Matt Sorum has led a charmed life, at least for a musician, and especially for a drummer. He was initially recruited to back The Cult in 1988, just as the band embarked on a 185-date world tour in support of its most-successful effort "Sonic Temple." After a couple of years with The Cult, Sorum was tapped to man the sticks for Gun N' Roses during the group's massively-successful twin "Use Your Illusion" albums and globetrotting tour. Though GNR was universally praised for its stadium-ready rock, the band also fell prey to bloat, adding a veritable orchestra of additional players and backup singers to its increasingly behemoth stage production. Understandably, a few years working for Axl Rose would try anyone's patience, and Sorum soon found himself entrenched in GNR's gutter-glamour lifestyle, partying 'til dawn and playing less and less frequently.
After a fallout with Rose in 1997, Sorum was fired from GNR and bided his time pursuing eclectic musical interests, including a stint playing jazz with The Buddy Rich Orchestra, a one-off Christmas performance with Billy Idol, a record with the super group Neurotic Outsiders, an album and tour with Slash's Snakepit and gigs as producer for Candlebox and collaborator on Poe's hits, "Angry Johnny" and "Hello."
Sorum also completed the soundtrack (with GNR bandmates Slash and Duff McKagan and John Taylor of Duran Duran fame, all of whom played in Neurotic Outsiders) for a film called "Sound Man" which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The drummer quickly found that quirky show-biz types are found offstage about as often as they are on.
"There's personalities everywhere in the music business," he says, phoning from backstage at "The Tonight Show," where the reunited Cult (Sorum, vocalist Ian Astbury, guitarist Billy Duffy and new bassist Billy Morrison) is scheduled to appear.
The Cult's comeback effort, "Beyond Good and Evil" finds the band pounding out its patented blend of riff rock while exploring the new sounds that are currently en vogue in the music world. Whether audiences are ready to accept The Cult back with open arms remains to be seen, but there's little doubt that Sorum will continue his unique avocation as music's most fortunate niche-filler.
Sorum recently spoke with The Mag at length about his remarkable past and raucous present, clearly delighted to still be in the game bashing the skins at this juncture in his career.
As we start to chat, Sorum is interrupted by a "Tonight Show" production assistant, bearing a brimming basket of goodies.
"I got a gift," he marvels.
What'd you get?
"'Tonight Show' T-shirts from Jay Leno. Ha ha! And we got a signed thing from Jay. It says, 'Thanks for coming.' Jay came in a little while ago; it was kind of trippy. I did the show one other time with Billy Idol. Jay always comes in; he's real nice and he goes around and says hi to all the talent."
Q: How did you get back together with The Cult?
A: Billy Duffy came and stayed at my house in the summer of '98. I had a gig down at The Viper Room (in Los Angeles), and I invited Billy and Ian to come up onstage with us. We played a couple of Cult songs and the room went freaky and loved it and we said, 'Why don't we put the band together?' So we booked a tour around the country and we did 25 almost-sold out dates. It was very cool and it felt very good. We had a good lineup and the band was rockin'. We did seven nights at the House of Blues in L.A. All the celebrities were showing up and it felt real exciting; it felt like people really wanted us back."
Q: You spent a long time making the new Cult record. What did the band do during that time?
A: "We took a year and a half to make the record because we were searching for the new sound of the band. We wanted to be viable now. We didn't want to be the retro-Cult. We didn't want to be a band reforming for the sake of getting back together. Ian refers to it as unfinished business. It's modern, you know? It'll compete against anything that's out there any Limp Bizkit, but we don't want to be Limp Bizkit, we never were. It's heavy and it's a rock 'n' roll album, and I think what I sense from people out on the street is that there's a lack of it. There's a lot of attitude-rock and a lot of soft (expletive), but there's nothing in the middle. Aerosmith is more of a pop band now. There's Stone Temple Pilots, but their new album is even a bit soft. There's not that many."
Q: What happened with Guns N' Roses?
A: "There was so much time going by. We ended the tour in the summer of '93. Me, Slash, Gilby (Clarke, another GNR guitarist) and Duff spent some time writing some music, and Axl didn't like it. Then me and Slash went and did the Snakepit album and all this political (expletive) started happening. And years and years were going by, like three years. And I was just hanging out in Hollywood and partying. Finally, me and Duff put another band together called Neurotic Outsiders, and as soon as we did that Axl called us back into the studio. So we started rehearsing with Guns we'd show up every night and Axl would come in at like midnight and we'd rehearse until six in the morning, seven, eight o'clock in the morning. It was ridiculous. My drug use was getting out of control. Everyone was just trying to stay up because of the ridiculous hours. Then Slash didn't want to come down to rehearsal, and he and Axl were having some differences in the musical direction. In '97 I got into a little bit of an argument with Axl about the state of the band. He'd brought in another guitar player, Paul Huge, and none of us really wanted to play with him. Axl really wanted him in the band and we didn't really want to play with the guy. Me and Duff were showing up, trying to be professional and get the work done but it just didn't seem to be going anywhere, and obviously it still hasn't. I'm so glad I left because it was just stagnant. It didn't make any sense to be a musician to be sitting there not being able to put any of your creative energy out to the world. All my stuff was on some tapes on a shelf and four years had gone by. I was still making a lot of money. The band was paying me really well, and I was a member. I was getting a big check every month and living the high-life up in a big six-level house with a Porsche and all my (expletive). One day I just said (expletive) this. I want to play you know, let's go! Me and Axl had an argument and I said, 'You should get Slash back and we should put the band back together. Get out there and do it.' He was like, 'I don't need Slash.' And I said, 'Well I think you do.' And he asked me, 'Are you gonna quit?' And I said, 'No I'm not going to quit.' And he said, 'Well you're fired.' So I left, and I remember walking out the door and I went back to my six-level palatial estate, where I was producing a band called Candlebox, they were in my house. And I said, 'I've just been fired from Guns N' Roses.' And we sat down and we celebrated."
Q: Did you think the band had gotten sort of bloated toward the end?
A: "With all the horn players and (expletive)? That was boring, wasn't it? I wanted to kill those (expletive) girls by the end of that tour. They were in my dressing room. Behind my drum riser, I used to have my own room and I had a bar in there and I used to have little groupie chicks running around naked. Then these (expletive) girl horn players and background singers came on the tour, and they used to have to sit in my room sitting down there doing their makeup. And Axl was doing all these costume changes and I'm like, 'What happened to this (expletive) band?' So finally we all agreed to get rid of the horn players. We did a tour after that, the 'Skin and Bones' tour. That was our anti-statement to Axl: 'Let's get rid of these (expletive) horn players.' But I understood a lot of what Axl was doing. He wanted to heighten; he wanted to cross Guns over into super group. And he was very smart about the way he did it. He used to bring artists onstage with us: Elton (John), Brian May, Lenny Kravitz, Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry. And his whole thing was you are who you hang out with. To a certain degree, I think the band achieved super group status because of the strategic things that Axl always thought up. It was his thing to put out the double album very smart guy, very intelligent. At times it gets the best of him. I don't know WHAT he's thinking right now. I don't know where his head's gone, I can't get inside his head. He's created some sort of mystique for himself that's actually legendary now."
Q: What kind of differences do you see between The Cult and Guns N' Roses?
A: "I'm a pretty fortunate guy to be in in my opinion two of the best rock 'n' roll bands in the last 20 years. Ian is a great frontman. When I joined The Cult in '88, I remember being behind him and going, 'Man, this guy is the (expletive).' Then to be able to play with Axl and watch him work the stage every night, and Billy and Slash and the differences there. But they're both just different. I can't say that they're better or any of it. I just think it's a different thing. The Cult's more of a darker groove band, but we still rock. I'm here because, in their eyes, I was the best drummer for the job. And when Slash and Duff saw me with The Cult originally, they thought I would fit in good with them. Slash was at our show the other night at The Whiskey. We're fans of each other. Ian and Billy were very much fans of GNR in the early days. Guns opened for them way back when. For whatever reason, Guns took off and The Cult didn't. I believe that American kids tapped into what Axl had to say a little bit Ian's a bit more mysterious and trippy. I never thought The Cult got their full shake; I thought they should've been way more successful as a band. A lot of people were influenced by Ian a lot of people (by) his persona and his stage thing. He gave Axl his first headband. He told him to take that puffy hair and comb it straight, put that headband on. Because all those other bands in L.A. were doing it. If you watch the 'Welcome to the Jungle' video, you can see the difference in Axl's hair between that and 'Sweet Child of Mine.'"
Q: How has the music business changed since you started out?
A: "The business has just become a lot more corporate, structured. In Guns, we had free reign. No one told us jack-all. Now, it's 'We need a couple more songs, you need to write a better song.' It's all about radio, it's all about ads. So that's a bit frustrating, but (expletive) it because we go out onstage and we play all the songs and the fans come to see us. It's really about the band when it comes down to it. And there's so many one-hit wonder bands out there. They just have one song. I have a hard time seeing a heavyset frontman with a red baseball cap on backwards jumping around being a rock star. But, hey, who's to say what a rock star is anyway? I grew up in a different sort of ideal about that. I like (The Who's) Keith Moon and (Queen's) Roger Taylor: guys who drove around in Rolls Royces with bimbos, drinking champagne and driving their cars into swimming pools. That's my idea of a rock star; that's why I did it. I grew up idolizing rock 'n' roll debauchery sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll party. Not anger. Not all these other things: 'Look at me, I'm depressed. Oh God, my life's horrible. I'm in pain.' I listened to Pink Floyd for that, but I got something out of that. I'd listen to 'Dark Side of the Moon' or 'The Wall,' smoke a big joint and go, 'OK, I can feel that and I understand that, but I want to get out of that. How do I get out of that?' I got something different out of Pink Floyd than I get out of a band like Staind: always addicted, always in pain. A lot of kids are looking to be in pain. I don't know why. Put on the first Van Halen record, go out to a party. Pick up your spirits, you know?"
Q: Was that sort of debauchery the "rock 'n' roll" life par for the course in GNR?
A: "Yeah. I guess I was destined to do it. I grew up with that sort of mindset. I arrived in this band that was the modern version of Led Zeppelin. I remember riding in a limo up the back way through Madison Square Garden and going, 'Man, this is exactly like "Song Remains the Same."' I was in the limo, driving up the ramp, getting on the private 747 jet and doing it, being there and living everything I'd dreamed. Luckily, I didn't die at an early age. It's all sort of surreal and trippy, but I was really lucky to have done all those great things and experience all those great experiences. And they're still happening. Here I am at 'Jay Leno,' you know?"