Matisyahu has surprised skeptics since he came out of nowhere to deliver 2005’s smash album Live at Stubb’s. Since that time the self-proclaimed “Hassidic reggae superstar” has re-invented himself numerous times—jumping between such varied personas as pop star, jamband festival stalwart and hard-edged dub music revivalist. In 2009, Matisyahu added the Dub Trio to his longtime backing combo of keyboardist Rob Marscher and guitarist Aaron Dugan and, a year later, has slimmed down to just the noted dub musicians. After a summer on the road, Matis returned to Austin, TX’s Stubb’s to record a sequel to his breakout album. Recorded just over five years after Live at Stubb’s, the album showcases a very different Hassidic reggae superstar.
Shortly before the release of Live at Stubb’s Vol II, Jambands.com spoke with Matis about his second live album, his new band with Marscher and Dugan and his future recording plans.
Live at Stubb’s Vol II is a sequel to your breakout album of the same name. It was interesting to listen to the two albums back-to-back and see how much your sound has changed over the past few years. I imagine that was the impetus for returning to Sutbb’s to record your second live album?
Well, I wanted to make another live record since the last Stubb’s came out. It did so great and it was such a fundamental thing for me. The live sound has always been important to me so I really wanted to make another live record. It made sense from a shooting and recording perspective to record at the same place so you can hear how the sound has morphed and changed. So [ Live at Stubb’s II ] was about going back and playing different songs than were on the first record at the same venue. I think you will notice a pretty big difference.
Live at Stubb’s Vol. II features your current backing band, the Dub Trio. What has been the biggest change to your sound since your started working with them?
Well, it’s interesting because I morph to whomever I’m playing with. With the Dub Trio, I would say there’s no other band that can do what they do. I’ve never seen a band that can play the styles of music that they play as authentically—or who can create that sound without trying too hard. It is just very natural to them. It is definitely where I wanted the sound to go. I wanted my sound to have a real heavier vibe to it. In terms of their experimentations, it’s much less solo-heavy than the typical rock band—it is more about particular dubs and dub sections, you know? So its really opened me up and allowed me the ability to really get into the words I sing.
That is an interesting point because there aren’t many jambands these days who have a vocalist that doesn’t also play an instrument.
I sometimes go on these tangents where I’ll sort of go with the music. The way the words are coming out, I’ll really be able to feel them as I am singing. I feel like they really resonate in me, which is something that—after you’ve done the same song over and over and you’re onstage in front of a lot of people and there’s a lot of energy, lots of expectation and there’s a lot of volume—is hard to do. A lot of times I feel like I can get lost as a lyricist and a singer with all of these instruments—you don’t necessarily hear these words as they are coming out. But with the Dub Trio there’s a certain vibe that they can get into—and a certain space that we as a band will get into—and I’ll kind of get back to the words. I’ll get back to the lyrics, and I’ll be able to really kind of connect with that. And that’s something that’s a big part of who I am—being a singer, a lyricist and a rapper. So since I have been playing with the Dub Trio I feel like my lyrics and singing have really re-emerged within the music in a really cool way that still has this whole improvisational thing to it. A lot of times I’m taking lyrics from different verses of different songs and putting them together.
It is interesting because when you first started touring you played reggae music but the entire pacing of your songs was much tighter—with less room for improvisation. Over time you really opened up your sound and became much more of a jamband.
I would say that this record is a lot more dynamic. Like you said, the first record had reggae songs but, like you said, there’s a certain pace to it—a certain sort of like sticking to the scripts and, with Dub Trio, we were really not afraid to just sort of be more dynamic. This record might not be tighter than Live at Stubb’s Vol. I but it’s a lot more mature.
When I made [my first studio album] Shake off the Dust, which were the songs from Live at Stubb’s, my main influence was reggae music. I’d say reggae was my main influence even through [2006’s] Youth. That’s what I was listening to those years and the music that was most influential for me as a singer. And even though I was into Phish and all kinds of different bands, as a vocalist, the place where I thought I could express myself was listening to Bob Marley and these other reggae singers. That became my style—mixed with the fact that I was into rap and that I am melodic by nature. It was about combining rap with the melody and the place where that’s happening the most is in reggae music. On top of that, the fact that reggae music borrows from text from the Old Testament was something I could identify with. That became my trademark thing.
When I became religious there was a period before Youth where I stopped listening to popular music for about two years. That was leading up to Youth but I was still influenced by the music from before that time. After that break, I never really got back into reggae music like I did when I was 20-years-old. What I listen to is pretty much the bands that I hear from these festivals I play or what Rob or Aaron turned me onto. So a lot of the staple indie bands like Arcade Fire, a lot of the electronic stuff like Glitch Mob and everyone from Santigold to The Flaming Lips, as well.
Hip-hop music in general has plummeted over the past few years. The hip-hop artists that I’ve been into are Eminem and even Lil’ Wayne. The ideas and the concepts have been hard for me to listen that a lot. The music has taken on a whole different thing. And even as a vocalist, I’ve figured out how to use my voice in a way where I can fit in with different styles of music. The thing with the live shows, I’m now playing with this band Dub Trio. They’ve totally re-addicted me to reggae music. I’ve played with musicians over the past few years that could play reggae—and they studied up on it—but they didn’t love to play reggae. What would happen was there was this under pull away from reggae. And now with the Dub Trio, the dub is so heavy—and just righteous—and I just get back into it. We have movements that are full on hip-hop moments and rock moments and different stuff on stage but there is this underbelly of heavy reggae that is there in the live show that is not really there on the album.