Stefan Lessard is the bass player and a founding member of the Dave Matthews Band. He’s also taking courses at Berkleemusic.com. I caught up with Stefan when DMB played at the Comcast Center outside of Boston. The interview below is part of a larger piece, which we’ll be putting out soon.
Mike King: You’ve been playing with the Dave Matthews Band for 20 years. How did you go from playing small clubs in Virginia to this?
Stefan Lessard: This band, for a while, took every single gig that we were offered. We played every party, every rooftop party, every fraternity; we never said no, we just played everything. I think the most that we played was three gigs in one day and each one of those where about two and a half hours long. So we just worked ourselves silly for four years and when things started growing, we got on the Horde tour. And back when we started, taping was huge. We let people tape our shows and those tapes started getting everywhere and after a few years, we thought, “well, we should probably release a professional sounding live album for our first record.” So we did and we threw a few studio numbers on there but it was mostly just a live show and people loved it because all they had of us was these crappy sounding mix tapes. So finally there was this quality representation of who we were and what we did. It just really grew from there and it was a steady increase. After our first studio record, it really shot up to some sort of success.
Our business model was a lot different back then from most bands at that time, too. For a lot of bands, who are just struggling to play and keep afloat, a record company comes to them and says “We like you guys. We think we can make something out of you. Here’s X amount of dollars upfront and when you are done, we’ll give you X amount more and we’ll give you this amount for tour and give you this percent of merchandise.” What the bands didn’t realize is that the record company was pretty much taking control of the full aspect of things, like the merchandise and the booking and the touring and everything. Once you are theirs, everything went through record companies.
We had such a machine already happening by the time the record companies all got hip to who we were, that they were like, “Well, what do we do with this band? They’re already kind of doing it.” RCA was the first company that came out and saw what we did and said, “This is great! They have their touring and merch down, all we have to do is help them make a great studio record.” They signed us with that sort of freedom and we’ve had a lot of freedom from the start and only have been given more freedom throughout the years. It’s helped us not have to repay so much. It’s really helped us look at the future and move forward.
MK: Was Coran [Coran Capshaw, DMB Manager; founder of Red Light Management; co-founder of ATO Records] helping you set up your infrastructure at the beginning stage?
SL: Well, we were incorporated as a band, which was another thing that a lot of bands did not do, where the lead singer kind of owned the whole thing or the guitar player or whatever, but we came together, and incorporated. The merchandise thing…we just made t-shirts one day and just started selling the t-shirts and people loved them so we just kept doing that. Coran came around because he ran a club that we played at, and we started playing there every Tuesday and he became pretty interested in what we were doing because he saw that there was a lot of momentum. So when he came into it, there was already a lot of momentum, but he definitely helped sculpt the business model that we have used throughout our career. He’s a pretty powerful force when it comes to the business side of the music.
SL: Our band has always tried to be at the forefront of cutting edge technology when it came to the fan site. When we first started, a fan site was more or less just a mailing list where you would sign a piece of paper and send it to a P.O. box and then maybe you got a t-shirt or a couple stickers or something. There wasn’t really too much incentive to be a fan member. So we created an online fan site and it just took off and that kind of became the model for every band after that.
I have started thinking about a solo record. It’s one of those things, in the history of music, most people that do that, their solo record isn’t something that carries because everyone sees it as project from the bass player for the Dave Matthews Band. So I decided that I would start a website – a platform that I could express myself, so people could see me outside of being the Dave Matthews Band bass player. So it worked and for a little while, people were signing up and talking and I would do little blogs on stuff. MySpace came up and it completely obliterated my whole concept because my concept was MySpace. All of the sudden, I signed up for an account to MySpace and I had 400 more people becoming my friends on Myspace than on my own site. I sort of left my site to the side and I went to MySpace and then from there, I went to Facebook and then from there, I went to Twitter. Next thing I know, I had a voice with the fans. Now it’s gotten to the point where I have to be really careful about what I say because people can take it one way or the other. Sometimes I like that because I don’t mind a little bit of controversy, other times, I want to go out there and squash the rumors. There are a lot of people pretending to be us online. If I find out I’ll go straight to the source, ask BT [Boyd Tinsley, violinist for DMB] if he had a Twitter account and he’d say, “what’s Twitter?” and I was like “Alright guys, FAKE! Don’t talk to him! He’s pretending to be BT”. I think I gained a sort of trust inside the community. Now its just fun and it’s a promotional thing for me. If something happens like the Grand Canyon Adventure [Stefan co-wrote the original music for Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk], I can just start talking about it. I’m taking courses at Berkleemusic, and fans love hearing about the homework I’m doing. I’ve been posting about homework and I think people are starting to think I’m crazy because it’s 4 in the morning and I’m like “still working!” and they’re like “When do you sleep?” It’s been a lot of fun for me and I think the fans enjoy it, so it is something that I’ll keep doing.