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The Spirit of Rock: Miljenko Matijevic On Bringing Steelheart’s New Album To Life!

Miljenko Matijevic possesses one of those voices that only come along so often in rock ’n’ roll. As the driving force behind Steelheart, his unrelenting drive, multi-octave range and captivating songwriting has dazzled audiences around the globe for 3 decades. Although Steelheart was lumped in with the glut of long-haired hard rock bands emerging in the early 90s, the band was always more forward thinking than their peers. The band released their self-titled debut album in 1990 and based on the buzz around the hit single “I’ll Never Let You Go,” was a smashing success (for example, 33,000 albums were sold in one day in Japan) and quickly reached platinum sales. Steelheart’s sophomore album, “Tangled In Reins” was released in 1992 to critical acclaim and rave reviews, but moderate success in terms of sales in the U.S. (by early 90s standards) due to the well documented rise of grunge music; however, East Asia was a different story, where the band was widely embraced yet again.

In the midst of promotion of the album, a serious accident happened on Halloween night in 1992, when an improperly secured lighting truss hit Matijevic on the back of the head, breaking his nose, cheekbone, jaw, and twisting his spine. Almost impossibly, Matijevic managed to walk off the stage of his own strength before being rushed to a hospital. “Steelheart” as it was known ended that night. Four years later, Matijevic formed a new version of Steelheart with Kenny Kanowski (guitars), Vincent Mele (bass), and Alex Makarovich (drums) to record and release his third album, “Wait”. The album was very different musically from the previous two albums, but featured the song “We All Die Young” (millions of streams and counting on Spotify) which was later included as a re-recorded version in the movie ‘Rock Star’, which saw Matijevic providing the singing voice for Mark Wahlberg’s character. The movie soundtrack was performed by Matijevic (and Jeff Scott Soto) on vocals along with Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne’s then guitarist and frontman of Black Label Society), Jeff Pilson (Dokken, Foreigner), and Jason Bonham.

In 2017, Miljenko Matijevic continues to push himself as both a songwriter and vocalist. His creative exploration would ultimately lead him back to the studio where he would pen the next chapter in the story of Steelheart. ‘Through Worlds Of Stardust’ is the culmination of his past, present and future together. With this record, Matijevic has created an indisputably powerful rock album which is destined to stand the test of time. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Miljenko Matijevic to discuss the process of finding his creative voice, breathing life into Steelheart’s ’Through The Worlds of Stardust,’ the lessons he learned along the way and the challenges faced by artists in today’s tumultuous music industry.

Music has played a major role in your life. What are your earliest memories of music?

Music has been embedded in my soul. I was around 4 or 5 years old and I still remember it like it was yesterday! I was in the kitchen in my grandmother’s house in Croatia. I was singing to the radio. I was just a little kid but I was standing there like I was on stage. I really felt something deep inside me. It was a fire. What was really funny is that I was chewing gum at the time and I swallowed the gum. I rushed over to the stove. In those days, our cereal was basically bread and coffee with milk. I was worried about having swallowed the gum, so I guzzled the coffee. I was terrified I was going to die! It’s funny because even today when I’m singing, I’m chewing gum! [laughs] But yeah, I’ve had this feeling since I was really, really young and I knew this is what I was meant to do. It’s really crazy!

When you hit the stage, you take total command of the audience. When do you feel you came into your own as a frontman?

You know, I was always comfortable on stage. It was like I was meant to be there. When I get on stage, I see the people in the audience and I can feel them. I feel as if I am perfectly hearing their thoughts and it’s that feeling or invitation to connect. We are there to have fun, sing, and laugh! That is something that is beyond a rush! Of course, it takes years of different stages of getting comfortable on those stages. It takes time, but even the first time I stepped on stage I felt at home. Don’t get me wrong, each show brings its own energy, fire and power from the people and myself. I just want to get out there and connect. With time and experience you learn how to not only hear the people more clearly but how to connect with them more clearly. That’s where the experience of playing stages in different parts of the world comes in. I’ve been lucky and I’ve been able to play all over the place!

What went into finding your creative voice as an artist?

I loved so many amazing singers from Latin to rock and beyond. Finding my voice was a process of putting all those elements that influenced me together. Part of what molded me in the 80s was those screams! I loved those screams! There was so much fire in it! That became part of the molding process and built me in a unique way. My own music and what I have written about became part of the mix as well. When you write something, you have to express the feeling you’re writing about. That’s the key to being an effective singer — telling a story. When I’m able to really fall into the story and sing it, whether I’m singing it low and gentle or angry and insane, it’s all about telling the story and delivering the energy. All of those elements built me into what I’ve become today.

You have spent the better part of your life in the music business. Has the way you view rock ‘n’ roll early on in life changed at all through the years?

To me, rock ‘n’ roll means freedom! Music is freedom! I perceived rock today the same way I did when I was a kid. Today, I feel we have a mask or some sort of film or haze in front of our eyes because the way music has changed along with the internet. You hear, “Music has changed. There is no money.” Bullshit! There is plenty of money and everything else but we are all just a little sidetracked right now. I still feel that fire. I keep saying I want to bring back the magic to music. That’s exactly what I mean. That rock ‘n’ roll we all felt when we were younger in that era is something I want to feel again today! I personally do feel it! There are times when I do have challenges because being an artist today means that you have to wear a lot of hats. Even in my position, I consider myself an established artist, and I’m telling you it’s a lot of fuckin’ work! [laughs] It’s more work today than it ever, ever was in the past! It’s an insane amount of work, however I still feel the fire and see the beauty in it. That is key! It’s key for us to feel that and enjoy it. Otherwise, why do it?

Kudos to you for keeping it on the rails for all these years!

Thank you, man! I may have to get a job at 7-11 Eleven soon but you know… [laughs]

Miljenko Matijevic: An indisputable force in rock!

You are about to release an awesome new album, “Through The Worlds of Stardust.” Tell us about how the ball got rolling on this one.

What got the ball rolling was when Serafino [Perugino] of Frontiers Records kept calling me. I was in Korea for 6 months working and I was writing. I also sang there and all kinds of stuff. I was working in Asia a lot. He called and said, “Let’s get you back to this part of the world and make a Steelheart record.” That’s what started it and as soon as I agreed to do it, my mind started shifting into writing a new record with the Steelheart energy. I have so many songs and we ended up picking 11 songs, cut the bed tracks and I went back into the studio. I listened to the record in rough mode, about 5 songs at that side, and I said, “This is fucking awesome! It’s rockin’ and it’s got a good energy!” Then there was the other side where the songs were way from the past. It was really two different worlds. This will all make sense by the time I finish this answer! So, it was two different worlds, so I bagged 4 or 5 songs from the album. I took them off and I wrote new songs while making the record! That was nuts! It was ballsy and insane to do but it was awesome! Everything really came together and it was awesome. Once the ball was rolling and I was in it with the spirits, I can’t tell you how many times I would say, “Ok! Just flow with it! Run with it!” When I was in there with the spirits, it consistently came to me. It just unfolded more and more! It was almost like a psychedelic trip, if you will. Everywhere you would look, flowers would blossom, this would turn on or this would happen. It was an amazing experience. Once I had agreed to do it, that was when my mind fully opened up and the information came. What a fuckin’ ride! This record was intense ride! [laughs] I think it was really important for me to do this record, not only for me, but for fans, artists and everyone else. It was about falling back into making records and not just making records to do more shows, if that makes sense. I don’t know how to make a record any other way. I don’t know how to just go into the studio, record it and say, “There it is.” I just can’t do that. It needs to be the full-on journey! I hope I have created that this time around!

Looking back on the process of creating “Through The Worlds of Stardust,” what do you consider the biggest challenges and lessons learned?

Let me tell you, it was an insane amount of work! Insane! To be an artist today is not like it used to be where you got signed to a label and you had basically made it. That was so much fun in those days because the label had a ton of money behind the artist and they were basically able to cradle you in their arms, nurture you and work with you to make you become a star. They would book everything from the studios to the producers to living quarters to videos to directors to artwork. All of that was taken care of by the label. Today, that’s no longer the case. Honestly, I got the whole team together for this from the artwork to the videos, which I’m making and we’re directing, to the recording and engineering the record. I produced the album and my team handled the logistics of getting it all done. All of it was done in-house. The lesson is — “Fuck! This is a lot of work!” [laughs]

Tell us about the songwriting process for the album. What has stayed the same over the years and what has changed?

It’s beautiful! Some songs come quickly and some take more time. There is such beauty in writing. Sometimes, the first thing that would come would be a guitar riff, a great melody or a great title. Once you have a title, you know the story. That is so, so important. What’s beautiful is that I’ve learned a whole new level of songwriting through creating this record. I’ve learned that you can say a lot with less. With every song on this record, there was a point where I looked at the songs and each 4 1/2 minutes or 5 minutes or 5 1/2 minutes. I said, “Okay, this is not working. This is nonsense.” I looked at a song and said, “This song needs to go down to 3 minutes and 30 seconds or 3 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s it! I don’t care how you do it, just cut it!” I went in and I just started cutting. Ya know what? I missed none of the things I cut out! It said even more in a shorter time period! I got the scissors out and I cut all the stuff up and it made a tremendous difference. Lyrically, everything came into a new space. It was really exciting to jump in and fall into the story. That allowed me to say even more with fewer words. For example, “Come Inside,” that song was written toward the tail end of the process. I basically had two days. It was like, “Dude, you better write the lyrics! You’ve got two days before you have to master and mix it.” I was like, “FUCK!” [laughs] Normally, you panic and then nothing comes and nothing will come. So, the only way to do it was to just relax, do nothing and let the spirits speak to you. It’s that crazy but it’s that trust and believing in your writing, along with the connection with not only yourself but the other side of creating music, that makes it happen. That experience brought me to a new level of writing. I wouldn’t panic. I’d just chill and it came every time! Beautifully! It all just kept unfolding. Trusting in the process really brought it all together!

Steelheart’s Miljenko Matijevic in the studio.

What do you feel the future might hold for you musically?

You know, honestly, I’m really curious to see what everyone thinks and how they feel about this record. I think my future is in the hands of my fans. Let’s face it, if no one likes it, what’s the sense of doing another one. I think they just need to see me and the honesty and passion that goes into what I do. I hope everyone can see the love I put into it and I encourage everyone else to do the same. If I get that return from everyone, then fuck yeah, I’ll do another one! I have a lot more songs! I’m ready!

There is no doubt you are putting your heart and soul into your music. There are a lot of bands, peers of Steelheart, who are making some of the best music of their careers. Do you think these albums are getting the attention they deserve?

No, I don’t believe everyone is getting the attention they deserve. That’s one of the problems. The problem comes down to money. It really does come down to money. There’s no real money in radio promotion and that kind of thing. To break an act, you have to be heard. It’s stupid money! [laughs] Now, marketing is where you want to be! That’s where the real money is these days! A lot of this music isn’t being heard because it’s not on the radio, not all the DJs will play it and they can’t play it without it officially being added to the playlist. I don’t know, maybe there will be some changes down the road.

In the short term, what’s the best way for fans to support you and to keep the wheels turning?

I think the fans need to be honest and real. First and foremost, instead of being oblivious, they need to go on the websites and social media sites for the artists they love and see what they are doing. Not only that, I suggest everyone should start a piggy bank for music. That’s what I think we should do! Take our change at the end of the day, when you come home from work or come home from going out and partying, and throw it into that piggy bank. When a new artist or the artist that you like has a new album coming out, take that money and buy the fuckin’ record! [laughs] Right now, I feel it is almost rude to the artist because you can go out and spend $15 dollars on a drink or a couple hundred dollars on rounds of drinks a night while partying but you can’t spend ninety-nine cents on something that will last you a lifetime. Not only will it soothe you at times, it will make you happy, it will make you crazy and you might get laid! All of the above! It’s psychology! That’s what we do! We have reached a point where everyone thinks music should be real. That’s cool but the artists do have light bills and have to put food on the table. If you really want us to keep creating music, we need your help to keep it alive! It’s not much from every person. It’s not like every person has to spend hundreds of dollars to buy records. Buy one that you like or buy a few singles. Just make an attempt! It’s really hurting the artists; it’s killing it. It’s not sustainable unless we all stay together.

Miljenko Matijevic

You’ve had a wild ride through the years. When you look back at everything you have created and all the things you’ve accomplished, how do you feel you have most evolved as an artist?

I think I have most evolved when it comes to the way I approach creating music. I have acquired so much knowledge through the years and it’s impacted every aspect of the creative process from writing lyrics to producing and so on. It’s not just about throwing something together. It’s about truly connecting with the spirit and getting to another level of honesty on record by expressing yourself through your lyrics. I think it comes down to being more connected with what it is you are saying and having a listener really connect with it.

What’s the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist?

Never stop moving forward. Keep working on what you believe. Keep pursuing your passion and keep the fire burning inside of you. Believe in it, be true to it and really try to enjoy both the ups and downs. As hard as that sounds, it really, really makes a difference. I’m not perfect. Actually, I’ve been complaining for the past two days that I’m tired of myself! [laughs] I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, so I at the point where, to myself, I’m like, “Dude, please don’t say another word!” [laughs] It’s only because I haven’t had a break since last January, so things have been a little crazy! I wouldn’t change it for the world though. So, yeah, you just have to be true to yourself and keep going. Be honest with who you are, keep going and enjoy yourself along the way. Never give up. Live it, walk it, speak it and take it nice and easy. That’s all I’m saying! You will enjoy the fruits of it. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen overnight. Who knows? It may never happen but if you really enjoy it, you will enjoy the journey even more. I have and I had my ass kicked! There were so many ups and downs, I couldn’t even tell you! That’s what it is. That’s the beauty of it and I’m forever grateful!

Awesome! I wish you continued success and can’t wait to see where the journey takes you!

Thanks, Jason! I appreciate it. Talk to you soon!

Connect with Steelheart — visit the official website at www.steelheart.com. Follow them on social media via Facebook and Twitter. ‘Through The Worlds of Stardust’ will be released on September 15th, 2017 via Frontiers Music!