the way the music died [home]

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interviews: mattduff
I think there's a lot of groups right now, being put together by record companies, [with] songs written by other people for an artist... They're just a product.  (duff mckagen)

... Was the peak, when you got there on top of the business, was it as good as every kid who's standing in a garage and plays a guitar hopes it will be?

DUFF MCKAGEN: ... You know, I played in 30 punk-rock bands in Seattle, and I always wanted to go further. And there was always one guy in the band that was a junkie or whatever, you know, or not good enough.

I moved to L.A. and, basically, formed Guns right away, and we moved up the ladder and started selling out clubs here, and got the record deal, made the record. Went on tour, and we're still broke, but then the record blew up. And by the time we put out Illusions and we were playing stadiums, it became so surreal. You couldn't leave your hotel rooms a lot of times, or the hotel. So, you'd end up really pretty lonely. Like, I'd call home a lot, drank and did drugs a lot.

MATT SORUM: A lot of cling-ons.

DUFF MCKAGEN: There's a lot of cling-ons, and all of a sudden--

Who's a cling-on?

MATT SORUM: Cling-on is like a person who hangs around with you because you're cool. And when you're really high and drinking heavily, you kind of let them. But you don't realize it until you're really in deep, that they're really not your friends.

It's weird when you get in a band of that magnitude, there's tons of them. And they just show up, and they have drugs and before you know it, you're kind of in it. You forgot to call your mom for like six months. I mean, I got separated from a real solid foundation, like family and sort of pulled away from the family, and got sort of more into the lifestyle.

Did you know you were meteoric and on a rocket ride? And did it feel that way to you at the time?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Well, I mean, we had our own plane, MGM Grand plane, with our own stewardesses. We could do whatever we wanted. We could smoke crack on the plane, whatever. It was a 727 with a bar and a whole movie theater and everything.

You know, it hit me when we flew from Athens into Istanbul and I was looking out of the plane and it reminded me of like a Warner Brothers cartoon -- "There's Asia Minor," you know? The Iraq war was going on, the first one. We were about 120 kilometers outside of the no-fly zone and all that kind of stuff. And we'd fly into this Istanbul Airport, [the plane] comes up to the line, surrounded, soldiers, everything. And we just drove straight into the gate, and I said, "Is anybody going to know who we are here?"

photo of mattduff

Duff McKagen (right) and Matt Sorum are the bassist and drummer for Velvet Revolver. They are also former members of Guns N' Roses. In this interview, they reflect on what it was like to be part of a successful rock 'n' roll band during the 1980s, and they comment on Velvet Revolver's prospects in a changed landscape. "I think there's a lot of groups right now, being put together by record companies, [with] songs written by other people for an artist," Duff tells FRONTLINE. "... They're just a product. They sell, they sell, they sell. They don't care about musical integrity, any of that kind of stuff. Well, we're a band. We write our own songs, we do our own thing." This interview was conducted on Feb. 6, 2004.

But we get there and there's 80,000 brown-skinned people with leather jackets on, singing every song in English. It just blew my mind. And we got back in our cars, went straight back to the plane, and flew out of there.

MATT SORUM: We never even saw any of the city, and--

DUFF MCKAGEN: Nothing.

MATT SORUM: They wouldn't let us out.

DUFF MCKAGEN: No.

Did it feel like a business to you when you were kids and really getting rolling or did you just leave that all to somebody else and you were just on for the ride?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Luckily, we were in fairly good hands. We didn't get ripped off. We'd read a lot of stories. We played tough guys, like, "If you rip us off, we'll kick your ass" kind of thing. ... That was our only defense, because we didn't know anything else

I think we're more business savvy now than ever. (matt sorum)

MATT SORUM: I think we're more business savvy now than ever. But in those days, we were -- I don't want to sound pretentious, or whatever, but we were the real deal. I mean, we were out there doing it. I have to gauge how big the band was, because I came into the band to replace the original drummer. So I came in when the band was about 20 million records in with Appetite -- about 17 million or whatever.

My first gig was Rock in Rio, which is the biggest gig in South America, which is about ... 170,000 [people], something like that. That was my initial welcoming to the band gig, which was two nights, sold-out. And I remember when we got there, and we got off the plane, it was a mind-blowing experience.

DUFF MCKAGEN: It probably was more for him.

MATT SORUM: For me, I was just like, "whoa." I got off the plane and it was like being in the Beatles or something. It was the closest thing I could relate to being in the Beatles, because we were being chased by kids and, there was hundreds of kids outside the hotel. It definitely changed my life, everything just changed drastically. ...

How much did you guys make? ...

MATT SORUM: Millions and millions of dollars, yes. And we spent a lot of money. Like Duff said, we had not just a regular jet, we had a 727.

DUFF MCKAGEN: Well, we also had a very temperamental singer who would show up four hours late to Madison Square Garden, which is a union building. So, you're paying quadruple overtime, so you're paying to play.

We played Lausanne in Switzerland, where people take trains in, to go to the concert, [rail stations] in the stadiums. We had to pay to keep the train station open.

MATT SORUM: In retrospect, it makes for a good story, but we lost a sh--tload of dough. ...

DUFF MCKAGEN: But that was from within. That wasn't somebody else ripping us off, you know?

But, personally, did you get rich? And are you rich?

DUFF MCKAGEN: ... I'm fine. I've made good investments.

MATT SORUM: Now I realize that it's much better getting to the publishing game.

DUFF MCKAGEN: We kept all of our publishing.

MATT SORUM: I didn't write any songs on those records. But I learned, through the business, it's nice to have some songwriting. That helps a lot, because that's your bread and butter. That always will come in. Every time those songs are on the radio, you see cash. For years and years after. That's your catalogue, that's your nest egg.

When it ended, did you know it was ending? What was it like?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Yeah, it got just kind of gross and ugly at the end. Matt and I actually had a band together, the Neurotic Outsiders. I'd just gotten sober and he was sober. And the two other guys, Steve Jones from Sex Pistols and John Taylor were sober. So it gave me a chance to go out and play sober, because that was my biggest fear. Like, "I'll never be able to play again, because I'm sober. I don't have something to loosen me up." We went out and we secured a million-dollar record deal, just out playing the Viper Room every Monday night.

MATT SORUM: Which encouraged us to move forward, especially just not relying on GN'R. That we're musicians in our own right. When I left the band, I sorta realized at a certain point that the business end of things and the money and the whole monetary thing sort of outshined what I'd originally intended to be in a band for, [which] was to be a great musician, play music, and make records.

Years had gone by when we stopped touring, where we were trying to make the next record. We stopped touring in 1993, we were still in the studio trying to record a record in 1997. I started not feeling anything for the music anymore. I'm like, "Man I'm hanging out because I'm still getting this check, and getting paid. Man, I gotta get back to playing music. I'm a musician."

Then when I left, soon after that Duff left. When we went out and started exploring other musical identities outside of GN'R, it brought us back to a very empowering feeling that, "Hey man, you know, we're players, we're musicians."

And then, you know, after a period of time of us all exploring our own musical identity, we've come back together as sort of a musical chemistry that we know we've always had. But it took, this amount of time to sort of rediscover that.

DUFF MCKAGEN: And also for the cheese factor to go away. For us to form a band right away after the Guns thing would've been kind of cheesy. ... It was something we never talk about--

MATT SORUM: Well, I made the phone call. I called these guys, and I said, "Hey, you know, whatever about Axl man. Let's just, you know, get a new singer and keep going." But at that point ... we had to let it go.

You said you went to school, right?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Yeah, I went to Seattle U. Nice Jesuit school there.

Why?

DUFF MCKAGEN: I didn't graduate high school. So to get into SU, I started going to Santa Monica Community College here. I took a securities class first.

I had a certain amount of money and I was starting to meet with financial advisors. I knew what a mortgage was at that point, but, really, PE ratios or yields on a bond or risk on the stock -- I didn't know what any of these terms meant. So I took this great securities class, with a great professor at Santa Monica. Great school. I excelled at the class, and he said, "You know, you're good at this."

And he said, "Why don't you take this business class?" So, I did. Guns was done, the rock was done. I had my house in Seattle. We had our first kid. ...

When you get around to forming a new band, has all of that [helped] ... the business side?

DUFF MCKAGEN: The accounting especially, and the economics. I can read any balance sheet, cash flow statement. Before it was all just a blur.

MATT SORUM: As far as making records, too, after I left GN'R, I went out and did a lot of production on my own and sort of got savvy with studio expenses. I mean, the whole business has changed, so it's trickled down. You know it's like, "OK, we're not selling as many records," so now recording studios are cheaper. People are making a lot of records in home studios, on computers, so it's trickled down.

So, you can go into a recording studio and say, "Well, hey, we know your day rate is two grand, but, we'll give you a grand, because we know you're not booked." You work deals a lot more now than you could in the old days. …

When we made our records with Guns, I mean, in those days, there was a certain rate, the record companies paid it. Everything was booked. There was bigger budget records.

DUFF MCKAGEN: We didn't check one thing--

MATT SORUM: What'd we spend on Use Your Illusion? A million and a half dollars, two million dollars making those records.

And now?

DUFF MCKAGEN: We spent over a half a million dollars on this one.

MATT SORUM: I made a solo record for seven grand, at my house, and it sounds good.

DUFF MCKAGEN: I made a record for 14 grand, with master.

And those records sell?

DUFF MCKAGEN: This was when I was in school. I just signed to a Japanese label. It was a Japanese release.

MATT SORUM: But just by comparison, it was my thing. It was like, "Look, there's no need to go out and just throw all this money around, when you can come somewhere in the middle and make a great-sounding record that's gonna be something that's gonna compete in the modern market." And, we've done that with our new record.

So what do you need the record company for?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Marketing. Oh, money. You don't want to spend your own money. That's another thing.

MATT SORUM: These guys strategize man, that's just what they do. Now the labels are all -- it's getting so much smaller of a game. What is there left now? Five labels. It's getting more tightly sewn up with radio and it's like a little club. They do their thing, and they talk to each other in a certain way, and that's their trip.

It's like if Duff runs into Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they talk about the bass guitar in a certain way that, if Joe Blow marketing guy from RCA talks to the people that put the record out. That's their language. That's what they do and they get off on that. We get off on playing music, and we know we need that.

DUFF MCKAGEN: They're a machine of their own. They have radio people, they have marketing people, they have worldwide BMG people that will get the record, and this is a global priority for them. We wouldn't be able to, with the band and David our manager, globally market this record. …

Do you think that [people are] going to like you guys because they're gonna love the music, or because it's a wonderful merger, like two great companies coming together?

DUFF MCKAGEN: I think it's gonna be the music first because there might be some skepticism. But the music is going to hold out. The music will do the talking.

Will it? Does it in the business?

MATT SORUM: Yeah.

It really does?

DUFF MCKAGEN: With this record it will.

MATT SORUM: Especially, I think, for a live entity now, that touring is so big. If you look on any sort of touring, SoundScan sheet, if you look at the bands that are out there doing great business, it's people that have been around. Like, you know, like Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen and all--

DUFF MCKAGEN: Metallica--

MATT SORUM: Yeah. ... Even AC/DC, who doesn't really sell a lot of records anymore. They still go out and they sell out every night.

Is that where you'll make your money? Will you make money?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Touring revenues will be a large part of our [income]. And merch. Merchandise -- T-shirts, hats.

MATT SORUM: Hopefully, the idea is -- it's same as the old days -- is to go out, play a great live show. Maybe people haven't got the record yet. And they go, "Man, wow, awesome," and then they go and pick up the record. That's the idea. We're out there promoting the record.

Now, let me ask you this generic question about the music business. I looked, there were 34 different number one songs last year on the billboard lists. Different groups, I mean, that much churn is happening out there.

DUFF MCKAGEN: Wow.

There are, at any given time, 10 groups I've never heard of in the top 10. What's going on?

DUFF MCKAGEN: It all goes in cycles. It was just like that when Guns came out. There was Milli Vanilli one week, there was Paula Abdul the next week. It was, you know, Kajagoogoo the next week, it was Flock of Seagulls, whatever.

MATT SORUM: Garth Brooks.

DUFF MCKAGEN: Then there was New Kids on the Block, all these corporate-made bands. And then the real deal came out. We came out. And it was like, it just took everything by storm. I think there's a lot of groups right now, being put together by record companies, [with] songs written by other people for an artist. You know, not to name names, but a lot of pop female artists you see, they don't write their own songs. Lot of top male artists, and boy band artists, they don't write their own songs. They're just a product. They sell, they sell, they sell. They don't care about musical integrity, any of that kind of stuff.

Well, we're a band. We write our own songs, we do our own thing. Our stage setting will be of our own creation. Everything -- our t-shirts will be of our own creation. Our album cover will be of our own creation.

Why do you get to do that?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Because we're a band and we demand it.

MATT SORUM: Today we had a meeting with the RCA people and, you know, we had all the heads of marketing and artwork person there, and our A&R guy, and we went over the artwork and the cover. And it was very open and just the way it should be, man.

Do most bands get to do that? Get all of that stuff? ...

MATT SORUM: No, I think we're very, very fortunate.

DUFF MCKAGEN: We've been around the block. We have a great manager, a great lawyer. And they respect us. And Clive [Davis] respects us. And I think Clive believes in, "If it ain't broke, you know, don't mess with it. So let these guys do what they do best, in everything from artwork to writing songs, finding the producer, finding the mixer, finding the guy to master your record."

And then our booking agent is giving us free reign on how we want to approach building the band as far as playing live shows.

What can go wrong? What are you worried about?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Well, the album can bomb.

You mean, they just won't like the music?

DUFF MCKAGEN: We made the best album that we could make, and I think there's an audience out there obviously. There's been all these hits on Kazaa and all this kind of stuff. There's an audience out there for it.

And we'll just keep touring until -- we have a three-album deal with RCA. So we'll just keep making records. I mean, we made the best album from right now, for this contemporary time, that we could have made. And that's all we can do.

But things can happen. Will it get played on the radio?

DUFF MCKAGEN: According to our radio bureau at RCA, like KROQ here in L.A., this will change rock radio for America, the format of rock radio.

MATT SORUM: I think, going into it, we didn't, like, go, "OK, we need to write a song that's gonna be on the radio." But, we did have an idea that we needed to put a stamp that says "contemporary." And, by doing that, we picked a certain producer. We tried a couple producers. We went with a younger producer who's done current records, and we knew that we needed to kind of put the sizzle of whatever that is, the sprinkling of the fairy dust of, like, "This is new." And I think we achieved that.

So, you're not a retro, new name, old band.

DUFF MCKAGEN: No, no. ... We're moving ahead. We will rock the sh-- out of any band that's 21 years old.

MATT SORUM: There's a retro thing happening right now, with a lot of young bands. Lot of young guys recreating the '70s sound, you know, going back to the old-school vibe. There's some bands like Jet and the Kings of Leon and the Strokes. But they're 20 years old, and they're doing something that's 30 years before them, before they were even born.

For us to come out sounding like we used to sound wouldn't do the same thing for us as it's going to do for a 20-year-old band. So, our thing was, we need to make a record that sounds fresh and it needs to just smack you right in the face.

Right, and it's rock. And there's no rock in the top 10. It's all hip-hop, right?

MATT SORUM: Hip-hop's a big deal, isn't it?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Yeah. ... We'll see what happens.

How will you know? When will you know? It comes out when, May?

MATT SORUM: The record comes out in May, yeah.

DUFF MCKAGEN: Yeah. I guess, you know when you get your first week's sales and all that kind of stuff. And we're gonna tour and touring keeps your record hovering around, and then you release another video, another single. We have some aces in our pockets, as far as singles go. Our first single's not our best song, you know. Not saying it's our worst song, but we have songs that will cross over.

You were talking earlier about singles bands. Lot of people make an album now that have one song on it. It's radio play, people buy it, they're disappointed, they say, "Geez, I'm never buying this band again, whatever they're called." You're not aiming for that, right?

DUFF MCKAGEN: Well, we could've picked -- if Matt just said, "I want this, this, this, for our first three singles," I would've said "fine."

MATT SORUM: There's a lot of good songs on the record. It's a really well-rounded record and it's a good listen. It's like when you used to pick up a record and just sit there and just, like, go, "I'm gonna hang out with this record for the evening." ...

You guys are talking about yourselves in Istanbul once. I mean, if there was a product that America sells to the world, it's rock 'n' roll.

DUFF MCKAGEN: You know, we played in Colombia once, and we were more powerful than the government at that point. There was guys with submachine guns inside the stage. If Axl were singing, or one of us would have said, "Revolution, now!" You know, these kids would've done it.

MATT SORUM: That's something about this band too. Globally, I know we're going go out, because it's something about -- I don't wanna downplay the American youth--

DUFF MCKAGEN: It's the number one market --

MATT SORUM: But I'm just saying, you go back to Latin America or you go to South America, or you go to any Latin countries. And for some reason, those people remember, and they know and they hold onto something. And they have a lot of passion about it. And, this band, globally, will be able to go out and do a lot of business, touring and otherwise. Because I think, overseas, there just seems to be a little more of a passionate feel for--

DUFF MCKAGEN: Openness to it, yeah.

MATT SORUM: Yeah.

 

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posted may 27, 2004

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