matt cameron playing on drums

Photo: Ross Halfin

“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.

Harvesting A Style

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.”

Coming Home

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.”

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 1-21-2-3. 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.”

Choice Cuts

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.

“With this record we’d record maybe two versions of a song, then listen back,” Cameron continues. “I’d make decisions whether I needed to add something, or if a bass drum pattern wasn’t working. It’s normally about altering the bass drum pattern for me. That’s the main thing I need to think about or change up somehow. Maybe there’s one upbeat that isn’t right or I am playing too much. Whatever the case may be that’s normally what gets changed. You have to trust your gut in that situation. In recording you have to trust your instincts. And completely go for it.”

matt drum set

Cameron’s Soundgarden Setup

Drums Yamaha Oak Custom (Musashi Black with maple hoops)
1 24″ x 14″ Bass Drum
2 14″ x 6.5″ Gregg Keplinger Custom Snare Drum
3 12″ x 8″ Tom
4 13″ x 9″ Tom
5 16″ x 14″ Floor Tom
6 18″ x 16″ Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 15″ K Light Hi-Hat
B 17″ K Dark Medium Thin Crash
C 18″ K Crash Ride
D 22″ K Custom Medium Ride
E 19″ A Custom Projection Crash
F 20″ A Custom Rezo Crash

Matt Cameron also uses Yamaha 900 series hardware and a Yamaha 9500 direct-drive single pedal, Vic Firth Matt Cameron signature sticks, and Remo heads (Emperor Clear, toms; Emperor Coated, snare; Powerstroke Clear, bass drum).

Does he leave more space in the groove these days?

“That is something I am striving to do as I get older – not play as much bass drum, and have the snare and the cymbals be a little bit brighter element in my drumming. I have always been bass drum heavy. I lead with my right foot, for sure, that is a big part of my whole drumming style. So I’ve been trying to take away that element just a little bit. But it’s super important to make sure that at least one downbeat is hit when you’re entering into a weird bar of five or seven. I’m thinking about that stuff but it obviously depends on the music. I’m normally trying to pull something off, so I’ve got some weird idea floating around in my head. If not, we’ll just try it again.”

In the majestically forlorn “Black Saturday,” what sounds like bars of eight, six, and seven cycle like vultures flying overhead, dead meat on their minds.

“That’s like a bar of seven and a bar of six in the main riff.” Cameron pauses. “Oh, no, it’s a bar of six and a bar of seven and bar of six then two bars of four. That’s how the main riff cycles. That’s a Chris Cornell song. The way these guys write is completely unorthodox. It’s totally guitar driven, they’re all three guitar virtuosos. There’s always something interesting happening in a Soundgarden song. We’ve really kept with the tradition of the band and the types of songs we’ve naturally done over the years.”

“Rowing,” King Animal’s final song, features a sleepy drum machine groove, something like a ’90s drum ’n’ bass loop recycled, slowed and peaking through Soundgarden’s black-hearted muck and mire.

“I did that on a Korg Electribe drum machine,” Cameron explains. “I put one of my patterns in there, then just slowed it down and added percussion on top of that. That was fun, the first foray of drum machine in a Soundgarden song.”

Workingman’s Hero

When the original news of Soundgarden’s reunion hit the airwaves, rumor had it that the band would tour, but not record. Cameron had other ideas.

“We played a couple gigs, then it was my idea to focus on a few months of songwriting, then a few months of recording,” he explains. “We made it happen, everyone committed, and it was the right decision. My interest in the reunion was to do new music. I didn’t just want to play the same songs we played 20 years ago. I wanted to see if we could add to our legacy, and the fact that we always made such cool records together, that’s what really got me interested in the whole process again.”

While touring, Cameron kept limber working out on a practice pad or playing to Soundgarden songs in the dressing room. Anything to keep his hands and fingers loose. Back home he continues to practice, and he doesn’t take it easy.

“I’m working out of a book called Wrist Twisters by Elden ’Buster’ Bailey. It’s crazy difficult: crazy stickings, weird patterns, ten variations for each pattern, and it’s all rudimentally based. I do an hour every other day on my Vic Firth pad.”

When I remark that Cameron is essentially faceless, a true musician’s drummer, he gets all happy.

“Thank God!”

Watch Cameron on video or in concert and he is faceless. Head down, arms flailing but controlled, he’s the non-rock star drummer, the antithesis of the long hair flying, voluminous pounder of the skins. Matt Cameron is subtle. Matt Cameron is cool. Most importantly, Matt Cameron is a musician.

“I would be happy to have all my cymbals flat up in front of me where I can’t see anyone!” he laughs. “I wouldn’t mind doing that. I love being back there with my drums and my band. I don’t always need an audience but I certainly appreciate the audience.”

Like some vanishing breed of artiste, like the grizzled men who carve angelic faces in the exteriors of Gothic cathedrals, or those skilled workers who learn a craft handed down generation after generation, Matt Cameron is ultimately a craftsman. Proud of his work and ever evolving, he understands his role, and glories in it.

“I am totally a craftsman,” he exults. “I am so old-school in that sense. I love trying to achieve art when I make hard rock music, but I know at the end of the day there is so much of a workmanlike element involved that has to be there. You can’t go 1,000 percent creative the whole time. You have to go out on the road and play it straight sometime! You have to do the work, man. I’ve never been afraid of work. That’s a huge part of my success.” 

matt cameron on band

The Hands-Off Helmer: Adam Kasper

It’s surprising that Adam Kasper is the architect behind the new Soundgarden record. Not that the production vet (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Queens Of The Stone Age) is inexperienced or unfamiliar with grunge (he isn’t). It’s just that King Animal’s sound profile – raw, organic, direct – is everything the band’s 1997 Kasper-mixed release, Down On The Upside, is not.

“I was happy with the original demos and how these guys were sounding,” Kasper explains from the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington State, where he lives when not holed up in his Seattle studio. “It wasn’t a retread of the old stuff. Down On The Upside was a coproduction with the band, and you had five people making decisions. But that was like the first big record that I produced, so maybe I have a little more idea of what I’m doing [these days], so I think there was trust among us.”

Kasper, who marked his return to the Soundgarden camp with Live On The I-5, brought the spontaneity and energy from that 2011 concert album to King Animal. The soft-spoken producer is a great listener and it shows in the minimally invasive approach he takes to tracking Cameron’s drums. “Matt pretty much is an early-take kind of guy in general ever since I’ve known him,” he explains. “Within the first few passes he’s got pretty much all the songs. If we get up to six or seven that’s really rare and that would only happen if we’re changing the arrangements and stuff. Matt and I were actually sitting around chatting about it: We’ve probably done over 100 tracks together, though we have a real quick way of getting where we want to get.”

Whether he’s kicking out the (Pearl) jams or digging deep in the ’garden, Cameron can rely on Kasper to highlight the drumming style of each band, however they may differ. “Soundgarden songs are by nature a little more technical,” he says. “That’s not to take anything away from Pearl Jam. There’s just more rhythmic hiccups and off-time stuff that happens [with Soundgarden] because they write based around guitar riffs a lot.

“And very little editing compared to what I have to do with most people by far,” he continues. “If we do [edit] it’s some little tag or an outro maybe – I don’t know – at most that’s something we might do. Something about the way Matt plays, the less editing you do the better it sounds. Start chopping him up and it doesn’t make sense.”

matt cameron with drums

Animal Nature: Ben Shepherd

When asked why he and Matt Cameron are such a solid rhythm section in Soundgarden, bassist Ben Shepherd is eerily silent. He’s not guarded exactly, but he has the thoughtful reticence typical of residents on Bainbridge Island, the rainy outpost smack in the middle of Seattle’s Puget Sound. “I think he understands my derangement.”

Shepherd is one of rock’s most compelling bassists. Listen to “Pretty Noose” from Down On The Upside or to the sideways shimmy of “A Thousand Days Before” from King Animal, and you see how the bassist walks up, down, and around Cameron’s scattershot—yet-cohesive beats.

But the bassist insists he’s only as good as his other half lets him be: “You can play the most dumb, inane rhythm and he’ll make it work, so it’s kind of cheating,” Shepherd explains. “It’s just like he covers you. And there is no way I can push him to some new extreme that he hasn’t already pushed himself to.”

Shepherd and Cameron have stayed tight in the years since Soundgarden’s 1997 breakup and the 2010 reunion, collaborating in Cameron’s solo project, Wellwater Conspiracy, and now, on the bassist’s upcoming solo record, which, in addition to Cameron, includes drums from Matt Chamberlain, Greg Gilmore, and Joseph Braley. That musical meeting of the minds continued as the two went straight from that project to King Animal.

But Shepherd, who counts Zigaboo Modeliste among his favorite drummers, is quick to point out that Cameron’s brand of consistency isn’t the linear kind that breeds dullness and predictability. “It’s not like a click track; he goes a bit geometrically,” he explains. “The legato of the music is the suspension bridge and Matt’s the foundation where all the web work goes in and then you play it back. It’s kind of like listening to T. Monk: You have to understand how his spiderwebs stick together. For me it’s more geometric like that. It has to be. I don’t like numbers. Numbers add up.”

When it came time to cut King Animal the chemistry was so familiar it was as though a 15-year hiatus had collapsed to a mere 15 minutes. “This one we just cranked it up like muscle-car music. It’s a hot-rod record in a lot of ways.” But what Soundgarden thinks of as big-ass rock comes across as a mist-enshrouded Northwestern blues for the layman. “We’re all free-flowing anyway,” he says, naming Last Exit, Sonny Sharrock, and Captain Beefheart as common faves. “We’re not totally normal rockers that just play the machine all the time. I want to breathe, stretch, and get weird, weird, weirder.”

Thanks to a recent fixation with Serge Gainsbourgh, Shepherd has developed a taste for vintage bass tones over the years, mainly for the subtleties you get at lower volumes. It’s a sound that goes great with Cameron’s drums, which are thick, meaty, and super-resonant. The toms in particular practically echo.

We’ve established that Cameron’s loose-but-reliable style reins in the other players’ wanderlust. But is there anything that Shepherd would like to see the drummer do differently? “Hell no,” he says. “You gotta go hard. Go wild.”