytes have long taken this pastime to absurd lengths with the band’s permission. Does their friendly stance on bootlegs remain the same now that it’s so much easier for fans to distribute their recordings?
“Very often, we have people with these great big trees of microphones, which is a bit weird. But we don’t mind, even though it now all goes online, into a bottomless pit of mediocre recordings,” says Matthews.
DMB were ahead of the game in terms of offering their own, superior concert albums, including Live At Red Rocks 8.15.95.
“We release a lot of performances that way shows that are monuments for us in some way. There are still people who fight amateur recording, but what’s the point? It’ll always be a losing battle.”
Early on, allowing such activities was brilliant marketing. Does it have the same impact now? “Not for us,” admits Matthews.
“It’s unpredictable. A video taken in a club in Joburg might go viral, and a band like Die Antwoord wouldn’t happen without Internet sharing. More information gets spread more widely now. We were fortunate in that we had a feeding frenzy. For a while we were a secret some people had and then there was a rush to get it while we were the thing.”
He grins. “Now we’re just trying to suck the milk out of that same old teat.” What has made it possible to tour South Africa now?
“It’s something I’ve been talking to the band about for a long time,” says Matthews.
“South Africa is one of my homes; it’s part of my history. For that reason, wanting to go there always felt a little selfish like I was taking the band to visit my parents. I travel to South Africa often, but it’s always been when we’re off the road, and by myself.”
There’s a pause. “Something I greatly regret is that LeRoi [DMB saxophonist, who passed away in 2008] always wanted to come. Still, it’ll be good for the guys to see the landscape where I was a laaitie,” he says, almost managing to not mangle the term with his American drawl.
Away From The World, the most recent DMB album, was the band’s sixth Billboard number one release, but the sales were not nearly as impressive as that ranking suggests.
“It’s a different market now,” says Matthews.
“You can’t make a living selling CDs. I don’t understand our success, and I like it that way. We’re very lucky we tour a lot of the same places, but we get new audiences … I’ll continue touring until I need to get an iron lung. And I’m expecting to get a little emotional in South Africa.”
South Africans, generally speaking, casually take ownership of Matthews, who spent part of his childhood here. Some Americans used this to try and discredit him when he lent his name to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, leading Matthews to release videos proclaiming himself a “real American”. Does Matthews have an issue with his identity?
“Americans, other than Native Americans, are a nation of immigrants,” he points out.
“I’m not a nationalist, but if you look at it like that, there are very few real Americans, so it shouldn’t be an issue. I do identify with my South African roots. I was born there and lived there between the ages of 12 and 18, and then back and forth from the States until I was about 23 a very formative time. It was a different part of my life, but if I’m asked where I’m from, I say ‘South Africa’. It doesn’t take prodding.
“I like that I feel South African and American. It reinforces my feelings that borders are problematic.”