Interview by Arthur van Pelt
Questions compiled by The SPfreaks Team
We all know Matt Walker as the drummer for Smashing Pumpkins in 1996 and 1997. Recently, his name popped up several times again in Smashing Pumpkins-related news; for example, “considered as new Smashing Pumpkins drummer” here, and “‘joining Billy Corgan at Ravinia Festival August 30th” here. We also learned that Matt’s name appears on several tracks of the highly anticipated Adore reissue which is scheduled for release on September 23rd. To cut a long story short, SPfreaks thought it was a great time to sit down and talk with the man himself. We are honored that Matt Walker, who is always involved with several ongoing projects, took the effort to check some facts for us; meanwhile digging out some anecdotes from the vault and giving advice to young drummers on the fly.
Matt, thank you for having us. Firstly, we know that you were born on May 21st, 1969, in Wilmette, Illinois, and that your birth name is Matt Snyder. However, your performance name has long since been Matt Walker – any particular reason for taking an artist name that is different from your birth name?
I’m surprised I have not been asked this more often. I took my mother’s maiden name, Walker, as that name was in danger of dying out with the previous generation. And having two boys I can say there’s a good chance it will continue on a bit longer….
OK, so who inspired, or motivated you, to pursue being a drummer? Do you have any drummers you look up to?
From what my parents tell me, I wanted to play drums from age two on. They seem to remember me seeing Louis Bellson on TV and going nuts. Soon after that, it was Animal from the Muppets. From there, early drumming idols were Stewart Copeland, John Bonham, Steve Jordan, Neil Peart and, believe it or not, Stevie Wonder. He played drums on many of his most popular recordings.
So who taught you to play drums? Or are you self-taught?
I had many teachers, not all of them drummers. My father, Carl Snyder, is a blues musician, so I probably learned the most about playing with other musicians from him. I had one drum teacher for many years in Chicago named Phil Stanger. He was very old school and also taught me as much about the business of being a professional musician as he did about playing meringues.
Do you have any tips or advice for those who want to become a career drummer?
Diversify. Drummers, or all musicians for that matter, need to be comfortable in every realm of music; from understanding and appreciating different genres to being comfortable with and even embracing technology. It all feeds off each other more than ever before. Musicians who are quick to learn songs and retain arrangements and changes, who play like they mean it every time, are the musicians who will find success. And perhaps more important than anything else is being able to get along with people. No one has the time or patience to put up with a prima donna, unless they happen to be the songwriter or singer. Prima donna drummer? Forget it. More specific advice to drummers – offer your services to as many bands as you can, and befriend engineers and producers; they may be the doorway to your next opportunity.
Filter, with Matt (far left) and Brian Liesegang (center)
In the beginning of your career, you drummed for a band called Filter amongst some other bands before that; namely, Scott Bennett & The Obvious, The Clinic, and Tribal Opera. Filter’s 1995 debut album, Short Bus, is remembered by SPfreaks as nothing less than, and I quote, “a fucking great album”. What was your involvement with this album? We noticed you are not credited for studio drumming on Short Bus.
In my early years playing professionally, I played in dozens of bands (all at the same time) and also played countless pick up gigs. I was in rock bands, punk bands, soul bands, blues bands. It was relentless but exciting. Filter recorded Short Bus without a drummer; all the drums were sampled and programmed. When the record was finished, they relocated to Chicago and set about putting a band together for the tour. I auditioned alongside a handful of other drummers and luckily got the job. We toured non-stop for the next 13 months, including two months in Europe, as the support act for Smashing Pumpkins. That was an incredibly exciting time in my life. I was just married and our daughter was barely a year old, and I had them join me for much of my travels. That is also when Brian Liesegang and I first met and became friends. He and I are still very close and continue to work on music together.
You have obviously worked with a lot of artists and bands. Does anything make Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins stand out from the rest? Can you describe how the creative process worked, and still works, with them?
This question might require me to write a book to answer thoroughly. Suffice to say, what stands out most in my mind is the intensity. Intensity is in every aspect of the Smashing Pumpkins’ process. Writing, recording, performing – even the artwork is diligently pored over. There is no part of the Smashing Pumpkins world that is not authentic or done without purpose or intent. I love that about them. Billy never takes the easy road. It can be challenging and frustrating to be a part of the process, as he will not settle for anything less than what he envisions, but I also find that incredibly inspiring.
What was the first public show you did with the Smashing Pumpkins? Where was it exactly (as far as we know it was August 23, 1996, in the Metro, Chicago) and how did it go? Were you nervous, excited, or pumped?
My first public appearance with the Pumpkins was indeed at Metro in Chicago. I remember being quite nervous actually, but also tremendously excited. Remember, I was a big fan of Smashing Pumpkins as well, and of course an admirer of Jimmy’s drumming. I still think he is one of the best rock drummers of all time; so I had the bar set pretty high for myself. I actually heard a recording of the Metro show not too long ago and was surprised at how good it was given I only had a week or so to prepare. It definitely helped having seen them so many times live when Filter was the opening act.
You went on an exhausting US tour with the Smashing Pumpkins in 1996 and 1997 – what was the most remarkable gig you performed back then in the US and why?
That tour was on the heels of a 13 month tour cycle with Filter! One show that stands out as one my favorites was when we did a surprise opening set for Jane’s Addiction in Chicago. We set up on the floor like a real opening band would have and played for only 30 minutes. Until then the whole Smashing Pumpkins experience had been somewhat surreal, jumping in at that stage in their career, playing massive shows with all the production, etc. But in that context I felt more connected to the history, and it felt like a real band.
“Billy never takes the easy road.” – Matt Walker
After that, 1997 brought you to Europe for several shows and festivals like Torhout/Werchter in Belgium and Roskilde in Denmark. Any anecdotes on the European tour you would like to share?
To be honest, that tour is a bit of a blur. Kind of peripherally, I remember the sets being very stripped down and muscular. We changed many of the arrangements, usually simplifying the rhythms and riffs. I don’t think it worked for everything but so goes the artistic process. When it worked it felt great; especially in a festival environment. I also remember a spectacular show on the seaside in Portugal, where as we played, residents living up the mountain next to us could watch from their windows and porches. I believe there is footage of that show floating around YouTube.
What Smashing Pumpkins song is the most challenging for you to play live? Were you able to follow the never-ending jams like “Silverfuck”?
The challenge to “Silverfuck” was not so much technical, not that it wasn’t technically demanding, but more being able to ride the improvisational wave night after night. There was a loose blue print, but it was never the same arrangement two nights in a row. So getting into a head space where I’d be able to ebb and flow in tandem with the other band members was the challenge. Reaching the peaks at the same time, knowing when to break it down, etc. These are the mechanics of a language that a band learns over years, and I had to learn their language in a matter of weeks. I think all my experience playing with different bands in the club scene helped immensely, as it gave me the confidence to take risks at such a high level of performance. Truth be told, it takes guts to go out and wing a 25-plus minute epic improvisational jam in front of 20,000 people. From a technical point of view, “Jellybelly” was definitely the hardest song to play live. I think I only had to attempt it twice, and it did make me feel better when Jimmy told me later he only nailed it one time, and that is the take that is on the record!
[SPfreaks: more YouTube footage of Matt on stage with Smashing Pumpkins is to be found here.]
At some point you stopped drumming with the Smashing Pumpkins and passed the sticks to Kenny Aronoff. We know that it had to do with recording the first album of your band, Cupcakes. The last known gig you played with the Smashing Pumpkins during this period was December 5th, 1997, in the Orange Bowl, Miami (FL). Then, Kenny played the whole of 1998 with the Smashing Pumpkins and was replaced by Jimmy Chamberlin in early 1999. How did the transition between you and Kenny go? Did you leave the Smashing Pumpkins with a satisfied feeling, a broken heart, or were you just exhausted from the intense touring and recording during 1996 – 1997?
It was a bit of everything. It was such a whirlwind and much of it was great, but about half way through the Adore session all the darkness seemed to catch up to us. Billy and I were at odds and it just seemed to make sense for me to turn my focus to Cupcakes who were already signed to Dreamworks. I was just waiting for my schedule to free up so we could record our debut. I fell out of touch for a short time with Billy, but I remember running into him in NYC not too long after the split, and he was excitedly telling me that Kenny was coming into the fold. Kenny is an iconic drummer, and although some fans questioned the choice stylistically, it was a perfect example of Billy not being afraid to change things up, take some chances, and see what might come of it.
Obviously, December 5th, 1997, was not the last time you played live with Smashing Pumpkins. You joined them again at their then-final show on December 2nd, 2000, when you played percussion on an alternate version of the song “Muzzle”, and drums on “1979”. Meanwhile, Jimmy played acoustic guitar! You once again joined the Smashing Pumpkins on percussion during the Chicago dates of their 20th Anniversary Tour in November and December, 2008. And not to be forgotten, you also performed with the Smashing Pumpkins at a benefit concert at the Metro in Chicago, in July, 2010, for an encore of “1979”. It would seem to follow, there is a firm connection between you and the band since 1996. What exactly makes you feel so comfortable with the Smashing Pumpkins, and how would you describe the bond?
The bond is really my friendship with Billy. After I left Smashing Pumpkins, we became closer and closer as friends. The musical collaborations since have been an extension of that bond. We have also worked on numerous projects together- both Smashing Pumpkins-related and others. We share many of the same tastes in music, and even have a similar family background (growing up near Chicago), and both of our fathers are musicians. We relate on many levels. I think he and I will be making music together for years to come.
Billy Corgan’s tweet, June, 2010
There is indeed a long list of collaborations between you and Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins. In the previous article we dedicated to you, it was mentioned that you were involved with several tracks on the Adore album, “The End Is the Beginning Is the End” from the Batman and Robin movie, the Ransom soundtrack, James Iha’s solo album, Let It Come Down, and Billy Corgan’s solo album, TheFutureEmbrace. Is this list complete? Did we forget anything in relation to your contributions to members of the Smashing Pumpkins?
I think that is complete, although there very well could be something I am forgetting about! Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that I have nearly finished an extensive documentary on Billy’s Chicago songs. And when I say documentary I do mean the film side. Those sessions were all filmed, and I spent a few months going through the footage and editing it all together. I was somewhat surprised at how well it came out; it really shows the intensity and relentlessness of Billy’s composing and recording process. It’s a cool project because with all the footage available to me, I was able to trace the journey of each song from beginning to end. I am not sure when the documentary will be finished and released, but probably within the next year or two.
Thanks for sharing this update on a much-rumored-about future Billy Corgan release. We also noticed you have been involved with the reissue series of the Smashing Pumpkins albums from the 1991 – 2000 era. On January 14th, 2014, you tweeted, “Working on Adore reissue – songs I don’t even remember tracking – dark and beautiful”. In what way were you involved with the Adore reissue, and what can you share about that process?
I remixed a handful of songs. But not remixing like turning them into extended electronic versions – more a reimagined arrangement of the song. For instance, I would look for elements that were either not used or buried in the album version and build a new picture from them. From there some of the basic arrangements changed as well. I also got to finish a version of Gary Numan’s ”Every Day I Die” which I had actually tracked drums on. There wasn’t too much there so I got to add most of the synths. Being a massive Numan fan, that track was a blast to work on.
TheFutureEmbrace Tour 2005
Are there any specific takes you remember, which are not scheduled for release on the Adore reissue, that should definitely appear on a future Smashing Pumpkins’ release?
Billy wrote a great song called ”Signal to Noise” which was never released by Smashing Pumpkins. He let one of my previous bands, theMDR, record the song as part of a Spin tribute to Smashing Pumpkins. I’d like to work that up with Billy as a proper Smashing Pumpkins release – maybe one day! Also, there were many other songs written for TheFutureEmbrace which were really cool. I hope they see the light of day as well.
In November, 2013, you announced you would be, “drumming again for Morrissey, beginning with a performance at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway”. How have things progressed since then?
I’m very happy to be playing with Morrissey once again. We recorded the new record, World Peace is None of Your Business, at studio La Fabrique in the south of France in early 2014. Joe Chiccarelli produced it. We then toured the States in May and June and will hopefully continue to tour later this year.
What else are you currently up to, Matt? There is always so much going on around you!
I indeed have several projects in the works. My solo endeavor is called of1000faces, and I am working on two releases. This will be the first mention I make of this first one. I’m collaborating with my good friend and ex-Filter bandmate, Brian Liesegang, on this first project, which is heavily influenced by the krautrock movement of the 70s. I started writing the songs while in France recording with Morrissey, and once back in the States I asked Brian to lend his talents to the production. From there it has blossomed into a full-blown collaboration. Although the material is largely instrumental, the record will feature numerous guests on vocals and various instruments. I also have a new band called Stuttgart with my longtime friend and musical collaborator, vocalist Preston Graves. We have released one EP and we are close to finishing the second. Lastly, I am nearing completion of Chris Connelly’s next solo record, which I am producing – and of course drumming on!
Are there any other artists or bands you would like to work with in the future? Can you tell us why?
Well David Bowie would be one! But that’s not going to happen, so I started a Bowie tribute band called Sons of the Silent Age with Chris Connelly and occasional guest member, Shirley Manson, of Garbage. Speaking of which, I loved playing with Garbage! I have filled in for Butch [Vig] a few times and they are an incredible band. I hope I get to play with them again someday. I am also looking forward to doing more collaborations with of1000faces, so we will see where that leads. And who knows who might be involved…
Thanks again to Matt Walker for spending some precious time with us. It is truly appreciated! Matt will be in action again very soon. Alongside others, Matt will be joining Billy Corgan on August 30th, 2014, for his special* performance at the Chicago-based Ravinia Festival.
*“Clue #1 is the show is being broken into 5 small acts, with hopefully a different emotional result in each; and in which the centerpiece is a 9-song ‘Mellon Collie Suite’ which celebrates the 20-year anniversary of that album’s writing.” – Billy Corgan.