After sitting next to Matisyahu’s guitarist, Aaron Dugan, entirely by chance on an airplane, we ended up sharing a cab ride back to Brooklyn. Then, a week later, still relishing in serendipity and life’s ability to imitate jazz, Dugan and I continued our conversation for PopMatters.
When we spoke, Dugan’s comments reflected a perspective from the edge of the spotlight. Matisyahu’s recent major-label debut, Youth, was big news. Dugan was especially honored when Youth’s star producer, Bill Laswell, asked Dugan to stick around after the Youth, sessions to record a second album of music, the recently released dub record, Roots Tonic. On both Youth and Roots Tonic, Dugan’s guitar work radiates in Laswell’s mix, and his sound is a foundational pillar for Matisyahu’s magic.
When not on the road, Dugan lives with a local artist in Brooklyn. Their apartment is bright, eclectic, and distinctly Mexican. The walls are white and everywhere you look, different worlds percolate in sculptures and photographs. As we began to talk, I noticed a mummified cat on the shelf beside us, and when I asked Dugan about it, his roommate responded, “I found the cat just like that in a barn. Funny thing was that when I found the cat’s body, a mouse came running out of the mouth.” I noticed that the cat’s teeth were still intact.
You’re a reggae guitarist, but I know there’s more to your sound. What are the roots of your style?
Jazz. It’s rock and jazz—elements of Sonic Youth and John Coltrane. My friends have always been an influence too.
How do you get your soul together? What do you play when things aren’t working?
Sometimes I find myself trying to go too fast. My head goes very fast, but my fingers can’t keep up. So I chill, and I play one note. When my mind wants to go berserk, I try to make the most of every sound.
What’s your frontier? Where are you moving?
I want to reach out to the world. I’ve been buying music from everywhere, trying to find different scales, different concepts. I’m transcribing belly-dancing music; I’ve been checking out Syrian music.
Tell me about your first Matisyahu record, Live at Stubs.
I’d never been on a CD before Matisyahu. Live at Stubs was like playing a show, but it came out and people bought it.
How was it different with the new album, Youth?
The Youth album we did with the notorious dub-jazz producer, Bill Laswell. That was the first time I worked with a producer. Laswell works fast. He’s a pro.
Did you learn a lot working with Laswell?
Yeah, I learned to stick up for myself. I learned from Bill to speak up, that artists are important, that musicians are important. Another nice thing was that Bill really liked my playing. Everything we did on Roots Tonic was done in one or two takes. We basically wrote the album on the spot. It was very organic. I also learned from Laswell to be less afraid of people on the business side of the industry. It’s not a parent-child relationship; the label needs you just as much you need them. You have to stick up for what you think should be put out. But when you get a whole bunch of people together, you have to compromise something, and there’s a beauty in that. Some of us wanted hits, while at the same time I was thinking, let’s make an album that sounds like a piece of art. Take Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys—Brian Wilson wanted to make a great piece of art. Same thing with the Beatles. A lot of great albums are like that. Take Radiohead’s OK Computer. You listen to it from start to finish, and there’s a reason for the track order; there’s a reason for the album art.
As opposed to?
A hit-based album that’s made to sell, where the mentality is like, This song is going to hit because it has a hip-hop beat. That’s a thought process more in line with the business of a label. But as an independent artist, I’m lucky to work with a major label. For years I was doing my own stuff. I had all the control, but no one heard it. So it’s a catch-22; there’s always a little bad with the good.
Playing around the jazz-improv scene in New York, you must have learned a lot from some talented people. Who else influenced you?
I played with John Zorn on his improv night at Tonic. It was very free. Zorn just calls people up to do a five-minute piece. With Zorn, it’s all improv—he just says, “All right, go!” Playing with Zorn was nice. I took chances. I was 22 years old and playing with John Zorn for the first time. Afterward he gave me a high-five, and he was really into it. When you’re young like that, playing with Zorn or Laswell, you go for something, and when they accept it, it’s very cool. Zorn affected me a lot.
What has Matisyahu taught you?
I think we taught each other a lot. Our band taught him song form. He used to be all over the place. But he taught me that sometimes all it takes is connecting with the crowd, no matter how much music you know. Matis has this thing where he just connects with the crowd. He reaches out to them. He can really speak to a crowd. He just has something. We taught him about theory, about why it’s nice to have space in music. There were also a lot of things about playing in a band that we taught him. But we always teach each other things. Who knows who taught who what at what time?
How’d it all get started?
Matisyahu called me to play a Hanukah lighting ceremony in Union Square Park in New York. That was the first gig we ever did. I knew him from the New School. In college he was doing the thing where he’d get up and rap—you know, toasting. He was just one of those guys. But then he called me and said, I want to do reggae. At the time, I didn’t play any reggae so I started checking out Bob Marley’s band again and how the different instruments would interlock. On those recordings I noticed how the organ would bubble, so I started doing that on guitar. I also tried to play both the keyboard and the guitar part at the same time. That’s how I developed my style. Of course the band told me when what I played was whack. It’s a challenge. I want to be free, but sometimes it’s nice to sit back and chuck.
Since we met on an airplane, it’s only appropriate that we talk about life on the road.
There’s not much of anyone who tours like we tour. It’s craziness and it can be tough, especially before we had the bus and we just had a van with no trailer. On the road you have to share hotel rooms, you’re in the van together, you’re on stage together, and you’re in the hotel room together. I’m a very private person, and I’ve given up my private space for the past couple of years. I haven’t been able to write as much music. But the upside is connecting with people on the road. I love not being the guy who has to deal with the promoter or the guy at the door. I love being the guy who just shows up and plays guitar. No one hassles us. This is the kind of band where they’re like, Oh, you’re Matisyahu, what can we do for you? You think everyone should be treated like that. It’s also nice to meet so many great rabbis on the road. Some of the Jewish community is very cool.
Are you Jewish?
That’s debatable. The ultrareligious would say I’m not—many of them have strict guidelines as to whom they consider Jewish. But my mom is Jewish, and I was bar mitzvahed. My mom converted when she was four because her mom remarried someone who escaped from Hitler. But some people still ask me, How was she converted? Was she raised kosher? You know, it’s funny because I’m not concerned. I don’t care if I’m Jewish or not. I have other things to worry about. You can ask other people if I’m Jewish.
What is it about music that enriches your life outside of playing music?
The reason I do this is because of the music fan, because of that moment when I hear something and I’m like, Oh my god. It’s hard for me to make music and get that same feeling. It’s hard for me to listen to my own stuff and get that feeling. When I first heard Clouds Taste Metallic, it was like, This is the best thing I’ve ever heard and I’ll never hear it like this again. That makes me feel a certain fulfillment. It’s like, Wow, this is important and I’m hearing it. A same thing goes with the first time I heard Ornette Coleman’s Tomorrow Is the Question, or the first time I heard the Meters or any old Stevie Wonder. Great music does something to me that nothing else does. It’s like that feeling when you’re in love. It’s not the same, but it’s close, and you don’t hear it that often.