An Interview with Matt Starr of the Ace Frehley Band & Black Swan

There have been a great many drummers who have brought the proverbial thunder throughout rock and metal history, but a select few have the restraint, and patience to dial it back, play what the song needs and keep it simple.

Modern age bonecrusher, Matt Starr is one of those drummers.

To say the last decade has been fruitful for Starr would be nothing short of an understatement, as the ever-reliable sticksman has seen himself ascend to the top of the heap, in securing gigs with Ace Frehley, Burning Rain, Mr. Big, and most recently, with supergroup, Black Swan.

While some drummers choose style of substance, for Starr, the very nuts and bolts of the instrument provide all the solidity needed to form a venerable bedrock upon which he lays his murderous licks.

With Frehley, Starr has not only translated the timeless grooves of Anton Fig and Peter Criss, but he’s now begun to forge his own legacy with the Spaceman, having lent his abilities to Ace’s last several records, and in doing so, now holds the distinction of being the only drummer in Ace’s history to have played drums on an entire Frehley offering, other than Anton Fig.

With Burning Rain, and Mr. Big, Starr proved to the world that he’s far from a one-trick pony, as he handily carried forth his duties on the world’s biggest stages alongside the likes of Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin, Paul Gilbert, Keith St. John, and Doug Aldrich.

Present-day, aside from his duties with Ace Frehley, Starr is a member of Black Swan, which is composed of veteran all-stars, Jeff Pilson (bass), Robin McCauley (vocals), and Reb Beach (guitar), a grouping which Starr deems “special,” and with good reason.

I recently sat down with Matt Starr to discuss his most recent jaunt, and recording efforts with Ace Frehley, his time with Burning Rain, his second career as a life coach, what’s next on Black Swan‘s docket, and a whole lot more.

Andrew:
Matt, thanks for taking the time to dig in with us again. How have you been holding up since we last spoke?

Matt:
Life‘s been great. The last couple of years has been a good time to connect more with family, focus on studio work, and my coaching business.

Andrew:
You’re on tour with Ace Frehley at the moment, right? How is the tour progressing thus far? How have the shows been with things seemingly, finally, going back to normal?

Matt:
It’s been great getting back out and playing. We did five weeks last year with Alice Cooper, and we will be joining him again for some more dates this year. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to play and have an organization that does things the right way.

Andrew:
Ace has an expansive catalog of music, what are a few of your favorites to jam out to?

Matt:
“Parasite,” “Deuce,” “Shock Me,” “Rocket Ride,” and of course, “Rip It Out.”

Andrew:
Ace’s catalog contains mainly original music, but he’s also been adding in a lot of fantastic covers of late too. How do you go about adapting the work of say John Bonham or Ginger Baker?

Matt:
I grew up playing drums to those records, so it’s kind of ingrained in me. The challenge has been to modernize it a little bit, and not copy it exactly, which isn’t easy to do because I spent so many years learning those songs.

Image credit” Jo Anna Jackson

Andrew:
In regards to the KISS tracks, I feel that Peter Criss is very underrated and that his playing is much more unique and nuanced than many realize. Given your intimate relationship with his drum licks these days, would you agree? Can you expand on that at all for us?

Matt:
Absolutely! Peter is a great rock ‘n’ roll drummer. That’s different from a rock drummer. He had a very cool swing that was a big part of the KISS sound, and I try to incorporate that.

Andrew:
The word is he is in the studio working on his next release. Is there any truth to that, and if so, what more can you tell us?

Matt:
The next record will be all originals. Ace is working with some very talented writers, including Tommy Deander, and Peppy Castro, who gave him his first guitar lesson. So, there’s a lot of history there, and everything I’ve heard so far has been fantastic.

Andrew:
I wanted to hit on your other band, Black Swan, which for those that don’t know, is a wonderful “supergroup,” which features Reb Beach, Jeff Pilson, Robin McCauley, and of course, yourself. Walk me through the inception of the band.

Matt:
Jeff Pilson reached out to me a couple of years back, told me about the record, and asked me if I’d like to be involved. I said, “Yes!” We’ve just completed our second record, which will be released in April, I believe. When you have a group of talented musicians, it doesn’t always mean that there will be chemistry, but this band has really created something special, and I’m very proud of it.

Andrew:
To that end, 2020’s Shake The World was a fantastic, and hard-rocking debut, and certainly an effort to be proud of. Oftentimes, when supergroups come together, it’s rarely for more than one album. At the time, did you think Black Swan would amount to more than a one-off?

Matt:
I think we’ve all taken it one step at a time. We still haven’t played a gig! So, this is sort of the modern age of making records. I’m grateful for the second one, and maybe one day, we will get to play!

Andrew:
As you’ve alluded to, Black Swan is on the verge of another studio effort in Generation Mind. Take me through the writing, and recording of the record. Can fans expect more of the same?

Matt:
It definitely continues the thread from the first record. I think the writing is even better than the first one, which was fantastic. We’re also realizing what we do well, and digging more into that. As far as the writing, the other guys do that, and then I come in and throw down the thunder. 

Andrew:
I wanted to shift the focus and touch on your other career, which is life coaching. You’ve been very open regarding your struggles as a “starving musician,” before things radically changed for you over a decade ago. How did your early career experiences shape the person and musician you are now? Could you have handled the opportunities you have now if not for your early trials?

Matt:
I knew what I wanted to do at age eight. I discovered KISS and I was hooked. I began playing drums and all I ever wanted to do was play music. As I got into my late 30s, I was playing in bars but not playing with the people who had inspired me. It was frustrating, and I did not know how to get to the next level. So, I took some steps, and over the next several months there was a huge transformation that manifested in my career. 

I realize there are so many talented musicians who have the passion and the ability, yet they will never have a successful career that is satisfying to them. That breaks my heart. What I teach with my coaching is everything that I used to transform my career, and ultimately, my life. It’s been an amazing journey helping people to actually live their dreams. I love it.

Image credit: DrummerZone.com

Andrew:
As a drummer, over time, you’ve shaped yourself as one of the hardest hitting, and most consistent in the business. How do you keep yourself in top playing shape and form to handle the opportunities that come your way?

Matt:
The best thing I ever did was stop trying to be something I wasn’t. I love songs. I love playing simple and powerful. I don’t like doing a bunch of bullshit, and I’m not a double bass drummer. 

So, that’s what I stick to and I think that’s been good for me. No matter what I do, I only involve myself in things that are exciting. As far as practicing, I don’t do that unless it’s with a band. Although, I am in the studio frequently when I’m not on the road, which helps keep me in shape. 

Andrew:
You have a history of filling big shoes or having to play difficult parts that previous players first laid down. You’ve filled in for Pat Torpey, Alex Makarovich, and on a nightly basis play songs once handled by the likes of Anton Fig and Peter Criss. How do you maintain the soul of the songs, while still injecting your personal style into them?

Matt:
For me, it’s really about listening to the song and letting that dictate how I play. Obviously, in a situation like Mr. Big, Pat played on everything prior to me joining the band, so it was really important to stay true to his style, which is similar to mine in some ways.

Andrew:
One of your more interesting credits in your time with Burning Rain, which you were a member of from 2013-2014. How did you first meet Keith St. John and Doug Aldrich? What were your first impressions?

Matt:
I think I met Doug on the set of That Metal Show. Then I ran into him at a Mexican restaurant a couple of days later, and we stayed connected. Doug and Keith are super talented, and playing with them, along with bassist Sean McNabb, was always a great experience. A lot of fun hanging out and on stage, it was always big and powerful.

Andrew:
Epic Obsession was Burning Rain’s first record in years, and you’re credited on the record but perhaps didn’t play on it. Is that right?

Matt:
I didn’t play on the record, although I was in the photos. It was already recorded before I got involved. I believe it was Brian Tichy and Jimmy D’Anda who played on the record.

Andrew:
Did your burgeoning role with Ace Frehley have anything to do with the parting of ways with Burning Rain, and if so, would you consider working with Keith and Doug again?

Matt:
Not at all. They’ve had different drummers over the years, so I think it’s just a matter of what makes sense at the time. I’d be happy to play with either one of them, and in fact, have played with them at different events since then.

Andrew:
As a session musician, how do you stay sharp and adaptable given the volatile nature of that type of work? In terms of the type of work you’ll accept, how do you decide what you’ll lend your services to, and what’s best to turn down? Are there any notable works we may be surprised you lent your skills to?

Matt:
Again, it’s all about the song. If there’s a great song that makes my job easy and fun. I’ve been involved in a couple of things lately that will see the light of day soon, which are pretty exciting, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear them! One project is a four-part musical piece that is about forty minutes long, with bassist Mike Watt, and guitarist Alex Kane. It’s completely freeform, and I think a lot of people will be surprised when they hear it.

Andrew:
I know you’re a fan of big, loud, Ludwig Drums. What shaped that preference? Do you prefer new, or vintage? Tell us more about your setup.

Matt:
So, many of my favorite drummers played Ludwig. Bonham, Cozy Powell, Ringo, Bun E Carlos, Alex Van Halen, Eric Carr, on and on. To my ears, nothing sounds better than a set of Ludwigs. I have a few vintage kits, but the new ones they are making sound fantastic, and that is what I tour with these days. 

Andrew:
You’re a man of many hats, and you seem to be always on the move, Matt. What’s next for you in all lanes?

Matt:
Continuing to record and tour with the musicians I grew up listening to. Growing my coaching business, and helping other musicians reach their goals. Beyond that, enjoying my family, and being grateful for my life.

Interested in learning more about Matt Starr & Black Swan? Hit the links below:

Be sure to check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
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