Matisyahu Discusses New Album Undercurrent

Matisyahu has just released his 15th album, Undercurrent. It’s the first one he produced himself, with his remarkable touring band: Big Yuki on keyboards, Stu Brooks on bass, Aaron Dugan on guitar and Joe Tomino on drums. An organically conceived album, it grew from the seeds of jams during some 200 nights a year of touring, which Matis and the band developed into eight incredible songs. This fusion of a live band performing and jamming with in-studio recording lends this collection the shining and improvisational energy of a concert. Epic, spiritual, inspirational and even ecstatic at moments, it’s powerfully affirmative, containing the deep and genuinely expressed wisdom of the ages. Yet unlike so many studio concoctions that seem divorced from real life and genuine music, Undercurrent glows with the musical freedom, lyrical wisdom, vigor and positivity of Matisyahu’s live shows.

We caught up with him for a few moments during a recent trip to L.A., where he and the band performed a set to help kick off Undercurrent at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, before heading up north to perform at the San Francisco Amoeba, and destinations beyond.

The new album, Undercurrent, is wonderful. It’s fresh and new, yet connected to the live albums you’ve done and the spirit of real musicians performing together. Do you remember what led you to that title ?

The names for my records come to me in different ways. Sometimes the title comes first, before the music. Sometimes not. The title Akeda came first before the music, and before that album was made. I knew that it was the perfect title for that stage of my life.

Undercurrent, though – I did not have the title for a long time – represents this stage of my life. I had gone through the transition of moving from my house in the hills to my house on the Hudson River. Akeda is the story of Abraham up on the mountain. Undercurrent is about water and reflection. I feel a deep connection between these two records.

After Spark Seeker, there came a profound transition in my life: a revelatory experience that was triggered by all the dynamics between my divorce, my religion, my career, my music, my family, my everything. I equate that breakthrough in my mind with the climactic moment in Abraham’s life, when he goes to sacrifice his son on the mountain, which is the Akeda.

Then the next stage after the Akeda, which is in direct correlation to it, is Abraham’s walk down the mountain, back to life after his break-through moment. Which leads me to now.

And the opening song, “Step Out Into The Light,” sort of starts where Akeda ended.

Yes, exactly. It’s all about reaching, searching, moving all your life, trying to step out into the light of this spiritual quest, and the momentum that you gain as it is all leading to this climactic moment.

Then comes “Back to the Old,” which is about a theme you’ve returned to a lot through your albums, a reconnection with your roots, and the knowledge you never are truly disconnected from them.

Yes. For me it came out of my own returning home. Back to the east coast, back to where I grew up and to this house I have on the river. It came from sitting out on the porch looking over the river, reflecting on all this experience. It was a time of picking up the pieces to figure out who I am now and where I am now. I’m a 37-year-old man now, the father of four with this house on the river. I was managing myself, and trying to figure out exactly what kind of song I wanted to write, what kind of music I wanted to create, and how I’m going to feel musically fulfilled on a nightly basis. What kind of music is it going to be that I want to play?

You have made many different kinds of records, though all unified by your spirit, and the fusion of ancient wisdom with modern times. 

Yes. With Spark Seeker, I wanted to make a pop record. With Shake Off The Dust, I wanted to make a roots reggae record. That is all nice and fun when you’re in the studio and it’s nice to sit back and listen to those songs and see that people connect to those things. But when I’m out on the road, 200 days a year, as I have been the last 13 years, the music takes on its own life. Because I need that; I need the music to take on its own organic experience, separate from the way I recorded it in the studio.

But what I found is that, often times, this could set up a dynamic between me and the audience where I was feeling I was not giving them what they wanted. I could feel that what my audience wants to hear are those songs they know from my records, and to be familiar with them, and to relate to them as they relate to them on their phone or whatever. I understand that, but I have to feel the music, and I need to make it new. I know this can lose people. But it is who I am.

So I felt that at this stage I know I have a very clear vision of what I want this music to be. It’s a certain combination of different elements, of different genres and styles. After playing these last 13 years with different musicians, I felt I found the musicians who would be capable of creating that.

So I specifically went about making this album in the opposite way I usually work. As opposed to writing and recording songs in the studio, like usual, and then figuring out how to translate them live, I figured I would start with the sound: with a live sound. And go from there.

Yeah, this has that real feel of your band playing together with all the colors you use onstage.

That is what I wanted. I wanted to capture the spirit and sound of what we do live: extended songs, a musical journey that moves through different musical landscapes, a musical conversation between musicians, all of which was created purely musically, before I start adding lyrical concepts to it.

To accomplish this, I needed to get the greatest musicians I could find who were most capable of playing this music, and working together as a unit. I spent nearly two years getting the right musicians together, as we toured around the world. Onstage every night we would improvise and jam, and we recorded everything. Then, after the tour, we all went into a rehearsal room and started listening back to these jams, and then developing them into somewhat loose forms. We chose eight of them.

Did you use those recordings as the basis of the album?

No. We used them as the seeds of musical ideas, from which we built new tracks. In October 2016, we went directly from that rehearsal room to a recording studio in Greenpoint with an engineer, and we laid down all the music in ten days.

Just music? No words yet?

Right. We recorded a full instrumental record of eight songs.

Really? And then you took those tracks and wrote the words and melodies?

Yeah, I spent the next ten days alone in a studio in a hotel. I wrote all the lyrics and put vocals on top of it.

And it was only then did I realize the name of the album was going to be Undercurrent.

Is that right?

Yeah, because the way I write lyrics is to constantly write down ideas, which I keep, over time. Over the year and a half since I moved back to the East Coast, I have been busy writing down every idea that came to me. I wrote them as little notes in my phone.

Then when I go back, I listen to the music, and I look at all these notes, and see what happens. I start writing it out on paper, and moving it around, and putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Then I lay down the vocals and go back and listen to it and decide what this record is about. Now I can understand it more than when I am doing it. I have to discover it first before I can see what it is.

It’s like when Adam was in the Garden of Eden and God was naming everything. Which came first – the name or the creation? Or did He see the thing first before he knew what to call it? This is like that. It’s something that was created first. Then I can look at it and decide what it is. That happens with me over time. I feel that’s when the best lyrics I write come, and are not contrived. Instead of writing about an idea, I let the lyrics come from a free associative place. I don’t contrive these words in any way, I discover them as they emerge. Then later on, when I’m experiencing my life, I can look back and see the the wisdom in what I’ve done.

This is the only album you’ve ever produced yourself.

Yes. On this record, we had no outside producer manipulating the tracks and the sound. So it is a very personal record, and an extremely creative one. There are no compromises when it comes to the art of what we were creating. Nothing was taken out or shortened to make it easier to digest or more accessible or more radio-friendly. There’s not one moment on this record when we do that.

Yeah, I know. On “Step Out Into The Light,” that chorus doesn’t come for a long time.

Right. It did become an issue, though. When we went to radio with “Step Into the Light,” as you said, the chorus doesn’t hit until almost two minutes into it, which a lot of people didn’t think was good.

But I did not want to change it. That’s the way it’s got to be. That, in itself, makes a statement. You have to dig in for a minute.

When that chorus does come, it is really powerful. And it is such a powerful chorus.

It’s all about the complexity of this record. Because oftentimes on an art record or a creative piece based on an improvisation, there can be cool musical landscapes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be good songs. What makes them good songs, honestly, are the choruses of each song. Most have raps throughout the verses, but a melodic chorus that keeps coming back. And I feel that you come back to the chorus with a feeling that is very familiar, inspiring but natural. The verses take you out, and lets you go all the way out to the fringes of difference experience. But the chorus brings you back to your core, to your center, to a place that feels comfortable, that feels almost normal. And in that tension and build-up and release of going out and coming back is the heart of this album.

I almost called this record Run and Return, which is a concept I’ve discussed throughout this book. The concept of going out and coming back.

Do you write the melodies while writing the lyrics?

Yes. The words shape the tune, and the tune impacts the words. I write the lyrics and melody alone, but it’s all part of the collaborative process. I’m playing off of everything the band is doing. Because I hear the line that Yuki is playing in the chorus harmonized with the way Aaron is playing the guitar part, and that becomes the seed that allows me to hear the melody to sing over it. I would never have come to that melody if not for what the band is playing. And they’re all playing off of each other as well.

Yes. And your band is phenomenal. They are super tight and precise, but also funky and so improvisational. Each player is amazing.

Yes. I am really happy with this current band, which is why I wanted to make this with them. We have been together now for a while, and it feels so right. And this music really is a conversation between all of us. A lot of times, today, you’ve got really talented, creative people making music in their bedrooms on their laptops. It’s a conversation they’re having, maybe, with themselves, using different sounds and different instruments. But when you bring different, individual musicians into a room in an old-fashioned way with instruments, and invite them to have a conversation with each other, that’s a very different thing than one guy having a conversation with himself. And that’s why from a musical perspective I feel this record is very forward, very fresh and new. It feels like a throw-back record. It feels like an old school record. Part of that is because it was recorded live in a real studio with real musicians, and we captured the real energy of musicians having a conversation with one another.

It’s almost a jazz record, in the sense that it comes from that same modus of musical exploration, improvisation and conversation. When music is borne out of improvisation on a live stage, there’s an energy to it, and we were able to grasp that energy on this record. Because it’s really about what I do as an artist. My biggest record is a live album – Live at Stubbs. I made all these live records, and I’ve been known for my life performance. And there’s a certain energy that happens live, that has always been really difficult for bands to pull of in the studio. Listen to the Grateful Dead or Phish, any of their recordings. Most of their fans are going to listen back to their live recordings, not the records, because that energy is not able to come across on the records.

So I think on this record, though it’s very different musically from Live at Stubb’s, in some ways it’s a throw-back to that idea, and I think people will feel its real spirit of freedom when they listen to it.

It’s been a real challenge in terms of getting a band that can match the type of music that I want to create. It’s not an easy task when you’re dealing with different people all coming from different backgrounds and different places who have been influenced and taught by different styles of music. It’s much easier when you have a band in which everyone comes from the same place and wants to do the same thing. But when you have a very varied vision with a lot of dynamics and styles involved, that becomes, for me, almost my main job. Outside of being expressive onstage and singing and dancing and moving, trying to create the show via the sound and lights and experience for people, my biggest challenge becomes managing the band and getting them to explore the vision that I have.

Because it might not match what I want. Each is individual. Aaron might just want to improvise. He doesn’t want to get caught up in playing parts. Stu wants to play heavy dub reggae and hip-hop. And those two things don’t necessarily go together, so how can I get each of them to see the value in each other’s thing in order to create the sound that I want, which includes both elements?

As a listener, it seems to me that each of them is capable of doing anything. Both Aaron and Yuki, especially, seem to have an unlimited palette from which they draw, while Stu and Joe keep the groove solid and clean.

Yeah. Any musician can play a part, but it’s a matter of how much you can believe them. Like an actor who makes a role his own. But a great actor can use any accent. Stu can play any accent. He can play any style. But does he understand deeply improvisational music and how to do that? Aaron does understand that, but does he understand how to play an extremely simple, meditative part over and over again? So there’s a certain attitude and understand a person has to have to play a certain kind of music authentically.

Yuki, for example, went to jazz school and has great jazz chops. He looks up to all the great jazz musicians and has played and studied with them. At the same time, he listened to hip-hop growing up so he knows all those synths and how to play hip-hop and electronica. So he can play all over the map, but always unified by the purity of his spirit.

Each person comes from more than one place. They each have a combination of experiences and styles that make up who they are. Then when you put those together, you have all of these different experiences and sounds, and you meld those together like different colors in a painting, and come up with this concoction.

Which is connected to how you brought reggae into your life. It was never an act or a contrivance, but a genuine part of your musical soul. 

Yeah. But that didn’t come from nothing. Even with reggae, I first had to gain a certain understanding of it, and a deep emotional connection to it in order to do it. If it was just me imitating patois, then it wouldn’t have worked. I would have been known as a great imitator. But how can this Hassidic Jew make this reggae sound so authentically? Only because I, like a sponge, absorbed it in a very deep way. Same thing with all these different styles.

So how do you find people who have absorbed all these different styles that are almost contrary to each other? That’s the difficult part that most people will never know or think about. That’s my challenge in my world.