“There is so much going on with myself and Steelheart,” laughs Miljenko 'Mili' Matijevic. “I’ve never worked harder in my life; I’ll tell you that.”
Born in Croatia and now based in Los Angeles, Matijevic burst into the mainstream as frontman for Steelheart, whose hit power ballad “I’ll Never Let You Go (Angel Eyes)” was unavoidable in the summer of 1990, making it to No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Showcasing Matijevic’s impressive vocal range, the song came from their self-titled debut album, which landed on shelves in July that same year.
Formed in Connecticut under the name Red Alert and gigging around the Northeast for nearly a decade before getting signed, Steelheart were a bit late to the glam metal game. When their sophomore effort, Tangled in Reins, was released in 1992, the lights had all but gone out for the spandex and teased hair party as tastes had shifted toward the grittier sounds emanating from Seattle. But while they most certainly would’ve ended up as casualties of the new era, the end of the original Steelheart was much more disastrous.
At Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena on Halloween night 1992, the band took a last-minute gig opening for Slaughter. During the set, Matijevic suffered a traumatic brain injury and faced near death when a thousand-pound lighting truss that was left unsecured on the side of the stage fell on him. He’s spent the past 30 years recovering from the incident, not only the physical but the psychological and professional wounds.
The rebound by Matijevic is nothing short of commendable. He returned under the Steelheart name once he was able to function again. Then he dabbled in electronic dance music as the ‘90s wore on but came back to his rock and roll roots once again at the turn of the century, providing the singing voice for Mark Wahlberg’s character in the 2001 film Rock Star. The reconfigured Steelheart song “We All Die Young” was the centerpiece of the film, but while its commercial release was stymied by unfortunate timing then, Matijevic soldiered forward and last month even put out an updated version of the track.
He toured the U.S. and Europe with Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek under the name The Doors of the 21st Century, but these days is back to focusing on Steelheart. Late spring will see the long-awaited release of Steelheart 30, featuring remixed, remastered re-recordings of 10 of the group’s most popular songs. Coming today is the premiere of a new video for the song “Good 2B Alive," which takes on an even greater meaning given Matijevic’s accident.
Metal Edge caught up with the singer for a wide-ranging interview about the stage mishap which nearly killed him, the early days of Steelheart, working with the Doors and that unmistakable vocal range.
Going back to the beginning, what was it like having to switch from the name you had gone by for so many years, Red Alert, and changing it to Steelheart?
Miljenko Matijevic: We were fine with Red Alert. What happened was there was a DJ in New York City named [Kool] DJ Red Alert, and he owned the trademark. When we finished the record, Bruce Dickinson, the Vice President of A&R at MCA Records at the time, comes in and tells us, “Well guys, I’ll tell you what: you gotta change the name, because somebody else owns it.” And you know what it’s like when you get attached to something, but we took it alright. We went to Barney’s Beanery – the band, the manager, the record company – and we’re throwing names around. And somebody said “Steel,” and I go, “Heart. Steelheart. There it is – done!” I mean, it was just like, “Boom!” Red Alert disappeared in a second from our minds, because we knew that was it.
The single “I’ll Never Let You Go” is how most casual music fans know you. The notes you hit on that track are out of this world; if someone hears those vocals, it stops them in their tracks, like, “What is that?”
Matijevic: Yeah, it’s pretty intense. [laughs]
Obviously, there’s a lot of youth in there, a lot of piss and vinegar. When you see that song approaching on the setlist each night, are you like, “Oh man… here it comes.”
Matijevic: No. No. No way. Not at all. Of course, 30-something years go by, but it’s actually kind of fun. Also, “She’s Gone” is a lot more difficult to sing than “I’ll Never Let You Go” because it’s consistently up there. But, hey, it’s what I do. I hope I get the chance to keep going. I respect my voice; I try to do it the best I can. I would love to sing even more, because the more I sing, the easier it gets for me.
It gets talked about so often that grunge killed glam metal in the early ‘90s, and the Steelheart debut record didn’t come out until the summer of 1990. Had Red Alert gotten a deal during the first wave of the genre along with Poison, Ratt, Warrant, do you think it would’ve been a much different story?
Matijevic: I think it would’ve been a much more popular story. We struggled – I gotta tell ya. We met with A&R people and everybody had some shit to say. I’m sitting there looking [at them] going, “Really dude? Come on. Are you hearing what I’m hearing?” Years went by. Finally, when we got signed, now we’re catching a tail end of an era that was magnificent. I feel if we came out when we should’ve came out – so like ’87 or something like that – I think Steelheart would’ve been much more popular.
When the grunge thing came in, it wasn’t just the people that turned on the music, it was more the industry. I remember, clearly, the label was like, “Nope. We want nothing to do with that.” It’s like, “Really? Well, you made millions 10 minutes ago.” It was very odd times.
A lot of people don’t know the story of what happened with Steelheart. Because of when it occurred and the shift in the musical landscape, people just assumed, well, they just went the way of a lot of other bands of that era. They just disappeared. They weren’t relevant anymore. But you had this insane accident 30 years ago. Tell me what happened.
Matijevic: Growing up, I always felt like I had this voice speaking to me. Everyone has this, except not everyone chooses to listen. But to me, it was always very clear. Through my whole life, I’m feeling I need to do something with music; I love the music, it’s a great way to reach people, it feels good, I love singing – all of the above. Now I’m in a band and we’re in a rocket ship going to the top and everything is great. We’re on the 49th show and my manager comes over and says, “Hey, there’s a show on Halloween night. Let’s do 50 shows and we’ll call it a day. We’ll rest, and then we’ll go back out again.” I was like, “Yeah, absolutely, let’s do it.”
[Cut to] McNichols Arena in Denver. We’re on the bus, and I’m sitting there and I’m watching everybody, and everybody’s just fucked up. Straight up. Straight up. Acid, weed, heroin – everybody’s just shot. And I’m watching this going, “Is this it? This is it? This is the big time? No fuckin’ way. I need to do something greater. This is not it. If this is it, I’m done.” So, in a way, I feel like I kind of brought it onto myself – in a weird way.
We did the show, and during the song “Dancin’ in the Fire” – out of all songs – they stood up these two lighting trusses on each side of the stage and put lights in them. This is a really heavy piece of steel, aluminum, with all these lights in it. But what they didn’t do is secure it to the ceiling, so it doesn’t tip over. If it went into the audience, it probably would’ve killed 10 people. I’m seeing this thing and I just grab it, and I go, “Oh shit – this thing’s wobbling.” As I’m trying to walk over the monitors, this thing is falling. Just as I took the last step, it hit me in the back of the head. It cracked my head open, I hit the stage face first, broke my nose, broke my cheekbone – strongest bone in your body – I broke my jaw, twisted my back, my knee…then I was laid out.
How I got up, I think it was just pure adrenaline, pure fire. I was pissed. I knew it was the end of something. And I walked off stage. And they put a chair – a fucking chair – in the backstage, instead of putting me in a med room or whatever. I’m sitting there, and now I’m in shock. I could hear everybody screaming, “It’s not our fault. He shouldn’t have done that. We’re not getting’ sued. He’s fine – he just has a couple of scratches.” I closed my eyes, and everything went completely silent and I swear, I saw a film of my life from day one until then. [A voice said] “What do you want to do? You can be done with the music, live your life like a normal person, or you gotta keep going ‘cause you need to do something great.” It was door number two right away – it wasn’t even a thought.
When I got home, I would say…two days later, I could not blink. The pain was beyond excruciating. I went through seven months of that. I drove one time to Boston from Connecticut in the middle of the night. I woke up in Boston and was like, “Where am I?” It was that kind of stuff. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t have a clue how to handle it, how to fix it.
I went to I don’t know how many neurosurgeons. Nobody had any answers for me. Then I met a neuropsychologist in Westport, Connecticut. She goes, “Ok, let me tell you what’s going on” – because my conversations weren’t focused. “You got hit in the head, you got a traumatic brain injury, your brain swelled and you lost a lot of memory. Now you gotta reconnect a lot of those dots. And nobody can do that but you. You have to train your brain to do that all over again.”
It took me from the arena in Denver to a futon. It was just life going, “Ok, here’s how we’re going to do this now.” I never felt left for nothing. It was something I had to go through. I don’t recommend it for everyone, but it instilled information in me. I gotta say, it’s been a lot of focus to rebuild to where I am today. Five years ago, I really started getting sharper. Even today, I’ll have one beer and go, “Oh shit, what’s his name?” [laughs] It’s really weird. [But] I had to keep going. Keep going forward. And it brought me to where I am today.
Before you met with the neuropsychologist and started piecing things back together, had you gotten addicted to any painkillers?
Matijevic: Nope. Didn’t do it. Never got into that. I was smart enough not to do that. I’ve watched singers do lines of blow before a concert, drinking…I’m looking at this and I’m going, “Why do I want to do things that people regret doing?” Knock on wood, I never got into that.
Was there any negligence and anybody you could sue for what happened?
Matijevic: Absolutely. We got the best lawyers, the best yada, yada, yada. I couldn’t even think straight. There’s no way I could sign anything because I’m not really consciously here. The way it works in Denver is there’s a negligence law. Thirty percent is negligence, 70 percent is their fault. If you went up [the lighting truss] with a Sawzall and tried to cut it off, it’s still 30 percent your fault and 70 percent their fault. That’s the way it works. The sad thing is, I don’t know how or what or when or why, but the lawyers did something wrong and it was thrown out of the court. So, I got nothing. Talk about getting your ass kicked. When that happened, the [wife] left, everyone left, and here I am having to move out of my own house.
Did you feel betrayed by the band at the time when you didn’t get the support you needed as you’re at the worst spot in your life?
Matijevic: Yeah. Yeah. I never really talked about that. I really felt awful. Here I am, lying in bed, and nobody showed up to even come to the house or bring a case of beer and play guitars or just hang out. No. I’m like, “Where the fuck is everyone?” I’ll never forget it. [Drummer John Fowler] called and said, “Hey, you think we can get our checks early this month?” That was the one [time] that I was just like, “You know what? That’s not fuckin’ cool.” It was an awakening. But I knew it was time to move on. It was just done.
Talk about an ass-kicking. Think about this. The band is gone. The manager is gone. The record label dumps you. The ex dumps you. And I’m sitting there going, “Wow. I must’ve done something really fucked up for everyone to lose me.” You know? [laughs] Looking back, it was life striking me down. I guess it’s a rebuild. It’s taken a long time. I wish it could’ve happened quicker, but…
In the rebuilding process, you relaunched Steelheart in the late ‘90s. Why do you think it didn’t take off maybe the way you envisioned?
Matijevic: Well first of all, in that time in the United States they were still in a – whatever you want to call it – “grunge” thing. But it did very well in Asia. “She’s Gone” is still the number one karaoke song in Korea. We started in Japan and sold 30,000 albums the first day. That’s where we started it, the whole career – Japan, not the United States. The first time I came to Japan to do interviews, I had no idea what was going on. I came off the plane, there was like hundreds of people waiting for me. It was like, “Fuck…this is good!”
Come the early 2000s, you worked on the movie Rock Star, which features “We All Die Young.” It’s one of those songs that transcends the movie it’s tied to and really stands on its own.
Matijevic: I wrote that when I was not even in this world. I got hit in the head, in the accident, 1992, and was lying in bed for...God, I was in bed for seven months. I couldn’t leave the house. I wrote this song in the fog of life, so to speak. I love the song, it’s very dear to my heart. I wrote it with Kenny, my guitar player at the time, he’s no longer with us, so it’s a very heavy track and it means a lot to me.
When I recorded with Jason Bonham and Zakk Wylde and Jeff Pilson for the movie Rock Star, it was amazing because that week the movie was number two at the box office. They were going to radio with “We All Die Young,” and they put a lot of money, a lot of promotion, video, to release the song that week…and on Tuesday was 9/11. President Bush at the time said no [songs] with the words “die,” “blood,” “kill,” anything. And [“We All Die Young”] was done. It was over. It was finished. It was, just like, “Whoa.” It didn’t feel like it got its chance in the sun. I really think the song deserves to have another push.
How long has it been floating around in your head that the song deserves another life?
Matijevic: It’s been on my mind for a long time. Things kind of call out of me, and I’m a patient person. I knew it was going to come at a time when it was supposed to be, and why not the 20th anniversary and here I am, touring the world – I literally “risked my life for my soul and test my life for my bread.” That’s the opening line. I knew it was time to do it with the anniversary, it belongs here.
Where is your head at that point, from the release of Rock Star up until the union with the Doors happened?
Matijevic: After I finished the movie, I was also focusing on singing over EDM (electronic dance music). At that time, 1999 actually is when I created a demo, I went through all of Europe but couldn’t really connect with any producers. The guys that really wanted to work with me, I didn’t like their music, and the guys I wanted to work with, wanted nothing to do with me. One guy was finally honest with me, this big German DJ/producer. He goes [in German accent], “Well, yeah - you sing great. But I put you in front of me, then where does that put me?” I was like, “Fuck, there it is.” It was the DJs time to shine. To this day we have all these songs that have been remixed into dance, house/EDM, so we’re going to release that as well. It’s fun. When you’re at the pool and just lounging it’s like, “Oh shit – that’s Steelheart!”
I’ve always been so fascinated by what the Doors were trying to do around that time. Of course, they had Ian Astbury from the Cult, then Brett Scallions from Fuel was singing for a bit. How did you get the call?
Matijevic: After the EDM run, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia and built an amazing studio there where I made the album Good 2B Alive. Interestingly, I’d had a vision that I was going to do something completely different than what I was used to doing – musically. I met with a manager for lunch in Los Angeles, and he said, “You know, I manage a band, they sold 80 million records. They’re pretty popular.” I went, “Yeah, 80 million records. I think they did alright.” He said they were looking for a singer, thought I’d fit really well and asked if I’d be interested in auditioning. I go, “Sure, who’s the band?” He says, “The Doors.” And I was like, “There it is!” Something completely different. Because I grew up with Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Bad Company – that energy.
I go back to Virginia and I’m listening in my living room getting used to the songs and I had a hell of an awakening. I said, “Shit. This is a lot more complex than I ever thought it was.” Jim’s vocals were a lot more different than anybody understands. I come into my studio and sat in the middle of the room and I’m listening to the songs and, either it’s me making it up in my head – who cares, it’s my reality – but I tell you, I’m sitting there and I felt the energy of Jim come into me. I was sitting there, and I was in tears. It was just this energy.
I went back to L.A. for the audition. We did “Light My Fire,” and when I sang that last note, “Fiiiire!” Robby goes, “You know, nobody could ever do that fuckin’ thing like you just did. No one’s ever done that like Jim.” After that, that was it. I wrote several songs with Robby and actually we have one song where Ray is on it as well. I’m still good friends with Robby. That was a beautiful experience to be a part of – it was a gift.
You’ve got the Steelheart 30 album coming out soon. What can you tell us about that?
Matijevic: What I wanted to do was just create 10 songs that best describe the band throughout the world. You’ve got the “steel” and you’ve got the “heart.” The first side is pretty jammin’ and then the second side slows down a bit. It’s beautiful because it’s exactly “steel” and “heart.” These are all the songs that did really well throughout the world. I redid some of the songs and I felt…you know usually bands redo albums and they recut them and it’s done exactly the same way as it was. That doesn’t feel right for me. I already did that energy, so why not do something else?
I did “She’s Gone” with a 40-piece orchestra. It is something I think is beautiful. Then I did “I’ll Never Let You Go,” and we were gonna do the whole band. Do we do the screaming? And I was like, “Ehh…do I really need to do that right now?” So, I rewrote it just [as an] acoustic version, and I sang it a little differently, so the chorus is slightly different than the original. I did it that way because the song is not just in love, falling in love with somebody, it’s the love for one. Meaning, “I’ll never let you go,” somebody who’s passed. “I’ll never let you go,” a mother sending her son or daughter into war. Two old people, “I’ll never let you go.” A father and a child, a mother and a child. It’s like a hymn.
I hear what you’re saying about doing the track differently. How much of that is your own personal growth and what you hear over the years from, maybe fans who have interpreted the song their own way?
Matijevic: Honestly, it was kind of just what came through. I’m one of those guys who can’t sit next to a piano without a tape recorder going. Or if I pick up a guitar. There’s always something coming through – like Eddie [Van Halen] told me – and one night, that’s what came through. It’s a different melody and it had more of a somber…it’s something you could probably sing at a funeral, you could sing at a wedding, you could sing at a bar mitzvah or whatever. That’s where it brought me. I hope everyone else feels that same energy.
Obviously, you see all the metrics on Spotify. Are some of the Steelheart songs that are the most popular surprising to you?
Matijevic: No…I think the ones that are popular are pretty much the ones that are the most famous. “I’ll Never Let You Go,” “She’s Gone,” “Everybody Loves Eileen,” “We All Die Young”…“Good 2B Alive” – that was actually surprising to me. That’s why it’s on the new album. I’d forgotten about that when it came time to put the all the songs together. My business manager said, “Ok, these are the songs that are most listened to.” We all go, “Ok, this is what we have to give to the audience.” And “Good 2B Alive” was one of them and I was just like, “Wow!” It’s a pretty heavy, slamming song.
What goes through your head when you see something unexpected like that?
Matijevic: Well, first and foremost: excitement. There’s nothing more exciting – I’m sure I’ll speak for all the artists – than when somebody gets recognized; especially when they hear a song and it’s like, “Oh, they actually got it. They actually understand.” It doesn’t even have to be my interpretation, but it has to be the soul of the song that captured them and brought them in and gave them thoughts, gave them vision – that’s the power of music.