Remembering Jeff Buckley : an interview with his drummer Matt Johnson
Updated: Jan 31
Matt Johnson might not necessarily be a name instantly recognisable as someone deeply buried into the psyche of rock history, but to the deep observers and the scourers of album credits long past (especially the drummers amongst us), the name will ring clearly as one who played drums on Jeff Buckley's Grace. Read that again - it's a bit surreal.
For all the rock star posturing that emerged in the '90s and still exists in some of those offenders to this day, Johnson is among music history's few who can casually claim he was headhunted to play drums in a classic line-up and on what would become a stone cold classic album and remain ever-humble. He appeared on stage with Buckley from 1993 to 1996, played on Grace and subsequent b-sides, live releases and EPs, even sharing co-writing credits on the likes of 'Dream Brother'. Despite departing the band in 1996, before recording began on what would've become Buckley's final original album (released posthumously as Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk), Johnson also has a co-writing credit on one of its tracks.
He was the first drummer to audition for the band and was "totally down for the ride". Described by Leah Reid (product manager at Jeff's label Columbia) as "warm and kind and
generous, [with] this great smile," Johnson was a Hollywood-handsome 22-year-old Texan, who’d been living in New York for only four years, playing in a band called the Choosy Mothers and also drumming for singer Dorothy Scott, the person responsible for helping Buckley score his famed Sin-E residency. (essential further listening).
Johnson remained in demand following his departure of the band, going on to play with the likes of Beth Orton, Duncan Sheik, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, John Mayer, Australia's own Dope Lemon, Angus & Julia Stone and Eric J Dubowsky, as well as with the amazing St. Vincent on tour from 2011 to 2015. He recorded a couple of solo albums, including the wonderful 2009 offering Cagefighter, which showcases his gifts behind the kit.
At the end of a hugely rewarding month that saw us revisiting Grace for the first Record Of The Month for 2021, we're concluding our 31 day deep dive with a conversation with the incredibly humble and time-generous, Matt Johnson himself!
Kick back with a cuppa, dear friends, we're going deep!
Waxx Lyrical: Hey Matt, how are you? Thanks so much for talking to us - where are you at the moment?
Matt Johnson: I’m in Austin with my lady, Anna. We’re good. She’s working full time remote and I’m remote recording for all sorts of artists. I have a nice little studio setup that allows for all sorts of production.
WL: It’s been a while since we met at that St. Vincent show in Sydney. It was unreal seeing you play with her, but you've played with many, even our own Aussies - Angus & Julia Stone.
MJ: Yeah I love AnJ. Playing with them and seeing Australia has been a huge life experience. I love it down there so much! The first time I went there was in '95 and, over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to come and play there. It may be the most beautiful place on earth. I really love Australian people too. I had to add an influx of AU slang into my vernacular too, no doubt causing me to appear pretentious for adopting it - cruisy, hectic and heckers, ravenous, having a root, harden the fuck up, etc. <laughs> All sorts of fun language modifications.
WL: Grace is so very huge down here and I'm sure your reputation as one of its musicians precedes you....
MJ: Yeah, people really loved Jeff and the band. Sometimes I meet someone in AU who is under the illusion that I’m some sort of “big deal”. It’s super fun to meet people this way. I’m utterly bored with any sort of musical fan culture and my limited involvement with some of it. However, when people think you’re cool and feel they know you already somehow, it’s a nice opportunity to ask about where they’re from and what they’re into. Hell, I might even get a gig going! I think most people are cool. Usually they’re into something… jiu jitsu, cooking, free climbing, ancient history or whatever. If you can get them talking about their passions, it’s cool. True, occasionally you do meet some crazy ass fan-tard and they’re trying to get something and aren't present. Nonetheless, one can use that time to case study narcissism etc. <laughs> No! That sucks and I run.
WL: Thanks for agreeing to chat to us about Jeff and Grace, nothing like a stroll down Nostalgia Road. I can't imagine it's super easy for you. Your style of drumming has been one I’ve admired MASSIVELY for so long. You play with such - excuse the pun - grace. It’s a grace that only a few drummers seem to possess. You're one of the few who seems to possess more musicality than a “percussion player” than usual....
MJ: Thanks. Actually I’m frickin' clumsy and oft failure-prone behind the kit. I know. I produce my own drum tracks all the time and have to whip myself into shape while not also scorching my tender ego - I do practice a lot and discover new and fascinating things in drumming. Drumming has been both crucible and refuge for me. Perhaps no real refuge is not also a crucible. I suppose if it weren’t both, then it would merely be an escape. Oh yeah…. Drumming is also an escape for me! <laughs> There’s contradiction for you. After fighting with myself about something I can never be as a player and being disappointed about it, I abandon the fight and find the warm glowflow of Spirit-spinning paradox and beauty. At that point I DO feel I found the right vocation.
WL: Which greats did you look up to when you were a novice?
MJ: John Bonham. Mitch Mitchell. Tony Allen. Elvin Jones. Clive Burr. Phils Collins and Phil Rudd. So many greats…..
WL: Now, you’re essentially an analogue drummer living in a digital world. I saw you play at the Opera House with St. Vincent, you clearly don’t have any problems there, but how has it all changed for you over the years?
MJ: I love playing with electronics. They can box one in, in the sense that they provide a type of “canned” preset of sounds. But, there’s freedom to be found in constraints, as a universal principle. In fact, this side of immortality, constraints are our only hope of freedom. So I generally find working within a digital medium of sounds liberating. Obviously, it has sent me back to the woodshed with new insights about what deficiencies I need to eliminate in order to exploit some possibility. Essentially, I get to create a bunch of new instruments and then dive into playing them! They change from verse to chorus sometimes. So you find yourself playing on the same surfaces but with an ever changing kaleidoscope of sounds. I loved a kaleidoscope as a child. I never thought we’d figure out a way to turn a drumkit into one!
WL: Onto the subject at hand, we’re featuring Grace as our Record Of The Month, the first for 2021 - where do we even begin to explain this record, this legacy and these performances to the uninitiated?
MJ: Hit 'em with "Corpus Christi Carol", perhaps?
WL: It's that easy! And you're not even on that one! Interestingly, the label pegged Jeff as a solo artist, but he insisted on having the band, leaving the label scratching their heads on how a record from him might actually work, but I'm interested, how did that initial contact between you and him happen?
MJ: Context Studios Ave, a NYC Fall 1993 - it was a different town then. Don’t go there. It sucks now. <laughs> no. NYC is cool... but Context is long gone. I had an answering machine with a cassette tape in it. His girlfriend [Rebecca Moore, supposed inspiration of such tracks as 'So Real' and 'Lover, You Should've Come Over'] gave him my number after our meeting on the streets. Good thing I decided to go out that night. Jeff left me a voice message on my machine. Glad my roommate didn't accidentally erase it. I was drumming around town and JB needed some raw musical clay. Pretty soon we were not only at the wheel, but in the kiln!
WL: By all accounts, your connection with Jeff seemed pretty instant and I see you have a co-writing credit on ‘Dream Brother’ - did that happen on that first night of getting together to jam? Could you sense magic in the air right away?
MJ: It seems there was some connection and chemistry right away. Sometimes chemistry isn’t about relating in a peaceful sense, it can be about inner conflict - some sort of struggle within and between people. Music can capture that effect. I was pretty neurotic at the time and lacking in confidence. That’s normal for a young person trying to play music for a living. I was wrapped up in my own head. So the magic was eluding me, mostly. JB was a good mentor and band leader, but I had a hard time feeling like I was his peer. Of course, he knew it wasn’t about that. When the music was going well, we all knew that. We could hang and create. Why don’t bands stick together? I recommend getting into one and finding your own answer. Sometimes they do. Most times they don’t.
WL: What is a memory of this time that will never go away?
MJ: Certainly the day Jeff died. At the very moment he drowned in Memphis, I was actually down watching Brays Bayou in Houston form whirlpools and rivulets. You can’t make this stuff up!
WL: Oh man.
WL: What’s something personal that you love about the record, particularly a favourite song or your performance on a particular song?
MJ: I like 'Eternal Life'. I like to rock!
Matt Johnson performs with Jeff Buckley in Chicago, recorded live on May 13, 1995 at Cabaret Metro during the Mystery White Boy Tour.
MJ: I used to feel more personally connected to the record. I don’t feel disconnected from it. It feels ingenious to me. But I also feel as though I’m a totally different person now and that I may as well be listening to someone else, not that I listen to it. Generally, I don’t. Most of all, I always feel that I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to play with Jeff. He gave me my first big break - I needed it. I didn’t always really deserve it. But, what do we ever really deserve? I see news stories all the time about people less than half my age being murdered. They deserve a chance at life, right?
WL: I saw a documentary somewhere in which you said you went from meeting Jeff, to jamming to recording the album in a very quick period of only a couple of weeks - how did you handle that personally?
MJ: Yeah, I was a total spaz-case inside. I was filled with all this wild emotion and repressed sexual passion. I was fucking nuts. Jeff was fucking bonkers too. How did I handle it? By playing to a click track when tracking! I knew my time wasn’t that great. Jeff had a lot of fire. I knew I’d get swept up in the emotion and rush like I did when I was teenager - which is an insane amount.
WL: I can't begin to imagine that pressure. You also mentioned that you were trying things in the studio that were unorthodox - what’s an example of something that you may have questioned at the time, but in retrospect, might’ve actually been Jeff’s genius at work?
MJ: I think Jeff’s ability to go headlong into tracking those insane vocals live with the band at the same time was pure genius. That type of confidence might not actually be that rare, but it rarely yields such a dope result. He didn’t approach the recording process from a stance of control. He seemed to be into capturing unique events as the core of the record. Events seemed to be of importance because they were somehow edgy and risky. He was really great at pulling it all off.
WL: How did you get your head around his strong, formative reputation as a soloist - did you understand right away where your role as a drummer, an additional musician would even work?
MJ: No. But I’d seen a bunch of gigs since I was a kid, played some, gotten fired from some and I knew just enough about how close failure is to success - those points are sometimes precisely adjacent. The only way into the situation was listening. It’s true, I was also a poor listener at times, but fundamentally, we all knew the value of listening. Listening means you’re actually properly locating, where you are, and with your band. It’s weird, because playing a complex instrument while listening sometimes can cause you to forget what part you’re supposed to be playing. That’s a fun game! <laughs>
See Matt Johnson executing a familiar cymbal roll at the beginning of this, the album's title track
WL: It’s one of those albums that now feels like a thing of myth, I suppose that happens when someone passes away (and when the music is this good) - what is your attachment/feeling of that time now - recording the album, playing with Jeff on stages around the world and so on….?
MJ: Not sure. I think I learned that a great gig is when it feels like the audience is playing the band - the power of so many hearts opening to the emotions of it all. It’s the ultimate in a type of intimacy! <laughs>I am SURE there’s something wrong with that sentiment! I thought I’d feel I was missing it if it ever ended. But it’s funny, I feel I carry it all with me. I feel that the experience of playing with Jeff at that time was a gift that filled a void. I didn’t used to feel that way, because I was hurt. But I’ve since had things that actually really do hurt in my life.
WL: I'm sure any artist, especially Jeff Buckley will disagree with this, but Grace is flawless. But I know there are also a lot of extra songs surrounding it...
MJ: Art is never flawless. That’s why it’s beautiful. But in realizing beauty, it achieves flawlessness!
WL: ‘Forget Her’ was dropped for a last minute inclusion of ‘So Real’ - is that true?
MJ: Yes, 'So Real' replaced 'Forget Her'. 'Forget Her' was such a cool song, but Jeff beat himself up over it - he didn’t like it. He was wrong! He needed to chill and stop being all hard on himself, but he was young and let little things be big, having such a powerful imagination. I wish he were alive but still young so I could be old and give him a bunch of unwanted “dad” advice! I could show him my bald spot and tell him shit is no big deal.
WL: I read something unfortunate about you leaving the band in ‘96. Do you stay in touch with the rest of the band?
MJ: I talk with Mickey and Michael from time to time. I had quit because I was losing my way.
WL: I get a sense that we wouldn’t have received another Grace, had Jeff lived, such was his evolution. But I’m interested to hear what you think might’ve come next?
MJ: Jeez, I don’t know. He needed to find some peace and mental stability. We all did. It was the '90’s and people were all dour and emo, acting like they had some real bad issues onstage. It was a dumb fad, related to shoegazer posturing. We all did it, because we were superficial, dumb, and fitting in. That said, Jeff was legit a troubled guy at times. If he could have had a bit more buoyancy and charge on the battery for exploration, he could have made something awesome like Jonny Greenwood has. All roads felt somehow closed for me there.
WL: What do you think he might think of music in 2021?
MJ: He’d love Tame Impala, Chvrches, Mac Miller - I don’t know - a lot of music isn’t played, it’s spit out by software. Does that work for me? Fine, if it does. Often not. Too much compression, at every stage of the game. Honestly, he’d probably be super into some totally robotic shit for a year and then get all into new age harp music followed by a Waylon Jennings palette cleanser. WAIT…. No that’s what I DO! <laughs>
WL: Thanks so much for your time Matt, talk to you when you hit our shores again.
MJ: Thanks for pumping up JB to the chillins of today. Hope these kids can dive in for inspiration!
We hope you're enjoying your first Record Of The Month for 2021. It's a record that is not only close to our heart, but also has clearly influenced generations of artists to follow.
A huge thank you to William K. Stidham who loaned us his striking portrait of Jeff included - see his other remarkable portraits and find him at @williamkstidham - please do us a solid and tag him on Insta to show Australia loves him.
Everyone has a story about when they first heard Jeff Buckley - please share yours with us on email - firstname.lastname@example.org - or via social media or simply comment below. Furthermore, put an evening aside, turn off the lights, run a bath, pour a glass of you favourite red and voluntarily thrust yourself down that YouTube wormhole - you won't regret it. Start here....