In ten years, Matchbox Twenty has sold 28 million records,
including three multi-platinum albums and a string of hit singles. Their new two-CD collection, Exile On Mainstream, contains their greatest hits plus six brand-new songs featuring drummer Ryan MacMillan. Ryan fills the space left by Paul Doucette, who now plays guitar and keyboards.
MacMillan and Doucette, along with front man Rob Thomas, bassist Brian Yale, guitarist Kyle Cook, and returning sideman Matt Beck, will be touring the US through the end of March, and then head off to Australia and Europe.
Ryan MacMillan was born in Newton, Massachusetts on March 16, 1975 and has been playing drums since he was very young. The stars recently lined up just right for the drummer, as he recently landed what many would call a “dream gig.” “Totally,” agrees a proud and excited MacMillan. “I hit the lottery. It’s awesome!”
I first met Ryan in the late ’90s, when he was a member of The Push Stars, who were then opening for Julian Lennon at Irving Plaza in New York City. His playing impressed me that night, and after our chat we kept in touch and have been friends ever since. The Push Stars released six records between 1996 and 2004, and in 2005 Ryan began playing with the band Red Car, while simultaneously playing on Matchbox drummer Paul Doucette’s solo project, The Break And Repair Method. MD caught up with Ryan and the band when they were in town rehearsing.
MD: Let’s talk about the gig. How did it all come together?
Ryan: I met the guys through my former band, The Push Stars. Our producer, Greg Collins, sent our album to Rob [Thomas] because he had just engineered the Matchbox record, and Rob really liked it. So they asked us to go out and do a three-week tour with them. During that time Paul [Doucette] had said to me that when they were done with the tour he was going to be making a solo record and wanted me to play drums on it. I asked him, “Why do you want me to play drums on your record, if you’re a drummer”? And he was like, “I’m sick of playing drums. I like the way you play, so if you’d be up for it I’d love to have you do it.” So I was like, Yeah sure, I’d love to!
MD: What was that project called?
Ryan: The Brake And Repair Method. Unfortunately, it hasn’t come out yet. But that’s how it all started. Then Matchbox Twenty was asked to put out a greatest-hits record, and instead of just putting one new song on it, they decided they wanted to make an EP of new songs to go along with the hits. So Paul called me up—we both live in LA—and said, “We’re going into the studio. Would you want to come and record on the new Matchbox record”? He was now going to be playing guitar, so I was like, “Yeah, of course I would!” We recorded six new songs with producer Steve Lillywhite.
MD: How was it working with Steve?
Ryan: It was great! I loved working with him. He’s one of those guys who lets you do your thing. He’s not one of those producers who’s like, “Play this…play that….” He just lets you feel it out and find your own sound. And he’s a funny guy—real dry English sense of humor—and definitely very honest in his opinions. He’ll tell you whatever he’s thinking, whether it’s good or bad, and I kind of like that about him.
MD: Great drum intro to the first single, “Look How Far We’ve Come.”
Ryan: On that one it’s both Paul and I playing. That’s the only new track he played drums on. That was fun. I’ve never recorded a track with two drummers. He plays the tribal tom groove and I play the hi-hat and groove beat.
MD: Were most of the tracks cut live in the studio?
Ryan: Yes. They would go back and overdub little bits, but we actually played the songs all together, live in the room. And I was used to recording that way because that’s how The Push Stars would always make records.
MD: Unfortunately, a lot of bands don’t record that way anymore.
Ryan: Yeah, I know…. I’ve played on other records where it’s like, “Okay, just the drums.” That’s one thing about Steve: He works in that kind of old-school way, like, This is a band, let’s make it sound like a band.
MD: Before you went into the studio, did you hear the tracks in demo stages?
Ryan: I heard a few, but not all of them. They had gone out to Rob’s house and worked on it and wrote the songs, so they had rough versions of them. I think Steve’s philosophy was just, Listen to the song a few times, and go out and play it.
MD: In the studio, did Paul leave all the drum parts up to you?
Ryan: Pretty much. We would play through the songs a few times, and I’d come up with my parts and they’d basically be like, Yeah, that sounds good, or if there was something they didn’t like we would change it. But he was never like, “Play this, play that….”
MD: Who were some of your drumming influences growing up?
Ryan: Definitely Buddy Rich, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder, those three guys and Neil Peart. My dad played drums a bit, and he was really into big bands. So he got me listening to Buddy Rich when I was three years old. He also loved singers like Frank Sinatra. And I became a huge KISS fan—I still am! I was obsessed with them as a kid. I have a picture of me playing drums at my nursery school…I had this little drumset, and on the kick drum I have a picture of Paul Stanley that I ripped out of a magazine and taped to the front head. [laughs]
MD: What was your practice routine like—did your dad teach you?
Ryan: He showed me a little. He got me a practice pad, and he had a drumset, but I was too small to actually play it. So for Christmas when I was around four years old, they got me a real kit for kids. So I played that until I grew into the bigger kit. But I took snare drum lessons up until about third grade. When I got home from school I would just play on the drumkit at home. And I took lessons until I was in high school, off and on.
MD: Would you play along to records?
Ryan: Oh, yeah. I would make my mom take me to the record store once a week and I’d buy a 45 single. KISS, The Beatles, Van Halen…. My mom was into Paul Simon and Peter, Paul & Mary, and that kind of singer-songwriter music.
MD: Do you think because of your playing along to song-oriented records prepared you to play the kind of music you do now?
Ryan: Absolutely. And I always liked those kinds of song drummers—other than Buddy Rich. Buddy was technically amazing and incredible.
MD: What are some of your favorite Matchbox songs to play live?
Ryan: Of course all the new ones, because I played on them. [laughs] But of the older songs, “Soul”…“Bright Lights”…“Feel” is really fun to play…a song called “Hand Me Down….”
MD: Were you a fan of the band beforehand?
Ryan: I knew them and I’d heard their records, but I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a fan in the beginning. But when I heard that song “Bright Lights,” I was like, “Wow, this is a really good song.” When The Push Stars toured with them is when I totally got into them as a band. I watched them play every night, and I just thought they were a really good live band. And Rob is such a good front man and just so engaging with the audience. And Paul’s a really good drummer.
MD: I know he plays it down, but he’s always impressed me.
Ryan: He’s got so much energy when he plays. And his parts are very creative.
MD: His drum parts are musical, perhaps because he’s a multi-instrumentalist.
Ryan: Totally. I think Paul’s a great songwriter as well.
MD: What are the band’s plans?
Ryan: After this tour, I think that Rob is going to make a solo record and then maybe tour. But as a band, they are planning on recording a full-length studio record after that.
MD: Lastly, any words of advice for our readers?
Ryan: I would say follow your heart. If your heart’s in it, it will pay off for sure. It can be a long road, but I think it’s worth it. I couldn’t really picture doing anything else. People always ask me what I would do if I weren’t a drummer, and I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t want to know. That would be my word of advice: Never let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Anything can be done if you set your mind to it.