Interview: Matt Sorum, Rock’s Go-To Drummer, Flexes Songwriter and Guitar Chops on Solo Album
By Brian Ives (Interview by Scott T. Sterling)
If you’ve been a casual follower of Matt Sorum’s career — the drummer’s career includes stints in the Cult, Guns N Roses and Velvet Revolver — you might be surprised by his new album, Stratosphere (credited to “Matt Sorum and Fierce Joy”). It’s pretty far from the hard rock sounds of his career bands. On this album, Sorum is in singer-songwriter mode, and trades his seat behind the drums for vocals and guitar.
Radio.com spoke to the multi-instrumentalist about his new direction, animal rights activism, his former bandmate Tori Amos and the future of Velvet Revolver.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I started playing the guitar, actually, before I started playing the drums. My mother was a classical pianist, so I had a lot of music in the house. I started playing piano and then I got into the guitar. My middle brother played guitar so I started dabbling on his guitar, and around that same time I saw the Beatles on TV and I gravitated more towards the drums. And I wrote a lot of the songs actually on the first Velvet Revolver album, if you read the credits, which people don’t do much anymore, but I wrote a good portion of the riffs on that album.
Have you always been a singer?
Well, I’ve always sang backing vocals in every band I’ve been in, for the big bands that I’ve been in starting with the Cult. I sang all the high harmonies. And when I joined Guns N Roses I sang a lot of the harmonies on the records, and I sang a lot live too, with Duff and Izzy, we would share harmonies. I’ve always loved to sing and play [simultaneously]. My mother was a vocal teacher as well as a classical pianist, so I took choir as a kid and you know, it wasn’t the coolest thing to do. You’re in the choir! It was a little weird.
Is it strange for you to not be playing drums on your own solo album?
It was really cool to not play drums because I’m not really precious about that. It’s not like I have to play drums. This particular guy that I picked, Brian McCloud, he came from that singer/songwriter school, he worked with Sheryl Crow and Linda Perry and a lot of people like that. So he was the perfect guy to bring in. I didn’t really tell him what to play.
Do you think it’s tough to be Matt Sorum’s drummer?
I just dug what [Brian McCloud] was doing. He did stuff completely different from what I would’ve done but that’s cool. Obviously when you’re in a rock band like Velvet Revolver and Guns N Roses, we’re going in to make a rock album, that’s the intent. And I think I had a lot of freedom because I wasn’t really trying not make a record for a label, I wasn’t worrying about delivering a song for the radio. I even thought about, “Why don’t I put it out and call it something else [other than my name], and not do any press?”
What inspired you to do an album as a solo artist?
I’ve been feeling that I’ve wanted to say something, and the only real way I know how to say something is through music. It just started calling me, and I had a real need to do it, and I had time. I’ve always been a drummer in a band. And my position in those bands is different than this: in the bands, I’m a drummer, I’m a team player. I think it was time to move on. I needed to say some things. I’m at a point in my life where I think it’s okay to do whatever I feel like.
You come out as a big animal advocate in this album, especially with the track “For the Wild Ones.” What inspired that?
Well, I think the internet has a lot to do with it. For a while, I felt really negative about the internet. I was like, “God, it’s just this space for people to talk shit with a faceless background.” But I started realizing that I can have a little bit of a voice in that with my Twitter and my Facebook and things like that. I started gravitating towards it naturally. And I do a charity called Adopt the Arts, where I bring music and art to kids in the public school system. And we did an art project where kids learned about elephants and rhinos and what’s happening to them in Africa. And the dolphin project thing that I’ve been working on is very close to my heart. I travelled to Taiji, Japan last September to the Cove, [the subject of] the film that won the Academy Award [it won for Best Documentary Feature in 2010]. And I went to the cove with the star of The Cove, Ric O’Barry, and protested the dolphin hunt. And I got in Reuters and the AP, and right then I said, “Wow, the fact that I showed up [there]… the news was everywhere.” I’m glad I went, because it kept the story alive. Because, as we know, everything kind of seeps in for a minute, and then people are on the next thing. And I started to learn from my experience like that, showing up and doing a little bit in a positive way is really cool and can give people awareness. So I started doing more work in that area and I love it, it makes me feel good.
How do you feel about hunting?
I’m not a fan of hunting. I don’t believe in circuses, I don’t believe in any sort of animal entertainment, captivity. The zoo thing is a bigger nut to crack, there’s a lot of stuff going on out there. A lot of people don’t realize the factory farming issue, there are more environmental problems because of factory farming than even emissions from cars. I’m vegetarian now. I’m just more conscious now, I have a family now, things change. You’ll see when you get a little older. It’s a natural progression.
One of your new songs is called “Ode to Nick Drake.” When did you become a fan of his?
Nick Drake is a legendary lost poet. He kind of came back into the forefront after people like Beck discovered him and bought him back to the listeners’ attention. He put out some records and they didn’t really sell well. I discovered his music and I heard a song called “River Man,” and it just blew me away. His voice was just so haunting and real. So I gravitated towards the music and I bought all of his records.
Have you thought about your next album?
I might do a completely different thing next time. I might do something electronic. I got some synthesizers I’ve been playing around with. I like that music, too. I’ve been recording my wife’s band and they’re like MGMT meets Killers, they’ve got some synths going, it’s got a bit of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs flavor to it. I love all music, I love listening to Arcade Fire. How many bands can get away with putting out a song like “Reflektor,” it’s like eight minutes long. It’s badass.
Do you go out and check out bands a lot? Do you go to festivals?
I didn’t go to Coachella this year, I used to go every year and get a motor home and park out back. And in the early days of Coachella it was awesome because it wasn’t super crowded yet. But I still really want to know what’s happening with youthful music. I love that band The Fold. Band of Skulls, that new record is cool, some good sounds. It’s weird, I still like the Killers but then people go, that’s old and I’m like what? But they’re a great band, I saw them recently, I think they’re going to be around [for a long time]. But I think I tend to gravitate towards more eclectic sort of alternative music than I do the mainstream stuff.
Is Velvet Revolver ever going to do anything again?
I think it’s got to organically happen. Nothing’s ever been too forced. It’s been a minute [since we’ve done anything], and that’s why I’m dabbling in this sort of stuff. Once we come back, we’re all re-energized. Slash’s got a new album coming out, I’ve got a new project called Kings of Chaos, which is kind of my rock project. It’s going to be a rotating band. I’ve been very blessed, I love playing with other musicians, it’s so inspiring. And when I come back to what I call my “day job,” which is Velvet Revolver, I’ll bring a lot more to the table.
So with Kings of Chaos, are you drumming or sort of rotating?
I’m playing drums on that gig. They might give me the microphone to talk but that’s about it. We’ve gone out on tour, Slash, Myles Kennedy, Corey Taylor, Joe Elliott. We’re going to do a big run of the States, go over to the UK. I called everybody from Robert Plant to Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden and Roger Daltrey. I’m talking to all these guys I can’t confirm any of them [will be involved with the project] and it’s super cool, they’re my heroes, my peers. I have a plan to make an original album that would be something a bit like classic rock mixed with new music somehow.
How did you feel about Duff filling in for Tommy Stinson in Guns N Roses?
Well, Duff’s like a really consummate gentleman, he’s always been the mediator. I think he got caught in the middle of all the other stuff. So for him to mend fences [with Axl Rose], it was cool. It’s time. Rather than sitting around and saying “What if?” He was really cool about it, he sent us all emails. It was nice, it felt cool, it felt right.
If Axl called you to do a Guns N Roses show, would you do it?
Yeah, sure, I got no problems with any of that, you know? Life’s too short, it’s getting shorter too.
Now that you’re a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, have you voted?
Yes, yes I have. There are a lot of other bands I want to put in there. Taj Mahal, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick…I mean there’s just a ton of bands that haven’t made the cut. I wish they waited a few more years with us. I’m glad I was invited to the party. It was really great between me and Steven [Adler], the original drummer, I think we had a really great rapport and he was very gracious to me.
Talk about playing with with Tori Amos in Y Kant Tori Read.
Well I actually formed that band with Tori when she first came to Hollywood. That’s an interesting time period musically because there wasn’t really any rock and roll happening in L.A., it was more of a new wave period in the late ’80s. A little after Tori, the hair metal thing came. Around the mid-’80s I was dabbling in electronic music and stuff like Human League and Ultravox. I had a weird hairdo. I met this singer/songwriter keyboard player girl at this hotel playing piano. I walked over to her and I ask, ‘Who are you?’ And she said ‘I’m Tori Amos, I’m from Baltimore.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re incredible.’ She’s playing like classical, just ripping, and singing with this very like, Kate Bush voice, which I love, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. And I said ‘We’ve got to jam!’ So I called a buddy of mine we started playing around town. And she came up with the idea to call the band Y Kant Tori Read, and we used to play this club over at the Valley, and Jason Flom from Lava Records signed the band, and then just decided that he just wanted to sign Tori. And that was my first sort of real kick in the teeth. Two years of working with her, and just got kicked to the curb, and that hurt. But I learned about the music business pretty quick. But in retrospect, it was all right. God’s rejection is God’s protection. I wasn’t meant to be there, who knows where I would’ve been now? And after that I morphed into the Cult.