I Didn’t Even Bring My Drums to Bennington: An Interview With Matt Weston

I never really know where an interview will lead, but it all starts with a curiosity about an artist’s journey and practice. Matt Weston’s double album, Four Lies in the Eavesdrop Business, opened my ears to this expansive, percussive sound world, unlike anything I’d previously heard (though he reminded me that I wrote about an old project of his in 2004! I don’t remember this at all, sadly). His recently – completed Sparky project – a serialized opera for percussion ensemble and electronics – pushed that sonic universe even further. I kept imagining pathways that led him to these places, so an interview was long overdue. Weston has taken one hell of a route from early beginnings on different instruments to study with Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, and Arthur Brooks at Bennington College. 

Weston is readying the follow-up double LP to Four Lies in the Eavesdrop BusinessEmbrace This Twilight, which will be released this summer. Four Lies, the Sparky series, and much more can be found at Weston’s Bandcamp.

He continues to perform throughout the northeast solo and with the Arthur Brooks Ensemble V. 

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I always like to go all the way back to the beginning to start interviews. With that, can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you? 

The first music I remember hearing was either The Beatles’ Second Album or The Count Basie Trio’s For The First Time. When I was about three years old, I would sit in a rocking chair and listen to those two records over and over. Ultimately, both records have informed and influenced everything I’ve done since. 

Did you always want to be a musician?

I think so, but I didn’t really realize it or pursue it as such until I was maybe eight or nine years old. Before that, I really wanted to be a cartoonist. I drew hundreds of cartoons, read newspaper cartoons obsessively, and wrote to a couple of cartoonists. I sent a few of my cartoons to Mort Walker (of Beetle Bailey fame) and got a reply, which was thrilling. But I remember encountering another cartoon fanatic in third grade whose abilities were so far beyond my own that, no matter how much I tried to emulate them or employ their methods, I couldn’t escape the realization that my drawing sucked. Fortunately, though, the end of my cartooning aspirations coincided – literally in the same month – with starting to play drums. 

What first prompted you to start playing the drums? And from that point, when did your practice and approach really begin expanding into the spaces you occupy now? 

I played violin a little when I was 5 and started piano lessons when I was six. I don’t really recall what drew me to the drums, but when I was eight, I started playing air drums along to Beatles records for hours at a time and started banging on lids and pillows with Tinkertoys. My parents signed me up for drum lessons, and while I wasn’t super enthusiastic about initially only having just a single practice pad to work with, I stuck with it, mainly for the opportunities during my weekly lessons to play on a full drum kit. I felt vastly more at home on drums than with violin or piano and rarely experienced the frustrations I had with those instruments (or, more accurately, how I was taught on those instruments). In fact, apart from things like drum rudiments and other snare drum exercises, there was a strong emphasis on playing by ear, something my piano teacher seemed to actively discourage. For instance, my drum teacher would say, “This is a standard rock beat,” or, “This is a bossa nova beat,” he’d play it, and then I’d play it from listening to him. 

I used to play along to records all the time, and the first one I attempted to play with was Rush’s Exit…Stage Left, which had just come out. But trying to play along to Rush, with Neil Peart’s massive setup and fearsome technical facility, on a kit comprised only of a hi-hat, snare, and bass drum, when I’m barely able to play a double-stroke roll, presented more than a few challenges. I don’t really consider myself a Rush fan today, but being thrown into the deep end like that was, in retrospect, weirdly ideal. 

After I’d been playing for about two years, when I was 10, my drum teacher asked if there was a particular drum part I wanted to learn; I’d bring in a tape, he’d listen, transcribe the part, and teach it to me that way. So, because I was (and still am) a Who fanatic, I brought in a tape of “Pinball Wizard,” unable to unravel the dense, baffling genius of its drum part on my own. My teacher listened to it and said, “This cannot be transcribed.” He didn’t even attempt to play it himself for demonstration purposes. Now, technically speaking, it probably can be transcribed, but the point he was making was more, “If I transcribe this – which would be immensely difficult anyway – learning from the written transcription would run counter to why and how this part works in this song.” Even today, some 40 years later, and having heard the isolated drum part many times, there are points where I still can’t figure out what Keith Moon is doing. 

My practicing pretty much revolved around playing along to records. Between the ages of 11 and 18, I played along to records by Duran Duran, the Replacements, Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix, the MC5, the Jam, XTC, the Clash, and a bunch of others. I never thought of it or approached it as practicing: I just wanted to play drums in a band, so I did the next best thing. Getting into the MC5, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Velvet Underground when I was 12 was the perfect gateway to things I would explore later, especially Sonic Youth and Public Enemy. 

Around this time – high school – I played bass guitar in a bunch of bands (several of which included current Fenway Park organist Josh Kantor) and started one of my own, where I wrote the songs and sang. I also wrote and recorded about 40 songs on a 4-track. I started playing bass when I was 12 and guitar when I was 13, and I knew how I wanted my songs to sound, so I just recorded everything myself. I knew what I wanted to do musically, and I knew that did not in any way involve the way music is taught in high schools and universities, with the concert band and symphony orchestra and “jazz band,” and the emphasis on Western written notation. My experiences with those ensembles in high school were mostly alienating and seemed irrelevant to everything I loved about music. So I eschewed the idea of the conservatory or music school (although I did audition for one school’s music department and was accepted, but the practicing and audition process was so profoundly irritating, and so monumentally removed from anything I wanted to do musically, that I decided not to attend that school). 

I didn’t know much about what Bennington College’s music situation was like. I visited the campus when I was in high school and sat in on a composition class where the students wrote pieces that were neither heard nor played. That is, Western written notation was paramount, and the actual music itself – the sound, the performance – was treated as an afterthought. That didn’t interest me, but I ended up going to Bennington anyway, after a gap year spent working a day job and trying and failing to get gigs for my band. During that gap year, I got heavily into Stevie Wonder, the Stooges, Aretha Franklin, and Pere Ubu, among others. Two records really stuck out – the Stooges’ Fun House and Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing. I was so taken with those records, at least in part because they were doing things that weren’t supposed to be done, if that makes any sense. They reminded me of The Who, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and Jimi Hendrix. I knew they were pointing me in a certain direction, that they were leading me somewhere, but I didn’t know where that was. That said, because I was mostly focused on songwriting and playing guitar, I didn’t even bring my drums to Bennington for my freshman year. 

You studied under the late, great Bill Dixon. What was that experience like? 

I didn’t know who Bill Dixon, Arthur Brooks, or Milford Graves were before attending Bennington. One of my first classes at Bennington was called The Influence Of Music, taught by Milford Graves. He basically held court for 90 minutes or whatever it was, talking about his own career, his contemporaries, and other topics like how certain frequencies can knock the earth off its axis. He often spoke about how the music of the 1960s was dismissed as “noise” by critics. I had no idea what music he was talking about, but I knew that’s what some people were saying about Sonic Youth and Public Enemy. He mentioned John Coltrane a lot, whom I had at least heard a little bit. I picked out a Coltrane record at random ( Coltrane “Live” At The Village Vanguard) from the school’s Black Music Library, taped it, and ended up listening to it obsessively for the next couple of months. On October 16, 1991, Milford performed on campus as part of a quartet with Charles Gayle, Hugh Glover, and William Parker. That was it. In that moment, I decided that this was what I would do for the rest of my life. It was an utterly overwhelming experience; everything I’d ever listened to and played led up to that moment. It couldn’t have been scripted better. I immediately started connecting all the dots: the Stooges and Pere Ubu prepared me for this, Sonic Youth and Public Enemy prepared me for this, the Velvets, Hendrix, Who, and MC5 prepared me for this (I remembered the Albert Ayler and Sun Ra mentions in the liner notes to an MC5 tape). I threw myself back into drumming, borrowing a kit from another student, tremendously excited at what this was all leading to. 

Everyone who took Introduction To Music at Bennington had to take an Improvisation component. I remember on the first day of class, Bill walked in – I think immediately after a heated faculty meeting – and wrote on the chalkboard: 

1) Composition

2) Improvisation

He said to the class, “See that? One always comes before two.” He was deeply frustrated at this utterly arbitrary hierarchy, and his frustration really resonated with me. My initial classes with him had us playing (or attempting to play) standards. It was fascinating, and a relief, to experience improvisation being taught with the same importance and rigor as Western written notation. Some of his other exercises in the Intro class had him playing the piano and asking us to sing what he was playing. Sometimes he’d ask us to play something and to sing what we had just played, both as soloists and in a group. 

The following term’s Improvisation class was taught by trumpeter-composer Arthur Brooks. I remember after one class’s attempt at playing “Autumn Leaves,” Arthur said to us, “Okay. It sounds like you’re trying to play Jazz. Stop playing Jazz.” That blew my mind, and I’ve carried it with me, as a listener and musician, ever since. Around this time, I started getting heavily into Albert Ayler and late-period Coltrane. I listened to their records constantly and started making my own attempts at an approach to the music, also informed by the mindbending polyrhythms and tonal concepts Milford Graves was teaching me. 

Starting in my sophomore year, I was in Bill Dixon’s Ensemble III class, and I remember the first class vividly. I felt lost and unsure of what to do. The signposts I’d learned through listening to Ayler, Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor were nowhere to be found. Then the saxophonist went into a high-velocity/high-volume run, and I thought, “Aha! I know what to do here!” and proceeded to imitate Rashied Ali’s playing on Interstellar Space. After that wound down, Bill said, “Okay. That’s one approach. And that’s fine. But we already did that in the ’60s, and you don’t have to do that anymore .” It was as liberating as it was challenging to hear that. It reminded me of what Arthur had said the previous year; Bill may as well have been saying, “It sounds like you’re trying to play Free Jazz. Stop playing Free Jazz.” 

Sometimes he would say to a student – or a clutch of three or four students – “Okay. Play something,” with no further direction. He’d then talk about what was played or, if it wasn’t particularly successful, he’d say, “Now, did that sound good to you?” He used to say that if a herd of buffalo came into a room, he could make an ensemble out of them, and I have no reason not to believe that. The musicians in his Ensembles were all over the place in terms of skill levels. Some musicians were deeply familiar with the music alongside musicians who’d picked up an instrument for the first time the month before, and the way Bill was able to orchestrate, you’d never guess who was who. He constantly challenged us to get out of our comfort zones, and nothing was off the table. I remember one piece he’d put together for a concert by someone in the Ensemble. There were two points in the piece where I was to play rapid figures across the kit. But after a few rehearsals, Bill said, “For the second time, don’t actually hit anything, but use the same movements.” So I essentially mimed playing, and it was kind of incredible the way Bill noticed the movements and how he saw that the visual aspect could bolster the composition. 

He would say things to me in class like, “Play something. Nothing percussive.” Or he’d encourage me to rearrange the positioning of my kit so that I didn’t know what I was going to hit. He would tell the class, “Play for three minutes” or “Play for thirty seconds.” These were invaluable exercises in terms of learning about phrasing and how to orchestrate, but also to avoid the easy trap of trying to cram everything you know into thirty seconds. A few years later, when I was in Barn Owl (with Andy Crespo and Chris Cooper), we’d reached a point after our first year together where our sets started meandering. So one day during practice, I suggested we try the “play for thirty seconds” exercise. It worked unbelievably well, and we kind of found ourselves through those exercises. 

Bill once said to me, “I don’t understand you drummers. Me, I’m stuck with the trumpet: I can’t change the tubing or rearrange the valves or anything like that. But you drummers, you can have anything you want in front of you, absolutely anything…and you all have the same thing.” At the time, I was using a standard 5-piece drum kit, and I immediately set about the gradual replacement of each element of the kit. Do I really want a snare drum? Do I like the sound of the hi-hat? Does this drum have to be positioned there? Milford Graves was also an inspiration in that area, with his employment of many non-standard percussion implements. Bill used to say to me, “Your sound is in the lower tones.” I wasn’t so sure; at the time, I was really getting into percussionists like Paul Lovens, and I liked that kind of crisply-phrased quality to his playing. But I soon realized that approach was a dead-end for me and also a kind of gateway to facility-for-its-own-sake hackery (to say nothing of the “no, you hang up!” Free Improv phrasing it engendered; though, to be fair, Lovens is no more to blame for that than Otis Rush is to blame for Joe Bonamassa). 

When I arrived at class one night (Ensemble III classes were held Thursday and Friday nights), Bill kicked everyone out except me and said, “Let’s play duos.” He instructed me to “play like Rashied Ali, but only on the low toms.” In addition to being a challenge, it reinforced what he’d been saying about my sound, and he encouraged me to employ tympani. I hijacked the school’s tympani once or twice that year (playing them with sticks, strictly against orchestral percussion protocol), and so many possibilities opened up. 

Around this time – again, sophomore year – I took a Cecil Taylor tutorial with Bill. He was preparing materials for a book he was writing on Cecil and held an informal tutorial on Saturdays for interested students. One class was taught by the historian Ben Young, focusing on Cecil’s work with percussionists. Ben played excerpts from the percussion duos from Cecil’s 1988 Berlin residency, and in the space of maybe four hours, I heard for the first time Paul Lovens, Han Bennink, Louis Moholo, Gunter Sommer, and Tony Oxley. That was another massive door-opening situation in terms of the different approaches to phrasing and orchestration. At the end of class, a student said to Bill, “Ugh, that Tony Oxley! So loud and cluttered!” Bill said, “Let me tell you something: Cecil likes Tony. In fact, I’d like to record with Tony myself.” A year later, I arrived on campus for my junior year and went to Bill’s office to say hi. As soon as I poked my head in the door, he said, “Guess who I recorded with!” He’d made the epochal Vade Mecum records that summer and was incredibly excited about having worked with Oxley. 

During my senior year, he showed the Ensemble III class video of the only public performance of that group. Towards the end, he said to me, “Watch what Tony does here.” Tony dangled some small chains over his kit, slowly letting them cascade around his various implements. The next day, I went to a hardware store and bought some chains. 

He was always extremely encouraging and (even though he hated this word) supportive. I’ve never had a teacher who was so in tune with their student’s abilities and strengths and weaknesses and who was able to turn their weaknesses into strengths, if that makes any sense. He also didn’t interfere with certain directions a student might be headed in. That is, my approach at the time was very jerky and jagged, which wasn’t Bill’s particular cup of tea, but he encouraged me along those lines anyway. During my final term at Bennington, Bill and I played duos once a week for about an hour or so. Initially, I used my regular kit – though by now, I’d replaced my snare drum with two rototoms, added an 18″ rototom, and employed several non-standard bells and cymbals. During our first session, after about five minutes, it was like a switch had been flipped: all of a sudden, my movement changed instantly, dramatically, and permanently. I now had a more flowing motion to my playing but still maintained some of the jaggedness that was part of my phrasing. I’ve read musicians talk about how Tony Oxley and Keith Moon didn’t move left-to-right across the kit, but through the kit, moving as if they were skiers; that was similar to this new motion I was now using. And that was one of the great things about playing and studying with Bill: he could suggest or imply on the trumpet certain things he wanted other musicians to do without overtly stating it or otherwise being obvious about it. It was the force of his phrasing and the sharpness of his focus (to say nothing of the overwhelmingly beautiful sound he had on the trumpet) that had a direct and immediate impact on the way I approach the instrument. 

Before getting into some of your recent work, I wanted to ask about collaboration really quick. First, can you talk briefly about how important collaborating is to you and how working with all these great musicians help push and inspire your work? 

You always get a new perspective on your own approach with every collaboration, regardless of the success of that collaboration. I’ve played in situations where I wondered to myself, “What’s the point of this? This is the usual Free Improv stuff I’ve been trying to avoid,” only to stumble on that one little section – maybe a minute or a few seconds – where I learned something new about phrasing and orchestration. My current collaborations are mostly with Arthur Brooks and his Ensemble V, which has been ongoing since 1993. Every single time we play together, it’s opened me up to new possibilities and forced me to confront my own clichés. It’s as ideal a situation as I could possibly hope for. I’m also collaborating regularly with this fantastic percussionist-composer named Paige Draiss. They started out as a student of mine, but I always feel that I’m learning from them when we play. 

Okay, so if I remember correctly, our paths first crossed when your Four Lies In The Eavesdrop Business record came out (still one of my favorite album titles in recent years). I return to that one semi-regularly because I keep hearing new sounds and ideas each time. It’s remarkable. When did the ideas for this record first start coming together, and how did you approach these pieces to create something so massive and grandiose? Did you always intend it to be a double album, or did that just sort of happen? 

Actually, funnily enough, our paths first crossed when you very kindly wrote a positive review of My Very Second Barn Owl EP, a 3″ CD-R on Imvated in 2004.

With Four Lies, I don’t think I purposely set out to make a double record. Still, as I started recording and other ideas and possibilities presented themselves, it became clear that a double album was the only way to present these songs. I started these recordings in mid-2019, and the first idea I had for the record came from a close listen to the drum track on a Prince song. Then I wondered what multiple overdubs would sound like using that approach, and it dovetailed with some site-specific (although, ultimately, all music is site-specific) synthesizer exercises I’d been working on, and then I got an idea for string glissandi from an Angel Olsen song. On another song, the initial inspiration was to attempt an exaggerated version of the electric bass opening on Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire.” I rarely know what a song will sound like before it’s finished. Each step in the recording process informs (and, in the best-case scenario, inspires) the next. It can be kind of arduous, as I’ve literally spent weeks recording certain things that may only appear in a song for five seconds. But it’s important to keep the momentum happening – recording something every day – in order to maintain focus on the big picture. 

Something that always gets me when I listen to your work is that many emotional tendrils are woven into it, and I think the Sparky series captures that in such a disarming, visceral way. In the description, you talk about how this music tries to “explore multiple angles of mental health struggles as they develop over time in varying circumstances.” How are music and your creative practices useful as ways to explore and process these kinds of thoughts and emotions? 

For me, the creative practice is the exploration of those things, and vice-versa, and it’s rarely (if ever) consciously approached as such. The description is in retrospect: after I recorded Sparky, I realized that’s what I was doing. Prior to the composition/recording, I didn’t have anything in mind in terms of themes or ideas I wanted to explore. It’s like how Derek Bailey used to take a nap until just before he went on stage: he wanted his mind clear of anything that might be a distraction. 

How does embedding these narratives in your work become a way of connecting with the world? 

I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure that they do. If any connecting happens, it’s by accident – there might be some kind of response here or there, or I’ll experience something that informs something I’m working on or will be working on later, but those connections aren’t something I’m conscious or aware of during the actual composition/recording process. 

Speaking of Sparky, you’ve just finished the series. Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for this serialized percussive opera began? 

I initially set out to record some solo percussion compositions in lieu of a tour that had been canceled due to the pandemic. The first installment felt like a substitute for a performance. Still, that feeling vanished with subsequent installments, and it wasn’t until I listened to the whole thing (which was composed/recorded over maybe 3-4 days) that I realized what it was about and that it was, in fact, an opera. 

Now that you’ve finished it, what surprised you most about Sparky?

Probably how the themes and how they developed revealed themselves after the fact, how each installment informed the next, and how the narrative adjusted itself accordingly. 

And what were some of the biggest challenges with it?

Definitely, the biggest challenge was not being too self-conscious about it. As soon as I realized there was a larger narrative of some kind happening, I tried to shut that out – I didn’t want to be distracted by thoughts of what it might be, as that would get in the way of what it was becoming on its own.

Lastly, since it’s January, I have to ask what some of 2022’s highlights or at least most lasting memories are? And what are you looking forward to this coming year? 

The performances with the Arthur Brooks Ensemble V were absolutely the highlight of 2022 for me, and we hope to be doing more in 2023. I also finished another double LP in 2022 which should be out in the summer – it’s very much along similar lines as Four Lies. And I’m about 2/3rds done with another LP which will hopefully be out by the end of the year.

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