A Conversation with Matt Sorum
Mike Ragogna: Matt, let's first chat about the Sacramento conference on keeping arts in school. What was the gist of what you delivered that day?
Matt Sorum: Well, basically, what happened was everyone got together at the state capital about the arts economy in California, and the creative economy, meaning what was going on percentage-wise. The Otis Group had basically done an economy calendar of how much money is brought into the state through creative aspects--arts, entertainment, film, TV, music, publishing and all kinds of things. What we discovered was that eight percent of the income of California is brought through the creative aspects, meaning everything from web design to any other kind of art form. That's about three to four times the amount of any other state in the US. But the state of California is ranked number forty-eight in the country for art education.
So my whole pitch was, how can this be sustainable? Why would we take art out of the public school system when we're trying to sustain our music, entertainment, film, all of these different forms in the state of California? The gist is how can we keep people here to create more revenue? Why are people leaving and going to Canada, filming in New Orleans, filming in other states, talking about researching laying the funds back into that idea. I basically spoke on my focus, which is music and art.
I have a charity called Adopt the Arts. But part of my speech was that both of my big companies bring millions of dollars to the state of California. We're a California company, meaning all of our publishing revenue, all of our record sales revenue--I don't know the exact millions, but it was in the millions--came through California and was taxed by California, especially Guns N' Roses, another California company. All of the record revenue, which is over a hundred millions records, has come through the state of California. I'm telling you right now, we give them back millions of tax dollars. So why does the state of California not want to reinvest in the arts? That was the pitch.
MR: In Sacramento, was the there any push back, like "Well, we just don't have the budget for this"? Were there any arguments made countering?
MS: Well, no, there was no real argument, it was basically a board headed by Senator Ted Lieu, who's an advocate for the arts. The arts council is a big group that's all over the state of California and basically handles grants for different art societies. For instance, in NoHo [North Hollywood], they're doing a cool thing, they're fixing up the community by bringing more entertainment things in. There are a lot of tech guys out there, they've got rehearsal studios, they've got music, they give people grants to fix up their buildings, they have art galleries, and what they're finding is all of this stuff...art festivals in certain cities, they bring a lot of commerce because people come from all over the state. Palm Springs doesn't really need money, but as an example, Palm Springs does a three-day art festival, right? So people come from all over the state to go to this art festival and they spend all kinds of money and lots of taxes are brought in, a lot of revenue. There are all kinds of different things. How can we fix up communities based around art and creativity to create income? There were guys talking about Pixar, there was a guy from Intel because they're getting into 3D printing and all kinds of crazy s**t. So it was a pretty vast conversation, very widespread. But mine, I felt, was at the core. Why are you going to forget about the kids? Why aren't we building these kids from the ground up in the interest of the future?
MR: Do you see any movement towards getting arts back into schools?
MS: I think this is a good step. That particular day, twenty-five million in funding went to the art council, although that's not the school district. But I think there is movement, and the thing about it is if you don't fight them or show up they'll just treat it like it'll go away. John Deasy, Superintendent of the LAUSD, went down to the rally on February fourteenth two years ago. They were going to cut eighteen million in the arts and just sweep it under the rug, but I showed up and gave a good fight and I spoke. You get it out in the news and all of a sudden, it's a story that they can't really walk away from. I really look at our charity like, "Yeah, maybe we can't get to all five hundred schools, but we're here and we're going to make a stand for it. We're going to stand up for the arts and you can't really deny the fact that we're visible and we're fighting for it and we're fighting for the kids." It's hard for them to really deny that. I would say it maybe puts things on a little bit of a hold, but the real issue is where's the money going to come from? I think that's such a massive issue, when you go and look at all of this administration and all this wasted money, and the unions, and the prison systems that are being built daily and the private sector prisons that are a business... Is there a conspiracy for our kids, to set them up for the fall? Is this is a racist thing? What is it? All the kids that no one seems to give a s**t about, underprivileged, mostly, of ethnic persuasion--meaning latinos and African-American kids--what is this? Every day, you hear, "Oh, three more prisons were built in the state of California and sixty-thousand dollars per person of your tax money will go to pay for that." All I'm asking is for seventh thousand dollars for a kid to have a chance. You do the math. It's like, "Do you want the domino effect, or do you want to take care of business now?" That's what I say to everybody.
MR: What can people who feel as strongly as you do?
MS: I think they can get more involved in their schools. Everyone's running to charter schools, and if they can afford it, they can run to private schools, right? But people have to really look at the community of where they live. I'm really looking at Adopt The Arts as an idea to get local businesses involved and doing a lot of that in the community. This is our community, so once these kids come out of school, they're going to be good citizens or bad, so everyone just pitch in for the community as a whole. It's not every man for himself, it's not, "I'm going to take my kid to a charter school so he has a better education," this is more of a community effort. People have got to get together. The beauty of Adopt the Arts and the things I've done in my schools is what I see happening, once we're over there and we're doing the work people go, "Oh, somebody really cares about us!" Most of the time parents just drop their kids off at school, nobody seems to give a s**t. They're going to go to work, they're going to work their ass off, and then they're going to come home and give their kids McDonald's. The idea is that everybody can get involved in school. The parents are like, "Why is Matt Sorum from Guns N' Roses over at your school?" All of a sudden, we have parents who want to be involved and people who want to pitch in. It's easy. It doesn't have to happen every day. We put on events; everybody can raise some money. It's really doable stuff, it's just a matter of getting people together instead of separate. Everyone seems to be more and more transfixed with being in their own little bubble, on their iPhone, and in their bulls**t. Once you see people open up and experience the separation of music and art again, that's the beautiful stuff in the world. That's the stuff that brings us together. That's a proven fact. Everybody loves music; no one's going to argue about that. People are going to argue about all kinds of other stuff, but they're not going to argue about music or art. "Do you love art?" "Okay, yeah, I love art." They're definitely going to argue about sports. "I like this team, I like that team." You might like one band more than another band but you're not really going to argue about it.
MR: Matt, your latest album titled Stratosphere deals with topics that you're endorsing in a strong, personal way. How did Matt Soum's Fierce Joy come together?
MS: A lot of it was really stuff that's been on my mind--on the forefront of my mind these days--has been more outward than inward. I've got to say, being in a band, being that guy on stage, it's very easy to be a musician and be all about what you're doing up there. But there was a cosmic shift for me a few years ago, which was the song, "The Sea," that really opened my eyes to what was really important and what was really meaningful because I've been in and out of the music business with different projects and I see how people treat you differently if you're successful, if you're not, or whatever. About the last six years, I've been in a serious relationship, I just got married, I got clean off drugs and I started thinking more outwardly about my environment, what's going on around me. I'm getting a little older so I started thinking about kids, what's the situation going to be for the future...real s**t, not fairytale stuff, not rock 'n' roll fantasy type stuff. Rock 'n' roll is an escape, rock 'n' roll is like, "Let's give people an environment where they can really let go and not be too serious.
This is the polar opposite of that. This is me really speaking my mind and being introspective about personal stories, like "Gone," which is about loss, "Josephine," which is about my hundred year-old grandmother; there are love stories like "Ode To Nick Drake," but then there are songs about spiritual awakening, like "The Sea" or "Goodbye To You, which is really about my old self, my dark, self cleaning up the pile of s**t of years and years of shame or guilt about certain things in the past. "Lady Of The Stone" is really an environmental thing. I've been watching the news and I've seen all of this horrific stuff going on with the weather and that kind of stuff and it's just so severe and more extreme than ever. I just wonder what it all means when people won't talk about global warming. Is this some sort of conspiracy again? I get into that kind of trip. I don't know if you've ever heard of a thing called HAARP, but it's a government facility that was built to actually control the weather. So I start thinking, "F**k, man, is this some government bulls**t to instill more fear in our people? What is this?"
I wrote that song, "Lady Of The Stone" about all that kind of stuff. "Land Of The Pure" was probably one of the heaviest songs, which actually stemmed from Malala [Yousafzai] who got shot by the Taliban. Look, here we are talking about the education system and how simple it would be to fix it; girls in Pakistan can't even walk to school without getting shot. They're not even allowed to get educated there. In a lot of countries, women aren't allowed to be educated, period. We think we've got problems? We really don't have any problems. We can fix this stuff with a couple of dollars. That's a pretty serious song, I guess. But I've got fun ones, too, like "What Ziggy Says," which is a cool life song about my family. It jumps around a little bit. The basic human process is sort of like, "What do I want to talk about? What do I feel?" It's a little bit of a roller coaster ride journey on the album.
MR: I love that you gave a very big nod to the artist in "Ode To Nick Drake."
MS: Yeah, well, people go, "God, I didn't know you would even listen to a guy like Nick Drake." If anyone knows any history of Nick Drake, he was a guy who really didn't have any success in his early career and ended up committing suicide after he only sold ten thousand records. He was discovered long after he had passed away. Artists like Beck and Michael Stipe and people like that started to bring his music to light. Beck did an album called Sea Change, which was really sort of based on a lot of Nick Drake's feel, his sensibility. When I wrote this love story to my wife, I thought that this amazing poet, Nick Drake, would be sort of a metaphor for love. He was a very sensitive guy, so that's where that came from. I wrote all of his lyrics down from some of his songs and then I worked them into my lyrics to pay homage to him while telling this love story. When I grew up as a kid, I used to go stay on this lake with my grandmother. It was sort of like that safe place that I always liked; it was that one place where I felt the most comfortable, and I always enjoyed going there. Not that my home life was horrible. It wasn't perfect. My parents were divorced and I think maybe I was an unhappy kid. But when I would go with my grandmother on this lake, I loved it. So I kind of used the lake as a metaphor for peace.
MR: Your last project Hollywood Zen was released in 2004, so it's about ten years between albums, right?
MS: Yeah. When I made that record, it was kind of a thing that I did with a partner, songwriter friend of mine, so a lot of music on that record I can't really say is mine. I'm actually calling Stratosphere my first real solo album because this was me making a real point of sitting down and doing a record and going, "I need to speak from my voice the whole time, can I do that? What do I want to say?" It was a really cathartic thing for me to process all of this stuff, especially on songs like "Gone," which was really heavy for me, or thinking about "Josephine," my grandmother, and different things that I went through to channel the music. I always heard people say, "You've really got to sing the lyrics, you've got to feel the lyrics," there wasn't one lyric that I didn't feel. On Hollywood Zen, I would sing lyrics that weren't mine, you know what I mean? They were nonsensical. I wasn't attached to them.
MR: Matt Sorum's "Fierce Joy"...those two words are pretty strong sitting next to each other.
MS: Yeah, I think you really have to strive for that joy, especially living in Hollywood. You have to make a real attempt. You have to get up in the morning and put your joy suit on. You've got to be grateful. You've got to be like, "I'm going to get up today and I'm going to navigate. I'm going to be as joyful as possible." I'm trying to do that. It's very, very difficult for human beings to stay in the positive. It's really easy to go negative. But the beauty of it is I'm seeing a lot more positive stuff online than I used to see. I used to go online and see everybody being negative. I'm living in the eco-friendly world with people trying to make positive change, and that's pretty fierce stuff. So I look at it like that. "I'm going to get up today and I'm going to be fierce about my joy. I'm going to try to focus on being in the now, being positive, being pro-active."
MR: Matt, what advice do you have for new artists?
MS: Well, take Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy. Why did I have to call it that? The obvious is I have to be able to find my fan base, I have to be able to talk to gentlemen like yourself, and I think about young artists too. I think, "What a crazy time to be in the music business." But at the same time, it's a really cool time because what other place can you have millions and millions of people with the opportunity to see you? In the old days, you had to walk the street with flyers and there was no way for anybody to ever see you unless they walked into a club. Now you're able to do content online. As long as a band starts to create their story with content, discoverable stuff, and do it in a way that is your personality. You don't have to be like, "Hi, here's my band; we're called such-and-such." Be creative. Be just as creative with the visual platform of your music as your music, like bands like OK Go. I really think they're genius at presenting themselves, and they had their own career and were able to make their own moves. Bands like Mumford & Sons broke on social media and created a whole new generation of commercial bluegrass music. I think that's possible. The possibility is there for you if you're creative enough. That's what I would say.
MR: Beautiful. I have to ask you the obvious. Is there any news on either the Velvet Revolver or Guns N' Roses front?
MS: Nothing, really. I'm focusing on my new project Kings of Chaos, which is my rock "tribute"--I would say, it's basically my new supergroup. I'm not really focusing on thinking about when I'm going to get a phone call from any of those guys. I'm just moving forward and being the survivor that I am and doing the best I can to sit out there and enjoy being in the music business, I guess you could call it, and playing music for a living. If that happens I'm available and I'm willing to be part of a team, but I haven't heard much lately.
MR: All in all, I imagine you've experienced a fierce joy in virtually all the projects you've participated in over the years.
MS: Oh, my life is very blessed, I've had a very great run of playing music. A lot of guys don't last five years, so the fact that I'm here, still doing it, talking to you, it's great. I can't complain. It's not an easy career for anybody wanting into the music business. It's from one place to the next; you've got to keep moving. It's definitely a challenge, but I'm up for challenges. I love challenges. I love seeing things come to fruition. But if you're going to be in this business, I would say to any young artist, you've got to be ready for a lot of heartache along the way and you've got to be able to just bounce off of it, you know? When you have that music that you believe in, you've got to believe in it enough to not listen to the naysayers. You've got to keep moving. That's what I do.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne