Rufus Wainwright’s Matt Johnson
On Tour & On Stage Making It Work On The Road
by Patrick Berkery
This month we ask seven road dogs about the ups and downs of life on tour, and for useful tips on everything from dealing with odd personalities on the bus to working with a click track live to choosing the right gear for the long haul. Listen up—it’s the kind of stuff that can help make your next gig or tour a dream rather than a nightmare.
Jeff Buckley’s Grace album put him on the map. But the drummer says it’s subsequent gigs, like ones Rufus Wainwright and John Mayer, that really taught him how to move a crowd.
Brooklyn-based drummer Matt Johnson has kept busy the past fifteen years with a succession of fulfilling gigs that have seen him playing European stadiums, Lower East Side bars, and every kind of venue in between.
After arriving on the New York City music scene from his native Texas in the early ’90s, Johnson hooked up with Jeff Buckley and was a member of the revered singer’s band on the Grace album and tour. The years since Buckley’s untimely 1997 death have found Johnson backing John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Duncan Sheik, Beth Orton, and others in the studio and on stage, as well as moving forward with his own projects, like his new solo album, Cagefighter.
It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride for Johnson, who grappled with his limitations and insecurities earlier in his career and has emerged a well-rounded, self-aware musician. “After all these years and all these experiences, I find that it’s fed into the total story and the unfolding of my drumming,” the thirty-eight-year-old Johnson explains. “I realized along the way that I wasn’t playing because I was really great at this. I was playing because I really love this.”
MD: What had you been doing prior to working with Jeff Buckley?
Matt: I’d been playing in a lot of different bands in New York, just learning how to play the drums in the context of any band that I could find. I had a lot of work to do in terms of getting my craft together. The best way to do that was to be working with people constantly.
MD: Do you feel you had your chops together by the time you began working with Buckley?
Matt: In some ways. But before the age of thirty there were always things in my life that were highlighting my insecurities. Even the experience with Jeff was incredibly punishing and difficult. The approach that you hear on Grace has these jazzy, dynamic inflections because I brought them to the music. I think Jeff went through a period where he thought my playing was too jazzy, where maybe I was a little too precious, too jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I think it’s a really good record, and I’m happy that I took that approach. I’m just not really sure that’s what Jeff wanted in a drummer in the long term.
MD: What was your mindset when that gig ended?
Matt: I was doing what a lot of drummers do at some point, I think, if they’re going to play for their entire life and they’re really in love with the instrument. I realized the work that I had to do. I spent a lot of time studying tabla. And I learned a tremendous amount from that.
MD: And you’ve managed to stay consistently busy since then.
Matt: Initially it was just kind of making a living and trying to learn how to play with different bands and different styles that didn’t come easily for me. Especially some of the pop things like John Mayer and Duncan Sheik—that was a whole different headspace. Nir Z had played on John Mayer’s Room For Squares record and had a very distinctive style. It was pretty fascinating to get to know Nir and play his parts live, because they’re extremely stripped down. I listened carefully to how much weight and precision he brought to those simple parts. After having done some of those pop gigs, it was very nice to work with Rufus Wainwright, because the compositions he’s capable of are fascinating to play night after night.
MD: Was playing a more ornate style of music with Wainwright another phase of your education in a sense?
Matt: More so than anything I’ve done. Rufus immediately gets everybody in the band singing. The ornamentation and a lot of the complexity and density of the music are found in the background vocal parts. So singing those parts and playing the drums was an absolute transformation for me. It made it so much easier for me to finally learn how to play the guitar and sing. He’s a big influence on me in just learning how to play, sing, arrange, and write music.
MD: You still play in a wide variety of venues. Are you tailoring your setup and style to each type of room?
Matt: Yes. It’s really tricky to find the right balance. Sometimes it’s just best to hit consistently within a very limited dynamic range. In smaller rooms, I don’t always think that’s the case. When you’re mixing yourself—when you’re unamplified— if you apply the same stroke to the cymbals that you do to the floor tom, there’s a pretty big chance that the cymbals are going to be louder than anything else people hear. There should be a difference in the dynamic that you’re applying to the drums and the cymbals.
I did the McGarrigle Christmas Hour show at Carnegie Hall last year. Dynamically, that’s a very sensitive room. And that gig was important to me for understanding exactly how my drums resonate, how they’re tuned, and what’s working about them. And I’ve made changes since then, to where I feel I can get by with one kit and one fairly large cymbal bag. I can run the gamut of a lot of different types of gigs, without really having to do much to my drums.
MD: I imagine a gig like that, where you’re playing kit on traditional holiday songs, on the quieter side, would be pretty challenging.
Matt: Right. I knew that loud/soft—that whole rock ’n’ roll dynamic—wouldn’t work. I had to think about how jazz guys who were playing in clubs in the 1950s could turn a band on without using the loud/soft switch so much. I was just concentrating on keeping a groove going.
MD: And there’s the challenge of giving a pretty diverse group of singers—Lou Reed, Emmylou Harris, Laurie Anderson—what they want or need rhythmically.
Matt: I felt that. But there’s also a part of me that doesn’t give a damn. Meaning, yes, I do give a damn, but there’s a cutoff point to it. Because giving a damn after a certain point only turns you into somebody without a spine. You cannot lack a spine and be a drummer—at least not a good one. For more about Matt Johnson, including how to order his album Cagefighter, go to drumsmattjohnson.com.
Matt’s Touring Setup
Johnson plays Smith Custom drums, including a 14×22 bass drum, an 8×12 tom (on a snare stand), 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, a 51/2×14 hammered phosphor bronze snare, and a 51/2×14 maple snare; Zildjian cymbals, including 14″ K light hi-hats, a 20″ K Hybrid ride, a 22″ K light ride, and an 18″ A Custom medium thin crash; two Pearl chain-drive bass drum pedals; a Roc-N-Soc hydraulic stool; Vater Los Angeles 5A wood-tip sticks; and Evans heads.