Matt Sorum: “I couldn’t turn down Guns N’ Roses”
From Tori Amos to The Cult, Guns N’ Roses to “supergroups” Velvet Revolver and Kings Of Chaos, Matt Sorum discusses his long and varied career with JODY MACGREGOR. Kings Of Chaos perform at this weekend’s Stone Festival, alongside Van Halen and Aerosmith.
Matt Sorum has had a long and varied career. Best-known as the drummer who replaced Steven Adler in Guns N’ Roses when Adler’s drug problem had grown to the point where even the other members of Guns N’ Roses thought he should steady on, Sorum was himself eventually fired by Axl Rose after sticking up for Slash in an argument. He was then instrumental in getting fellow ex-Gunners Slash and Duff McKagan together in Velvet Revolver, a band whose attempt to find a frontman less unpredictable than Axl Rose hasn’t really worked out for them.
Sorum’s latest project is a “supergroup” called in which he’s joined by Duff McKagan once again as well as guitarist Gilby Clarke (another ex-member of Guns N’ Roses). Singers Joe Elliot (Def Leppard), Sebastian Bach (Skid Row) and Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple) and guitarist Steve Stevens (Billy Idol) round out the outfit. Kings of Chaos will be making their Australian debut at the Stone Music Festival in Sydney tomorrow (April 20).
You’re most famous as a drummer but I know you play guitar as well. Do you play any other instruments?
I do. I play piano, bass, I sing. I just finished a solo record so I’ll be putting that out somewhere after I do some touring with Kings of Chaos, so I’m gonna do some stuff on my own as well. When I write and sing though I like to do more mellow stuff. I’m into like Wilco and Tom Petty. I don’t rock as hard when I’m doing my vocal thing, my guitar thing, just because my voice has a certain style. I kind of write around my voice, you know?
Do you have a preference?
I like to play guitar a lot. I have quite an arsenal of guitars – I own about 25 guitars. I probably have about at least 20 or 30 amplifiers. I collect a lot of vintage amps, old Marshalls, old Bassman Fenders, Silvertones, Magnatones. I’m a gearhead. I love the guitars, older guitars and vintage guitars. There’s something very soulful about them. I collect old drums too but there’s something really soulful about old guitar instruments.
“I didn’t really fit into that hair metal scene.”
Did you have music lessons as a kid? Did your parents enrol you?
Oh, yeah … My mother’s a classically trained pianist so I grew up in a sort of classical family. My grandfather was a professor of music at the university and a classically trained musician. I kind of came up through that and rebelled a little bit and got into rock’n’roll because when I was growing up, as a teenager in the ‘70s, the culture of music was just so rich at that time, with bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. So many different great rock bands. David Bowie! I fell into that, it was what was happening at the time, but in retrospect I somehow subliminally took on a lot of that [classical] upbringing in my life and was able to put a lot of that on my solo album. I have orchestration and piano on my new album. I wrote two songs on piano so I love a lot of that now. As I’ve gotten a little older I look back and when I was a younger guy I just wanted to rock, I just wanted to go out and throw down and get out that sort of angst that I had as a kid, you know?
In the ‘80s, before you joined The Cult you were in Tori Amos’ original band, Y Kant Tori Read. How did that come about?
Before I came into The Cult I was basically a session musician and at night time I would play in bars. I’d go around five nights a week playing in local bars so I could pay my rent. I was playing at this place near the airport in Los Angeles and I came out of the club and there was someone in the lobby playing piano and I looked over and it was Tori. I walked up to her and I said, “Wow, you’re a really amazing piano player.” [She is] also a classically trained pianist. I said to her, “What’s your name?” She said, “I’m Tori. I’m from Baltimore,” and I said, “Oh my God, I love you.” We spent two years writing music together and writing together and we put a band together and started playing around Los Angeles.
She ended up getting a record deal. They asked her to sign a solo deal, so at that point we split up. But I ended up playing on the first album, which is called Y Kant Tori Read, which is sort of a hard-to-find record now. It didn’t do well and after that she came out with Little Earthquakes and that was a big record for her. But it was all part of the plan. After that I got a little bit back to my rock roots … and that’s when I joined The Cult.
It was sort of a natural progression because The Cult at that time was coming out of a goth period, they were out of the English scene like Bauhaus and those kind of bands. I was brought into that group when they were starting to become more rock in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and then out of The Cult I morphed into Guns N’ Roses … I couldn’t turn down that position. They offered me the gig and when I came into the band – Guns N’ Roses – my musicality was a little bit different than Steven Adler’s so I got a little bit of flak for being maybe too technical of a drummer, or whatever. But the band was starting to get next level. We were adding orchestration and piano and Axl wanted to go forward so we created these two masterworks called Use Your Illusion I and II.
I toured the world with those guys for quite a while and through all that I made a lot of friends and through the years I’ve had great relationships with all these musicians. After Velvet Revolver I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t go out and try to put another band together.” I was in my early 40s and Velvet Revolver was a band that we were very fortunate to do as well as we did, in my opinion. I thought, “Why don’t I just go get all my friends and we’ll got play some shows and have a good time and not be so pressured with trying to put a record together and trying to be successful.”
It’s a very difficult business and if everyone who’s never tried it went and tried it I guarantee most people would go home with their tail between their legs. But I thought, “Why don’t I put together a great supergroup and we’ll go do some shows and we’ll be able to go out on the road, come home, people can go back to their regular stuff.” So the Kings of Chaos idea came up and I started calling my friends, we got great offers to tour and that’s the whole concept behind it. I thought, the name Kings of Chaos, I want to get some of my greatest friends and rock guys that I love to play in the band. The first bass player I thought of was Duff McKagan and I thought if me and him are together it’s all good after that. Gilby [Clarke], who comes from the Use Your Illusion line-up – I grabbed Gilby who’s just a great guy and I really wanted it to be super fun, super easy, no drama, no pressure from a label, no pressure from press, no pressure. Because in my 30-year career there’s been a lot of pressure and I just wanted to play rock’n’roll, play great songs and have a great time and then go home when I’m done, you know?
That’s really what this is all about and I gotta tell you, it’s basically turned into a whirlwind now. Everybody wants to do it. I don’t want to name names but Slash is coming with me to Africa and after that we’re gonna go down and do South America, we’ll come back to Australia next year hopefully and do a big run with a couple of great singers, whoever wants to come. It’s gonna make people excited to come out and buy a ticket, you know?
If I can just rewind a bit, you mentioned being in The Cult and they’d been around for about five years by the time you joined them, so when did you first hear of them?
The Cult was coming around during that Electric album, that was getting big in America with a song called ‘Wild Flower’, and ‘Love Removal Machine’. It was starting to make a lot of impact in Los Angeles. The style was a little more cool and groovy than what was going on in LA at the time. You’ve got to remember there was a lot of hair metal and hair bands. The Cult was a lot more down and dirty and had a lot cooler look. Ian [Astbury] was just like modern Jim Morrison. I didn’t really fit into that hair metal scene. I did have a little bit bigger hair back in those days, but that’s only because my hair was curly. When I joined The Cult I felt like I’d found a special band. It was the heyday of The Cult, we were the biggest it ever was. I played arenas, I toured the world headlining. It was a really great time.
I wouldn’t have left the band – I was very happy in the band – until I got offered to be in GNR and I thought, “God, I can’t turn that down.” It was really a highlight of my life, a good time for me as a musician. But I remained friends with the guys from The Cult and I plan to have them with me out on the road again and be able to go out and do some of their greatest songs. I just look at this like it’s all celebrations for us because we’ve all been through so much, persevered for so long. In this business that’s a big thing to say. A lot of bands come and go, the music comes and goes. It’s gone before you know it, you’re “I remember that song, I remember that song.” But to persevere and last the test of time is really incredible – to have a career that spans decades, you know?
When you joined The Cult were you were hired to be a live drummer. Was it originally planned as a temporary thing?
No, I mean I was hired as a live drummer but I was gonna go back. I started recording a second album, there was some stuff on a “best of” that I started working on in the studio, songs like ‘White’ and some songs that ended up on the album after Sonic Temple. I did record a lot of stuff and I was gonna go in the studio and be the drummer – they offered me a position in the band, a percentage and everything – at that point they had tried me out for a year and they decided that they liked having me around. Which is smart on their part because a lot of times the thing about musicians is guys get big personalities and sometimes get along and sometimes they don’t, you know?
We got along great, we had a blast out there. Me and Ian were good friends, and me and Billy [Duffy] were friends, so when it came time for me to do the next album at that point Slash and Duff were looking at me to join their band. I had a big choice to make. When I moved over to Guns N’ Roses I became a member of the group and that was a big thing for me. I wanted to be part of the band. Here I was coming into a band that had another drummer but I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of the writing process, I wanted all that, I wanted to be in the mix.
When we put together the Use Your Illusion albums I was there every day while we were putting that together and getting ready to do the records so it was a great time in my life, something I look back at. When people used to actually play instruments together and be in the same room as each other and record live. I used that experience as a stepping tool to what I tell young bands: If you’re gonna write music try writing music together and writing great songs and play live, all that kind of thing. It’s what I learned coming up and it’s what makes bands great. It’s what made Guns N’ Roses a great band. It’s why The Cult was a great band. We worked as a unit.
When you were brought in to replace Steven Adler did you get to meet him?
I didn’t meet Steven right away because that wasn’t a good break for them. We had some tumultuous times over the years and things were said in the press but years later we’ve finally been able to come to terms with it, but I always said to him, “Look Steven, if it wasn’t me it would have been somebody else because you were out and somebody was gonna be in.” But we went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame together and that was great and I felt really good about that. So it was a time being there with him and he was very gracious and I played one of his songs, ’[Mr.] Brownstone’. And I was able to give him a little dig when I did my speech because he fucked with me for so many years.
I know that in more recent interviews he’s said that he feels better about it now, but at the time he was pretty upset.
It’s like somebody’s fucking your ex-girlfriend. You know what I mean? It’s like the same kind of feeling. You don’t like it but you meet the guy and you go, “Hey, he’s not a bad guy.” It’s always been my counterpoint to it. You have a preconceived notion of someone until you meet someone and talk to them.
It seems like a lot happened in a short space of time from 1987 when you were recording with Tori Amos and then by 1990 you were doing Use Your Illusion. Did it really feel like a lot was happening?
Well, yeah. I was so young but I was driven. I still am driven. I love to just push forward and I think as a musician you can have talent but the one thing you gotta have that goes behind that talent is a lot of drive and you gotta want it. You gotta want it more than anything. And the one thing I knew is that I was moving forward and I really wanted it.
Kings of Chaos will perform at Stone Festival at ANZ Stadium in Sydney tomorrow, April 20, along with Van Halen, Aerosmith, Jimmy Barnes and The Living End.