Soundgarden's Matt Cameron on the reunion and singing on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
In 1984, Soundgarden (due at Red Rocks tonight with The Mars Volta) started out as a three piece with Chris Cornell on drums and vocals, Kim Thayil on guitar and Hiro Yamamoto on bass. Within a year, the trio recruited Scott Sundquist to play drums, so that Cornell could cultivate his skills as a frontman. By 1986, Sundquist was replaced by former Skin Yard drummer, Matt Cameron.
For a couple of years, Soundgarden remained a well-kept secret in the Pacific Northwest until it garnered the attention of A&M Records, who released Louder Than Love and marketed the band to metal audiences. The group -- which had been part of the underground scene in Seattle and counted among its fans punkers and the like -- was not strictly a metal band, but it did have crossover appeal. The songs on Louder Than Love were about real-life darkness in a gritty, believable way rather than a cartoonish way as was often the case with metal bands then and now.
Soundgarden went on national and international tours with heavier bands of various stripes as an opening support act for the next couple of years, but with Badmotorfinger, the act's popularity soared and its sound became associated with what came to be called "grunge." While Soundgarden didn't become quite as famous some of its contemporaries, it did enjoy some much-deserved time in the limelight, especially after the release of Superunknown, which contained a handful of hits.
The pressures of constant touring and the resultant tensions within the band brought it to an end after a show in Hawaii in 1997. But in the last few years, the guys decided to give it another go, after appearing together on stage again for the first time in over a decade at last year's Lollapalooza. Realizing there was still a great deal of interest in their music, the men of Soundgarden put out a live album, Live on I-5, followed by word that they would tour again and then begin work on a new album.
We spoke with the affable, observant and witty Matt Cameron about his history with the band, how he sang on the soundtrack to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and what brought Soundgarden back together.
Westword: In other interviews, you've said that when you were a kid you were more into jazz. Who were your favorite jazz artists?
Matt Cameron: It was probably around age seventeen that I started listening to John Coltrane, and I think Giant Steps was my first album, and I absolutely fell in love with it. From there, I listened to a lot of Thelonius Monk. I had a bunch of friends who were into bebop. My father listened to Stan Kenton and Dave Brubeck when I was growing up, so I heard a lot of it as a younger kid, but I didn't really latch on to it until seventeen or so, once I really started to study drumming. I went out to some jazz clubs and I saw some jazz acts, and I really dug the drumming. From there, I started buying the records.
How did someone convince you to start playing rock music?
Well, I always played rock music. I started playing in rock bands when I was about thirteen, so that's always been my 'expertise,' I guess you could say, as a drummer. It wasn't until later that I started playing jazz with people. It was a lot harder than listening to the music [laughs]. It required a lot more technique and, you know, more sensitivity and dynamics and stuff. It's still something that I aspire to for sure.
In preparation for this interview, I saw someone chart out some of the time signatures that you used in Soundgarden, and I saw some rather odd and interesting choices.
Kim [Thayil] naturally writes all these riffs in five and seven and six. Actually Chris and everyone writes in these very sort of non-linear time signatures. It was always my job to make sure that everything felt as if it was in 4/4. Or just try to smooth the rough spots out a little bit with the drum parts. It was always really challenging and it's super fun to do that as a drummer.
In a June 1994 Modern Drummer article, you said that you "make odd time signatures feel like straight time."
Yeah, I think that was always our goal.
What brought you to Seattle from San Diego?
I played in a group called Fault Line with a friend of mine named Glenn Slater. He and I kept in touch after he moved to Seattle from San Diego in about 1981. I had graduated from high school in 1980 and had been kicking around San Diego working day jobs and played in bands. I had dabbled in college a little bit. Glenn called me up and said, "Hey, come up for a visit." I brought up my drums. That was 1983, and I never left. So basically I just knew the one person up here and plugged myself into the local music scene.