Ex-Guns n’ Roses Drummer Matt Sorum Dishes on Making New Music and His Legacy
For some brave rock soldiers, a lifetime of making music can be likened to a spiritual journey. And as I dialed in with former Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver alumni Matt Sorum, I knew I was in for a crash course in rock ‘n’ roll philosophy.
Even at 61 years of age, it’s hard to see Sorum as anything but the effervescent kid who took the world by storm as Steven Adler’s replacement in Guns N’ Roses. If you’re a slightly younger vintage, you’ll undoubtedly recall Sorum’s stick work with Velvet Revolver. And while Sorum’s career has often been defined by the insanity swirling around him, the California-born drummer has taken on a new outlook on life in the years since.
“I don’t focus too much on the machine like I used to. After being away from music for a while and focusing on other things that spoke to me, after I got back into it, I knew that I’d approach it differently. The world is different now, and the expectation of artists and what they create have changed. So, I just focus on doing what I do with people that I want to do it with, and I let the rest take care of itself.”
In many ways, Sorum is a changed man. He was once a heavy metal outlaw, a swaggering anti-hero defiantly brandishing his emotions through unladen fury behind a drumkit. But things are different now for Sorum; he’s calmer, reflective, and appreciative of his place in the world. With the knowledge of what he’s accomplished and the respect of his peers, Sorum is moving forward with his project, Kings of Chaos.
“Kings of Chaos has been around for a while, and basically, I’m the only constant member of the band. And the way it works is that all these people are friends of mine are guests that I invite to come and play with me. I’ve been doing it for about ten years now, and we’ve toured all over the world. It’s been a really refreshing take on music for me after not wanting to do it anymore for a while there. I’ve had everybody from like Steven Tyler to Billy Idol to the DeLeo brothers to Robin Zander to Billy Gibbons up there with me. The lineups have always been great, and people keep asking me to do records, and I keep at it.”
In many ways, given his evolved outlook, Kings of Chaos is both an ironic and fitting name. And at his core, Sorum is who we’ve always known him to be, albeit more controlled. Now fully able to harness his unbridled energy and transfer it to his music, after walking through the fires of hell and coming out the other side singed but alive, Sorum is able to relent, making the music he loves as he sees fit.
“There were a lot of cool songs I could have chosen to kick this off with. But I just liked the intention of ‘Judgement Day.’ And I always loved it, and I didn’t want to see it waste away on a digital hard drive forever. I wanted to have it see the light of day because I never forgot about it, and it’s one that I’ve often gone back to but never did anything with. And I guess it made the most sense as the vehicle to start the process. It had the right intention, it was a barnburner, and I felt like it set the tone for what I’m trying to do.”
As he prepares to embark on the next phase of his ever-evolving musical journey, Sorum dialed in with me from his home in the desert to discuss his newest music, the challenges of creating art in the post-MTV era, and his thoughts on reuniting with Guns N’ Roses.
You’ve got a great single out now called “Judgement Day,” which reunites you with some of your old bandmates. What are its origins?
So, people kept asking me to make more music. So, I was like, “I guess I’m gonna have to write some new stuff.” [Laughs]. And I signed a new deal with AFM Records out of Germany, so I said, “Let me get some of my friends together and make some music.” And with “Judgement Day,” I wanted to give lead vocals a try with the track and see if it would resonate with the fans. So, I had this old Velvet Revolver demo that we’d done, and it had all the guys and Scott [Weiland] on there.
I remember that at the time we did the demo, we were doing a lot of jamming in my studio, and we didn’t know what we were gonna do next, and it ended up in the vault. And when I started working on the new project, I started thinking, “Well, maybe that would be a cool one to put out.” So, I talked to Slash, Duff [McKagan], Dave [Kushner], and they were like, “Yeah, man, that’s a good song. Let’s go ahead and put it out.” Everyone was cool with it, so I did the vocals myself, and we got it done.
The video for “Judgement Day” certainly sets the tone for the track as well.
I love how it came out; it does fit with the vibe of the track. But the thing was, nowadays, you don’t get the budgets that you used to get to make videos. And going into it, I had a vision for what I wanted, but I was thinking, “How am I going to pull this off?” So, I came up with this concept with the director Brian Cox, and we shot the whole thing on set with projectors, which kept the costs down. And I’ve always liked driving songs with cars and all of that. So, conceptually, it’s a bit of a spiritual journey; it’s the dark side, demon guy, searching for the light, and all of that.
How did Billy Gibbons become involved?
Well, Billy is a friend of mine. I called him, and thankfully, he said, “Yes.” And once he was on board, we got him to play DJ based on a film made in 1971 called Vanishing Point. So, I was harkening back to that film when I asked Billy Gibbons to play the DJ as a spiritual guide to the driver, who is played by me. Obviously, “Judgement Day” is a barn burner, so we had to conceptualize the video around that. But I knew I wanted it to be grainy and have an almost retro, Natural Born Killers feel. I love how it turned out, but man, we had to pull a lot of favors to make it all happen. It’s not like the old days when Guns N’ Roses had these monster budgets to do “November Rain.” [Laughs]. So, it was a challenge, but we got it done; it’s cool, and I hope people enjoy it.
You mentioned that “Judgement Day” is one you had in the vault. Will the rest of the record be unused material, or will you be working on some new songs?
Oh, there will be new songs, too. I want to do as much new stuff as possible. We’ve got a bunch of my friends coming out here to the desert, and we’ll start recording soon. I built a recording studio out here, and we’ll start recording the rest of the album with different setups of guys and girls from other bands and from all over. I can’t say how it’s gonna completely unfold except that I’m going to try to make the best record I possibly can. And in 2023, we’re gonna start dropping more singles, kind of how the kids do it, where they put out songs as they go. As for the rest of the album, I hope to have it ready for the fall of 2023. But I think there will be another single in early 2023 and another in the spring after that. So, I’ll work on one song at a time and basically have a record out at the end of the run of singles.
Cash considerations aside, what are some of the challenges of making a video today as opposed to the MTV era?
It’s hard to say. I don’t even know anymore. You have to look at it like, “I’m doing something purely for the sake of art.” Because in the old days, we used to get these million-dollar budgets to make videos, and if I’m being honest, it never made sense to me, and I thought it was crazy. But it was also an age where we were trying to sell physical copies of our records, and the videos, I guess, were part of that process. So, we made these epic pieces of art and had these insane budgets. And looking at it today, yes, I feel you can still do it, but you have to do it creatively.
Having said that, I like making videos, and it’s fun. And now that I’ve done it another way, I look at it differently than I did back in the old days when it was about selling copies of albums. Now, if people are watching the video, and it’s got 60,000 or 70,000 views, I’m like, “Wow. Okay, cool. It’s a win.” But it’s hard to put a lot of time and effort into things when there’s so much information for people to watch. I know it can be challenging for people to watch a full-length piece of content now on Instagram and TikTok when everything is flying by at lightspeed.
Has that renewed perspective trickled down to how you create your music in the studio?
Well, I guess it leads you to focus more on the artistic side rather than worry about the financials, knowing that there’s no big label behind you pushing the machine forward. Because back in the day, we felt like we had to appease the label, and I remember all the A&R guys would come and sit down in the studio and be like, “Okay, guys. What have you got? Let’s hear the songs.” There was a lot of pressure on what we were doing, and discussing how they wanted to monetize us was constant. But it’s way different now with the way things are done, and I don’t fully understand it. I’m not ignorant of it or anything, but I’m more old school in that respect.
Sure, I understand that there’s a world that gravitates to pop culture in certain ways, and we have to go along with that. But as a rock ‘n’ roll guy, I’m going to do what I do and keep with what I know with the knowledge that the world is a big place. If I do something that resonates with people in some capacity, I’m happy with it. I can get done what I need to get done with the friends that I have. They have come to respect me enough to make music with me, and I’m at a point in my life where that makes me happy. I can call Billy Gibbons, Steven Tyler, or Slash to come down and do a song with me, which is cool. So, I see it is we’ve already won, and I don’t stress about the rest.
Can you divulge who else might be guesting on the upcoming album alongside you?
Well, not really, because it’s all in process right now. Until it’s done and on tape, I don’t want to commit to anything. Because I might finish a song and then decide something doesn’t work or needs to be changed. Or I might record 20 tracks and only use 12 of them. So, I don’t want to put out who’s on it until I have all of that confirmed. But I can say that there are going to be some great female singers that I love, and I think they’re going to bring a lot to the table. I’ve worked with Ann Wilson before, and she played live with me, and she’s one that I’ve reached out to, but I won’t go as far as to confirm the lineup, not until it’s done. I can also confidently say that I want to make a statement through a cool piece of music.
What went into the decision to keep Kings of Chaos as a revolving cast of characters rather than having an established lineup?
I’ve been doing it this way for ten years, and basically, it’s been a live band. And I’ve had a pretty good time doing it that way. Because when it first started, I wasn’t sure how I wanted it to evolve, which led me to keep a situation where I was the only member. For context, when I started Kings of Chaos, I was in a headspace where I wanted to dive back in but do so carefully. Because, to be honest with you, there was a time when I didn’t care to be in the music business anymore. I had moved on from it and was no longer interested in being part of the machine.
I was doing other things like tech work and had chosen to be creative through other avenues in my life. But after some much-needed time away, I felt like I wanted to get back into music and that the timing was finally right. I needed that time, and I’m glad I took it because I finally felt excited about making music again. So, having said all of that, now that it’s gotten to this point, Kings of Chaos could evolve into a full band with permanent members. You never know. I could look at some of the people who are a part of it, and it’d be like, “Hey, man, this is cool. Let’s do this as a band.” But I can’t say now because it hasn’t happened, but it could. I don’t rule that out.
How does your past work with Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver inform your approach to songwriting in the present day?
I wrote more in Velvet Revolver than in Guns N’ Roses. I wrote a bunch of the songs with Revolver, but I can’t say it was the same in Guns; I mainly stuck to the drums there. With Revolver, I grew as a songwriter, but it was also a particular style of music that differed from Guns. I’d say Guns was more rhythmically up-tempo and more consistent in its punk flavor. So, those experiences certainly inform me to this day, but with this record, I think it will unfold as it goes. I’m not sure that I want to set things in stone to the point where I’m saying, “I’m only going to record this type of music all the time and nothing else.”
Having said that, it needs to be cohesive, so I’m going to try to record the rest of the music in the same studio as “Judgement Day.” And obviously, I’m on drums, so that gives it some sonic resonance. At the very least, it’s going to have the same backbeat and all that kind of stuff. I won’t lock into anything or say it’s gonna sound like Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver. But at the same time, I’m a rock guy, and I’d like to make a powerful record. So, the collaboration of what will go down in the next few months will be the most inspiring part.
How has your approach to the drums evolved?
I think it’s gone backward. I want to harken back to the ’70s because I feel like that was the greatest era of rock music. Because when the ’80s and the ’90s came, and I joined Guns, I changed and morphed as a drummer because I had to sonically fit into the world I was entering. The sound of the time was big, bombastic, hard rock. But now, having played with people like Alice Cooper and Billy Gibbons, my perspective shifted back to when I was a kid. I feel like I was able to break out of that ’80s and ’90s mold and tap back into what I grew up listening to.
For example, later today, I’m going over to rehearse with Paul Rogers; we’re doing a big benefit. So, I’ve had to go back to listen to Free and Bad Company and take in Simon Kirke’s drumming style. That era of drums is just super groovy and cool, and I feel inspired to go back and study all of the music I grew up with. In many ways, I feel like I regressed as a drummer in the ’90s; if you listen to Guns in the early ’90s, it’s all reverb. If was to go back and do it again, I think it might sound different. It would be purer. I’m a different person now. I’m older and wiser, and if I could go back, I doubt I’d play that stuff the same way knowing what I know now.
If Slash or Duff called you tomorrow and asked you to rejoin Guns N’ Roses, would you consider it?
Well, I don’t really know. I mean, look, you have to take things as they come, one day at a time, right? I’ve made a lot of changes to my life based on what’s good for me. And those changes are also about what’s right in the moment and also within the context of what’s happening for everyone that’s involved. I can tell you that I’m not sitting by the phone, waiting on a call to join Guns N’ Roses or anything like that. I’m moving forward with my life and enjoying it immensely. I love what I’m doing right now, and that’s good enough for me. But you never know. I’ve learned that in life, you never know, and I’ve learned never to say never because there’s no telling what twists and turns are around the bend. But I’m not waiting on it, and it’s all cool by me.