Monday, December 11

Interview – Joe Tomino of Matisyahu

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Joe Tomino is the phenomenal drummer for the Dub Trio and for Matisyahu. He has also played or recorded with many other bands including GriZ, Peeping Tom, The Fugees, Lady Gaga, Wyclef Jean, Leela James, and the Ying Yang Twins. Recently, during a stop in Sacramento with Matisyahu, he spoke to SF Sonic about a variety of things including music, yoga, eating vegan on the road and his first visit to a mosh pit.

SF Sonic: Let’s start with music influences. One of the things I noticed at the Dry Diggings Festival in Placerville was that you were wearing a Death t-shirt.

Joe Tomino: Death was the first metal show I ever went to. I think I was fifteen and it was actually the first time I ever moshed as well and I got the shit kicked out of me. As a fifteen year old, you know, with raging hormones, it was quite invigorating for me. I vividly remember that show and that experience.

You know I wasn’t really into metal at that point but I remember looking into Death and checking out the liner notes on the tape, you know I’m dating myself saying tape…But I remember looking at the liner notes and they were thanking people like Chick Corea and Tony Williams and Allan Holdsworth and all of these jazz people. And I was just getting into that kind of realm and I was really intrigued. Plus, the music was complex and a lot of notes and had that whole visceral quality that metal has, so I was drawn to that too. They became one of my favorite metal bands of all time and that’s the story behind that.

SF Sonic: Very cool. Where was the show?

Tomino: That show was at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio which is where I grew up.

SF Sonic: You grew up in Cleveland?

Tomino: Ya, I live there too. I moved to Boston for a year, then I moved up to New York for many years, and then I came back to Cleveland in 2014.

SF Sonic: What kind of music city is Cleveland these days versus when you were growing up?

Tomino: Cleveland’s like a rock town still. It was even more so a rock town then. Jazz is pretty big there too. I’d say rock, then jazz. A lot of cover bands. There’s some creative music and some interesting original projects, but it’s still got that rock ‘n’ roll thing going. Rock is big there.

I mean, the city has changed a lot since I grew up. There was really a vibrant reggae scene happening in Cleveland in the late 90’s. And even before my time in the 80’s. A great scene. I don’t think I’d see it as much anymore these days. There’s some reggae bands but it’s not as prominent as it was.

SF Sonic: Did you play in any reggae bands there?

Tomino: I did. I was in a band called the Champion Bubblers. That was my first excursion into the reggae world. I got into that band my 12th grade year of high school.

Joe Tomino

SF Sonic: Oh wow. Ok, so you said you’d had exposure to Chick Corea and some of the jazz influences. Were you playing in the jazz band in high school?

Tomino: I was in the jazz band, but I was exposed to all kinds of music. But my latter half of high school, I got really exposed to classical music and I was playing in the Cleveland Youth Orchestra. We used to study under the orchestra.

So after high school in Cleveland, I went to Cleveland State for one year before I went to Boston. At the time, I was thinking about getting an orchestra gig, so I was really into classical music for a while.

SF Sonic: What would you have played in an orchestra?

Tomino: Percussion in general. I played all kinds of percussion – mallets, snare drums, cymbals, you know, anything that are percussions and played in an orchestra. That’s kind of what I was into. Then at the very end of high school I started playing in a bunch of different bands. I discovered jazz basically my 12th grade year. I had listened to jazz but hadn’t really played much of it or that well at least. There wasn’t a jazz major at Cleveland State, so I studied classical and percussion until I moved up to NEC (New England Conservatory) in Boston.

But ya, I was playing some jazz. I was playing in an electronic band. It was a duo. Back when electronic music was hitting in the late 90’s. I was in a punk band that had a good following called Say Uncle, I was in that reggae band called Champion Bubblers and I also doing a handful of jazz gigs and I was doing the classical thing. I was also doing a blues band and a big band – those weren’t my bands, I was hired as a sideman. So I was playing in a lot of different styles during my last year of high school.

SF Sonic: So you said you started off at Cleveland State and then you went to school in Boston after that?

Tomino: I went to Cleveland State for a year and studied classical percussion, then I took a semester off and then I went up to Boston and studied at New England Conservatory where I majored in jazz percussion there.

SF Sonic: So after that you moved to New York. Did Dub Trio come together in the Boston or New York area originally?

Tomino: I had met Stu and Dave from Dub Trio in a band that was in New York called Actual Proof. They actually came from Boston but their drummer didn’t come with them, so I joined up with those cats through some mutual friends that we knew. And then Actual Proof, that band gigged for a few years and Dave, Stu and I became really good friends. You know, we were sort of a rhythm section and we hung out a lot and listened to music. We started doing some improv gigs, having no moniker, no name. We weren’t even really doing dub, it was more like electronic music, improvisation, and just exploring. The trio. That’s basically how Dub Trio came about. We had then started listening to dub because I was listening to a little more of that, especially coming from the reggae scene from Cleveland and I had a bunch of mix tapes that we started listening to and that started seeping into actually writing tunes and conceptually trying to approach music from a dub standpoint. So that’s sort of how the basis, or genesis, of Dub Trio came about.

SF Sonic: You were in your early 20’s then?

Tomino: Ya, I was probably 22 or 23.

SF Sonic: How old are you now?

Tomino:  I just turned 40 last month, but I feel like I’m 25. I feel great!

SF Sonic: Then, if we come back to almost 20 years in the future, Dub Trio are getting ready to put some new music out pretty soon?

Tomino: That’s correct. Ya, we have a handful of tunes written, some vocalists onboard, running some tunes just trying to plan out the schedule as far as when we are going to be in the studio. We are going to do it in the middle of year, probably gonna do it in Brooklyn, which means that Dave and I will have to come into New York. We’ll probably write for a couple of days to make sure things are good to go and do some tracking there.

SF Sonic: Stu is still in New York?

Tomino: Ya, Stu’s in New York. Dave’s in Charlotte, North Carolina and then I’m in Cleveland.

SF Sonic: So you gotta triangulate the Trio to get together?

Tomino: Exactly.

SF Sonic: You’re bringing in some singers?

Tomino: Yes, sort of like we’ve done in the past. We’ve had a guest on one or two albums. Actually it’s the same guest. We had Mike Patton on both albums. I don’t think he’s going to be on this record. But ya, maybe like two or three singers and a handful of songs that are instrumental in the true Dub Trio style.

SF Sonic: So from recording the music in the studio to playing it live, do you guys take a different approach?

Tomino: Well, when we are doing the stuff live, since the band conceptually built on how Dub music was approached as a style, which is basically using the mixing board as an instrument. We still try to utilize that same concept in the studio, we record a bunch of the content. We’ll record a song, have all the parts there, then utilize the mixing board and/or the computer and then do a version which might sound pretty different from what was there originally, which is sort of the idea behind a dub.

Dub to me is the original remix, before the word remix was a term…that’s all that those dub cats were doing. They were taking popular songs in Jamaica which had vocals and there were only four tracks and they were just utilizing the mixing board to EQ, mute, add effects – completely deconstruct and reconstruct a song, which is exactly how Dub Trio has done all of our records. So we still aim to do that in the studio.

SF Sonic: So with you and Stu onstage with Matisyahu, are you adopting that approach?

Tomino: Ya, that’s been the name of the game since day 1. Dub Trio, we still do that. And Matisyahu’s music has so much inherent freedom in it that he’s really open to improvisation and he’s into the dub so he might just step back out of the spotlight for a minute and let the band play either dub or solo or reconstruct. He wants it to go somewhere different every night. So in a true remix in dub fashion, that’s at the heart of what we do live onstage.

SF Sonic: So, it would be safe to say you’re not going to play a straight version off the album?

Tomino: Pretty much never. I mean, maybe the form of first chorus/first chorus, but every time it gets into a solo that will obviously be different, then it might be an open section there and then it may come back to the ending and it may not. Or it may segue into another song or it may not.

SF Sonic: Does any one individual direct it onstage?

Tomino: No, not really. I feel it’s really based around someone hinting at a chordal change or hinting at a melodic line from a different song. There may be things or parts of the improvisation that we had done on a different night on a tour that might be a signal to go to a different thing or change it up, but as long as everybody is listening it pretty much can go wherever it wants. Every night is pretty different from the last. There’s no one really steering the ship, but everyone’s got big ears and everyone is listening so that’s the things about improvisation. If everyone’s listening and you’re playing with a bunch of good players, whether you meet them that day or for instance it’s like this where it’s a band playing for years, it’s pretty much gonna work out. You can pretty much turn anything, even if it’s a “mistake” and everyone is trusting each other and no egos get in the way, it’s gonna work out.

SF Sonic: Ok. If I am observing people at a Matisyahu show, often I see people who are there for a deeper purpose, maybe a spiritual connection or a healing energy. How do you receive that sort of energy from the people in the crowd?

Tomino: Well, that’s interesting because I’m in the back on a riser, so I’m not as connected at a larger scale venue with the crowd on an emotional level and I’m also wearing in-ears so I can’t hear the crowd as well, but I can definitely sense, a symbiotic relationship with the crowd. But I also go internal, I don’t look out a lot, other than looking at the guys onstage, I’m pretty much immersed in the music, so I’m not trying to read the crowd ever, but I can definitely say that playing music like this where there’s a lot of improvisation and who knows where it’s gonna go, that if the crowd isn’t giving, the show is not going to be as giving. In a 250 room versus a two thousand capacity room, because you’re that much closer and you can feel it. But I feel like if the crowd is into it and quiet and listening and if there’s a part that’s really big and we’re building to this peak in the music and all of a sudden we drop down and you can either hear the crowd roar or it’s really quiet – then it’s really palpable, so I can sense that. But on the larger stages I’m a little more removed so I’m not trying to read or have as much connection with the crowd, but I hope that they’re engaged and listening. And I think that especially at a Matisyahu show they are.

SF Sonic: I think they are, of course, I’m the guy with the camera up front.

Tomino: Ya, I’m the guy who’s not looking out too much. (laughs).

Joe Tomino

SF Sonic: Ok, earlier you were talking about turning 40 but feeling like you are 25? And I understand you take great care of yourself. Can you tell me about your yoga practice?

Tomino: Ya, I’ve been doing yoga for about five and a half years now and it’s something I started doing just as a fitness thing and it’s become a really integral part of my life. I actually went so far to do a teacher training and I taught yoga for a year living in Cleveland.

SF Sonic: What type of yoga did you teach?

Tomino: I was trained in Baptiste-style yoga, which is sort a Hatha Vinyasa power-style yoga. And so I taught that style. But the cool thing with me is traveling permits me to try all different studios throughout the world. You know, I’ll go to an ashtanga class, I’ll go to a kundalini class, a Bikram class, a power class and do all these styles of physical yoga where I can interject a little bit more of that into my practice and hopefully a little more of that into my teaching so you know, as a teacher and someone who does a practice daily whether it’s music or yoga, you hope that you can just draw on all kinds of influences that have permeated on you physically and emotionally. But you know, yoga isn’t just the stretches. That’s one of the eight limbs of yoga. So for me, I’m trying to lift my yoga off and on the mat. So I do a lot of meditation. I meditate every day. I see yoga as playing drums, as cooking, which is another passion of mine. It’s permeated my life on many levels in a deep way. Everything from ethics in how I choose to be and what I choose to eat and to the physical practice of stretching and going to a yoga studio and sitting in meditation and being able to concentrate onstage and play music. That’s also yoga. It’s very personal yoga, you know? Everyone thinks it’s just on the mat, doing a series of stretches and that is what most of the Western style of yoga is or people know but that’s just one of the eight limbs of the true practice of yoga itself.

SF Sonic: Ya, I got into the Bikram yoga about the same time you started. I’m not as heavy into it but I definitely feel so much better and I’m about ten years your senior.

Tomino: Ya, we did a Bikram class last night in San Francisco. It was right down the street from the Regency Ballroom there. Nob Hill Yoga. And we woke up today and four of us went to class. We’ve got the light guy doing yoga. This was his third class today.

SF Sonic: It sounds like it’s contagious.

Tomino: Ya, you feel good. There’s no denying it when you leave class.

SF Sonic: You are a cyclist as well?

Tomino: Ya, I’ve done some cycling. I don’t have a bike with me on tour right now but I love to cycle. I’ve done a couple of triathlons, I love to run. Swimming isn’t my strong suit, but I’m working on that. I’ve been running more than cycling on this tour. The tour started in New York and I don’t have a bike in New York. I wish I would have had one because the tour started at the end of summer/start of fall, which is a beautiful time to bike, but I’ve made a conscious decision to run more this tour and focus more on physical yoga, asana practice than cycling.

But I do love to cycle. That’s also another form of meditation and mindfulness itself. I had an epiphany finding cycling and riding. I hadn’t rode a bike in fifteen years and one day I bought a bike on tour as sort of like a joke, just as sort of a means to get around and I would have it in the trailer, and every tour we would do I would get more passionate and get a better and better bike and it became a way to just get away and explore and find a path. You know climbing a slow path. I did 30-40 miles a day and it was quiet and I would have some music playing and that came about at the same time I was falling in love with yoga and that was another form of meditation for me. Cycling is a great thing.

SF Sonic: So did you become a vegan at about the same time you started the yoga practice?

Tomino: Exactly. I became a vegan right around when I did the teacher training. You know, one of the limbs of yoga is the yamas, which is your outwardly conduct, the way you are and the way you approach life from the outside. The first yama is a Ahimsa, which translates into non-violence. Literally not harming another person and also not harming yourself or an animal.

I was already a vegetarian for twenty years and I was really into cooking and nutrition so I was like you know, I’m gonna try this vegan thing while I’m doing this teacher training to see how I feel. I had gotten my blood worked on and I already knew how I felt on a physical level, so I was just gonna give it a go kind of as a challenge, but I also wanted to see how I felt after completing the teacher training. I didn’t feel any worse and I maybe felt a little better. I got my blood levels measured out after the teacher training and it was actually better so I just completely cut out anything animal-based from my diet and that’s been about three years now.

SF Sonic: How are you able to eat on the road?

Tomino: I eat great. I mean the food I eat is clean, tasty. I do some shopping when I can find a grocery store so I always have something on hand. We always have pretty healthy food backstage on the rider and then it’s gotten to be more of a vegetarian/vegan for 20 years than it was when I first started. It’s really accessible. It’s easier in some cities than others. And having a bike, having Uber at the ready, helps a lot when you are traveling to go to a restaurant. But I can pretty much walk to most places to get food. You know, these day people are more health conscious and vegan/vegetarian is more in vogue, so you can pretty much find it at any restaurant really. So if we go out to eat as a band and it’s not a “vegan” restaurant, I can order off the sides menu and eat pretty well and pretty healthy. I never feel like I’m missing anything out of my diet eating as vegan.  A lot of people think ‘Oh my God, what do you eat or how does it taste,’ and that whole bullshit myth about ‘Are you getting enough protein?’ That’s never ever an issue for me or anybody with anybody really, that whole protein thing. Unless you are starving to death and your body is cannibalizing your fat stores, no one is protein deficient ever. Everything living has protein, whether it’s lettuce or a cow. That’s just some bullshit.

SF Sonic: I totally get that. So I wanted to circle back to music for a second. You guys did a collaboration with Griz recently? Is there anything you’re doing going forward with that?

Tomino: Indeed. We have a couple more gigs this year. We’re doing Grizmas. We have a show coming up with him in Detroit in the middle of December at the Masonic Temple. Then we’re doing the 30th at the arena in Asheville, North Carolina. We have two more gigs with him this year and hopefully more next year.

SF Sonic: So that’s kind of a big band?

Tomino: Ya, we’re doing basically his tunes laid out in a full fourteen-piece band. The whole thing is, there’s no laptops onstage. Nothing is pre-recorded. There’s no loops. Everything is done live, sort of re-interpreting the music that he wrote all on the box, on the computer. Because normally when he performs it’s just him on sax and he has this guy Muzzy Bear who plays guitar. So it’s guitar and sax and they both have laptops. Everything is in the box, a trigger from the computer to the beats and the synths and the vocals and they just play on top of it. So this is taking that material and laying it out for vocalists and a horn section and a drummer, percussion, keys, two guitars and the bass. So it’s a big band.

SF Sonic: So you are playing percussion?

Tomino: Ya, I’m playing percussion which is super fun. And Nikki Glaspie is on drums.

SF Sonic: That’s a nice combination there.

Tomino: Ya, it’s super fun to play with Nikki. I love her playing and we play well together. There’s no egos there and really though, in the whole band there’s no egos and that’s rare in that caliber of musicianship and that many people in the band. It all went down really smoothly and everyone’s got good vibes. His music has a good vibe. So that’s a fun gig.

SF Sonic: Do you think Dub Trio will go on the road next year?

Tomino: Ya, we’re aspiring to book a tour right now. Probably in Europe. Hopefully that record gets done and we can release it. There’s an offer to play in Japan. We might do that. There are other things rolling around, but we’ll definitely try to hit Europe for sure.

All photos by Paul Piazza.

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About Author

Paul Piazza is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Sacramento and often finds excuses to go play disc golf. He covers all genres of music but loves old-school trash metal, Stax-era soul, freestyle hip-hop and the sounds of NOLA. However, the latest album he bought was Cambodian pop. Good music is good music.

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