Features

Matt Cameron: Backbone In The Backbeat

As one of the founding fathers of the early-’90s Seattle Sound Explosion, Matt Cameron’s impressive career is rather easily defined: Soundgarden. Pearl Jam. That’s all you really need to know. While he’s also managed to establish himself as a much-desired studio musician (with Geddy Lee, Tone Dogs, Tommy Iommi, and more) and released a string of cult-hit albums under his own band Wellwater Conspiracy, it’s Cameron’s ability to anchor global superbands that makes him one of the industry’s elite performers.

Bands as big as Pearl Jam — and they are few, very few — don’t get this big by accident. There is no magic formula, no lucky break, no secret technique to which mega-bands like Pearl Jam can credit this extreme success. They’re tops in talent, tops in determination, tops in passion and, as their latest self-titled album shows, they’re ready to prove time and time again that they truly deserve the platinum-embossed rock-god status they’ve earned.

Four words people: Sixty. Million. Albums. Sold. … (and counting.)

The Best It Can Be. The new Pearl Jam album — packed full of political and environmental angst — is definitely the band’s most aggressive effort of the new millennium. It is quintessential Pearl Jam with Eddie Vedder’s guttural vocals galloping above the swirl of chromatic guitars and, of course, those eloquent and commanding drums. During the year-plus leading up to the release of Pearl Jam, Cameron and the PJ boys alternated between writing sessions, recording sessions, and international mini-tours. The result was a band in full flex, tight and confident as they formed each new hit song.

“We started writing in early 2005,” explains an expressive Cameron from his Toronto hotel room. “Then we did a short recording session, then did a tour of Canada before coming back to record some more. Then we went down to South America for a tour, then came back and finished recording in early 2006. And those tours we did that year really show up on the studio sessions. When we got back from those tours, we were playing really strong. The two records I played on before this we took a lot of time off before we went into the studio to record them. I guess our muscles weren’t as taut as they were for these sessions, and I think that really comes out in the sound of the performances.”

The band’s tightness is immediately apparent on Pearl Jam. Layers of crisp guitars rip through songs like the antagonistic single “World Wide Suicide,” while punky drums drive the bouncy “Comatose” home. It’s a complete album all the way through, yet each song is strong enough to stand alone. Again, it’s no accident. The band made a conscience effort to take things a bit further this time around.

“We did take steps to make sure this album was the best it could be, especially in our efforts to get the guitar parts extra tight. On the past records, a lot of times we kept the live-tracking guitar parts and there were a couple songs that had mistakes in them. I just think it sounds more complete if you concentrate on having each instrumental part on your studio record as tight as it can possibly be. And that’s the approach we took on this record. I can really hear it on the guitars. There are a lot of different colors going on, and there’s a real tightness in the rhythm. And Eddie really nailed his lyrics and his vocals to a degree that I’ve never really heard from him before. He sings a lot on this record and you can tell he definitely stands for total quality. I think he’s the greatest singer out there right now.”

Poo Poo Pro Tool. Cameron is being humble, as always, and stressing the impressive guitar and vocal work while ignoring his own percussive contributions. Part jazz, part metal, part fusion, part punk — his style is musical and expressive, at times unavoidable while at other times nearly unnoticeable. The jazz influences are always there, just under the skin, while the heavier, we-all-miss-Soundgarden riffs explode from the belly of the songs like cannonballs. And then somehow, even at the peaks, you hear open space in the midst of all the sensitivity and power.

He likes to keep the drumming tight and the thinking loose while in the studio cutting tracks. “When I’m in the studio tracking, I try to come up with a basic blueprint for what I’m going to play in each section. But I also try to keep it open to interpretation when I’m in the midst of performing it. I’m not locked into one drum hook, I’m trying to flow with the music as much as I can. But I probably just instinctively play a certain fill a certain way in any given song just because that’s the way I’m hearing it and reacting to it. Even though I’m not thinking about it, it still happens. I guess it’s just a natural instinct.

“Initially we’re tracking live and trying to get a good bass and drum track. If there’s a good rhythm guitar part that sticks, we might keep that, but it’s mostly drums and bass in the beginning. Then we’ll go back and fix up guitars, then vocals last, maybe some percussion near the end too. ’World Wide Suicide’ was one of the first songs we tracked, and it was a lot slower than the current version. We finished it, mixed it and everything. Then Eddie decided he wanted it faster so we re-tracked that.”

Given the unrealistic opportunity, Cameron would gladly rid the world of Pro Tools and all the music it creates/destroys. It bothers him to have drum parts cut and pasted all over a song to the point where even the person who played it doesn’t know where it came from. He can play to a click, and often does, but chose not to on this album. He would, however reference each song’s tempo with a click just before counting it off and letting it ride. It’s a good thing he’s so tight.

“We decided to keep it more as a human metronome than a mechanized metronome. I think there’s a lot of that mechanized perfection going on in music right now, and we all grew up in the 1970s without listening to click track music and I just think the music feels cool with a more human element to it. But in the studio I would play back each take with a click to it, and if I noticed I was wavering too much I’d re-track it. But if it wasn’t jumping up and down too wildly, we’d just keep it. So all my drum parts are all complete performances on this record. When I played on the Geddy Lee solo record it was cut-and-paste galore [laughs]. They went wild with taking two bars here and four bars there. But it was cool. It’s used a lot in today’s music.”

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