A Musician’s Drummer: A Conversation With Matt Johnson

By Shawn Rios
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Houston-bred New Yorker Matt Johnson has played on some of the most critically acclaimed records in almost everyone’s collections. He’s also played on some of the more memorable tours from the early 90s on. From recording the seminal cult-creating album Grace with Jeff Buckley in 1993 at age 22 shortly after graduating The New School, he’s worked with a wide spectrum of artists over the past two decades including Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Elysian Fields, Australia’s Angus and Julia Stone, Beth Orton, Keren Ann, Duncan Sheik, and the beloved St. Vincent, the avant-garde guitarist, songwriter and performer who continues to astonish listeners and concertgoers everywhere with her ever-evolving musical statements.

He’s a drummer’s drummer, a musician’s drummer- most importantly in his field of work, a songwriter’s drummer. One of precision and patience. One who focuses on the song and his place in it, the love of drumming as a craft; as an actual art. Possessing a rare finesse and technique along with the technical means of execution (hell yes he has chops for days, but you’ll rarely see/hear them), his maturity and vocabulary as a player lie in the constant approach he takes as a student, not a master. That said, one of his best qualities is this: as talented as he is, you won’t typically find him on covers of Modern Drummer, his initials aren’t screen printed on the front of his kick drum(s), and he hasn’t encaged himself within a giant 16-piece drum kit wearing eyeliner and all black (at least not yet). Point? Ego takes a back seat, exploration and discipline take turns at the wheel.

Now at age 44 and about to embark on yet another tour leg with Annie Clark and Co. in support of her latest (and debated best) album St. Vincent, Johnson continues to strive for the next level of personal growth and musical creativity. I caught up with him in the middle of it all.

Minimal Beat: You continue to work with artists who’ve made albums before you’re part of the touring lineup supporting those recordings. In the early rehearsal stages or even as the tour progresses, what’s your process of deciding what goes and what stays? And how much of your own voice is permissible with the songwriters?

Matt Johnson: Approaching songs from recordings for live performance is fun. From the recordings, I get to experience the choices that other drummers make, or whatever the producer programmed. This helps build my bank of ideas from perspectives that differ from my own.

I like to view drum parts from the standpoint of at least knowing what is essential, and what is not. For example, ask yourself the question, “how much of this musical phrase or part can I remove before it no longer contains its distinguishing characteristics?” This is a game, a method of reducing things down to core essentials that reveal and expose what makes them interesting, while removing things that may only be artifacts of habit. It feels like turning a knob that, up to a point, increases the sense of conceptual clarity in music. This clarity allows the overall musical “hook” to emerge in the mind as a mantra or platform for other layers of the music to expand upon. This reductive process provides grounding. Without grounding, there won’t be any soaring.

When it comes to that, I think in terms of tea and whisky. Sometimes, in order to find ideas, new dances, and ways of interacting you have “over play”. I liken this to all that grows in the herb garden, or teems with life in the mash tun before the final products are made. This is a creative process very much like distillation, or the steeping of tea. The elaborate process that goes into making great whisky is in evidence in the experience of drinking it. But all that complexity is delivered via such a simple, elemental elixir. The same goes for tea. You don’t want all that goes into these products floating around in you cup or tumbler. The same goes for drumming and music. Nobody wants to hear you practice. But people love to hear you play. If you can extrapolate with concision, and imbue the simplest groove with a sense of eternity, you’re making intoxicating music. Bottoms up!

I don’t look for permission to reinterpret music. Rather, I’m aiming to express things people want to feel, yet don’t have the language or precedent to know how to ask for. Much of life appears to be pattern. But the unique, the radical, the exceptional are always inherent in very roots of reality, and readily available. That’s where my ear is turned. I’ve noticed that people like to get on that ride with me. They want what’s beyond the known. They sense its relevance. They sense themselves in it.

Minimal Beat: With your current touring setup with St. Vincent, you utilize a larger kit that includes some technology, from triggers to sampling pads to auxiliary drums. It seems this is becoming more common with today’s players. More accurately, with the material that players are performing. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the drum kit, or even the role of the drummer-percussionist?

MJ: The drum set has its origins in people cobbling together a unified instrument from the various drums and cymbals left over from marching band. The makeshift nature of the instrument is more pronounced than it is in other, more seemingly succinct instruments. The drum set has always been modular, and always up for spot reinterpretation. This is more true now than ever. Midi triggering allows drummers to play whatever instruments and sounds they want.

The approach I’ve been using is very traditional. I place pads and triggers all around the kit, rather than in one location. That way, no matter where my hands are at a particular time, I can have electronic sounds interspersed without compromising playing in a traditional style. One distinctly new feature of this hybrid kit is that it can place the exact same sound at very diverse locations. For example, I might be faking your ear out by playing an electronic snare with my left foot and on a pad with my right hand over by the floor tom. The patterns and phrases that are possible here are really exciting.

Also, electronics are often perceived as a layer of sounds that are different from that of the drums. So, a drummer can have an electronic musical role while simultaneously holding down some type of groove on the drums. All this activity can translate in a way that feels spacious and musical, even though the parts being played are really dense and complicated. In short, the modern drum kit is like playing two or more instruments at once, even if you consider the acoustic drums as a single instrument. Truly, the lines between drummer, percussionist, and sound artist are blurring. I could not be more happy!

Minimal Beat: Where is modern music heading? What has been gained, what has been lost? I do realize just how open-ended this question can be.

MJ: I’ve never known where music is heading. I’m equally ignorant of where the music we make comes from. When I get bored, I just type in the name on YouTube of a country who we wage war on, for instance “Iraq”, plus the word “music”, and proceed to have my mind blown by the various traditions that are remote from my own in time, and culture. I suspect that many of the forthcoming innovations in music will draw from the incredible traditions that we already have access to. Musically we have more tools than ever, but we are very, very far from out smarting or ancestors when it comes to music.

In olden times, people didn’t have amplifiers, PAs, and mass marketing. So, where we supply high decibel levels and a gimmick, they had to provide content that “sold” without much ability to overwhelm with volume. What’s been gained? What we have. What’s been lost? Not sure. But I will say that the agency that a musician develops with minimal tools other than an instrument is as rare as ever. This is good news. If you can play, you’ll work!

Minimal Beat:  Over the past year supporting The St. Vincent record, you’ve maintained a specific, almost choreographed set (for the most part) that partners with a certain theatrical quality. I’ve seen it four times this tour, from the very first show to Pitchfork to the Chicago Theater bill with Future Islands and so on. Does Annie/the band still leave room for spontaneity to happen, and how so?

MJ: Yes. Annie and Company don’t want to hear or play the same thing every night. Yet, no one need go out of their way to reinterpret something that’s working fine. Most musicians find a crew, then enjoy the balance of freedom and reciprocity. The degree to which you can improvise in music is roughly proportional to your level of listening. If you’re tuned in, then you’re getting the news. If you’re not, you’re reading a script that people already know. That equals boredom. So, in this sense, improvisation based on informed listening is essential to the health of a band.

Minimal Beat: You’ve been playing with Annie and company since the tour for Strange Mercy. How did you become a part of the touring end of St. Vincent?

MJ: Annie needed a live drummer. I took an afternoon to jam with her. She seemed positive from the first moment. I did the best I could to understand her work and what she wanted. She was inviting and friendly. But I could also see that she was ferocious, and needed someone with the strength of conviction, someone who would never cower from her or be afraid to jump into the music.

Staying in the game of music for life has not eradicated my fear in all situations. But it’s required a level of sacrifice and commitment that made the pushover in me simply surrender the fear, and permanently retire from “service”. Fuck it. I’m not the best, the most gifted, the most successful. But putting sticks in my hands has a funny way for me of making sense of a world that otherwise doesn’t. So I’m in the game, for better or worse. Once you’re in, and you know you’re in, there’s no more room for fear.

Minimal Beat: As busy as you are, how do you find time to grow your craft as a player? What kind of external factors do you keep at arm’s length in order to stay disciplined?

MJ: I do morning warm ups on a pad. Basically, I try to find stuff I can’t do, write it down, discern some kind of underpinning concept, and extrapolate a sort of language from there. One year’s practice doesn’t necessarily resemble another’s. Gradually the playing grows. As long as I stay ahead of myself, I can feel that I don’t need to “use” what I practice in any immediate context. So I’m always trying to lay groundwork for the years ahead, building language, fluidity, flexibility, strength, speed, and core groove that could hopefully serve as an ideal musical vehicle for unpredictable terrain.

Gabe Kahane shows up here as an enormously important influence and inspiration for me. Gabe has paved roads into places that very few people even know exist. He’s given me ideas more consistently than anyone I’ve ever known. Because of my relationship to Gabe, I have been able to explore music and grow in ways that I simply could never have imagined. That said, if you give me an idea, I’ll run with it to an end of sorts. I’ll exhaust it insofar as it behooves me to do so. I just can’t stop. It’s my Manhattan Project, and I’m building the bomb, come what may. That’s human nature, and it’s mine.

I stay away from identifying with the reactive mind, wherever I can. It’s a waste of time to hang out on “I’m so great” or “I’m total shit.” This polar thinking alienates me from the moment, which is where the groove is. I let myself have an ego trip, if I need to. But I don’t make a permanent room in my house for it. It’s boring. It’s lame. I just want to be in the flow, with people, in love. I want to be a part of the life that frees itself by taking one another’s hands, and moving in music toward an infinite horizon of realization, togetherness, and oneness.

Minimal Beat: You’ve been playing at this level since you were 22. Over the past 20 years, what have been some of your more memorable shows?

MJ: Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill in Chicago, 1995. Jeff got plowed and talked all sorts of gnarly shit about people who deserve to have shit talked about them. Fuck em. Jeff was rad.
Rufus Wainwright at Stubbs in Austin, 2007. Summer heat outdoor gig, sweating like pigs, playing the most awesome gay anthems of all time. Rufus made me wish I was fabulous enough to be gay every time we played together. Alas, I am not, fabulous nor gay. But I sure gave it all I could, musically speaking.

Elysian Fields at La Poisson Rouge NYC, 2010. Oren Bloedow and Jennifer Charles are two hemispheres of a single mind that consistently eminates musical genius. Playing with them is a dream for me. You want great song writing? There it is.

St Vincent in Helsinki, 2011. At this festival, we played at the same time as Bjork did on the main stage. So we thought our crowd would be super light in numbers. When we saw a huge tent overfilled with glistening, sweaty, mad-eyed Finns, it made us all feel so grateful and loved that we gave in to the intoxicating expectation that the audience brought. This was a case where the audience played the band. They wanted release, and we were obliged to facilitate. The deep cold and darkness has honed something in the Finns that I’ve seen nowhere else. I love it.

Union Hall, Brooklyn NY with Angus and Julia Stone in 2010. A tiny show for AnJ. But this night had some sprinkles of fairy dust. Tight room, small packed audience who were there to listen to my friends from so far away, all in my home town of 25 years. Sometimes all our minds feel permeable in the shared space of music. In their music, the delicate breeze and amber/pink light of dawn over the frothy waves of the east coast of Australia are subtly conveyed in the matrix of lyrics and song. There is a deep quietude in their music that is lost, mostly for now, in American music. This night it felt like swimming together in light, in spirit, all in a Brooklyn basement!

Minimal Beat: How has New York City changed as a music scene since your days with Jeff Buckley?

MJ: NYC is a landscape of change. In a city that is actually alive, change is probably a good measure of the affluence and productivity of that place. A lot of people hate the way change occurs. It’s not always pretty. The Internet made your royalty checks a lot smaller. I don’t give a shit. Get your lazy ass up and hit the road, Duke Ellington style. Duke didn’t even expect to sell records or make money that way. He was depression trained, and so too will we be, very soon perhaps. In NYC, the rich are getting richer, and the poor….? Who knows? Let’s make music people! Celebrate life!

Minimal Beat: You’ve seen your fair share of talent in recent years. Any artists or bands that stand out to you?

MJ: I really like some bands I’ve seen at festivals. I like Churches a lot. The Tallest Man On Earth is badass. Beck is cool as hell. Ari Honig is a motherfucker. Robert Rich’s “Somnium” is my fucking homeland. That’s where I live. Kurt Rosenwinkle is so amazing. My favorite drummer? Patri Satish Kumar. Yes, I still have an idol! He’s the greatest in the world to me.

Minimal Beat: What’s on the horizon for Matt Johnson?

MJ: Lots of touring in 2015. St Vincent live shows is what I’m mostly doing. Studio work and gigs for Angus and Julia Stone and others around the schedule edges. I’m doing more studio work in Australia too. I have a new record “iindweller” that I am releasing. All my songs, singing and drumming with friends filling in the gaps.
My lady, Anna is moving us out West. Redondo Beach maybe. I likes the water.

Watch St. Vincent Live at Pitchfork Music Festival Paris 2014 below

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