By Kevin Alan Lamb
When “King Without A Crown” broke in 2004, I was fresh out of West Bloomfield High School, where I was better versed in jewish culture than most 18-year-olds, but had no idea who Matisyahu was, nor where he came from. I remember his appearance clearly: Long, dark, full beard with a black top hat. Thirteen years later I found myself sitting next to him, another world away, with his beard shaved, hair grayed and cut, but the man remained.
Born Matthew Paul Miller, Matisyahu “City of God” faced great scrutiny in the wake of changing his appearance, the devout lifestyle it entailed, vocal problems, and divorcing his wife, yet a man of great faith endured, intent on reclaiming himself.
Here’s my conversation with the 38-year-old man who stole the show from Trey Anastasio the first time he stepped on a major stage when he was 16, and learned the most important lesson of his life from his father, to be yourself.
KAL: So I always feel like a lot of places overlook having a media tent. A media tent is a good chance to make your festival shine because if you treat artists well you can get them talking about that, cater to the experience and capture the experience.
Matisyahu: Sometimes you have the surpluses of people in the media tents all geeked out with people doing interviews and others no one’s there then you’re just like, “Okay this is kind of depressing.”
KAL: Haha yeah can we do this interview by the pool next time? Should we go outside the box?Yeah I’ve been here since last weekend, it’s been great. Yeah it was great to see you. My Morning Jacket was a really special set for me. I have a lot of friends here so I like to hang out with Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers, the Accidentals, Trevor Hall. I’m really stoked for Nahko tomorrow night. He’s someone who is very special to me and I’ve had the chance to sit down with him a couple times. For me it’s really about forming relationships with people who are really using their gifts for something useful.
Matisyahu: Yeah I met Trevor when he was 17 at Sundance playing in an art gallery and my manager and another label were in a battle for this cat. All the majors were out for this guy. He was 17 and from North Carolina; he went to music school in L.A. He had his EP out called Lime Tree and he played it and there were two hippie girls dancing in the art gallery to it. I was like, “This kid’s got it, he’s got IT.” Then after that I put him on every tour for the next three or four years. I got to know his parents, his mom and dad would come out to shows. He traveled in my R.V. at one point; it was him my ex-wife, my kids, and I just remember my ex-wife would say the weirdest things to him like, “He can’t set up his idles! Don’t let him pray in my mother in-laws house with an idle because she’ll have a fuckin fit!” I’m like, “Dude, I can’t tell Trevor not to bring his shit to your house; that’s not cool.”
KAL: Isn’t it wild when some of the most genuine, positive, sweetest, most sacred people are that way.
Matisyahu: Yeah they’re threatened by other people because they have different centers and can’t get out of their own brain. I think that they just use that as a way to feed off their fears and not actually have to make any changes to the way they see shit. Trust me I know the type, I’ve been the type! Yeah I went in. I drank the juice.
KAL: It’s hard not to right?
Matisyahu: Well, yeah at that point in my life I was just searching, I thought there was a lot of beauty, a lot of cool shit that I saw and then I wasn’t able to decide between what was cool and what wasn’t. Then I just decided that the only way to do this was to go all in and I remember that conversation with my dad. I was like, “I know a lot of this shit doesn’t make sense, but if I’m going to do it, you know me, I’m going to do it right.” I think that the only way to understand it is to lose my logic, just lose myself in it. Then if I’m willing to have faith, if I’m willing to believe in God, my goals, my music, my dreams, and I’ll come back to myself eventually, but I have to allow myself to go in. I understood it
KAL: I have a similar credo that has helped me live the life I have. It’s from The Avett Brothers it says, “Decide what to be and go be it” and I used to be an athlete, a baseball player and I thought I would spend my life doing that, but my shoulder etc. didn’t work out. So I was bettering myself which then took a song called “Head Full of Doubt: Road Full of Promise” and it made me go all in and commit to myself. I asked myself what I was best at: writing. What does it take to be a writer? Writers just get shat on. So it was me being willing to do all these things, to learn, to make sacrifices for it. Are there any credos that you live by? Anything that has gotten you on track?
Matisyahu: Yeah, I’m a little bit of a veteran in the sense that I’ve played so many shows that I know what makes me happy and what doesn’t. I know I get easily depressed from doing anything that is not authentic to me and my music. That’s where I still relate to God; that shit is pure. All the voices in your head that are like “speed up a little bit because it will get people moving more” or “play the song you think they wanna hear.” I won’t do it, I won’t write a set list. My sets are more than fifty-percent improvised; it is what it is. I just cultivate the fan base. You don’t like it go home.
KAL: You bring up something that I think we can delve into. Can you talk about how the improvisation of music is really translated into the necessity of improvisation in life; to be flexible and being able to adjust to the situation no matter your commitment?
Matisyahu: Yeah definitely. Playing parts in music is awesome and there are some badass bands that play great parts and great music and it feels amazing, but that is always what it is. Your brain, the second that it starts playing what it did the night before, I don’t care who you are, you can get into it, but on some level you go into autopilot and muscle memory. I know I can do that, but I’m not fucking going too. When you wait and you listen, then something new happens and you think it might be cool it might not be. Like you were saying about writers being shat on, if you’re a real artist that wants to improvise and try something new, you’re going to get shat on. People are like, “Oh, I don’t like that jam” or, “Oh ,why did he do that?” But that’s the way you grow, the way you learn what works by trying something new. By not doing a thing that you know, even if it’s awesome.
KAL: You had a pretty cool opportunity — I have a few friends that are a little bit more seasoned with Phish and Trey — and one of your kind of big hop on scenes that people are saying, even before you quite knew what was happening you were sort of leading the improvised beatbox scene. Can you sort of speak to that and how you got to this point?
Matisyahu: Haha where do I start? Okay, I’ll just hit the points: Sixteen I came back from Israel, I was depressed. I had just had some kind of inspiring spiritual experience and I come back and high school is just not working and my friend was like, “We’re going to go see Phish at the Centrum.” So we go, 16, for the first time, we drop L, and I knew for the first time that was it, that was it. I don’t know what or how, but somehow this is fucking it. I’m going to do this because the first thing I saw were kids my age and I thought, “Where are their fuckin’ parents?”
Alright, if shit hits the fan I’m doing that. A year later, shit hit the fan and I leave on tour, my friends got a bus and there was that whole experience. But fast forward five years and I’m religious and I’m drug free and I’m disciplined. At that point I was like, “If the music’s gonna happen it’s gonna happen.” Shit starts happening. Bonnaroo, on Shabbos, my manager is just like, “Turn on your cell phone! After Shabbos turn it on.” So he calls me after Shabbos and is like, “Trey wants to meet you” and I was just like, “Yes! It fuckin’ worked! It’s happening!”
I literally studied Torah until fuckin’ sun down until the moment. Then I turned it on and it was, “Trey wants to meet with you; I got in a car, had a rabbi drive me back to Bonnaroo, I’m trippin out; we walk up to the back and my manager is like, “I know you like to sit in and I know you like to ask, but don’t cross the boundary. Just go in, meet him, and it will happen. I walk in and literally the first fucking thing out of my mouth is, “You gotta fuckin’ let me sit in on this show! I will fuckin’ spit fire for you bro,” and he was like “I’ve got American Idol, Bo Bice sitting in with us there’s nothing really I can do man.”
I’m like, “fine” and I leave. I’m listening to some other bands and shit, then I get this stream of texts and it’s my manager, he’s like, “He wants to know if you know any Bob Marley songs!” I was like, “Do I know any fucking Bob Marley Songs? How is this happening right now?!” I run back and I’m in the room with the band and we’re practicing “No Cry” in the trailer, 20 minutes before the set. Ten minutes later, Trey pops his head in and is like, “Track three! Track three! We want to do that also.”
So we go up on stage and I’ve only ever been in really organized school music school bands until I was 22-years-old and I get out on stage with Trey and we all completely forget the song. The drummer forgets the beat. If you watch the footage you’ll just see everyone looking around, then we improvised the whole thing. It was probably the number one experience of my career. That’s where I learned about reggae music and a lot of the different pieces of who I am and what I do. But that is the most important piece of my life is that music. Walking into that arena and thinking that it’s not about them or it’s not about Trey. They’re giving us a place to experience life and sound. It was my first experience where lights are shown on the performer and you’re in the dark; but you’re a part of the light show and you’re in the performance and a part of the community. There is no barrier. That’s what’s happening right now! Right over there! That was the blessing. I decided there that I want to be a part of this; I want to somehow be able to partake in creating this.
KAL: You strike me as the type of man who enjoys/would be good at working with children.
Matisyahu: Yeah absolutely when I first started touring, I would always stop at the rabbi’s house in every city. They’re set up all over and that’s where I would stay. In Berkley, there was the funniest dude. He had all these kids and he said, “Matis I just don’t know what to do with them. My youngest he’s just absolutely insane I don’t know what to do.” I told him to get him a drum set. He got him one and I come back a year later, kid drums like crazy. I keep checking in over the years and he’s getting really into music and he’s on the path. About six months ago, I get a text that he’s in Rubicon Heights, I had a seven hour layover near there. I was like, “Dude, I don’t have time but would you meet me at the airport and you can play me some of your music. We can lap around JFK.” He was like, “Yeah, Matis!” and he comes, plays me the music and it’s so dope. I just moved into this house on the Hudson River. I told him that I need a guy to help me setup my studio and he asked me to come jam with him and his band sometime. I told him I’m out here touring I can’t really, I don’t have time. Finally, I had them all come over on Shabbos, all the kids and Rabbi’s. See, the deal with all these kids is that they met at a home for bad kids in their families, which is basically what it is. But it was so cool because this rabbi pushed these kids into music and made them the musicians they are today. They know reggae and hip hop. They know the music! So I invite them to the studio and I sign them. It wasn’t like I was trying to manage them or anything, but if I was going to do this I was going to do this full force.
KAL: Are you familiar with a man named Lazer Lloyd? He’s from the East Coast, but he brought blues and rock n roll to Israel. He’s a buddy of ours.
Matisyahu: Oh that’s so cool I did not know that.
KAL: When was one of the first times outside playing that you met a hero? Maybe not necessarily in music, but as a result of following your passion and living on this path. When, looking around, you were thinking this is pretty fuckin’ cool. Just looking eye to eye with someone you really admire.
Matisyahu: Let me see, I’m trying to think of the cats I’ve really liked. Last weekend I got to meet with Vince Staples. But usually when I’m on tour there are like three or four artists and I usually listen to their music before the set to get me up. I connect certain tours with certain artists. Like I just got off a hard Vince Staples run where it was like 24/7. Then my song came “King Without a Crown;” I’ve tried to reinvent it over the years, but it just wouldn’t work for me and one time I was just jammin’ with the band and Staples just came up with the complete opposite of “King Without a Crown.” It was hard and gritty and I just started spittin’ “King Without a Crown” over it and was like, “Yo, this is a good song.” But yeah, I don’t really geek out that often, but once in awhile, yeah.
KAL: That’s awesome man, who is someone when you were really young that you would really just like to say thank you to? Or someone who you haven’t had the chance to thank who doesn’t know it so much; who you would like to give a little love too.
Matisyahu: Alright I’ll tap out to my pops. He’s the first person that rushes to my head because you know my dad he would choose when to give me advice. If I wasn’t going to listen he wasn’t going to waste his time. So there was only one or two times that I really remember him telling me things. I remember one, “Just be yourself. Don’t worry about anybody else or who they think you are or who they think you’re supposed to be. Just be you.” And even though I’m an artist and I’m hypersensitive to all types of shit, that’s just the advice I go through over and over in my head.
KAL: That was just the most useful and sort of, I think as you’ve said, everyone has accepted you. You’re proud and you have this image of who you are. Now you’re like, “I’m still me and nothing I’m doing is permanent and I’m shaking things up.” It’s sort of like a reset for you to start fresh. Not limiting yourself.
Matisyahu: Yeah, I was born on the Jewish day that Ezekiel had his vision of a chariot with four faces. I sort of connected with that because my music sort of feels like four different things; there are four different members of my band with totally different musical backgrounds. One is a jazz improviser, another is classical, a hip hop guy, they’ve all got different styles and that’s what I’m trying to create: a chariot with different dimensions to it. When you see them all together it creates a certain tension that work together. As the front man for that I feel like I have to have those things so it doesn’t shift.
KAL: You need to keep them in you and keep those perspectives.
Matisyahu: Yeah and in my life, my outer appearance is always shifting depending on where I’m at.
KAL: Then one more and we’ll get out, after all it is day 167 of Electric Forest. We’re having a lot of fun. You have a set coming up, it’s going to be phenomenal as they usually are. This is a good environment for you. But after your set a giant alien spaceship will come and land; E.T. will walk out and you have the opportunity to represent mankind in one comedy movie. What would you show them?
Matisyahu: What movie? Oh fuck. Ah, I mean ,I would probably show them The Goonies.
KAL: “Up there, it’s their time; but down here,
[Collectively] IT’S OUR TIME!”
Just in case you were looking for one, This is a Good Sound.