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Photo credit: Andrew Labrow
Photo credit: Andrew Labrow
Photo credit: Dave Coombs
Photo credit: Andrew Labrow
Photo credit: Stuart Ling
Photo credit: Stuart Ling
No one has captured the beat of a city quite like Matt Sorum. The Grammy-winning musician’s skills at the drum kit have earned him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and helped to define the soundtrack to the City of Angels: from the propulsive wail of The Cult, to the wild excess of Guns N’ Roses and the gritty swagger of Velvet Revolver.
Part musician, part ambassador and part self-deprecating bon vivant, Sorum’s unflinching lens into the world of rock and roll has made him a favorite with historians and journalists.
But it’s his reputation as a musician’s musician that has placed him squarely at the center of Hollywood’s A-list community of artists. From Camp Freddy to Kings of Chaos, his side-projects have drawn a staggering number of fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers — from Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (Aerosmith), to Billy F Gibbons (ZZ Top), Joe Elliott (Def Leppard), Robin Zander (Cheap Trick) and Brian May (Queen).
Before Sorum became a world-class musician who sold tens of millions of records with a trio of bands as notorious as they were legendary, he was a California kid who dared to dream.
Matthew William Sorum was born in Long Beach, California, some 35 miles south of L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip. An appearance by The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in the mid-’60s would be a life-changing experience, and foreshadow the trajectory of his career.
“I saw Ringo, and he was sort of like this cartoon character,” he recalls. “I was just a little guy, but I remember going, ‘Oh man, that’s just the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’ Some kids want to be a fireman or a train conductor. But for me, something clicked.”
Young Matt was in kindergarten at the time, and his parents were in the midst of a painful divorce.
“My mom was a teacher, and my dad was this wild, hippie kind of guy,” he explains. “He took me and my two older brothers to Mexico one time in a Volkswagon Bug. He told my mom he was taking us to Tijuana. Instead, we drove 2,000 miles south of the border. We were gone for two weeks.”
Sorum romanticized his father’s carefree lifestyle — a welcome escape from what he says was an abusive stepfather.
“My dad was the guy who sparked my interest in traveling, adventure, taking chances and breaking the rules. He broke the rules a lot,” Sorum admits.
Soon, Sorum started breaking the rules himself, sneaking up to Hollywood in the mid-’70s with a band he started in high school called Prophecy. They played The Starwood on Sundays, which was amateur night.
“Once I was able to move to Hollywood, I did it right away,” he explains. “I had a ‘64 Rambler station wagon I bought for 50 bucks that barely ran — I mean, literally bought it for 50 dollars. And I put all my drums in there.”
In the booze-soaked rooms of the Sunset Strip, Sorum perfected the art of the hustle. He played drums for Y Kant Tori Read, a band fronted by a fledgling singer-songwriter named Tori Amos. But he didn’t stop there.
“There was one time I was in 10 bands at the same time. They used to call me Matt the Mercenary,” he remembers. “I would get $25 for a rehearsal. You had to pay me. Because I was good enough to get paid.”
Sorum’s work ethic was strong and reliable — just like the beat he laid down for collaborators.
“I always woodshedded material,” he says. “So when I walked in, I knew the songs before the band did. I had this ability to listen to a song and play it the first time.”
But there were gigs he didn’t get.
“When I auditioned for David Lee Roth, the best drummers in town were there. And I didn’t get that gig because it wasn’t a perfect fit,” he says.
When Sorum tried out for The Cult in 1988, he was ready.
“I woodshedded for two weeks by myself. I dressed appropriately. I wore all black. I studied the band,” he admits. “It was like being an actor. If you have to read the script, get the script.”
Sorum nailed the audition, and spent the next couple of years with The Cult — until he was famously recruited by Slash to play drums for Guns N’ Roses. He was in for a wild ride.
“I’m on a pirate ship with these other pirates,” he thought. “We were a gang, and you had to act accordingly.”
Sorum spent seven tumultuous years with GNR, from 1990 to 1997. With Axl Rose on vocals, Slash on guitar, and Duff McKagan on bass, they recorded a trio of albums during that time, including the twin pillars of the group’s storied career: Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.
“Stadiums, a private airplane, everything you saw in a Led Zeppelin movie,” he marvels. “And now you’re in that movie!”
But for Sorum, that over-the-top success also triggered some serious childhood trauma.
“You get to the top of the heap, and then you maybe don’t feel worthy of being there because you’ve been told that your whole life,” he explains. “Some self-esteem issues popped up, and then I became a pretty bad alcoholic. A lot of drugs.”
Sorum is candid about hitting rock bottom.
“There were a lot of lows towards the end of GNR, and then after,” he says. “It’s nobody’s fault but mine. If I had been of clearer mind or in a better mental state, I probably would have made better decisions.”
After a rebound stint with The Cult, he released his first solo album in 2003. Hollywood Zen was a collection of 11 poignant tracks addressing addiction, failed relationships and the smoke and mirrors of life in La La Land. Sorum played guitar, as well as drums, on the record.
That same year, he reunited with Slash and Duff to form the hard-rocking quintet, Velvet Revolver, with Dave Kushner (from the punk outfit, Wasted Youth) joining them on rhythm guitar. Their frontman was Scott Weiland, the charismatic and freshly-rehabbed lead singer from Stone Temple Pilots. The band’s half-decade collaboration led to the double-platinum album, Contraband, and its follow-up, Libertad. Their debut single, “Slither,” earned Velvet Revolver a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2005.
“This was the pinnacle moment in my career — even more important than GNR because we were able to reinvent ourselves and have great success,” says Sorum. “I was an equal member and a driving force with this group.”
In recent years, Sorum has indulged his sense of community, tapping his musician friends for a number of star-studded side projects. Camp Freddy — his intermittent cover band with Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro — was always a coveted ticket, boasting guest appearances by everyone from Ozzy Osborne, to Corey Taylor from Slipknot and the late Chester Bennington from Linkin Park. Later groups, like Circus Diablo, Kings of Chaos and Hollywood Vampires, also featured revolving lineups of rock and roll royalty.
In 2014, Sorum released Stratosphere, his sophomore solo album. It was a departure from his signature sound, exploring lush string arrangements and an Americana vibe.
In between music projects, Sorum has spread his wings as an entrepreneur. He’s the founder of six startup companies, and sits on the Global Blockchain Business Council at UCLA. He also gathers each year with top global leaders in business, government and academia at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He’s the brainchild behind a vinyl club curated by top musicians called experiencevinyl.com, and this summer, look for Sorum to introduce a Brazilian beer — appropriately titled The Drummer — to thirsty consumers throughout the United States.
In 2020, Runaway’s lead singer Cherie Currie released her long-awaited album, Blvds of Splendor. Produced by Sorum a decade earlier, the LP was nonetheless critically-acclaimed and hailed as the greatest release of Currie’s career.
Also in 2020, while the world was in pandemic lockdown, Sorum co-wrote and co-produced Hardware, the third solo album for his pal, Billy F Gibbons from ZZ Top. Sorum’s skills on the drum kit are on display, as are his creative talents as producer on a quartet of music videos, including the lead single, “West Coast Junkie.” The album drops in June, just before another highly-anticipated Sorum delivery — a baby girl for him and his wife, Ace Harper, a fashion designer and musician in her own right.
“I’m ready to be a father now,” he says.
Life has a way of coming full circle, but Sorum has no regrets.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he says. “Make of it what you will. It wasn’t perfect. Life isn’t. You try to make fewer mistakes the next time around, and you forgive yourself for past trials and tribulations. Self-respect is when you finally realize, ‘I got nothing to prove.’”
Sorum’s autobiography, Double Talkin’ Jive: True Rock ‘n’ Roll Stories from the Drummer of Guns N’ Roses, The Cult, and Velvet Revolver, is available wherever books are sold on September 7th, 2021.
Modern Drummer podcast - John DeChristopher Live From My Drum Room With Matt Sorum
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