Guns N' Roses Drummer Matt Sorum on His Tell-All Memoir, Getting Shut Out of Their Reunion Tour
Matt Sorum was only an active member of Guns N’ Roses from 1990 to 1994, but this was an incredibly busy period that saw the release of both Use Your Illusion albums, covers collection “The Spaghetti Incident?,” and the two-and-a-half–year Use Your Illusion tour, one of the longest and wildest tours in rock & roll history. The drummer has also played with Velvet Revolver, Slash’s Snakepit, the Cult, Hollywood Vampires, Billy Gibbons, Tori Amos, Sammy Hagar, and many others.
He’s kept a relatively quiet public profile throughout much of his career, but he’s finally telling his saga in the upcoming book Double Talkin’ Jive: True Rock ‘n’ Roll Stories From the Drummer of Guns N’ Roses, the Cult, and Velvet Revolver. (Editor’s note: After being slated for an early September release, the book has been indefinitely delayed for reasons that have yet to be explained. Rolling Stone spoke with Sorum before the release was put on hold.)
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It’s engrossing from beginning to end, but Guns N’ Roses fans will be especially fascinated by the segment where he reveals that he learned of the 2016 Guns N’ Roses reunion via the rumor mill even though he was on a South American tour with Slash and Duff when the news started to spread. He waited until he returned to L.A. to confront Duff.
“Axl wants to use his drummer [Frank Ferrer],” Sorum remembers Duff telling him. “But the guy can’t even play drums. I’ve got to talk to Axl and say I really can’t play with this guy.”
“Go to Axl and tell him you want me on drums,” Sorum responded. “Period. Now’s the time.”
“Oh, man,” Duff replied in a soft voice. “I already signed the deal.”
It was an agonizing gut punch, but Sorum says he’s gotten over it. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that they’re doing their own thing, and I’m doing mine,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I can’t say that when it went down, I was completely happy with the circumstances. At the same time, I feel really good about my time in the band.”
Here’s much more from our conversation with Sorum.
What made you decide it was time to write a book?
I don’t know. But for years, I’d be at a party or something and I’ll tell a story and people would be like, “Hey, man, you should write a book.” That’s basically what happened. I felt like it was a good time.
I moved out to Palm Springs and I had this house in the desert. There was a lot of reflection for me. I was changing some of my career objectives, moving to the entrepreneurial start-up world, doing different things other than music. I felt, “It’s about time. I’m here.” I started it almost four years ago now. It’s finally coming out.
I got a galley about two years ago. Why was it delayed so much?
Since the galley, it’s actually been edited again. I had time to look through it and had time to reflect on it. That was great for me. I was actually able to grow through the process. Obviously I had to tell the shenanigans the way they went down. It’s so weird when I talk about my crazy shenanigan years. I almost resort back to old behavior. My wife says, “The color of your eyes is changing.”
There was really no other way to tell it. It was what it was. It was a time in rock & roll. … I couldn’t tell the grown up perspective on it. I just had to be truthful, so that’s how I wrote it.
Walk me through the process of writing the book with your two co-authors. Did they interview you for hours and they’d shape it into chapters and you’d edit it?
That’s basically what we did. It was an interesting collaboration since it was two Swedish guys, Martin Svensson and Leif Eriksson. I’m Norwegian and I thought that was kind of cool. I find that Swedish people often speak better English than we do. I was like, “This is going to be fine. These guys are intelligent.”
I felt they had an interesting way of picking up my tone. I tried to write the book with other people before, and it always took a left turn. The writers would write their own version of my voice and it just never sounded like me. This was the closest that I’ve found.
Maybe when I tell a story, it’s a lot looser, but it doesn’t work in a book format. Reading it back, I’m like, “Well, that’s not exactly how I said it, but I understand you have to put the color around it and set the scene and the tone.” That was the process, basically.
Did you read the books by Slash, Duff, and Steven Adler before you did this?
No. I haven’t read any of their books, to be honest with you. I was really there for all of it. But I took some samples of Duff’s book and a little bit of Slash’s. What I did notice about Slash’s book is that most of the years I was around were left out. I thought that was a window of opportunity for me to tell my take on things. I didn’t want to be overly forthcoming, but I was very truthful. It’s just my perspective on what went down at the times.
You definitely didn’t sanitize things.
That’s my personality. Slash is a guy I’ve known for 35 years now. And to be honest with you, I don’t know if I’ve ever had an in-depth conversation with him with about life in general. He keeps a lot of stuff to himself, and that’s cool, but I’m a little bit more on the surface. At times, people would prefer if I just go sit behind the drums and not say anything, but unfortunately, that’s not the kind of guy I am. I just told the stories the way I felt them.
You were on lots of drugs and alcohol at a various moments in your life. Were any moments hazy or hard to remember?
No. The weirdest thing about me is that I would have really bad bouts. There are sequences in the book where I’m locked in a hotel for three or four days. Those were horrific memories, but I still remember, which is the weirdest thing. I remember walking into that hotel in Cancun and there was the Grim Reaper and Madonna on the TV talking to me. I was hallucinating, but I remember all of it vividly. I’m somehow one of the information gatherers. I’m like that musically, and a reason I’ve been in so many bands is I’m a quick study; I can learn quickly. My work ethic is very strong. That comes through in my memory.
I told that to Duff. He’d call me and go, “I can’t remember. We did this, this, and this. …” And I would remind him. I always said, “How are you going to write a book if you can’t remember?” He was always the guy that was like, “What happened at that …?” I’d be like, “Hey, this is what went down.”
You write about the early rehearsals for Use Your Illusion and how you were shocked that the songs were so long. Do you think it would have worked better as a single record with all the best songs on it, rather than two records?
I think that was the intention going in. But when Axl came in and decided it should be a double record, it was a genius moment for him. I remember we’re at the studios and there was this electric door, almost like Star Trek; you’d push a button and it would open. Axl came in, and I feel like he had a couple of girls with him at the time. We were all sitting there and recording. He announced to us that he wanted to put out a double record.
He basically said, “I want to put out all the songs.” At that point, we were up to about 32. In our mind, we were going to cut 20 and put the best 12 or 13 onto a great record. That was going to be the next offering of Guns N’ Roses. He came up with the idea of doing two and changing the color of each and calling it the same, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.
I was like, “Why? Why do you we have to make them separate records?” He had worked at Tower Records on Sunset. In those days, if you had a double record, you had to put it behind the cash register. It was over 20 bucks. He wanted the records to be in the bin where you could actually hold them, pick them up. Plus, I felt like he could go back and renegotiate with David Geffen and get the band paid for two records. I don’t know if that ever went down. From what I remember, we got paid on the physical sales, which is basically the same thing.
I think the main thing was that we had a lot of touring. He was like, “I want to do five years on the road. These two records are going to be the legs for that tour.”
Speaking of that tour, you talk about how much money was burned every night on that tour with elaborate parties with ice statues and whatnot. Did everyone in the band fully realize that every cent of those things was coming from your own pockets?
Yeah. We did. Everybody knew what was going on. It was excess to the highest level. In Axl’s mind, he wanted everything to be bigger than life. He wanted us to act accordingly. “When we’re playing a stadium show, why don’t we have a party backstage like the Rolling Stones? Why isn’t it bigger than life? We don’t we bring in a horn section and background singers? We need more pyro.”
The guests that we would invite onstage … Brian May, Elton … it was all these people. Axl thought by rubbing elbows with these icons, it put us in the same light as them. I understood that later on.
You talk about Izzy Stradlin’s departure and what a problem that was since he wrote so many of the songs. Do you think his absence is a big reason why Guns N’ Roses have made just one album in the past 30 years?
I can’t say. Obviously, when I came into the band, there was four original guys. After we went out and became so big, the machine kind of took over. Obviously, we all made decisions that weren’t completely clear in our minds based on alcohol and drugs. If anyone was clean, it was Axl. He was always accused of being a worse drug addict than he was. He was actually just trying to steer the ship.
Slash was very much the bandleader for the band guys. He was like, “If you’re going to party until 6 a.m., you have to be at rehearsal at noon. Don’t miss soundcheck.” A couple of times, the wheels came off for me. I started fucking up too. It was just so much craziness going on. You just fell into it. It was part of the time. It was part of the makeup of the band and everything that was around it.
As far as when Izzy left, I just don’t think he could be around it anymore at that level. It becomes this crazy rollercoaster ride that you really couldn’t get off. It almost felt uncontrollable. There was a Rolling Stone cover that just said, “Guns N’ Roses Outta Control.” That’s kind of how it felt at the time. I wasn’t the decision maker in that band. I was just sort of on this wild ride.
The follow-up album you guys tried to make in the mid-Nineties was clearly destined to fail. Everyone was on a different page musically and the resentments had piled up too high.
Well, we came off the road and everyone was so burned out. We were out there for two and half years. It was doing five or six nights a week and partying hard. We got home and we could just never really get the musical thing going again. We went in the studio and tried to write, and everybody had too much money, everyone bought houses, and went separate ways in a lot of ways. I wish we could have sat down and talked it out, but we just didn’t. And then I left.
Scott Weiland was obviously an enormous talent and great frontman. But do you think he brought so much baggage into Velvet Revolver that it almost wasn’t worth it? In hindsight, should you have found a singer that was a little more stable?
If we could have found someone as great as Scott Weiland. That was the issue. We spent two years looking for a great singer. And when Scott walked in the room, it sealed the deal. I talk about it in my book. We had a big licensing deal for a movie called The Hulk.
Scott showed up almost an hour late. Everyone was there. I look at Duff and go, “Can we start like this?” This documentary called The Rise of Velvet Revolver shows everything that went down. I remember going, “This is going to be dangerous.” But at the same time, we put out great rock & roll.
That first album [Contraband], Scott really got his life together. He was in great shape. It wasn’t easy. We worked really hard to clean up. We all cleaned up our act a lot. We used Aerosmith as our model. We were like, “If those guys can do this, we can do this. Let’s clean up.”
We got our stuff together. We all got in really good shape. We were in our forties competing against younger bands. And we still had to come up with great songs. In my opinion, we were an aggressive rock & roll band. We nailed it with the first one. And we fell back into some of our old habits with the second record [Libertad]. A lot of drugs and alcohol reappeared in all our lives, and the money came again in a big way. That caused problems. Things just weren’t in sync. I felt it when we were in the studio on that second record. There are some good songs on that second record, but it just didn’t have the angst and hunger of the first record.
A real theme of your book is that singers are just a real pain in the ass. You had endless problems with Axl and Scott Weiland. Ian Astbury of the Cult shit on the floor of your hotel room …
Yeah, but I’ve been in these great bands with these great singers. I was there when they were at the height of their shenanigans. If you see the Cult today, Ian Astbury isn’t acting that way. He’s an older guy.
But I’m really proud to say that I was in those bands at the height of the wild times. I was in the Cult when they were playing arenas. Ian was off the rails. It made for a great rock & roll show, and he was a great rock & roll frontman.
It’s the same for Axl. Whatever Axl did going into those shows, whatever happened behind the scenes, it made for great rock & roll. Anybody that saw the band back in those days, as much as they bitched and moaned about us being late, they can say it was probably some of the greatest rock & roll they’d ever seen. All that shit that was going on brought a lot of intensity onto the stage.
I used to go onstage some nights so pissed off that I would just have to bash the shit out of the drums. It reminded me of being a kid. I was like, “Why did I play the drums in the first place?” Well, I had a lot of anxiety and anger over the divorce of my parents. It was an unstable household. We all came from the same background, everybody in that band. Axl came from Indiana and his upbringing was shit. Slash grew up in kind of a weird Hollywood family. That all sort of made for the fireworks.
Why do you think they didn’t invite you on the reunion tour?
I think Axl is a loyal guy. He likes his band he’s had for a long time. He didn’t look at it that way. … If anyone in that band is loyal, it’s probably him. He was like, “I’m going to bring my guy [Frank Ferrer]. If I get Slash, that’s cool. If I get Duff, that’s cool too. And that’s enough.” That’s how it went down, and that’s what they’re doing.
You quote Duff in the book as saying that Frank can’t even play the drums. Clearly, he’s not a fan of his playing.
[Pause] Uh … You know … uh … you’d have to ask him. [Laughs] But I … I don’t know if I can comment on that. People can read the book. My relationship with Duff is strong. I was in his wedding. He’s been one of my best friends for over 30 years.
Are you still in close contact with Slash and Duff?
We talk to each other. They are working and they’re out there … Me and Slash, it’s funny … we’ve always just been like brothers. We can’t say anything to make each other mad. I say in the book, I got him mad one time where we almost got into a fight.
You think they won’t be mad about any parts of this book?
Maybe. But I don’t know if it’s going to be anything that is going to ruffle feathers, and it’s nothing I haven’t already said to Slash’s face. [Laughs.]
They invited you to guest at some point on this tour and you didn’t do it since there was no money involved. If they asked you again, would you show up and do it?
I guess I’d have to wait until that call comes to make that decision. Right now, I have a baby and I’m nesting. I have a lot of different things going on in my life. I just produced Billy Gibbons’ new record. I’m about to start my own. I have six startup companies. I’m a busy guy. It’s gotta be what works with my life. I feel really good about my time in the band. And I always thank Guns N’ Roses for my legacy going forward.
A lot of what happens in my life now is based on what happened to me with GN’R. Everybody knows them. Everybody knows the name of that band. You could ask a grandmother. You can ask a little kid. I think in general, it’s a household name. People go, “You’re a musician. What band do you play in?” “The Cult.” “Oh, never heard that.” “Velvet Revolver.” It’s 50/50, maybe a little less. Guns N’ Roses, 99.95 percent go, “Oh, really?” I always say it last because it’s almost like the personality of the person changes since that band is so important.
Like I said, I probably wouldn’t be working in my startup world if it wasn’t for GN’R and my connection with Brazil and South America. It gives me a legacy. I obviously got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which means something very big to me. Not everybody got inducted. It was just the guys that played on the records. That’s something I can carry for the rest of my life, and it’s because of them.
This is random, but you casually mention in the book that you did cocaine with Stephen Stills. Can you talk a little more about that?
[Laughs] He had some of the best cocaine I ever did. He’s come out and talked about his thing and what he did in his life back in the days. I just ran into all these amazing characters. People read the book and go, “Oh, Mr. Name Dropper.” The reality is, I was there. I have to say their name. If I don’t say their name, it doesn’t really make for a good story. Sorry I had to name drop, but my life has just been like that. It’s been this crazy whirlwind of interesting characters. That’s why I felt I needed to write this book.
I’ve just run into and rubbed elbows with so many interesting characters in my life. At times, it felt like, “This is more than a kid in a candy store that wanted to be a rock & roll drummer.” Hanging with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler and playing with Alice Cooper … all these guys I grew up with. I’m younger than them. I grew up listening to them. And then producing Billy Gibbons’ record … all that stuff is like a “wow” moment. “Wait a minute, I’m dreaming. This is a rock & roll dream, right?”
How is fatherhood changing you?
Well, everything is about the kid. People are like, “Why are you having a kid at 60?” I’m like, “Why don’t you ask Mick Jagger? He just had two more.” My dad is 88 and I have a little brother that is five years old. For me, I’m at a perfect time to have a kid. I had to take time to get Matt right before I could really put myself into a family-man situation. As you can see by reading the book, I had to go through stuff maybe a little later in life than other guys.
It took me a while to grow up, it really did. When you’re in a rock & roll band, you don’t want to grow up. You’re like, “This is pretty great, just being a teenager and not having any responsibility.” And then I met this girl Ace, and she just changed me. We both got our lives together. The baby conversation just started happening. “Let’s have a kid.” She’s younger than me, and I started thinking about all these things, life in general, longevity.
I quit smoking just a couple of months ago. I was smoking cigars, Cubans. I did that for the baby. I was like, “I’m not going to smoke.” She’s going to keep me alive longer. She’s giving me something to live for. I’ve got to get healthy. I’m 60 and when my kid graduates high school, I’ll be 78. I’ve got to keep my shit together.
Last question: What advice do you wish you could give the 1991 version of yourself?
I don’t know. Maybe be a little more humble. Maybe ease up on the intake. [Laughs] Keep the ego in check. There’s some things I would have done differently. It went the way it went, but those are the main messages I would have said to myself. Be more kind and be willing to work more as a team player. As my mom used to say, sometimes you have to eat a little crow. I could have eaten a little more crow.
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