Samantha Irby is one of the funniest writers on this planet. She’s an essayist and screenwriter whose television credits include And Just Like That…, Work In Progress, and Tuca & Bertie. She is also a huge Dave Matthews Band fan; her new book, Quietly Hostile, includes a thirteen-page exegesis entitled “Dave Matthews’ Greatest Romantic Hits.” It’s some of the best, liveliest rock criticism you’ll read all year—a celebration of Matthews as a writer and singer of love songs that doubles as a passionate defense of Matthews himself. “Why am I forced to petition on this man’s behalf,” Irby asks at one point, “like he’s my son filming himself playing the recorder and I need him to get some likes, and not a person who has won multiple Grammys?” Before writing my profile of Matthews, which you can read here and in GQ’s summer issue, I got on the phone with Irby to discuss the Tao of Dave. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
GQ: I’ll start by saying I love this essay you wrote about Dave’s love ballads. It’s a reminder that a song is not finished until it’s heard and in some way used by people in their actual lives. And you ground everything you’re saying about this music in your actual life, which is the only thing that’s really of value to do in music criticism. But you start the essay by emphasizing that your Dave fandom is not a bit. You actually swear to the reader that you’re not doing a bit.
Samantha Irby: [laughing] Okay…
Why did you feel the need to preface it that way?
SI: Because it’s been my experience that, when I say to someone that I’m really into Dave Matthews, they’re always, like, waiting for the punchline. And I’m like, No, no, no—like, I would commit murder for him. This is real. Part of it is like, I’m a joke-monkey [as a writer], so everyone thinks that everything I say could be a joke, but also it’s because people don’t look at me and think I like music like Dave’s. And it’s true—I would never go to a jam-band, stand-in-the-mud kind of show. I would never fuckin’ do that. But, I will sit alone in my car and, y’know, weep. But yeah. People always think I’m clowning around, so I have to be like, No—here’s a deep cut that I’ve memorized. Do you believe me now? And then they’re like, I can’t believe you, but I will.
Are we talking about proving it to other fans of Dave, here, or just people in general?
First of all, let me just say that I don’t even feel like I know, personally, any Dave Matthews fans. I feel like I know people who could sing “Ants Marching,” kind of, if it came on the radio, but I don’t know people who listen to his music. So I’m talking regular people—like my friends, like my agent. I told him I wanted to expand on a thing I wrote in my newsletter about Dave Matthews and he was like, For what? For the book? He was like, That’s a thing you would like to tell America? And I was like, Bitch, yes. And then I wrote it. He couldn’t believe that I was going to, like, go public.
And then I was like, Why would I be ashamed? He makes good music. I think people are so obsessed with looking cool or having other people think they’re cool. Like, have you ever been to a show, and you’re like, I can’t believe people listen to this music. It’s not relaxing, it’s not enjoyable. I can’t make out the words. Like, Dave makes listenable, beautiful music! But people are just, like, I don’t understand why you listen to him. And I’m like, I’m from the suburbs. I’m from the suburbs and I smoked weed in high school.
But I get how that coolness thing is hard to get over. I grew up reading music critics who were older than me. I got exposed too early to the taste parameters of grumpy old men writing record reviews and adopted those parameters instead of forming a personality. Like, I know who I am because I know what I can’t abide. The Grateful Dead were stupid and Deadheads were stupid and I was too punk for all that. And I’ve shed a lot of those prejudices but for a long time Dave was a line I could not cross.
I get that, for real. I do care about being cool, and I do try to be. Like, nobody ever admits that, but if you put shit out into the world, you want people to think that the person who put the thing out is dope. But no one ever talks about how staying in like the cool lane is hard. I like to clown my age or whatever, but it’s not even that. There’s too much stuff and I don’t know which of it is cool and which of it is for tweens on TikTok. I feel like my parents, in that I’m like, Well, this thing I already know, I’m gonna keep listening to it, rather than try to get into some new shit.
Right. I think the subtext of your Dave essay is about you becoming a dad on some level. Like, not necessarily becoming your own dad, although that’s in there, but just becoming Dad-like, as an archetype.
Yeah. I am really feeling my Al Bundy energy these days. Like, I’m leaning into it. I don’t want to hear kids’ voices, and I live with two of them. I just want to sit in front of the TV with my hand in my pants while everyone does whatever they have to do around me without bothering me. Yeah. I am in full dad mode. If I could grow a beard, like other than my perimenopausal woman beard, I would.
Right. The Dave Letterman. Just let it go…
Yeah. ‘Cause that kind of tells people who you are. Like, I have all these tattoos, and I got ’em because they’re just so stupid and funny. I only get dumb shit tattooed. But then I think this is part of the perception, with like the Dave stuff. People make assumptions because I have a tombstone tattooed on my hand and I’m like, Oh, no—I am your Uncle Paul. I just have no fear of the needle or of looking like an asshole. But I am an old man. I do not know any cool young shit.
So on some level, by leaning into this as you get older, you’re reverting to type.
Yes, definitely. But I was this into Dave in high school: My sophomore year, every day, I would walk to school listening to Crash. Every single morning. I was passionate about him then, and it was cooler for me then, because he was new and everybody else was into him. And then I stayed and everyone else started listening to other shit.
When did you first hear Dave’s music, and, if these were separate experiences, when did you become a fan? Was it instantaneous?
I remember this so clearly that it feels like a lie. I went to high school in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston Township High School. The summer before my freshman year, I was in the marching band, and the week before school started we had to be at school learning how to march and do formations and all that shit. So we were taking a break from that. And this girl Adrian had Under the Table and Dreaming, and she was like, Hey Sam, have you ever listened to this? And I was like, I don’t even know who that is. And she’s like, Okay, I’m going to dub it for you and then you can listen to it. So she did that, and I wasn’t, like, bowled over, but I was like, Okay. This is nice.
Everyone loves “Satellite,” right? I’m like, This is good. And then “Crash” came out and I was like, Okay, this is even better. I’m into this. It’s gentle, but also upbeat. But I don’t think I knew how much I was into him until later. This is an old story, but I was living in a rooming house with a bunch of fucking degenerates. And some crackhead broke into my room and was stealing my shit. My CDs. And I fought him for the Dave one! I wrestled a hospital-thin basehead over a Dave Matthews CD! Because it, like, felt essential to me. And maybe that’s when I knew, like, This is my guy.
That’s when you became a fan for life.
I haven’t bled for Tori Amos. I would, but, y’know…
It hasn’t come up.
One thing I find interesting about the origin story of the band is that Dave was sort of a local celebrity in Charlottesville even before people heard him sing and play, because Charlottesville is a small town and a small music scene and he was a bartender at one of the big local venues. It seems like a lot of the early excitement around the band was people being like, You know the hot bartender from Miller’s downtown who plays every open mic? He has a band!
I’ve never been a boots-on-the-ground, from-the-first-day fan of any group that became anything, so I’m extremely jealous of the people who got to see him in those days. He was already a thing by the time I encountered him. I don’t get to be a hipster about him, because other people knew him already. My one regret.
It feels like a lot of the appeal of Dave, at least early on, was like, Imagine a hot college-town bartender, except he’s emotionally articulate and vulnerable and can express himself in ways that this type of guy often can’t in real life.
Yes. One of the things I focused on in the essay is how, if you listen to or read the lyrics, his songs are so tender, and he’s talking about things that men don’t often talk about in their music. Even when the songs are like, I want to bang you, it’s in a nice, sweet way, right? Like, Come over here and let me touch your shoulder, girl, or whatever. I don’t want to be gendered and be like, that’s what the women are there for, but I think that’s the hook for the ladies—this dude croons. His falsetto. Like when he goes up high? That song “Little Thing,” where at the end of the song he’s basically just keening in his upper octave? That is for the ladies. That’s the romance. But then, dude, he came to Grand Rapids and I went to see him, and I was surprised, because I think of him as, like, sit-down music, but I was surprised by the amount of men, like, wildly dancing. You don’t have to have rhythm to dance to him.
I love the passage in the book about that show, and you watching the guys in the crowd. “Your dad drank three twenty-seven-dollar lite beers and danced to ‘What Would You Say’ with every ounce of energy in his body, his L.L. Bean fleece jumping and gyrating as if it had a life of its own, and I sat behind him with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed to be at a show with hundreds of people who were likely on the same arthritis medication I am.”
These dudes were letting loose, which I love. I love to see people just really feeling their shit. But that’s not my Dave experience. For me—he’s so tender. He’s so sweet. And he seems like a nice fucking person. You never hear any stories about him being a huge dick. That’s part of it too. I go back and forth sometimes about whether or not you need to like someone whose art you consume. But it does help. I mean, I’m gonna listen to and watch whatever I want and if it’s somebody problematic [laugh], I probably just won’t tell. But it’s nice to be a fan of someone.
It doesn’t feel like there’s gonna be that shoe-drop with Dave where he becomes problematic.
I don’t think so. And at this point I wouldn’t care. I mean, he would really have to be like, “Fuck Samantha Irby, personally.”
We’ve been talking about his vulnerability, which is one thing that set him apart from a lot of the other alternative-rock singers who emerged around the same time. But another way he’s unlike those guys, in my mind, is that he seems like he fucks. And have you seen him dance?
Like, when Kurt Cobain wrote about sex, it sounded gross and scary.
Yeah. You look at Kurt Cobain and you look at Eddie Vedder and like, listen—I had Pearl Jam on cassette in 1993. I had Ten. That was my shit. But they don’t look like guys you wanna touch. They’re grimy.
Right. And Dave didn’t seem dangerous, even as he was being very carnal in this music.
And it didn’t seem like there was that risk, like, Oh, this person could die at any minute. He didn’t have that. So it felt safe to like him in that way as well. I knew I wasn’t going to be mourning Dave Matthews anytime soon. At least, I hope. I don’t want to speak it into existence.
Knock on wood.
He’s like a safe dude. And I understand how that is not appealing for so many people, but for the exhausted among us, it’s very nice to have someone who’s just, like, reliable. A nice guy. You know, we really do like nice guys. People talk shit, but everybody likes a nice guy. I won’t admit it, but everybody likes to be around a nice fucking dude. [laughs]
Right. If you watch Reality Bites it’s obvious that Ben Stiller’s the nicer dude, even if the movie is putting a thumb on the scale for Ethan Hawke’s character by having him be played by Ethan Hawke.
You cannot believe that Elaina did not choose [Stiller’s character.] Like, he had a BMW. I’m sorry, but a job? A way to get me around? I’m always gonna take that. The sensitive artist who can’t afford coffee? Maybe when I was 19, but now that I’m 119? Give me the dude in the suit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.