Appetite for Creation: An Interview with Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Quick! Name a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who's played with Celine Dion, Guns N' Roses and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

If you guessed Matt Sorum, you'd be right. He's also performed and recorded with Solomon Burke, The Cult, Tori Amos and Velvet Revolver. He has primarily worked as a drummer. Yet his new solo album, Stratosphere, from his band Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy, is a departure from all that.

Matt wrote and arranged Stratosphere, and provided lead vocals, guitar and keyboards. And he uses his stardom to shine a light on injustice.

Forget about that Dos Equis guy. Matt Sorum is the most interesting man in the world.

This is a transcript of an interview with Matt.

Ed Ponsi: With the release of Stratosphere, fans are going to be surprised at your diverse musical tastes and abilities. What was your inspiration for this album?

Matt Sorum: I'm known as a rock guy, but I've always loved so many diverse artists. I was a huge Joni Mitchell fan; I remember listening to a lot of her records back to back. Neil Young, Tom Petty, the Beatles of course, and I was a huge Bowie fan. I was also into progressive stuff, like early Genesis, Peter Gabriel era. You can hear that influence on the new album; there are a couple of songs that have some interesting time changes.

I've always dabbled on the acoustic guitar, and I wrote a couple songs for Velvet Revolver. In Guns N' Roses, Axl and Slash looked to me for arrangements. I wasn't the predominant songwriter, but I've always been involved in the process. When I put Stratosphere together, I actually had a lot of it on cassette. I'd been writing the songs over the years, and I wanted to do an album that was just coming from me, regardless of anyone's expectations.

EP: You're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Guns N' Roses. You've played for The Cult and Velvet Revolver. But not many people realize you also played for Gladys Knight and the Pips.

MS: I came to Hollywood right out of high school around '79. When I started, I was getting $25 per rehearsal, and $50 per gig. I was playing in seven or eight bands at the same time. I loved playing in bands, and I didn't want to get a real job. I developed a good instinct for finding the right guys, learning to deal with all the different personalities.

I had a buddy who was working for a famous producer, Michael Lloyd. My first session was working with Gladys Knight and the Pips. I was in my early twenties, Orange County kid, blond hair. As a drummer, I listened to everything: Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, the Average White Band. I had a background in funk, believe it or not.

So I nailed the gig and ended up playing on a lot of stuff for them. Out of that I did sessions for Belinda Carlisle; I played with the famous gospel singer "King" Solomon Burke. I worked with Ronnie Spector, Celine Dion. I did tons of stuff that people don't know about. I did Tori Amos's first album.

And then I got a little burnt out on studio work. I got tired of being everyone else's drummer. I wanted to be a known guy. My dream was to be like John Bonham, Keith Moon or Ginger Baker in terms of drumming ability and notoriety. I wanted to be recognized, so I started auditioning for bands.

I joined Jeff Paris. We got signed to Polygram Records. Then I joined The Cult in the late '80s. I went through this metamorphosis, all these different styles. And it made me into a guy who can morph into anything. In order to have a career, sometimes you have to do that. You have to be able to walk into any situation and be that guy.

It's been an amazing journey. I feel very confident about who I am now. Not really caring about this being a commercial album. Not worrying about a record company, which is very freeing.

EP: I talked to Rob DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots recently. He also has this really wide, diverse taste in music. He likes Motown, the Sound of Philadelphia. It seems like great musicians share that diverse outlook.

MS: If you watch Rob play bass, you can tell he loves James Jamerson (of Motown Records). Led Zeppelin, if you listen to it, the backbone of that music is Motown, especially John Paul Jones. Even Bonham's style -- he was so much more than just a rock drummer. There's a lot of other stuff going on there. To be an artist, I always tell young musicians, go back and study the greats.

That's what I did as a kid. I actually started playing guitar at the same time I started playing drums. I grew up in a musical family. I've always written songs, and used the classics as my inspiration.

EP: Is Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy going out on tour?

MS: We're going to tour, but it isn't going to be a typical rock show. If I'm going to front a band, I can't see myself, at my age, jumping up and playing rock and roll the way Dave Grohl does. Dave pulls it off, running around the stage with an electric guitar. But would that feel right for me? How can I make this feel natural, a natural progression, growing into the man that I finally feel that I am, and saying what I want to say now?

EP: On Lady of the Stone, you address issues that concern you, like climate change.

MS: Yeah, that's my take on Mother Nature. If she could talk, what would she say? It's really back to us. I'm concerned about pollution from the beef industry as well as the auto industry. I'm very concerned about radioactive material in the ocean, with overfishing, with the slaughter of sharks.

EP: You've been tweeting about the slaughter of dolphins in Denmark and in Japan.

MS: I think the idea that this slaughter is a "tradition" is absolutely barbaric. In this day and age, for someone to endorse a slaughter for the sake of tradition -- it's an outdated, barbaric ritual. It's got to go.

And anything that has to do with animals being taken from the wild to perform tricks for us, for our amusement? It's not acceptable in the 21st century. I'm very opposed to it, and I'm fighting it. To me, it's my new rebellion.

EP: But isn't that what rock and roll really is, a rebellion? Artists writing about things that matter to them.

MS: It seems like rock has been pushed back. It's behind the scenes and pop music is out front again. People are focused on pop nonsense that has no depth. Look at Monterrey Pop, Woodstock, a lot of that has to do with cultural change, freedom of expression, a celebration of life. It's about a feeling. When people play my music, I want them to have that feeling.

When I was in my 20's, I wanted to party, chase girls -- I was learning about life. Now I'm in a different place. I'm married. I'm going to have kids. What's the future going to be like for my children? As an artist in the tradition of Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, I want to write lyrics that speak to people, about things that matter.

EP: One song that's going to speak to listeners is "The Sea."

MS: I wrote that song on acoustic, then piano. I always heard the desert was a cool place to write, so I headed out to Joshua Tree. Then in my hometown, we used to go to a little beach getaway called the Surf and Sand, and I wrote the lyric to "The Sea" there. I was sitting on a balcony, overlooking the ocean, thinking about life. I started thinking about the sea as a metaphor for spiritual awakening.

EP: There's a beautiful slide guitar in "The Sea."

MS: The musicians in Fierce Joy are all great friends of mine. One thing about the music business, there are great musicians who've never seen the light of day; the business is the hardest part of being a musician.

When I formed Fierce Joy, I wanted to put a great band together with guys that I love. They've all played on big records. Randy Ray Mitchell, I've known him for 20 years, he played slide guitar. I can say to him, "Hey man, play slide on this song kinda like David Linley, a Jackson Browne kind of vibe," and he'll say, "OK, no problem". The bass player, Paul Ill, is one of my favorite bass players in the world. Damon Fox is an amazing organ player. He's got all the old vintage instruments.

All the instruments on the album are from the '60s and '70s. All the guitars are old, all classic. We recorded the whole album live, played it live. We rehearsed it together as a band and cut the album in three days.

When I wanted to add an orchestra, I hired a friend of mine, a cello player named Cameron Stone who played with Tracy Chapman. He put together the string section for me. After I left Guns, I did about six film scores, so the orchestration has a very cinematic feel to it.

EP: Tell us more about your work in films and TV.

MS: I did a lot of indie stuff. A ton of stuff that's been at Sundance, a film called Soundman. I did a ton of stuff for ESPN. If you watch the X-Games, a lot of that is me. It's a challenge.

EP: I'd describe Stratosphere as having a positive vibe. The song "Blue" has a very positive message. Turn off the gadgets and relate to each other as human beings.

MS: People represent the color blue as kind of a sad thing. I wanted people to look up, look at the sky, look at the people around you. It's a metaphor, open your eyes, look at your surroundings.

EP: Talk about "Ode to Nick Drake." It's amazing how his music has endured over the years.

MS: I first heard Nick Drake's music about 10 years ago. I remember hearing a song called "The River Man." It was done in a 5:4 time signature. That's also the time signature I used for "Ode to Nick Drake."

For the lyrics, I used kind of a David Bowie technique. He'd write down lyrics, cut them up and move them around. I wrote titles of Nick Drake songs and began to move them around in a similar way. I made a love story out of the titles of his songs. It's really honoring him, and his story.

EP: "Land of the Pure" has this incredible violin solo that comes out of nowhere.

MS: That was Lilli Haydn, she's an incredible virtuoso, played with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant. She's next level.

That song stems from the story of Malala, a child who was shot in Pakistan because the Taliban doesn't believe women should be educated. It's really about millions of women all over the world who are being denied an education.

EP: "Josephine" is another great song.

MS: "Josephine" is about my 101-year-old grandmother. She's a ballerina who met my grandfather in the 1920s, when he was playing in an orchestra. That's their love story. That's me on piano backed by a string quartet. I gave that song to her as her 100th birthday gift.

EP: I understand you might be touring with some old friends soon, Kings of Chaos.

MS:We're working on a two or three month tour for this summer with Kings of Chaos. I'm going to tour Stratosphere too. I'm going to be busy.

EP: Kings of Chaos is like an all-star team.

MS: We recently went to South America, and we brought Slash, Duff (McKagan), Gilby (Clarke), who are my old band mates from Guns. We also had Steve Stevens (of Billy Idol), Cory Taylor (of Slipknot), and Joe Elliot (of Def Leppard). We played 20,000 seats a night in South America, 10,000 in Africa. It was amazing, a lot of star power on one stage.

EP: In addition to your other causes, you're an advocate for music and art programs in schools.

MS: I formed Adopt the Arts about four years ago, with my neighbor. A nearby school had no music program, so I outfitted them with about 50 guitars, 25 keyboards, and two drum kits. We basically adopted the school. We've raised enough money for over 1,000 instruments, distributed to about 25 schools, and provided art and theater programs too. We're planning to go into a lot more schools this year.

EP: That's an incredible commitment.

MS: It's a full-time job. We're opening an office. I'm going to the (California) state capitol soon to speak at a Senate hearing on the arts. I went to Washington, D.C., with Yo-Yo Ma last year to fight for music and arts funding in schools.

Art and creativity aren't extracurricular activities. The modern world is a creative world. Steve Jobs was a creative mind. Companies need creative people. Where else are you going to find that creativity, if not through the arts? We have to keep the arts alive in our schools.

Stratosphere is scheduled for release on March 11. Follow Matt on Twitter at @mattsorum.


This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

Ed Ponsi is the managing director of Barchetta Capital Management, an NFA-registered commodity trading advisory, and also provides educational services through An experienced professional trader, Ponsi has advised a variety of hedge funds and institutional traders. Ed has appeared on CNBC more than 100 times and has been profiled in magazines such as "Technical Analysis of Stocks and Commodities" and "The Traders Journal." He is the author of Forex Patterns and Probabilities, a top-selling book on currency trading and The Ed Ponsi Forex Playbook, which was endorsed by Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at The Johns Hopkins University. Ed's books have been published in English, Vietnamese, and simplified Chinese.

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