Cultivating The Sound: Boyd Tinsley Discusses DMB, Crystal Garden & More
Words by: Ryan Dembinsky
This summer marks a monumental tour for the Dave Matthews Band as they celebrate their silver anniversary as a band. That’s 25 years since Dave Matthews first met Carter Beauford and LeRoi Moore while working as a bartender in Charlottesville, Virginia and serving drinks to the pair of local jazz cats. The band will celebrate with a gargantuan Summer Tour that spans almost 50 shows beginning in Charlottesville on Saturday and wrapping up with a celebration at The Gorge in Washington state which is expected to include special guests. From there, the band will take a much needed year off from touring in 2017 to recharge the batteries and gear up for the second act in the DMB saga.
I caught up with the legendary violinist Boyd Tinsley to discuss the momentous DMB milestone as well as some other big news in his world. Already getting a jumpstart on his soon to be free time, he has curated a new band called Crystal Garden in which he scoured the globe to handpick a group of talented young musicians with the goal of forming a new rock band. Through connections within the DMB organization and recommendations from friends, he managed to piece together what he calls a close-knit, organic band of young new musicians, which he plans to help steward through their nascent days and champion them throughout their growth.
Twenty-five years is an awfully long time for a band to remain happy and successful, particularly one that continues to press forward with new material and an ever-evolving sound. Cheers to the Dave Matthews Band and all the fans for sticking together and not resting on the laurels of early successes.
JamBase: Congratulations on 25 years with DMB. I can’t quite wrap my head around that. I was in high school when you guys first started blowing up, so it is mind blowing to think that it has been 25 years already. It’s gone fast. I saw there is a pop-up retrospective for the tour opener this week in Charlottesville, but anything else special planned?
Boyd Tinsley: Yeah man, I feel old as shit. I feel so fucking old [laughs]. I can’t believe it has been 25 years, but then I actually did the math and realized sure enough it’s right. Thank-you very much though. I think what we are going to do in Charlottesville is probably about it. It’s cool though. I don’t think we have ever really celebrated any other anniversaries like the 10th anniversary or the 20th anniversary, but this is a pretty big one. A quarter of a century is a long time for being together in a band. It’s really going to be a really cool thing to celebrate it at home in Charlottesville and come full circle, since that is where it all began 25 years ago.
JamBase: Did you ever think when you were starting out at Trax or practicing in the garage that you would still be doing this 25 years later?
BT: You know, honestly I wasn’t really just thinking about anything other than what was directly in front of me. There was always enough going on right in front of us that I never actually looked ahead. I felt like, “It’s going on now, so let’s just keep it going.” I know that much [laughs]. Looking back, would I have ever thought we’d be together for 25 years? I don’t know, probably. There was this special thing that you can’t even put your finger on that exists not only between the musicians but also with the music itself. The music is what keeps you coming back. If we weren’t digging it and we didn’t like the songs, we wouldn’t be doing it. We love what we do. We love our songs, and we love our crowd. DMB shows still feel like a celebration. At their finest, they are a celebration.
JamBase: I have a question that is fairly vague, but in terms of playing with Carter [Beauford], it seems like that must be so much fun. He has such a cool energetic style of playing the drums. It’s probably second nature for you by now, but do you ever think, man how awesome is it that I get to have this guy in my band?
BT: Carter is amazing, man. He just adds so much to the band. The cool thing about Carter is he knows where you are going to go before you do. If I’m soloing, he’s already anticipated a while back where I am going to go in that solo. Stuff like that constantly blows my mind. Not only is he right there with me, but he knew the whole time. It’s just fun to play with him. He’s so on top of everything and not only that, he is a great drum soloist. He can tell a story with his solos. Carter is hands down one of the great drummers.
JamBase: I saw that you guys are hitting it pretty hard this summer, but then taking a break from touring next year. What was the rationale there: just a regroup and recharge kind of a thing?
BT: Exactly. You know, we have never taken a summer off in 25 years. It was a collective decision to just take next year off and then just be real people for a year, so we can come back fresh in 2018. It’s been a long while since we haven’t toured, so it’ll be hard missing the fans. Our fans are so fucking incredible and they give us so much energy. It’s a whole community in and of itself that comes together around shows. So I know I will miss by the end of the year, but it will be that much sweeter when we come back.
JamBase: You’ve formed a new band I hear? I don’t know too much about Crystal Garden, so if you could give some background that would be great. Are you actually in the band or is this more a project with you piecing together the players and formulating the vision and letting them go from there?
BT: The band was an idea I had maybe three years ago. I really wanted to create a young rock band – not a pop band – but a real rock band that had the same sensibility that rock from the 1960s and 1970s had to it. You know, something rocking from the heart and expressing something real. The question became: where am I going to find these guys? So I thought maybe I could try out some music agencies or talent agencies and see what I could come with. I started to pursue that a little bit, but then I realized the only way that this is going to come about is if it comes about organically. It has to be real. I have to be able to vibe off those people and know those people when I see them.
It was almost a two year search. The first musician that I found – I had known for a while – was a musician I found on Haight Street named James Frost-Winn who played trumpet. I would go up to Haight/Ashbury a lot when the band played San Francisco and I would see him play. He would always say, “Let’s jam sometime,” so I gave him my email address and we stayed in touch over the years. He played me some stuff that he recorded some years back in the studio and there was some stuff in there that I really dug, particularly in his approach to the music. So when I decided to do this band, I was thinking for a while, and realized I should get James. So James became the first person.
Then after that the next person came about maybe a year and a half later was named Mycle Wastman. He was a friend of one of the guys on the DMB crew. He had told me about Mycle for years and said, “He’s amazing, you just have to check him out.” It took me until last year to finally go see him play. We were doing a gig in New York and Mycle played a gig the night before, and I just thought oh my god, this is the singer. I immediately went to him and said, “What are you doing in the third week of August,” since that was the one week I could really identify that I would have time to do a session.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcR2ViD9E54
Here’s the other thing. I knew that so many musicians come from Canada, in particular, Toronto. There is just so much talent in Canada around that area. So I reached out to a friend of mine who is a DJ up in Toronto and asked him if he knew any musicians up there. I told him I was trying to form this rock band. I never gave up and asked him like three times. The third time it was in July and the session was coming up in August just a few weeks away. This last time, he said, “Oh yeah, my roommates.” It turns out, one of his roommates is this amazing young bass player and the other one is an amazing drummer. Not only that, they had the right personality and they all vibed together. So the band was formed right at the last minute.
So I brought them to my house out in the country here in Virginia in the mountains. It’s really beautiful. We have mountains, streams and a creek. James the bass player discovered that there was a lot of quartz and crystals around my yard, which I guess I never really dug around. Everybody is really into crystal healing and vibrations, so they went around and collected like 50 of them and laid them on the railing of this walkway inside the studio. There was no music written, it was just a session where someone would start playing and carry it from the heart. Right away there was magic being made and the crystals were kind of a spiritual part of it. So that’s where we got Crystal Garden. That’s why you can’t just go and find someone at an entertainment agency.
It’s been an amazing journey with these guys since August. Now we’ve recorded an album together and they have all relocated to Seattle where Mycle lives. They have become a really tight band. The first live show was last Tuesday in Charlottesville and they got a standing ovation at a sit down theater. It was their first gig, and they looked like they had been playing together for years. Just thinking about DMB, it took us a while to get to that point.
JamBase: So you’re not technically a member of the band, correct?
BT: No, I’ve been sitting-in with them. I sat-in at the first gigs in Charlottesville, and I’ll be sitting in for as many shows as I can this summer. At some point, though, they will start to headline on their own. It’s been fun though to record their music and to play with them, because they are great musicians. We’re going to be at the Haight Street Fair in June and we have a Friars Club gig in New York at the old comedy club formed by the old Rat Pack and Milton Berle. This is the place they do all the roasts on Comedy Central, and this is the after party for a Tony Bennett roast. I’m hoping my good friend Stanley Jordan will be there for that one.
JamBase: In terms of material, are those guys writing independent of you and loosely what type of music would you call this?
BT: It’s kind of in the way of DMB, which is to say I don’t know. It’s been 25 years with DMB and I still don’t know. In their case, it’s the same thing in a lot of ways. There is so much to the music, but there isn’t just one genre of sound. You can hear any combination of music, so it’s hard to put a label on it. It’s really good rock music and certainly something I’m not really hearing out there today. In terms of material, they are their own band. I’m their producer and I am spiriting them along, but at the same time it’s their band and they make the decisions. I’m just here to support them. It’s like I gave birth to this thing, but now it can walk and talk on its own.
JamBase: Back to you, in terms of your violin playing and improvising, do you come from a jazz background or did grow up on Grateful Dead type jams? What was the genesis of your style?
BT: I started out playing classical music, so if you take it back to the beginning it would be there, but after that it would be back when I was in college playing Grateful Dead tunes, Neil Young covers, Bob Dylan songs and those types of songs. That was the first stuff I started improvising on.
JamBase: It’s so interesting that many classically trained musicians – especially on the violin – can’t really fathom the concept of improvisation. It’s like a complete mental block, yet you obviously crossed that threshold pretty easily.
BT: It’s a big a leap of faith [laughs]. It was scary. I mean it was absolutely terrifying to play without sheet music in front of me. The funny thing is now it’s terrifying to play with sheet music in front of me [laughs]. It’s been so long since I’ve had to read music – it’s like what does this mean again? Classical is a very precise style of playing, so it’s hard for violinists to let go of that. For me, I just let go and let my heart take over. I’m constantly experimenting and learning new things though, because so much of what I do is experimental in a sense. It’s not like there is a book written on rock violin or anything.
JamBase: One last question. I mentioned that I kind of grew up right as you guys got big as a band, and I was kind of always curious how in the early days you guys were lumped together with Phish and the Grateful Dead and obviously you still are to some extent, but was there ever a conscious step away from that scene to broaden the exposure to the masses or was that just the natural way things unfolded?
BT: I think it was more the natural way that things fell into place. For us and Phish, there was a point where our careers intersected a lot and there were quite a few gigs that we played together and it was really cool. And it was amazing opening for the Dead. I mean, when our manager told us that I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” That to this day is still unbelievable to me. What was cool, too, was at that time it wasn’t like everybody knew us yet, so I was still able to go up to the stands and actually watch the Dead play.
I used to see them when they played around Virginia at places like Hampton Coliseum, Norfolk and RFK Stadium. So I did see them and a lot of shows I didn’t have tickets, so I would just go and bring my violin and go around and jam out with people. That was a really cool thing, just jamming out with Deadheads at a Dead show. That was always pretty cool.