Matt Cameron: Back To The Garden
Playing The Odds
Same as they ever were, Soundgarden’s new songs are stocked with odd melodic groupings, odd metered rhythms, and Cameron handles it all like Houdini. Does he count the odd meters or just go with the flow?
“I do count the patterns at some point,” he says. “Maybe not at the beginning stages. Most of the riffs that Kim throws at me I have to listen to a few times to figure out where the 1 is and where a fill or pickup will work. It does take a few listens but once we run through the parts a few times then we can add another part here or there. It’s a process we’re all familiar with. But normally it does start with Kim or Chris or Ben throwing a very strange guitar riff at me.”
In the pre-click 1980s, when Soundgarden’s early albums were released, Cameron once recorded himself, then played to his own track as a click track. Though he previously stated that he hated click tracks, these days the little beast is his best friend.
“The new record was entirely recorded to click,” Cameron says, noting that he prefers a closed hi-hat sound. “Over the years I’ve grown to enjoy playing to drum machines and loops and drum patterns. It’s a part of being a working drummer these days. You really do have to know how to work with that technology in a recording environment.
“The new record was written pretty quickly and recorded over a period of a year. I recorded the drums at the very beginning stages and I wanted to make sure everything would line up because I knew they’d be overdubbing a lot of guitars to the drum tracks. Sometimes when you know there will be a lot of overdubbing it helps to [record to a click] to make sure the drums will all be square. But having said that, I have absolutely done most of my recordings without a click track.”
As Cameron has developed his skill with the click, he’s also grown as a songwriter. “By Crooked Steps” and “Eyelid’s Mouth” are his contributions on King Animal. Past Soundgarden Cameron contributions include “He Didn’t,” “Room A Thousand Years Wide,” “Drawing Flies,” “New Damage,” “Mailman,” “Fresh Tendrils,” and “Rhinosaur.” Songwriting seems to have influenced Cameron’s conceptual approach to the drum set. His parts are as memorable as any guitar riff or vocal melody.
“My goal has always been to create another element in the music that will make it better somehow,” he explains. “It’s more of a conceptual approach than just playing beats only. All my favorite drummers have that vibe going. John Bonham is obviously the king of creating almost a weather system of a drum part. He has storm clouds that you can see on the horizon that are coming to just murder you. That’s the drumming that always inspired me as a kid and I like to listen to music like that now. I definitely try to make the drumming as interesting as possible. Sometimes it works better than others.
“With some of the slower Soundgarden songs like ’Fell On Black Days,’ ” he continues, “even though they are laidback we’re always playing with a lot of intent. We want the music to come across as aggressive. A lot of the bands that Soundgarden came up with in the mid-’80s, the whole Black Flag generation, we definitely like that style and the way people played in those bands. The intent was so fierce. We always tried to have that in the background of our music.”
Cameron typically makes complex meters sound simple, buffeting meter madness with hardcore groove. When does he play it straight and when does he go odd-meter mad?
“With regards to Soundgarden, it depends on the tune, basically,” Cameron responds. “Take a song like ’Room A Thousand Years Wide’ – the drums are pretty much following the guitar throughout the whole song. In some songs it’s really important to not stick out too much and to make sure the propulsion is the main ingredient of the drum part. On the new record I still have those elements of air and space. And I was trying to add a few more Latin and African percussion elements in certain songs. But in a song like ’Non-State Actor,’ it’s basically 4/4 with a couple bars of 5/8 or 7/8. That’s one I haven’t actually counted! But it’s mostly 4/4. The guitar riff is pure eighth-notes, and I figured that was a good part in the pattern for the verses to have a little open air and that hi-hat swoop. That is right where the guitar riff sort of ends.”
“By Crooked Steps” pushes forward with a furious, tumbling rhythm that cycles and drives, Cameron nailing the downbeat in an odd-metered 5/4 assault.
“I try to inhabit the five as 4/4 there, with a couple different variations,” he explains. “When we were rehearsing that I took a couple weeks to find the right pattern. I count that as 1-2, 1-2-3. So I put the snare on the 2 of the first phrase, then the 3 on the second phrase. It’s really basic but it just has that hole in there. It works pretty well with the guitar and the vocals are really strong there. I wanted propulsion to be the main ingredient for that particular song.”
Cameron likes his drumming in “Bones Of Birds” (“a nice dynamic thing”) and the slow and sludgy “Blood On The Valley Floor.”
“That is a trademark Soundgarden element for sure,” he says, “that sludgy heavy rock thing. On both of those songs I’m playing off the guitar. Kim wrote ’Blood On The Valley Floor’ and we tracked that one together. ’Bones Of Birds’ was a Chris Cornell song, and we tracked that one together. We rehearsed that one quite a bit before we recorded it so I knew what I was going to play, whereas ’Blood’ was written mostly in the studio. My drum part usually evolves in the studio.