He’s moved from Texas to New York to Seattle and now to L.A., sometimes following employment and sometimes chasing his muse. With his technical abilities and artful aesthetic, however, the first-call drummer would probably have plenty of work even if he moved to the moon.
Back in the late ’80s, Matt Chamberlain was just a young Dallas-based drummer about to embark on his first big-time tour, with the folkrock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, who were riding high on the successes of their breakthrough album, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. But it was only a matter of time before Chamberlain’s unique talents had piqued the interest of not only fellow aspiring musicians but also some of the key movers and shakers within the music industry. MTV viewers will likely remember spotting the fresh-faced drummer showing off his textbook traditional grip and nimble hi-hat technique—played on a blue Yamaha kit with power toms and sky-high cymbals, nonetheless—in the video for Brickell’s charttopping hit, “What I Am,” while his slick Manu Katché/ Stewart Copeland–inspired playing on the Bohemians’ sophomore release, 1990’s Ghost of a Dog, foreshadowed the many great things to come.
In 1991, Chamberlain became every young alt-rocker’s favorite drummer when he appeared in Pearl Jam’s live video for the song “Alive.” (The video was shot while Matt was filling in with the band for a brief two-week tour.) Later that year, Chamberlain was offered a spot in guitarist G.E. Smith’s Saturday Night Live house band. He ended up leaving the show after just one season, because, he explains, “New York City wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be,” and subsequently shipped himself back across the country to Seattle, where he lived until early 2011.
Leaving such a lucrative gig as SNL might have seemed ludicrous to the vast majority of aspiring drummers out there, but the move westward turned out to be particularly prescient. Not only was Chamberlain able to live a more relaxed and comfortable lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, but he was also free to explore his creative muse. “I realized that Seattle was a place where I could experiment and make crazy music with friends and not have to worry too much about my monthly nugget,” the drummer says. The result of those freeform experiments was the quirky electronic/acoustic outfit Critters Buggin, which went on to release the albums Bumpa, Stampede, Guest, Host, Amoeba, and Monkeypot Merganzer.
At the same time that Matt was getting his freak on with Critters, he was also building a reputation as someone who could deliver the goods in the studio, thanks in part to his incredibly creative and tasty contributions to two mega-hit 1996 records, Bringing Down the Horse by the roots-rock band the Wallflowers, and Tidal, the adventurous debut by then-teenage singer Fiona Apple. Chamberlain’s output since then has been enormous, including everything from mainstream pop hits with the likes of Chris Isaak, Macy Gray, John Mayer, and Sara Bareilles to more abstract collaborations with jazz/improv artists such as Brad Mehldau, Marco Benevento, and Bill Frisell. The drummer has even made appearances on a smattering of modern country releases, with Sara Evans, Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and others.
Since 1998, Chamberlain has kept his schedule full by setting up recording sessions during off days or between tours with pianist/songwriter Tori Amos. This past year, Amos decided to return to her classical roots and released a concept album for piano and orchestra, so Matt found his date book opening up a bit, leaving him with another potentially life-changing decision to make: Would he remain in Seattle, where he had just built a nice drum-tracking studio in his home, or would he and his wife relocate to Los Angeles so he could make himself readily available for day-to-day session work?
We caught up with Chamberlain a few months after he decided to make the move, to find out how things were going and also to get a feel for what it’s like—and what it takes—to be one of the recording industry’s most in demand players.
MD: What was it that finally prompted you to move to Los Angeles?
Matt: When I was home in Seattle, which wasn’t very often, I wasn’t working. Plus I’m married, and I figured I wanted to see the woman I’m married to. [laughs] She’s been with me for twenty years, but we were at a point last year where I was like, “You know what, I’m gone over 200 days a year. This is ridiculous.” So we got a little apartment in Silverlake, and it’s great because I can just come back here instead of going to a hotel or flying all over the place.
MD: Are you working more in private studios around L.A., or are you still going to the big rooms?
Matt: I’m still going to the big studios. I spent most of this past summer at Sunset Sound working on a new Jason Mraz record. Luckily, artists that have budgets are still going to those studios, because the rooms sound great.
MD: Do you still use a cartage company to handle your gear?
Matt: Yeah. For me things haven’t really changed at all. The music industry is changing, obviously. But since I moved down here, I’m busier than ever.
MD: I imagine you get a lot more calls because you’re living in town.
Matt: Yeah, but I was still working, even when I was living in Seattle. People who were hiring me would plan ahead and get the budget together to fly me in, but I wasn’t getting called for a lot of last-minute stuff. Now there’s a lot more opportunity to do things like movie soundtracks. A lot of the composers are constantly rewriting and doing last-minute sessions. Those are really fun to do because they throw a chart in front of you and you have to read.
MD: Is it interpretive reading, or is it note for note?
Matt: Some of it’s very arranged, but it depends on who the composer is and what kind of music they’re writing. If it’s more of a loose rock soundtrack, they won’t want you to play the fills they wrote on the computer. But if it’s more worked out, then you’ll have to read it note for note.
MD: You played on the soundtrack to Horrible Bosses, which has more of a band sound.
Matt: A lot of that involved scores, but it’s more funk/rock grooves. Victor Indrizzo was on that, but he couldn’t make the second session because he was on the road with Sheryl Crow, so he recommended me. That was a last minute thing that I got called to do.
Another great thing about living in L.A. is that there are so many great musicians around that I love playing with, so I’m working on tons of little projects with friends. Everything is way more convenient.
MD: You’re actually getting out to jam on your own time?
Matt: Definitely. I’m not one of these guys that just does sessions. Session work is a way for me to make a living. Maybe 35 percent of it is super-creative and they’re hiring me to explore and push the envelope. Some people have huge budgets and are willing to spend an entire day on a song. But then there are people who want you to bust out as many songs as possible in one day, and they’ll just deal with it later in Pro Tools.
MD: What’s your mentality going into those two different scenarios?
Matt: Everything is so dependent on the situation. But generally if they’re going to take two weeks to do basic tracks, then you can mess with arrangements, deconstruct things, and try different grooves. I might have more of my drums, percussion, and odd bits lying around to make loops with or play grooves on. But if it’s a roots-rock kind of thing, you’re not going to get into making loops. If they gravitate toward wanting more beats and creating sounds and textures, then you can explore. I can record stuff into my laptop and tweak things out and then play drums on top of that, or I can work with the engineer to make a unique sound for that song, trying different drums and all that.
If it’s somebody that only has two days for tracking, you can still try stuff, but you’re kind of just throwing things at the wall. In Pro Tools, you can do multiple takes and try different things, which gives them a bunch of options. Then they go home and edit. That’s the good thing about Pro Tools.
MD: Even in that situation you’re not looking to just settle on one approach and move on. You’re still trying a few different ideas.
Matt: Oh, yeah. That leaves things open for them later on. If I give them a bunch of ideas, they can edit things together. But some people just like to go for a bunch of takes so they can find a great one, and then maybe they grab a fill from someplace else.
There’s no one way of working, which is great. Some people will want to just get together in the studio with a bass player and track everything live. Some people will have the vocals and all the other stuff in Pro Tools, and they just want you to put drums on it.
They’ll usually have demos, so you can hear where they’re coming from and feel out their aesthetic. And I’ll ask a lot of questions about what they’re going for. A lot of people will write to loops and get married to that sound, so I’ll ask if they’re going to use that loop and have me play on top or if they want me to re-create that loop. Or are they looking to go someplace else entirely?
MD: When I interviewed Steve Jordan a while back, he said that he doesn’t want to play to anything that’s not going to be on the final track.
Matt: That totally makes sense, because you’re playing off it, so it can influence what you do.
MD: And when they yank it out, what you played might sound weird.
Matt: Yeah, if somebody’s playing a crazy bass line and they’re like, “Just ignore the bass,” I’d rather mute it. You have to be prepared for just about anything. Generally the producer will give you an idea going in, like if you should bring a modern-sounding kit, an oldschool midrangy kit, some options for snares, or whatever odd bits and percussion they’re hearing. Or they’ll just say, “Bring all your shit, and we’ll freak out for a few days.” [laughs]
For a thing I just did with [producer] Rich Costi for this artist named Birdy, we didn’t have a bass player. It was completely wide open, but at the same time Rich wanted it to have a programmed- beat aesthetic. In that situation, you could bring all your gear, but you still might not have what you need. For one song I had to record myself into Ableton Live on my laptop so I could tweak out this one groove and then play on top of it. Then we added another drumkit. It was a process, and I didn’t know what we were going to do. All I knew was that I was going to show up and experiment, so it was good to have tons of options.
MD: At this point, do you have an idea of the types of sounds various producers are going to want, or is it always flexible?
Matt: It’s totally flexible. You’re obviously going to bring a couple drumkits and some snares. I collect a lot of drums that aren’t necessarily snares and bass drums but sound like snares and bass drums. I have a bunch of Taos Native American drums, and there’s one that sounds like a sampled bass drum. I can throw that up to approximate the sound of a sample. I love having those kinds of things around, and that’s generally what songwriters are pushing for—they’re trying to get some different sounds to fit the mood of their songs.
MD: What do you look for in a piece of gear when you’re searching for an alternative sound?
Matt: You can just tap on things, and there are a lot of people making unusual instruments. There’s this one DW drum I’ve been using for years. It’s a single-headed 8″ piccolo tom with snare wires pressed up against the bottom of the head. If you can crank it up and hit it really lightly, it sounds like an 808 snare.
Another cool thing is the Remo Ocean drum. If you hit it with your hands, it makes the weirdest sound. You can also put it on a snare stand, tape it down, and hit it with a stick, and you get a really mushy thing happening.
And I’ve been into miking tiny little things, like a piece of paper, and smacking them with my finger. If you crank the mic, it can sound incredible, and you don’t know what the hell it is. If you put these elements together in some kind of recording software, you can make weird percussion beats and then run them through amp simulators to crust them up a little bit. A snare sound is basically white noise, so you can try miking anything, like a bag of potato chips, and come up with really interesting sounds.
MD: What about alternate bass drum sounds?
Matt: Have you ever put your ear up to the edge of a cymbal and hit it lightly? There’s an insane amount of low end. If you stick a mic right there, muffle the cymbal, and smack it with your thumb, you can get an amazing bass drum sound. There’s tons of stuff like that, where you can get into making beats by magnifying things so that they’re out of context. With programs like Ableton Live, it’s endless.
MD: Are you coming into sessions with these sounds already in your laptop, or are you finding stuff to try when you get to the studio?
Matt: You just do it as you’re going. I’ll get the bpm of the song and then just start throwing things together with whatever’s lying around. They might like it, or they might not, or maybe they like one element of it. Even if they’re not 100 percent sure about it, it’s still something to play to that’s different from just a click.
MD: So when given the option, you’d rather create your own rhythm track?
Matt: Oh, yeah. But there are a lot of people who are really good at writing and programming on their laptops. There’s this group called Of Montreal that I’ve worked with a bunch. Their main songwriter, Kevin [Barnes], programs the most insane drum stuff in Logic. So whenever he comes to me with a song, I’m like, “Wow! What do you want me to do on this?” Sometimes I’ll transcribe his programming and just play it on drumkit, or sometimes I’ll play on top of his programming and he’ll do a hybrid thing.
Solo Projects, Drum Clinics, and Defining Your Sound
MD: Right before you moved to L.A. you built a studio in your house in Seattle. Are you keeping that intact?
Matt: Pretty much. I did some stuff for Of Montreal there while I was working on my next solo project, Company 23. Some of my recording gear is down here in L.A., but there are so many studios around town. I prefer to just show up with my stuff and play, and then have somebody else deal with engineering.
MD: What is Company 23 all about?
Matt: It’s basically the stuff I do when I’m not being employed by other people. This record is a little more agro because I decided to blast all of the synths through guitar and bass amps and then mike them. It has a visceral thing to it. I’m printing it up on vinyl and making it available for digital download at mattchamberlain.com.
MD: How did you write the music? Did you use a MIDI controller to record melodic ideas on your computer?
Matt: Yeah. It’s my attempt at doing a solo project where it’s just me and my laptop. It’s kind of the reverse of hip hop, where everything but the drums is played live. I thought, What if I have live drums and everything else is in the computer? Plus with my schedule, it’s impossible to work with anybody on a regular basis. My plan is to tour it and try to schedule some drum clinics during the day, before the gigs.
MD: You haven’t done a lot of drum clinics.
Matt: They’re nerve-racking! I often get into a spiral of infinite possibilities, so when I start thinking about trying to explain what it is that I’m doing in a clinic context I break out in hives. I admire guys who can distill what they do down to a specific program. I don’t know what my thing would be that I would teach anybody, so I’m just going to play this music for people.
MD: It’s always illuminating to see someone play up close.
Matt: It is. The drum clinics that have made the greatest impression on me are the ones where the guy is just playing. They’re not talking a lot or telling stories. That’s fun and all, but I like to just go and experience some music. I remember seeing Jack DeJohnette do a drum clinic at a convention in ’89 or ’90. He had them turn the lights almost all the way off, and he did this freeform drum solo for forty-five minutes. It was the most insane, life-changing experience. It was like being abducted by a drumming alien. [laughs]
In the end, it’s art. Everybody is entitled to his or her opinion about how to present it. And with all the music that’s available now, you can draw influences from just about anything.
MD: How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by the possibilities?
Matt: You can only do what you can do. If you’re put in a situation where you’re making music with somebody, you’re hopefully going to follow your intuition and make it sound good by playing what feels right to you, even if it’s something completely different from what most people would expect.
I like the idea of being influenced by one thing while you’re playing something totally unrelated. Maybe on your drive to a session with a singersongwriter, an N.W.A. song comes up on the radio and influences you to try some nasty groove over the top of a mellow song with acoustic guitar. Or maybe you were listening to Elvin Jones, so you wanted to try playing with that wide-open, loose feel. Would that be an interesting juxtaposition? Those are ways to break out of just playing the same old stuff. I like to think of the most unrelated drum concepts that might work on somebody’s song and try them out, as long as we have time for that type of exploration.
MD: It seems that it would take a certain amount of fearlessness to be comfortable doing that.
Matt: You can always just show up and do “the drummer thing.” That always works, and a lot of times that’s what people want. But if you do this every day for a living, or if you want to do this for a living, you have to at least try some other stuff. You might surprise some people, and you might discover something. Otherwise, why even be a session musician or offer your services as a drummer for hire if you’re not going to bring something to the table?
A lot of guys think being a session drummer is this super-serious thing, and you have to show up with the best gear and have this type-A personality the whole time. I think that’s a bunch of crap. You just have to be creative and be in there with the artist, trying to contribute something and be part of the team. There are a lot of drummers who aren’t working, because they have this attitude of, “I’m going to put my shit on top of your shit, and it’s going to sound great.” The audacity of that is sad to me. I feel you should come in and be open and very humble, and let the music do its thing.
MD: What’s interesting is that while it’s clear that you take this approach, at the end of the day the track ends up sounding more like you. It’s pretty easy to tell that it’s you playing on a record, even though you’re always making decisions for the betterment of the music.
Matt: Yeah, and it could be anything. It’s not as if you go in like, “I’m just going to play the most simple beat because I don’t want to step on the music.” They might want you to do a frickin’ drum solo over the chorus and then run your drums through the guitar player’s rig for the verse. You have to be as open-minded as possible but still be musical.
MD: It’s not like you just show up and say, “Let’s get my sound together.”
Matt: That would be crazy! There are too many possibilities, and drum sounds have certain connotations. If you show up with a piccolo snare cranked up and ringy, or with something that’s really dead and Fleetwood Mac–sounding, or if you have a middle-of-the-road classic rock snare sound, like a Mitch Mitchell or Charlie Watts sound, each is going to make a song do something totally different. I can’t imagine saying that any one of those is “your” sound, when you don’t even know what the song is or how your drums relate to the other instruments. The bass player’s tone is going to interact with the guitar player’s tone, and your drums need to fit into that. If your sound is too dark to cut through the guitar tones, it’s not going to work.
The only time I think you can get away with having a sound is if people want that sound and they write a couple songs for that sound. I love too many different things, and there are too many options out there. I mean, Craviotto just made me a 20″ snare drum that sounds so cool. [laughs]
MD: Has that drum made it on a record yet?
Matt: It hasn’t. What happens is I’ll bring these weird drums to sessions and people will just laugh. But you’ve got to try. Sometimes it’s too much, but then sometimes it works. I like to have these things around, for entertainment value at least, even if I don’t use them.
MD: This brings up the topic of what to take to a session.
Matt: I have my basic setup, which is my Craviotto hybrid kit with a 22″ kick for a general all-around sound and a 24″ for when I need to rock out a bit more. Then I’ll have 12″, 13″, and 14″ rack toms. I only use one rack tom, but if I need a beefier sound, the 14″ always works well. I generally only use a 16″ floor tom.
Then I’ll have an assortment of snares, at least four or five. It’s nice to have a few classic metal sounds, like a Supra-Phonic kind of thing, then a couple super-dead ones, a couple super-dark ones, a couple freaky, odd bits, and one or two drums that are high pitched and have more crack to them. Over time you get your snares tweaked to where you like them and you know what they do, so if the engineer asks for something with more ring, more bottom, or more crack, you can grab the best option.
I’ll also often bring in a vintage kit, like a ’60s Ludwig or Gretsch, just in case the Craviottos have too much high end. Older drums have an interesting midrange and low end that you don’t get with modern drums. But they’re all equally valid. It’s just whatever works with the track.
MD: Do you take a variety of cymbals to sessions too?
Matt: Yeah. I have a ride that’s high-endy and pingy that’s good for rock, and I have one that’s more mellow but still has some high end. I also usually take a couple that are really dark and dry, almost like Jack DeJohnette’s sound. It all depends on the track, the room, and the engineer. The way the engineer is EQ’ing things and which mics he chooses to crank up is really important. Some cymbals sound really harsh in certain rooms, so you have to use something that’s a little darker. Take a Breath
MD: We recently reprinted an excerpt from a Bill Rieflin interview where he was talking about a lesson he learned from you. He asked you what’s the most important thing a drummer should know, and you said to breathe. What did you mean by that?
Matt: There are a lot of different reasons. In the past ten to fifteen years I’ve gotten to play with a lot of people I really admire, like David Bowie and Morrissey. If you really think about that, you could work yourself up into a state and not be able to play. So breathing and doing simple centering exercises really helps me, because when you’re relaxed, everything flows. If you have your playing technique together, the most important thing is being centered and letting your body do what it does naturally, without inhibiting it.
MD: So that’s before you even play a note. What about while you’re playing?
Matt: It’s not a conscious thing where I’m like, “I’m going to play now, so I need to start breathing.” But if I’m playing and I find myself getting into my head or feeling insecure about something, I just sink more into feeling the music and being aware of my body. A lot of times when you’re tense, you’re not breathing.
MD: I’ve noticed that the more I try to play precisely, the tighter my body ends up getting. Has that happened to you?
Matt: Yeah. It’s one of those things where if something isn’t happening, stop trying. Just relax, and it’ll happen naturally. Grooving is supposed to feel good, even if you’re playing to a click. A lot of people get too obsessed with being on point with the click, but a lot of times you can draw your own line through it. If you’re centered in your playing, you’re going to make your own feeling around the click, and it’ll generally feel pretty good. But nothing’s perfect. If you listen to a lot of great-feeling old records, it’s speeding up and slowing down, but it feels great because everybody is playing together.
I remember a hang after a gig with Jon Brion where we were talking about how everything is so perfect and gridded out these days. [Led Zeppelin bassist] John Paul Jones was there, and he said something about how tempo and time are dynamics, not unlike any other dynamic in music—there’s loud and soft, but there’s also slower and faster. Tempo isn’t a static thing like a lot of people think it needs to be. If you put any Stones, Zeppelin, or Hendrix record on a grid in Pro Tools, it would sound like crap. It’s all the stuff that happens between the grid that’s the magical part. It’s constantly moving. Like John Paul Jones said, it’s dynamic.
MD: How do you bring that aesthetic when you’re playing to a click track?
Matt: Like I was saying, you have to draw your own line through it. Hopefully you’re playing the music, and the click is just there as a reference point. There are also situations when someone comes in with all these loops and programmed parts that they want you to play drums on, so you really have to focus in order to nail that stuff. That’s a whole other mindset, where you’re thinking like a drum machine and really getting inside the programming. With programmed parts, you often get a lot of subdivisions, so you’re able to sink into it more and meld your playing with what’s there. Okay…I just completely contradicted myself. [laughs]
MD: Well, those are the two worlds that you live in, where some stuff sounds really gridded out, but with other stuff you can tell there wasn’t a metronome in the building.
Matt: It all depends on what kind of music you’re playing. Some people want it to be raggedy and wide, and they want the beat to be super-loose.
MD: Let’s finish with the idea of touch. You have an interesting touch, where you play off the drum more than into it. Was that something you worked on consciously?
Matt: I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I do know that at one point in college, when I was playing around Dallas, a lot of the clubs didn’t have PA systems. I was playing in these loud rock bands, so I would crank my drums really high and play everything as a rimshot, even on the toms. That was the only way I could cut through. It wasn’t the best way to play the instrument, but I’m sure something from that stuck with me. But then, when you get into the studio, you end up playing way softer because you don’t have to generate as much volume to get your point across. A lot of times playing too loud can work against you. But my touch isn’t really a conscious thing. I’m just trying to make a good sound with people.
Drums: Craviotto in ginger ale sparkle finish
A. 6 1/2×14 Diamond series nickel-over-brass snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 14×26 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 14″ 30th Anniversary hi-hats
2. 20″ Mel Lewis ride
3. 23″ Matt Chamberlain signature ride
Hardware: DW, including 9000 series hi-hat stand and bass drum pedal
Heads: Remo, including a Coated CS snare batter and Ambassador Hazy bottom, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and a Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Fiberskyn Craviotto logo front head
Sticks: Regal Tip 8A
Chamberlain frequently changes his setup to include a 12″, 13″, or 14″ rack tom; a 15″, 16″, or 18″ floor tom; an 18″, 20″, 22″, 24″, 26″, or 28″ bass drum; and a variety of snares.
John Coltrane Sun Ship (Elvin Jones) /// Can Tago Mago (Jaki Liebezeit) /// Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band Lick My Decals Off, Baby (John “Drumbo” French) /// XTC various (Terry Chambers) /// Brian Eno/David Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (David Byrne, John Cooksey, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Prairie Prince, Jose Rossy, David Van Tieghem) /// John Lennon Plastic Ono Band (Ringo Starr)
Off! First Four EPs (Mario Rubalcaba) /// Battles Gloss Drop (John Stanier) /// Autechre Move of Ten (programmed) /// Hella Tripper (Zach Hill) /// Flying Lotus Cosmogramma (programmed)
Edie Brickell & New Bohemians Ghost of a Dog /// Critters Buggin all /// The Wallflowers Bringing Down the Horse, Breach /// Fiona Apple Tidal, When the Pawn… /// Tori Amos various /// Macy Gray On How Life Is /// David Bowie Heathen /// Matt Chamberlain Matt Chamberlain /// Morrissey Ringleader of the Tormentors /// Viktor Krauss II /// Brandi Carlisle The Story /// Sara Bareilles Little Voice /// Floratone Floratone /// Of Montreal thecontrollersphere /// Company 23 Company 23
To read Matt’s comments on the making of some of these albums, log on to moderndrummer.com.