Reprinted without permission from Drum!, September
MATT CAMERON OF SOUNDGARDEN: BALANCE OF POWER & GRACE
If you think Dave Grohl is the only rock drummer who can kick ass on guitar, think again. The ex-Nirvanan might be basking in the spotlight's glow of late, but another Northwestern skinsman is about to go public with his six-string habit.
With guitars, amp, drum set, microphones and a 4-track tape recorder in tow, Cameron has been secretly cranking out songs in his basement for years - two of which were chosen for the new Soundgarden record Down On The Upside. "I wrote 'Applebite' and 'Rhinosaur' on guitar," he tells us. "I've been writing tunes since around 1984, and I've probably got a couple hundred stockpiled down in my basement. As soon as I bought a 4-track, it completely opened up a whole new world for me because I was able to write new tunes on the spot and record them. It taught me a lot about songwriting, recording, and about how the different pieces come together. I was able to play all the instruments - bass, guitar, drums, vocals - and write tunes that way. Whereas, when I started playing guitar around 17, I was just kind of strumming an acoustic guitar and the whole picture never became clear until I was able to record them."
All this guitar mania hasn't blurred Cameron's focus on his main ax, though. His drumming has never sounded stronger - as the tasty and eclectic tracks on Upside will attest. From the psychadelic vibes of "Switch Opens" to the maniacal odd-times on "Never The Machine Forever," Soundgarden's latest is proof positive that, like a fine wine, the band just keeps improving with age.
DRUM! sat down with the future Hall of Famer recently and got the inside goods on the making of the new record, his new drum kit and his basement antics.
DRUM!: When Soundgarden set out to record Down On The Upside, was there much discussion up front about how you wanted the record to sound?
Cameron: We had some tunes to start out with, and we knew there were going to be more coming in once we got set up in the studio, so once we got started, we approached the sound in a more natural sense. We did produce it ourselves, and we didn't want to slave over the sound as much as we did on the last one, so that was one approach we had. But as far as a concept or goal, we just wanted to capture the truest sense of the songs on tape. And I think we did that.
DRUM!: How much of the material was written prior to going into the studio?
Cameron: Most of it was written after we finished our Superunknown tour in '94. So a lot of '95 was spent at home, chillin', getting ready for the next record. Chris (Cornell, Soundgarden frontman) wrote a lot of completed tunes on his own, and the initial idea was for he and I to go into Litho and sketch out a bunch of his new tunes. When we started doing that, I really liked my drum sounds and my drum takes. Chris really liked his vocal parts, so we just decided to start building a record from scratch like that.
DRUM!: Describe the environment at Litho.
Cameron: Litho is converted woodworking/lithography factory that (Pearl Jam's) Stone Gossard put a studio in. It's been up and running now for about two years. It's fully analog. He's got a really nice API board with a Studer. It's a medium-size room, so the drum sound I was getting weren't as enormous as the last record, but they just had a nice, ambient sound. They sounded as big as that room, so I was very happy with the way everything came out, as far as the room sound goes.
DRUM!: Prior to actually rolling tape at Litho, had you rehearsed any of Chris' songs?
Cameron: No. My drum parts happened right there - as soon as I learned the tunes. A lot of the tunes were learned in the studio and recorded. The approach was to lay down the first things that came naturally. For instance, "Pretty Noose" was something Chris and I had run through for about 15 minutes, and then that moment is what you hear on the record.
DRUM!: So he had a complete picture of the song, and was conveying that to you?
Cameron: Yeah, I mean, there was some stuff we had to rearrange in the studio, but... I should probably start with the breadth of the tunes. A lot of them are brand new, and there are a few that are two to five years old. Like, this one "No Attention" we had floating around since 1990, and we had tried recording it for Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, and we weren't really happy with it. We played it live for this radio broadcast that Eddie (Vedder) and Pearl Jam put together in '95 and it felt really good, so we decided to include that on our next recording session, so there's a lot of new tunes and then a few that are a little older.
DRUM!: About your basement 4-track demos, did you use a real drum set or a drum machine on those?
Cameron: Drum set. When I started out, I did all live drum parts. I got a drum machine in '88 or '89, went crazy with that for a few years, and then went back to playing acoustic drums.
DRUM!: How do you approach writing a song? Do you usually go for a riff first, a groove, a chord progression?
Cameron: I guess it depends. "Applebite," for example, is pretty much a study in dynamics. It starts out in one dynamic and attains this other dynamic through theme and variation, basically. There's one constant motif going through the whole thing, and we were able to give it different colors with the dynamics. It's pretty difficult to write good, solid pop-structure tunes. I've definitely done that in the past, but it's easier for me to write riff-based tunes.
DRUM!: When did you start working on the new album?
Cameron: We started around July of '95. Chris and I were in there together, and I think we slowly inched our way into it, but in the back of our minds we knew what we were cutting was going to be it. I was pretty confident with our abilities once we got into the studio environment because we're a really good studio band. We know how to use it. We know how to write and record, and just pretty much do everything in the studio. But when we started, it was essentially just getting rough ideas down, and to hear how the room sounded. Once we heard everything and sketched out a couple of tunes, we decided to just go for it. At that point, Ben (Shepherd, bassist) brought in a whole bunch of tunes, I brought in a couple, and we just started recording the basic tracks. Then we added a lot of color parts on top of that. So the whole thing came together pretty smoothly.
DRUM!: Some of the material on the new record is pretty intense - for example "Never The Machine Forever." How did that one come together?
Cameron: (Laughs) Actually that one came together pretty quickly, like the rest of them. Kim (Thayil, guitarist) had this idea for a tune that he'd been working on pretty solidly for a couple of months. He got together with a couple of his buddies and did a demo of it. He wanted to write the lyrics as well as the music, so it took him a while to get the whole thing completed. But once he had a basic idea of the music, he and I went into Litho together and I busted out that drum part pretty quickly. Once he wrote lyrics, we had to do a bit of editing on it. Like, we had to lengthen one of the B parts, I think, by four. So Adam (Kasper), our co-producer engineer guy, had to do a bit of editing on that one.
DRUM!: With Pro Tools?
Cameron: No, we just recorded it onto another reel and spliced in a chunk from there. We don't go near Pro Tools that much.
DRUM!: How are you counting "Never The Machine Forever"?
Cameron: I'm not really counting when I play these odd-time-signature tunes. What I really try to listen for is the riff, and how it fits into the music. From there, I get an idea of a pattern that will tie it all in together. I normally don't count anything.
DRUM!: So you're just singing the riff in your head?
Cameron: Yeah. I'm definitely following the music, and trying to make it breathe as much as possible. When or if I count, it's normally a little more staggered sounding. Nothing with Soundgarden, but, like with some other more challenging and difficult music projects I've done in the past where I've had to count, it's been a little less musical for me.
DRUM!: What drum set are we hearing on the new record?
Cameron: When we started out, I had various drums in there. I had some DW drums, some Ayotte drums, a bunch of Keplinger snares and some old Ludwig drums. So in the beginning I was just kind of piecing things together here and there depending on the tune. I was really trying to get an open bass drum sound on a lot of this record, so on some of the slower songs I had a really wide, open tuning. For some of the faster songs, I'd put a pillow inside the bass drum.
DRUM!: Did you experiment with different sizes of kick?
Cameron: No, I pretty much stuck to a 24" throughout the whole record, but there were two different bass drums I used for the fast and slow tunes. One was a DW and one was an Ayotte. In August, we took three months off and we did a European tour. Then I stayed over there and played the Frankfurt Jazz Festival with Wayne Horvitz in September. Then in October, we (Soundgarden) all got back into the studio, and by that point I'd received a whole new Ayotte kit - a WoodHoop drum set. We had about seven or eight more tunes to record, so I just stuck with that one basic kit from that point on. (Editor's Note: Matt is now an official Ayotte endorser.)
DRUM!: What drum configuration did you go with?
Cameron: I had a 12" and 13" up top, a 16" and 18" floor, and also a little 10" over on the right-hand side that I used.
DRUM!: Have you always been a single-kick player?
Cameron: I have. I experimented with a double pedal for a while, but I was really awful at it. I couldn't get the hang of it at all. I'm really used to keeping time with my left foot - traditional hi-hat stuff. I guess I could get it if I worked at it more, but I'm a little lazy when it comes to that kind of stuff.
DRUM!: You get very natural drum sounds in the studio. "Applebite" is a good example of a nice, natural, ringing snare drum.
Cameron: What I've been trying to do over the past couple of records is to get a lot of my sounds from the overheads (microphones) instead of miking each drum up close. I try to find the right spot in the room where it's going to pick up a lot of the low end of the drum set, and a lot of the high end as well. But one thing I really strive for in the studio is to have the impression of air moving. I want the thing to come out like you can actually see the space around the drum set. It's a little bit difficult to explain, but I guess I'm just trying to make it sound like the listener is in the room with me. So basically what I've been trying to do is get that from overheads and rooms and not from individual microphones and effects.
DRUM!: So you didn't use any close-miking on this record?
Cameron: There were mikes on each drum, but I was trying to really get my drum sound whenever possible from the overheads. That way you get the balance of the drums by the way you play them, instead of balancing each channel in the mixing process.
DRUM!: And you panned these overheads hard right and left?
Cameron: Yeah, all stereo.
DRUM!: What mikes did you use?
Cameron: Adam was more involved in that, and I trust his opinion, but I like the (Shure) SM57 on the snare drum a lot. When I am close-miking, I like to go top and bottom on the toms. But I'm definitely trying to get all my sound out of the overheads, and if it needs it, I'll go ahead and nudge in the close-miked drums to give the tone a little more roar.
DRUM!: Do you recall what mikes Adam put on the kit?
Cameron: I think it was Beyers on the toms, some old Neumanns up on top, the old tube mikes, and we used another set of Neumanns for the room sound. There was an AKG D12 in the kick. When I recorded with an open bass drum, there wasn't any hole (in the drumhead) so I was trying to get the natural tone of the drum, and I was trying to get an attack going as well, which is a lot easier when there's a hole and a pillow in there. You can just stick the mike in and aim it toward the beater. So what we did was mike the front head of the kick with a D12, and then around the other side we had an SM57 pointing in toward the beater.
DRUM!: Did switching between an open and a muffled kick drum affect your bass drum technique much?
Cameron: Oh, big time. You've got to play it totally different. You can't just smash it into the head and leave it there; you've got to rebound it a little bit. And it's so difficult to do when your heel's up. So I've really been trying to concentrate on that with an open bass drum sound. With a muffled head, I can bury it in there; it's a harder approach.
DRUM!: Let's talk about the snare for a moment. Getting back to "Applebite," it sounds like you're nailing a perfect rimshot through most of that song. Is that something you concentrate on, or does it happen naturally?
Cameron: I normally don't think about it. I'm just hitting the way I like it to be heard. I guess a lot of my sound comes from the way I hit. But on "Applebite" I wasn't hitting rimshots. I think it was just the way that drum was tuned up, and the way the mikes were breathing.
DRUM!: What grip do you favor these days?
Cameron: I've played both matched and traditional, but for louder stuff I definitely play matched.
DRUM!: In the studio, miked up, with headphones on, drummers sometimes seem surprised at how clearly they can hear every little nuance - every little click and rebound. Does that ever affect you, or maybe make you try to play cleaner?
Cameron: Well, it's a balance of trying to play everything clean, and trying not to think about it. That's the Zen part of recording, just balancing those two completely extreme dimensions.
DRUM!: The same could be said about grooving - thinking about where each note is falling.
Cameron: Oh yeah. I mean, I'm definitely aware of trying to hit everything as cleanly as possible, and if I'm not happy with a take, I'll go listen to it. Am I hitting toms hard enough? Is my bass drum part solid on the doubles? I listen to how the thing is balanced just by my playing, and from there I'll make adjustments and do it again. Once I go in and hear what isn't balancing up, I can normally go back out and fix it.
DRUM!: Do you punch-in much, or do you try to get a take non-stop from beginning to end?
Cameron: If I hear something I don't like, I'll do the whole track over again. Complete takes. I don't like to assemble a track from a bunch of different takes, or punch-ins. About the only thing we did was add an extra four bars to that one section of "Never The Machine Forever." But there was one tune that didn't make it on the record called "Christi" that was just phenomenal. It's one of my favorite Soundgarden tunes ever, and I'm sure we'll put it out there eventually.
DRUM!: What does that sound like?
Cameron: It's like, oh man, like getting shot up with a machine gun while you're smelling a pretty flower or something (laughs). That was a tune where we did multiple takes, like two or three takes, and I had to splice in this one two-bar section because I came in wrong. So, I mean, if there's mistakes like that, but the vibe of the album take is good, then we'll try to save it. But for the most part, I like to have complete takes because it shapes the life of the whole tune. It definitely gives it a flavor.
DRUM!: Do you prefer to hear a click in your headphones, or do you like to play loose?
Cameron: No, on this last one I didn't use any clicks. On Superunknown I played along to a previous drum take that I had done for the tune "Superunknown," and then before that on Badmotorfinger I clicked out on a couple of tunes. But I think it kind of makes the whole music-making approach more stale. For what we do with our band, we like to have the natural surges and, you know, the musical elements: dynamics, pauses, surges.
DRUM!: You seem to be a drummer who truly plays for the song.
Cameron: Yeah, yeah. I definitely do. I think I'm lucky enough to be ina band that has rhythmically-challenging music, so I'm able to play interesting rhythms, but in a very strong song context. What I hear in our band is very interesting approaches to rock tunes. It's not your basic 4/4 backbeat, singing about girls and cars. There's a little bit of depth in there. So when people are listening to my drum parts, I suppose they're hearing it immersed in this interesting music. But I don't think I'm better than anyone else, or whatever. I'm just lucky to be in a really good band.
DRUM!: With all the accolades you've racked up with this band, what motivates you to continue pushing the envelope - and what's your crystal ball outlook for Soundgarden?
Cameron: Well, I just like making music with this band. It's still full of surprises. I think this record is a good example of that. So I just see us doing more records, and probably a little less touring, because that's the thing that can chew up a band more than anything. We're a really good studio band, so I hope we can taper off the touring end of it in the next couple of years, and maybe try to do a couple more records, and see how much more we have in us. Right now, though, the well is definitely full. Everyone has more tunes, and I'm anxious to get us back in the studio fairly soon.