The Company He Keeps: An Interview with Matt Chamberlain
"I’m not a big fan of drum records, so I didn’t want to make one of those," says one of today's most accomplished and prolific drummers.
The late Bruce Gary, drummer for the Knack, is quoted as saying he was disappointed when he found out that his ten favorite drummers were all Hal Blaine. It speaks to the fine line that great studio musicians have to walk in their careers, of having to be able to both blend in without being anonymous and stand out without overwhelming everyone else. It’s a trick few have managed. Matt Chamberlain has been pulling it off for over two decades, from his earliest recordings with Edie Brickell & New Bohemians and one season in early 1990 with the Saturday Night Live house band, up through his most recent work under the Company 23 moniker. He played the highly identifiable grooves on the Wallflowers’ "One Headlight", Macy Gray’s "I Try", Fiona Apple’s "Criminal", and Sara Bareilles’s "Love Song". He’s toured extensively with Tori Amos and recorded with David Bowie, Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen, Faith Hill, Sarah McLachlan, Bill Frisell, Liz Phair, Shakira. Robbie Williams, the Indigo Girls, and Elton John, to name just a very few. And have you ever seen the video for Pearl Jam’s "Alive" and thought, "Man, that drummer is really amazing?" Yes, that’s Matt Chamberlain as well. Once you start noticing him, you may start seeing him everywhere.
Company 23, his latest solo work, is a collection of 10 instrumentals that he recorded in pieces to a laptop while on the road and during sessions and then cemented together with his live drumming. "I always carry my laptop with me and write on it constantly," says Chamberlain. "Whenever I get downtime, whether I’m on tour or even in the middle of sessions, I’ll just put down ideas; kind of like a sketchbook. Then whenever I get free time I go back through it all and pick out the ones I think are worthy of expanding on and adding things to. So, a lot of it is synths, software synthesizers, and things like that. But, I’m not a big fan of the sound of software synthesizers so I thought maybe I should just blast them out of bass amps and mic that and get air moving and get some kind of visceral quality to it."
The album is certainly visceral. Chamberlain’s drumming is all over the map; highly syncopated throughout ("56 Million", "Zeit"), yet aggressive here ("FNORD", "Syd", "Cluster") and lurking more in the background there ("5"). The album never comes off as a "drummer’s record", despite being the work of such an in-demand studio musician. "I love songs that incorporate good drumming in them and have interesting sounds and good performances," he says. "If you’re writing the music, which most drummers don’t do, you get a different perspective on what the drums should be on it. When I’m writing the music I almost feel like I’m the drummer that I’m hiring to play on the record and I don’t him want him playing a bunch of shit all over it. I’d want the drummer that played on the music I wrote to be tasteful and acknowledge what’s going on and not shred all over it. To me, that’s the easy way out. You can learn a bunch of licks and go nuts on top of somebody’s music and that’s great, you can do that, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good music."
On opener "8 Circuit Model", you get the image of a drummer sitting behind a four-piece kit being pursued down a bleak industrial landscape. On "Shirl" and "Syd", it’s the drummer giving chase the to the blipping, beeping machines, the playing pushing and pulling against the blaring keyboards. Chamberlain’s playing continues to grow into an extremely unique place in part because he works on a regular basis with high-caliber musicians in a mish-mash of genres; roots rock one day, radio pop the next, soundtrack work here and there, and then maybe that’s followed-up with two weeks on the road with Marco Benevunto. "It’s a different headspace," Chamberlain says. "It’s like a different language you’re speaking almost but it all kind of bleeds together because there’s certain things that work in other genres of music that maybe people wouldn’t have thought of. So if I’m doing a hip-hop session where I’m playing tuned 808s with a drum kit made of a kid’s drum, maybe that’s a cool idea for a fusion jam. It takes people out of the usual headspace of where they’re gonna go. Because if you showed up to a be-bop gig with a classic 18" bass drum kit and a great old sounding Zildjian K cymbal, you’re gonna sound like a classic jazz drummer and it’s going to inform the other people around you on how to react and it’s going to bring up a lot of clichés and a lot of them are great. But, if your drums are tuned really dead and you had these trashy '60s Japanese cymbals, maybe it would make everybody play differently. If you take it out of context, it can spark a lot of new ideas. It’s like a piano player showing up to a be-bop gig with a Moog or something instead of his keyboard. You just have to dry different things and see what happens."
"Ultimately," he says, "as a session musician you’re hired to help out. You’re really there to help this artist see their music through and hopefully make it better than they thought. But you’re also taking direction and input from the producer and from the aesthetic that they’re going for. So you’re always in that world of trying to help but you’re also trying to stay open to possibilities. Whether it’s them telling you how to approach a song or if it’s you just exploring and you discover stuff just by accident. Things that shouldn’t go together, like here’s an Americana song but we’re going to put some drums on it that are run through a guitar amp with distortion on it. There are a million possibilities, especially when you’re dealing with crafting a song and the way drums fit into it."
Chamberlain’s work on Company 23 is also an example of how his playing is sometimes a collision of live, acoustic drumming, with electronics and drum loops, played both live and in the studio. Considering that at one time drummers feared being made obsolete by the ready availability of drum machines and affordable, quality drum samples, it’s particularly noteworthy that Chamberlain has found success by being unafraid to embrace technology. "At least for me, I love the hybrid of electronic and acoustic. Recently, when Adam Yauch passed away, I was thinking back to the first time I heard Paul’s Boutique. I remember hearing that record for the first time and thinking, ‘Wow, here’s something where the drum sounds are constantly changing.’ They’re not necessarily drum machine sounds, they’re sampling drummers off of records so you’re getting all of these cool acoustic drum sounds going on within the same song and then they’re adding electronic drums on top of it and they’re accessing all these different ways of playing grooves underneath something. There’s just so many great sounds to access to make a song interesting. Nowadays, it’s so wide open."
"That’s the fun part of recording for me," Chamberlain continues, "not necessarily being a chops guy but being more of a sound guy and going, 'what if I played this groove with a 808 snare drum, a John Bonham kick drum, and had some Elvin Jones ride cymbal going on with it, and how would that sound in your song?' So, I think the hybrid of drums and electronics and sampling and all that is just gonna keep getting more and more expansive and obviously there’s people that are against it and want to be as acoustic as possible and all that, but I love doing all that shit. I love getting a drum kit from ‘20s with my analog drum machine from the '60s and making a hybrid of stuff. It’s just fun. It’s like painting or making a cartoon. They’re all sounds, so that’s the way I’m hearing it. And it seems like it just going to keep going. We might start seeing more live representations of it as opposed to just studio creations. That’s what I’m excited about, going to see a band and the drummer’s drum sound is changing constantly. And that’s that thing I love about DJs is they can get a room moving and they’re using records and recordings and the sounds are changing drastically and hopefully that’s what live drummers will be able to do and have it be a sonic experience as opposed to purely playing one instrument the entire night. I would love to see that."