Dave Matthews And Brian Calhoun On Making Music And Making Games

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 05: Dave Matthews, leader and vocalist of the band, sang and play … [+] guitar during a show at Arena Ciudad de Mexico on October 5, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Medios y Media/Getty Images)

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Most musicians in 2019 have business interests and projects outside music. For some, like Brandon Boyd and Serj Tankian, it is painting, among other things. Rihanna has her Fenty line, Beyonce has Ivy Park, and the list can go on for days.

For Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame nominee Dave Matthews, he has games. Matthews and close friend Brian Calhoun, who is a guitar maker, found they both love to, in their words, “Make s**t.”

So the two teamed up first for Chickapig, a good old-fashioned, keep the family at the dinner table board game. Chickapig has turned into a book and they are now in discussion on a TV show on the game. And with the success of that game they teamed up again for 25 Outlaws, a poker game featuring 25 outlaws all drawn by Matthews.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles’ Dream Hotel, I met up with Matthews and Calhoun to discuss the origins of their burgeoning game business, their friendship, the painting legends Matthews would most want to play Chickapig with and why having a career in music is nothing like he ever imagined when he was a kid who wanted to be a Beatle.  

Steve Baltin: Is there talk of turning the Chickapig game and book into a TV show?

Dave Matthews: There’s talk of it and working on it. We don’t want to just make it for the sake of it. I think we got quality games so far, so we don’t want to just phone in a turd.

Brian Calhoun: We’ve actually got a pretty good team looking at this TV show. But like he said, we want it to have some meaning.

Baltin: I imagine this starts for fun and then when it becomes successful you don’t want to take away the purity of it.

Matthews: There is an interesting element and I think the natural part of it for me is that when I was in high school I just liked to make s**t. So I think [that was] the common ground, among other things, that Brian and I had when I met him. He made a guitar and I started playing his guitar. I was like, “This guy makes stuff.” That part of it is pure still. Why I started playing guitar was pure. Now there is the thing of it’s my job as well. But the opportunity to make stuff for the sake of it and knowing that it wouldn’t be judged on the same page or in the same courtroom was really fun. When he brought Chickapig to my house the first time in this little wooden box he built in his house and we played it I was sort of stunned cause I would actually play this game if someone brought it that wasn’t my friend. It’s a really good game. And we played it many, many times, my kids and my family and it evolved. It was interesting. Then when he came much later after Chickapig had evolved and we started working on, when he told me his idea for 25 Outlaws, they’re really not related, other than they require critical thinking on some level. I thought he’s insane in just the right way to be able to come up with two games that are so different, but are so compelling. For me, it’s also about the opportunity to make s**t that people don’t expect me to make. This is nothing like making a guitar.

Calhoun: Nothing like it, but the common thread is what you hit on. Like when I got into guitars, I’m sure it’s the same as when he got into music, I wasn’t thinking this is going to be my career. It was a cool hobby. And I dropped out of college too. I just loved it and that became a career. But even once I was making money at it, it was still so fun. It wasn’t like a business really. And then I like making things. We made a life-size rhino over the course of a summer, just bolting logs together. So whether something on that scale or this scale it’s like, “I wonder if I can make a board game” after playing a really bad board game one day,

Matthews: It was pretty funny, he told me, “I was playing this game and it was the s**tiest game I’ve ever played with all these people. This game sucks. Then I saw on the side, it said, ’10 million copies sold.’ And I said, ‘What?’ This is bulls**t. I can make a game.” And he came up with Chickapig, which is even cooler. I like vengeance inventions.

Calhoun: In that first year it was like, “I’m gonna make a game. We’re gonna play with our friends this summer.” And we weren’t thinking about commercializing this thing, probably for the first year.

Matthews: I was.

Calhoun: He’d make jokes, “Gonna be the next Monopoly.” It’s not why we were doing it. But then it started growing, outside of my circle, outside of his fan base. It made more sense and it became this thing that brings people together. We got so much feedback from teachers and parents and that type of thing that I think it does a little good in the world because it gets you off your phone.

Baltin: Who usually wins between the two of you when you play?

Matthews: Well it’s more satisfying when I win, but not because I like winning. Because he hates losing. And he invented the game, so when I beat him it’s like losing twice.

Baltin: Since the game brings people together when do the Chickapig tournaments start?

Matthews: There are bars than run tournaments and stuff, but I don’t know if I’d come out on top cause I’m really easily distracted, except on the occasion I beat him.

Calhoun: Which is a good thing in designing this. I’d never done a game before but once I got into it I saw there were essentially dials you could turn that would make it more skill based, make it more luck based and it was finding that balance. I had an early version that didn’t even have a di and that was much more skill. But I think what you want is for everybody at the table to feel like, “Ooh, I could have won.”

Matthews: The luck is for me and the skill is for him. But adding that element of luck can be frustrating to those people that want it all to be about prowess or whatever.

Calhoun: We want it to be fun. And it’s more about hanging out with your people than thinking about Chichapig while you’re playing Chickapig.

Baltin: Tell me about 25 Outlaws.

Calhoun: I guess you know he drew everything, which was great. But the first time we played this it was literally…

Matthews: Ripped up pieces of paper. He came in and he said, “Matthews, I think I got a new game.” And I’m like, “Who has two good ideas for a game?” And he walks in and then he explains it and we start playing with the neighbor’s kid and I’m like, “This is better than the last game.” It’s so different. The company he started working with, Buffalo Games, smallish, but still big company in Upstate New York, they got into Chickapig, they were excited about that. But when he explained this game to him they got way more excited.

Calhoun: It’s fun coming up with new stuff, but right now the show is where my mind is consumed. The book came and that’s just a younger crowd than the game and it opened up this door cause there’s a character in the book and now we’re like, “We can make a show, we can really spread some goodness out there with the message we’re trying to push.”

Baltin: Does the game and having this outside interest invigorate you more for music and guitars?

Matthews: This is a relief and it does make more space. It’s funny, you do more things and then you have more space. Some of my favorite musicians that I work with, like Tim Reynolds is an astounding guitar player. But it’s interesting that when you take him away from the band it seems more crowded. Then you put him in and there’s more space. And there’s that idea it’s possible with more elements to make more room. I love the idea of being able to make more stuff.

Baltin: For each of you, what three people would you like to play Chikapig with?

Matthews: They have to be fun so it couldn’t be [Vincent] Van Gogh because he’d bring everything down. So it’d have to be [Paul] Gauguin, even though he was morally less of a quality person. So I’d with Gauguin. No, screw him. Let’s go with [Pablo] Picasso. Picasso would be distracted, but he’d be a lot more fun in the room. He’d be a lot more fun. And he’s get a lot more s**t done. And everything would be paid for because he’d be scribbling things on pieces of paper. So he’d be awesome. We could do both of them. They might get in a fist fight, but it would be fun. It almost would require Picasso there to taunt Van Gogh and then have Gauguin there sort of defending Van Gogh, but also looking down on him. That would be interesting. I am going to easily say those three painters in the room together.

Baltin: That could be an episode of the TV show. I would watch that.

Matthews: George Clinton, he wouldn’t be interested in the game, but it’d be a fun situation.

Calhoun: When did people start playing board games with characters? Chess has been around forever, but you don’t picture somebody like Abraham Lincoln playing an animal-hybrid pooping game.

Matthews: That’s some odd games. You think that you and Abraham Lincoln at a table with George Clinton and Picasso, it’d be a good part.

Baltin: Where do you go from here in terms of expanding the game and its reach?

Calhoun: It occurred to me that I’ll probably never have another game like Chickapig, meaning it took five years from the time I was like, “Hey, I got this game,” to getting it out on a bigger scene with distribution. So that was five years of figuring out how to play the game, all the rules and then how to make 50 of them, how to make a hundred of them, how to make a thousand of them, how to market it. It was this sort of story that took five years.

Matthews: I said, “If you’re gonna go sell this thing, you better have enough games to sell cause if all of a sudden 5000 people want the game and you’ve only got 200 of them, you’re s**t out of luck.”

Baltin: What were the favorite games growing up?

Calhoun: I like Chess, I like Risk a lot. And I remember a few games of Monopoly that seven hours later you’re still on the floor.

Baltin: Will the TV show be kid-friendly or could it go in a South Park direction?

Calhoun: I think for me, if I’m going to watch a kid’s TV show, I have to like it as an adult. So it’s more like write it for the adults and make it so the kids can like it.

Matthews: South Park is one of the greatest shows of all time.

Baltin: Were you ever spoofed on South Park?

Matthews: It seems like I’m super vulnerable for stuff like that. So I hope at least some sort of derogatory s**t happened. But I feel like that would have been a great moment for me.

Baltin: Has the process of turning this into a game been different than you imagined? Because when you start playing music with your friends you have no concept of what the career is like. You imagine it and then it is so different.

Matthews: No truer thing has been said because I remember when I was a kid I would listen to lots of different music. And I was like, “Oh man, it’d be so cool to be one of the Beatles,” when I was eight. “I wish I was a Beatle.” Maybe when I was 13 I would’ve been John Lennon; when I was eight I would’ve Paul McCartney and then there was a period where I wanted to be George Harrison too. But when I started to drive around in a van with the band nothing that even remotely fit my idea that I wanted to be a musician. It’s interesting I think that what made me end up playing music had very little to do with my dream of being a famous musician.