Never The Machine Forever

by Ondrej Vasa for Rock & Pop Magazine (Czech publication)
translated by Jaroslav Svelch

Matt, recently there’s been a lot of talk about you as a drummer on a Pearl Jam tour. What are your impressions from that, or: what’s the difference from drumming in for example Soundgarden?

Matt: It’s a completely different style of music, the drums are just the background for the voice, the band is just about voice. You have to hold a little back not to bury it and at the same time to keep the music roll as much as possible.

Did you have to adjust your drumming style to Pearl Jam’s?

Matt: Not the style, rather approach. You have to come with a clean head a trust yourself. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on what the band wants from you.

John: Attention, they’re Pearl Jam and it’s advised not to experiment with them. (He laughs quietly.)

You haven’t stopped only by Pearl Jam, even Smashing Pumpkins invited you to the studio…

Matt: I’ve recorded with them a year ago, we made six songs, but then decided to release just one. We were rather jamming.

And to complete your activity list, Liam Howlett is said to have borrowed your drumming for the album The Fat Of The Land. But you aren’t credited – were there your drums or not?

Matt: I don’t know. Liam just recorded me during a gig and then maybe he did something with it. I can’t recognize myself on that record.

Not being a musician, I can’t distinguish drummers. How can you see it as a professional? Are there big differences between them?

Matt: Everyone has a different approach, I personally try to play in a natural way in any composition. I don’t try to play “styles”.

Undoubtedly, the drums have smaller “field of action” than guitar…

Matt: Of course, but jazz uses a completely different style of drumming. In that case, I try to play as myself and as a jazz drummer at the same time. I can’t find any limitations anyhow, I don’t have this kind of approach.

You used to play in a jazz project Tone Dogs, and sometimes with Pigpen, Wayne Horvitz’s band. Are going to do some more jazz?

Matt: No, now I’m working with John, I don’t play jazz anymore. Maybe in the future…

I suppose you have a natural sense of rhythm and your compositions especially reflect this.

Matt: Certainly, my songs are rhythmically different than if they were composed by a guitarist. The best example is Jaki Liebenzeit, who used to be a drummer of Can. He composed on a piano or guitar, but approached the songs as a drummer. It is interesting to listen to it.

For example your song Applebite is excellent. Chris Cornell’s voice feels just like another instrument. The composition of that song is a tribute to rhythm, I think.

Matt: Thanks…

John: It’s so boring (laughs quietly).

Your next song Rhinosaur has also a strong emphasis on rhythm, you were even to sing on it…

Matt: That was never meant that serious, I only wrote the music. At the end, Chris saved it.

At least you can sing at the gigs.

John: The Cage! The Cage! Yeah! (both of them are laughing)

Believe it or not, Chris is an excellent classic pianist, he doesn’t even know. Many people were surprised, that Matt is a singer but Chris didn’t have to save anything, you sing very well. You had sung in the choir and in the first song you’ve ever recorded, Puberty Love (for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes soundtrack). It’s quite funny, that you ended up as drummer for Soundgarden, while Chris, originally a drummer, ended up as a singer.

John: But Matt always sang.

Matt: Not at public. We had only two gigs behind us, I sang and drummed, and it’s rather hard to do that at the same time. It requires much practice. So we decided to swap it when playing live. Wait ’til we play Prague with Wellwater Conspiracy.

John: Prague is one of the first places, where we’d like to play. Seattle is one of the lastest (laughs).

Soundgarden were here twice.

Matt: I like Prague. For the second time we played here with Eleven, that turns out to be a new Chris Cornell’s backing band. Hey, if we’d come to play in Prague, how many people would have come?

You would have to print the posters with Wellwater Conspiracy in a small font and your names in a bigger one.

Matt: That’s exactly what’s the poster like! And the names of bands you used to play in a very big font.

John: If it’s like that, we won’t sell ourselves like whores.

Matt: OK, let’s suppose we would do all of that. How many people would come?

Five hundred?

John (quietly): Jesus.

Matt: You say five hundred? I thought thirty! So what are we waiting for? Let’s catch a plane a fly! Can we sleep at your place?

No problem. But Let’s get back to the singing. Matt, you sang at public for the first time with Hater. Were you nervous?

Matt: We supported Pearl Jam, it was back in 1993. And I just had to sing in front of a huge crowd. It was fun. But I sang only one song in Hater.

Sad McBain, am I right? What was the song about? About John? Or about McBain from the American TV series?

Matt: No, it’s about John. He’s such a introverted, sad character.

John: Well, I think it was written somewhere on the wall.

Why were you so sad, John?

John: No, we just went to the studio and had a song named Sad Gossard, so we worked it out somehow. It’s not about me.

Brian Wood used to sing in Hater, he was brother of much more famous Andrew Wood. Andrew became a Seattle legend. Wasn’t Brian – although by no means worse – in his shadow?

Matt: Exactly.

John: It’s hard to imagine, what it was like for Brian, because Andrew took all the attention. Brian was in a difficult situation. I personally think, that Brian was a better singer and a better frontman. Honestly, Brian is one of the Seattle’s best singers. But the one who should be talked about is Kevin, their other brother. It’s the fastest guitarist of the world.

Is there a chance of Hater’s comeback?

John: No, Hater is dead.

That’s a pity.

John: Yes, because it was a great band. You know, we don’t want a leader in Wellwater. In Hater, we would have needed a leader, but he didn’t want one. Hater continually became Wellwater.

Ben sings with you on Wellwater’s first record. Why did he leave the band after that?

John: He wanted to do something else, he planned a solo record as well. Now he’s a fisherman. He composes and records music on a boat and then goes fishing.

Ben was partially replaced by Matt as a singer, but three of you sing in Wellwater. That’s many for twelve songs. Why and how did you divvy them?

John: We intentionally avoid having a exclusive vocalist, because he automatically becomes a frontman. And that’s usually not the right person to lead the band. Usually it’s the one with the biggest mouth.

Matt: I don’t sing in all the songs, but when we founded Wellwater, we decided, that the person who writes the lyrics, sings them as well. Except the two of us, Josh Homme sings on the record (in the song Kimbo).

Why didn’t you write lyrics in Soundgarden?

Matt: But I wrote one, on Superunknown.

Yes, Fresh Tendrils. That’s a nice one.

John: You know it? Yeah? Will you sing it for us?

Long time coming…

Matt: And that’s exactly the verse I had written (laughs) and Chris did the rest of it. I don’t like sitting at the table a trying to write lyrics, I rather write music, the words may come afterwards. By the way, Chris’s lyrics are perfect.

Wellwater were founded as an incidental, not a serious thing. When did you decide to dedicate to it so much?

John: You can find it for yourself in the sound of the second record. We made the first one this way: We met, smoked hash, had a coffee, recorded something a watched TV. It was a bigger comfort. But the last thing we want to be is a side project. This is a BAND. Pearl Jam is a side project! And we don’t want to be known as a Seattle group, that’s the worst thing you could ask for.

Matt: When we tried to get a record contract, we sent a demo to Grand Royal (the Beastie Boys label). They listened to it, they liked it, but when they found out, that we’re from Seattle, they declined. Just because of that. Seattle is no longer.

John: It’s strange that it’s just the local press’s thing. They haven’t even played us in the radio. They play us anywhere except Seattle, where they ignore us.

But you could be satisfied, you’re famous musicians.

Matt: (laughs aloud) That’s true. The band we played in, were successful but…

John: At least our mothers would bet their lives for it.

In fact, your first single Sandy/Nati Bati Yi was released by Super Electro, the label of Steve Turner. Did he accepted it at first try?

John: He released it before actually hearing it, rather because of our reputation. We were pleasantly surprised, we are his best-selling artists. (Laughs) We sold three thousand copies! He didn’t know what he was into, but he gave us a chance and I’m glad for that.

Haven’t you borrowed his Fuzz (the guitar effect box, brought by Steve Turner from Japan)?

John: Oh yes. Mudhoney Fuzz. I should return it to him soon.

Your album sounds very “retro”, like you would like to return to that garage sound of sixties and seventies. Is it intentional or spontaneous?

John: It’s our music. We compose it, record it, mix it, so it sounds like us. We used to try to polish it in some way, but…

Matt: It didn’t work (laughs).

John: (laughs): It didn’t sound like us.

Matt: But we really tried.

Isn’t it just a reaction to the perfectionism of the bands you were in?

Matt: In a way, yes. We tried to record every song as fast as we could, which is much better than playing it over and over again. That’s like sucking life from it.

I think John mentioned it: To be in a successful band means to adapt still. Now you can play like you never could in Soundgarden or Monster Magnet.

John (bored): Oh yes, everyone must agree with what you do, you must make it sound like the band. In Wellwater we believe in anything we record.

But the record feels like the people who play on it, are good musicians.

John: That’s exactly the thing I like about it – that we sound like people. Like people playing their instruments. Today’s musicians are rather actors.

Matt: Some time ago we were at the Marilyn Manson show a it seemed like the music was second after the theatre.

Five hours backstage, an hour onstage.

John: Exactly. Do you know what happened at the show? We were sitting with the Monster Magnet guys at the backstage and now – a door slammed shut, because Marilyn Manson went to play the show and they didn’t want us to see them in costumes. But what’s the difference between us? All right, image. But our image is our music and I want to keep it this way.

Matt: Nowadays, the bands are short-lived, they don’t expect to make more than a few records.

John: Image is more and more important in music. Take the seventies bands, for example Steely Dan. Who remembers their faces, what were those people like? That’s not important, but the music is.

Do the successful musicians do side projects because they try to move away from that pomp and hype?

John: I think that the people who most often do side projects, are drummers. Drummers and bass guitarists. They don’t experience any fame: usually when a bass player brings a song, he just whispers: “Look, I wrote this”, but no one listens to him. So he starts his own band.

Hater was in fact Ben Shepherd’s side project.

Matt: A bit. When I played in Soundgarden, it was refreshing to take a rest, just make a record, while having everything in control. To play in a successful band means not have control over anything. They just push you to make next record. In a while, you’re stuffed up with that. I don’t want to be in a band that pays all that business circus around anymore.

John: Music suffers with that, too. Then it’s not like: “Let’s make some good songs” but “Let’s make a single”. Then you’re just a part of that music industry machinery.

Matt: But it was fun to live in it, to look at that machine closely.

John: I’ve seen it and I didn’t like it at all.

Matt: Like Soundgarden sang: “NEVER THE MACHINE FOREVER!”

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Some of Jaroslav’s notes to the article and translation:

  • I tried to translate the answers as exactly as possible – sometimes it doesn’t sound very English, I know, but you must keep in mind that Czech is a completely different language and btw. I’m not perfect in English. 
  • I left the mistakes be. I know that song Kimbo is nonsense and that John doesn’t sing.
  • The guys never came to Prague!!! Shame!!! I thought that they could be at least Pearl Jam’s support band, but that dream hasn’t come true
  • Didn’t translate the short bios of Matt and John, I found nothing interesting in it (just some interesting errors, like spelling Jean Paul McBain instead of John Paul etc.)