Reprinted without permission from Modern Drummer, June
SOUNDGARDEN'S MATT CAMERON: BREAKING NEW GROUND
Matt Cameron, much like the other members of Soundgarden, isn't in the best of moods. At the very least, he's distracted. The band left New York so dissatisfied with the mastering of their new record that they decided to start again from square one, here on the first Sunday of this past December at the A&M Records studion in Hollywood.
But things don't immediately seem any better on the West Coast. Unnerved by a mix of the song "Fouth of July," Cameron insists the drums are louder in the left speaker. Chris Cornell (Soundgarden vocalist) suggests he move to the middle of the couch, about an eighteen-inch change of perspective, for a more accurate ear test. Instead, Cameron leaves the room.
Important as the mastering is, it only ranks second on the drummer's worry list for the week. Hater, Cameron's side project with Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd and two other musicians, will open a Pearl Jam show in Seattle six days from now.
"I've got to sing on Saturday," says Cameron, regarding his lead vocal cameo on the Hater tune "Sad McBain." To that point, Hater had never played publicly, only having released a low-key, self-titled album last summer. "I've sung background vocals a lot from behind the kit. But I've never stood in front of thousands of people and sung an entire song before," he says with a stunted laugh. "I think I'm more nervous than I've ever been."
Cameron's worries proved unfounded. Saturday's crowd, as it turned out, were too busy chanting "Ed-die, Ed-die..." during Hater's set to critique Cameron's croonings. And it only took the better part of a day to unequivocally pin the earlier mastering mystery on equipment failure.
Whether Cameron has a future behind the microphone waits to be seen. There's little doubt, though, about Soundgarden's new disc - the marvel of Superunknown would come through over kite string and Styrofoam cup. It's not only the band's most eloquent statement, but a defining moment in modern rock. For here, Soundgarden officially drop-kicks grunge and any other straight-jacket label into the history books.
There's such a relaxed, early-'70s vibe to this record, its hard to believe this is the same band that once belted thirty-five expletives in one song. But for his part, Cameron has always injected a maturity into Soundgarden's music. His ghost-note grooves and the uncanny ability to make odd time feel like straight time have already earned him status among rock's drumming's elite pacemakers.
While his style hasn't markedly changed since Soundgarden's earliest Eps from 1987, his vocabulary has expanded. Cameron used two different and contrasting hits to construct the rhythmic foundation for Superunknown, coloring the sounds from there with alternate tunings and liberal cymbal swapping. They're just some of the alluring elements that continue to make Cameron's playing and, in turn, give Soundgarden its implacable edge.
Satisfied with the results he achieved with Superunknown, Cameron hopes it marks just another step in his personal musical growth. "I'm happier with my drumming than I've ever been before, but I think one of the reasons for that is because the songs were fully conceived," Cameron says. "We went into the studio with the idea of approaching each song on its own terms. We'd record one entire song - everything on it - and then go to the next song. That gave us a much better focus. Before, we'd do a batch of songs on drums and a batch of songs on bass, and it all started to sound the same. We feel the songs on the new record have a lot more variety and substance to them. They're much more interesting to listen to, but hopefully there's a thread that sort of connects them all."
Diverse as Superunknown is musically, Cameron consciously maintained a relatively low profile when laying down his drum parts. "I approached everything in much more simple terms and just tried to fit what I played to the songs a little better and dig more into the music," he says. "That in itself is a lot more difficult than playing odd time signatures and doing wacky drum fills. There are still only a few songs in 4/4, but we all tried to strip down our approaches to the music and have the song be the main focus. And it wasn't difficult to do at all; I just had to start hearing the music differently.
"I think some of the music on our past records is a little more show-offy," Matt continues. "Everyone was trying to make their individual part stand out more than it should have - not all the time, but enough to notice it. We listen back to some of our earlier records and cringe because it sounds like we were just showing off. Personally, on the Ultramega Ok album, I feel there are some songs with bad approaches to drumming. 'Nazi Driver' is a song that comes to mind. I totally missed a drum on 'Flower,' but we left it in there. One of the things I like about the new record is that we maintained a raw edge, but we were much cleaner with it and more sure of ourselves than ever before."
While new songs such as 'Limo Wreck' and 'Mailman' draw musically from elements familiar to Soundgarden fans, 'Half,' 'Black Hole Sun' and 'Like Suicide' knock down any walls that had previously threatened to corner or pigeonhole the band. "We've never wanted to limit ourselves or define what we were going for musically," Cameron explains, "but I think this record really exposes how narrow our vision may have been in the past. A song like 'Half' is a pretty unique tune for us, and we didn't want to exclude it from the record just because it didn't sound like a Soundgarden song. We wanted that kind of diversity, that left-field approach to some of the music."
Cameron's passion for the new record didn't develop, though, until late in the recording stages. "We weren't really blown away when we first heard the demos for 'Black Days'," Matt explains, "because we hadn't made it into a Soundgarden song yet. But Ben added a great bass part that fit with the vocal melody, and Kim (Thayil, guitarist) put in some harmony parts on the end that took the song into another gear. Chris has written a lot of songs over the years that we've never been able to sink our teeth into until now, songs like 'Fell On Black Days' that have more of a pop arrangement. And the result proved to be songs that aren't necessarily more accessible, but have more depth and are more musical than anything we've done before. Still, they didn't sound like Soundgarden songs for me until all the tracks were down."
"But I wasn't worried," Matt insists. "We trust our instincts that, as a band, we'll get what we're after through the collaborative effort. We don't really road-test the new songs anymore or rehearse a lot before we go in to record. We've always approached our music like that to a degree, but the arrangements for the songs came more easily this time because their more straight-ahead. They still rock, and that's the bottom line. That we're trying some different elements and sounds in our style shouldn't turn anybody away. It should draw people in and make them curious."
Cameron used a 20" kick drum as the foundation for his small kit, a 24" kick for his larger kit. Choice of snare drums and cymbals were often an at-the-moment impulse. "I was just trying to break out the strengths of each song and find sounds that fit," he explains. "Before we went into the studio, I only had a couple of songs figured out as to the type of sound I wanted. But as soon as I got in there and started experimenting, I got a somewhat clearer idea about which kicks and drums to use on which song.
"I had both kits set up at all times. With the small one, I used a 12" Brady snare. I had some Ludwig and Gretsch drums, Ayottes, Yamahas - basically whatever sounded good - and some old cymbals my friend Gregg Keplinger loaned me. And I would also change the bass drum for certain songs. I called it my mutant kit, and it had a real washy sound. I was kind of going for that Ringo vibe. He had this ride cymbal that you just couldn't hear 'ping' on. And then I used my standard-sized Drum Workshop kit for some other songs to get a deeper, solid, more dirty-groove foundation. And I used different snares and cymbals on that kit, too."
"Still, it was pretty much up to chance as to the exact drums that made it onto the final cut of a given song. I just liked having the options. The bottom line is, I got what I was looking for and was satisfied with the final mixes. This is the first time that has really happened for me. The key is knowing how to get your instrument to sound right, knowing how to change those sounds when you need to, and knowing how to use the studio, which really comes from experience."
When recording for Badmotorfinger in 1991, Soundgarden went to fabled Studio D in Sausalito, California, strictly to record the drum tracks. Cameron wanted to avoid special concessions for the latest session, though. "I wanted the drums to sound more earthy and natural, but I wanted to record them in a way that would make them very easy to mix. I didn't want to have to change the sounds in the mix, which happened with the last record. Gregg (Keplinger) was in the studio this time to help me out with things, changing heads and putting up cymbals. But one of the biggest things to me was that he would play the drums while I went into the control room and helped dial in the sounds. That saved a lot of time and kept me fresh when it was time to do a take."
"But the recording process was still pieced together," Cameron explains. "Making it work is just a matter of being comfortable with that and creating the illusion of spontaneity with that process, which we've been able to do. It just comes from experience in doing it that way and knowing what the end result is going to sound like. It was important to get as much natural energy as we could into the band, but the music we wrote was very free and open-ended, so it lent itself to that kind of sound."
Since virtually every song on Superunknown received its own special sonic treatment, we asked Matt to detail the specific approaches he used for several of the cuts.
'Fourth Of July': "I replaced all my crash cymbals with rides, and I can explain the reason I did this in one word: Bonham! I just wanted that long, elegant cymbal sound he was so known for. The riff in that song is so slow, think and meaty that I just felt it needed that syrup on top. I also used a tambourine drum that Gregg invented."
'Let Me Drown': "I used a 14" Keplinger snare and a 12" Brady snare at the same time. That was new for me, recording with two snares, but I wanted to get different feels and cracks at different times, and it didn't make sense to overdub any of that. It feels different when you do it all in one sitting."
'Head Down': I went with this old Gretsch snare that I didn't use on any other song. It was a real subtle sound, almost like a tom. I used a smaller kick drum too, and Gregg and Ben also played drums on that. I was just thinking of this swirling whirlpool of sound, especially in the drum break at the end. Ben played this spastic, rhythmic part that swells in and out of the mix throughout the song, and Gregg brought in his own kit and just went for it."
'Like Suicide': "There are a lot more highs and lows on this record all around because the songs demanded it, and 'Like Suicide' is a good example of how I generally approached this whole record as far as dynamics were concerned. The song starts out low and then just jumps out of the speakers, and I accented that by using two different kits, starting with the smaller kit and then overdubbing the bigger kit. I wanted to physically feel the shift."
'Half': "I turned up the bass drum on its side so it faced up, like a symphonic drum, and I used a snare drum with the snares off. I also did a cabasa part and used one cymbal. I wanted to play that song like a pianist or an orchestral percussionist would, just laying everything flat so I could stand up and play it with mallets. The drums were the last thing to go on that song, which was kind of neat. But there's a whole second half to that song that didn't make it on the record. It was this completely different rock section that we just couldn't get right on tape. There were tempo fluctuations going from part A to part B that we tried to overcome with studio wizardry (laughs), but it would have been a little too obvious."
Cameron agrees that the end results make for a record that owes much, at least on the surface, to the more acidic bands of the late '60s and early '70s. But if there was any conscious tie to the era, it was through embodying the spirit of the times rather than the sounds. "We didn't intentionally set out to copy any specific genre," says Matt, "but we wanted the most natural sounds to come out of our instruments, and that probably led to a freer approach to playing music, which was more prevalent in the '60s. But we also experimented a lot in the studio with sounds and instruments and breaking the songs down in terms of using exactly what was called for. We were able to get heavy with acoustic guitar - kind of a new level of heaviness. (laughs) A song like 'Head Down' is a new level of achievement for us. We've never had an acoustic-psychadelic type of song with a lot of low-end sweetness."
"One of the neat things about this record is that we were able to keep the improvisational elements intact, which I guess also harkens back a couple of decades. On some of our earlier stuff, it sounds a little bit forced to me. It worked well on 'Slaves and Bulldozers,' where there's a really great guitar solo/chaos section in it. But it's always been hard to make improv work for us, and I think this is the first time we've really nailed it. The endings of 'My Wave' and 'Head Down' just happened as we were recording, but they came off well."
Sessions for Superunknown didn't come without their struggles, though. The band and producer Michael Beinhorn often worked at different speeds. "Let's just say that it was a little tough in the studio this time," Matt says with a laugh. "We like the records Michael's produced, and he was in this band we knew of called Material. But we'd never worked with him before. We'd done the past two records with Terry Date, and we just wanted to try something new. But we didn't figure out how slowly Michael likes to work until we got into the studio. Chris liked using him because he was very meticulous with the vocals, but his pace really bothered me. And Michael was pretty anal about his set way of recording drums, though it worked in some cases. He likes a lot of high-end tones and high-end crack on the snares, almost to excess."
"So what we ended up doing, as a band, was just take more control of the sounds. Michael was cool with that, but we still went down some unnecessary roads we might not otherwise have had to if we'd used someone who was a little quicker and more in tune with what we wanted. What really balanced things out was that we had a really good engineer, Jason Cassaro, who has worked on a lot of very cool records and got some really great drum sounds. Having him involved really put our record on solid ground."
"The studio has always been tough for us one way or another," Matt continues. "I really like the studio, and recording is very satisfying, but there's just a lot of heartache that goes with it sometimes. It's not always the producer's fault, but we might just end up producing our own record next time - just for our own sanity!"
Meanwhile, Cameron decided long before hitting the studio that he wanted to contribute more with his pen. "I've written a lot of songs in the past," he says, "but only in the past year and a half have I actually sat down to try and write a Soundgarden song. 'Mailman' is one that I thought would be good for us. Luckily everyone liked what I'd written, so I guess I'm getting to the point where I can write Soundgarden songs. And believe me, I went through a lot of songs to get to this point - most of it crap!"
"I just try to approach it now from Kim's shoes. He's been a big influence on how I play guitar. I just really like his style, and I was always interested in how he got his sounds. I also based some of my tunings on what he'd done."
"And I'm proud to say this is the first album where I've received lyric-writing credit," he adds with an air of sarcasm. "I wrote the music for 'Fresh Tendrils,' and when I was doing the demo for it, I had this melody idea and sang these goofy lyrics. They're just the first two lines of the song, but Chris ended up using them. But, hey, if it'll get me half the songwriting credit, I'll take it every time."
Songwriting has also given Cameron fresh perspective and insight into his playing and music on the whole. "It's hard to find avenues where you can allow yourself to grow as a musician. I can't dedicate the time to just hole up in a room somewhere and practice like I used to. But songwriting has had a big effect, especially in my overall approach to music and exploring how it moves. But just through touring and listening to myself play, I think I'm getting better at conceiving drum parts and learning how to deconstruct them and take parts away that aren't necessary or that detract from the music."
Though Soundgarden offers enough turns of direction to keep Cameron on his toes, the thirty-year-old drummer has broadened his horizons by performances and recordings with other groups. His drumming set much of the tone for Temple of the Dog, a 1991 Cornell-Cameron collaboration with bassit Jeff Ament and guitarist Mike McCreedy in their pre-Pearl Jam days. Then after coming off Soundgarden's ten-month tour for Badmotorfinger, Cameron and Shepherd hooked up with the guitarist of Monster Magnet, bassist John Waterman and singer Brain Wood for the garage stylings of Hater.
"Hater came about in the 'Post-Tour Syndrome' after Lollapalooza," Cameron recalls, "and we wrote most of it at Ben's house. It was so much fun and it didn't take much time either -about five days. It was my first experience writing and singing the lyrics to a whole song, and it was just nice to play with new musicians who took me in directions that I don't normally go. And it made coming back to Soundgarden a lot more fresh for me."
Cameron stepped out of rock altogether for a challenging weekend jazz gig in Seattle with Pigpen. "They play this weird improv-based, free-form style of jazz, and I had to learn this really difficult music," he says. "I also played with their whole band, including their drummer. Originally I thought it was just going to be me. But in rehearsal, I had to approach things differently because it was the two of us. It wsa probably most interesting when we had to play off each other. It was a lot of fun playing in that format. The challenging aspect was that their music is very intense from a rhythmic standpoint, and I had to really bone up on my reading and my chops to get through it. They gave me all the charts and I just locked myself in my basement and learned it. I hadn't really done any reading like that since I was in school, so it was a great refresher course for me."
"Still, I think I'm best at playing rock music. I like jazz and I have a small background in it, but I'm really a rock drummer with a rock drummer's mentality. When I've played jazz, I've felt like I had to restrain myself unnaturally. But I've done quartet and trio stuff, and I've played with some big bands where I've had the chance to just blow, and those are always fun for me. But I'm a rock guy at heart."
Soundgarden literally stepped into the major leagues with its tour for Badmotorfinger - opening the jaunt in front of 60,000 people at the "Day On The Green" festival in Oakland, California, and going on to support Guns N' Roses in the United States and overseas before joining the Lollapalooza II bill. It's an atmosphere Cameron would just as soon leave behind.
"Opening for Guns N' Roses was good for us in a couple of respects. At that time it was the coveted slot, and we felt honored to be asked by them. We didn't get much radio or MTV play, so it gave us an opportunity to bring our music to massive amounts of people at a time and it gave us experience at handling stadium crowds."
"We also realized it didn't feel that great," Matt reveals. "It was very impersonal, and there's no room for our brand of music to be absorbed as it should be. You can't hear a lot of the nuances underneath this big loud bomb. And it's not a great setting because you're playing in places designed for soccer or hockey, so the sound really isn't that great. Stadiums and large arenas can be a rush, but we definitely give better performances in small theatres and clubs, and that's what we'll probably stick to for the new tour."
Cameron is also optimistic that the new tour and record will expose the band to people who previously would have viewed Soundgarden with preconceived notions. "The 'Seattle sound' and 'grunge' weren't anything that really existed; they were terms propagated by the media to describe us," he says. "But the bands taht got really successful - Nirvana, Tad, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam - they got successful because they write great music. So in that sense I'm very proud we were a part of that."
"But I'm also disgusted that some newer bands have taken the wrong elements out of that music - the fashion side of it and the surface sound - but they don't have the essence, the heart of it. And then all the other bands like us and Nirvana couldn't get out of that stereotype because the media wouldn't let us. Fortunately, I think we've been able to remove ourselves from it enough to create the music we want to create."
Cameron advisees newer bands to hold onto their ideals and visions for as long as they can and to never compromise their integrity. That way, when success comes along, it will be on the band's terms, not a record label's. "We were fortunate when we started out that our main impetus was to write music we liked. We didn't try to get signed, so we had a pretty solid foundation before we ever got involved with the business side of music. So many bands start out with the idea of getting signed and having a career in the business. Once they get there, they realize the business is non-artistic and has nothing to do with the music. They can definitely chew up a lot of bands, especially when the decisions are out of your hands."
"And things don't get any easier when you're at our level," Matt suggests. "We have a few albums out and we're on a major label now, so there's a lot more demand on our time, which takes us away from the music. It takes a lot of pre-planning and arranging of our personal schedules just to rehearse together. But each of us knows, with all the other stuff going on around us at any given time, that the music is the most important thing. It's also what we do best. We're not actors, or promoters, or businessmen. Sometimes as an artist you have to do and be all those things. It gets very hectic, but it all becomes clear very quickly when it's just the four of us in a room with our instruments. That's when we regain our perspective - and our sanity."
Cameron wants to eventually parlay his knowledge and enjoyment of the studio into producing records for other bands. "I've already started working with a few people," he says. "But to do it full-time, at least when you're starting out, you inevitably have to work with bands you don't necessarily like, and I don't know if I really want to do that."
Drumming, meanwhile, is his primary focus. "I want to learn how to play the bodhran and get into the tabla. But I mainly just want to become more free in my playing while keeping it solid. I want to be able to create more contrasts and colors in my playing, and I think I did that more on this record than ever before. It feels better to me, like I'm maturing as a player and able to actually play what I feel inside - not necessarily what I hear, but what I feel."
"I'm actually starting to be able to emote on the drums, which is kind of a weird thing to do. I mean, you can reach that emotional part of yourself a lot easier on an instrument such as the piano or saxophone. But to do that on the drums is extrememly difficult. Drums have always been an instrument that can send out messages, but there's only so much you can get out of it in the way of communicating your feelings. Elvin Jones can do it. Tony Williams and Steve Gadd can do it. It seems like it would take a lifetime to get to where those guys are at."
"I feel like I'm just barely scratching the surface now. It's a hard thing to describe, but you know when you're there when you feel it. Playing a song that hits you on that deep emotional level and being able to match that with what you're playing on the drums - that can just lift you and the song to another level."