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Matt Sorum: Velvet Revolver Reloads

Ten minutes to showtime at the Warfield in San Francisco — the lights flash electric blue, a screaming crowd pushes toward the stage in furious, surging fits, fists pump in the air, beers spill, and everywhere you look, ripped jeans and faded concert T’s. On stage an ominous, eardrum-splitting wall of Marshalls stares down an army of bass amps, and a towering drum riser worthy of Keith Moon threatens to shatter the sound barrier. Into the spotlight step Slash and Duff McKagan, tattooed forearms flexing, fingers blistering through electric, blues-inspired rock — riff after riff. Behind them, the mighty thump of Matt Sorum’s merciless kick: beefy, solid, relentless. You can almost feel the heat, sweat, and rock oozing from every pore. And, damn, if you can’t help but half hope Axl Rose will stagger and swagger up, grab hold of the mike, and tear through those impossible highs on “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Because this could almost be a Guns N’ Roses concert, circa 1989. It could be, but it’s not. This is 2007. And this is neither the G N’ R of yesteryear nor some half-hearted reunion tour. Gone is the gritty, restless, boastful, frantic, sleaze-rock spirit. In its place: a few more wrinkles, a few extra pounds, the lanky, gyrating baritone of ex-Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland, and undeniable chops. It’s a blend of emotive guitar solos, pulsing bass, and thundering drums, rolled into one lean, mean, loose stadium-rock sound that pays tribute to its past, while moving fearlessly forward. Ladies and gentleman, this is Velvet Revolver.

MAKING PEACE WITH THE PAST. It’s been more than a decade since the demise of Guns N’ Roses — or at least a G N’ R that bore any resemblance to the original lineup, Axl “I am the band” Rose notwithstanding. You know the G N’ R we mean: the testosterone-oozing, hair-teasing, sweat-dripping, shirtless, skinny-waisted, wailing, heroin-fueled rockers of “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Paradise City.” The makers of Appetite For Destruction and Use Your Illusion I and II stand as the ultimate monument to outrageous overindulgence, a testament to the heyday of L.A.’s all glam all the time Sunset Strip. And beat basher Matt Sorum, who joined the Axl Rose/Slash/Duff McKagan triumvirate in 1991, was at the center of it all.

“It feels so far away,” Sorum says, reflecting on those heady days, a twinge of nostalgia creeping into is voice. “I can’t even believe I was actually there. It’s like watching somebody else’s movie. It was all so surreal; I don’t even believe I’m still alive!”

To be honest, neither can we. How anyone could survive such a grueling tour schedule, Axl’s notorious tantrums and tirades, and, let’s be blunt — all those damn drugs — is nothing short of a miracle.

It’s been 11 years since the powerhouse hitter was booted from G N’ R for sticking up for Slash, leaving Axl to languish in the anguished throes of Chinese Democracy. And it’s been more than six years since VR began. But you can’t escape the past. And Matt Sorum knows it. And on the eve of Velvet Revolver’s second album, Libertad, he’s only now beginning to make sense of it all.

“What was hard about leaving G N’ R was that I had to walk away from, ’You’re Matt Sorum of Guns N’ Roses vs. you’re Matt Sorum.’ Now I’m fine with just being Matt Sorum in or out of Velvet Revolver or G N’ R or whatever. It’s a maturity thing,” he laughs, as if uncertain whether he truly believes this last bit himself.

After all, he’s got a reputation to uphold. But despite his image as keeper of the party-boy flame and his confirmed bachelor status, he’s not in his twenties anymore. And, brace yourself — Matt Sorum is (are you ready for this?) all grown-up. Well, okay, not all grown-up, but almost. “I’m maturing,” he says, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. “Not like a fine wine, but maybe a fine whisky — single malt.”

It’s a particular brand of maturity. We’re not talking the Armani suit, polished shoes, starched whites variety, but the denim jacket, Prada sunglasses, gelled, spiky blond hair, and tightly fitted black jeans version: 100-percent rock star grown-up. Sitting down at a tiny outdoor table at L.A.’s King’s Road Café, it’s evident in an instant, Sorum’s a classic. Like a cherry red convertible Model-T, he’s the sort of L.A. rocker that makes you think, they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

“I play a style of drums that maybe a lot of guys don’t play anymore. I come from the old-school background; AC/DC, big arena rock. I’m a guy that’s known for big tom fills,” he says. “Rock and roll has changed. The kind of excesses that we were known for were maybe more excusable back then. You can’t actually go out there and promote sex, drugs, rock and roll — but everyone knows where we’ve been.”

It’s true. Everyone knows the tale of the demise of Guns N’ Roses — of the shows cut short mid-set by tantrums, of the drug binges, of the ousting, one by one, of all members but Axl. Everyone knows of the reunion, at a benefit for the family of former Ozzy/Motley Crüe drummer Randy Castillo, that brought Slash, Duff, and Sorum back together again in 2001, reigniting that magical musical chemistry; of the VH1-documented search for a singer that ultimately led to Weiland, prompting the gleeful headline in Blender, “Three ex-G N’ R-ers finally find a singer who’s crazier than Axl!”; of the making of Contraband, crafted with Weiland — in pure bad boy form — in and out of jail and rehab; and of the debut CD’s thunderous reception, which shot VR straight to the #1 Billboard slot. “With the first record we definitely had something to prove,” Sorum recalls. “A lot of people came out because they wanted to see us fail. This time we can relax more. We’ve already established ourselves.”

GIVE ME FREEDOM. It’s been three years since Contraband silenced naysayers. It’s a moment for reflection and a new direction. Enter Libertad — an album that, rather than a raucous, rock and roll, high-speed ride, takes listeners on a journey through the halls of history — channeling everything from Motown, to Jim Morrison, to AC/DC, to Van Halen. An album that straddles that trickiest of lines — with VR giving a nod to its G N’ R and STP roots, while firmly trying to establish a new — dare we say it? — more musically mature path. A path that pushes listeners to ponder: can you be both modern and classic?

“We wanted to take it back and strip it down,” Sorum says of the new album. “We wanted it to be less dance-sounding, more different colors and textures in the music, things that could stand out. It wasn’t just coming at you like a big bulk of music. Some of [Contraband] did that. At times it was like a big barrage coming at you, like ahhh! It wasn’t the most dynamic album, but it was cool. It was aggressive. It was punk rock at times. And it needed to come out that way. When we made this record we looked at our sound and went, ’Hey man, let’s get us sounding more like how we like ourselves to sound.’ We really wanted to make a more organic-sounding album than our first album, guitar tone-wise, drum tone-wise, sonically.”

But to do that, they needed help. Post Contraband, Velvet Revolver had compiled scattered fragments — jammed out riffs and melodic hints — but few complete songs. And Weiland wasn’t feeling it. “We compiled about ten together and gave them to Scott, and he came back with only two vocals; some he didn’t gravitate toward,” Sorum recalls. “So we were going through like, ’What direction are we headed toward?’ Then we had to find a producer, and we were looking for that right guy.”

FINDING MR. RIGHT. Whether you’re a bride-to-be hell bent on marriage, 2.5 kids, and a low-interest mortgage by 23, or one of rock’s biggest super-groups looking for a producer to help turn your rough, raw tracks into polished diamonds, finding the perfect guy is never easy.

At first, VR thought that guy might be celebrated producer Rick Rubin. But with Rubin there was no spark, no song-crafting chemistry. “We weren’t ready for Rick,” Sorum says. “Rick’s a real song guy, and he really wasn’t hearing anything.” Rubin kept sending them back to the drawing board every few weeks. “We started to doubt ourselves,” remembers bassist Duff McKagan. “We were like, ’Oh my God, maybe we suck!’”

In the end VR looked to the past and to Brendan O’Brien, who’d worked with Weiland in the STP days. It turned out to be just the good, swift kick they needed. “One day Scott and I just looked at each other and said, ’We’ve got to get Brendan O’Brien in here to fire us up,” Sorum recalls. “When Brendan came, everything changed overnight. He was like, ’Treat me like a sixth member and let’s do it.’”

Suddenly it was rock and roll boot camp, with rehearsals six days a week at A&M. O’Brien shifted through the mountain of 50-plus riffs and put the guys through the paces, one at a time. He sat in the center of the room, guitar in hand, guiding Slash’s emotive, untamed, mind-melting riffs into melodies, pushing Weiland’s wailing range, coaxing Duff’s bass and Dave Kushner’s guitar, and urging Sorum’s big, beefy hits to alternately go big or pull back.

“I like that because I like to be challenged and pushed,” Sorum says. “I’ve played on so many albums and so many drum parts, sometimes I might just go for that natural thing that might just be boring. I want to be as creative as possible.”

For an example of where O’Brien stretched his creativity, check out the marching beat that leads off “The Last Fight.” “Initially I would have done something a little more open, but he wanted me to play this kick pattern. And he wanted me to do a lot of tom fills. He said, ’I want you to roll, roll, roll! Give ’em a fill every time there’s no vocal. Give me roundhouses!’ he laughs. “I almost thought it was a little overplaying. But it was very Ringo-esque. Me and him had a great back and forth and so anything he wanted me to do I was open to doing — that’s always been my vibe.

“He blew me away. In my experience, the best producer I’ve ever worked with making an album as far as being a well-rounded guy,” Sorum continues. “He can play drums; he plays bass; he plays guitar; he sings; he plays keyboards; he’s old-school when it comes to that.” It’s a style O’Brien — who has worked with everyone from Springsteen to Pearl Jam — is famous for. He’s also known for steering full-steam ahead. “He’s like the energizer bunny. We took a break for Christmas and came back right after New Year’s. I was in Vegas for New Year’s, got home on the 1st and we started working on the 2nd!” But those intense efforts paid off. And by the time the holidays were over, VR was ready to record.

With a range of textures and dynamics, Libertad careens from the heart-stopping lightning-speed of “Let It Roll,” a fist-pumping opener dripping with fuzzed-out guitars and fat backbeat, to the psych-rock, tripped-out swirly jams of “For A Brother,” to the ballad grooves of “Grave Dancer,” Sorum’s favorite drum track. And on this album Sorum culls inspiration from everywhere, taking cues from Motown (“Pills And Demons”), Joey Castillo’s hyper hi-hat workouts with Queens Of The Stone Age (“Just 16”), and even his own past with The Cult (revisiting the “Sun King” in the mid section of “She Builds Quick Machines”).

“I straightened up some of my beats on this record,” he says. “I really played more straight-ahead, and I tightened up my hi-hats — just little things that you might not notice but that are inspired by bands I like.”

Overall, he went for a more laid-back feel. “The first album was pretty aggressive. There’s some cool, more mid-tempo songs on this record. I really wanted to go for a little bit more of a boogie feel on some of the things,” he says. “Not that I’m getting older and I want to slow down on tempos, but it’s really funny because I just listened to the new Metallica album, Lars Ulrich is a really good friend of mine, and their s**t’s flying. It’s like, so fast — it’s like Slayer! I’m like, ’Dude, you’re going to hate that on the road!’ Don’t slow down when you get older — but don’t speed up!”

While the making of Libertad was blissfully free of arrests, personal drama and tragedy seem to pursue VR like a lingering dark cloud. During the recording process, both Sorum and Weiland lost their brothers. And the singer vanished for a while, leaving Sorum, Slash, and Duff to go it alone in the studio, tracking vocal-less in the dark. While it wasn’t ideal, they had been there before.

“It was very much how we did Use Your Illusion I and II. It all kind of happened,” Sorum says. “This was, we’re going to go in and write and try to play it as energetic and rock and roll as possible, but there were times when Scott would be right there and other times we’d be on our own. I think we’ve always been good at that because we’ve never had singers around traditionally, Duff and Slash and myself, you know. Axl wasn’t around much at all during Use Your Illusion I and II.”

And there it is again, that old G N’ R ghost.

PICKING THE PERFECT SNARE. It’s never easy, especially if you own 120 of them. To start, Sorum used an old ’63 Ludwig kit in the studio and his trusty Back Beauty. But when the song called for it, he ran to the back wall, where he’d stationed 80 of his favorite snares. And though he jokes there were so many he can’t keep track, Sorum knows each like the back of his hand; its sonic subtleties and nuances. For “The Last Fight,” he went for a 1938 Broadway Standard with a wallet on top. “It’s just like an old guitar. If the wood gets old, the drums get old, and the soul just gets better. Beautiful wood ages good, looks good, sounds good, like a ’57 Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul.” While for “Grave Dancer” he went straight for the jugular. “Brendan said, ’Okay, pick me a winner. So I said, ’Okay, I’ll give you the money snare!’” he jokes. That’s Big Red, the 8"-deep Tama of “November Rain” fame.

To say Sorum’s obsessed with sonics seems an understatement. On the eve of mastering, he’s still analyzing every detail — from the hi-hats (they aren’t too dark, are they?), to the mix, to his selection of gear. “It’s got to be the right ride, the right crash. I’ve got these old 14" Zildjians I found in the back bin at the artist relations warehouse and they’re my favorite ones. To anyone else, they don’t mean anything. But to me, they’re the s**t.”

THE MAYOR OF KING’S ROAD. Everyone likes Matt Sorum. And it’s easy to see why. He’s friendly, funny, and a great storyteller. And within 15 miles of the King’s Road Café, he seems to know damn near everyone. Throughout our interview, he’s interrupted nearly a dozen times — by actors, musicians, execs — from Showgirls diva Gina Gershon to his masseuse. At one point, he leaves to feed his meter and two cars surround him, blocking his path back. It’s the kind of interruption, by two pretty women, he clearly doesn’t mind. It’s clear, in or out of G N’ R or Velvet Revolver, L.A. knows and loves Matt Sorum.

In this blazing musical intersection called Velvet Revolver where the past meets the present, it’s easy to see why he’s so at home, so happy, so alive. It’s his art, his passion, his family. “Me and Duff are like brothers. We’re very tight as people; we’ve been through a lot together. Me and Slash and Duff used to just travel like a gang. But that changed a little when Slash got married. I remember the time I called him and I was like, ’Hey dude, let’s go out.’ And he was like, ’I’m babysitting tonight.’ And I was like, ’Oh s**t, when did that happen?’

“They’re still the same guys, maybe not as alcohol-laden or drug-laden as they used to be, but that’s a good thing. They’re grown; they’ve grown musically too. You want to wish for Appetite For Destruction to be re-created again, but you know [Slash] was a kid then, and he’s not going to make that same album. And why would he want to?”

He’s even managed to repair ties with Rose. “I ran into Axl in New York City,” he says. “We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and he said ’Do you hate me?’ I said, ’No, I don’t hate you, man. What are you talking about? I played stadiums all across the world with you. We flew on private jets. I met beautiful women and I stayed in the best hotels and played rock and roll. What’s to hate about that? We had some crazy times, but I don’t hate you, man. It was what it was. It was a great experience — that time period can never be replaced, that won’t ever happen again.’

“I’m blessed and lucky that I was able to move on and get in another band and keep touring,” he adds. “When you get attached to a name like that or a certain stigma or uniform you’re wearing along with who you are,” he shakes his head and his voice trails off. “Believe me, I’ve had super highs and super lows, and in and out of being in big bands, and every new experience of making a new album is just as scary as the first one. This business is so crazy.

“It dawned on me one day — I came to this town with $40 in my pocket in a Rambler station wagon, who am I kidding? I’ve achieved ten times more than I ever expected. I was lucky enough to be in three great rock bands, most people don’t even get to be in one.”

SLASH AND DUFF MCKAGAN

Shredding With Sorum

Some people simply need no introduction. Drummers, guitarists, bassists, even those who’ve never so much as hummed a single note on harmonica — everyone knows Slash. In his signature black top hat, sporting a mane of unruly curls, cigarette dangling from his lips, the shredding guitar god and ex-Gunner has graced so many slick, rocker hero-worship mags, his image is instantly recognizable. Next to Clapton and Hendrix he stands toe-to-toe, an ax idol known for his signature sweaty, emotive, electric, blues-inspired licks. Licks, like those on Appetite For Destruction, crafted at the height of ’80s glam, when he was whacked out on drugs and still too young to drink at the bars G N’ R played. Licks, that two decades later, teenage rock and rollers across America are still copping, posing in front of bedroom mirrors, stereos cranked to 11.

But perhaps what not everyone knows is how highly the famed L.A. glam idol thinks of his longtime drummer, Matt Sorum. A lead guitar player who not only acknowledges but admires his timekeeper — can it be true? “He’s one of the real McCoys,” says Slash. “He’s a full-on rock and roll drummer with a huge personality, and he’s extremely talented.”

Slash should know too, since he’s the one — along with bassist Duff McKagan — who originally brought Sorum into the G N’ R fold. “I never realized how hard it was to find an appropriate drummer for a rock and roll band until then,” Slash recalls. “Steven [Adler] and I had been playing together since I was 13 so I didn’t know how complex it was. I started racking my brain to think of every drummer I’d ever seen that was still alive that was good, and Matt came to mind.”

So just what was it that caught Slash’s ear? Power, speed, thunder, presence — pure rock and roll. “He blew my mind when I saw him with The Cult,” Slash remembers. “I love The Cult as a band, but he actually sold the whole show. It was bombastic. It was bigger than life. It was this tremendous sound, and that’s really what it comes down to. It wasn’t even so much the fills or any of that kind of stuff; it was just how massive the whole thing sounded.”

Hanging out backstage before show time at the start of Velvet Revolver’s Libertad tour, wearing skintight jeans and a tank showcasing layers of tattoos, his belly full of buffet food, and a calm radiating outward thanks to a quick listen to his get-in-the-mood Motown grooves, McKagan still clearly remembers that night too. “When it became clear that we couldn’t play with Steven anymore we started trying out some different guys, and it was getting bleak,” he recalls. “If we hadn’t found Matt, we wouldn’t have been able to continue with Guns N’ Roses.”

Because let’s face it: a good drummer is hard to find. So it’s no wonder that even post G N’ R, both Slash and McKagan kept coming back to Sorum — in Slash’s Snakepit and Neurotic Outsiders — and finally all together when the stars aligned, in Velvet Revolver.

“He makes it so easy for a bass player; he makes it so easy for me,” Duff says of locking in with Sorum. “He just lays down that solid rock and roll groove. He’s definitely the best drummer I’ve ever played with — the hardest hitting, the best timing, and the most musical.” In fact, McKagan, who wrote some starting riffs with Sorum to get the ball rolling, says the two swapped instruments and traded parts — with McKagan (once a drummer) occasionally crafting beats and Sorum rocking melodies.

Whether on stage or in the studio, both guys follow Sorum’s lead. “I like to imagine crawling inside the bass drum and just laying down and curling up in there,” Duff says, likening Sorum’s solid, steady right foot to Bonham’s. “I like to play just a little bit behind the kick, that’s right where I like to lay it.”

For Slash, whose freewheeling antics seem to eschew time, Sorum’s grooves aren’t just the backbeat, but a source of inspiration, too (check out “She Builds Quick Machines” on Libertad, with an emotive solo that soars above the rising thunder of the drums). “I play off the drums entirely, that’s my main instrument that I relate to when we’re playing.”

“Matt Sorum’s a little unsung,” McKagan adds. “I think he’s one of the rock and roll drumming greats. He’s right up there. People talk about Keith Moon and [John] Bonham — he’s one of those guys.”

Groove Analysis: Sorum Rocks Revolver

From his great playing in the late 1980s with The Cult, to his stints with Guns N’ Roses, and now with Velvet Revolver, Matt Sorum long ago proved himself to be a rock-and-roll powerhouse. Let’s look at some excerpts of his great rock drumming from the latest Velvet Revolver release, Libertad.

DRUM! Notation Guide

“The Last Fight”
Intros like this will make you glad you’ve shedded your rudiments. While this march’s triplets, flams, and 9-stroke rolls won’t give Jeff Queen a run for his money, it does work as a cool-yet-relaxed musical intro to the rest of the song.

“Mary Mary”
For this song, Sorum rides his floor tom for the intro and verse and punctuates the guitar parts with an open hi-hat on the & of 2 in the groove. Notice how he throws a subtle triplet embellishment at the end of the seventh measure.

“She Builds Quick Machines”
In the bridge of the single, Sorum plays a four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern with flams played on every third eighth-note, creating a two over three phrase that resolves at the end of the second measure. Later, he continues this implied polyrhythm by breaking his two-measure groove into two phrases of three quarter-notes and one phrase of two that goes 1&2&3-4&1&2-3&4. Of course, it’s perfectly all right to ignore the phrasing. The part just sounds cool.

“Grave Dancer”
For the interlude of this power ballad, Sorum plays a series of fills to bring the band back into the last chorus. Here he uses short buzzes to set up his fills and add drama to the triplet fills at the end.

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