As Hanukkah drew to a close, Matisyahu dropped by the 9:30 Club on his yearly Festival of Lights tour -- this time without his long beard and traditional Jewish attire. He explains that with an evolving musical sound, his appearance has evolved as well.
Accompanied by Israeli jazz artist Daniel Zamir and his Dub Trio band, Matisyahu brought his high-energy blend of hip-hop, rock and reggae to a sold-out venue Thursday, ending the show by stage-diving into the crowd, followed by an invitation to the audience to join him on stage for a spirited singing of his anthem and hit single “One Day.”
Before the show, Matisyahu met with online contributor Peter Kirchhausen to discuss his music, his faith, the direction of the music industry... and how to end the hockey lockout.
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Peter Kirchhausen: Happy Hanukkah. You're nearing the end of this year's tour so I wanted to ask you a question about faith. If you talk to a lot of rabbis, they will say that Judaism is a faith in crisis, with so many young people taking to the faith culturally but not religiously. You got into Judaism after high school when you were a bit older, so what would you say to an 18-year-old who is struggling to find his or her faith?
Matisyahu: "Well, I think that being lost is an important part of life. I think the real scary part is when people are too found -- people who are too certain about something. I think I've been lost for most of my life. Even when I thought I found something, I was lost.
So thank God that I'm 33 now, and I feel that I'm just starting to find myself, but that is part of the journey -- that is life. But I am not of the school of telling people what they should or should not think or how they should live their lives or even advising people. That stuff is really personal."
PK: There has been a real evolution between your first album, "Youth," and your new album, "Spark Seeker." This album has a very electronic sound with produced beats and lots of Middle Eastern influences. What were your influences behind this latest album?
Matisyahu: "I've been influenced by a lot of different music. I was influenced by reggae music, live instrumental music like Phish, and by hip-hop, so I've tried in my past records to bring the different sounds that I like to create my sound.
As you said, my music is always changing based on music that I'm listening to, which is always changing as I listen and explore new things. But with this record I wanted a clean record with more of a hip-hop digital sound with programmed beats and with a big synthesizer sound with a lot of melody and a lot of hooks.
This record, working with producer Koool Kojak, happened very organically and he was the person who helped me make that kind of record. The majority of it was recorded in Los Angeles but we also spent two weeks in Israel where we incorporated more of a Middle Eastern instrumentation which is darker and more mysterious."
PK: You got into the business at the tail end of the time when people were still buying CD's -- I bought your first CD at my local record store, Area Records in Geneva, N.Y. The industry is changing and so it how to make a living in the music industry. For the 17-year-old who wants to tell their parents they hope to make music for a living, what would you tell them?
Matisyahu: "The way I approached it was not as a recording artist, but instead as a touring artist. I grew up listening to Phish and going to lots of concerts. And in hip-hop, the groups that I liked such as the Roots, had live instruments and that is what appealed to me. For me, it started with putting a band together, playing at coffee shops and open mics -- that is how I developed as a performer, but everyone is different.
I know kids who started in their bedroom making beats and recording all their own music and a label discovered them -- 'Wow, you did all this yourself?' -- but everyone is different. I would tell a 17-year-old who is trying to make a living by making music to focus on loving the music, but you don't tell someone that. It either is or it isn't.
Being a musician isn't about being smart and making good decisions. It's about being creative and if you are a smart businessman, that will help you on the road and maybe you won't make some of the mistakes I've made."
PK: Are you worried about the direction the music industry is going?
Matisyahu: "It is what it is, people will always want to hear music. Whether or not we will all be multimillionaires making music, that is another story. Money isn't why I'm doing what I do. I do this to make music, and for me, a lot of it has to do with being on the road meeting people and being with people."
PK: I know Israel means a lot to you, and I'm not asking you what is going wrong in the Middle East because you are not a scholar -- but what element do you think is missing that is keeping both sides from making peace?
Matisyahu: "A lot of people try to ask what is missing on both sides, but it's not necessarily the same thing on both sides; it doesn't always work that way. As much as we would like to say that everyone needs to take responsibility for themselves, which is true... even though we would like to say they are doing the same thing, it's not the same thing.
The Arabs are p----d that the Jews are there and they are willing to kill. And the Jews feel that they were murdered for 3,000 years and they are not going to put up with it anymore. So that is the simple story, and there is no easy answer. You can trace it back biblically, between Abraham and two women, Hagar and Sarah. Sarah didn't want her son Issac playing with Ismael. It's kind of prophetic."
PK: I know you are a big hockey fan, growing up playing ice hockey as a Rangers fan and now rooting for the Kings since you moved to L.A.. If you had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the leader of the players union together in one room, what you would tell them to end the lockout?
Marisyahu: "I would bring in some kid wearing his Rangers hat and have that kid look at them both and say 'Why can't my Ranger play hockey?' I want to take my kids to a hockey game. I'm sure most of the players are suffering -- I guess they're getting a little vacation from America and I bet the Europeans are happy."
PK: Tell me something fans don't know about you.
Matisyahu: "Hmm. I don't know what the fans know about me so that is tough. I have a Harley and I love riding my motorcycle."
PK: Do you ever ride up the coast to San Francisco?
Matisyahu: "Yeah, I do. That's something people don't know about me -- I spent the first four years of my life in California, and did preschool in Berkeley. My first concert was actually out there at the Oakland Coliseum in 1980. It was a Grateful Dead show."
PK: Your parents brought you to a Grateful Dead concert when you were two years old?
Matisyahu: "Yeah, we would always go to Dead shows; my parents were Deadheads."
PK: It's been about a year since you make a big change by shaving your beard, which was a part of your distinct Jewish look. In an industry where image means so much, have things started to settle? I know there was a pretty big backlash on the internet that you had to deal with.
Matisyahu: "Yeah, initially it was pretty bad. But people are adjusting and rolling with it. For me, it wasn't about a brand. For me it was a very personal thing.
It happens to be that people are going to see my face and it means something to people, and the look represented something to people. But for me it was an internal decision and it came from the inside out as does my music and my life. Like you said, in Hollywood and in the industry, the opposite is true and the outside matters more than the inside. There wasn't an incident that triggered the change, it was just an evolution. After years of struggling to fit into a mold, there were upsides and there were downsides to submitting yourself to a higher cause. You get out of yourself in a certain way."