Built to Survive: On the Road with Matisyahu
52 shows in 60 days. It’s fitting that the tour was titled “Built to Survive.” And not only did Matisyahu and his crew survive – they thrived. How do I know? I was there.
It was a warm and sunny afternoon in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, when I wandered through Downtown Disney to the House of Blues with an overnight bag slung over my shoulder. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb, but I knew I was in the right place when I spotted the top of the tour bus, which was visible through the wooden gate. What exactly was I about to get myself into? Here I was, a twenty-something aspiring journalist about to join a bunch of musicians for three days on the last leg of their nationwide tour. I had zero idea of what to expect, but I did know that it was a once-in-a-lifetime, Almost Famous-type opportunity, that would most likely never come again.
Before I joined the tour, I of course did my research on Matthew Miller, the 35-year- old singer, rapper and father who became known as the Chasidic Reggae Superstar when he first entered the music scene 10+ years ago with his hit “King Without a Crown.” However, I was already a fan and familiar with his background and had already enjoyed listening to his fifth studio album, Akeda. And any fan of his is familiar with the backlash he experienced when he shaved his beard back in 2011. But I decided from the get-go that 67,000 Google results dedicated to his facial hair, or lack thereof, was enough. So my focus was to dig past all of that and focus on the evolution that has, in my opinion, allowed Matisyahu to produce some of the best music of his career.
Feeling a little nervous, but very excited, I found myself sitting on the red velvet couches in the backstage area of the venue. I had already met with the tour manager, who I could already tell was a master at multitasking and controlling chaos. I received my All Access badge, which allowed me to feel more at ease knowing that I could at least look like I was part of the crew. It was already almost time for sound check and I had the chance to wander around and meet members of the band and crew. And then the star of the show walked into the room.
“Hi, I’m Matis. Are you the journalist coming on tour with us?” he asked.
He was dressed comfortably and was so laid-back that I immediately felt more at ease. After observing members of the band and crew hanging out, eating and getting ready for the show, I realized just how oddly normal everything felt. And although there is absolutely nothing normal about this way of life, I could tell that they all were accustomed to living the life that being on tour provided.
Soundcheck was a lot of fun because I got to witness everyone relaxed and goofing around. It was obvious right away that these people were a family. They were indeed a bunch of goofballs…just wickedly talented goofballs; each with their own distinct personalities and pre-show rituals.
Matisyahu’s band, The Dub Trio, are such an integral part of this show and the performance as a whole would be nowhere nearly as great without them. But aside from the band, there’s also an audio engineer, a stage and lighting guru, a stage tech magician who makes sure everything is always where it needs to be, a merch man, and a bus driver. Each person is either a lifelong friend of Matis’ or someone hand picked and carefully chosen, which is how this whole machine operates the way it does.
After the hour and a half set, which I got to witness from the side of the stage, I got to see the tour bus I’d be living out of – which has enough character to be considered another member of the band. Man, if wheels could talk, it would have some crazy stories to tell!
By the end of the night, I was exhausted and I hadn’t even been performing. I quickly got cozy in my bunk and let the motion of the bus lull me to sleep.
Suddenly it was morning and we were parked outside of the venue in Jacksonville. Again, everything was moving like clockwork and everything was already being loaded in and setup for that night’s show. It was in that afternoon that I contemplated what living that kind of lifestyle for years and years must be like. I sat there in the historic concert hall, the only audience member, and witnessed another sound check.
Later, I watched the show from backstage yet again and got to be a fly on the wall for the meet and greet that followed. It was during this time that I reflected on many of the lyrics from Akeda and witnessed the genuine smile on Matisyahu’s face when greeting his fans, who were often too nervous to ask what they had probably planned to ask him. The best part was when two girls who could not have been older than nine exclaimed that he was “so much better than Doodlebops.”
When I woke up on the bus on the third and final day of my journey, we were not where we were supposed to be. The tour bus had broken down en route and we were stranded at a rest stop. I was for sure going to miss my flight back home and it soon became apparent that we’d have to leave the bus and transfer nearly two months of belongings and pile them onto the supporting act’s tour bus.
But, to my surprise, everyone did what they had to do without much complaint and gathered together and quickly got settled. Shortly thereafter, we were all together watching the first Harry Potter movie and we were back on the road again to Pensacola. And it was on this part of the road trip that Matis and some of the band retreated to the back of the bus and recorded a new song about how sometimes you have to lose to win…it was all very surreal.
We finally made it to the venue and it was freezing, which was an odd sensation after just being warm in Orlando and Jacksonville. But hey, that was just another part of road life. And just as I was starting to get used to the whole #tourlife thing, I knew my time to leave was quickly approaching. Thankfully, a block in the tight schedule opened up, which allowed me time to sit down one-on-one with the man himself.
RF: I imagine this can get tiring and it’s a long tour, but what makes it all worth it?
MM: The fact that we’re the .1% of the population that gets to do what they love for a living. It’s not so bad in other words.”
RF: Do you have a direction that you’re headed in musically?
MM: I’m kind of heading in a lot of directions at once. I’m more interested in writing pop songs. I’m more interested in writing meaningful songs that make a deep impact. I’d rather make a deeper impact than a broader impact.
RF: Is that what you want to be known for…remembered for?
MM: Change is an important part of what I represent to a lot of people.
RF: What haven’t you done yet in your career that you still want to accomplish?
MM: One thing that I’m into now like musically and direction regarding a certain genre is minimalism: saying less, but saying more. Saying less, but saying it more impactfully.
RF: Do you feel more comfortable now that you’re being more yourself – more authentic?
MM: I think I always felt that I was being authentic. When I was doing what I was doing before, I was still doing me. I wasn’t doing it for anyone else. I’m not saying that there weren’t times when there was pressure from outside.
RF: What are you listening to now that’s influencing you or inspiring you?
MM: Right now what I’m listening to is SZA. I also like the newest Barr Brothers record. Kid Cudi has also been a big influence the last few years. (pulls it up on his phone and starts playing it). I’m also really into Miguel and Frank Ocean.
RF: Are there any misconceptions about you that are out there that you would like to set the record straight on?
MM: Not really, because you can’t really do that. People will say whatever they want and you can try to defend yourself but at the end of the day you wont really have the ability to do anything – it’s really hard to waste your energy on worrying about how your image comes across or what people think. At the end of the day, what I do is make music and make songs and people will either respect them or they wont. You have to let the music do the talking.
RF: I grew up with a father who is a musician so I know what it’s like to have a Dad who is away a lot. Do you get to see your kids often and how does your life affect them?
MM: Like you said I travel and I’m away a lot, but when I’m home I get to devote my time completely to them. When I’m home, I get to pick them up from school and drop them off and make their lunch. So when I’m not working I spend my time with the people that I love. The whole life is different. It’s not a normal life, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted to live a life that wasn’t typical. My kids are really important to me.
RF: Do you foresee them being musical?
MM: I think so. I’m not going to push it on them. They’re around it a lot and they like music and they get exposed to a lot of different lifestyles seeing that their mother is Orthodox. They’ve been around all types of people and as difficult as it is having a parent gone a lot, I think there are amazing benefits to it as well.
RF: Do you think it will be difficult for them growing up having both influences religiously or will you allow them to choose for themselves?
MM: I think it’ll be difficult for them but I think each kid will deal with it differently. I think at some point they will have to make their own decisions but I think they will feel conflicted.
RF: Where else would you like to travel to or perform that you haven’t been to yet?
MM: I want to keep trying to develop Overseas. We’ve done well in South America; some interesting places like Guam. Russia. I’d like to go to India. We’ve played most places but to me it’s mainly about going back and continue to play for the fans.
RF: Do you think social media has made it easier to connect with fans?
MM: It’s definitely given me access and it’s fun to reach out and let people know what you’re doing. And you can always turn it off or turn it on when you have something to say or something interesting. It puts the power back in their hands. I think it’s good for people to see an artist who is in the process. The process of life. This is not a passing thing. This is my life.
As soon as I finished up the interview, it was time for Matis to film something for charity and a runner was on his way to pick me up to take me to the airport. So I said my goodbyes to people I had technically just met, but somehow already felt like longtime friends. With bittersweet feelings, I realized I was going back to my normal life, which felt really strange. It was as if I had been spat out of some time warp fantasy world that became very difficult to explain to people who hadn’t been there with me.
After finishing the Built to Survive tour, the crew travelled to Russia for a few days and then came right back to the states for the Festival of Lights Tour, which celebrates Chanukah.
And with many more unpredictable collaborations coming up and more studio work in the near future, Matisyahu isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
A huge thank you goes out to Relix.com and the management team who allowed me this chance of a lifetime!