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Icons of Rock: Matt Cameron

on January 30, 2011, 8:00am

Good drummers are everywhere, but great drummers are a rare breed. Unfortunately, though, for bands that have been around the longest, it’s that position that is often the most interchanged. It’s this preconceived expandability that keeps drummers out of the spotlight when the greats of music are discussed. For whatever reason, the rhythm section is just not as important in the eyes of the general public. This a shame, because the drummer is arguably the most important element to any band. Consider this for a moment: What would a great band be like without an outstanding drummer? More than likely, they’d just be a lesser band, because without someone to drive the rock machine, to push the band forward, said band becomes just as expendable.

But what about the wonder drummers, the ones who defy the above point by becoming just as essential as the front person or lead guitarist? The most obvious are John Bonham and Keith Moon, as they both helped create their respective bands’ unmistakable identity, so much so that when they died, so did those bands. Look closer and one can find that there have been a few that have since carried equal weight in their bands and are still going strong. For an example of this, I give you, the mighty Matt Cameron.

matt cameron 241x260 Icons of Rock: Matt CameronCameron is a legend in the world of alternative rock. Not only was he a grunge pioneer in the late eighties, he has also gone on to become one of the most sought-after rock drummers to date, with honorable mentions and song credits that can be found almost everywhere in modern rock. He’s written for the Smashing Pumpkins, was the force behind the rise of Soundgarden, and was a part of Temple of the Dog. He even helped give Queens of the Stone Age its start, playing on their debut EP, and sitting in for their first ever show. And since 1998, Cameron has called Pearl Jam his home while also sitting in on numerous side projects, including the bands Hater, Wellwater, and Conspiracy, to name only a few. He’s built quite the resume and managed to perplex, challenge, and push every band he’s touched beyond its pre-conceived limits. What would you expect when you put a jazz drummer behind a rock band?

But before all that, he had to start somewhere. Hailing from San Diego, Cameron spent his teen years playing in high school rock bands. His first break into the national scene was with a spot on the soundtrack for none other than the 1978 cult classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, with his track, “Puberty Love”.

In 1983, Cameron moved to Seattle, Washington to pursue rock. Working with a string of hardcore (and what we now call early grunge) bands, he would build himself to be somewhat of a local star. This notoriety would again get a boost with the band Skin Yard, a band often credited with stirring up the grunge movement in the first place. His career with Skin Yard only got to its self-titled debut before a desperate, early incarnation of Soundgarden was looking for a drummer to replace Scott Sundquist, and reached out to Cameron.

matt cameron corbis 530 85 Icons of Rock: Matt Cameron

Cameron had the unique ability to make odd time signatures sound traditional, giving Cornell and company real challenges to work with, as they built their songs around Cameron’s curious kitwork. Tracks like “Jesus Christ Pose” (off of Soundgarden’s third album, Badmotorfinger) show this perfectly, as Cameron pounds out an onslaught of avant-metal rhythms. To his credit, Cameron would go on to pen over a dozen tracks with the band, some that would turn out to be the heaviest, most driving material they would release.

Like all good things, this came to an end in 1997, when Soundgarden disbanded, leaving Cameron a free man, but that wouldn’t last for long. A mere one year later, old friend Eddie Vedder was stranded without a drummer, right before Pearl Jam’s Yield tour was to take off. Pearl Jam’s then-drummer, Jack Irons, split for personal reasons (he allegedly hated touring, and couldn’t handle the demanding, long sets) after a string of dates in Hawaii. Vedder was quick to court Cameron. The original deal was a temporary one, but Cameron joined the band full time shortly, and has been with them ever since.

Vedder had always been inspired and in awe of what Cameron could do, and when they started writing together, it pushed Pearl Jam in ways Vedder couldn’t have imagined. Vedder’s feelings are expressed quite perfectly in the liner notes of the 2003 Lost Dogs compilation, boasting that “Matt Cameron writes songs and we run to find the stools in order to reach his level. What comes naturally to him leaves us with our heads cocked like the confused dogs that we are eventually getting it. Did we mention he’s the greatest drummer on the planet?”

While Moon and Bonham built their bands up, rising from the bars to the stadiums, Cameron gave life to one, and reinvigorated another of rock’s most illustrious acts. By also contributing to countless others in the process, his work has made him the most sought after drummer in the past 20 years. Go see a Pearl Jam show, wait for one of the many inevitable solos, and you’ll see why. Vedder was right in his 2003 statement; No one touches Cameron.

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