Our conversation with Matt McJunkins on Celebrating David Bowie

Kevin Keating
The Celebrating David Bowie tour is hitting the road again in 2023 and this time playing the Regency Ballroom on Friday, May 5th Saturday, October 14th. Tickets are still available at the time of this posting, but you won't want to sit on your hands for long considering the line-up that tour co-producer Angelo 'Scrote' Bundini's put together this year. New additions to the revolving all-star line-up include the legendary Peter Murphy, former Iggy Pop and Bowie guitarist, Eric Shermerhorn, and Jeff Friedl & Matt McJunkins of The Beta Machine & A Perfect Circle. They'll be joined by Adrian Belew, Royston Langdon, Ron Dziubla, and Scrote -- all musicians who performed on the tour last year when they visited the South Bay's San Jose Civic. (You can find our review of that show here and our interview with Scrote here.)

This time around we were lucky enough to get some time with bassist, Matt McJunkins, to talk about how he got enlisted in the tour, his background and of course, Bowie. Read on below for our full interview and hope to see you at the show in May October!

Matt McJunkins (Photo: Michelle Shiers)
Matt McJunkins (Photo: Michelle Shiers)

SFBayAreaConcerts.com: Hi Matt, thanks so much for making the time to speak with us today. We're not only Bowie fans, but we're also fans of your band The Beta Machine and a few of your past projects like Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, so thank you very much for carving out time to chat!

Matt McJunkins: Of course! Thanks for having me!

SFBAC: For those who might not be familiar with your name and work, let's start off with a bit about your background. How did you get into music?

Matt McJunkins: Well, I guess all that started with the decision to move to LA and go to music school here. I grew up in the desert in Palm Springs. So I, in the early 2000s, moved to Los Angeles to go to Musicians Institute and really was the decision to move here and also go to that school is kind of how I got linked up with Barry Squire, who is a guy who at the time, and certainly for a very long time, has been putting bands together essentially. People who would need to put a band together or they're missing a piece of the puzzle, they need a keyboard player or whatever... and they if they wanted to go outside of the people they know, or a friend of a friend or whatever, you would call Barry and ask for recommendations and he would sort of put together a list of people. It's like, I won't have to post on Craigslist or take out a classified in the Pennysaver or the Sunday Times. He was the go-to guy for that. He just had a massive database and Rolodex of musicians. And I got on his radar, going through music school. I met him through Musicians Institute, because he was working with the school to kinda help students find work and get placed into bands and that sort of thing. He was also teaching a class too. I don't think he was right at that time, but he started to shortly thereafter. So going to that school, and meeting him, those were both very key things for me. And I went and I played with a bunch of bands at the time. Did some touring and stuff and was pretty much a full-time working musician from the time I finished school. Mostly just doing stuff around town. Piecing together, your itinerary on a weekly basis. It was kind of crazy! It was just multiple things a day and driving all over town, going to different rehearsals and playing shows all over the place. It was great. I mean, it was a tremendous learning experience. It led to, I think me being prepared later on to being able to go from one style to another with different bands. There's a lot of very large gaps in my musical knowledge. But I was able to cover a lot of ground going to that school, and then just getting thrown to the wolves in all these different settings with different bands of all kinds of different styles. Literally day to day, it'd be completely different most of the time, so I just enjoyed it. It was a way to make a living and meet new people and get to know the city really well because I was traveling all over the damn place. 

After doing that for a few years, I got the call to try out for Billy's [Howerdel] new thing, Ashes Divide -- or new at the time. I didn't really know much about it. But I was a huge Perfect Circle fan already. So obviously I was familiar with him and his work, his style, and it was right in my wheelhouse. Of all the bands and things that I was doing at the time, I was having a blast, but that was the first time that I had the opportunity to potentially work with somebody or a group of people that I felt like, this is where I belong, you know? This is the stuff that like spoke to my, forgive me for sounding cliche, but to my soul. Or whatever, to just the things that really, like gratified me the most with music. But that was certainly one of the top you know, people that I... And then, once again, I didn't like specifically go 'I'm gonna try to work with these bands!' I didn't know, I was just kind of doing it and going from one thing to the next. There wasn't any plan, other than to move out here. Go to school, and then just wing it! I didn't really know... I still don't! I'm still winging it. So that was getting to work with Billy and getting into that band was huge for me.

SFBAC: And is that when you met Jeff [Friedl]?

Matt McJunkins: I met Jeff before. We had some mutual friends and actually played together just once. Well, I mean, it was just for one show. So I think we did like one rehearsal and a show for another artist, maybe about a year or so prior to Ashes Divide. He came in to fill in for another drummer who was like the regular drummer for this other band. And that drummer couldn't do this one show. So Jeff came in to do it. We did one rehearsal and we were like 'okay, yeah, but this guy just nailed it. Holy shit.' It was great. It's always so well appreciated when people come in prepared like that. Even when it's not like a major artist. Because then you're just taking up everyone else's time and energy, and they have to teach you all the songs. And you're just 'fucking come and know this shit so we can get out of here'. Like, we're having fun, but, I don't want to be here all night playing all these songs that I already know and we're gonna play the show tomorrow. So Jeff made it really easy. And we just hit it off. I had a great time playing that show with him. And we stayed in touch a little bit. But it was a total coincidence that when I went in, whatever my time slot to the tryout for Ashes was, like 1:15 on a Tuesday or whatever it was, that just happened to be the same time that Jeff was in. And I think, I guess that was Barry probably putting that together, and I guess maybe he kind of knew that was kind of in the wheelhouse of the sort of stuff that I was into and wanted to do. And Jeff had, I think previously contacted Billy and his management at the time and he knew about the [Ashes] project. And that they were looking for bands. So I think he submitted like a video or something of him playing, so Jeff was ahead of the game. I was just coming in like, 'huh?' It was super last minute. It was like, 'Hey, can you audition for this thing like tomorrow?' or I think whatever day it was, I got a call like in the afternoon and then the thing was two days later. So I had to learn... I think it was like a song... No, actually, we didn't even learn Ashes songs. It was two APC songs that we did. I think he [Billy Howerdel] kind of picked two songs that would help run the gamut of, maybe dynamically and difficulty-wise. Like 'okay, if they could play these, they could probably, at least I'll take a look at them.' 'I'll at least consider jammin' with these guys.' So yeah, and then I went in and thank God Jeff was there killing it. And just made everybody sound good. And... it was just me and Jeff. And he [Billy] was also trying out guitar players at the time. And so he came in, Billy came in and jammed with us.

So that was cool, but it was kind of an ongoing process. It wasn't like we went in there and played, and nailed it! It was like we played, and then, got a call back a few days later, and go back and play again. So there was a kind of whittling it down from however, large amount of people to just a handful, and then eventually it was like maybe me and one other one? Or a couple of other people? Yeah! I slipped him 20 bucks. And he was like, 'alright, I guess' [laughter] I got him a free Domino's for a month, and he was... 'alright, you can be my bass player.' [laughter]

SFBAC: And from Ashes Divide, it just snowballed into A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, Eagles of Death Metal and to eventually forming The Beta Machine? That's fantastic. How about this Celebrating David Bowie tour? How did this all come about?

Matt McJunkins: Yeah, it was just one of those things where I just got a text -- me and Jeff at the same time, and sort of got asked to do it. He [Jeff] let me know about it first saying 'yeah, you might be getting a message from Scrote about this Celebrating Bowie thing,' And I was like, 'fuck dude, I am in!' I didn't really even need to know any details hardly. And yeah, that's how it happened!

SFBAC: And did you know the full line-up of other musicians at that point? Have you played with any of them in the past?

Matt McJunkins: Yeah, I knew when I got the call, who was involved in the show. And yeah, I've played with one guy, his name is Jeff Friedl a couple of times. [laughter] Yeah, yeah, obviously I've played with Jeff a ton. You know, it's funny too, though, because even though Jeff and I have played together a lot, this is still a very different thing than we've done together. Stylistically. It's kind of a lot of stuff across the board. So it's gonna be really fun. Yeah, and I haven't played with anybody else on the line-up.

SFBAC: But what was it about Celebrating Bowie that had you say yes so fast? I'm assuming you've gotta be a Bowie fan! What are you excited about?

Matt McJunkins: Yeah, I am hugely into Bowie and there's definitely a lot of stuff that I'm really excited to play on this tour. But yeah, no, I had... I guess whatever the closest thing to a spiritual experience would be for me going into an old Bowie show. There's only been a handful of these moments in my life, like going to a show that you're, just so blown away. 

I was pretty late to the Bowie party. Growing up, I was more of a metalhead and into a lot of hard rock and metal, and then ended up getting more into progressive and fusion and all this sort of more 'muso' stuff. So yeah, I knew Bowie stuff. I liked some songs, and I knew the hits. And then at a certain point, really came to appreciate those songs. These are great songs. It seems like everyone, at least around that time, and my age, would go through that period of discovering classic rock and stuff for the first time, and going like, 'oh yeah, this shit my parents listened to is actually pretty cool'. [laughter] 

But Bowie wasn't in our household a lot. My mom was, and still is, a huge Elvis fan. Lots of Motown and lots of classic rock and lots of 50s, 60s, 70s stuff. R&B and rock. So anyway, I wasn't hugely into Bowie, and while I was going to music school here at Musicians Institute, I was working part-time as an usher at the Wiltern. Not for too long, maybe four or five months or something. It was a part-time thing. It was actually really slow because it was during the fall and winter period. Just not a lot of shows. But, yeah, I got to see a lot of great shows there. And so Bowie played on the Reality tour there, two nights in a row. And so the first night I was working downstairs on the main floor, at one of the main doors where you go from the foyer into the lobby into the main concert hall or whatever you want to call it... The main general admission floor area. I would duck in and watch the songs but I had to be on the other side, so I could hear it but I couldn't sit there watch the show. So that was fun, but the second night I was upstairs in the balcony. Which was absolutely perfect. Because at least working there at the time... I think this goes for a lot of places that are seated, once you seat a person... and you know when you go to a show, once you know where your seat is, you don't have to keep asking where it is every time you go by. You just know, so you don't have to bother the ushers anymore. You just leave them alone. And so there was a lot of things really unique about that night because one, I got lucky, I was working upstairs. And everybody, I swear, I can't remember one person needing to know where their seat was after the show started. People were on time in LA... Because it's David Bowie! People were like, 'I'm not fucking gonna be late for this. Are you kidding me?' And same thing with, going into the lobby. The night before was like this too. I remember working in the lobby the first night and by the time the opening act -- it was Macy Gray on that tour or at those shows at least -- people were in their seats, not fucking around by the time she was maybe halfway through her set. It was all eyes, all butts in the seat and ready to go. And it was like that for the second night. Luckily for me! So that meant I didn't have to do anything. Everyone was seated by the time the show started. I literally just stood there and watched the whole show. An occasional person would come up and ask a question or something, but 99.9% of the show, I got to just stand there and watch. And it was incredible. I mean, not only was he great, but the band was amazing. And the crowd, even up in the nosebleeds, at the top of the balcony, pretty much as far back as you can be at that venue... I could see people's reactions, and man, I saw, I'm not making this up... I can't remember ever seeing so many people just smiling, like dumb, smiling grins. You could see people being transported to childhood or whatever, and it was, man, it was so infectious. I knew most of the songs, but the stuff I didn't know was like that. So from that moment on, I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to Amoeba and I'm gonna pick up a bunch of shit. And so I just started grabbing a bunch of CDs and just absorbing stuff. And never really got tired of it after that night.

Matt McJunkins (Photo: Michelle Shiers)
Matt McJunkins (Photo: Michelle Shiers)

SFBAC: So are there songs that you're lobbying for? Anything you'd really want to play?

Matt McJunkins: I'm the new guy. I'm not trying to cause a ruckus here. It's impossible to play every song you'd want to, or for the audience to hear every song they would want to; it's literally impossible, or it would be a seven hour show or something! No, I'm playing bass. I think if I were singing lead, I would have more of a 'Hey, can I do this song?' Because I would feel more comfortable doing it, or it's in my range or something like that. But I think it's more important that whomever is singing should have the songs more suited for them. That makes more sense to me. Especially, with what key, or what style everyone's comfortable with or that sort of thing. Play to your strengths. I'm not going to be like, 'Hey, can we do this song? It's a fun baseline!' Come on, who gives a shit! You know? [laughter] It's a team thing. 

SFBAC: But you can sing! You sing in The Beta Machine!

Matt McJunkins: It's true. I can actually... We sort of started demo recording it. I don't know if we'll ever put it out. Because it's changed so many times over the years, but the Beta Machine we actually do a cover of "Life on Mars". So we've played it live. We used to play it live. Especially when we first started playing shows, we just didn't have a lot of material. We needed more stuff to play. So that was one of the songs we sort of put together. We kind of re-did it to be our own thing. And I would cover it, like at solo acoustic shows and stuff too. So at least I would know all of those lyrics and how the song goes. But the way we would play it, we basically just completely simplified it. We'd gotten rid of all those chromatic / chord changes that are so classic in that song. In a lot of Bowie songs from that time, actually. 

SFBAC: I'm curious if you've started rehearsals yet?

Matt McJunkins: No, we've gotten together and kind of talked everything down, and taken notes and going into like references and things like that. But everyone's just, I guess, everyone, I mean, all the guys who've done it before, I don't know how much they have to really learn... They're like, 'Yeah, we got it.' There's probably some tweaks on this one. Especially that Peter's joining us. I'm not sure what the setlist was with Todd Rundgren or before with Angelo and stuff, but yeah, we haven't gotten together fully and played yet, but we will be soon. So everyone's kind of doing their own homework.

SFBAC: That's great. It's such a special tour.

Matt McJunkins: I think it's just what the thing's called 'Celebrating David Bowie'. I think it's just supposed to be a celebration. Paying homage to this institution that this man created, that I think has affected so many people's lives in such a positive way. It certainly has mine. I still get teary eyed listening to certain songs because there's just so beautiful. "Life on Mars" being one of them. They're amazing songs, and I guess being a part of that lineage in some small way is really exciting to me. Plus, it seems like there's a lot of cool venues we're playing. And I've seen a little bit of what the audience reactions have been like, and I think it's gonna be really cool!

SFBAC: Well, we're looking forward to it again this year and can't wait for the show at the Regency Ballroom on May 5th October 14th. Thanks again for making the time and before I let you go, I have to ask if you're working on any new material for The Beta Machine?

Matt McJunkins: Yes, we are. We're working. Jeff and I have been working on some new stuff, gotten together with Nick and started working with Laura a little bit. It's been extremely slow, mostly due to the pandemic and then we actually did a fair amount while things were shut down over at Jeff's studios, Secret Hand Studios here in LA. But once things started opening up again and everyone going back to work, work just happened and there's been all this you know... I've been playing with Poppy and doing a bunch of other things and producing and writing, and Jeff's been doing a lot of that as well. So we both have just been off doing our own things, trying to make up for lost time, I guess, over the last few years. But slowly, as much as we can, we have been working on new stuff. So there is a bunch of stuff that's been like demoed out. So whenever we can we just try to get together and get it to that next phase of being. Certainly planning on releasing more do more with the band.

SFBAC: That's great. Looking forward to it and obviously looking forward to the Celebrating David Bowie show here in May October! Thanks again for making the time Matt and we hope the tour is a blast! See you in a couple of months!

[UPDATE March 24th - Unfortunately, Peter Murphy's underwent an unexpected medical procedure that has limited his ability to travel, so the original May date has been postponed to October 14th.]

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