"Former drummer for Guns N' Roses" will always get the most attention on his resumé, but Sorum's career is loaded with accomplishments. Before joining that notorious LA band, he was in a band with the then-unknown Tori Amos, and played on sessions with artists ranging from Solomon Burke to Belinda Carlisle. He also drummed for The Cult, and was a founding member of Velvet Revolver, the post-Guns all-star band.
Now, under the moniker Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy, Matt has stepped into the lead vocalist and songwriter role to release Stratosphere, an album more notable for Sorum's vulnerable vocals and acoustic guitar strumming than for rock & roll drumming. Guns N' Roses will never be confused with the fragile folk sounds of Nick Drake, but Sorum recorded a beautiful tribute to that talented singer/songwriter on this set, "Ode to Nick Drake," which exemplifies just how eclectic an artist he is.
Matt Sorum: Well, yeah. The way I tried to approach my drumming in that band, or any band I've ever been in, is as more of a song kind of drummer. So, for instance, one particular night Axl and I were sitting in a studio, and he wanted to drink vodka and eat caviar. We were like, "I've never had caviar. I'd love to try that."
So it was me and him and it was kind of late and we were staying behind in the studio. There was this little Jewish deli called Greenblatt's Deli down the street, and they sent over some stuff.
We had already worked on "November Rain" - we rehearsed it but we hadn't recorded it yet. But we were getting ready to. We sat there and Axl put on a song called "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," by Elton John. A lot of people don't know this about Axl, but he's a huge Elton fan - that's why he plays piano. I said, "God, listen to the tom toms on that." [played by Elton's drummer Nigel Olsson]"Don't let the sun go down on me." Right? And Axl goes, "Yeah, that's cool. So epic."
I go, "What if I use that sort of a phrase as pieces of the song, almost like a melody that would work into the song structure." If you listen to "November Rain," I go (singing onomatopoeia), that fill. And I do that fill about 20 times in that song. It's also a thread through "Don't Cry," and "Estranged," which were originally all one song. It's basically a trilogy of songs that all fit together. People ask, "Why'd you use that same fill so much?" Well, that was the whole thought process behind it - it was a way to tie them together. That was my part in tying enough songs together to make it one voice.
I worked on the arrangements for those songs, the way they broke down and the dynamics. The band wasn't really that dynamic when I joined. It was a rock band, like "Go for it." Just loud. "When we're on, it's loud." [Laughing] And I came from an orchestral upbringing and classical music - I was in wind ensemble. I sounded crazy to them: "We need pianissimo instrumental right here and mezzo forte right here." And they'd go, "What?!?"
Pianissimo means "quiet." And here we're doing mezzo forte. That means "medium loud." Now, we're going to go double forte here, which means, Okay, go back to your regular volume. I would explain all these sections to the band, and I said, "This needs to be a journey, you need to take people on a journey to this song."
So that's what we did on "November Rain."
We got into a discussion about it. "It needs a breakdown here, it needs to go..." And that's the kind of shit I did to the band. So if you listen to the Use Your Illusion records, they're a complete departure from Appetite. Appetite was this straight rock & roll album with this sort of gang punk attitude. When I came in, Axl wanted to take it up a notch. He really wanted to be like bands like The Stones or Queen or Led Zeppelin, which dabbled in a lot of different styles of music through their careers. Especially The Stones, who did country and reggae.
Axl was like, "Why can't we do that? Why do we have to make these rock albums all the time?" So we really got into just doing what we wanted. The record label wasn't around, and in those days we were so big, we didn't really listen to anybody. We could do 10-minute long songs. It was beautiful. It was amazing. We could do what we wanted and get away with it.
Songfacts: So you really helped Axl evolve as an artist just because of your background and your knowledge.
Sorum: Well, I guess that's probably why they liked me. Because when they were getting ready to make the next move, they felt that they needed a guy who could do that with them, and that was me. I was able to play stylistically where they were headed.
What was blended on that first album [Appetite for Destruction] was great. That's the pinnacle record of the band. But where the band was headed, that's not where we were at the time. We were setting up for stadiums. We were getting ready to go big, big, big, big. Add strings, go more epic, make epic videos. It was "energy rock & roll," and I had that background in my schooling. I grew up with Sabbath and Deep Purple.
Songfacts: As did we all.
Sorum: You've got to look at those bands, especially Deep Purple. If you listen to those records, musicianship is at the next level. All those guys play incredible.
So we couldn't be this dumbed-down rock band. You know, we had this pass to do whatever we wanted to do. And maybe we would have eventually headed back and made another one of those rock records. Who knows?
But with Fierce Joy, this is a completely different sound that no one's ever experienced or heard before. But my musicality runs a lot deeper than my rock stuff.
Songfacts: I have a question about your days as a studio musician. You worked with Belinda Carlisle and some different people. Did you play on any hit songs for those artists?
Sorum: I don't believe I was on any hits of Belinda's, but I worked on that first solo record of hers. And then the King Solomon Burke stuff, I did a song called "Bust Your Bubble," which is out there somewhere. The Gladys Knight songs, I can't even remember what the titles were, but I was in my early 20s - that was over 30 years ago.
I played on a lot of that stuff Shaun Cassidy did. God, I did so much stuff, I don't even have the records for them. I've got some records laying around on cassette somewhere. But I played with Eric Carmen, remember him?
Songfacts: Absolutely. Yes.
Sorum: I can't remember what the hell that track was for. Oh, that was for an Olympics record. You know, when they put out soundtracks for the Olympics. I did so much stuff just to keep myself working, and then I got in Tori Amos' band and made the first record with Tori, the Y Kant Tori Read album, which wasn't a success for her, but now it's a collectible album.
Then I did records for guys like Jeff Paris. I was on Polygram. The Paris album [Wired Up, 1987] is pretty good for the mid-'80s. It's that rock beat. It's a very commercial rock kind of album.
I also did this really weird heavy metal record called Hawk .
Songfacts: You've worked with Tori Amos and Axl Rose, two people that I think we can safely say are two of the more mercurial people in the music business. What was it like working with them?
Sorum: Oh, I never had any problems with Tori. We got along great. Tori Amos is an amazing artist. She would walk in every day with a new song. She'd write a song a day, and sit at the piano and play it for me. We were very, very close.
I played in a Top 40 band at a Marriott airport hotel and she was in a piano bar. That's how we met. I walked up to her and I said, "You are incredible. I want to start a band with you." That was about 1985. So Tori and I started a band. She had a little house over behind the church on Franklin Avenue. I would go hang out with her and we'd sit and she'd play songs for me. I was like her buffer for what was good and what was bad.
The album was a flop, but quite a learning experience for Tori, who took a lot of heat for the cover photo, which prompted Billboard to call it "bimbo music."
Said Tori: "My self-worth was all wrapped up in whether or not this thing was a success. I didn't really consider the girl in all of this."
Sorum: Yeah. And I always thought she was an amazing piano player and a singer. When the record company decided to kick her off the piano, I told her straight up, I said, "I think that's insane." I said, "The whole picture of what you do is who you are." When I used to sit and watch her play in her living room, I was her only audience. What a blessing that was. She was just such a talent.
And she would play this incredible piano, like a classically trained pianist, and sing to me. I'd be like, "That's a good one, Tori. Let me hear what else you got." [Laughing] And that's how we're down. I have a whole bunch of demos that we did of songs that never came out. So I could call Tori and go, "Hey, Tori, what do you think? I'm going to put this out on ebay." [Laughing]
Songfacts: Did you get along well with Axl most of the time?
Sorum: Oh, yeah. Most of the time, sure. When we got to the studio, we had a great experience together, and he was always very kind to me up until the machine got crazy. When the machine got crazy, everybody got crazy.
Songfacts: But you got to see a side of him that most of us will never see, which is his creative process side.
Sorum: Oh, he's so creative. He's such a great lyricist. I will never take that away from him. He's one of the greatest, most talented frontmen I've ever been behind. I've never seen anybody be able to hold an audience of 50,000 people like he can.
Songfacts: That's an intangible, isn't it?
Sorum: It is. And if they're not a little bit crazy, they're not good. That's a fact.
Songfacts: The first thing that really struck me about your solo project was the song "Ode to Nick Drake." I love Nick Drake, but I'll have to be honest with you; I didn't expect to hear a Nick Drake tribute song from a guy that's played with Guns N' Roses. So tell me about how you first heard Drake and why his music made such an impact with you.
Sorum: Well, I come from a lot of different styles of music. Before I was in the Cult, I played in Tori Amos' band and I was a session musician - I played with everyone from Gladys Knight and the Pips to King Solomon Burke. So my musical piece is very diverse. I don't just pick down a list of Iron Maiden when I want to listen to music. I'm polar opposite. I like to listen to everything from Massive Attack to Joni Mitchell.
Songfacts: Sea Change.
Sorum: Yeah. He brought in his father to do the string arrangement, David Campbell. Really great record. But it started to be talked about in the press a little bit, about how this gentleman had written these albums eventually committed suicide and hadn't sold so many records. So I wanted to find out who this guy was.
So I listened to "River Man" and I was just blown away with the emotion of his voice, and these string arrangements were incredible. It's still one of my favorite acoustic songs of all time.
So when I went to write the lyrics for "Ode to Nick Drake," I basically wanted to write a love song about my wife, and what would be the other factor that would be in that equation? And I just thought, Wow, Nick Drake, I could use it as a metaphor for love. Then I basically did the idea of what David Bowie used to do. He used to write down lyrics, like, different words, and he would put them on pieces of paper and cut them up and put them on the table. So I wrote down titles of Nick Drake songs, and album titles - Pink Moon, Five Leaves Left - and I put them around and I started writing all the verses based on these Nick Drake titles.
And I thought about one of my greatest places growing up, which was this lake. My grandmother had a lake house and I'd see her every summer. It was one of the most peaceful places I've ever been. I still look at it as the place I always felt the most calm, and it was a great time for me as a kid. My best time as a kid. So I started out the song saying, "A child was born and a loon has told me." I used to wake to this loon on the lake going, "Ooo, ooo," and I just always loved that sound.
I started writing the lyrics and it started to flow. I actually played guitar on that. It's me on guitar and my vocal and one cello. I played it for my wife and she said, "I love that song, Matt, I love it! You've got to record that!" I said, "Oh, yeah, baby, I wrote that for you."
So that's how that song came about. I made a video for it, too, so I'm going to put that out probably after the album comes out.
March 19, 2014. Get more at mattsorum.com.
More Songwriter Interviews