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An Artist Capable of Making Something Magnetic: Matt Johnson on Jeff Buckley

David Chiu

Drummer Matt Johnson shares his reflections 20 years later on working with Jeff Buckley and recording what turned out to be a masterpiece, 1994's Grace.

Jeff Buckley


Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 1994-08-23
UK Release Date: 1994-08-15

Originally from Texas, drummer Matt Johnson was a founding member of Jeff Buckley's band from 1993 to 1996 and performed on Buckley's 1994 album Grace. He also co-wrote the song “Dream Brother” for the record. Since leaving Buckley's group, Johnson has gone on to collaborate with Duncan Sheik, Beth Orton, Rufus Wainwright, Dean and Britta, Angus and Julia Stone, and John Mayer. He also recorded a wonderful solo album, Cagefighter, in 2009 that showcase his talents beyond the drum kit. Most recently, Johnson has been touring with St. Vincent. In an exclusive interview with PopMatters, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based musician shares his reflections 20 years later on Jeff Buckley and recording what turned out to be a masterpiece.

* * *

What immediately comes to mind for you about Grace marking this special milestone?

What comes to mind seems to change over time, given that our context keeps evolving. Slowly it appears that we don't live in the same world that once we took for granted. Now, I would have to say that Grace is part of the world of music that is largely pre-digital, or mostly analogue, in it's production. Also, it was made by a group of people who were life-long accustomed to living without cell phones, or who had never surfed the Internet. It was mostly made in a small town, living in little cottages without much ability for communication with anyone who was not actually there. Consider going to a remote location for weeks in order to make a recording, but going there with no options for communications outside the immediate group of people who are actually present—no blogging while listening to playbacks, no posting selfies on Instagram while someone overdubs guitars, and knowing full well that checking your Inbox will involve getting home weeks later to a large pile of envelopes that need opening, and stamps to respond to in kind.

The analogue recording medium as a set constraint was also far less flexible than is the modern digital medium, albeit often thought to be more sonically ideal by audiophiles. This meant that what one played or sang couldn't be manipulated or corrected so easily, if at all. So there was still a very acute sense of risk involved in the tracking process. Nowadays, people rely on technology to massage and stylize all media after the human input is completed. This takes away much of the feeling of vulnerability that an artist encounters when making something. Knowing all your warts will be airbrushed does change how we relate, whether we agree on this or not. We did airbrush our warts, only in a way that is now archaic.

The constraints available to artists in 1993 were considerably diverse from those today. The set of constraints in which art-things are made and consumed is potentially part of the things themselves. What limits in art is as important as what empowers in the artistic process. In fact, these two factors are essentially one and the same. The transformative power of art is in the transmutation of limitations into an expression of creative freedom. From this perspective, constraints themselves become empowering.

Grace is an example of a record made under conditions that will never exist ever again. But that simply makes it exactly like every other record ever made. The point here is to consider how someone like Jeff could seize on whatever conditions were applying, and make something exciting that people love.

It is remarkable that you and bassist Mick Grondahl (and then later guitarist Michael Tighe) were relatively young musicians who were hastily put together as a band by Jeff. And yet on the album, the chemistry was so magnetic and electrifying, that it sounded like you guys have been playing together for years. In your opinion, why did you guys sound so tight-knit?

That was due to the sensibilities of Jeff Buckley and Andy Wallace. Andy interacted intuitively with the overall situation, coming from a perspective of knowing the ins and outs of how musicians work together, and how to capture performances. He knew how to massage the details of what one might play without bruising ones' tender ego. Jeff knew how to play every instrument in the ensemble very well. So he could play the guitar as a drummer might, or play the drums as a singer might. In this way, he influenced the cohesive quality of what happened. Music is at least partly composed of various layers of language. Fluency across the spectra of these languages doesn't come only from listening and analyzing. It comes from the "real" audio-kinetic experience of making music. Jeff and Andy were established in this understanding, so we were in good hands.

Is there one specific memory about making the record at Bearsville in upstate New York that stands out—perhaps recording a particular track, a jam, or rehearsal?

The memories that persist for me often have to do with simple things: the band fucking off and buying domestic food items at the grocery store for preparation at the cottage; frozen fish sticks; crackers and cheese; driving around in a ridiculous soccer mom's red rental mini van together listening to rough mixes on sun and shade dappled New York States roads in Fall; the diagonal wood grain siding that covered the Bearsville studio, persistently reminding us all that it was our aesthetically very 1970's predecessors that built the structures we would use to create; the mysterious appearance of bagels and hot coffee in the foyer before our arrival each day. This was all pure magic to me. That is the memory that will never leave: the magical feeling of "this is IT". Pretty naive I suppose, but it was either that, or shitty beer joints and a day job.

What was the genesis behind composing and recording "Dream Brother"?

“Dream Brother” was seeded from an instrumental jam that the band did. Clearly Jeff was exploring various Eastern modal approaches. The real surprise for me was in hearing later Jeff's completed vocals. His melodies delivered a mesmeric emotional punch, but also created a radical rhythmic counterpoint to the embedded themes of the instrumental track. The whole piece was sprung to life. Truly amazing work by Jeff!

Because the music on Grace is so varied and eclectic, did you have any notion or inkling at the time it that it was going to be a special kind of record? Or a sense of what Jeff's expectations for the record were going to be?

I had no idea. But, I felt the goose flesh. Anything that could bring the goose flesh had to be good. Goose flesh is weird. It's creepy to feel your skin—your body—get all reactive in such an animalistic way. It feels like some bizarre evidence that we are not, or are not only, our bodies. A joyful, mysterious, almost separate knowing arises in the chest, and our cells react in perfect concert across the whole surface of our skin, as if several trillion peasant subjects were genuflecting to a king as he passed through the countryside. If we are infinitely multidimensional, or are part of a more omnipresent hive-mind and don't believe it, then gooseflesh makes us a little more uncertain about our disbelief.

Let's face it, beliefs are fucking stupid! Experience reigns. The experience of making that music gave me a taste for something beyond, for something into which only intuition can serve as guide. A little taste of The Great Beyond, plus about 600 bucks a week, would suffice for my tenure with Jeff Inc., RIP.

In looking back, why you do think the record still resonates with people 20 years later? Are you surprised that the record has attained legendary status?

Jeff had strong basics. He knew a lot. But he simply let his curiosity move him into places that felt fresh and new. He loved music more than he understood it. Yet he understood more than I can convey here.

It always seemed that he knew what he was doing even when he was clearly searching. You felt you could trust him with your time and attention. He dove into performance, naked and unafraid, drawing power from the vulnerability of being exposed and seen, no matter what the outcome.

Jeff was an artist capable of making something "magnetic."

Music can release us for a time from the tyranny of habitual thoughts that cause us to interpret and relate with life as a mundane event. Life may be mundane, but it is not merely so. It is more accurately what we allow it to be for us. Jeff, as an artist, seems to invite us to allow in life more than we ever deemed possible. This is an idea of a sort of magnetism that surrounds the art that people come to love. It draws us in and washes us through, releasing us from heaviness and burden, allowing us to float for a time in a sort of incorporeal resonance and reciprocity with the source and substance that is the conundrum of living existence. This is one possible "why" of music, if there ever needed be a "why".

Jeff had a distaste, I think, for this kind of philosophizing. This may have been an artifact of his drive to create real things in the real world without getting caught up in theory. That said, this particular language exploration may serve as a bridge to Jeff's music for those who have yet to hear it.

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