“We do not come from the thing we are promoted to be,” Matt Cameron says. Though their fans think of them as a grunge super group rocking heavy choruses and psychedelic riffs dark enough to destroy 1,000 planets, in reality, Soundgarden is a band of hollow-eyed stoners in thrall to the blues, Frank Zappa, 20th century classical music, and, in Matt Cameron’s case, 1970s jazz rock.
Renowned for his brainy but ultimately slam-headed drumming which slithers through Soundgarden’s odd-metered rhythms and even odder melodic phrases while his bandmates explore unique tunings and unconventional harmonies in some of the greatest rock of the past 30 years, Matt Cameron is a master of taste, a master of space, and a master of adaptation.
“I’m always following the music,” the 50-year-old says from his home north of Seattle. “The music is giving me all the cues to set up the sections and make sure there’s a constant element of underlying meter. That’s what Soundgarden music has always sounded like in my head. It’s always made sense even though it’s not always in 4/4 time. The way that everything lines up isn’t as hard as it sounds for me. But I’ve always been drawn to that type of odd time signature music. You can call it fusion. Bill Bruford is a huge influence. And Stewart Copeland and Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro and the studio greats. There were so many amazing studio drummers from the ’70s, man. I lapped it up.
“For Bruford,” he continues, “I loved Discipline, later era King Crimson. And Bruford’s first solo album, Feels Good To Me, with ’Beelzebub.’ The sound of his drums on that record is just mind-blowing. Listening to a lot of Bruford prepared me supremely to play in Soundgarden. Totally. I copped his snare drum sound, and a lot of his snare patterns – those fives and sevens. He had a way of playing a beat solidly but the placement was wicked. That’s what turned me on initially to Soundgarden – there’s a fusion element to the music that I’ve always loved.”
Though his work in fellow Seattle stalwarts Pearl Jam shines brightly, Cameron’s classic Soundgarden drumming established him as a major rhythmic stylist (he’s also composed many songs for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam). Cameron’s drumming in such epic Soundgarden tracks (21 million units sold) as “Slaves And Bulldozers,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Holy Water,” “Let Me Down,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Rusty Cage,” and the band’s 1994 masterpiece, “Black Hole Sun,” is the quintessential drumming beast of brains and brawn. On every song Cameron plays with manic majestic intent – this guy delivers serious punch and power – while crafting insanely clever parts that push and prod rhythmically yet always establish an undeniable sense of air, space, and propulsion. Perfect Cameron panache. He performs with all the gut-ripping power associated with the Seattle scene of the ’90s but within a unique style that is pure art.
Cameron described his style in a mid-’90s magazine article as a combination of “dynamics, pauses, and surges.”
“The type of music I’m attracted to as a listener does have a lot of space and those spaces have meaning,” Cameron explains. “What really turned me on as a youngster growing up in San Diego were bands like Queen, David Bowie, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick. But when I heard John Coltrane’s ’Giant Steps’ at 18, I really became inspired by that type of music, where the musicians were definitely trying to make music with each instrument and also make music collectively.
“As a drummer I’ve always strived to play music and not just play chops over a song,” he adds. “That approach does require analysis and I’ve done most of that in home recording. That’s been a real effective way for me to create a drum part or [realize] how a percussion part might add to a drum part or how the drums are fitting with a guitar pattern or if I’m accenting the guitar pattern too much or not enough.”
Cameron does all this and more on Soundgarden’s first album in 15 years and a stunning return to form, King Animal. Accompanying vocalist and guitarist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, and bassist Ben Shepherd, Cameron extends his trademarsk “dynamics, pauses, and surges” in a great set of new material that has the band sounding like they never left. King Animal blasts off with the raging “Been Away Too Long,” goes dreamy on “Halfway There,” enters odd-metered terrain on “Non-State Actor,” dropkicks unusual rests and accents in Cameron’s “By Crooked Steps,” creates a fusion Irish jig on “A Thousand Days Before,” brings out the black sludge on “Blood On The Valley Floor” and the gorgeously terminal “Bones Of Birds,” and gets experimental on Cameron’s oddball “Eyelid’s Mouth.” Throughout, Cameron’s grooves uplift the music like an eagle wearing metal boots and a paramilitary jazz trench coat.
“The jazz greats knew exactly how to incorporate every part of the kit and create that type of feeling with space and rests,” Cameron says. “Obviously, I don’t play jazz, but that has always been an influence on the way that I play. I’ve always strived to be musical in that sense. But when I break my drumming down it is pretty basic. I’m not always impressed by what my drum track sounds like. I’ve always strived to make it more musical over the years. One thing I did accomplish on the new Soundgarden record is that the drum parts are pretty musical in a way that I haven’t done in the past.”
“It’s just an overall feeling of approaching different elements of my playing; it feels like they’re more mature now,” Cameron replies. “My overall experience really helps in the studio. It doesn’t take as long and it’s a super enjoyable activity. I’m super proud of all of the recordings I’ve done over my career. The records I’ve played on started getting good around [Soundgarden’s] Louder Than Love. From 1989 on I really hit a good groove. But I’ve always wanted to be a musician that happens to play the drums. If you’re presented with an amazing song to record, and be a part of, it’s a real blessing to be able to see the whole vision through to the end stage. I’ve been able to record with musicians who really want to make something special.”