With roots planted in two now-classic “grunge” acts, Matt Cameron has a firm spot in history as the driving force for two of the biggest bands of the ‘90s Seattle explosion. In an odd way, Cameron has always been a part of the Pearl Jam maelstrom. Originally from San Diego, Cameron spent a few years unknowingly frequenting the same concerts as a young man named Eddie Vedder. In 1990, he even helped the developing group then known as Mookie Blaylock put together a demo-tape of instrumentals (later known as “Alive”, “Once”, and “Footsteps”). Technically, Matt Cameron was the original drummer in Pearl Jam, a band that’s seen its share of skins-men over the years. For those keeping score, the Spinal Tap-like history goes as such: Matt Cameron (demo), Dave Krusen (Ten), Matt Chamberlain (touring), Dave Abbruzzese (Vs., Vitalogy), Jack Irons (No Code, Yield), and back around again to Matt Cameron (Binaural, Riot Act, present). Cameron was also the drummer on the Soundgarden/Pearl Jam project known as Temple of the Dog. Looking back on it now, it seems natural that he’d end up a full-time member of Pearl Jam, but at the time, the future was Superunknown.
When Soundgarden’s long tenure came to an end in 1997, Cameron was jobless for the first time since 1986. Coincidentally, in early 1998, Jack Irons decided to leave Pearl Jam, creating a gaping hole behind the kit on the eve of a summer tour. As Cameron told it to Spin Magazine, “I got a phone call out of the blue from Mr. Ed Ved. I was ambushed. It was really short notice. He called and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing this summer?’” The rest has been history, with Cameron becoming an integral part of the group dynamic. Along the way, Cameron has written several songs for the band and shored up their most fragile position with might and propulsion. On 5 June 2003, I had a conversation with Mr. Cameron a few hours before Pearl Jam took the stage in San Diego, California.
PopMatters: I noticed the other night at your show in Irvine, California that (former Pearl Jam drummer) Jack Irons came out to play drums while you switched to the guitar. What was that experience like for you?
Matt Cameron: It was fun man. Just a lot of fun, you know? I’m always up for people sitting in and, you know, it’s just kind of a big party. If people are into it then, hey, I’m into it. In my last band, Soundgarden, I had a couple of different drummers sit in on some stuff and it was fun for me to kind of take a break and watch the band and just go, “Whoa, cool!” This is a different scene because I got to come out and play guitar. That’s always fun, I always love doing that.
PM: What was the transition like for you when you entered Pearl Jam after so many years with Soundgarden?
MC: Well, it wasn’t really difficult. The guys made me feel real welcome and it wasn’t a struggle to get it musically, but my style was a little bit different, I think, than what they were used to. And they’ve been through so many different drummers, I don’t even know if they knew what they wanted. So, I just kind of played the way I played and then eventually we kind of figured out what worked best for the band. So, I definitely changed my stuff up and I think we’re playing really tight now.
PM: Yeah, that’s one of the things I noticed when seeing the band play Champaign, Illinois back in April. You guys really seem to be clicking on all cylinders. Coming from an outsider’s perspective, what are some of your favorite songs to play live?
MC: I think my favorites are the ones that I’ve been a part of, you know?
PM: Like from Binaural and Riot Act?
MC: Yeah, yeah. It’s always kind of different when you come into a situation where the band’s established and their music was written before you arrived. So, you have to play according to that framework and sometimes it’s more pleasurable to know you were a part of the whole process to get that song started. So, that’s just more satisfying as a musician and a band member.
PM: Yeah, especially hearing “You Are” live was pretty impressive because I remember hearing it on record and thinking, “Oh man, how are they going to pull this one off?” What’s it like for you to write a song like that and then months later have Eddie Vedder singing some of the words you wrote and the band playing the music?
MC: Oh, it’s great. They dove right in. They weren’t afraid of it at all. Technologically, it’s something that I don’t think they’ve ever tried to tackle before and that’s unlike any other song I’ve ever written. So, I think we were both in the same place as far as how do we translate this in a live setting. And it took a little programming on my part, and it took a little bit of rehearsing, but it really was not a sweat at all. I was really surprised how easily that came together.
PM: Since the band is releasing “bootlegs” of every show, I was wondering what stands out in your mind as being an especially good night on the tour so far?
MC: We had some really good shows on the last tour (the first leg). When we were touring with Sleater-Kinney I thought we were doing really good. I don’t really remember specific shows, to tell you the truth. I don’t listen to the bootlegs so I can’t really answer that question (laughs). To me it’s more about the live experience and I try to remember it from my perspective on stage. Sometimes when you hear recordings of live shows it just doesn’t even capture what you’re experiencing. So, I think that’s more for the fans.
PM: Speaking of Sleater-Kinney, I think that one of the shows that stood out for me was the Nashville show where Sleater-Kinney and Steve Earle joined you on stage for covers of “Fortunate Son” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”.
MC: Yeah, that was a lot of fun.
PM: How has it been with opening bands like Sleater-Kinney, Sparta, and Idlewild? Do you ever get a chance to catch their shows before you go on?
MC: Well, I always try to catch Sleater-Kinney because I play tambourine on one of the songs, so I have to be there (laughs). But they’ve been my favorite so far of all the opening bands that we’ve toured with. Most of the time we’ve had some interesting opening bands, like Cheap Trick opened for us a few times and that was a total thrill. So, I guess those have been my two favorites.
PM: Who are some of the bands that you like to see live?
MC: Out of current bands I always try to catch Queens of the Stone Age whenever their in town. Eleven (Jack Irons’ old band). Let’s see, who else? I hear the Magic Band are touring, I’d love to see them. Whenever Elvin Jones comes to Seattle I try to go catch him. That’s about it. There’s no real new bands that I’m really interested in other than those. If PJ Harvey ever came to town I’d definitely go try to go see her.
PM: Nothing’s really exciting you as far as the current music scene?
MC: New rock? Nah. Other than the Queens, no. I think most of it’s pretty boring. I don’t know, I’m just kind of sensing a generation gap. I’m not really into “emo-core” or “computer-grunge” or anything like that.
PM: Coming from both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, what is it like to hear bands ten years later or so copying both bands but not very well?
MC: Oh, I don’t know. I think I heard it like when, uh…let’s see what was that band from Australia? That little band that came out?
MC: Yeah, yeah (laughs). When I heard that I was like, “Wow!” That was pretty cool (laughs). I thought that was cute. You know, whatever. I mean, with Soundgarden I’m sure everyone said we were a Led Zeppelin rip-off so, it doesn’t really matter.
PM: When I’ve seen the band play in Chicago, it seems you guys go the extra mile for whatever reason. Is there a special feeling for Chicago or other specific cities or is it just another night on tour?
MC: No, it’s a full-on American rock destination. Just all the big east cities are an absolute thrill to play, they always have been. I’m always going to get more of a charge playing Chicago than I will Duluth or some place like that. Just because of the history and the people there are way more knowledgeable than a lot of other cities. It’s an amazing music scene with some great bands and great musicians. Eddie [Vedder] is from Chicago. I have a lot of friends there. You always try to play well for your hometown. Like I’m in San Diego today and this is my hometown so I’ve got a lot of my friends coming and I definitely want to put on the best show that I can.
PM: Don’t you and Eddie have a little bit of shared history as far as San Diego goes?
MC: Yeah, we didn’t know each other, but we went to some of the same concerts and we definitely are psyched to be here.
PM: Pearl Jam is a great band in its own right but you also can be the best cover band going at times. What are some of the covers that you really get a kick out of playing?
MC: I liked playing [the Police song] “Driven to Tears”, that was really fun. We’ve done some Ramones covers like “I Believe in Miracles”. We got to play with Johnny Ramone on one song, “K.K.K. Took My Baby Away”, which was great. There’s a lot man, this band is not afraid to bust out a cover and that’s one of the things I love about it. There’s another one called “Timeless Melody” by the La’s that we played a while ago. That’s a beautiful song that I always like doing. I don’t think we’re doing it anymore, but those are my favorites, I guess.
PM: Finally, I was wondering what your “pre-concert ritual” is, so to speak. What do you do to get ready for a show?
MC: For me, I just try to make sure I eat enough and drink enough water and that’s about it.
There you have it folks. Food. Water. Music. A fitting mission statement of sorts for a band proud to fixate on the essentials. Perhaps they’ve found the key to longevity in the sight of that tunnel-vision. The focus should always be on the one thing that matters. The only thing that lasts: Music.