s the longest-standing member of Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu’s backing band, Aaron Dugan has spent the last nine years sharing his guitar skills in the studio and on the road, weathering lineup changes and stylistic shifts while playing sold-out shows across the globe. Like many veteran sideman, however, he hasn’t forgotten his own muse: Somehow, despite his hectic touring schedule and the long studio process of writing and recording Matisyahu’s new album, Light, Dugan has found time to put together an album of his own music, Aaron Dugan’s Theory of Everything.  

Dugan’s debut, a testament to his passion for composition, is a blend of dub reggae and blazing jazz guitar with just a hint of Dugan’s folky twang. Even die-hard Matisyahu fans who’ve been listening to his playing for years might be surprised; Theory is a revealing look at his musical roots and influences.

A life-long musician, Dugan honed his chops at the New School of Music in New York, where he met Matis and the original members of his backing band. Taking a reggae approach to guitar didn’t stop Dugan from furthering his skills, as Matis left plenty of room for Dugan’s intricate solos and complex lead lines.

  Dugan took a moment from his chaotic schedule on the road with Matis and Dub Trio to talk with us about his new record, the new sound of Matisyahu, and what inspired him to create his Theory of EverythingStory by Jon D’Auria   Photos by Jon Mancuso

A

Tell us a little bit about the album. Where did you get that title?

I actually stole it from a scientific concept I read about that explains the universe. I have a lot of great friends playing on this who are just phenomenal musicians. Jason (Fraticelli) from Matisyahu is playing bass and Mark Juliana (Meshell Ndegeocello) is playing drums on it. It should be great once it’s all finished. 


When can we expect this to be released?

I’m not too sure right now. It’s all sort of moving at it’s own pace, so guess I won’t know until it’s finished.


You’ve also been in the studio with Matisyahu. How’s that going?

The new album, Light, is sounding really cool because we’re recording these songs just as we do them live; it sounds immediate and current to me. The hair on my neck goes up when I hit play on what we’ve tracked. There is a lot of diversity, too: “Struggler” is more hip-hop, “Thunder” and “So High, So Low” are pretty mellow sounding, and “Escape” is a pretty dynamic and progressive tune. I think everyone will enjoy the variety on this album.


And how do you go about songwriting with Matis?

Each song is different. “So High, So Low” I wrote in my bedroom alone, while “Thunder” came from a beatbox session we pieced together in the studio. It always varies. It’s amazing how easy it is in the studio to jam or write a million parts and then piece together the good stuff.


You’ve been in Matisyahu’s band since 2004, longer than anyone else. What’s your relationship with him?

I’ve known him since 1999, but we didn’t become close until we started playing together a few years later. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff together and our relationship has just gotten better and better. It’s heavy to collaborate fully and put all of our differences aside to just make music. We’re really lucky to have such a good relationship.


What’s it like to be non-religious in Matisyahu’s very religious band? 

The first couple of years everyone assumed I was Jewish. If you talk to me, you’ll learn quickly that I’m not so into religion. It’s all about the music for me, but the connection with the people that comes from it is even bigger than the music itself. 

Describe a Matisyahu show in your own words.

I wake up in a different city, I sound check, I eat, I do personal stuff, we have a setlist meeting, we listen to the set from the night before, and then we go out and play. If you’re 100% there on stage, it works. No one is on drugs here, which is a good thing. So we don’t have any crazy stories. But it seems like the less crazy stories a band has, the better their music is.


You guys do lots of elaborate jams, instrumental interludes, and extended sections. How much of that is improv and how much is planned?

Some of the older songs, like “Chop ‘Em Down” and “King Without a Crown,” stick to a format. The set really changes from night to night, though; it’s all about the vibe and what Matis is feeling for the set. Also, we feed off of each other, so you can always tell if someone’s on fire that night.


What is your most memorable show so far?

Probably Red Rocks in Colorado with 311. Something about that amphitheatre is surreal and incredible.


How did you get into playing guitar?

I got a guitar for Christmas when I was 12 years old. My dad is a musician and I always wanted to be a drummer. When I was four, my parents took me to a Loretta Lynn show and the second they began intermission, I made a break for the drum set. When I was 14, we moved to the suburbs, and having no friends, I played pretty constantly. It’s great to be a loser sometimes.


You’ve been playing the same guitar for most of your time with Matisyahu. What’s so special about that axe?

Oh yes, my Epiphone Riviera! I love that guitar, but it’s starting to get old and worn down. It has been so great for me for so long, but I’m afraid it could crumble at any time. I actually just picked up a new guitar. It’s a beautiful PRS Mira, and it’s the solidbody guitar I’ve been dreaming of all these years.

Who are your top five greatest musical influences?

Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Neil Young, Radiohead, and Wu-Tang Clan.


Was there a single concert that changed your life?

Definitely: Radiohead on their OK Computer tour. I saw the show in Philadelphia, and at the time, I was only into jazz. That show changed my whole world up—they shifted everything I knew or perceived about music and it was unreal.


What makes you continue playing music?

You know when you turn on the news and get a bad feeling in your stomach from all of the horrible stuff on it? Music is the opposite of that for me. It fulfills my mind and spirit and really makes me whole. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.


What do you still wish to accomplish in your career?

I would like to play my own music and let it be heard. This is definitely a beginning for me. I’ve been writing my own stuff for a long time, but never with the intention of showing it to the public. It’s hard because you want people to get it, but you can’t write just for people to get it. You know?


Yeah. Don’t worry, we get it.

OK, good. As long as someone does.


                                                                                                                            -GX-

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