Drummer to the stars calls Seattle home
Seattle Times staff reporter
A bag of used records at his side, Matt Chamberlain sighs with pleasure as a familiar Longshoreman's Daughter waitress slides an iced soy latte before him.
"It's so good to be home," Chamberlain says, with a satisfied grin only truckers, hitch-hikers, salesmen, rockers and other road warriors can fully appreciate.
Hanging around Seattle is increasingly rare for Chamberlain, who is fast becoming one of the most in-demand drummers in rock.
In addition to backing Tori Amos — who kicks off another tour this Saturday at Redmond's Marymoor Park — Chamberlain played percussion on David Bowie's recent, critically acclaimed album, often plays with Fiona Apple and has worked in the studio with the Wallflowers, Macy Gray, Natalie Merchant and Garbage.
Though hardly a marquee name even in Seattle (where he is often confused with Matt Cameron, the Soundgarden/Pearl Jam drummer), Chamberlain is quite well known in the industry.
In an interview with the online publication Concertlivewire.com, Bowie said that when he was ready to record "Heathen," his latest album, "The first person (producer) Tony Visconti and I brought in to play was Matt Chamberlain. I knew his work by reputation ... Matt has a cool procedure as a percussionist. He will drag the most peculiar things into the studio, bits of wrought iron, oil drums, strange Harry Partch-like constructions, and bang around on them.
"He'll record a few minutes of it on his machine, then make loops out of the bits that we choose and play along to those on his traditional kit. Marvelous drum tracks were created that way."
Through her record company, the earthy Amos offered this comment on Chamberlain: "My 2-½-year-old daughter calls him 'Matty the Drummer' as if there were no other drummer in the world, and the thing is, when I'm playing with him, he's got the whole world in his drums."
Chamberlain seems unaffected by his growing reputation and says he'd just as soon be chilling with his girlfriend at their West Seattle home as rocking around the world. "It's not my favorite thing to do — touring," says Chamberlain, who is 36. "I like being home. And I like making records."
Journey to Seattle
Waiting for a sweet-potato sandwich at the Fremont cafe, he relates his journey to Seattle: "I grew up in Los Angeles" — San Pedro, to be more specific — "and moved when I was 18 to Dallas for seven years, and then here. In Dallas I played with Edie Brickell, that's where I got my start. When that band broke up I moved to New York, I got hired as the 'Saturday Night Live' house-band drummer. I did that for a season ... It was definitely not about the music, it was about hanging out and having fun," he says with a laugh.
He was getting tired of that right around the time an evolving Seattle band formerly called Mookie Blaylock was getting ready to tour with its big-label debut, and — like many young rock bands — was between drummers. "Pearl Jam's A&R guy recommended me ... I toured in the van with them, played a bunch of clubs — I had a good time, definitely had a good time. They wanted me to join the band, but Edie had just broke up, I had just got off the road after touring for four years straight — I could not imagine doing it again. But I'm still real good friends with them, especially Stone (Gossard)."
Before touring with Eddie Vedder's crew, Chamberlain came to Seattle for a few weeks to rehearse with Pearl Jam and decided he wanted to live here. He found a cheap-rent apartment in Ballard ("It turned out a bunch of crazy people lived there — I'd be playing my drums, and one guy would go outside and blow his car horn") and hooked up with Skerik, Brad Houser and Matt Dillon for a band they would call Critters Buggin; the jazz-fusion band recently recorded its fifth album, due to be released this winter.
His first few Seattle years were a bit slim on the work side, and perhaps he was wondering if he made the right move — he was working construction jobs to make the rent as Pearl Jam became the Big Thing.
Like his Critters Buggin mates and many other top-notch musicians around town, he found that most of the paying work came outside of Seattle. "The last six years I'm hardly here. I've been doing a lot of recording, and that doesn't happen here — unless it's Critters."
His big career breaks came in 1996, when he played on albums by Apple ("Tidal") and Jakob Dylan's Wallflowers ("Bringing Down the Horse"): "Ever since those records came out, I've kept getting work."
Chamberlain landed what would turn out to be his steadiest work when he hooked up with Amos. "It was like in '97. I got a call from one of the Critters Buggin producers, Eric Rosse, who did her first two records. They flew me down to her house in Florida for a week, and I set up my drum kit in her living room."
Jam sessions with Amos on the piano were an informal audition, and Chamberlain was soon featured on the album "From the Choirgirl Hotel."
With Amos, 'almost like a jazz trio'
He toured with her, then joined Amos in the studio again for her next album, repeating that process every year since with the prolific singer-songwriter.
Amos now lives in the countryside of England, and — after his brief layover at his West Seattle home — Chamberlain has been there working on new songs and rehearsing for this current tour.
After this weekend's show in Redmond, he, Amos and bass player Jon Evans will be off to Eugene, the Bay Area, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Rochester, Boston, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia Beach, North and South Carolina, Atlanta and Orlando in the next month. The intense six-week tour ends in Miami, on Sept. 4.
Amos' piano, the drummer says, "is the base of everything, she's really rhythmic. With her she's completely different, the drums are wide open. We're almost like a jazz trio, she lets you interpret. ... If you never seen (an Amos) live show you'll be surprised, there's a lot more going on live than the records."
During an Amos concert, Chamberlain will play a traditional drum kit, bongos, congas and an electronic set-up, for drum loops and effects. "We literally know over 100 songs, and they're all very different. They range from her playing by herself to me playing a shaker to fully rocking out."
His favorite Amos song?
" 'Precious Things' — I get to beat the (stuffing) out of my drums."
By now, he's starting to recognize familiar faces among the Amos fans, who are known to be incredibly passionate and emotional. "It's like Grateful Dead fans — but they're all girls and wearing fairy wings. It's weird, I'll be getting into it, playing the drums, and then I'll look up and see all these girls crying."
From Bowie to the Crocodile
Chamberlain has played KeyArena with Amos but is more used to playing the club circuit here. "I have a parallel life," he says with a chuckle. "I'll go and record with David Bowie, then I'll come home and play with Critters at like the Crocodile."
And then there's The Road, which quickly becomes a haze of airports, four-star hotels and arenas: "You start off all excited — that lasts about three weeks. Then, after that, you sort of snap — you don't care anymore, you just want to finish and go home. Then, all of the sudden, you're fine for a while ... and then you snap again."
Tom Scanlon: 206-464-3891 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company