Matt’s dad’s was just as instrumental in the brothers’ musical growth. “He would sit me on his lap and we’d write songs together. I just remembered that these last couple of years,” Matt pauses, referring to his dad’s passing in 2001. “He had his acoustic guitar and I’d sit on his knee, and he’d say, ‘What’s the next line to the song we’re writing?’ We’d write songs about the environment, and then he’d write adult songs, you know what I mean? The guitar was a songwriting instrument.”
He adds, “My dad was a country drummer, and liked country-style guitar playing, you know, strummy. It wasn’t lead guitar playing. He gave us everything he could give us in terms of equipment that he had, and we ran with it.”
Having played his dad’s acoustic for a few years, Matt received his first guitar when he was fourteen.
The family grew up in Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, and though Matt’s mom has moved to Massachusetts, he has always been around, living downtown since he was eighteen. He says there has always been a music scene in Rochester, though it could never flourish. Many musicians his age were forming bands and playing together, just grooving.
Matt met Rachel in 2004. She also grew up in the area, and as a keyboardist she was often at the same music sessions as Matt. “We were together a year before she joined Panda, and we’ve been together now more than six years, which is mind boggling to anyone our age, but it’s amazing.”
Now that Matt and Rachel are “Carrying out their own visions,” Matt says he’s now seeing how gifted Rachel is at whatever she puts her mind to. “She’s become a graphic designer, and she’s very productive when we have a problem that needs to be solved on the internet; getting music to be playing, getting something accomplished today: she follows through until it’s done.”
He adds, “I didn’t get to see all of her talents shine until now, and it’s been revitalizing for our relationship.”
So, seven years after they met, Matt and Rachel had a new band, and no name. “We’d been nonstop brainin’ on names, and Rachel said ‘thunder’ months and months ago.” They tried everything until one day Rachel opened up the book Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda, and put her finger down on the page. The word was “thunder.”
“We went, ‘Thunder This, Thunder That,’” Matt says, rolling his eyes. “And then ‘Thunder Body.’ It was the thing we were resonating with in the house that day.”
Next came their logo, a sun disc. “It’s an ancient Egyptian thing,” Matt explains, “but the disc has been turned into a sun symbol for other cultures. It’s a universal symbol. You’ll see it on, like, Kentucky grave markers, which makes me think it’s like a free mason thing. You’ll see it on signs for Muslim community centers. It came to us naturally with the name Thunder Body. We wanted part thunderbird, part universal love.”
Because the members of Thunder Body had been around Rochester in one form or another for two decades, they are finding their niche and enjoying growing as a new cohesive musical project.
Matt looks away. “You want to think that the success of Panda inspired people to push a little harder, and I think in some cases it’s true, but a lot of these people were determined and awesome, and we have a huge community. It keeps proving there are monster players.”
Another major contributor to the growing scene is Water Street Music Hall, a venue in downtown Rochester. “It is the rock of the music scene,” Matt explains. “They’ve been there even in the slow times, open heartedly supporting the local musicians, giving them a chance, giving advice, like, ‘This is how the nationals do it.’ Water Street imparts knowledge on what you can do to help yourself succeed.”
“We learned a lot from them,” Matt nods. “The scene is feeding off itself, at this point.”
Rochester has the famous Eastman School of Music and has a thriving classical proponent, more and grassroots, funk and reggae bands are popping up. Rochester is also home to The Buddhahood and members of John Brown’s Body.
“When I’m finding that when we’re pushing Thunder Body, I’m hesistant to use a genre description, but if you know about roots reggae or you know what we love, then you’ll recognize that it’s very aligned with the roots reggae sound.”
Matt mentions The Band. “That music is not acoustic. It’s electric guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. Essentially that’s what we’re interested in.”
Since the early days of Panda, the artists involved have always stated that they believed in the basics of music, which they felt was the most direct route to reaching people.
“You kind of take,” Matt begins, and then pauses. “I’m going to be careful how I word this because it has to make sense: You use the frequencies more efficiently.”
Instead of blasting the room with the power of electric music, reggae felt like a superior model for making music. “The bass will have all the room it will ever need to breathe. The guitar has all the room it ever needs to breathe. The vocals sit where they want. The keyboards take up this huge amount of mid range. They don’t clutter each other. The high hat is closed. Each note is each note.”
He sums up, “We found that the vibrational properties of electric music were for us.”
Such fat sound signals get in you, which is why most reggae fans can be found bobbing their heads, as if the sound waves enter through the floorboards and linger in your neck and spine.
“It’s a physiological thing. It’s not because just one time period in reggae had really heavy Afro-centric lyrics,” Matt explains how reggae has gone from the tenement yards in Jamaica to western New York. “People get upset that dancehall is not as conscious, and roots reggae is supposed to represent a higher consciousness. Well, I don’t think it represents higher consciousness to recycle the same lyrics for forty years, or to sing with an accent that’s not your own, or to limit yourself by calling what you do something that’s already been invented.”
For this reason, Matt has always written very smart songs that include the concepts often found in reggae- One Love, peace, and overcoming hardship- but never speaks of Rasta, Halie Salassie I, or even touches on Black man’s rights. It’s not his place, but he can use the sound of the music and make something new.
If you never heard roots reggae before, Matt suggests that Thunder Body might sound “Like Johnny Cash mixed with Stevie Wonder, and that’s fine. It’s music.” Reggae would only be Matt’s pick for Thunder Body’s sound if it was from multiple choice.
“We’re calling it medicine music,” he says. “It’s the cleanest, best music we can give you…There was rock n’ roll for a period, and there’s still rock n’ roll. Well, roots reggae may always exist. It may be widespread, but it’s not being carried out in the highest level of quality in a large degree.”
In truth, there aren’t many roots reggae artists left. Burning Spear, Israel Vibration, and Steel Pulse, along with the reincarnation of Culture, were the first to come to Matt’s mind, and are likely the only artists of that nature left still touring regularly.
“How many rock n’ roll bands are there?” Matt argues. “How many of every kind of band is there? We want to carry this music into the future and we believe we’re doing it. Expand the consciousness. It was a gift to humanity. When it came, it was here. It’s not going anywhere. We’re going to use it with honor, and be grateful for it rather than take it for our own means. We want to take the music where the music needs to go.”
Thunder Body has recorded an EP and is possibly headed to More Sound Studios in Syracuse to records a full-length with Jocko. Meanwhile, their tour spiral is expanding. Request Thunder Body in your town.