Interview: Matt Sorum
Tue, 01 Apr 2014 09:54:47
"I wanted to do something out of my wheelhouse that people don't usually hear from me so I went for it," says Matt Sorum of his new solo album, Stratosphere.
This is definitely Sorum like you've never heard him, and that's a wonderful thing. The iconic Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver, and Kings of Chaos drummer steps into the spotlight with a pensive, poignant, and powerful collection of songs. Featuring impassioned vocals by Sorum as well as his intricate yet infectious songwriting, it's an enigmatic and entrancing personal journey worth taking again and again.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Matt Sorum dives deep into Stratosphere and so much more.
What ties this album together for you?
When I sat down, started putting it all together, and collecting the musicians who would play on it, I rehearsed it like a band. I got a bunch of my buddies together, and I said, "Let's go rehearse and play the songs". Sonically, everything fits. I didn't record it at different times or all over the place. I basically worked with the same musicians in the same studio straight through. I had an idea of how I wanted to approach my vocals. Lyrically, I wanted it to be an album that was going to be a "more grownup Matt Sorum," if you will. I wanted to say some things I'd been thinking about. That's really the common thread. There were a couple of songs that stuck out a little bit. I didn't feel it when I put them in the order I wanted to do. I felt everything was pretty cohesive.
The track order really speaks to that.
Thanks! I thought about that. I didn't want to do the traditional thing where you come out banging with a rock song and you've got the ballads here and there. There's some pretty gentle and sensitive stuff on the record, but there's also some thought-provoking lyrics. Initially, I opened with a weird little monologue. It's "Outro (Stratosphere) Pt. 2", and it's actually at the end of the album now. That was my version or my poem that I wrote. It basically says, "Anything's possible and if you put your mind to it you can do it". I basically moved that to the end of the record. My publicist asked me to. She thought it was weird to start with a spoken word thing. I kicked right into "The Sea" instead. It's a song I wrote about having a bit of a spiritual awakening and cleaning up my act a little bit as well as getting married. A lot of different things have happened in the past few years. That's a song about me trying to be positive moving forward in life. That jumped into "What Ziggy Says", which is a David Bowie- and Beatles-influenced song. I always wanted to do a song with horns. I got live horns on that track. I thought about how I was going to put the lyrics together and I wrote down names of everybody in my family—my wife Ace and my dogs, etc. I started writing a song based on my family and the life I have with them.
Where does it go from there?
Well, the most rocking song on the album is probably the third track. That's called "For the Wild Ones". I basically wrote that about what's been going on with animals on the planet and the extinction of a lot of wildlife. It's what I've been thinking about. I've been thinking a lot about the planet and what's going on in this world. That's based on my newfound love of animal activism. I've been doing a lot of work with the Dolphin Project with Ric O'Barry from The Cove. I've also been working with a group called Animals Asia that rescues bears from China and Vietnam. I'm really interested in that. I find my little bit of celebrity does help them raise awareness. People are more educated just by me talking about it a little. It's cool.
Where did "Goodbye to You" come from?
I actually wrote that quite a while ago. It's a personal story lyrically. I initially recorded it with Slash and Duff McKagan. Duff really liked it. The version we did was more of a rock ballad. I'm really into an artist named David Gray. I wanted to do something a bit David Gray. There's a lot of really cool percussion on that one. We did it live and organically. You can take the lyrics for what they mean to you. "Gone" is just about loss and different things you think about.
Was "Stratosphere" something you had written down or was it freestyled?
I'll tell you what happened. I had it written down as this whacky poem I'd written one night really late. I had this word "Stratosphere". I was almost thinking about God's eyes looking down on you. My friend Damon Fox who plays in a band called Bigelf came in and played all of the keyboards. I had this song called "Gone". I said, "Hey man, can we do a little bit of an organ intro to 'Gone', and we can kick into it after this opening vignette". I told him to bring over his Mellotron. It's a really cool instrument that does organs, voices, and horns. It's basically real tapes of old instruments. He brought over the Mellotron. Before we knew it, he'd written this opus. That entire track was done on the Mellotron—all of the strings, voices, little trumpets, and shit going on. He and I did that really late one night. I was like, "Oh fuck, this is a three-minute thing. I've got this poem. Maybe I'll see if I can read the poem over it like a spoken word trip". I went in there and I did it. I did that in the first take, and I had this feeling it would fit. We looked at each other like, "That's really cool". I said, "I'm going to put that on the album" just like that! That's how it happened.
What's the story behind "The Lonely Teardrop"?
That was the last song I did. Lyrically, that's pretty interesting. It's by far the heaviest song on the album in terms of the lyrics. If you really go into the depth of the lyrics, I wrote that another late night. I got out of bed and went in the living room. I have a bunch of guitars all over my house. I have one in my living room and one in my office. I have three in my bedroom. I have a grand piano. I lit the fire in the living room, and I started writing this chord progression on the acoustic. I wrote the lyrics based on a life after death thing. It's about souls and where they go. It's very heavy. I called my engineer and said, "Hey man, can we record? I've got one more thing". We were done with the album, but he came over. I recorded the acoustic guitar. I called my percussionist friend to lay over some sound effects. I basically whispered it when I sang. The second verse is actually my engineer singing in Bulgarian. He's from Bulgaria, and I had him say something very heavy in Bulgarian. It's the icing on the cake before "Outro (Stratosphere) Pt. 2". "Killers and Lovers" is a pretty dark song. It's about the underbelly of a big city like Los Angeles or New York. I was influenced by Taxi Driver when I wrote that one. It's like Robert De Niro meets Miles Davis. It's very brooding and jazz. I wrote "Josephine" on the piano, and that's about my one-hundred-and-one-year-old grandmother. She had a seventy-year relationship with my grandfather. He was in a band, and she was a dancer. They met in the twenties. I wrote the song based on lyrics that would represent dance and music.
Is it important for you to tell stories with the songs?
Something happened to me in the last couple of years where I fell into a place where I felt like I could actually write lyrics and I could be very profound with what I'm saying. It just takes believing in yourself to be able to write something you could actually be proud of. I've always loved the lyrical style of a David Bowie or a Lou Reed. They write in a way that's got a message and a story, but it's a little bit harder to understand unless you really listen to it. I always liked that. You're like, "What's this about?"
What were you into, in terms of art, while writing and recording?
Well, I've been going through a little bit a transition in my life, mainly. I got off drugs and alcohol about six-and-a-half years ago. I've been super into my home life. I got married in October. I haven't been in a rock band per se since about 2008. I got an opportunity to make a record. I took off and went to the desert. I was in the Palms Springs area, and I wrote a lot of it there. Then, I went down to Laguna and the ocean and wrote a lot there. I wanted to do something I thought about doing for many years. This is a big thing for me to make a record completely on my own without any band mates. I had another solo album way back in 2004, but I don't really count that. I feel like this is my first real musical statement to the world. It's a lot of what I'm into. I was thinking about doing something completely from my heart. I wasn't trying to be in a rock band because that's what people know me as or feeling like, "I've got to do this because of what my fans will think". I love Tom Petty. I love Joni Mitchell. I love Bob Dylan. I love a lot more sensitive style music. I love The Doors. It's not all traditional rock shit. I wanted to do something that would suit my voice and I'd feel confident standing on stage and playing. I'm going to be up front holding an acoustic guitar most of the time. I've done it, and I felt really comfortable. At the age I'm at, I don't see myself jumping around on stage, trying to create a new Matt Sorum, and playing hard rock. It just felt natural.
If Stratosphere were a movie or a combination of movies, what would it be?
Wow, maybe Apocalypse Now [Laughs]. That movie is just so heavy, and you go through so many different things. There's the personal struggle of Martin Sheen's character going into this dark valley. Maybe at the end of it there's a little bit of light. What other film would be good? Maybe Out of Africa with Robert Redford! It's a life's journey. It could be Forrest Gump! What is the moral to this story? Everything he did he did with an open heart not knowing the ramifications. I think that's the person I've always tried to be in terms of having an open heart and getting hurt a lot in the process. I think you see that when you look at Tom Hanks. He gets hurt by the girl, but he's almost like Gandhi in that film. He always forgives. I tried to make this album a bit of a cleansing. It's a cathartic process. When you record like this, it's that personal. It cleanses your soul. When I finished the record, I was probably the most relaxed and calm I've ever been in my entire life.
Have you heard Stratosphere yet?