Q & A With Top Session Drummer Matt Laug
His career took off after playing on Alanis Morissette’s iconic debut album Jagged Little Pill. From that point on, Matt Laug has been the session drummer of choice for some of the biggest names in the music business (Alice Cooper, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Christina Aguilera , to name a few). Matt also has a ton of live experience, from extensive touring with Slash’s Snakepit, to working with Italy’s top rocker Vassco Rossi. But aside from all his experience, Matt is a rock and roll drummer deeply committed to his craft, with a mission to become the “perfect song drummer”. He is also a really forward thinking guy, and one of the pioneers of this emerging online session trend. So naturally we were thrilled to catch up with him, and also let our members know about this amazing opportunity to work with a world class rock drummer, in a top recording studio, recorded by Grammy Award winning engineer Tom Weir.
To book a session with Matt, you can find his AirGigs service here: Drum Tracks With Top LA Session Drummer & Grammy Winning Engineer:
Can you give us bird’s eye view of your journey from aspiring musician, to sought after live / session drummer?
Well. I’ll try to give the condensed version to keep from boring everybody to death.
I received my first drum kit for Christmas when I was seven years old. I taught myself by playing along to records of my favorite bands at the time: Kiss, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Rush, Boston, Queen etc. I also took lessons from a couple of different teachers in my hometown of Florence, South Carolina. One of them being Mark Herndon who had to stop giving me lessons to join a then unknown country band named Alabama.
When I was 16 years old a friend of mine in high school told me about The Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. Two weeks after graduating high school I moved to Los Angeles to attend the school. After graduating I taught there for about five years. Then I decided I needed to focus solely on being a player so I quit my teaching gig. I made my living by playing clubs 4 to 5 nights a week making $75 to $100 a night. At the same time I had friends that were up and coming jingle writers, and songwriters that needed drum tracks for their music. Those sessions were my first experiences recording in the studio. It was my goal to play with as many different people as possible. It paid off because eventually my friends started referring me for more session work. One of my closesr friends (bassist Lance Morrison) referred me to record producer Glen Ballard when both Glen and Lance were working with an unknown artist named Alanis Morissette. My “lucky break” moment was when I played on her record Jagged Little Pill. Luckily my name was credited on the album. About a year after the release of Jagged Little Pill I started receiving more calls for higher profile sessions and live gigs.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
John Bonham, Phil Rudd, Peter Criss, Steve Gadd, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Steve Ferrone, Dave Holland, and everybody else. :o)
Is it accurate to label you as a “rock drummer”?
Most definitely! I also like to think of myself as being able to play anything that has a backbeat: country, funk, rock, ballads, etc.
Can you tell us a bit more about your time playing drums with Slash’s Snakepit and Italy’s biggest rock star Vasco Rossi?
I first met Slash at the world famous Baked Potato jazz club in Studio City, California. It was way back in 1997 when I was hanging out at the club watching my friends play. Teddy Andreadis was the keyboardist/bandleader that hosted a sit in Blues jam every Tuesday night. Teddy toured with Guns N’ Roses back in 1990 – 1991 so Slash would show up to sit in with the band every once in a while. I knew the house drummer Dave Raven who asked me if I would like to sit in. Slash happened to be there that same night and got up to play with us a couple of songs later. From that little jam session Slash ask me to join his cover tune band he had at the time called Slash’s Blues Ball. Blues Ball would headline clubs around the US and occasionally open for people like Sammy Hagar and Cheap Trick. It was a fun band but Slash decided to get serious about forming another band and record an album. That’s when he asked me to join his group Slash’s Snakepit.
The band lineup was Slash, Rod Jackson on vocals, Johnny Griparic on bass, Ryan Roxie on guitars, and myself on drums. We all cowrote and recorded the record Ain’t Life Grand produced by legendary record producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, John Lennon). After recording the record we got the opportunity to open for AC/DC on their Stiff Upper Lip tour back in 2000. Those two months opening for AC/DC were the highlight not only for the band’s life but for my own personal life as well.
In 2001 I made the decision to leave Slash’s Snakepit to focus more on my in town session work.
In 2007 I was asked to tour with Italy’s biggest rockstar Vasco Rossi. I toured and recorded multiple records for Vasco from 2007 to 2013. Playing with Vasco was an absolute joy. We would perform to sold out soccer stadiums four nights a week. It was also 2 to 4 months living in Italy every summer. Best live gig I’ve ever had!!!
Do you like the variety of doing both live and doing studio sessions? Or, if given a preference, would you do one exclusively?
I wouldn’t want to do just one exclusively. I think you need to do both in order to become a well-rounded player. I love both but I prefer doing sessions over live performances.
Playing the same set list live night after night can get a little boring. Don’t get me wrong. I play my very best no matter how many times I have to play a song. I also record all of my live gigs with a little digital recorder. It prevents me from getting lazy. In the back of my mind there’s always some kind of 2 inch machine or ProTools rig running no matter what kind of live gig I’m doing.
Recording sessions are always challenging and inspiring. No two sessions are the same which is why I love it so much. I love the feeling I get after hearing a song for the first time as I’m making my chart. It takes me about three times to listen to a song before I’m ready to sit behind the kit to record. The first rundown, I get the arrangement. The second rundown, I check to see if I wrote the arrangement down correctly. The last rundown, I add what groove I think the song should have, all the figures I need to accent, all the notes the composer or producer wants me to pay attention to, as well as the dynamic of each section. Then the fun starts by trying to capture the best feeling performance. A recorded performance can last forever so you better get it right before walking away. I love that challenge!
What makes a good session drummer / musician?
I’m sure you would get different answers from different players but I can only tell you what has worked for me so far. Here are my top 4:
1. Reading is very important.
A session player that knows how to read will be able to get the job done quicker. This is very important considering the person that hired you is probably paying an hourly fee for the studio or has a deadline to meet. Usually I will make my own chart at the session.
2. Being able to lock with a click or drum loop.
99.999999999% of the sessions I do are with some sort of click track. I’ve also played on a lot of sessions when the composer or producer would like me to play along with a drum loop in sections or throughout the song. Being able to play along with a drum loop without flaming is the goal. (Depending on how good the loop feels determines how easy it is to play to.)
3. Being able to tune your drums.
When the budget allows I use a studio drum tech to set up and tune my drums an hour before downbeat. Other times I walk into a studio where they have a house drum kit mic-ed and ready to go……but you still need to fine tune the kit. There’s no telling who played the kit before you. The session before you could have been a jazz standard with the drums tuned high but the song you are hired to play on is a rock song. You need to know how to tune drums to fit the style of the song you were hired to play on.
4. Knowing which “tools” to bring.
Before the day of the session I like to talk with the producer or composer to find out which direction and or style they want the music to go. When possible I ask for an mp3 of the song(s). That’s when I determine which cymbals or how many toms or which size kick drum or which snare drum I would like to use. When there is room in the budget for cartage (instrument delivery service/teaching) I have my guys bring something like seven different snare drums, a flight case full of about 40 different cymbals, my hand percussion case, and the rest of the drum kit.
If I’m using a studio’s house kit I like to bring 2 different size snare drums, my kick drum pedal, a bag of about four or five cymbals, a small case of hand percussion, and of course my sticks. As I mentioned many times before talking with the composer or producer about what style or direction they would like the drum track to sound like determines which “tools” I bring.
For online drum sessions, you’ve teamed up with Grammy award winning mixing engineer Tom Weir (Eric Clapton, No Doubt, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards…) of Studio City Sound. Can you tell us a bit about your work history together, the studio, etc?
I met Tom Weir 20 years a go on a session. Since then we’ve worked together on hundreds of songs. Tom comes from a very musical family. His eight brothers and sisters had a band in the 70s called The Weirz. Tom was the drummer and at some point took an interest in sound engineering. I love working with Tom for a number of reasons but mainly because he is so much fun to be around. Also he is incredibly fast at getting drum tones and working on ProTools or 2″ tape. We work very well together. 99% of the time I never have to tell him which tones I’m trying to go for. He just instinctively knows because he’s a drummer too. To check out Tom’s vast collection of killer recording gear please visit www.studiocitysound.com
When a songwriter hires you for a online session, how does the process typically work?
The 1st thing that I’m asked is how much I charge. In order for me to quote a price I ask all potential clients to send me an MP3 of all the material they would like me to track drums on. After listening to the material I determine how long the session will take and give the client a quote. Of course here on AirGigs, I have created a fixed price service ( 1 song under 4:30 for $551) to simplify the process and attract new clients.
Tom and I offer LIVE online streaming sessions in HD with Ustream at no extra charge. This allows the client to watch and listen in HD quality LIVE online no matter where they are around the world as Tom and I work on their session in real time. The client is able to communicate and produce the session via Ustream’s chat function. Tom and I are able to communicate through talkback microphones as well as the Ustream chat function. We can also use Internet cell phone services like Viber.
When I confirm that the client has purchased my service (i.e. when I see it in my AirGigs account) we will then book a session time and a date that works best for everyone involved.
Next I like to communicate with the client days before the session to find out exactly what direction they would like me to take when tracking their songs. This includes what type drum tones they would like and all references from different bands and or drummers. (i.e. “Go for a Ringo vibe on this song.” or “I want this song to feel like U2.”). This gives me a really good idea of which direction to take. Any other minor changes can be done during the session.
Then I make my chart at home to keep from wasting any time in the studio. On the day of the session I show up one hour before downbeat to work on drum tones while the studio staff sets up all the HD cameras when we perform a Ustream session.
At the completion of the session Tom and I will send an mp3 of my newly tracked performance(s) to the client for final approval along with my Session Release Form. Once we have the client’s final approval we ask that the client complete and sign the release form. By signing the release form the client agrees that no further revisions are needed by myself or Tom. Once the client has uploaded a signed copy of the Session Release form to the AirGigs order page, we begin the file transfer process of the newly tracked session files to be returned to the clients inbox of choice.
How can a client best prepare themselves to have a great online session with you?
Clients can submit reference mp3s or a YouTube link of an artist or band that they think will help me with the direction they would like me to take. Receiving mp3s ahead of time also allows me to make my own charts.
The recording industry has obviously undergone some massive changes over the last 15-20 years. How have these changes impacted the work you do, both positively and / or negatively?
Yeah! You’re right about that!
Sessions aren’t what they used to be 10 to 15 years ago. I was doing a lot more union dates back then. When a session is filed at The Musicians Union you’re guaranteed to receive a royalty payment anytime your performance is reused. For example. If you were to perform on a record that was filed as a union date and one of the songs you performed on ends up in a movie, you would receive a reuse payment from The Musician’s Union. These days session performers are paid as a buyout. A buyout is a one time payment to the session player with no future royalties due no matter how or where your performance is used in the future.
Also. Recording budgets have shrunk so much that it’s not only affected the income of live players but also the quality of work that composers end up with because they don’t have the money to pay session musicians. I hear it all the time when a composer tells me how having a real drummer on a track instead of drum loops brings a song to life. It’s true. All you have to do is compare the two. There is no comparison. Drum loops and synthesized instruments will never replace the soul and dynamics of having live musicians on your track.
The positive thing that has come out of all of this is that it has inspired me to start performing online sessions. I have definitely made money that I would never have seen had I not started doing my online sessions. I really enjoy it! Thankfully there is still a need for live players in the recording session world.
Aside from studio and live gigs, do you do anything else like teach drums, etc?
I haven’t taught drums since the early 90s at Musicians Institute. I’m too busy trying to teach myself!
Often the lessons & insights gained from growing as an musician / artist become life lessons. Assuming you agree, can you share any key lessons or insights taken from your work, that have informed your life as a whole?
Some people refer to it as “the game changer.” My game changing moment happened when I was 22 years old. I went to see my guitar player friend Pat Thomi play a club gig with drummer Curt Bisquera. Curt is an amazing Los Angeles-based session drummer that has recorded with Mick Jagger, Elton John, Seal and many more. At the time I was really into Dave Weckl and that style of drumming even though I was just a rock drummer.
There’s the saying “just play the song”. That night listening to Curt play, I felt the meaning of that like a ton of bricks. There was nothing flashy or technically over-the-top about his playing but his groove and the way he made the music feel, moved me. I remember telling myself on the drive home “I’m doing it all wrong.”
After that night I totally change my approach to drumming. I told myself that I would go the opposite direction of flashy technique and chops and instead be the perfect song drummer. It’s still a work in progress but I’m so happy that I experienced “the game changer” at such a young age.
And here’s one just for fun…If you could assemble the ultimate band (live or dead). who’d make the cut?
What a great question! Wouldn’t it be cool if today we could get all four Beatles back together again in their late 20s??? :o)