To Sail with Jesus
  • Matt Sorum/Art of Drums
  • "To Sail with Jesus"

Art of Drums is a project from LA based art group SceneFour using time-lapse photography and lighted drumsticks to capture the image of drumming. What does drumming look like? Not the sound of it, but the picture of it. With Art of Drums, the image of drumming is translated to canvas. Funkadelic and James Brown drummer Frankie “Kash” Waddy spoke in Sound Check about his participation. Today, we have Guns ‘N Roses and Velvet Revolver (and the Cult) drummer Matt Sorum talking. Sorum sees Jesus in one of his pieces, and a skull. He was in Brazil producing an album for Portuguese band Kiara Rocks. He says Brazilian country music is huge there right now. Sorum also has a new electro-ish band of his own called Diamond Baby.

How do you describe your images from the Art of Drums project? What does your drumming look like?

Sorum: I don’t want to get all heavy, but there are spiritual aspects to it. In one of the pieces I call “To Sail with Jesus”, it looks like a boat with the face of Jesus in it. In another one I call "Hearts of Ghosts", it almost looks like an animal with a large beating heart. Then there are ghost like images to the left. There’s contrast to the shapes. One is softer. Like me in some ways. I can be an aggressive thinker, and intense, but I’m also pretty sensitive. In the image I see both sides of the emotional offering.

Drumming is a lot like that. There are a lot of subtleties to it. At times, you have to bring on a lot of energy, and times you have to have more finesse. I try to be powerful when I’m doing rock. But I try to finesse it at the same time. It’s not Neanderthal caveman style pounding all the time. There’s artistry to it. Like the way you hit the cymbals. I see a lot of drummers that just bash the shit out of the cymbals. But there’s a whole range of sound to cymbals if you hit them lighter and in different ways.

Drumming is like painting in a way. The brushstroke is similar to what a drummer does with sticks. Similar to a conductor as well. If you look at a painter like Pollock. His brush never even touched the canvas. He splattered and threw it. I see some of that in these images. It’s really more an experiment in movement, emotion, sound, and light.

Did you find yourself playing differently for this than you would if you were recording for a song?

My Skull My Strength
  • Matt Sorum/Art of Drums
  • "My Skull My Strength"
They wanted me to be more animated. Some of my movements were some of the biggest I could make. I drummed the way I would have if I were playing in a stadium or an arena. The images came more from a live attitude. It was about combining movement with the beats. If you look at drummers like John Bonham and Keith Moon, especially Keith, he was a guy that was very expressive, and really lit up the stage with his animation. I gravitated toward that. Drumming is more than just playing the drums. It’s antics, and personality. Keith was like conductor, he was back there conducting the whole thing. The way he would swish off the cymbals, and his body movement, the way he played, he was more like a dancer than a drummer. His drumming wasn’t the tightest in the world, but what an absolutely amazing drummer he was.

Hearts of Ghosts
  • Matt Sorum/Art of Drums
  • "Hearts of Ghosts"

Were you playing to clicks or tracks for Art of Drums?

No, I was just playing. It was a lot of fills and flurries. As a rock drummer, I have maybe 20 different fills and patterns I can do at any moment, and pull them out when I need to. Things I can go to. I did a lot of that. We played with the lighting, and with different colors of sticks. I would go for 30 to 60 seconds. It was dark except for the sticks. It was a balance finding when it would turn into a big blob, and when was it not enough. We shot about 500 pieces.

What runs through your mind when you play, besides Jesus?

Every civilization throughout time has had drums. Whether it’s a war chant, for the Apache Indians, to a Kenyan tribe in Aftica. I think the vibration from the sound of a drum is healing. As a kid that’s why I started playing. There was a divorce in my family and it was traumatic. Drumming made me feel better. These images are representative of my personality. One piece, I see a very blatant skull. I call that one “My Skull My Strength.” A skull is a powerful image.

  • Matt Sorum/Art of Drums

And Jesus is in another one?

Yes. I’ve always been a higher power kind of guy, and always believed. And in the image, Jesus is in a sailboat. It’s a pretty simple concept. Get on the boat, go for a ride. My whole life has been about the drums. Everything I have is because of the drums. Where I live, how I eat. My livelihood. I haven’t had a real job since I was 17. It’s pretty heavy to think that Jesus in a sailboat came out of the drumsticks. But it kind of sums it up for me.

You’ve drummed in so many different bands and projects over the years. What changes about you and your drumming when you switch between bands and projects?

I morph to the band. I’ve always been a song drummer. I’ve got my chops, but for me it’s more about playing the song the way it needs to be played. I come from of the Ringo Starr, Phil Rudd approach there. It’s about the song, not me. What can I do to make the song work? It’s not about being a great drummer, it’s about making the song great. When you think about great drummers, Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr are at the top of the list because they play the way the song needs them to play, not because they’re flashy.

When I was in the Cult, the sound of the songs and the band dictated the way I played. When I joined Guns ‘N Roses, I became more like what they were. Including the drinking and everything else. The whole attitude. I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’m totally going to do it. It would be like if you joined a gang or something. Me and my drumming kind of morphed into the personality of the band. Same thing with Velvet Revolver. There, it became forward thinking. Let’s take this ahead. Let’s look back, let’s remember the past, but let’s take it forward. Musicians need to grow. Musicians will die if they don’t grow. If you want to play the same song for 30 years, be my guest. A lot of people do that very well. AC/DC has done the same record 25 times. But that’s who they are and they’re great. Their theory is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But I want to grow and try new things. My new project Diamond Baby is completely different for me, it’s all electric. I don’t drum that much with it at all. It’s more of a sonic trip. I’m layering snare drums, and kick drums, and having fun with the sonics of it, and enjoying producing. I’m trying to give these electric sounds an organic, acoustic feel. Which isn’t easy. I listen to a lot of Kraftwerk, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, and early Peter Gabriel.

Is Velvet Revolver over? Will you guys do anything else?

I don’t know. I’m doing Diamond Baby now, and really loving that, and producing. I’d like to do something on my own for a while. If Velvet Revolver happens again, that’s cool. I’m not going to close the door on anything. I’m open to possibility.

When is the next time you’ll be in Seattle?

Not sure. I love it up there. Duff McKagen is a Seattle guy. One time Duff called me and invited me to come up to Seattle for a Sonics basketball game. I think it was the playoffs. He was all excited. So I bought a plane ticket and flew up. We got to Key Arena for the game and were walking out to our seats. Duff starts walking up instead of down. I was like, “What are you doing? Where are our seats?” He said, “I like to sit with the real people” and he ends up walking up to the absolute nose bleed section. I think we sat in the very last row. I said, “But Eddie Vedder sits down there, next to the court. We should too.” It was pretty funny. He had me fly to Seattle to sit in the nose bleed section for a game.