Matt Teaches Drums, Stone Gets Honored

by Kathy Davis on October 9, 2009

As the (mostly) West Coast Pearl Jam dates draw to a close, a couple of great articles about San Diego-area native Matt Cameron have been published by the San Diego Union Tribune. In the first, featured in the daily entertainment blog called  “The Street”  talks about the making of Backspacer and the state of Pearl Jam:

Pearl Jam is unlikely to add “Happy Boy,” the kazoo-fueled 1983 romp by San Diego’s Beat Farmers, to its concert repertoire any time soon. Nor is Pearl Jam expected to dance a jig when it performs here tomorrow night at SDSU’s Viejas (formerly Cox) Arena, the 11th date on a fall tour that concludes Nov. 29 in New Zealand.

But the members of Pearl Jam — which includes former North County singer-guitarist Eddie Vedder and native Chula Vista drummer-guitarist Matt Cameron — are singing a decidedly happier tune these days, as evidenced by their atypically exuberant new album, “Backspacer.”

Gone, almost entirely, are the brooding, angst-ridden songs that helped this Seattle band become the most popular grunge-rock act of the 1990s. Gone, too, are the feelings of rage and frustration that permeated this hard-driving quintet’s previous release, 2006′s self-titled “Pearl Jam.”

An anguished, album-long howl of protest against the war in Iraq specifically and the Bush administration in general, the 2006 album featured such raging, bleakly titled numbers as “Unemployable,” “Severed Hand,” “Life Wasted,” “Comatose” and “World Wide Suicide.”

A well-intended broadside by one of the world’s biggest rock bands of the past 20 years, the music on “Pearl Jam” inspired scowls and furrowed brows, not just for its subject matter, but because too many of its songs were completed or written in their entirety in the recording studio.

“We didn’t have that many (songs) finished and that bogged us down,” Cameron said, as he recalled how the “Pearl Jam” album was made. “You get tired when you try to write in the studio. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Fast-forward three years and the sense of joy on much of “Backspacer” is so vivid you can feel, as well as hear, it. Might this infectiously spirited change be attributed to more than just the fact that George Bush — the subject of Vedder’s scathing 2002 song “Bushleaguer” — is no longer president?

Cameron, who moved to Seattle in 1983, laughed. “Well, I don’t want to give the political side of it too much credit,” he said, speaking from his Seattle home.

“We’re now at a place in our lives where we feel very settled and I think that had a big influence on this record. As a band, we’re just trying to be as honest as we can with this music. And this batch of songs just came out more positive than our last record did.

“Our last record was heavily influenced by the war in Iraq and we really wanted to make it somewhat of a protest record. We were sort of hoping other big bands would follow suit, although it didn’t happen. But I’m really proud of that record and the anti-war sentiment we were trying to get across.”

At least two other factors contribute to “Backspacer,” the most concise Pearl Jam album ever at just 36 minutes, sounding so focused and uplifting.

For the first time since its 1991 debut album, the 13 million-selling “Ten,” the five-man band wrote, rehearsed and honed every song at length before the recording sessions began. “Backspacer” is also the group’s first album since 1998′s “Yield” with veteran Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien back in the fold. The combination is a fruitful one.

This record is so happy, sonically, that I think our instruments are singing in a way they haven’t in a long time — and we really give Brendan a lot of credit for that,” Cameron said.

“He was adamant we be 100 percent prepared before we went into the studio, and that gave us a lot of energy. … that spirit of ownership really comes true. With the help of Brendan, we sequenced the record in a way that made it super-concise. We didn’t want any fat on this record. We wanted people to listen to it, from the beginning to the end, and to hear it as a complete piece of music.

“That’s what we, as music fans, grew up listening to — albums that are pretty cool, complete statements like (Queen’s) `A Night at the Opera’ and (The Who’s) `Quadrophenia.’ The days of making an album as a complete work are kind of waning, so we wanted to bring that tradition back.”

At peace with itself at last, Pearl Jam is in a celebratory mood on much of the 11-song “Backspacer,” for which Vedder wrote all of the lyrics. The music for two of the album’s most spirited songs, “The Fixer” (whose video was directed by former San Diegan Cameron Crowe) and “Johnny Guitar,” was written primarily by Matt Cameron, who started teaching himself to play guitar
when he was 17.

The first songs he learned to play were “Heart of Gold” and “Tell Me Why” by Neil Young. Cameron credits Mike McCready, Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist, for teaching him to how to do simple, one- and two-string solos in the style of Ace Frehley of Kiss. (As a teenager in Chula Vista, the drummer played in a Kiss cover band called, aptly, Imitation.)

“It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in 1983 that I really started to focus on trying to write complete songs and doing four-track recording,” said Cameron, who was the drummer in Soundgarden from 1984 until the band’s demise in 1997.

“I’m just lucky I’m in a band where they let the drummer write songs. When there are songwriters like Eddie and (guitarist) Stone (Gossard) in the band, those two can write entire albums on their own. But my songs come from a sort of different place and all the guys have always been open to my contributions.I feel real fortunate to have that opportunity to contribute.”

Apart from bassist Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam’s members are all married and have children. Coincidentally, “Backspacer” is the band’s first album to be semi-exclusively sold at Target, a store that caters to families more than to the brooding grunge-rock fans that were once Pearl Jam’s core audience. After selling 30 million albums and having a 20-year affiliation with Sony, one of the world’s biggest record companies, Pearl Jam is eager to market its own music and reach new fans as well as longtime followers.

The band’s deal with Target stipulates that “Backspacer,” which entered the national Billboard sales charts at No. 1 last week, can also be sold at indie stores and via Pearl Jam’s Web site. It is the group’s first chart-topping album since “No Code” came out in 1996, two years before Cameron became Pearl Jam’s sixth drummer.

“We’re really excited about this new record and the new means of getting it out there,” said Cameron, 46, who last year made an album with Harrybu McCage, his extracurricular jazz-funk trio.

“We still feel we have something to contribute in music. We make our living on the road, playing tours, and we passionately believe in what we’re doing. I want that feeling to be kept alive. We’re fortunate the music is still vital and real, and that it comes from us.”

Matt Cameron, Drum Teacher  The second Union-Tribune article, “The Beat Goes On”  is by critic George Varga.  Matt’s percussion teacher is interviewed, and Matt talks about how he uses techniques learned in his formative years to teach his son Ray and friends…

Pearl Jam drum dynamo Matt Cameron was a teenager when he began studying here in 1979 with veteran San Diego Symphony percussionist Jon Szanto. Now, Cameron is giving drum lessons to his son, Ray, and some of Ray’s fellow fifth grade students in Seattle, using techniques and books Szanto used to teach him.

“Jon had me work with these books written by Mitchell Peters — and I’m still using those same snare drum books with my son and his friends,” Cameron, 46, said.

“With the drum lessons I did with Jon, we started with a practice pad to do my homework on, then moved to the full drum kit. And that’s exactly how I teach my lessons now. I do stay in touch with Jon and I’ll see him when Pearl Jam plays in San Diego (tomorrow night).”

Szanto has no doubt his former prized drum student is himself an adept teacher.

“I can’t think of a better example to point any drum student to than Matt, to show what talent, diligence and a good spirit can do for your life in music,” Szanto, 56, said.

“I can get pretty much anyone to play the drums to enjoy themselves. But there is that rare, small percentage where you realize: ‘This guy gets it.’ They intuitively know what to do and what’s next, and Matt was one of the first and only students I’ve had like that.”

Cameron is quick to praise Szanto, whose resumé includes years performing here with the acclaimed (now sadly defunct) Harry Partch Ensemble.

“Jon was instrumental in me opening up to different types of music and listening to classical and jazz,” Cameron said. “I’m so grateful I had a really good teacher at such a young age.”

The other members of Pearl Jam also think highly of Szanto.

On the band’s live album, “10/25/2000 — San Diego California,” which was recorded here at the Sports Arena, lead singer Eddie Vedder can be heard dedicating a song to Szanto, who was standing on the side of the stage.

“Matt already had great ears when he came to study with me,” recalled Szanto, who recently began drumming along to Cameron’s playing on “Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s superb new album.

“After one or two listens, he could play a piece and have it down completely. I wasn’t surprised by his (subsequent) success. He had such depth as a musician that I could see him going into any situation and being valuable.”

Stone Gossard and wife Liz Weber honored:  This week seems to be the week to honor Pearl Jam. Though our band will be celebrating their kudos with us at Viejas Arena in San Diego, we reported earlier this year that the boys are being honored by the Surfrider Foundation with their elite “Keeper of The Coast” award for humanitarian efforts to promote clean, safe beaches for all.   Friend-of-Ed Laird Hamilton will accept the award on the band’s behalf.   

The night before that in New York City, our very own Stone Gossard and his wife Liz Weber were honored for their humanitarian efforts by the Huntington’s Disease Society of America at the 13th Annual Guthrie Awards Dinner.    

NEW YORK, Oct. 6 /PRNewswire/ — The Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA), will recognize the outstanding contributions to improving the quality of life of people with Huntington’s Disease (HD) by several individuals and two organizations at the 13th annual Guthrie Awards Dinner this Thursday.

All proceeds from the event go to the Woody and Marjorie Guthrie Research Fund, which has raised over $1,500,000 through this event. These funds help support the innovative HDSA Coalition for the Cure, a unique consortium of 16 world class scientists, working in teams, who have made most of the major discoveries as to how the huntingtin gene causes HD, at the genetic and molecular level. These findings have made it possible to develop potential therapies to treat the symptoms of Huntington’s Disease, and eventually the disease itself.

Woody Guthrie, the American songwriter/poet/singer, died of complications from Huntington’s Disease. His widow, Marjorie Guthrie, founded the organization 42 years ago. The Society’s mission – to improve the lives of people with HD and their families – is realized by a three-part program to find a cure for the disease; provide help to people with HD and their families; and to educate the public and medical community about HD.

The 2009 honorees are:

  • Barbara Boyle, recently retired former National Executive Director/CEO of HDSA, who helped create the HDSA Coalition for the Cure, HDSA Centers of Excellence, and expanded the Society to its present 40 chapters and affiliates;
  • Lundbeck, which distributes the first treatment approved by the FDA specifically for Huntington’s Disease, Xenazine (treatment for chorea);
  • HDSA leaders, Liz Weber and Stone Gossard (of Pearl Jam), who have guided the growth of HDSA’s Northwest chapter, and helped increase awareness of HD throughout the U.S.;
  • MIND (MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease) which has been in the forefront of research into HD, as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS; and
  • Musician Ani DiFranco, who will be receiving the Woody Guthrie Award, for being a voice for positive social change.

Huntington’s Disease is a devastating, hereditary, degenerative brain disorder for which there is, at present, no effective treatment or cure. HD slowly diminishes the affected individual’s ability to walk, think, talk and reason. Eventually, the person with HD becomes totally dependent upon others for his or her care. Huntington’s Disease profoundly affects the lives of entire families – emotionally, socially and economically. HD typically begins in mid-life, between the ages of 30 and 50, though onset may occur as early as the age of two. Children who develop the juvenile form of the disease rarely live to adulthood. HD affects males and females equally and crosses all ethnic and racial boundaries. Each child of a person with HD has a 50/50 chance of inheriting the fatal gene. Everyone who carries the gene will develop the disease. HD affects as many people as Hemophilia, Cystic Fibrosis or muscular dystrophy.

Congratulations to all!  Pearl Jam continues to motivate and inspire.

Kathy Davis ( Twitter: @CrookedArm23 )
A Bay-Area based entrepreneur, co-editor Kathy conceives and writes her share of TFT’s articles and sections. She was co-editor/co-founder of one of the first Pearl Jam fanzines "Footsteps" (1992-1997). Kathy’s first Pearl Jam show was at the Bridge School Benefit on November 1, 1992.

Leave a Comment