|Velvet Revolver takes rock back to the basics
by David Weiss
Enough with the sensitive guy stuff. It’s time for some serious rockers to blast the arenas, trash the hotel, and blow out of town on a rolling party of a bus. That’s the attitude behind Velvet Revolver, the first true rock supergroup to show up in a long time. Their drummer, Matt Sorum, is with the program and then some.
“I still like to look at rock and roll as my lifestyle,” says Sorum, talking on – what else? – a cell phone from the backyard of his home in – where else? – Los Angeles. “It’s not just a job that I do. I like to live it full on, stay out there, keep my ear to the street, date hot girls, or whatever. Sometimes it’s gotten the best of me, but it’s good for me and will be until I decide to put the drum sticks down and live it differently.”
Got it? In case you missed the point, Sorum is done doing things halfway. Arguably on e of the strongest-sounding drummers in rock, he’s been through enough big hits and near misses for three L.A. session players. But now it’s 2004 and he’s back, playing harder than ever and, if life is fair, poised to re-educate the world on what a true rock drummer sounds like.
The rebirth of Sorum’s much-deserved high profile comes courtesy of the release of Contraband, the explosive debut album from Velvet Revolver. With a lineup that includes the wildly unpredictable lead vocalist Scott Weiland (ex-Stone Temple Pilots), guitar-god Slash (from Guns ‘N’ Roses), bassist Duff McKagan (GNR again), and guitarist Dave Kushner (Electric Love Hogs, Dave Navarro), Sorum is surrounded by the kind of star power that he craves. And provided Weiland can keep his smack-addicted ass out of rehab and/or jail for more than a minute, Sorum and his bandmates might actually get to show the world what they can do.
After surviving the emotional swings of working with an egomaniac like Guns ‘N’ Roses’ infamous Axl Rose, Sorum believes a wild card like Weiland is a gamble worth taking. “Most of the singers I’ve worked with are a little crazy, but it usually makes for a great rock band,” he says. “When they’re comfy and sweet, they usually suck! It’s the same with drummers. Drummers that aren’t complete animals or out of their minds usually suck. Most rock drummers I know are maniacs – the good ones anyway. But there’s a lot of room for Velvet Revolver to step right in and fill a void, because I don’t think there’s a rock band out there like us right now.”
While Sorum is at his happiest when he’s viewing an arena from behind a drum kit, there’s plenty more he can do – and in fact, has had to do – to keep himself in the game. Looking at the big picture, Sorum’s career is a modern prototype for the working musician, drawing on versatility, talent, resiliency, a flexible attitude, and total commitment in order to sustain his career. Besides drumming, Sorum has taken successful turns as a film composer, record producer, and also did his own album of material, Hollywood Zen, where he sang and played most of the instruments himself (check it out at mattsorum.com).
The theme through it all has been a mixture of true grit, creativity and that aforementioned love of rock and everything it stands for. His rise to the top in the late ‘80’s, with Tori Amos and the Cult, and then his mega-breakout in 1990 with GNR, is well-documented. Being a member of a band that sold 30 million albums after he joined (Use Your Illusion I & II and The Spaghetti Incident) also came with another 30 million headaches, however, as GNR put Sorum and their fans through a litany of temper tantrums, drug problems, breakups, and general mayhem that would stretch clear unit 1997.
His 1996 side project, Neurotic Outsiders (with McKagan, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and Sex Pistol Steve Jones) was the true beginning of the end for Sorum and GNR. “Every time we went out on the road,” Sorum recalls, “Slash would pull us back in and say, ‘Don’t tour, we’re going to record,’ and then he wouldn’t show up at the studio. So it started to be a pisser. It became a real thorn in my side, and I was like, ‘I’m going to have to let down the moniker of ‘Drummer of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ and just go back to being ‘Matt Sorum, Drummer.” I felt the music was becoming secondary to my position or status, so I let go of that.
“Then in 1997 we got into an argument and I said, ‘This is not right, we’ve got to pull the band together. This is not brain surgery, this is rock and roll: two guitars, bass, vocals, and drums. Don’t over-think it.’ He said, ‘Are you going to quit?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You’re fired.’”
Just like that, Sorum was a free agent again, and the doors to a new beginning opened up. He produced a Top 40 single for the band Poe, and then formed Orange Curtain Productions with his partner Lanny Cordola. The results of that partnership were impressive, yielding six film scores and production gigs with Candlebox, Sen-Dog from Cypress Hill, blues legend Little Milton, and Ronnie Spector.
It wouldn’t be long until Sorum felt the need to return, cautiously, to what he does best: overwhelming a drum set. “I said, ‘I’m tired of this band business.’ It was getting too political. So I got into making music with people. Before I was in the Cult or Tori Amos, I was in 50 bands. I played with everyone. I didn’t care, as long as it was music and it was good.”
In 1999 Sorum was back with some old friends, the Cult, and back on the roller coaster. “We got back together for a reunion tour, had an awesome time, and then a bunch of labels had a bidding war,” he says. “We made a record with Bob Rock, Beyond Good and Evil, which came out on the Lava/Atlantic label, and did a big tour around that. It was very fun, but Ian (Astbury) and Billy (Duffy) really didn’t like the radio business and that kind of stuff. Times have changed, you have to kiss a lot more ass, and we weren’t willing to do it.
“The record sold 200,000 copies, which isn’t bad, but not much in this day and age. We opened for Aerosmith and did some arenas, which is where I feel at home – I love that stuff. But then there was a lot of stuff happening with the record company. It got bought out by AOL Time Warner, and any band that hadn’t sold enough units was let go. We were let go.”
Discouraged and cut loose again in 2001, Sorum started working on the solo album that would become Hollywood Zen. His work would be interrupted by sad news: his friend and Ozzy/Motley Crue drummer Randy Castillo had been diagnosed with a form and cancer called Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Before the music community could finish organizing a benefit, however, the popular and talented Castillo passed away on March 26, 2002, at the age of 51.
But the show must go on, and the benefit became a tribute. Castillo would no doubt be pleased to know that, besides showcasing a night of phenomenal drumming, his sendoff would be the starting point for the hard artistry of Velvet Revolver. Reunited on stage with Slash and McKagan (known to all as Duff), the three must have decided that they didn’t really hate each other’s guts after all, and started fresh.
With the chemistry between them bubbling up, the ex-GNR trio recruited Kushner as their second guitarist. Now all they needed was a singer, but filling that job would prove to be the hard part. After an unsuccessful early stint with Josh Todd of Buckcherry, the group made the unusual move of trying an open call for a new frontman. VH1 documented the process for a special, but what they captured on tape wasn’t pretty. “We heard so many different singers, and every singer lent itself to a different vibe,” Sorum recalls. “As soon as we heard the vocals that people were sending in, we knew we were in trouble.”
While most of the singers coming in off the streets, unfortunately, sucked, Velvet Revolver benefited by going in unexpected new directions during the various auditions. Meanwhile, Duff was hanging out with Weiland socially, and managed to draw the gravelly-voiced singer into the fold. The lineup set, Velvet Revolver was ready to go to work.
The band had a hit almost immediately after they formed, recording the single “Set Me Free” for The Hulk soundtrack. The strength of the song, a 162 bpm barn-burner, started another bidding war, and this time the winner of the Sorum lottery was the legendary Clive Davis, now heading RCA Records. “Clive made us a true offer, he showed us the utmost respect, and just seemed passionate about it,” says Sorum. “When I’m lucky enough to get five minutes with him, he’s the most awesome, sweetest person. He knows what he’s doing. He’s got the vision.”
For Sorum, his professional situation had come full circle. He was back in the saddle with Slash and Duff, and all he had to do was the thing he loves best. “I’ve gotten more into drumming than ever,” he confirms. “I kind of had a lull there after GNR where I didn’t want to touch the drums for a while. But I look at it like, if it wasn’t for the drums, I wouldn’t have had any of the experiences that I’ve had in my life. Everywhere I’ve traveled, every position or gig I’ve gotten was because I’m a good drummer, real simple. For some reason, people like the way I play the drums. I’m good at it. I should stick by it, and do the other things as a branch of my musicality.”
Working with the goal of recording a highly modern-sounding CD quickly without over-intellectualizing the process, Velvet Revolver hired producer Josh Abraham (Limp Bizkit, Orgy, Staind) to crack the whip. “I wanted to approach this differently,” says Sorum. “I didn’t want to play a bunch of old rock beats. I wanted to just go forward and push it a little more. There’s a simplicity to rock and roll – the ‘boom whack boom boom whack’ approach – which I could have played, but I wanted to make more of a percussive element and really drive the music. I wanted to be inspired by some of the records I’ve liked over the last couple of years, like Queens of the Stone Age (Songs for the Deaf, the way Dave Grohl played on that was insane. And some stuff, like the Refused, I took it back like a Ringo tip: I only used two microphones, miked it up old-school and played it real light. Stuff I never did with GNR.”
Sorum’s endeavors outside of drumming made him all the more ready to try some new tricks for Contraband. “Getting into film scores changed my approach to drums,” he notes. “I got more into the technique. Some of the tracks, I’m not hitting the drums as hard as I used to be. I’ve noticed over the years you can get a lot of different kinds of tones in the studio if you don’t whack it so hard. But a lot of times, I’m beating the hell out of the drums, because I’m inspired to. With Slash going, I can’t sit there and tickly them! Then you watch Led Zeppelin, and the space that was created for his drumming. My animal is trying t fit my stuff around all that stuff.”
The rhythm section took a stream-of-consciousness approach to getting their parts done for the new songs. “The riffs would come in, and I would play what I felt for them initially. Me and Duff don’t get analytical about it. We’re not Tool, that’s for sure. We let it rip. If anybody puts their foot down and says, ‘That’s enough!’ it’s usually Duff. If we want to do more than three takes, he’s usually over it. The record is pretty live. We tracked everything live – the only track where we did bass and drums separately was ‘Headspace.’”
The result is an album, and drum tracks, that will leave an impression. A preview listen revealed a CD with no bad songs, and a number of tunes that slam, coming out of the gate with total destructive force. Songs like the opener, “Sucker Train Blues” announce the band’s arrival with a vengeance, featuring ripping Slash guitar tracks and strong playing by Sorum, loaded with a barrage of fast fills. “Do It for the Kids” is thick rock featuring great punch on the snare and juicy hi-hat work. Later, “Big Machine” gives Sorum the space he’s been craving, while “Illegal” features a hyper-fast snare intro and a breathtaking, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel. Later, try not to get your head crushed by the big toms of “Fall to Pieces.”
“We recorded the bigger rock stuff at NRG Studios in the Valley,” Sorum reports. “It’s funny, when Andy Wallace mixed it, he didn’t use a lot of the room. The drums are really tight and in your face. He did some interesting things texturing the drums, but it sounds modern. It still sounds like me. And then we did the one track that’s called ‘You Got No Right,’ which is like a mid-tempo ballad that was recorded in more of a ‘70s room. I wanted a really in-you-face drum sound, and they’re really punchy. For ‘Loving the Alien,’ I did a two-mike setup on the drum kit with some baffles.”
Sorum’s considerable expertise in the studio shows with his careful consideration of snare drums. “I mixed it up with a few different snares. I thought I needed a couple of higher-sounding snares because it brought out the attitude a lot, and really moved the track in a fresher perspective. When it’s all thumpy and padded down, it doesn’t seem to give it much attitude. If you have a little more boink in the snare, you get a little more sizzle out of the track. On a ballad where I want something deeper, like the nice pocket on ‘Dirty Little Thing,’ which sounds like an old STP song, I used the bell brass, just to make it sound honking.”
Serving as a great complement to the thrust of Sorum’s snare work is his hat mastery, which comes through in subtly effective ways throughout the disc. “It’s all about the open hat, isn’t it?” he says. “I used 14” Zildjians – they had a lot of attitude. I love a nice swishy, open hat. For years I played 15s, they were a little deeper and darker sounding, but for some reason the set of 14s that I found, people were like, ‘What’s up with those?’ So I just like playing them, and I left them up the whole album.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been more finesseful on my cymbals than on my drums. When I play my cymbals, I try to finesse something and play them with some swing. I like the open hats, but I listen to Ian Paice and John Bonahm, they used some great ‘sneaky Petes,’ you know, the ‘tssss tssss.’ I’m like, ‘That’s so cool!’ I kind of do them randomly. If you listen to old rock drummers, they just randomly did them, they weren’t in any order, and he’d just throw them in there, like the and of two, not even a spot where you’d expect it. I think that comes from funk drumming, and Duff McKagan.”
Whatever happens next with Velvet Revolver, Matt Sorum is happy to have Contraband under his belt, and the feeling that he’s back at the top of the drumming game. “When you put everything into it, it’s an explosive craft we’ve got,” says Sorum. “You have t load yourself up with ammo, and I still do it in different ways. I’m probably more intense about it now than ever. I just want it to be the best it possibly can be. That’s how I am – I’m just hard on myself. I’m really passionate abut drumming, and I don’t think I’ve changed.
“I don’t look at my drum tracks under a microscope. I look at what I’m setting up for the band to do their thing on. I’m the foundation of a great track. I only know that from experience, recording a great drum track and then having to record the other instruments over it. Having a bad drum track – that really sucks. A good one makes it go down easy like butter on toast. It just slides on there, really nice.”
1960: Born in Venice Beach, California.
1974: Forms high school band Prophecy and begins playing L.A. clubs like the Starwood, Whiskey a Go-Go, and Gazzarri’s.
1978: Moves to New Orleans, then back to L.A. In the following years he plays sessions and gigs with artists like Shawn Cassidy, Belinda Carlisle, and King Solomon Burke.
1986: Forms Y Kant Tori Read with Tori Amos, which releases self-titled album on Atlantic. Appears on Wired Up (Polygram) by Jeff Paris Band.
1988: Auditions and lands the gig for The Cult, touring the world opening for bands like Metallica and Aerosmith.
1990: Replaces Steven Adler in Guns N’ Roses
1991: First show with GNR in front of 140,000 people in Rio de Janeiro. GNR releases Use Your Illusion I and II (Geffen).
1992: Wins two awards at the MTV Music Awards. Plays with GNR in front of 72,000 people at the Freddie Mercury Tribute at Wembley Arena.
1993: GNR releases The Spaghetti Incident? (Geffen). Appears on Duff McKagan’s solo album Bellieve In Me (Geffen).
1994: Appears with the Buddy Rich Big Band on Burnin’ For Buddy (Atlantic), an all-star drummers tribute CD produced by Neil Peart dedicated to the memory of Buddy Rich
1995: Appears on Gilby Clarke’s Pawnshop Guitars (Virgin), and It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (Geffen) by Slash’s Snakepit. Produces Poe’s CD Hello (Atlantic).
1996: Releases Neurotic Outsiders (Warner Bros), a self-titled album recorded with Steve Jones, John Taylor, and Duff McKagan. Plays the opening of the Hard Rock Hotel Las Vegas backing up artists like Seal, Bo Diddley, Mellissa Etheridge, and B.B. King. Plays the Elvis Presley Tribute in Memphis with Sammy Hagar and Don Was. Appears on The Tonight Show with Billy Idol.
1997: Quits Guns N’ Roses. Records Marching To Mars (MCA) with Sammy Hagar. Forms Orange Curtain Productions with partner Lanny Cordola.
1998: Releases instructional video Drum Licks + Tricks from the Rock + Roll Jungle (Hal Leonard).
1999: Rejoins The Cult for sold-out summer tour. Records The Way It Is (Shrapnel) with Glenn Hughes. Temporarily fills in after Tommy Lee quits Motley Crue.
2000: Releases Feel (EMI) with Glenn Hughes.
2001: Releases Beyond Good And Evil (Atlantic) with The Cult. Regroups with Slash and Duff McKagan to form Velvet Revolver.
2003: Tours with his own band Camp Freddy, featuring Dave Navarro. Releases solo album Hollywood Zen (Brash Music), with Sorum on guitar, vocals, and drums.