interview by Michael McCarthy
“You want it, you need it,” sings Miljenko Matijevic on “My Dirty Girl,” the second song on Through Worlds of Stardust, the ferocious new album by Steelheart, (due September 15th via Frontiers). It might not be the album what you think you want, but it’s definitely what you need. Even if you don’t realize it until you’ve spun it a few times.
As fans may know, the last two Steelheart albums, 2008’s Good 2B Alive and 2006’s Wait, were a departure from the band’s first two albums, 1992’s Tangled in Reins and 1991’s self-titled debut. They tended to be out there, at times calling to mind Pink Floyd or Iron Butterfly, this sort of abstract, at times psychedelic, somewhat progressive, a bit avant garde music that anyone who only listens to old school heavy metal might cringe upon hearing. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but you get the idea. That said, Through Worlds of Stardust is a hard rock record that should win back heavy metal fans and gain the band plenty of new ones. “You want it, you need it,” indeed. That’s because it’s an album that harkens back to the glory days of the early ’90s – before grunge took over – yet it also sounds quite modern. Opener “Stream Line Savings” has riffs I’d go so far as to call savage. Not what I was expecting from Steelheart, especially after the previous two albums. At times the song sounds like old school Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. At others, it calls to mind contemporary bands like Disturbed and Trivium. Even the vocals tend to be raw and aggressive. But, yes, that classic Steelheart sound is in there, too. Those glorious melodies and raging guitar solos. Those mind-blowing high notes. And you hear classic Steelheart even more so later in the album on songs like the in-your-face stomper “Got Me Running” and the elegant ballad “I’m So In Love With You.”
If you’re sick of your favorite metal bands doing paint-by-numbers remakes of their classic albums, wishing they’d do something more up-to-date or different then this album will having you smiling from ear to ear. But if you’re looking for a carbon copy of Steelheart’s first two albums then you may have a difficult time wrapping your head around this one. I highly recommend that all fans of hard rock and heavy metal check it out, though. Honestly, it’s one of the year’s very best albums, overflowing with kaleidoscopic color. Give it a proper shot and it’ll sink its hooks in you so deep they’ll tickle your funny bone and you won’t ever want them to let you go.
MMC: I have to tell you, I think the new album is brilliant, right up there with the first two albums.
MM: [Laughs] That’s what I want to hear.
MMC: So, where do you call home these days?
MM: Home is in Los Angeles.
MMC: Whereabouts do you live there?
MM: Hancock Park. The old Beverly Hills area. It’s central to everything.
MMC: You produced the new Steelheart album. Was that your first time at the helm?
MM: No, no. You know what, if I told you, you wouldn’t believe half of it. Well, you’d probably believe all of it. Put it this way – all the records, all the records – I had my hand in. Deeply. Including the first one. And it’s just that the recognition on this one was straight up, you know? I’m the only one doing it. That’s it. I’m glad everyone likes it.
MMC: How did you learn to produce?
MM: You know, I’ve learned that since day one. Since I started writing music, I always loved the sound of putting it together. How to put it together. The sound, the right energy, the vibe – it’s like that part of it is just like writing music. Capture the right energy. Each song has a different energy and has to have the right sound. The instruments. The approach. Just enough anger. Just enough love. Patience and beat and rhythm. It’s tricky.
MMC: So, did you go back and listen to the first two Steelheart albums again before you wrote the new one?
MM: I did not. I know the albums well. And the focus was to let me touch on the past – OK, let me gather all the magic, all the fun – let me gather all of that in a nice little ball and take it with me to today’s world and make it relevant.
MMC: A lot of your peers are simply trying to recreate their old albums now, but with your album, it totally sounds contemporary, too, which is why I like it so much.
MM: Perfect. That’s what I wanted. Because, you know what, with respect, I love the past but I can’t go completely back there. We’ve done that already, you know what I mean? But the fire, the love, the happiness and the energy – that’s what I wanted to bring to today. I think the world could use a little bit of that.
MMC: How did you get connected with Frontiers Records?
MM: You know, it’s interesting. Serafino, the president, he’s been after me since 2000 to do a record. And I just didn’t feel like it was time to be connected to a label. And I was in Korea last year in January and he reached out again several times. He was like, I think it’s time to make a Steelheart record. The fans really want it. We really want to have you. We’re fans as well. We love your music. We love your past. We think you’re amazing and we want to make a record with you and do it justice, putting it out there. And I said, you know what, this could be right. So, I agreed and then all the information started formulating in my head.
MMC: Was partially going back to the old sound because Frontiers wanted a rock record or did they just let you do what you wanted?
MM: Well, they really wanted a Steelheart record and they did specify. And I was very clear that on my creative side they needed to let me do what I do best. I cannot – as much as I love the past – I can’t go live in the past. Again, I’ll be honest with you, we went into the studio, the band left, I put the songs up – the rough tracks – and four of the songs were just like completely from the past and I’m like, no, this is not working. It’s not working at all because the [other] five songs that were on there sounded amazing. The good energy, the vibe, today but it has the past. And then all of a sudden I got the deal and I went back to the past and I’m like, this doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. So, I scrapped four of the songs and I rewrote four new ones in the studio. It was intense, but it really worked and it was meant to be. After they heard one song that I did off the record – I played them two songs and literally Serafino just got up and walked away because it was great. There was no conversation or confusion. He didn’t even need to hear the rest of it. As soon as he heard the first couple things he was like, this is beautiful. So, I appreciated him noticing that and letting me do what I do best.
MMC: I saw the strings on the album were recorded by Stockholm Strings. Was much of the album recorded over there?
MM: No, just the strings were recorded there. I went out there and we recorded them there in Stockholm. Some of the other works were done in England, New York, Los Angeles and somewhere else – I can’t even remember.
MMC: How did you bring the strings into the songs? Did you envision them there when you were writing the album or was it more of an afterthought?
MM: No, it was always in it. Always in it. I could hear it immediately because the way my brain works it’s like I hear the whole song finished with everything. And then it’s just a process of putting all the pieces together. Get the bass up – the drums and bass – and then create it. The strings, I have this guy, Glen Gabriel, he’s a Swedish guy. He’s a composer. And I worked with him. I’ll take some of the melodies, like “With Love We Live Again,” I would sing it to him. This is it. This is the melody. Let’s start writing the strings for it. Get in there and start doing it. Back and forth, I like this, change that, and we created them for it. It’s a beautiful process.
MMC: How does the writing process usually work for you. Is there something in particular that you usually start with?
MM: The songwriting process could be different ways. A vision of a song. The lyrics, what it is. A title. Once you have a title you have a story. Sometimes I’d pick up the guitar and it would be a riff, you know? Or a melody would come to me. I’d sing it into my voice recorder. There are many different ways that it comes to me. You have to be really open and perceptive and not be lazy and actually write it down or record it really quick before it disappears.
MMC: Do you record demos or are the first things you record what we hear on the albums?
MM: I usually do. What I like to do is not do too big of demos. I like to do them really, really raw. With this record, it was like super raw and it worked really well. I only did it with a guitar and a vocal. Really rough and the lyrics weren’t finished so I’d be doing yada yada, da da, whatever it is. But the energy and the essence is there. Then really not listen to it too much, you know what I mean? Go in and introduce it to the band and execute. Get the basic tracks done. That’s the process.
MMC: Most of the songs on the album, if you listen to them, they’re self-explanatory, but I was wondering why the first one is called “Stream Line Savings.”
MM: You know, that was one of my titles that just came to me with a groove. And I used it on the demo, kind of as a working title. I usually have these crazy, great titles that I change later because I have to change them to the words for the song. That wasn’t gonna happen again. It’s a great title. It’s really off the wall. It’s saying something really intense. So, it came more from a working title that became the real title.
MMC: Are there actually members in Steelheart right now aside from you or are you still looking to find new members?
MM: You know what, I think there is, but at the same time life is formulating. Right now it’s an amazing time for Steelheart. And, I’ll be honest with you, my heart and ears are open, but you have to let it fall together where it belongs. Right now, it’s so beautiful and very powerful, just how it comes together. So, I think the word is yes and no, if that makes sense.
MMC: Do you have any plans to tour behind the new album?
MM: Yes, we’d love to. And we’re formulating that for next year. We’re doing some spot dates this year, but then next year we’re going to do a full tour. We’re working on a real tour. We’re trying to hit every festival possible. And also some dates in between. So, I anticipate working a lot next year.
MMC: Have you ever played the Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut?
MM: I have, but I played it with The Doors. I don’t know if you know that, but I was a frontman for Robbie and Ray for a lot of shows. We did a lot of big tours. And one of the shows was at Mohegan Sun when I was with Robbie and Ray. Literally, the whole casino completely stopped. It was pretty intense there.
MMC: Well, I hope to see Steelheart there sometime.
MM: Yes, it’s a good vibe place. I like it.
MMC: I listen to a very wide variety of music, including Korean pop. So, I was a curious about your work over there. How did you first get involved with the music scene there?
MM: Well, you know, the song “She’s Gone” is one of the most famous songs ever in Korea. Literally. It is still the number one karaoke song in Korea. It is just beyond anything. It’s a crazy thing. It’s beautiful. And not just Korea, but a lot of the Asian countries. And so last year I met a manager out there and he was like, hey, I want you to come out. Would you be interested in doing this show King of Mask Singers? If you look it up, you’ll be able to tell. King of Mask Singers will come up. Basically, you put on a mask and you duel with other singers. And I went in and I did two Korean songs. I did the TV show and sang in Korean. And I was actually that good that I tricked everyone. Nobody knew it was me. And finally, after the third round, I had to lose because I didn’t know another Korean song. And then I took my mask off and everybody freaked out and I sang “She’s Gone.” It was beautiful. Just amazing. Then I stayed there. I did a lot of TV shows. A lot of concerts. I also did the Dream Festival, which we did “She’s Gone,” the EDM version. I wrote songs for TV series over there and I did a single that we released in Korean. So, yeah, I’ve been busy over there for sure.
MMC: Have you learned a lot of the language then?
MM: Here and there. I really didn’t have the time to study. There’s just not enough hours in the day. My days were pretty packed. Literally.
MMC: So, are you like a big celebrity over there where they have you on talk shows and everything?
MM: Yes. I do a lot of stuff. I did reality shows. Talk shows. Concerts at stadiums. They call me The Legend. It’s beautiful.
MMC: Have you written or performed on any K-Pop songs I might know of?
MM: I have not. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be doing something. But I’m not in K-Pop, not yet.
MMC: What is a fake name you’ve used when checking into hotels?
MM: The fake name? Frank. Wait a minute, if I tell you that then that means somebody’s gonna look for that one, too.
MMC: You still use the same one?
MM: Usually, it’s just Frank Daniels.
MMC: If you had to go into the studio today and record a cover, what would you do?
MM: A cover? Um… I don’t know. I’m not sure. To be honest with you. But one song that comes to mine is “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker. It could really be a song to re-do with a heavy kind of rock, twisty way of doing it. I don’t know. Maybe Metallica. Who knows?
MMC: What was the last album you bought?
MM: Honestly, I think it was Coldplay. Their latest album. I do like their writing skills. Because I also love EDM, dance music, you know? Which I have a whole other project that I do with that. I have a whole album with that. But I hope nobody’s gonna give me shit about that. I think they’re great. Great songwriters. And the producers are really good in how they create and construct different levels. It’s done very well. That was the last record I bought.
MMC: What’s one of the most useful pieces of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
MM: The best one ever was in Nevis. I was in Nevis and I was staying at the Four Seasons. And I saw this couple. They were in their late 70s or early 80s, a very posh couple. Very elegant. And I saw them in the pool and I swam over with a couple pina coladas and I said, how about a drink? And they were like, sure. And we started talking. And I said, you both looked so interesting, I wanted to meet you. And it just so happens he was a very powerful man in New York City and the lady was a very powerful lady in Nashville with a magazine. I was trying to get something going. I was in a different space. He goes, I’m gonna tell you something and don’t forget it. No matter how difficult things are – no matter how painful they may seem – keep going. So, that stuck with me. And this was in, I want to say, 2002.
MMC: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
MM: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I’ve just gotta go into the library of all the dead musicians. Shit, I can’t think right now. You know who I think would be good to bring back? Well, maybe not. I was gonna say Elvis. My brain isn’t working right now, dude.
MMC: Well, think about it in terms of who you would like to see perform live.
MM: Right. I would say maybe Hendrix. I would love to see him perform. Definitely, that energy.