Matt Chamberlain on working with Bowie, Elton, Shatner and more
“You have to go in there and know how to make it great,” says session legend Matt Chamberlain on how he has managed to bag mega gig after mega gig throughout his career.
And what a career it has been. The US sticksman spoke to Rhythm recently about his decades at the top, and here's what he had to say about working with the cream of modern rock and pop.
After I played on the Edie Brickell and New Bohemians record, the producer got a call about this new band Pearl Jam and they needed a drummer to fill in for a tour. He sent me the tape and I loved it. We rehearsed, hopped in a van and did the east coast and it ended with recording the video for ‘Alive’. That was recorded live in a club. Playing with Pearl Jam was just one of those last minute things and then that video blew up. It’s what I call a Forrest Gump moment, I had nothing to do with it I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Saturday Night Live
I moved to New York City and got the Saturday Night Live house band gig. I was doing that while studying and trying to get better as a musician. It was really fun. It was reading charts and musical skits through to playing with guest artists, everyone from Johnny Winter to Steve Martin. I got to see all the bands that came on as well and see all of the behind the scenes stuff and see how it all worked. That show is really nerve-wracking because it really is live. If you screw up, everybody is going to hear it, there’s no stopping and editing. It’s just complete terror, you have to learn how to manage that and not pass out with the pressure. I was 24 years old and didn’t have that much experience, going from a rock band into that was terrifying.
With her there is total trust in what I’m doing. I think she likes what I do otherwise she wouldn’t call me back for every record. She can play me a song and I’ll suggest some things and do them and she usually reacts in a positive way. Her music is so all over the place stylistically that it can be anything from vaudeville to hard rock in seven to funk to brush grooves. It just works, we really get along on a personal level and on a musical level she doesn’t have to explain too much to me. It’s so much fun because we both have the same appetite for different types of music, it’s so diverse. It’s the closest thing I have to being in a band. It’s a great working relationship and there aren’t many of those out there.
That was amazing. That record was the first time Bernie Taupin and him had worked together for many years. The day would start with Bernie giving Elton a bunch of lyrics and within an hour Elton would write a song that very same day. We would show up, he’d write a song and we’d record it. Then we’d have lunch, Bernie would give him some more lyrics and he’d write another song and we’d record that. It was so insane. He didn’t come prepared with anything, he just made it up as he went, it was incredible.
David Bowie was like that as well. I did a record with him and he would wake up in the morning and write a song, we’d have lunch and then record drums. Maybe he had a few little ideas here and there but it seemed like those guys, Elton and Bowie, were from the same era of recording musician where maybe that was just how they did records. I don’t think they did pre-production, I think they just went into the studio and made up s***. That process was fascinating.
The producer got my number, I had never met him before or anything, he just called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to Rome and do a Morrissey record. Of course I did! I went out there having not met anybody and we just started making a record together. There had been a lot of [Ennio] Morricone film soundtracks recorded in the studio we used and Morrissey’s only input was that he wanted me to sound like the drummers that played on the Morricone soundtracks from the ‘60s, he wanted more fills. A lot of those cats were jazz guys just hired to do the soundtracks and they played these crazy fills.
That was hilarious. I mean, he’s William Shatner! He did that record The Transformed Man that is so bad that it’s amazing. Ben Folds got asked to do this newer album and the idea was to have Shatner do a duet with a different person on each song. Every day we’d show up and there’d be a different artist there and we’d write a song for it and record it. It was so fun. Shatner is so amazing, he was the first guy there and the last guy to leave, he was completely engaged with everything and he loved making the record. My favourite was the one with Henry Rollins. It’s basically just a drum solo with those two guys doing beat poetry.