The existence of live and programmed drums on a track is commonplace today. Twenty-five years ago, though, it was such a fresh idea it could launch a career.
If you were anywhere near a radio or MTV in the latter half of 1995, there was no escaping Alanis Morissette’s single “You Oughta Know.” The bracing track rocked hard and cut deep, with Morissette airing a level of angst equal to that of the grunge dudes of that era. This was a woman scorned, with knives out, saying things females didn’t typically say in pop songs up to that point.
Underneath it all, the drums created, as the Buzzcocks might say, a different kind of tension, with a hybrid of loops assembled by producer Glen Ballard and live kit playing from an up-and-comer named Matt Laug. Like Morissette’s lyrics, it was a sound and feel you didn’t hear a whole lot of in those days. Unknowingly, Laug had been preparing for just such an approach.
“Luckily I was practicing a lot to drum loops at home,” Laug remembers. “Back in those days, it was really new and cool to have a live drummer play on top of drum loops. I had a drum machine where you could program four-bar loops. I would play along to it, and I would record myself on my little four-track. So I was kind of primed for what was about to be asked of me.”
Laug ended up on the session at the recommendation of bassist Lance Morrison, with whom he’d been playing around Los Angeles at the time, and who he still plays with in former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell’s band the Dirty Knobs. Over the course of three days, Laug cut five songs that would end up on Morissette’s 33 million-selling (worldwide) debut album, Jagged Little Pill, getting “You Oughta Know” down on day one, before he’d even met the singer. And not only was he playing on Morissette’s eventual breakthrough song before they’d even said hello, Laug had a hand in reshaping the track as well.
Tools of the Trade
“I used a Yamaha Recording Series Custom kit on ‘You Oughta Know,’” recalls Matt Laug, “with a 10×10 rack tom, a 14×14 hanging floor tom, and a 16×22 kick. I still have that kit. The snare drum, which I also still have, was a piccolo 4×14 Noble & Cooley. The cymbals were all Zildjian; I’m not sure of the models, but they were 14″ hi-hats, a 16″ crash on the left, a 17″ crash on the right, and a 22″ ride.” Today Laug endorses DW drums, Paiste cymbals, Remo heads, and Vic Firth sticks.
“Glen had pre-recorded his guitar onto the drum loops with Alanis’s vocal, so Lance and I played along to that,” Laug shares. “But the structure and the attitude of the song was completely different from what it ended up being, where I entered on the pre-chorus and then laid out in the second verse.
“When we got those pre-choruses and choruses tight, I was in the control room listening. Glen was really happy, but he had nothing for the bridge. So I played that brush part, and he loved it. It took me a couple of tries. It was a little bit out of my skill set to try to pull that off, and I was kind of freaking out. I was having trouble doing what I was hearing in my head. They copied the brush part and put it at the beginning of the song.”
After “You Oughta Know” took off, the loop-meets-live sound and feel Laug and Ballard achieved became ubiquitous. Many other female artists followed the formula throughout the remainder of the ’90s and scored massive hits: think Meredith Brooks with “Bitch,” Natalie Imbruglia with “Torn,” and “Kiss the Rain” by Billie Myers. The Rolling Stones even chased that sound a bit on 1997’s Bridges to Babylon, while other superstar rock acts like Aerosmith and Van Halen tapped Ballard as a producer.
Laug says plenty of work came his way from “You Oughta Know,” though the calls didn’t start coming in right away, as he had relocated to London to join the band King L for an album and tour. Once back in Los Angeles, Laug found himself working with artists and producers looking precisely for what he’d done for Morissette’s music.
“I worked with a bunch of people who followed that formula,” says Laug, who several years later would play on Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment.” “Thankfully, following that formula included hiring me. [laughs] It definitely gave me a career. And also pressure on myself. Back in those days, it was almost a crutch to rely on playing to a drum loop. A drum loop felt great to play to. My little inconsistencies could’ve been hidden, because the drum loop, if mixed right with a drummer, makes it better than what it actually is. I developed a little bit of an insecurity toward that. They’d say, ‘Well, on this next track, Matt, we’re not going to use the loop. We want you to replace the loop.’ I’d go, ‘Um…I don’t know if I can do that.’
“But I got over it. And it made me a better player. Because I had to be. Eight or ten years after that, people stopped using loops so much. They used live drums. By that time I was cool with not playing with loops anymore.”