Matt Johnson was in the early stages of prepping for St. Vincent’s current full-band tour when Modern Drummer first touched base with him late last year for this cover story. And we learned quickly how the initial preparations for a gig so heavily immersed in the electronic realm differed radically from the work he’s done for tours with people like Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. On those gigs, it was basically learn the songs, rehearse with the band, hop in the bus, and off you go.
There’s a lot more to it with St. Vincent. Johnson is tasked with replicating the hyper-treated mix of programmed beats, loops, and live drums featured on the albums Annie Clark has been making under the St. Vincent moniker over the last decade, and he needs to make that future-shock rhythmic fusion breathe and groove. So before Johnson even sits down at his kit to work out that hiccupping kick drum part in the fourth verse of “Los Ageless,” or to dial in the meditative pulse of “New York” (two standout tracks from the singer/guitarist’s 2017 album, Masseduction), there’s administrative stuff to do. Like file sharing and daily conversations with St. Vincent’s keyboardist and “MIDI guru,” Daniel Mintseris, as the pair try to settle on the array of sounds Johnson will be sampling and triggering live.
“He’s in New York, I’m in my studio in L.A., so we’re on a long Skype call each day,” Johnson says of the duo’s sonic quest, adding with a laugh, “I think we clocked in at about three hours and twenty-three minutes today. The initial stages are pretty slow a lot of the time, getting the instruments into the right physical place, then populating all the pads and bars and triggers with the right sounds at the right times with automation. It’s quite involved. Once I’ve got the triggers in the right spots for me to be able to really do this show, and I’ve got the Abletons up and running really nice, then I start practicing, just learning my way around each song.”
The electronic realm Johnson operates in these days—both with St. Vincent and at his own recently constructed studio, where he’s able to interface with producers and artists on remote sessions via Ableton—is not terribly uncommon. But back in 1989, when Johnson moved from his native Houston to New York City to study music and academics at the New School, the thought of tracking drums on your own and sending it off digitally to an artist on the other side of the country, or having thousands of drum sounds at your disposal at a gig, must have seemed like something out of The Jetsons. It was while attending the New School that Johnson hooked up with Buckley, appearing on the late singer-songwriter’s classic 1994 album, Grace, and touring the world with him before leaving the band in 1996, citing strained personal relations and a lack of inspiration.
The risk of breaking ties with an artist on the ascent—which Buckley definitely was in mid-’90s—didn’t really register with Johnson then, because he says he was hardly thinking long term. “I didn’t know how to think that far ahead when it came to the music industry,” he explains. “I was pretty naive. Being a drummer for twenty-five years…I didn’t know what that could look like. I didn’t know if there was enough work, or if I was good enough to get any of the work.”
Thanks to a tasteful and thoughtful approach to both drumming and applying technology to his craft, Johnson has found plenty of work in the ensuing twenty-plus years. In addition to recording and touring with Wainwright and landing the St. Vincent gig in 2012, there have been sessions with Angus and Julia Stone, Jade Bird, Martha Wainwright, and many others; recording and touring with Beth Orton; a long-term stint with the band Elysian Fields; and his own series of instructional videos for the website Drumeo, along with lessons and clinics.
Sadly, there has also been profound tragedy in Johnson’s life. In February 2016, his then sixteen-year-old son, Jasper, experienced a seizure that left him severely brain damaged. Jasper remains in a long-term care facility on the East Coast, where Johnson visits him each month. Nothing can prepare a parent for processing and dealing with something so traumatic, particularly when your chosen profession takes you away for weeks and months at a time. In the wake of such a tragedy, you can only hope you’re able to put your career into something resembling proper perspective.
“Does it put music in a different place? It kind of does,” Johnson says when asked about the role that making music for a living now occupies in his life. “It’s important for me or anyone in my position, as the parent of a child who has become horribly brain damaged, to not fall into blaming myself. It isn’t conventionally or reductively my fault. Although, emotionally, I feel very much culpable for the state my son now inhabits.
“I’ve been made to realize how I’ve changed through a very traumatic experience, and that some of the things I was living for when I was young, I’m too old to want those things anymore. I’ve grown out of them, I suppose.”
MD: It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of Grace next year. We spoke about it around ten years ago and you said you felt that your playing on it was a little precious for Jeff’s tastes at the time.
Matt: I think Jeff was evolving toward more of a punk rock aesthetic, a little bit more hard hitting. We were evolving in a parallel way, which was good. I think he was evolving toward a band sound. And I think in achieving that sound, he wanted me to relieve myself of all traces of jazz school and all the stuff I had been about, which is completely understandable.
The way I did it, when you come out of years of kind of being in music school, you’re going to probably develop massive blinders about things like just music on a street level or music for the public—the subset of the population that actually wants to buy tickets and come to your shows. I think there’s a lot of reasons why jazz school, which I spent a number of years in, really can potentially do more harm than good.
MD: It’s interesting to think in the context of Grace about the conflict of your jazz background versus Jeff’s desire to rock harder. I can hear the “jazzer,” if you will, on things like “Mojo Pin,” with all the swinging ghost-stroking around the kit. And it feels like you’re tapping into a harder-rocking vibe when you hammer through the verses and choruses in “Last Goodbye.” There’s a naiveté to the way you play those parts that feels really great. Did that simplification feel like a compromise of your values or aesthetic?
Matt: I don’t think so. What was difficult for me about that time was touring. If you come up playing in smaller clubs, there’s a bit of a challenge playing a room of a different size. You might want to convey something that has a lot of subtlety—a lighter dynamic or something you played with brushes—like the way you did in the studio. And you get into a bigger venue and everything is murky and muddy and no gesture below a certain decibel level is counting for anything. It just sounds weak.
When you’re playing in larger venues and for larger crowds, it does behoove you to oftentimes hit harder and simplify and streamline gestures toward a larger scope of perception. And I think that’s difficult for anybody who starts out touring on almost any instrument. You might be really happy with your show, but the sound person out front might be extremely disappointed in the way you played. It could be something as simple as your hi-hat cymbals are going into the vocal mic. I don’t think, ultimately, any of them were challenges that I didn’t overcome. It just took time for everybody to feel like the shows were going well.
MD: Your playing on Grace really holds up well. But to A/B it against the way you play with St. Vincent, it feels like a totally different drummer.
Matt: Oh, absolutely. I feel like a completely different drummer. The choices I would have made at that time were choices that were largely arbitrarily made really to the exclusion of any real experience—knowing what would happen. I would pull something out, throw it against the wall, see if it stuck. It’s not like I had a bunch of records under my belt with which to say, Oh, that’s what happens when you tune the snare way down and then you muffle it or What if I don’t hit any cymbals? I made sound choices that I would never make now.
I’m happy with it. I’m lucky to have been able to make that record. That record could have been made with some kind of amazing, really experienced session musician. And it might have been a better record for that. But I know that what Jeff wanted was a record that really didn’t have the imprint of that whole session, production-house industry. The type of record he wanted to make was idiosyncratic.
MD: What was your musical education growing up in Houston, and what drew you to the drums?
Matt: When I was a real little kid, I wasn’t good at sports. I was kind of a dipshit in school. I was a typical young boy who was really antsy at his desk, tending toward misbehavior and just incredible boredom. When I’d get home it was a combination of watching TV, spinning records, and obsessively banging on pillows or playing air guitar. Then I moved up to Ohio for a couple years to stay with my dad. He had a drumkit there, and that was kind of the end of it. When I was ten, once I got my hands on a drumkit, everything changed. Once I started playing drums, all the misbehaving disappeared and I became a very good kid. Even though I wasn’t a great student, I was very motivated toward playing drums. Bob McKee was my first drum teacher; he really got me hooked. He showed me Stick Control and he showed me The New Breed. He got me understanding how drummers need to control our bodies and focus our attention. That was definitely a life-changer in terms of the path of my life.
Then I moved back down to Houston when I was twelve, and I had a drum teacher named Joel Fulgham. He thankfully cracked the whip on me a bit in the tweenager years, reminding me not to waste my time. I went to regular school for a couple more years, then I went to an arts magnet school in Houston, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. That’s where I met Chris Dave—we were going to the same school. I got a lot of influence and inspiration coming off of Chris. He was coming from a different background. He had a lot of perspective to offer. A guy named Archie Walker was there too; he was like having Harvey Mason around. Sebastian Whittaker was another guy I met there, a great jazz drummer who died about a year ago. He was blind, and one of my most important mentors. We would play double drumset and improvise together. I wanted to be like him so bad, I used to go home and play blindfolded!
I moved to New York at the age of eighteen to go to the New School. I met a slew of people there and got into the whole bar scene downtown. It was a great prep for doing anything in music as a drummer. And that’s where I met Jeff.
Jeff Buckley Grace /// Angus and Julia Stone “Baudelaire,” “Heart Beats Slow,” “Wherever You Are,” “Get Home,” “Little Whiskey,” “Please You,” “Draw Your Swords” /// Dope Lemon “Uptown Folks,” “Marinade” /// Angus Stone “Broken Brights,” “Wooden Chair” /// Gabriel Kahane The Ambassador, “Veda,” “Griffith Park,” “Slumlord Crocodile,” “Musso and Frank” /// Rufus Wainwright “Go or Go Ahead,” “Going to a Town,” “Gay Messiah,” “Beautiful Child” /// Jade Bird “Cathedral,” “Something American” /// Martha Wainwright “So Many Friends” /// Elysian Fields “Shadow of the Living Light,” “Chance,” “Pink Air,” 2018 album (untitled at press time) /// Cones “Later,” “Echoes On,” “Back in the Brain,” “Whatever You’re Into”
MD: A handful of years after leaving Jeff Buckley’s band, you began playing with Rufus Wainwright, and one of the first things he did was get you singing harmony. How did that impact your playing and your relationship with songs?
Matt: Rufus was a really important person in my life musically. Really influenced by opera and classical tradition, and the songsmithery of both his parents, Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle. He got everybody in the band singing in a way, which is very much from that family-band tradition. His compositions sound very uniquely Rufus. The way he stacks harmonies was an incredible learning experience for me to learn how to find my harmony note and to oftentimes sing something that was incredibly different from what I might be playing on the drums. That really helped in a lot of ways with drumming. To actually make the connection between the world of the singing and the vocals and the song and the drumming. It really helped the way I hear music, the way I’m able to engage in music.
MD: At that point in your career, among other projects, you were going from Jeff Buckley to Beth Orton to Rufus Wainwright. All three are singer-songwriters, for lack of a better term, but quite different from each other. Could you feel your style developing into something that was adaptable to different pop and rock settings?
Matt: I tried to develop enough strategies that were useful in a professional setting to make myself useful to other people, and one of them is dynamic independence. I don’t even know if that’s a term people use. I use it as a term for something I’ve tried to extend and expand in my own playing. It’s sort of like looking at each drum or cymbal as if it were on a fader, and being able to lift the fader up and down on a kick or on a snare or particularly on the cymbals. That’s one form of independence that I found was really useful, sculpting the way a song feels to the other people in the band or to the singer or to the audience.
The content of what you play largely stays the same; the intelligence that you’re using to play music is subsumed in the whole chess game of which parts of the kit are loud when and why, and how that gives you some type of a payout emotionally, or how it sustains tension. A lot of the stuff that’s going on with St. Vincent doesn’t really show up as drumistic independence, because a lot of the sounds that I’m using aren’t necessarily drum sounds. What I think is cool about using different pedals and triggers and stuff like that is that it’s a bit like being a conductor—which is fun to think about, playing pop music in that way. The drum parts might be somewhat simplified, but what’s fun about it is that it’s relating to a lot of other things going on in the electronic domain.
MD: When you hooked up with St. Vincent, how did you apply your skills to what she needed from a drummer, particularly in the electronic realm?
Matt: We played entirely acoustically at first. I think she was looking for someone she knew instinctively could keep good time and would be willing to learn parts and pay attention to song structure and play for the vocal—someone who could reinterpret things a little bit and have enough flexibility to do that and build new parts. From there, when we got more into rehearsing for an actual tour, very quickly I figured out we needed to be building a MIDI instrument for each song, making each song a tailored experience with an electronic reality grafted on top of the acoustic drums.
MD: And this was your first time using electronics to this degree?
Matt: Absolutely. I felt like I had done enough tours playing acoustic drums. I didn’t really want to play a Roland SPD-SX, because it puts everything in the same location. I knew that I wanted to be able to take on more roles. Electronics definitely answered one of the primary calls that I had in my life, one of the things I was very much reaching for but not knowing what I was reaching for. It was basically like, Yes, I want to play drums. But I want to be able to create more.
That more is the infinite number of musical possibilities that you have in MIDI, and being able to bring those into the sort of milieu of what you’re using to create an overall experience. That was it. And then I thought, I’m going to need to be able to control my limbs really well in order to make that stuff work. But that’s really exciting for me. I’m really into it. I got really excited about the possibilities of it.
MD: What was the learning curve for immersing yourself into this new world—not just understanding what all the electronic tools did and how to integrate them, but developing the independence required to run triggers with all four limbs?
Matt: The learning curve was not terribly long. The thing about it is that, for better or for worse, I’m sort of addicted to puzzles when it comes to problem solving with drumming. That can be kind of a negative. Ostensibly it can take you away from music. I personally don’t feel that it’s doing that for me. I feel it’s bringing me into a zone where, as I’m solving the puzzle, what I’m really doing is grooving. I’m addicted to going into the groove zone, and trying to figure out puzzles.
One of the ways I did that, and I had no real idea how I was ever going to apply it, because I didn’t want to be like a failed Latin player, but I spent many years on “El Negro” Hernandez’s book Conversations in Clave. It was such an incredible resource for just this type of problem solving—working out the puzzles of rhythm. Watching him solve problems and learning the amazing things he does in order to develop how he got there—I feel like I’m kind of witnessing a bit of a genius. He has an incredible method. So there were definite moments where in the stage I was working with that book ten or fifteen years ago, certain things just clicked. Okay, my brain just did something that it’s never done, and now I feel like that door is open. I didn’t know how I was going to use this. I wasn’t going to try to get any of those kinds of gigs. I just felt that book was a huge part of getting my four-way coordination going. And then when I hit these initial rehearsals with St. Vincent, it was tough, but the learning curve was not super-slow. It was like, Okay, I’ve solved problems like this before. Let’s work this out.
MD: How do you go about breaking down the actual drum parts for songs with St. Vincent? You don’t play on the records, so there’s not that knowledge to fall back on. And some of the recordings, particularly on Masseduction, are very densely layered.
Matt: The studio stuff is largely a mystery to me. There’s some processing, cutting things up and moving things around in Pro Tools, some live drumming—a combination of that. Usually what happens is Daniel gets handed all the stems from the record, and he distributes them so that we can try to break down what’s in there and figure out how to play it and how to interpret it. We figure out if it can’t really be played or if it can be played. Once we learn how to play something, maybe a degree of interpretation comes into it and you start to have fun with it. And Daniel and I are sitting there and basically creating MIDI instruments per song, and per section of songs.
MD: Is working in the studio with St. Vincent something you hope to be doing at some point? Or do you take the approach that Annie has her creative process, and you’re happy to be involved with her music to the degree that you’re involved?
Matt: Working in the studio is something I love doing. However, people have a creative process that may not involve me or involve having a drummer at all, preferring programming. Artists draw from the wider pool of musicians, mixing it up to get novel results. Though I might be touring with a band, I might have recently recorded with other artists and forgone involvement with their tour. So, weirdly, I might tour music I didn’t record, while going to watch a buddy play songs with another band with whom I did record. It’s a topsy-turvy world.
I must say, learning songs that I didn’t create drum parts for has been a good education for me. I definitely get schooled by drummers and producers. I try to take what I’ve learned from them and bring it forward into new projects. I’m reliant on this influx of ideas.
MD: Besides drums and percussion, are you triggering other things and other instruments?
Matt: Sometimes. In the past I’ve triggered small amounts of things like bass, or guitar chords, where it’s needed. If you ever heard an acoustic guitar in previous St. Vincent shows, I would be triggering those on pedals and pads. But in general I stick to percussive sounds, drum sounds. They’re usually layered up on each other, especially on the new stuff.
MD: Typically how much of your St. Vincent drum sound has been triggered and how much has been organic?
Matt: In the past when I hit an acoustic kick or snare, I’d say about 85 percent of the time there was a trigger on it. The number of acoustics I’m actually going to physically be playing on this tour is going to go down. The percentage of electronics is going to go up. I design the St. Vincent kit with a specific principle in mind, which is that underneath it all there’s a real four-piece drumkit. I basically design it where I never violate that basic principle of having kick, snare, floor tom, and a cymbal. I might do a rack tom, or a second kick, or a second snare—that doesn’t matter. Wherever I need old-fashioned, traditional dynamics, I’ll focus particularly on a snare drum, or really drumistic flurries of strokes on a snare drum. We’d make sure the trigger was off for those passages.
Sometimes where you’re playing a cymbal and a snare, music can be so squishy and physical. And, of course, when you’re playing within the realm of electronics, things become more discrete and quantized, almost vectored. Like things are either on or they’re off. There’s clearly a trade-off there. I think this band definitely tends to lean heavy on the side of the triggers and the soundscapes and the individual sounds created for songs. But underneath it there’s usually a dummy drummer playing a dummy drummer part. I’m not disparaging drummers. I mean I’ve tried to design it so that, at bare minimum, you have “boom-crack, boom-crack.” You have acoustic drums underneath whatever is happening.
MD: So when you play something like “Digital Witness,” which is pretty spare in the verses, you have to really bring that 1 and 3 on the kick and 2 and 4 on the snare. Then the 16th notes on the hats and all the other sounds can push it forward in the choruses.
Matt: That’s absolutely right.
MD: Do you ever consider that what you’re doing with St. Vincent could become too reliant on MIDI and triggers, to the point where it’s lacking the mojo of a human being hitting drums and cymbals in a live setting?
Matt: That’s something that we’re definitely working a lot with—figuring out how to blend those two worlds. It’s a very intuitive kind of game for me. I’m still learning about that game. When you start adding samples [to acoustic drums], and you’re triggering samples within a popular-music context, there’s a thing that starts happening, which is that the acoustic instruments start to appear in a new light. I think that’s a lot of where music is going to be played in the future. I don’t know if I see people dispensing with acoustic instruments altogether in live settings. But certainly there’s been a lot of that going on with [studio] production.
MD: Understood; it’s a balance. But going down that sonic rabbit hole first—chasing down sounds, and then working on the parts—is there concern that the groove or the feel could get a little overlooked in that method? Like decisions could be made at the expense of the drum part?
Matt: I’ve been working on that. What you’re getting at is a very real, possible problem. Which is that if you’re going really, really far into the textural realm, and the soundscape aspects of it, it might actually bring your mind away from being tethered to this primal core of the pulse, and the very human, carnal feeling that needs to be in that pulse. One thing that I’m learning and really trying to work on and work through is the need to anchor things, to tether things to the deepest, most common denominator, root level—wherever that is. One of the ways I’ve been trying to find that now is through working a lot with my feet with a click, and with my feet with a double pedal, and trying to really make the click disappear behind the beats that I’m playing and relax my body while playing, hopefully very powerfully and with a lot of conviction. And sinking into each beat and releasing into each beat.
MD: Has that forced you to alter your approach on the kit, your stickings and such?
Matt: Years and years ago I was really fascinated with trying to reverse my patterns and my stickings. I spent several months turning the kit around backwards and just trying to play completely lefty. I did a lot of that. And that kind of fundamentally shifted my orientation. I’m still a righty lead. But it shifted my perspective. And then I realized that being able to lead with either hand is a tremendous advantage in this idiom of working with electronics. I play open-handed where I need to, or if I want to. I do a lot of righty lead. But in terms of playing in this new idiom of all the MIDI triggering, not being able to reverse patterns or not being able to be flexible with how you stick things seems like a real blind spot to me.
MD: When you’re working on a project that uses zero electronics following a St. Vincent tour, does it take time to get back in that purely acoustic headspace? Is it as simple as letting the music guide you, sonically and stylistically?
Matt: I definitely try to be led by the singer. At the same time I realize that it isn’t always the job of the singer or the artist to lead the dance. I’m not saying I know when to be in charge or when not to be in charge. I’m asking that question: Where’s the place to be receptive? Where’s the place to be assertive? Sometimes, if I’m using the same kit [from a St. Vincent tour], the way they’re tuned I’ll realize, I’m not really tuned for this right now. I’ll need to do something a little different or get some different drums. Sometimes the tuning takes a minute. Sometimes finding the volume range takes some adjustment. When you’re playing purely acoustically in a rock or pop scenario, sometimes you have to hit a bit harder because the drums open up, which is something you don’t have to do when you’re using triggers.
MD: The way you’ve embraced and utilized technology and electronics really underscores what a new age it is for drummers. There are so many possibilities with what you can do and how to do it. But what would you say to the drummer who has no experience using electronics—they’ve never used triggers live, they’ve never used a Mac or any plug-ins for home recording—and might be intimidated by both the cost and the learning curve involved with integrating electronics and technology into their world?
Matt: What I would say to people is that the financial expenditure per sort of unit of capability is more favorable to you than ever. You can spend fewer dollars than ever and get more for your money. That’s the same with almost all technology. When you think about the fact that you can get reasonably good microphones for about $100 or less apiece, and you only need about four to twelve channels to record drums really well, and the interfaces now have the mic pre’s in them, the financial burden is getting into a place where you shouldn’t be so intimidated by it. And there’s great information out there on how to do things, especially for home and remote recording. Really, all you need is an internet connection to access great trade secrets about doing this kind of stuff.
If people are intimidated by home recording and using electronics and investing in stuff like that…I would be more intimidated by not having that stuff. The tools that are available are tools with which you can really study your own blind spots and your own handicaps as a player. Invest in a small recording setup and practice recording yourself a bit so that you can be in the know about what you can do better. That’s a reasonable justification for such an investment.
A. 8×14 Star Walnut snare
B. 8×12 Starclassic B/B tom
C. 9×13 Starclassic B/B tom
D. 16×16 Starclassic B/B floor tom
E. 14×24 Starclassic bubinga bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 15″ OM hi-hats
2. 20″ OM crash
3. 21″ Special Edition Jazz ride (not shown)
Hardware: Tama Star and Starclassic, including Speed Cobra single and double bass drum pedals, Speed Cobra hi-hat pedal, Star snare stand, and First Chair throne
Sticks: Vater 5A, 52nd St. Jazz, Piccolo, and Ball models
Accessories: Reflexx practice pad, Big Fat Snare Drum on snare
Heads: Evans G2 Coated snare and floor tom batters, EMAD Heavyweight bass drum batter, and EC2 Clear batter on 13″ tom; Remo Silentstroke batter on 12″ tom
Electronics: MegaDrum trigger to MIDI converter; Roland BT-1 Bar Triggers, PD-8 pads, KD-7 and KT-10 kick triggers, single-zone RT-30H triggers on toms and bass drum, and dual-zone RT-30HR trigger on snare