Interview with Mark Batson
By Matt Yette
April 22, 2005
When it was revealed that Mark Batson would produce the next Dave Matthews Band studio project, it was more than a bit off the norm. With Batson's most recent work predominately from the R&B genre, working the boards for such acts as Seal, Beyonce, and Eminem, his recruitment as producer for Stand Up left many fans wondering what the band had in store for its upcoming disc. AntsMarching.org recently had the privilege of speaking with Mark for a few minutes, and he provided us with interesting insight on working with the band from both a personal an productive prespective.
antsmarching.org: When the band approached you as being a possible producer, were you familiar with a significant amount of the band's catalog, or were you pretty much just familiar with their radio stuff?
Mark: There was a time when I was probably more of a fan than I became in the later years, probably around 96-97-98. I had seen the band perform, I think it was Giants Stadium, but that year I saw them perform, they spent a lot of time in Europe, and I was going to a lot of tours and Summer festivals. So I got to see them in Amsterdam, I think in Shepherds Bush, and I hear this band that, to me, I'd think would be a big band in Europe. So that's how I actually became familiar with them, just seeing them perform.
antsmarching.org: That's funny that now that you're producing the band you can look back and say, 'Wow I had no idea that something like that would ever happen.'
Mark: Right, right. That's why the challenge is so difficult, you know, for me just to not say, 'Let's go in the studio and let's just make five songs, just like the songs I love!' [laughter]
antsmarching.org: You probably just want to sit back and not work and just listen to it at times.
Mark: [speaking to the band] "Hey, can you guys just play all the songs from this album?" That was the challenge of not getting caught in just, 'wow - this band is the type of band I want to hear.'
antsmarching.org: Was there a general plan going into the sessions with what the band and you were looking to accomplish or was it more of a 'let's just show up, and we're gonna do our thing'?
Mark: They came to me. We talked after a show, I went to see them - it was the Home Depot Center (8.28.04) After the show, I got the beautiful experience to actually, instead of being in the audience, go in the back with the guys in the band, which, you know, was this phenominal experience. And what they were looking for was to begin a new evolution, so to speak. There were wanting to try something new, something sonically new, musically new, breaking the rules of what they had done in the past. So we sat down and we talked that night after the show and they said, 'Well, can you help us with this? Come together with us and this is what we're going to do.' And so we all agreed that we would get together and try a couple of songs and see what happened. At that time I had just went into a deep kind of meditation process like 'What can I do with this?' This is a great band, you know [Before These] Crowded Streets might be one of the best albums, so I'm saying, "What am I gonna do now with that, to evolve that?" And then I started thinking about the way I saw the band perform so I thought, 'Well what if I could focus on each guy in the band as an individual and see what they had to offer individually, what they were listening to, what they were thinking about and then come back into the group collectively,' and that's the decision - we sat down, talked about it, and they said, 'Let's give it a try and see what happens!' That was the plan - so that each guy got a day, or a couple of days so they could come in. Carter would come in some days and just play, and write songs, and then Boyd would come in and everybody shared their ideas. So it was kind of different than we thought it would be, but it all kind of wound up working really smoothly.
antsmarching.org: You were primarily known as an R&B producer prior to this project. Did you find the transition to a rock band/jam-bandish group - did you find that more difficult, or actually easier because production plays such a large role in the R&B world?
Mark: For me, you have to understand, it's the history of the music that I've actually done. Although the records that I might have made in the last few years are probably the records that are the most known are R&B and Hip-Hop records, I come from a tradition of jazz - I mean my first album I made was of a piano trio with myself, my brother and Jerry Allen. Jimi Hendrix songs live, you know, with open piano. And then I played in a jam band with the last guitar player to play with Miles. When I was in college I had a big band at the Smithsonian Museum for three-four years, music from the 30s and the 40s. I played a lot of different kinds of music for years and years, and played and toured in bands, little jam bands, or bands that went to play at Jazz Festivals. You know, I played in soft rock bands, raggae bands, I played calypso. I just played a lot of music since I was a little kid. So when I met with the band and we talked - I had played with jazz musicians in D.C., and these guys were from Virginia, so there was like a D.C.-Virginia collective area between Virginia and Maryland, so we knew so many of the same guys, musicians that we had studied with. Stefan, his acoustic bass teacher was the bass player in my repertoire ensemble at the Smithsonian. It was so much music we had shared - different adventurous-type music - that's the thing that made them say, Let's go with Mark. We want him to work with us - we want our beats to hit hard, we want people to jump up when they hear our album. We want to make people get up out of their seats and get this amazing feeling.' That why it think it's so beautiful that it wound up being called Stand Up. That's what the goal is, to make you, when you put the record on, dance and get up out of your seat. So yeah, I'll say that I've done a lot of hip hop and R&B records but I've actually played live music in way more diverse type of bands, and also recorded. At some point I started having this success with these alternative and R&B groups, and that started, probably, with India Arie, which is kind of R&B but a little jazz, too, and those are the bands that I've chosen to work with. I did Seal's last album, which is really like an alternative, different kinda thing. That's the music I've always been interested in - to just keep pushing boundaries. The artists I've worked with, I've been blessed enough, have been risk-taking, boundary-breaking artists.
antsmarching.org: Well it seems, at this point in their career, that you running into DMB was just what they were looking for.
Mark: Yeah, that's what they wanted to do. They wanted to go back and have a new beginning - to write songs in a different way, write choruses in a different way. I mean, to think that some of the choruses are chants on this record - they're chants. You'll see when you hear them play live, and you hear and see how the audience responds, what the intention was when the songs were written.
antsmarching.org: I noticed on the American Baby single, you're given a co-writing credit. Are there any other songs on the album that we'll find granting you the same thing?
Mark: Lots. The process that we used to create was a group writing process. Let's say I would go in, and maybe I'd write a little bit with Boyd, and then Dave would come and write to that, and then Carter would come write, and Stefan would come write, and then LeRoi would come write, and then Butch - you know, everybody contributed in a group setting, in a group environment just sharing ideas back and forth. So, on the record, you'll probably see a lot of songs written by Dave Matthews Band and Mark Batson.
antsmarching.org: That's really cool to hear, because then you get all kinds of different flavors of music. You know - Dave might have come in with an awesome vibe that day, but then Boyd comes in with something and it takes it to another level...
Mark: Right. That's what would happen - a song would start one way and then it would change this way. LeRoi would come in and just kinda, ya know, change what the song meant. And then we had to just go back to the drawing board and come up with something that fit. There were songs that had really intricate choruses all drawn up, but then we'd be three or four takes later, and the chorus became two words! It was just more effective.
antsmarching.org: We have heard rumblings that you guys kicked out a ton of material. Now, on the [American Baby] Single CD it says Scene I: Stand Up. There were rumors that you guys were thinking about a double disc - does "Scene I" have anything to do with that? Is that a coincidence?
Mark: I'm actually not sure of that one. I saw the Scene I thing - maybe that was somebody's intention along the line but I'm not exactly sure.
antsmarching.org: Did you guys ever talk about it?
Mark: We talked about making as much music as possible. We went down there to Virginia, and we kinda just shut it down and we closed the doors down there and maybe out of the songs that made the album, there were about 25 or 30, and another about 15 or 20 ideas that needed to be developed.
antsmarching.org: So the 25 or 30 were basically considered album complete?
Mark: Well not album complete because album complete means it's completely focused - we picked certain songs and completed them for the album. But there were a lot of songs that were almost done, and a good ten or so that are done. They just need to be finished, you know, if they were to come out on the record they would have to be worked on. Really great material. There were some songs, you know, that just didn't fit. The whole goal of this album was to make a complete statement, and that's why even the title ended up being something so simple. It's just a complete statement: Stand Up. That's where they are right now. That's what they wanna see the fans do. That's the energy they have. So they were songs that were great, but they didn't say what needed to be said to make that complete statement on the album, so we had to put those songs aside, and make it really focused, so the average listener is gonna go to the store, buy this modern, really cool Dave Matthews Band album that makes one complete statement. For them to find something new - these guys have been playing music together for a long time. And to find something new from eachother and to find a new place to start from at this point in their careers is unbelievable. It was an unbelievable experience for me to watch: this band I love, find something new.
antsmarching.org: So what would you say your proudest moment, or proudest song from the sessions from both a productive standpoint and a personal one?
Mark: I think it's important for the fans who go out and purchase the album to understand that the album was made to be listened to loud. This record has the energy in it where you have to stand up. When I record with artists, my goal has always been not just the slickest performance of this and the hippest performance of that - it's always been emotion. The records I go back to time and time again, you know, they have this really pure sense of emotion in the delivery of the songs. Sometimes the songs didn't have this part that I liked or that part that I liked, but there's sometimes just that pure emotion that - Greatful Dead has that on a lot of their songs, Sly Stone had it on a lot of his songs. Just that pure sense of like - I'm giving you my heart on this song. You can feel that, and my heart is in it and those are the records I go back to, and when I was recording the band, I did have a really special moment where Dave sings the song, "Out Of My Hands." That was probably the purest emotion for me that I got to during the recording experience. Hearing him sing that song in that way, with those intentions, to be that relaxed and that loose - for him to find a space that was so personal. Out Of My Hands - he's just singing this beautiful, beautiful song, and it's all emotion for me. You know, someone might hear it and say, "You know maybe at 50 megahertz it will vibrate into sound" - that might happen. [laughter] But the emotion is there - I really loved that one. It was my biggest emotional connection.
antsmarching.org: I know you're pressed for time, so I'll wrap it up by asking you what do you think the fans will like most about the album?
Mark: I think the fans will like the fact that they have this Dave Matthews Band album, that they can go to the concert and scream their heads off with them, and enjoy this thing with them. The band has always been known to have songs that evolve over time; the album version is usually the starting point of what the song eventually becomes. So I think the growth process of seeing what these songs will become; the fact that you can just really enjoy yourself in that way - I'm so looking forward to going to a concert, and seeing the people in the audience screaming, "Stand Up! Stand Up!" like it is on the song. I can't wait to see the people who really love them, and have been behind them, enjoy this. And I'm also looking forward to seeing the band make that step that I thought they were making in 98 to become a band that has a major global impact. I think what the band has to say, and the guys in the band have to say is so important. I think the way they work together and the way they are a family is just really important for the band to be seen by the world. So back when I started seeing them, I think it was back in 97 or 98 - around the time they were doing some European stuff - there was a long run in Amsterdam, it was great. And I'm thinking, 'Hey - this band is going to be playing the same venues and to the same audiences in Europe that U2 plays.' My hope is that somehow the record companies and the fans themselves can collectively work together to make sure the record is heard and embraced in other countries.
antsmarching.org: Well looking online, there isn't an abundance of information on you. We're hoping that this album helps shed a little more light on you, because I've gotta be honest - hearing what we have so far - we're pretty impressed. And we really appreciate you being so forthcoming during our chat - there's a lot of good information here that people are gonna love to hear about you. Thanks so much for everything, Mark, and congratulations on what sounds to be an amazing album.
Mark: I'm glad you enjoyed it - that makes me feel good. Thank you.
Editor's Note: I wanted to add something about Mark. In so many interviews you read, it seems like all the questions are old hat, and the answers are just as canned and cookie-cutter. I can honestly say that it was an absolute pleasure speaking with Mark. He was enthusiastic about his work and his profession, and his answers came from his heart and his passion. My thanks go out to Mark once again for giving us an opportunity to speak with him. It was my pleasure.
The views and comments expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of antsmarching.org.