In the fall of 2017, my older son and I showed up at the Hamilton, in downtown Washington, to catch the British jazz trio GoGo Penguin. We’re devoted fans, and this was our first chance to see the group live. To my dismay, I learned there was an opening act: the Mattson 2, a name that sounded more like a cooking tool than a band. I waited restlessly, hoping the set would be short. Eventually, two guys in vests strolled from the wings of the darkening room. One sat at the drum kit at the front of the stage, and the other cradled his guitar, and together they unleashed a torrent of deep-grooved, soaring music that carried the heft of a full band.
But were they … Could they be … I was pretty sure they were brothers, but were they twins? The songs were an unusual intersection of hard bop and surf-rock, with effortless forays into psychedelia and jazz fusion. The guitarist commanded a double-neck — guitar neck on top, bass on bottom — and kept stepping on various foot pedals that let him play rhythm guitar, bass and lead all at once. He stood with his legs apart, swiveled his hips, pointed to his guitar after he’d played some righteous lick, or held up the double neck to a vertical position — a bravado I’d never seen in a jazz musician, let alone one who was the opening act.
When someone in the audience let out a marveling whoop, one of the brothers would flash a smile peeled to the gums and cock his head back to acknowledge being acknowledged. The two dueled, they dovetailed and, as their performance went on, their musical pyrotechnics made the sedate room seem like it might detonate.
I’ve seen lots of great musicians be in sync with one another, but there was something else going on here, something more elusive and enthralling. When the guitarist would tease out a particular pattern of notes during a jam, the drummer sometimes played the exact pattern on his toms, and to watch their expressions of surprised delight, it was clear that these moments weren’t rehearsed but came simply from having the same impulse at the same moment. That connectivity was on display throughout their set, and before GoGo Penguin even came on, it was already one of the most thrilling evenings of music I’d ever experienced.
In the weeks after, I listened to the Mattson 2’s music intently, then obsessively, and I came to believe that the duo — made up of identical twins Jared Mattson, on guitar, and Jonathan Mattson, on drums — was the most original band that no one was talking about. What made the two exciting was obvious if you caught them live, and part of that had to do with them being two musicians alone onstage who happen to have the exact same DNA. Offstage, I would learn, they shared a deep connection in their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses — not exactly the stuff of standard music bio. And not long after that first show I saw, they would venture into notably rare territory by performing, recording and touring behind one of the most sacred works of the 20th century.
To better understand all those uncommon links that make up the Mattson 2 — whose new album, “Paradise,” was released on D.C.’s Company Record Label this month — I followed the brothers for part of their first tour as headliners. At the end of each show, Jonathan would take a lengthy drum solo, which built so cohesively, and with such musical logic, that it came off like a story he was telling in a language that no one could speak but that we all innately understood. Jared would move to the side of the stage and regard his brother with genuine affection and wonder, bobbing his head and tapping his foot. And then at some moment only he could discern, he would walk over behind Jonathan, grab a drumstick, and plunge in. The effect was like watching a child jumping rope and being joined by a best friend who slipped under the whirring cord in seamless unison. Like two musicians becoming one.
Jared and I are very intuitively connected,” Jonathan told me. We were having breakfast in the spring of 2018 at an IHOP in College Park, Md., where the twins, then 32, had stayed with friends after playing D.C.’s Black Cat. Up close, I could distinguish between them more easily: Jonathan’s hair appeared thicker, his jaw more angular; Jared wore a mustache and soul patch. They scanned the menu, and Jonathan told the waitress he would have the 2 x 2 x 2. “I’ll have the same,” Jared said.
“We’ll finish each other’s sentences,” Jonathan continued, “or he’ll be talking about something that happened, and I’ll cut right to the thing that he’s been trying to build up and I didn’t realize he was trying to build up to it and completely spoil his story. You know? So if you think about that and put it in a musical realm, it’s the same thing. Like, we know where we’re going with the musical language.”
Last December, I flew to San Diego, where the Mattsons are from and still live, and visited their father, Jan Mattson, at the house where the twins grew up in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. (Their mother, Arlene Mattson, had planned to be there that evening as well, but she had fallen ill while away visiting family.) Jan, who at 75 has stayed trim, in part, through a lifelong surfing regimen, told me at his kitchen table, “We didn’t know we were having twins until she was in labor and they gave her an ultrasound.” At that point, there were two boys and a girl, ages 7 through 15. From the beginning Jared and Jonathan were “as close as could be,” Jan said. “They had slightly different personalities, but basically they were on parallel tracks as far as their interests.” And from their earliest days, he said, they were always working as a unit.
They shared the same group of friends, liked the same movies, ate the same foods, had the same sense of humor. As they got older and went to middle school, “our mom wanted us to be doing something, like, after school because she was working,” Jared recalled as breakfast arrived back at IHOP. “So in junior high, she signed us up for guitar lessons at the school.”
“We were only into video games and skateboarding,” Jonathan said. “We were the slowest ones in the class, the slowest learners, and didn’t like guitar at all.” When those lessons came to an end, the boys were relieved, but Arlene learned of another instructor who was available for private lessons. Eventually, she bought them electric guitars, although for Jonathan it soon became a lost cause. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this. It’s too hard.’ ”
Much to Jonathan’s surprise, that disconnect with the guitar wasn’t the same for Jared. “It was clicking for me,” Jared said.
Jonathan would watch Jared play and think, “How are you good at this when I’m not?” Up to that point, they’d never had a different experience with anything, Jonathan said. He understood, though, that music looked to be a serious pursuit for Jared, and he wanted to keep up. He switched to the bass, but playing it was only marginally easier. Their brother Micah — who also played guitar — lived in what they called a party house, where a lot of live music happened, and there was a drum kit there. One day, the twins were visiting and Micah was trying to play a particular beat but couldn’t quite nail it. “So he was like, ‘Hey, Jonathan, sit on the drums,’ ” Jonathan said. “And I immediately got the beat.” Impressed, Micah told his parents that Jonathan needed a drum set. The twins, who were working jobs in their early teens, began saving money to contribute. Once Jonathan got his kit, they started to explore this new musical connection.
They’d listened to their share of punk and metal bands, and Jan was always playing jazz or classical, but as their playing grew more proficient, it was jazz they began gravitating toward. “Their transition from not being musicians at all to being jazz musicians was really quick,” Jan said. “Just a couple of years at the most.”
They began getting small gigs wherever they could — coffee shops, cafes, backyard barbecues, a senior center — and their being a duo of identical twins made for intriguing optics. “They were so fearless,” Jan said. “They were performing when they weren’t any good. People loved it.” Thinking about that time, he got up and showed me the bedroom they shared — they used the other available bedroom to hold their instruments. “They had bunk beds right here,” he said, pointing to one side of the modest room, “and they slept in bunk beds until they went to graduate school.”
As undergraduates at the University of California at San Diego, the twins released their first three albums; they put out two more over the next five years. In 2016, Chaz Bundick, who leads the popular band Toro y Moi, joined them in the studio and co-wrote, played bass and keyboards, and sang on a handful of tracks for an album ultimately billed as Chaz Bundick Meets the Mattson 2 (and titled “Star Stuff”). It hit No. 1 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart, which ushered in a new audience for the duo, both in the jazz and indie-music worlds. Yet instead of continuing in the direction of that album and its commercial success, the Mattsons decided their next album would be a bold pivot back to their earlier roots. Supremely so.
For International Jazz Day in April 2018, the Chapel, a club in San Francisco, reached out to the Mattsons to see if they wanted to be on the bill. Given the day’s celebratory nature, Jonathan suggested they cover “A Love Supreme” in full.
John Coltrane’s masterpiece album is one of the most pioneering recordings of composition and improvisation of the 20th century; in sheer cultural impact, it’s jazz’s equivalent to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Coltrane had been an early and weighty influence on the Mattsons, and although Jared admired the idea, he assumed that meant bringing in a piano player and bassist to help fill out the sound, with the only substitution to the original album’s augmentation being Jared’s guitar for Coltrane’s saxophone. “Absolutely not,” Jonathan told him. “We do it as a duo.” They would aim not to replicate the monumental album but bring their own sensibilities and style to it.
After a fiery, ferocious performance in San Francisco, they decided to record the work in its entirety and hit the road with it. They’d be taking the venerable jazz classic to rock clubs and mostly rock audiences, many of which had never heard of “A Love Supreme,” let alone actually experienced it.
On tour, after taking the stage each night, Jared would announce to crowds that they were about to play “A Love Supreme” in full. “All four movements,” he liked to add, emphasizing the daring in that. Both in the recording and live, the Mattson 2 enters the hallowed work as though it were composed not by John Coltrane, but by Jimi Hendrix if Hendrix had spent his formative years in Haight-Ashbury. In the Mattsons’ version of the first movement, they play the main melody pretty much note for note, but the sonic, layered punch of Jared’s guitar makes the piece come off as a psychedelic fever dream. Switching between bass and guitar, Jared’s lines swoop and splinter as Jonathan steers the music with frenzied precision. In “Pursuance,” the third part of the suite, Jonathan performs a dexterous, walloping drum solo — after which the main melody takes off like a Formula 1 racecar until Jared rolls out a nimble bass solo. With Jonathan propelling them on with his ride cymbal, the bass line shifts into a stop-and-start riff. That passage depends on the acute awareness of each other and the critical timing innate in, say, trapeze artists. Or identical twins.
More than half a century before them, Coltrane — having finally shaken his long habit of drugs and alcohol, which had gotten him booted out of Miles Davis’s band, and assaulted by Davis in the process — had been starting to conceive of his music not as an offering to his audiences, but as a way to get closer to God. In August 1964, Coltrane and his second wife, pianist Alice Coltrane, had just welcomed their first child together. Soon after, as jazz critic Ashley Kahn writes in “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album,” John spent the better part of a week upstairs in a space in the house that went unused. When he descended for good, “it was like Moses coming down from the mountains,” Alice told Kahn. John explained to her that in those isolated days, he’d been receiving the music he was to record next, and that it would unfold in a suite. “This is the first time I have everything,” he told her, “everything ready.” His group soon recorded it in a single evening.
There were so many elements that set the work apart not only from Coltrane’s previous albums, but from all the other jazz albums that had come before it. Each piece was distinct in its themes and motifs, yet each flowed into the other in a way that underscored a larger, profound musical vision. The four song titles conjured religious tenets: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” “Psalm.” But what cemented the spiritual aura of the music was Coltrane’s two-part liner notes. “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” he wrote. “HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY — A LOVE SUPREME —.” The other part of the album’s sleeve was a poem Coltrane penned straight to God.
Upon the album’s release in early 1965, word of mouth and critical reception helped it reach a broader audience outside of traditional jazz circles. Rock enthusiasts who believed music could expand their consciousness listened to it in rapture. Hippies, civil rights activists, poets and musicians sat around their turntables and tried to absorb what it all meant.
Over the decades, jazz musicians have frequently taken turns covering the genre’s most noted classics — Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” Thelonious Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight” — but for many, “A Love Supreme” radiated a sanctity that made them keep their distance. In the nearly 55 years since it was released, exceptionally few artists have taken it on. Even Coltrane played the whole suite live only once. The idea of others playing it has always been akin to trying to paint an updated version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
The Mattsons knew all this when they began charting their way into the lionized music. Kahn, for one, approves of their decision. “What the Mattson 2 are doing is obviously so reverent on one side,” he told me. “It’s so true to [Coltrane’s] spirit and his sound. Yet at the same time, they are doing it in a way that makes use of technology and the sounds that are much more appropriate to this day and age.” As a jazz writer, Kahn has spent a great deal of time considering the full effect of the Coltrane tour de force — musically, culturally — and as far as he is concerned, white twins from San Diego playing it speaks to the music’s truest intentions. “The message of ‘A Love Supreme’ is a universal message and is meant to reach any and all people,” he said.
When I asked Kahn how Coltrane felt about other musicians playing his music, he reminded me that Coltrane died just 2½ years after “A Love Supreme” came out — of liver cancer, at age 40. But, he said, “I think that he was just, in general, hoping that his music … would reach people and have, you know, a meaning for them. So he would absolutely smile upon hearing what the Mattson 2 have done.”
The Mattsons were drawn to the “pure musicality” of “A Love Supreme,” for the “vibrations it emits,” as Jared saw it. But I also sensed a connection that went deeper, and that connection was rooted in something that happened to their father long ago. Before having children, Jan experienced an epiphany that would have a far-reaching effect on the twins in particular. “It came after college, during the ’60s,” he told me. “Truth seeking was very trendy, you know. But most people just moved on to the next trend. I didn’t really feel that way. I felt I had a spiritual hunger. So I just remember taking a walk at night by myself, and I was probably smoking a cigarette. I was praying to whoever was up there, if there was anybody up there, for some kind of guidance.” Soon after, Jan discovered that a friend of his had become a Jehovah’s Witness, and he sat in on a couple of his studies. “It just grew from there. I just took a very skeptical approach, and I felt the answers were satisfying.” Arlene had been attending a traditional Protestant church, but “we came in together,” he said. “We started studying with the Witnesses in May of ’70, and then our first boy was born in September of that year.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in God, but there are notable distinctions between their faith and Protestant teachings. Witnesses don’t believe in the Holy Trinity. They believe that Jesus rules the kingdom of God, which is set up like a traditional government, and that Jesus has been ruling that kingdom since 1914. And that 144,000 people will be allowed to rule with Jesus, while the rest of mankind resides on Earth in peace and harmony. Witnesses don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance or serve in any military capacity; they believe their citizenship belongs not to a government, but to God’s kingdom. For those reasons and more, they are sometimes labeled cult members, and throughout the world they deal with persecution.
One of the principles of being a Jehovah’s Witness is practicing door-to-door ministry, and having young twins didn’t change that mission for Jan and Arlene. “We would always take them together in their strollers,” Jan said. “And I remember there was this time when we separated. My wife took one and went up in a car, and I took the other one and went in a different car.” That was the first time the boys were ever apart, and he said that the twin with him — he couldn’t remember which — was visibly uneasy. Jan said they tried hard to make sure they were never separated again.
A handful of famous musicians were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, although some of them stopped being involved in the church later on, and few have been with the faith all their lives. One musician who turned to the faith late — and whose membership made Jared and Jonathan particularly proud — was Prince. He referred to becoming a Witness as a “realization,” and he knocked on doors in the surrounding area of his famous Paisley Park estate, outside Minneapolis, despite his fame.
The twins told me that when they get back home after being on the road, both work hard to go door to door to “share the good news.” At the end of each month, Witnesses turn in a sheet showing how many hours they put in, and in November, after the “Love Supreme” tour, Jared’s sheet documented 20 hours. (“I was impressed by that,” Jan told me.) Jared explained it this way: “It’s not like this agenda where we’re trying to convert people. It’s not at all that. What it basically is, is, like, we have a reverence for the Bible, and we literally have passages in the Bible that tell us that we should knock on doors and tell people about the Bible. That’s the only reason why I do it. I think it is … amazing work, but that’s why it’s called a sacrifice.”
That, to me, sounded like what Coltrane was getting at with the last sentences of his liner notes:
May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain — it is all with God — in all ways forever.
ALL PRAISE TO GOD.
In September, the twins’ tour took them to the Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe in Washington. Onstage, a rare barrier divided them: a pole obstructing their line of sight. “I’m a little far from you, brother,” Jared told Jonathan after taking the stage.
“I know, and I’ve got this pole in front of you,” Jonathan replied.
“But it’s all right, it’s okay — we’ll cut through it,” Jared assured everyone.
They then proceeded to play “A Love Supreme” with more fervor and accordance than in any of the three other performances I’d seen that week. Before they launched into some older songs, Jared asked the crowd, “So, do you know where we met?” The crowd laughed. “In the womb! You know that.” Applause. “ ‘Are they fraternal? Are they identical?’ What are they, you’re wondering. Identical, fraternal?” The crowd shouted out their guesses. “Well, we share the same DNA strand. So I’ll let you decide what that means.”
Part of what that means is they’ve been in unison their whole lives — with just two significant disruptions. The first was when Jared was flourishing on the guitar and Jonathan wasn’t. The second was when Jonathan fell in love with Isela Rodriguez. The subject came up in my first conversation with the twins, at IHOP.
“Marrying me basically meant marrying him,” Jonathan told me then. “We have a business together, and we do everything together. She had to be cool with marrying us, and so she sacrificed a lot so that we can maintain our twin connection.” But Jared initially struggled with the reality of their courtship. “It took some time and blowups and working it out,” Jonathan said as Jared nodded sheepishly. “Some real conversations.”
In Washington, as I watched Jonathan text Isela during a sound check, I asked Jared a little more about that period. He said it took about a year to accept Isela’s role in Jonathan’s life. “I got a little jealous of the attention. In hindsight, I realize that’s what it was. Self-examination. There came a point in time where I had to let go of the, you know, having 100 percent access to the relationship.” Before that acceptance came, he said, “I would be super rude, too, at times. Like, he’d be talking to Isela, and I’d be like, ‘Okay, man, you’ve been talking for, like, 20 minutes, let’s hang up now.’ ”
“It was so hard in the beginning,” Isela told me, “and sometimes I was like, ‘Is this even worth it?’ ” When I visited her and Jonathan at their house in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego, Jonathan was putting away the breakfast dishes and trying to get Naima, their then-2½-year-old daughter — who is named after the famous Coltrane-penned ballad — ready for her swimming lesson. Isela and Jonathan had been married just shy of six years, but even now there were challenges to the dynamic. “I’ve always felt like the third wheel,” she said. “Not for anything other than they’re just identical twins and they’re best friends. And I know Jonathan loves me and I’m his wife and everything, but they communicate so different. And they’re used to communicating in their way since they were in the womb. It’s hard for anybody else on the outside to kind of, like, get in there, you know?”
If Jonathan believed that in marrying him, Isela, who is also a Jehovah’s Witness, was marrying Jared as well, Isela said the twins’ parents viewed it that way in the beginning, too. “They would call me: ‘Hey, can you remind Jared to pay his rent?’ Or remind Jared to do this. And I’m like, ‘I’m not his wife.’ ” She said that it took time for Jan and Arlene not to always think about how her and Jonathan’s life together affected Jared. “When they found out I was pregnant, they’re like, ‘What about Jared?’ ”
Jonathan had been drying the dishes and listening. “To be honest, our parents were not used to their kids having girlfriends,” he said.
“I feel like whoever ends up marrying Jared will have a much easier time,” Isela said.
“She basically helped these weird artist musicians grow up and understand how we should act in life,” Jonathan said of Isela. “So when Jared gets a girl, all that work has already been done for him.”
“For her,” Isela corrected him.
“For her,” Jonathan said.
When I talked to Jan Mattson that evening, he didn’t remember worrying much about how Jonathan’s love life was affecting Jared. “We just viewed it as perfectly normal,” he said. “Why wouldn’t one of them get married, you know?” But he understood that it had sometimes been an entangled situation for Isela, and he appreciated how she’d approached it. “She seemed to totally accommodate Jared.”
Now Jonathan scooped up Naima and her swim bag and headed off. Soon after, Isela told me this about Jared: “He was the first one we called when I went into labor. And he was the first one to see Naima. … When he picked up Naima, I could tell he was just like, ‘Wow, she’s a little bit of me, too.’ ”
In San Diego, the twins drove me around to show me places that were meaningful to their musical development — the shop where they bought their first records and built a foundation for their musical education, the musical equipment store where they split work shifts and eventually taught. And then we drove to the Kingdom Hall — what Jehovah’s Witnesses call their place of worship — that Jonathan and Jared attended throughout their childhood.
I drove with Jared, while Jonathan followed behind in his car. As we got closer, I thought about how big a role being Jehovah’s Witnesses had played in their lives — and how it informed the way they saw the world around them. I asked Jared if, as a teenager, his intense church involvement had ever felt like a grind.
“There’s always going to be some of that, you know,” he said. “There was a funny time when I was going into my closet to get ready because we dress up to go to a meeting, and I remember — I was a kid — and I’m like, ‘Am I going to be doing this for my whole life, going into my closet and getting ready?’ ” He snickered. “But that’s just when it’s more of a ritual or routine when you’re a kid. But when you actually value what you’re learning and what it offers to the world, that’s when you don’t think about things like that. I mean, a big part of what we believe is that God’s kingdom will do away with the problems that we see on Earth. I think a lot of people, when you ask them if” — we were in the parking lot now, and Jonathan had pulled up alongside and hopped in the back seat — “you could live forever, would you? And they’re like, ‘No, because this world is messed up anyways. Like, why would I want to live here?’ But when Daniel 2:44 says God’s kingdom will crush and put an end to all these other kingdoms, he’s referring to a prophecy where God will do away with the political systems and all the things that are causing badness, like corrupt rulers and all that stuff. So in a world free of that, like corrupt government, corrupt religion, corrupt this or that, would you see yourself living forever? And I think for us, it’s like, that’s why we love music so much. Like, ‘Do you believe that what you’re doing you’re going to be doing forever?’ ‘Yes.’ So we’re going to be making music on to eternity. And I think that was one of the things that I took from being raised as a Witness. Everything is eternal.”
With all the other musicians I’d spent time with as a journalist, our conversations tended to focus on what they’d gone through to arrive at a particular point, what they wanted for the rest of their career, their next album or tour. With time always charging forward, what level of development or new spark could they still hope for? But I’d never heard a musician speak about his career in the afterlife. And now I realized that ending the day’s tour here at Kingdom Hall was the ultimate musical statement. Like John Coltrane’s, the twins’ religious and musical lives were fully intertwined, because, as Jared and Jonathan saw it, there was no end to how deep their connection with each other could go, no limit to the number of songs they would write. They could look forward to infinite performances. The Mattsons had been a musical entity since they were teenagers, but, really, they were just getting started.
David Rowell is deputy editor of The Washington Post Magazine. His book “Wherever the Sound Takes You: Heroics and Heartbreak in Music Making” was published in April.