By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Matt Sorum is a journeyman, literally and figuratively. On one hand, he’s traveled the world playing drums with some of the biggest Rock bands in the world - Guns N’ Roses, The Cult, and Velvet Revolver. On the other hand, he’s ridden an emotional rollercoaster that took him from a drug and alcohol-fueled haze to loving, clean and sober lifestyle. He’s one of the most successful Hard Rock drummers of all time, yet instead of resting on his laurels and being a maniacally egotistical ‘Rock Star,’ Matt is an extremely grounded, friendly and giving human being. He has been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, yet he’s more concerned about the making a difference in this world than he is with impressing people with his awards. Matt Sorum survived the Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine and is ready to take his talents to an entirely different level: say ‘Hello’ to Matt Sorum, singer and songwriter.
Drummers may have more jokes written about them than any other profession in the world and Matt Sorum has heard them all. However, Matt is not ‘just a drummer’. He is a musician with a desire to express himself. And on his new album, Stratosphere, he steps out from behind the kit, straps on an acoustic guitar and sings. Yes, sings! If you only know Matt from his Hard Rock projects, be prepared to experience something entirely different. Billed as Matt Sorum’s Fierce Joy, he and his bandmates have created an album that is closer to Folk and
than it is to Hard Rock and Glam. Influenced
by artists like Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and
Wilco, Stratosphere is an album to listen to and absorb. It is an album that had to be lived in order
to be loved. Stratosphere is outta sight and down to earth. Matt Sorum is starting all over again… and
enjoying every moment. Americana
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat to Matt about Stratosphere and all aspects of his career…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your album Stratosphere has just been released. How are you feeling about the journey that you took to make the record and the reaction you’ve had to it so far?
MATT SORUM: So far, the reaction has been very cool. I mean, obviously it’s quite a departure from my Rock stuff and what people know me for, but I think that people are pleasantly surprised that I can even sing like that. All in all, the whole first part of this experience has been good, so far.
SPAZ: People are familiar with your previous work, but is it an exciting thing to show off this different facet of your musical personality or is it maybe a little nerve wracking?
MATT: Well, I don’t think people understand how much time and energy goes into the launch of a thing like this. I was planning to launch this actually back in December and I had the record pretty much done, like I think the beginning of the summer, so I’ve been waiting and kind of setting up to make sure that I’ve got everything working properly to even get recognized because I’m doing this independently. I’ve got an amazing team with the
people and Kobalt and I’ve hired my own publicist so all that business is the
hardest part of the whole thing. I mean,
making the record was awesome. It’s
probably one of the most cathartic experiences in my life. I was able to express myself in a way I’ve
never expressed myself before and being a drummer most of my career – to step
up front and then write and be like sort of the focal guy and really say some
stuff that was on my mind through the lyrics, the whole experience was
amazing. Now the business part, that’s
where it gets a little tricky. And you
have expectations maybe that you have to make sure are not higher than they
should be. Just because I was in this massive band, it doesn’t mean people are
just going to grab my record… I understand all that going into it, but it’s
such a departure musically – the thing that makes me a little bit nervous is
how my Rock fans are going to gravitate towards this, but then finding a new
audience is cool too. There are two
kinds of music in the world – there’s good music and there’s bad music and I’m
very proud of this record so I hope that people like it and just would describe
it as a really good musically tasteful record.
SPAZ: When you started recording it, were you thinking “Okay, I’m going to make this an acoustic record or I’m going to do this… THIS is what my idea is” or did the album grow organically?
MATT: Well, I’ve got about 4 or 5 acoustic guitars sitting around my house, I’ve got one in every room, and I’ve always been that guy – like I pick up the acoustic if I’m feeling good or I’m feeling bad or I’m feeling like I can’t sleep….I go out into the living room, my wife’s in the other room, and I play my acoustic and I sing. Then, I was thinking about how can I represent myself standing up in front of a band? Now I’m in my 50s, I’ve been around for a while. People know me. How can I go up there and really be honest about this? I can’t jump up in front of a band with an electric guitar and throw down a bunch of hard Rock. I just don’t feel that that’s where I’m at mentally or physically in my life. To play Rock ‘n’ Roll, it’s a physical thing too. I love different styles of music. There’s an old expression that I thought about going into this – “Oh, he’s the drummer in a band, he’s the guy that hangs around with musicians,” you know what I mean? I think the general perception of the drummer is a guy back there beating on drums and he has no musical sense, whatsoever. But my musical upbringing was very diverse. I grew up in a classically trained family. My grandfather was a professor of music. My mother was a classical pianist. My brother was a classical violinist. I gravitated towards Rock ‘n’ Roll because I was growing up through the ‘70s. But, going through the ‘70s you learn to be more diverse in your musical tastes – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young were huge then, but so was Black Sabbath and so was Joni Mitchell and so was Neil Young on his own and the solo Beatles and the Stones and all these other bands, right? There was a lot of diverse music happening, but it was all acceptable in those times. And I remember thinking, “God, that’s why I really love music. I can kind of jump around and gravitate to all these tastes and all these different things that I like.” So, when I went in to making the record, I really said to myself, “What can I do that will be right for my voice, that would be honest, how I’m feeling, and really go inside, deep inside, and say this is really the kind of record I want to make. What if people gravitate towards this record, and I could actually have sort of a second career that all of a sudden comes out of nowhere.” And that’s really what I did. I wasn’t afraid - resting on my laurels and making some Rock album. That would have been the easy thing to do. But in my opinion, not to fault Rock ‘n’ Roll, but I could have written a Rock album in about five minutes. It’s not like a big thing. It’s not brain surgery. This record – I really got deep and I spent a lot of time writing it. I went to the desert and I wrote out there for about a week. Then I went out to the ocean… I really looked at the old guys like Gram Parsons and Dylan and all these great artists. I want to speak to people. I want to say things that are meaningful and now’s the time. I got nothing to lose. You know, I’ve done everything there is to do in Rock ‘n’ Roll. When I got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was like, okay – I got icing on the cake….I got the strawberries….now what am I gonna do? I love Tom Petty. I love Wilco. I love Joni Mitchell. I love Neil Young. Those are classic timeless artists. If I could even be in the shadow of that a little bit, I’d be cool with that.
SPAZ: There’s a lot of beauty on this record in songs like “Josephine” or “The Sea” but then there’s also darkness like on “Killers N Lovers.” Which area do you feel more comfortable with in terms of writing?
MATT: Well, I mean, I never feel completely comfortable. I’m a human being. I think we’re all the same – we have different thought processes. Obviously, I think emotionally and everything that went into this record was exactly how I was feeling at the time that I wrote the song. “Killers N Lovers” is really my love/hate relationship with
and the underbelly of the city and all the kind of deceit and backstabbing shit
that goes on especially in the music business.
So that song is really about some pain that I felt through my career and
how many trials and tribulations and how much dark shit that I’ve been through,
you know? And I did it in a metaphoric
way, sort of like representing Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro, in that song.
Something happened to me when I wrote this album because I’ve never been
this deep as a lyricist. Something just
started flowing, and I’m like oh my God, I can do this. Yeah, some of it was pretty heavy and a
little bit wordy and maybe a little bit esoteric, but I like the way it sounds,
and I’m just going to go for it. It’s
like, it’s made in the tradition of beat poets, guys like Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan, and Jim
Morrison… And I get that on “Killers
N Lovers.” Then, “The Sea” is a very
cathartic song to me. I wrote that about
how I felt after I got clean and sober six and a half years ago. Things really opened up for me, and I got
back to being myself. Drugs and alcohol
sort of pushed me out of my real personality for years and years. So I wasn’t able to express myself in a
completely real way. But, drugs and
alcohol worked for that period of time when I was in Guns N’ Roses, and I acted
like I had to take on a certain persona and wave the flag for Rock ‘n’ Roll and
all of that shit, right? But when this
happened to me, now all of a sudden I felt like so powerful. I’m like, I can’t believe I can do this, the
words just started flowing. Then I wrote
personal stories about my grandmother – her name’s Josephine. She is 101, and I started thinking about her
and my grandfather. They were married
for 70 years and I thought – God, that’s not even gonna be possible for
me. I just got married last year. How many people in the world can say they
were married for 70 years? That’s like
an old beautiful love story. It’s kind
of like a lost art form. So I wrote that
song based on musical notations only because my grandfather was – he was the
trumpet player in the orchestra where he met my grandmother who was a
dancer. So, she was a ballerina and I
thought, it would be really cool to write the lyrics based on sort of musical
terms and dance terms so I used an old David
Bowie method and I took words and I wrote them on paper and then I just
kind of moved them around and I started creating lyrics out of that. So it was kind of an interesting process, but
I read that Hollywood
had done that so I was like, I’m gonna try that. Bowie
SPAZ: As a songwriter, do you prefer to sort of write from experience or maybe from the position of an observer?
MATT: Well, there’s a few observation songs on the record. “Lady of the Stone” is an observation record. “Land of the Pure” and “For the Wild Ones” are all observations about the world and what’s going on around us. A lot of times people don’t want to talk about serious shit – out of sight, out of mind, you know? But “Lady of the Stone” is really a song about global warming and the effects of war and all kinds of stuff. It’s a pretty heavy song. “Land of the Pure” is very deep. I wrote that about Malala, the young girl who was shot by the Taliban. And it’s basically a song about girls in
that are not allowed to be educated in the world because of their religious
beliefs of the country. That song is heavy.
The “Wild Ones” is about the treatment of animals in the world. The treatment of wildlife, you know, and
that’s very close to my heart. And you
know what? I was a meat eater up until
about nine months ago. I stopped eating
meat and because all of a sudden I fell into animal activism and I completely
changed… I don’t eat animals anymore.
Stuff started happening to me. My
mind cleared and I started thinking about the world and what’s happening to
humanity. Is it just evolution…I mean
all these thoughts go through my mind, right?
So, I started writing these songs about outward stuff and what I wanted
people to think about and what I see going on online. I see so much stuff, so much exchange of
people’s information. There is such a
negative content to the internet, but there’s so much positive stuff happening,
as well. Especially in the eco world,
you know, environmentalists, and all kinds of stuff that’s going on. I’m fascinated by that. Pakistan
SPAZ: Facebook may have people sharing their thoughts about the Superbowl or whatever, but there are a lot of links that people put up there that is just all about things about the environment and especially about cruelty to animals. So it’s actually turning around. There’s a lot more positive stuff out there that people are sharing besides pictures of kitties.
MATT: Oh I know! Why do you think
afraid of it? They’re petrified about
Facebook. I spoke to some kids from
China about Facebook and how that some of the younger guys, younger kids, are
being able to figure out a way to get into Facebook and start to see what’s
going on in the outside world. I mean,
we saw what happened in China ,
but obviously there was a backlash after that, but the future of the world is
really in the hands of what’s going on there.
I learned so much about it because every time I want to learn about
something, what do you do? You go to
Wikipedia. I used a lot of that in my
research for my record. Egypt
SPAZ: Is it true that you scored the strings on the record?
MATT: Basically. I’ll tell you how I did it. Number one, I wanted to do live strings on my album. That was always my dream because to be able to have live strings and proper orchestration and the whole thing was like “Oh my God, this is like next level epic….” People are going to be saying “Damn, that must’ve been expensive.” (laughs) But going into making the album, I knew exactly what I wanted to do instrument-wise, but when it came to the strings…. After I left Guns N’ Roses, I started scoring films. People really don’t know that about me that much, but I’ve done about six film scores. I lived in this crazy house up in the hills and I had few guys living there with me. We had a 6,000 square foot house, and I had an orchestrator buddy of mine that studied in
and I had another programer, an
electronic guy, and I had a studio there.
So when I went to do the strings, I called my friend, Thomas
Morrison. I sent him the tracks and then
on Voice Note on iPhone I sang some melodies. So the breakdown section of “Lady
of the Stone” has got some very odd time signatures. I basically add that and I sang it over the
phone and there’s an answer line on it too.
There’s about four tracks of strings overdubbed on that because I could
only really afford to do a quartet, but I wanted it to sound like a 16 piece
orchestra. I sang the parts and he came
back with this incredible arrangement and basically all the stuff is charted
out and I hired a quartet, a bunch of young friends of mine that are amazing
players, and we knocked out that, “Josephine,” there’s strings on “Gone” and
there’s a single cello on “Ode to Nick Drake,” which is my friend, Kenneth
Stone. He used to play with Tracy
Chapman and Poe. He came in and he brought this beautiful old cello from the
1700s. It just had such a cool soulful
vibe to it and just put the sadness on the song that I wanted. I wanted it to be this sort of melancholy
thing, and the cello just really represents that. It was really fun to do the strings and to
hear it because it’s just, I just love that sound. Berlin
SPAZ: There are a lot of influences floating around on this record. “What Ziggy Says,” to me, has that has sort of a John Lennon crunch to it. What were your influences in making this record.
MATT: Well, you just said it. Everything from…. the Lennon kind of guitar sound on “What Ziggy Says” you know, “Ziggy” was a cross between Bowie and Beatles, Sgt. Pepper era, you know – the Revolver album, that era. As soon as I wrote “Ziggy Says,” which was based on family, I mean every lyric in that song is a family member - Ace is my wife, my dogs are Bowie and Lola, my grandmother’s name is Carolla, my grandfather’s name is Dr. Bob - so it talks about family members and the hook in that song is “That’s life, that’s all there is.” And then as soon as I thought
I thought wow, saxophone, you know, baritone.
So that songs got live horns on it – trumpet alto and baritone sax and
those are some really great friends of mine that play around town and a couple
of them have played on a lot of great albums.
I went for this whole circus feel and that song just kind of fell
together, but it was in my head as being produced in that vein and I just went
for it. I wasn’t worried about the
album jumping around a little bit. I’m
like, this is going to be a journey of sonic things that I really like and I
want to address and stuff that I love, you know? Bowie
SPAZ: The album has a very cohesive feel. Starting out with “The Sea,” which is this very powerful song, and then going into “What Ziggy Says.” which kind of reminds me of ’74
meets Lost Weekend Lennon and then by
the end of the record with the experimental “Stratosphere,” it seems like you’re
coming down off of this journey… Bowie
MATT: Yeah, well you know, “Stratosphere” was a weird thing. That happened by accident. My friend bought a new Mellotron made in
, but it’s based on the old
Mellotron that the Beatles used to use.
I called him up and I said “Hey, you know that song ‘Gone’, you played
piano on it?”, which is a song I wrote about loss in my life and how people
think about loss. Mainly that song sort
of stems from when I lost my 11-year-old brother and it started from that so I
call him and I said “I want to put a little intro on the beginning of ‘Gone’,
sort of like ‘Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ on (Elton John’s) Goodbye
Yellow Brick Road.” You remember the intro to that album…it starts with
like a cathedral church organ… I thought I wanted to do something like that. So,
he comes over with the Mellotron and initially it was supposed to be like a 15
second thing, right? Before we know it,
we’ve got strings and voices, and french horns, and we created this opus. We were
having a blast doing it, you know. Then
I heard it and the end of it, it sounded like this massive orchestration. And it was just me and him and my engineer
fucking around in our studio. And I said
to him, I’ve got this poem and at that time I didn’t have a name for the
record…and I said I’ve got this poem called “Stratosphere” and I’m gonna go out
and do like a Gil Scott-Heron kind
of thing on it, you know? I’m gonna do like
kind of Jim Morrison meets Gil Scott-Heron kind of trip. Spoken word.
He’s like “Yeah! Do it!” So I went out and I literally read the
poem. That was the first take. I just went out and read the poem and I said “Wow,
that’s kind of cool.” And then initially
I go “That’s going to be the beginning of the album. I’m going to start the album with that.” It’s going to be like welcome to the journey.
The record starts now with “Stratosphere Part 1.” cutting from the voices going
“oohhhhhh, into the stratosphere, into the stratosphere, into the stratosphere”
and then it kicks into “The Sea.” And
then at the end of the album you get the whole thing…it’s like bookends of the
SPAZ: You know, it’s one of those things. It starts out with “Stratosphere” and it ends with “Stratosphere” and it makes people go oh yeah, that’s right, that was the first song, I’m gonna go back and start it again.
MATT: Yeah, I hope that happens. Do you remember when you used to get records, I don’t know how old you are..
SPAZ: I’m 50.
MATT: Yeah, okay, me and you know what we’re talking about then….it’s like you would get the record, right, and you’d go, “Man that was weird. Let me listen to that again.” And about the fourth or fifth time you’re like into it. It doesn’t initially happen. It’s like at first, you kind of touch the surface. But by the fourth or fifth time it’s like you’re so in. And that’s how I felt about this album. I thought it was gonna be a few listens for people to really be able to absorb it, absorb what they were listening to.
SPAZ: There are people out there already saying the album is a dying art form. Even The Cult – who I think you played with in fact – they’re saying no, we’re only gonna do digital EPs from now on.
MATT: Well, for a band like The Cult, they are gonna go out and they’re gonna tour and it’s a bit of a letdown for a band like them when they say “Oh God, we went through all this trouble to make a record and no one ever heard it.” From an artist’s perspective, that’s a little painful to take because making a record takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, and I was in the studio 12, 14 hours a day for a couple few months making this. And you know what, that was my experience, but after that, I have to kind of let that go because I just hope people can grab onto the record. And you know what, I wanted to make it. I wanted to make an artistic statement and I wanted to say look, I’m more than just a drummer. I’ve got a lot of melodies in my head. I can do a lot more. And you know, people would bash me in the past and say certain things about me and they don’t really know me so, for me, I wanted to make this record because I have that in me. Not really caring about the Rock aspect of my career because that’s just a different side of me. And that’s okay. I love playing Rock ‘n’ Roll, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a completely different energy. It’s heavy in a different way. You know, when I say the word heavy – it’s like what’s heavy? I could listen to fucking Lou Reed or Pink Floyd, The Wall, now that’s heavy. Is that Hard Rock? No, but that shit is beyond heavy.
SPAZ: Do you remember the pivotal moment in your life when you realized you were going to be a musician?
MATT: February 9, 1964. The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was four. I looked at the TV and my mom said this is exactly what I did. She had one of those gigantic RCA TVs and I looked at my mom and she said that we were sitting in front of the TV, me and my two brothers at home eating popcorn, and she said I pointed at the TV and I said, Mom, drums, and I pointed at the drummer. I pointed at Ringo. And that next Christmas I got drums. I turned 5 in November so that following Christmas I got my first drum set. I had two older brothers so they were always playing music and I got my first 45, it was “A Hard Day’s Night.” I had a 45 record and then you know, to come full circle now I know Ringo. I know Richard Starkey, and that’s just a trip for me. It’s like okay now I’ve done that and I’ve met this guy and I stand next to him and I talk to him, and I’m like wow, this is just all so surreal and weird.
SPAZ: What’s next for Matt Sorum?
MATT: I would love to take this record out on the road. We’ve done a couple of small little things. We did a charity called Adopt the Arts. We played to about a thousand people there. I don’t know if you heard the violin solo on “Land of the Pure.” That’s Lili Haydn. She’s a virtuoso. She played with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant. She came and played with us… I don’t know if you heard the end of “Land of the Pure.” It gets pretty middle eastern in there…
SPAZ: I heard the whole record under the headphones from beginning to end.
MATT: There’s a couple of solos overlapping. There’s like this whole Santana-type solo underneath. It’s very psychedelic. It just goes into a full acid trip. But on one side there’s like a Santana ripping acid guitar solo and then on the other side is the violin solo going on. And that’s Lili Haydn. So, we played at this gig in front of about a thousand people, and I did a charity event with a friend of mine who is one of the biggest Rock stars in
named Shehzad Roy - he’s like the Bon Jovi of . So we played in front of about five hundred
people from Pakistan
and maybe about five hundred westerners, and we got up and we did that song
“Lady of the Stone.” We did “The Sea”
and it was such a cool experience to see people gravitating towards the music
and live it just came off incredible, and I felt confident. And you know the thing about going out on the
road as a full independent artist is it’s expensive. How am I gonna get out there. I’m trying to put some creative ideas
together for sponsorship and things like that and I’ve got some good nibbles so
I’d love to take this out across the United States and get up front and sing
these songs for people because I think live it’s gonna be even better. I’ve got a great band. I know we can pull it off. So, yeah, that’s in the cards. And then my Rock side, I’ve got a group
called Kings Of Chaos, which I put
together, which is my project (editor’s note: Kings Of Chaos features Matt, Slash, Duff McKagan, Glenn Hughes, Corey Taylor and Steve Stevens) I can do
Kings Of Chaos, I can do Fierce Joy. I’ve really started taking control of own
life now and not being at the beck and call of being in a band and somebody
else deciding when they want to do stuff or whatever. Pakistan
SPAZ: Exactly. You are now driving the bus. You are now Shirley Partridge.
MATT: Which is a good feeling, I’m not afraid, because I’m a very spiritual cat and I’ve been taken care of this far in my career and I think as an artist you just gotta get up in the morning and you just gotta create art. You were put on the planet….why was I put in front of the TV that night when I was four years old and why did God speak to me to tell me that he wanted me to do this adventure? (laughs) So just get up, put your art shoes on and get to work.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD, DVD, or LP players? What have you been listening to or watching lately?
MATT: Well, I really like that new Patti Smith record that came out a little while back. That’s super cool. As far as film-wise, I just watched the Dallas Buyer’s Club. What an incredible film. I didn’t know the history of what was happening with medicine for AIDS in that time. I didn’t realize that people were being pumped full of this drug that was actually killing them and then people that had contracted AIDS were going out and creating these pharmacies outside of the FDA. Man, I just didn’t know that story. That movie was just incredible. I was very impressed with that film. And another movie that I just watched that I loved is More Than Rain. You should check this out. This is a documentary about the worker bees and how if the bees die the whole world…I mean, we’re done. So the bees are responsible for pollenating pretty much everything that we eat, you know that has to do with vegetables, fruit, almonds, and it’s an amazing documentary. I was really taken with that story. It’s very beautifully filmed, and it’s got different stories of different bee keepers all over the world.
Thanks to Matt Sorum
Special thanks to Tom Smith and Dana House