Matt Sorum Interview: Guns N' Roses Drummer Creates Chaos
Matt Sorum is a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning musician who gained fame as the drummer for the Cult, Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. In 2012, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Guns N’ Roses. Also that year, Sorum founded a touring project entitled Kings of Chaos, featuring members of Guns N’ Roses, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Cheap Trick and Slipknot.
In 2022, Sorum released his autobiography, Double Talkin’ Jive: True Rock ‘n’ Roll Stories from the Drummer of Guns N’ Roses, The Cult and Velvet Revolver. The debut album from Kings of Chaos is set for release in Autumn/Winter 2023. The first single titled “Judgement Day” is a scorching rocker performed and co-written by Sorum, Slash, Dave Kushner and Duff McKagan and featuring Sorum on drums, as well as lead vocals.
"Kings of Chaos is a bucket list for me. I basically call people and say, 'Hey, do you want to play?' I’ve learned in this business, you get one of two answers, yes or no."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Matt, let’s talk about Kings of Chaos.
Matt Sorum: Kings of Chaos is a collection of characters, a celebration of rock and roll with all my friends I’ve met over the years. It’s never the same lineup twice. I’m basically the only member of the band that’s consistent. So this first track that I put out, “Judgement Day,” was my old bandmates who have also been involved in Kings of Chaos. Dave Kushner, who was in Velvet Revolver, performed in Kings of Chaos. This is a track I’ve wanted to put out for a while, and I’ve been kind of sitting on it. I’m singing lead vocals and playing drums. So I thought it was cool to announce the band like that. The next few songs might have a different singer or maybe I’ll sing in another one. I’m not sure yet.
I’m just starting the recording process of the rest of the album, and I’ve got a bunch of cool people coming out here to the desert where I built a recording studio that I finished in October. So we’re ready to rock, and I’m excited about that. The album will unfold over the next six to eight months, recording, mixing, making videos and all the fun stuff you get to do while making an album.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have a list of artists that you want to work with, and you reach out to them?
Matt Sorum: Oh, yeah. Kings of Chaos is a bucket list for me. I basically call people and say, “Hey, do you want to play?” I’ve learned in this business, you get one of two answers, yes or no. If they don’t reply on email, that means no. If they don’t like you at all, they don’t reply. But if they like you, they at least say, “Hey, I’m unavailable.” If they’re non-confrontational, they just don’t reply, which means they have a hard time saying no. And I’m sorry. I’d like to pray for them, but I’m a person that if I don’t reply to an email, I just really feel like a heel. I can’t just ignore. It’s basically a new language that we have now.
You know, if someone wrote you a really nice letter, you’d write them a thank you letter back. Those days are come and gone. But in general, I got a really good response to making the record from a lot of great people. I’m not going to say who yet because at press time, nothing’s on the books as far as the process of recording the record. I actually want to surprise people with what’s coming, and I’m really excited about it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who’s on the top of your wish list?
Matt Sorum: Jimi Hendrix.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I should have said “living” person (laughs).
Matt Sorum: Oh. I would say David Bowie. Oh, damn. There are so many greats. There are a lot of young kids out there. I really like the Struts. I like a band called Rival Sons. I love the Killers, and I would say they’re probably an alternative rock band, and they’re not kids anymore. They’ve been around 15 years now, but they’re younger than me. If you look at rock and roll from where I come from, there was a group of contenders. We were all sort of in the same family. I feel like that’s not as much as it used to be. So I’m going to see what I can mesh into the project that isn’t necessarily what people would expect. I’m not saying I’m going with Harry Styles, even though I’d be more than happy to have him on my record (laughs). There are girls like Miley Cyrus who I feel have energy. Yes. She comes from pop, but she’s got a rock and roll energy, and I think she’s cool.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You produced Cherie Currie’s album, Blvds of Splendor, a few years ago. She has a great voice.
Matt Sorum: Oh, yeah. I produced that album. I’m really excited that she’s finally going out and touring. I saw where she announced some tour dates.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You recently had a birthday, so let’s reflect on the last 62 years, shall we?
Matt Sorum: I just remember getting spanked after coming out of my Mother’s womb. I was traumatized from that point forward.
Smashing InterviewsMagazine: You have a great memory! (laughs)
Matt Sorum: Growing up in the 60s with two older brothers that turned me on to rock and roll. Growing up in the mid-60s seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the time was just all about freedom. There was so much mystery and excitement in the air, and it was all wild. In the 70s, there I was getting in to my early pubescent era of teens. Here I was in the mid-70s as a teenager, you know. What a great era of music, and I just latched on to it because I loved it and still say to this day that the 70s is the greatest era of music. You had so much diversity with bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Deep Purple and Sly and the Family Stone. So much cool music was coming from all different genres. There was Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then you’d go to Earth, Wind & Fire, and I was into all of it.
I just learned my craft by listening and watching bands and going to concerts when concerts were five bucks. You could buy a four finger lid of weed for fifteen dollars and get a ticket for five bucks. That was the time, man. Luckily, I was a kid who grew up in California, so I headed to Hollywood. I told my Mom I was going to my buddy’s house, and we would tool up the 5 Freeway all the way to the 101 into Hollywood.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How old were you?
Matt Sorum: At 14-15, I was on the streets at Sunset Boulevard. To me, it was like Candyland. It was like Disneyland for rock and roll, and I was captivated. I got the bug (laughs). As soon as I got out of high school, I just headed straight to Hollywood. My parents left on a sailing trip. My brothers moved out, and there I was. As soon as I graduated high school, my Mother announced that they’re selling the house, and they’re going on a sailing trip. She said, “You can come with us or you’re on your own.” I decided to stay shoreside.
So with about a hundred bucks in my pocket, I headed out into the world on my own. I think that was the best thing I could ever have done. I didn’t say close to home for one second. A lot of kids may have been afraid to leave home, but man, I was so excited just to have freedom (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: At 18?
Matt Sorum: Yeah, 18. I graduated high school a little bit early. I got out on a GED. So as soon as I hit the 18 mark, my parents split. My stepfather and my Mom went on a boat for like four or five years. I couldn’t even get in contact with them. There were no cell phones in those days. So it was basically a do or die kind of thing. But it was fine. I lived with five guys in a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t care. It was great.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had to mature rather quickly being on your own at such an early age.
Matt Sorum: Yeah. I got to learn how to hustle and struggle, and then along came some bands. I started recording, and all of a sudden, I got in the Cult in the late 80s. It was about 10 years before I got that gig. I was in my late 20s. I did a lot of work before that. I did tours and played Top 40. I did whatever I could to make ends meet. In those days, rent was like a hundred bucks. So you’re like, “Oh, I need to make a hundred dollars to pay rent.” I had a crappy little Rambler Station Wagon I bought for a hundred bucks. But I got my big break with joining the band the Cult in the late 80s, and I was on a tour bus and was getting a salary of a decent proportion. I thought I had arrived. There I was. I had my own hotel room. I didn’t have any place to live. But I didn’t care. I had a suitcase and some clothes and was on tour with a rock and roll band. It was the greatest time of my life.
I could’ve remained in that band until Guns N’ Roses came along. But I jumped ship and joined that band, and that’s when things got crazy. The band was on top of their game. We were playing stadiums. But I was starting to break down both emotionally and spiritually. It was a little too crazy. Do you know what I mean? (laughs) That brings me full circle to where I am now. I went through that process, and then I joined Velvet Revolver.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Slash said in his book, “If you’ve ever wondered what the sound of a band breaking up sounds like, listen to Guns N’ Roses cover of ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’”
Matt Sorum: It was the last song we ever recorded, and it was very weird because I remember we all went into the studio separately. Slash, Duff and I recorded the basic track, and then we didn’t see the other guys in the band. That was the last song. It ended up on the soundtrack for Interview with the Vampire with Brad Pitt and Christian Slater.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: A vampire novel by the late Anne Rice.
Matt Sorum: Anne Rice book. Correct. That was the last song we ever did, and that was David Geffen asking us to get back to work because we were starting to go our separate ways. There was some hostility within the ranks. So we jumped in and recorded that, and then that was pretty much the end of it. That was a weird time for me because I was like, “Oh, shit. Now what do I do?” It was limos and private jets, and then I was back to a normal life except I had the moniker “Matt Sorum from Guns N’ Roses,” and to this day, that lingers with me. People identify me as that guy from that band, and it has been a very good feather in my cap. It’s very representative of the culture and the time, and some people who understand that band. It had a sensibility that translated to a lot of different demographics. You can ask an older person. You can ask a younger person.
You can ask my grandmother who’s not alive anymore. But she’d say, “Matty, I saw you on CNN News with the band Guns N’ Roses, and they say you are bad boys. Is that true?” I’m like, “No, grandma.” She said, “Well, they say you do drugs and alcohol.” I said, “You know I drink, grandma. It’s okay.” She said, “Alright. I’m your grandma, and I’m telling you I’m worried about you.” So that’s how crazy it was.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, I’m sure there were some misconceptions about the band, right? (laughs)
Matt Sorum: Everything grandma said was true. I just didn’t want to break her heart. So I said, “Grandma, it’s going to be okay.” But we were wild and crazy, and everything you’re supposed to be at that particular time in rock and roll. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, I wouldn’t do it any other way. If I had to do it all over again, I’d be the exact same guy except maybe I’d take a little bit of my ego out of it because I feel like when you’re young and successful, and you have a lot of people around you telling you how great you are, sometimes it can get inside your psyche. Then, you start believing it. Looking back on it, that’s the only thing I would change, to try to be a little bit more of a peacekeeper, a little bit more communicative and understanding of other people, accepting people for who they are.
Axl Rose is one of the greatest frontmen of all time. Looking back, the guys I worked with are that way because of where they came from and the demons that are inside following them around. It’s not a cakewalk when you’re in a band of that nature. It’s a lot of passion and a lot of power that goes into playing that kind of music to big crowds of people. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m just going to jump on stage, and we’re going to have a nice day. It’s going to be great, isn’t it?” (laughs) It’s not like that at all. The things going around about the band made for a great rock and roll show. Right? It’s like all that crazy energy you heard about went into it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As you said, some people have demons that are inside following them around, and that can definitely affect their drive to succeed.
Matt Sorum: If you look at most entertainers of that nature that excel to be great, where does that come from? Mine came from an early upbringing and maybe some resentment from nonbelievers. When you tell a kid, “Hey, you can’t do that.” They’re like, “Yes, I can.” That’s only said when you have self-belief. When someone’s telling you, “I don’t think you’re very good at that. Maybe you should try a different profession,” everyone’s going to have an opinion on what you should do. The difference is when you believe in yourself, nobody can tell you anything. I say to young musicians, “Do you believe in yourself?” They say, “What do I do? How do I make it?” I say, “Work extra hard, harder than anybody, and believe in yourself. Don’t listen to naysayers.” They say, “People are saying my music isn’t any good.” I say, “Do you think it is good?” They say, “I do.” I say, “Then go for it.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The people bringing the negativity don’t realize that simply drives others in a positive direction to succeed. Do you have an idea for the next single, Matt?
Matt Sorum: A mid-tempo rock song, something celebratory. Look. We have a lot to celebrate. We just made it though some very trying times. So I don’t want to get in there and go, “Oh, doom and gloom.” Nah. The lyrics behind “Judgement Day” are based on what happens when this all ends. Where will you be? What are you doing with your life to make a difference? It’s all based around a car, but the metaphor of the car is, where are you driving? Where are you going? In the end, what are they going to say about you? That’s really all we have to look forward to.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’ve been listening to it in the morning, and it gets me going (laughs).
Matt Sorum: (laughs) It’s a barn burner, as we’d say. In the old days, we’d put out a hard rock song first, a rock and roll hard driving song. Then second, you’d do like the mid-tempo rocker, and third, you’d come up with a big ballad.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of a big ballad, “November Rain” is a favorite of mine, and your drumming sparked some controversy.
Matt Sorum: Some drummers have messed with me about it, but I say to them, “Go ahead and do a ballad. Go for it.” I mean, everything was intentional on that song and based on the long fill. I believe I played the same fill 21 times, another drummer once told me on Twitter, which I never counted. But I did realize it made that impression on him as a drummer. So I really got my point across. My point was it’s not about fancy pants fills. It’s being part of something that’s a great song, and the song needed that as a hook. The drums were a hook in that song. Every time you heard them, it was a musical statement that I just played, and I played it throughout Use Your Illusion, that same fill, especially the trilogy “Don’t Cry,” “Estranged” and “November Rain.” I tied them all together, and it was very intentional why I did that.
Axl and I talked about it. We were listening to the tom toms on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and we knew we needed this kind of big bombastic ballad type thing. I said, “I’m going to do a big thing on the toms as a marker.” He said, “Yeah, a signature.” My whole thing was the signature or the statement. We used to discuss that. We’d say, “Who’s taking the intro? Make it good because you’ve got about 10 seconds to grab a signature.” We’d come up with great intros. Listen to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” It’s one of the greatest intros ever. You’re like, “What is that?” We’d do that kind of stuff. Then we’d try something. We had a really great chemistry, and we were able to converse like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you miss that?
Matt Sorum: No. I have it with other musicians in a different way. I just did a Billy Gibbons record that came out last summer, one of the greatest experiences of my life because he’s so open. We made a record together in a room. I’d say, “Billy, what have you got?” He’d have a riff. Of course, he’d have a riff. We’d write the lyrics and the music. He’d show me what to play on the drum sometimes, and he’d say, “Matt, play the bell!” I’d go, “Okay.” He’s an educated guy. Billy Gibbons is one of the greatest living guitar players, and I respect him. I’d say, “Please. Tell me how to play the drums.” He’d go, “Matt, hit it with one stick.” I’m like, “I get it.” Just simple. Wow. The impact was incredible.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Billy was a great addition to the “Judgement Day” video. When I first heard his voice, I thought of Wolfman Jack.
Matt Sorum: Well, he was based on Cleavon Little. Cleavon Little was a DJ in a movie called Vanishing Point. And he sounds like Wolfman Jack, whom I loved. He’s on the radio in Palm Springs. Wink Martindale’s out here, and they brought back Wolfman Jack. They bought all the rights to it, and they play it on the radio here. I listen to it in my old car.
Vanishing Point was a 1971 movie with Barry Newman racing across the country in a Dodge Challenger. Cleavon Little is his DJ and helped guide him through this procession of police chases and all this stuff. So I took the character, and I said, to Billy, “Can you do Wolfman Jack meets Cleavon Little like you’re guiding me into my spiritual destiny? You’re going to play the Reverend Willie G.” Billy goes, “Cool. Let’s do it.” I love Billy because we’re really close friends now, and it’s always an absolute joy to talk to him. He’s the best.
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