Interview: Steven Adler & Matt Sorum, the Guns N' Roses story
18th Jun 2012 | 14:25
“My whole life changed in one afternoon at A&M records,” Steven Adler tells us with a pained expression etched across his face. “It all changed in one afternoon.”
That one afternoon, 11 July 1990, saw the drummer ousted from the band that he had helped turn into stadium-filling mega heroes - Guns N’ Roses.
Having enjoyed monumental success with their debut album, Appetite For Destruction, the band had eyes only for world domination and as Adler’s wild lifestyle began to interfere with their ambitious plans he found himself turfed out, replaced by The Cult’s drum powerhouse Matt Sorum.
It was a bitter pill for Adler to swallow. The drummer had co-founded the band back in 1985 and oversaw their rise to the top from behind the kit, his punk-influenced rock chops the perfect foundation for GN’R’s gritty take on flamboyant rock.
Guns may not have fully formed until ’85, but their journey began back in the late ’70s at Bancroft Junior high when budding drummer Adler met Saul Hudson. The latter would go on to become known as top-hatted, axe-wielding riff-spewer Slash, and the pair’s first meeting perfectly sums up the bond they were to quickly develop.
“I had my teacher chasing me around the classroom and I ran into his classroom and his teacher had his finger in his face telling him he’d be a loser and a bum,” Adler recalls. “So I instantly knew we had something in common.”
Juvenile delinquency aside, the pair also shared a musical kinship. Adler explains: “Putting a band together was something me and Slash had wanted to do since we were 11 or 12. We ran into three other guys who wanted to do the same thing. We all had the same goal and desire and the same direction and the same dream. I don’t know what happened to that dream.”
While that dream may have long since dissipated, Adler enjoyed a volcanically explosive ride while it lasted. It’s a journey that was kicked into gear after the drummer spotted a banshee-voiced frontman and charismatic guitarist playing in fast-rising LA band Hollywood Rose.
The duo, Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin, were quickly converted to Adler and Slash’s cause, joining the newly recruited Duff Mckagan to form a band that would go on to shift albums by the lorry-load and pack stadiums worldwide.
“It was magic from the first day,” Adler recalls. “The first song we played in rehearsal was ‘Shadow Of Your Love’ and Axl showed up late. We were playing the song and right in the middle of the song Axl showed up and he grabbed the microphone and was running up and down the walls screaming. I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing ever.’ We knew right then what we had.”
What they had quickly became evident through the Sunset Strip live scene as Guns blazed a trail of anything-can-happen, ‘I was there’ shows.
On those early dates Adler says: “It was like the song ‘Anything Goes’. Whatever happens happens. It never failed for something exciting to happen.”
The fivesome quickly found a rough-and-ready rock sound that took cues from New York Dolls, Queen and Deep Purple and would go on to spawn genuine rock anthems. It was helped along by undoubted chemistry and musicianship, but Adler acknowledges it was fuelled by pure graft.
“We were just rehearsing and we’d work on everything. Me and Duff would rehearse just by ourselves on the rhythm parts. We really cared. When we went into the studio we knew that was our opportunity and we didn’t know if we’d get a second opportunity so we went in and took it for everything it was worth and made the best of it.”
Appetite For Destruction
With a bucket-load of tunes in the back pockets of their blood, sweat and god-knows-what-else-stained stonewash jeans, the band now had to capture the supercharged electricity that pulsated through their live shows on record.
With Mike Clink taking up production duties, Adler and co headed to California’s Rumbo Studios where they would make a record that would not only change their lives, but also change the landscape of rock music - Appetite For Destruction.
“We had a direct idea of what we wanted to do and we found a great producer in Mike Clink who understood our ideas and had great ideas himself. It’s a magical thing. There’s a million bands out there but there’s only a few that have the magical thing.”
Adler and Clink worked closely to find the perfect drum sound for Appetite. The enthusiastic drummer went in with some simple demands.
“I told him I wanted my bass drum to sound like a cannon and my snare to sound like a machine gun, do your best. And he did. It was punk and jazz rock. I think the main thing that I brought to the band though is cowbell!
“I laugh about that but it’s true. Beside the grooves, of course. On Appetite For Destruction, I listen back to it now and I go, ‘Wow, I stole that from this band or this drummer, subconsciously.’
“I’m very influenced by jazz drummers. I always liked drummers like Roger Taylor, Keith Moon, Ian Paice, John Densmore. I just learned from playing to those drummers.
“I feel like I brought a little bit of that rock’n’roll jazz to basic rock’n’roll.”
The popcorn-haired drummer’s gear demands were every bit as straight-up as his tone preferences.
“[I would use] whoever gave me a sponsorship. First Pearl gave me one, they gave me $50,000 and free drums and then six months later Tama offered me $100,000 and free drums so I took that.”
Regardless of whose drums he was playing, one thing was certain - Appetite… was always going to be a hit. Propelled by monster singles ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, the record soared up the charts and Guns headed out on what would become a two-and-a-half year tour.
The jaunt saw them start out as openers for The Cult but it wasn’t long before they were packing arenas and stadiums under their own steam.
For a bunch of fresh-faced youngsters experiencing the first tastes of fame and excess it was a dream come true, but it came at a price.
“All we wanted to do was make a record, go on the road, make out with lots of girls, do drugs and travel around the world,” Adler smiles.
“We did that. It was great. It’s a shame it ended the way it did. A younger body can put up with more s**t and we gave ourselves a lot. It was like going in the ring with Muhammad Ali for 10 years.
“They didn’t have Behind The Music when we were growing up. All we would have was magazines and they were talking about partying, you didn’t hear about when they were sick and they couldn’t make a show or they were in hospital.”
Adler reveals that the band’s naivety was costly as drink and drugs infiltrated their lives. He explains: “We went into it thinking it was a party, not knowing about the consequences. The consequences are severe. I found out early in the game.”
The drummer’s partying brought him to his knees and threatened to derail the Guns N’ Roses juggernaut just as they settled into life as stadium-fillers. It was while packing mega-venues night after night that Adler began to feel he was being left in the shadows by his bandmates.
“All of a sudden the family thing turned into little cliques. Duff and Slash would hang out, Izzy would disappear, Axl - god knows what he was doing. I was hanging out with the crew guys. Then the crew guys, if they were seen hanging out with me they would get a reprimand. It was terrible.”
Things failed to improve once the band came off the road. With Adler’s partying showing little sign of letting up, relationships became ever more strained. The situation reached its tipping point as they headed back to the studio to record what would become the use your Illusion albums.
As Adler struggled to nail the track ‘Civil War’ his bandmates lost patience and he was quickly out in the cold and out of the band.
“I built up a family and I thought they had my back like I had theirs. So it was crushing for me when all of a sudden I was alone. I had nobody, it was hard. They say there is safety in numbers and all of a sudden those numbers threw me out.
“I thought, ‘What did I do?’ It was hurtful. It was totally unexpected.” It’s a situation that still visibly upsets Adler more than 20 years on, and he still feels a pang of injustice at his treatment.
“It also pissed me off with those guys, I was doing drugs with them,” Adler says, his voice rising as a shot of anger flashes across his face. “Rick Allen lost his arm, his brothers didn’t throw him out, they found a way. They didn’t give me a chance, it was just one afternoon, all of a sudden, ‘You’re out.’ In eight hours my life changed.”
Enter Matt Sorum
It wasn’t just Adler’s life that changed in those eight hours. The drummer-less Guns were eating up studio time when they should have been laying down Appetite…’s follow-up.
They quickly turned to Matt Sorum, a man whose stick skills they had witnessed first hand after catching The Cult live in LA months earlier. Sorum was, of course, familiar with the band.
“While I was doing the Sonic Temple tour, Appetite For Destruction was really taking off,” he recalls. “We were out on the road and the joke was, ‘hey, that band used to open for us!’”
With Guns in need of a drummer and Sorum enjoying a quickly-blossoming reputation as a hard-hitting groove machine, the call went out and the poodle-permed stick smasher headed to Guns HQ.
He explains: “I was going to just do the albums and Steven was going to come back and do the tour. Steven was going through a lot of personal stuff. I was temporarily there. But as time progressed, maybe a couple of weeks into the session Slash pulled me aside, and said it didn’t look as if Steven was coming back and asked if I’d like to join the band.
“Here I was in an already successful band that I was very happy with, but to be offered that gig at the time was the highest level you can imagine. If you compare it to what’s out there now, I don’t think there’s anyone that can compare to that level.”
The venues, and expectations, may have been far bigger, but there was plenty of common musical ground shared by The Cult and Guns, which was especially striking at a time when hair bands proudly prowled the Sunset Strip.
“The Cult was one of the only bands that wasn’t a hair band. It was dirtier and we looked like bikers. GN’ R had this dirty street feel to it. It was always different to all the hair bands.
“Before I joined The Cult I was offered to audition for bands like Warrant and Winger, and y’know I had pretty big hair, everyone did, but I just wasn’t into that scene. I came from more of a Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin background.”
It wasn’t just the lack of Spandex that The Cult and Guns N’ Roses had in common. The right-down-the-line, hard and heavy drumming styles shared by the two made the transition for Sorum all the more instantaneous, although the Gunners’ punk feel did take some getting used to.
“The Cult was a straight-ahead rock’n’roll band. They were a little more behind the beat. But the groove was more Phil Rudd than punk rock. When I joined Guns N’ Roses it was more of a punk rock attitude mixed with the rock’n’roll.
“My playing was not meat and potatoes but that kind of style, laying it right down the middle. It was a little more of a garage band with a loose feel to it.
“With Guns N’ Roses it was more haphazard, Slash might be pulling away and I had to pull the reins in. I had a different feel to Steven. The thing about drummers is that we’re all different. Guys can try to emulate John Bonham until the cows come home but it isn’t going to happen.”
Use Your Illusion
With Sorum now part of the Guns gang, the studio beckoned with the band facing the daunting challenge of following-up Appetite…
They tackled the task by putting the hard-edged sound that had made them superstars on ice. “Axl wanted to create big rock. I think subconsciously he was thinking of the stadiums. He wanted to test the boundaries with songs like ‘November Rain’ and ‘Coma’, these epic numbers.
“I was surprised with the piano and everything. I thought I was going to join this rock band and here we are coming up with something very different to what I was used to hearing. But I saw the diversity in Axl’s songwriting.”
Big rock meant a big kit for Sorum. The huge rock tom sounds found on the likes of ‘November Rain’ and ‘You Could Be Mine’ demanded a set-up that could cope with sizeable punishment.
“On that album I used the Rock Tour custom kit which was a medium-line Yamaha kit. They had these huge toms, they were like square sizes 12x12-inch, 13x13-inch, 14x14-inch - big, big toms. You can hear that on the album, the tom sounds are huge.”
Mike Clink was again in the production booth for Guns, and just as he had with Adler four years earlier he was on hand to help Sorum find the perfect kit sound to match their stadium-sized ambitions.
“When we miked up the toms we were very particular with how they sounded. I tuned them to a piano. I was using Pinstripe heads, they were the go-to for that really thumpy, big rock sound. I was always a Zildjian guy so I played all my Zildjians.”
With his kit in place Sorum was then able to indulge in just about every drummer’s dream - a game of musical snares.
“In those days I had a large collection of snare drums and I used about 30 different drums on that album. Every time I’d do a song I’d pick a snare to go with it.
“There was a snare we nicknamed Big Red. That was an old Tama that I used on ‘November Rain’, ‘Don’t cry’, and ‘Estranged’. It was a big 14x8-inch birch drum. It’s owned by a buddy of mine Mike Fasano who techs for Green Day. That’s a famous drum now. If you’re in LA now doing a session you can call Mike and rent Big Red. It wasn’t a high-level Tama, it was a medium-level birch but it was just fat as f**k and sounded huge.
“We had the Black Beauty as well. There’s a song called ‘Locomotive’ that I used a killer white 14x6-inch Noble and Cooley on. On some of the real radical rock stuff I had a Zildjian Noble and Cooley.
“They only came out with a few of those and I still have it. It’s made out of Zildjian brass with Noble and Cooley hardware, 14x6 1/2-inch. It was an insane-sounding bell brass drum."
Despite plenty of time for chopping and changing up the snares and the huge size of the double album project, Guns spent just a few weeks in the studio cutting both Use Your Illusion albums.
Sorum suggests this was a sign of the times. “In those days there wasn’t a lot of time to work things out unless you did it in the studio because we cut to tape, there was no Pro-Tools. In retrospect I could have gone in there and played the most incredible drum tracks by making some edits. But I had to do it in one take.
“You listen and that’s the band performing, those records are live takes from beginning to end. A performance was a performance. It wasn’t getting seven performances and making an edit. I’d do two or three takes usually.
“We weren’t using click tracks. Everything was just, ‘lets do this.’ I think that’s a lost art form. There’s something to say why people gravitate towards those great old records - Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Stones. They sat around and played together. It’s not a chemistry project, it’s a rock’n’roll band.”
Still, that didn’t mean Sorum couldn’t put some thought into his drum tracks… “The one thing I always tried to do was create a good intro. ‘Pretty Tied Up’ has the trippy hi-hat at the start, real signature things. That was always my thing, creating a signature.
“People joke with me a lot about ‘November Rain’ asking why I did that tom fill so much. I wanted to create a signature, a musical part of the song that was a hook so I kept doing the same fill. That same fill leads through ‘November Rain’, ‘Estranged’ and ‘Don’t cry’. The reason I did that was because those three songs were a trilogy so I tied them together.
“Axl told me they were a trilogy and the videos were all connected so I said, ‘lets make a drum sound that’s connected.’ That’s the kind of s**t we’d talk about!”
Big budget videos, massive tom sounds and musical trilogies did the trick as the furore leading up to the release of both albums was unprecedented, with many stores around the world opening at midnight on 17 September 1991 to allow the froth-mouthed public to get their hands on the records as quickly as possible.
But the ousted Steven Adler is certain that they could have been even bigger. “Use Your Illusion would have been bigger and better than Appetite…” Adler suggests. “I did all the demo tapes. You hear ‘Civil War’, it’s right where Appetite… left off but after that it’s another band. It was the second Appetite… like Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell II. It didn’t work out that way.
“We all saw how the band didn’t get better by getting rid of me. Some bands do, like Iron Maiden. Paul Di’Anno was a great singer, but Bruce Dickinson is better. He came in and the band got better. When Matt Sorum came in, the band didn’t get better. You don’t f**k with what’s working.”
Despite Adler’s reservations use your Illusion I and II sold more than 1.4 million copies between them within a week and sent the band into a mammoth three-year stadium tour.
Sorum explains: “Those were the days when tours sold records. It wasn’t about making money on the road like it is now. The more we toured the more records we sold. At one point three years into the tour Axl said, ‘We’re at 35 million albums sold. Let’s keep going to hit 40 million.’”
The biggest rock band since Zeppelin they may have been, but Sorum wasn’t getting carried away with his set-up. “I didn’t really have a huge kit. I had a lot of cymbals but I used one rack and two floors. I had a pretty big riser. I remember saying, ‘Well, whatever Tommy Lee’s doing, I’m not going to do that!’ All that flying around in the air. I just set up on a riser.
“We did Rock In Rio and had Judas Priest opening. The tour manager came backstage and asked if we could move our riser for Judas Priest. I said, ‘yeah, sure put your riser out there.’ I go out there and Judas Priest are doing ‘Turbo Lover’ and the next thing I know the drum riser’s going 50ft up in the air with smoke coming out of it! I thought, ‘Oh boy, how am I gonna follow that?!’”
Rock In Rio also saw Sorum venture into the world of eight-minute long drum solos - and today he acknowledges with a laugh that on this front he was well and truly dropped in at the deep end.
“The first solo I did was at Rock In Rio in front of 145,000 people and I didn’t even know about it until on the way to the gig. Axl said he needed to take a break in the middle of the show for his voice and I should do a solo. I’d just joined the band, it was my first show, I’m not going to say no! So I was like, ‘Okay, f**k! I’m going to do a solo.’ Now I’d probably be like, ‘F**k, I don’t know man, let me work on that a bit!’
“I figured when it came time to solo I was playing a massive stadium so what was I going to do, was I going to play fancy or just pummel them? If you watch it on YouTube it probably looks silly but the sound of it coming through a massive sound system was awesome. I was hitting them with double bass drums.
“It wasn’t about showing how many chops I’ve got. It was about being on a massive stage and making everything bigger than life. That’s why I’d stand up and put my arms in the air. It worked. Would I do that now in a smaller place? No.”
Any worries that GN’R’s devoted worldwide following wouldn’t take to the band’s new drummer was quickly dispelled. After all, as he points out, they had little choice.
"I was welcomed right away. I never had anybody give me any s**t. There was a little bit in the press early on but I think it was mainly from Steven coming out with stuff about me. The fans never had a problem.
“I’ve always told the fans that Guns N’ Roses were very close to not being able to continue. If I hadn’t come in at that point I don’t know if they would have been able to continue. Obviously it imploded a few years later but it was ready to implode then. There was already tension in the camp.”
End of the road
While that implosion held off while Guns were packing stadiums, tensions came to a head once they ended their gruelling worldwide jaunt.
“When we got off tour was when we got in trouble,” Sorum sighs. “Axl’s thing was to outdo the last thing and we’d just done a three-year tour in massive stadiums and done epic videos and there was a lot of pressure on us.
“Me and Slash wrote a bunch of songs and gave them to Axl and he didn’t like them. Those songs turned into Slash’s Snakepit. We recorded that album together.
“In retrospect that was probably the beginning of the end. We should have rallied as a band and figured out how to get the songs better instead of jumping out on our own. In Axl’s defence he was probably right. We should have stuck together, it wasn’t the time for solo records. You don’t see Metallica running around doing solo records. Has Bono or the Edge made a solo record? No.”
With cracks quickly appearing, Slash decided to tour his Snakepit album, although Sorum turned down the offer to join him.
“Axl said if I went on tour with Slash I’d be fired. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll stay at home with you, Axl.’ And that’s what I did. Slash was gone for quite a long time. Me, Duff and Axl continued to write. Axl was getting pretty fired up about Slash and that’s how that [Slash leaving the band] got started. Soon after that I left and then Duff left.”
All of which ended Adler and Sorum's involvement with Guns N’ Roses - until this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show. The glitzy event saw the pair share the stage as the band were inducted into the hallowed hall, a move which reignited talk of whether the Appetite… or Use Your Illusion era line-ups could ever launch a full-scale reunion.
Asked about the chances of getting back into the GN’R saddle, Sorum says: “Why not? I’d have to talk about the situation because I like to be in bed by midnight, I don’t want to go on stage at midnight! I get tired man, I don’t know how Axl keeps that up!”
Adler is even more enthusiastic, saying: “I would love more than anything to play the songs with the guys I wrote them with. One day maybe that’ll happen. I throw prayers in every day.
“I wouldn’t mind if we did do a reunion if Matt came up and played a couple of songs that he played on. As long as I opened and closed the show. I still think if we got together in one room there would be hugs, tears and making magic.”
It seems that with plenty of water under the bridge Adler and Sorum can now finally be seen as two hugely important parts to the Guns N’ Roses history rather than rivals.
“I held a grudge against Matt Sorum,” Adler admits. “The grudge was I was just jealous. Those guys were my brothers and they took me out and brought in a stranger into our family. I was with them from the beginning, they threw me out on the streets like I never existed and brought some stranger to take over my life.
“I thought, ‘You don’t even know this guy, I’ve had your back, I fought for you a**holes.’ So I held a grudge. But if it wasn’t Matt, it would have been somebody else.”
Sorum takes the final word on whether the Guns N’ Roses story could have one more incredible twist. Asked if we would consider sharing drum duties with Adler on a reunion jaunt, he says: “Yeah. Anybody in their right mind would definitely look at the offer. We’ve talked about Velvet Revolver too. I have a lot of irons in the fire. I’m never not working.”
Surely that is a leap of imagination too far, right? Well, don’t rule it out just yet. If history has taught us anything it’s that, when it comes to Guns N’ Roses, ‘Anything Goes’.
Liked this? Now read:The story of Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I & II
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