Reel Time: Matisyahu

Matt Inman on February 13, 2017

Matisyahu might not look quite like the beatboxing Jewish reggae star you remember. Just over a decade after exploding onto the scene with his breakout albums Live at Stubb’s and Youth—and five years after splitting from the Hasidic movement closely associated with his public image—Matis sits smiling in the corner of Brooklyn’s Studio G on a chilly November day, sans beard, with pulled-back gray semi-dreadlocks. He’s currently overseeing the members of his band as they continue to craft the tracks for his new album, the improvisation-heavy followup to 2014’s Akeda.

One month later, Matis is in the Relix office for quick session that turns into a family affair as two of his sons help out on harmonies that allow their father— accompanied by longtime collaborator and guitarist Aaron Dugan—to showcase both his lyrical abilities and well-honed beatboxing techniques. The reggae veteran is characteristically affable, beaming while discussing the new album, which features his live band of Dugan, bassist Stu Brooks, drummer Joe Tomino and keyboardist “Big Yuki” Hirano.

“Two years ago, I decided to put together a band that was more geared towards improvisation,” says Matisyahu, who brought Dugan back after a hiatus from his group. He also decided to utilize Brooks and Tomino of the Dub Trio, the unit that backed Matis on the road for several years. “Everyone comes from different places, but Joe and Stu come from a similar place—that New York hip-hop dub thing, which is pretty cool. They speak the same language.” It took the band, which had been set for about a year, some time to learn that same language as Matis and Dugan led them into more exploratory areas, musically. Matis isn’t a stranger to collaboration—he even cut a studio track with Twiddle frontman and fellow reggae-head Mihali Savoulidis in 2015—but this time around, he was looking to go even deeper with this lineup, reaching out to his fans and attempting to make a genuine connection.

Improvisational Landscapes

When we went into writing, one of the main struggles for the band was not locking into ideas too soon. We went into the studio to write songs and develop parts and figure out the details of these songs, but I had to keep reminding everybody: “Don’t play what you played last time. Play something different— open up, open up.” That’s been the name of the game. With some players, like Aaron, it comes very naturally, and then with other players—who are incredibly talented and help give this band the edge that separates it from a lot of the other jambands out there—we tried to get them to open up a bit more. It happened on the record and it was exciting because I have these eight songs that are like eight minutes each that are these journeys into different lands and different cavernous soundscapes. I tried to be the narrator on a journey because to release this music as an instrumental album without any vocals would be cool. I’m just figuring out where I can dip in and help shift and move things, and develop and build on what there is.

All of us in the band listen to different genres of music, and I worked hard to put together a band that’s able to go in all these directions. We listen to all that music together, so we are listening to each other and figuring out what get each other excited and what’s capable and possible—that can bring things in surprising directions. When we look at ourselves, we see the Matisyahu thing as a place to explore and bring different things together— in essence, what I was doing from the beginning with Judaism and reggae and other things as well.

Tension and Beauty

The songs are written in a way where I’m looking for people who live with music and put on music when they exercise or run or drive or walk through their town or whatever. So the music is meant to be cinematic, in a sense—almost a background to your life. That’s the way [music] had its biggest impact on me—on the subway, walking to class, looking out at the world through the lens of whatever music I was listening to. That’s what I tried to create with this record. As long as it makes sense with what’s going on in your world—I didn’t pay much attention to the technical standards for what makes a good song. There’s a real closeness and intensity between me and the guys in the band I have now, and that comes through. These players come from all different kinds of places, and where their personalities and tastes and music meet in the music we’re making is cool because there’s a lot of tension, a lot of beauty, a lot of emotion and soul.

Finding the Sound

We are pretty much sitting right now with a completed record. It’s been a cool and interesting process making this album. This is the fir t time we didn’t bring in any outside producer. For the last record, Akeda, we used friends of ours who we’re close with: Stu, who plays bass, and Joel Hamilton, who helped with the production stuff. With this one, we went back to that situation but without any one member of the band doing a majority of the production work— rather, composing together and being on tour together and recording together and sharing the compositions, with everyone coming to the table and doing what we’ve been doing all year on the road. It’s a cool way to develop a sound before you write songs—on the road, during jams and improvisations, figuring out, “Oh, we can go into that realm, or we can go here.” We didn’t know we could do this or that or even what our sound was with this group we have today. We’ve spent a lot of time over the year bonding and coming together to figure out what that sound was, and then we came off the road in September and spent a month in the rehearsal studio just writing, and then went in and did two weeks in the studio. I did all the vocals on my own, how I envisioned them.

Songs of Youth

When I started out, it was a real blend of genres. I relied on all the music of my youth to influence what I as making at that point because there was a break in time where I stopped listening to music when I became religious, until when my career started, when I started listening to music again. I remember on the fir t tour, when I bought a van, got out of Crown Heights and got out of the religious circles, I was with my band, and Aaron and I listened to what they listened to. I remember what was big then was The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi [Battles the Pink Robots] and The Soft Bulletin. We were listening to a lot of Elliott Smith. That was my first introduction back into popular music, and since then, it’s taken up a big part of my life again.

Religious Journey

I went through that period of my life—and I don’t even consider it a period because I see a life as one thing—but it left its mark on me to the point where it affected the way that I see the world. Not that I necessarily see everything congruently with what that religion says, but it became the focal point I weighed my perception against, or one of the avenues, at least. So it affected me and it continues to affect me and the music that I make. I continue to ask questions about God and spirituality as a concept and what it means. I talk about that in my music a lot—analyzing what it is in my life, what place it takes. That’s definitely been a cool journey throughout all the records and all the things that have influenced me along the way. You can see my philosophical and existential approach and the way I perceive things clearly in the lyrics all along this journey.

Opening Up

I never really approached [religion] as a public image— it was more a lifestyle. It took some time once I thought that I needed to open up and move on and try something else, try to incorporate outside elements back into my world that weren’t from that religious place. It was a process—a slow process—but, eventually, I was ready to open up to the world again. At that point, I made a distinction in my fan base and my career as to who was who in relationship to what I’m doing. It became clear to me at that point that there are people that become a fan of your image when you represent a group of people. But then there are the people who live with the music and are influenced by it. I found that they come from all these different walks of life—my fans. It was a blow to the people who weren’t fans. So, it’s sort of about condensing a little bit and figuring out who’s who, who supports and who doesn’t. In some ways, it’s nice—a way of letting go of some of the pressure of trying to live up to the expectations of people who aren’t really living with you in your music.