Over the last 20 years Matt Chamberlain has contributed to a staggering variety of recordings including David Bowie, Tori Amos, Frank Ocean, Miranda Lambert, Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple, and Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, to name a few. Seriously, we're just scratching the surface! I first met Matt in 2003, when we were studio neighbors in an old warehouse in Seattle's SODO district. I would show up to work, stand in the hall listening to him play, and think, "Yep, all the things they say about him are true." His space was packed with many drums, noisemakers, and recording gear. I'd seen Matt's weird kit combinations online, and was always inspired by his approaching each project with a clean slate, as well as an openness to experimentation. Recently I was working on some music with Dave Matthews, and when we needed drums it seemed like a great opportunity to give Matt a call. When I arrived at Matt's studio, Cyclops Sound in Van Nuys, California, it was a familiar sight. Loads of drums, noisemakers, pieces of metal to hit, gongs, and a ton of great recording gear. We chatted during breaks, over a couple of days of tracking, about drums and recording.
Tell me about your studio, Cyclops Sound. I know there's a little backstory here.
I moved down from Seattle at the end of 2010, and I was looking for a place, because I'd had a studio in Seattle. I tried recording in a couple rehearsal facilities next to speed metal bands, but it didn't work out. I was talking to my buddy, Jason McGerr [drums, Death Cab for Cutie], telling him I was having a hard time finding a space in L.A. and he said, "I think our singer, Ben [Gibbard], had a space over in the Sound City complex and has left." I called, and it was totally empty; a 1,000 square foot space! I snagged it, and I've been here for four years now.
It was already built out by Ben?
Yes. Thank you, Ben!
People send you sessions to track drums on here. Has that become the norm for you?
Luckily, I still get called to play on records in other studios, but 25 to 30 percent of my work is here. It's mainly a producer coming over with an artist – maybe a bass player – and we'll track the rhythm section to what they have in Pro Tools. That's a lot of it. When they send me a song and say, "Do your own thing," those are actually the hardest, because nobody's here to answer questions. I have to get them on Skype or email, so it takes a little bit longer. I engineer those, so I'm over by my kit with screen share. It's a lot of work, and it takes me out of the headspace of just playing.
Did you learn engineering by doing it? Or did you have friends, engineers, and producers help you along the way?
Both. On sessions, I'm always driving the engineers crazy, asking them questions. If there's a sound I'm really digging, I'm always asking them, "What are you doing?" Most of what I learned early on was from working with Jon Brion [Tape Op #18]. He's such a gear nut. I learned so much hanging out with him and talking about gear. Learning the history of "what this mic does" or this compressor or that mic pre. Over time, I would think, "I like that drum sound, so I should buy that piece." By working with different people, I learned different things.
Jon Brion has obviously been able to marry the gear to the music. Buying a piece of gear doesn't mean anything; it's who's driving.
Especially with drums, it's the source. Whatever the source sounds like, that's what it's going to sound like. At least that's what I think when I'm recording with people. I try to make the drums sound – to my ears when I'm sitting behind them – the way that a mic would hear it. If the snare drum is super ring-y, I'm assuming the mic is going to hear that. Over time I've learned that's not necessarily true, but with real close mic recording it is. It makes sense. If the mic is right on the drum, it's going to pick up whatever's there, depending on the way you hit it. Obviously, drummers are all different. Everybody has a different balance to how they hit the cymbals, toms, and snares. You can get away with minimal mic'ing if you're the type of drummer who plays with a good balance and you're not bashing your cymbals. The one mic that we used on the majority of what I've done with Jon Brion is a [Telefunken ELA M] 251. It's like drummer's perspective, by my ear. If you have it on the right side – if you're right-handed – it's the perfect situation. It takes a general picture of the kick and snare, and it's beside your head so it gets the hi-hat out a little bit. Then you fill it in with all the other mics. That's the theory with that kind of recording, but it's a very specialized type of drum recording that he does. Most people want a stereo image, so they'll put up stereo overheads and do the kick thing where you have the inside kick, and the outside kick. I work a lot with Joe Chiccarelli [Tape Op #14], who's an amazing engineer. He has all the different options available. He's done enough records, where he knows that down the line they might want to go for some other sound. If he has multiple room mics, and different perspectives on the drums that aren't just up close or ambient, he can adjust to whatever gets put on the music later. I've learned from that. Every single time I record, I'm amazed with these guys. I don't understand what they do, but it's incredible to me.
It's often the combination of people in the room that ends up yielding particular results.
I did a session where Al Schmitt was engineering. He's a legend. He was like, "Come in for a bit. Check it out." It sounded amazing; it sounded like a beautiful acoustic drum kit. I asked him what he was doing, and he said, "Nothing!" Bob Clearmountain's [Tape Op #84] the same way. You ask him what he's doing, and he's like, "I'm not doing anything!"
Just get out of your own way…
Let the drummer do his job, which is to make it sound really good. It's an acoustic instrument. The way you mic it will obviously affect the sound; but generally, if you're a drummer who makes your instrument sound good it should be pretty easy.
What do you think it is about your approach that has kept you working?
I don't know.
You do a lot of different kinds of music. You've played in very diverse situations, so you certainly haven't been pigeonholed. You're bringing something else to the table.
I think it's the way you're putting it all together, as well as how you react to the music. If you're the kind of musician who hears a song, you react to it in a way that might give people more ideas, or you take it out of the box. That's the most common thing I hear from producers, "We wanted you on this session because you're going to do something different than just showing up and laying it down." Sometimes you need to play a simple thing, but a lot of my interest lies in recording. That's why I have the studio. I like recording, I like sounds, and I like performances. I don't think that some drummers – who are really great players – are aware of their sound choices. I don't know why. There are a few guys that I know of and I always wonder, "Why don't you use different sounds that are available? There are other snare drum sounds!" I don't know – if, as a session musician, – you can be a specialist and be like Stewart Copeland and say, "This is my snare drum sound." I think you have to accommodate the situation if you want to be a part of a lot of different types of music. There are some guys who are known for laying it down. They're rock drummers, and they're badass. Those are the records they do. But I personally love being a part of every type of music. I'm a fan of it all. If I could do a hip-hop record and get my acoustic drums to sound like a breakbeat; that, to me, is incredible. It's fun to sit here and be like, "Let's put some weird-ass mics on the drums." If you listen to original Motown records, or any of that early-'70s and late-'60s funk, how the hell did drums sound like that? Obviously, drummers weren't hitting as hard back then. With Motown, there are a lot of tracks where the drummers aren't playing cymbals at all, because of the way they were recording the drums back then. It would destroy the whole track if you hit a cymbal. So if you listen to The Supremes' songs, it's amazing how it's all put together, as well as the sound of it. I guess it's really mid-rangey. So I'm interested in, "How do you do that?" Now you can get these full-fidelity drum sounds, no problem; but a lot of times you don't want that. I'm sure you've heard the isolated tracks for Led Zeppelin. If you listen to John Bonham's drums, they're not massive. There's not a lot of low-end or insane high-end. They're mid-rangey, and they work in the track. Nothing's really hi-fi. The Beatles' recordings are really mid-rangey, but it works. Now we can make everything so extreme, with so much low-end and so much high-end. Are drums supposed to take up the entire spectrum?
Are you a pretty avid listener, a seeker of new music to check out?
There's an infinity of bands and music to check out. We'll never listen to it all.
There's a label in Seattle, Sublime Frequencies. They released all this crazy '60s Vietnamese psychedelic rock, and North African folk music they recorded on one of these little stereo handheld recorders. It's so amazing. There's so much music. As far as my interest in recording sounds and drums, and trying to be part of different kinds of music, I think the recording part of it is a big thing for me. It's not just showing up with drums. I love helping engineers out; to go for a sound. If they're referencing something, it's exciting to me to try to recreate it. I feel like a musical archaeologist trying to break a code. "How did they get that drum sound?" Even if we don't get it, it's fun to try. We end up with something different. Today you and I were talking about doing Tom Waits-inspired sounds, and I was thinking "Wow, how did they do that?" And also, what era of Tom Waits? There's Bone Machine – that was Tchad Blake [Tape Op #16], with lots of distortion. Tchad Blake was a huge, huge influence on me. I think the moment I heard his recordings, it changed my whole life, in terms of sound, and what was possible with drums. Up until then I thought you showed up in a studio, the engineer mic'd your drums, they sounded really good, and then you went for performances. That's essentially what it is. But I did a session with Tchad Blake once, on a record for this band called Wild Colonials. I showed up, and he had a binaural head microphone for an overhead mic, and these corrugated tubes from Home Depot pointing at the drums, and he was putting [Shure SM]57s in. Then he had a 57 in front of the kit going into one of those Shure Level-Locs. He said, "Play a bit, then come in and listen." I came in and listened, and it changed my life. It was like, "What? This is incredible! What the fuck is going on?" He had the overheads going through [Tech 21] SansAmps and two [Teletronix] LA-2As, but it was a binaural head. Then he had the Level-Loc and the tubes. It was so cool-sounding. From that moment on, I thought, "I need to figure this shit out." I bought a little SansAmp, and I had my 4-track cassette player at home. I put a 57 into it, and I thought, "Wow, okay! This is interesting to me! How do I get sounds on recordings that I love from old records?" The way people mic the drums, and the sounds you're hearing from them, affect the way that people play together when you're making a record. So if you have a really cool-sounding drum kit, it'll affect the way that the bass player's going to play, or the guitar player. But if it's a super hi-fi kit, it'll also affect them and it won't be the same. Those kinds of things interest me.
Basically the whole idea is treating drums like they were an electric guitar. Guitar players can change their sounds, from verse to chorus to bridge. Why can't you do that with drums? In the studio, you can do anything with drums. You can overdub two kits. You can have one drum kit in your left speaker and one drum kit in your right speaker. You can have them be one mic each, or going through an SVT rig or something. This is what you can do with the recordings of this drum kit. Then there's the pieces of the drum kit that you can change out that represent a bass drum. It could be anything. It could be something that's a low-end sound, like a Native American drum.
You have such a sonic palette here, in terms of both microphone preamps, treatments, and room, as well as an unbelievable variety of drums and noisemakers.
The great thing about this place is that I have everything here. The great thing about doing sessions that are not here is that I don't have everything that's here, and I have to deal with doing something different. If I go to another studio in town, I might be able to only bring a drum kit with maybe an extra bass drum and a couple of little things. We've got to make it work like that, which is fine. That should usually work, in most instances. But here I have so much shit. I could easily spend days on one song overdubbing and trying things. I've got all the electronic gear too. I'm a big fan of electronic music.
If you're working on your own music, what drives what you're going to do?
I was listening to something this morning on my run that I really liked the groove of. Maybe I want to copy that feeling and go from there. The chord changes and melody could be totally different, but I like the feeling of it. Or I'll be practicing on my drums and think, "Oh, that'd be cool to record." I'll record it, and then I'll think, "Oh, shit, I should put some bass on it." It happens a lot of different ways. Then I have that live looper [Gibson Digital Echoplex]; a lot of times I'll make a loop, record it into Ableton Live, and then later I'll get back to it, start adding instruments, and see if I can make something out of it.
Tell me more about the looper you use.
It's great. I can send MIDI control information to it from a drum pad. I can be playing and hit a pad that starts the record, and then I'll hit the other pad that starts the loop. I don't even have to try to press a button or anything. I can still have my sticks in my hand. So I've got control of all the parameters via MIDI. I have it pumping through a little PA system in the room with guitar pedals on the aux sends so I can dub it out, or distort it, or whatever. I'll record it direct, or put up a room mic and record a loop. I just got these SVT amps. I was thinking it would be fun to put some shit through the SVTs and mic those in the room.
Yeah, every drummer needs two 8x10 speaker cabs! What are some of
the things that you don't like when you go to a session that you see engineers doing?
It's funny, because in the past 10 to 15 years everybody's become a pretty good engineer. I haven't had any bad experiences. There were a couple times where I'd come in and listen to the drums, and the kit sounded disconnected. In those instances, I figure, "Well, maybe the engineer's not going to do anything to the drums right now. Maybe the mixer will fix them later." But, most of the time, folks get great drum sounds. I've been fortunate. I can't think of a time recently where I've walked into the room and was thinking, "Eh, it's not happening." Since everybody has a recording situation in their house, and since Tape Op came along, people are more interested in recording now on their own. When they record drums, they're excited. In the late-'80s and early-'90s I was doing sessions where I thought, "Man, this sounds horrible." It was on a Neve console to tape, with all the good gear on the drums. I'd come in, listen back, and think, "What's wrong with this? Is everything out of phase? What's going on? There's no vibe to these drums." I'd walk out in the room, and it would sound great. I didn't understand. I didn't know what to say to an engineer when that was going down. I'd wonder if maybe it was me. Lots of it is the drummer. If you're not tuning your drums right… When I was 21, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. I was playing in clubs. If I was going into the studio, I would buy new drum heads and hope for the best.
You've touched on that, but having your drums sound good and knowing how to hit them makes the engineer's job a million times easier.
Yeah. I thought you were supposed to hit your drums like you do live, where every performance was supposed to be raging. It took me a while to figure it out you can't do that. It fucks with your time, fucks with your feel. It messes with the sound of your drums, because your cymbals are bleeding in to all the other mics. It makes them sound smaller.
Right. I think some engineers in the studio feel that they're not doing their job unless they put 15 mics on drums.
If you look at the old pictures of James Brown recording sessions, you'll see something like a [Neumann] U 67 over the kit, and maybe there was a kick drum mic. Those records sound incredible!
We were talking earlier about the Keith Urban record and how it wasn't really even your drums. What was that experience like? Why do you think they want that?
If you're going to make a country pop record, you're going for a certain thing, which is generally electronic-y drums. Or, if you're going to have real drums, they're going to be overdubbed with the electronic drums. It'll be a hybrid. Or maybe it'll just be acoustic drums for certain parts of the song, and electric drums for other parts of the song. If you listen to pop music, you'll understand that it's definitely not a performance thing. It's more of a sound design situation. There are the Max Martins of the world, and those guys who do those pop records. It's sound design, really. You're dealing with so many sounds that really define the song, like the synth sound; or the sound of the snare drum, that is maybe a clap with a snare sample and then an acoustic snare. So doing a fill into a chorus has to be a hook. It can't be like, "I did a couple of takes and got this cool vibey thing in the chorus we're going to use." It's not that, at all. It's a whole other mindset. In that situation, it's almost like a game. "We're going to play the game of making this kind of record." Then you understand the parameters you're working in.
In that situation, do you bring a lot of boxes and drum machines that you're familiar with to help create the sound design?
Yeah, for a lot of it. In Keith's instance, he is very hands-on and knows what he wants. A lot of times, we'd reference other artists. There was a Kendrick Lamar song he loved at the time. He wanted to do that kind of vibe with the drums, where it's super lo-fi acoustic drums; but there's some programming underneath it to make it sound more modern or pop. That, to me, is experimental. That's fun. Let's put some limited bandwidth mics on the drums where they sound really mid-rangey and compress the fuck out of them so they sound like they were sampled off some shitty old record. Then program a cool 808 snare to go with it. Then you put them together, and it's like, "That sounds pretty cool!" It's not a drum performance, but it's a cool sound. It's a studio sound experience, which pop records are. Hip-hop is like that too. It's a different mindset. I'm not attached to any way of doing records. I like doing them. I like good pop records. I like good hip-hop. If I can contribute to the good part of it, it's all right with me.
Yeah. Lately, there are some really good pop records that I love listening to.
I think the production is incredible.
Yeah, sonically it's amazing. Listen to a record like The Weeknd, and that record has some sonics on it that are bananas. The record that Tchad Blake references is Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly.
I love all that Trent Reznor does. I've always been a fan of the way that he takes acoustic drums, and they're so fucked up, or they're super hi-fi; but there's something wrong with them the way he recorded it, the hybrid of electronic and acoustic drums. I love it. It's genius. I think that opened up a lot of possibilities. Then real minimal songs, like that Lorde record [Pure Heroine] that came out a couple years ago. Try to imagine: if someone gave you those songs, would you do that production to it? Would you have such a minimal approach? That producer, Malay [James Malay Ho], who does the Frank Ocean production, is an old Seattle-ite. He'll do these productions that are so minimal, but they're so beautiful. The bass drum will not just be a bass drum. It'll be a bass line, but it'll serve the purpose of a bass drum and a bass. It'll change pitch. There will be no bass on it.
Yeah. The use of space in music is often overlooked.
Yeah. Or maybe you leave big holes in the music and don't fill them in with anything, because the sounds you have are so extreme and they're interesting to listen to. I know I always try to minimize what I put on a track, but I always end up feeling, "Oh, it needs [more]!" So I end up filling every sixteenth note with something, instead of letting space happen.
You claim you could never be a producer; but you are a producer, in a way. You're crafting.
I couldn't imagine. When I see my producer friends going through the shit they go through… [laughs] It's like you're a psychiatrist. And plus, I've never worked with vocals or a vocalist. I've never comped vocals, or tried to get a vocal performance. I don't know how to do that.
The point is that you've worked with so many great singers. Somebody that's recorded as much as you, with as many great artists as you have, has had a special insight into so many creative processes.
But I'm always gone. After I do basic tracks, I don't get to see how they put their vocals together. I don't know what happens. But usually they sound great when you're tracking. Maybe they use the tracking vocals and they edit or add a few things. I know some people go back, redo everything, and stack harmonies. As far as producing projects, I don't know. It would have to be the right thing. Actually, I figured out that it would have to be done in under two weeks. That's my requirement. If I could do a record, finish it in two weeks, and play drums on it, I would be fine! [laughs]
Now that's all the budgets allow!
Yes, perfect timing!
When you're on the playing side, what kind of feedback do you like to receive from the people you're working with?
That depends. Some people have great demos. There's really great shit on there, and great drum ideas. But some sessions come with a guitar and some singing. Those situations, unless they have a very specific idea, I like to search for a bit. If they have specific ideas, I'll definitely lay it out for them. But with Pro Tools now, you can throw ideas at the song. If the producer keeps track of the playlist, they can try shit later if they're not exactly sure. Usually the process is to play the song down so it sounds good, then get the artist's ideas down, and then improvise. Do the most un-tasteful, over the top shit; because you never know.
How much of that experimental playing ends up on the album?
Depending on the producer, they might come back and go, "Oh, that one thing. That became the verse groove." It's easy to go back and play the shit that you know has worked over the years, just from a drum perspective. There are the obvious things that work. But sometimes people want to go outside the box. They can always go back to the 2 and 4.
Is there anything you feel you haven't had the opportunity to do? Or someone you'd really like to work with that you haven't?
Yeah, yeah! There are< artists that I'd love to be in a creative situation with. Björk is up there. I would love to get in room with her, to see what we could do with drums, percussion, and electronics. That would be really fun. It seems like she'd be really receptive to working like that, depending on what she's into at the moment. There are hip-hop producers I love. But with hip-hop, there's [generally] no need for acoustic drums. They might take a loop of something to make it sound like it came off a record. Malay lets me do my live looping through a PA. I'll start dubbing it out; he records all of it, and he'll use it as a loop library. If he's writing with somebody, he'll take a little bit of it and I'll get a writing credit, which is cool. I love experimental electronic music. I love improvisational music, like jazz. I love songwriting. There's so much music to dig. Then there's so much from other countries. All the amazing drumming, cool grooves, and textures from Africa. I love Northern African music, like Moroccan and Persian music.
You hear it coming through in what you play. You can hear the influence of things that've managed to weave their way in.
When I was living in Seattle and I had Critters Buggin going, we did a US tour with a Moroccan group, The Master Musicians of Jajouka. They'd play a little bit, we'd play a little bit, and then we'd all play together, and it was improvisational. In my mind, I played with them to their kind of feels. I still don't think I totally understand; it's not perfect. In the U.S. and the Western world, grooves are so rigid and perfect. But in Cuban music, African music, Northern African music, and Brazilian music, everything is between a triplet and a sixteenth note feel. Everything is in between what we play over here. A lot of that music is interesting, because it's from different cultures that aren't from America or Europe. They have the weird, lopsided shit going on. The tonality too; it's obviously not A 440 [tuning], and it's not a normal scale. It's not even tempered 12 note. There are a lot more notes to their octave. Like Indian classical music; I love listening to Zakir Hussain play tabla and I try to incorporate that into my drum kit playing. It's fun to put on those records – like Fela Kuti; or traditional African drumming, like Burundi drummers – and to play along to at least figure out the feel of it. Not necessarily exactly what they're doing, but at least to understand. Those Tinariwen records are the same. It is so bad ass; it's so funky. You get stank face the whole time you're playing. How did these guys get so funky?
And there are no drums! There's a gourd, and there's a kick.
Yeah, there's just a big gourd and sticks. The guitar tones are so gnarly. It's like blues music. It's so bad ass. I remember discovering Tinariwen at Wall of Sound Records [Seattle]. I started doing that in college. I remember when I discovered Ravi Shankar. It's like, "This jazz program is making me nuts. I need to listen to some other music." I would always listen to it and think, "This is like freedom to me. All these different cultures, they have this music they make that means more." It means more than Western music, which is generally about selling records, or partying, or getting laid. [laughter]
It's tied to the culture, and to religions.
Yeah, and to ceremonies. It's a tradition. They have traditions of music in all these cultures. So it feels like it means more. Like with those Jajouka guys, they were telling me they have songs for when women give birth, songs for when people get married. The whole culture knows these songs. They've been around forever. It's like all of the Alan Lomax field recordings. Or like a Daniel Johnston record; it sounds like he recorded it on his boombox! The performances are amazing. I'm gonna sell all my shit and overcome my gear problem! [laughter]