STEVE SMITH INTERVIEW
On recent activities and drummers' rights on a "drum trainer"
by Hugo Pinksterboer
At the recent Zildjian Day, in Birmingham, England, Steve Smith displayed his fastly expanding knowledge and understanding of the history of drumming, which recently has been one of his main sources of inspiration. In a ten minute solo, he played elements of pretty much each and every drum style of the past 75 years, including heavy metalish double bass drum routines, cymbal fanning, four on the floor, flashy fusion licks and much, much more. Apart from numerous clinics and a short tour with Steps, Steve has been working on an idea for a solo drum project, on a recent cd with Vital Information and....
`...I have been doing some session work, for instance with Zuchero, an Italian singer who is pretty big in Europe. He's got a new record called Spirito de Vino, and I'm on all the tracks. That was pretty funny, with David Sanchez playing keyboards. I also did a record with him with a Sardinian band, called Tazenda. Kind of a folk band, but very modernized. Did a little solo on that. So that's been some fun stuff. Kind of different... Over the past two years I ended up getting a lot of calls for rock records, like Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw (Damn Yankees), who did a solo record that I was on. Besides I have been doing a lot of clinics, and guess what © I played with Steps in the summer. They do have another drummer, of course, but Mike (Mainieri, ed.) got a few gigs kind of last minute. Their drummer was busy, like a lot of the other guys, so we had kind of an alternate band, with Kai Eckhard on bass. We just played a few gigs in Europe, and then I took a little vacation on Elba, with Frank Gambale.'
And Vital Information?
`Just last week I recorded a solo that will be on the new album, Ray of Hope. Most of that record was recorded quite a while back © I don't even want to say when [laughs]. It's called Ray of Hope, and it took me over a year and a half to get a record deal. I was with VeraBra before, and well, basically what happened was I went through some major changes in my life. I just didn't have the energy to really devote to Vital Information. We have done one week's worth of gigs in the last two years.'
Easier done than Said, the previous cd, released on Blue Note in 1992, was hardly available in Europe. `Blue Note is a big label and I guess I was too small in their scheme. I had a manager - and I don't want to blame it all on him[laughs] -, but we went into too many business politics - and at this point in my life, in my way of seeing business, I don't want to complicate my life with things like that. If there's a record company that's interested in my music and believes in me as an artist, then I don't need to shove around trying to find the `best deal in the world'. Vera Brandes has always demonstrated a consistency of being interested, so I decided to get back into it and try to get working with Vital Information, get this record out and get some tours done. And then, out of nowhere, has come up this idea for a Journey reunion. Next summer we'll do a major US tour, and we'll be recording a new album between now and then. That's pretty much going to tie me up for a year. So Vital Information, again... I will put the record out, but I won't be able to really tour behind that. When there's time for a tour, we might as well call that a reunion too, by then! I definitely want to tour, and the other guys want it too. It's still the same guys. Jeff Andrews is out touring with Mike Stern and Dave Weckl, and Tom Coster and Frank Gambale are making there own records.'` `We're even talking about maybe doing something in the middle of this Journey tour. Steve Perry doesn't want to do more than two or three days in a row, and then have some days off. Maybe we can book something with Vital Information in between, in the weekends, in clubs in the cities we're playing. Do something fun and different, like that.'
RAY OF HOPE
`For Ray of Hope we did something we never did before: we all got together in a rehearsal studio and just jammed, rock band type style, coming up with grooves and ideas. We wrote at least half the record that way, which was nice. Actually, we were surprised, in a way. Some of the tunes we came up with that way are actually commercially type sounding, you know. They're not as out or as weird as we thought they might be. It's kind of a melodic heavy groove and nice melodies, and Jeff and Frank got really into writing some sophisticated harmonies and melodies. Frank and I also got together with Narada Michael Walden and wrote a song. Frank and Jeff brought in some songs that they wrote, and there's Jeff and Tom doing a duet of the Horace Silver ballad Peace, just for bass and keyboards. So we ended up playing all the music together, in the studio. The one before, Easier done than Said, we kind of constructed, with computers and so on. With this one we wanted to just play it, with a click track for most of the songs. The click track feels real comfortable at this moment. It's like a little ruler that helps you draw a straight line. [laughs].'
Is Ray of Hope Vital Information's way of trying to grab a piece of the fusion pie, or should it be seen as an ultimate musical expression of the members of the band?
In composing the pieces for Ray of Hope we allowed everything to evolve naturally, in whatever direction it would be in. Some of the stuff is a bit more fusion sounding, in a little more outside sense, and some of the stuff is more inside sounding. We tried to give each song the life that it deserved, where it lived the best, where it came to rest. And then in sequencing the record © what song come first, and what song comes last © maybe the presentation of it is set up as easier listening at first, getting a little more out and`
`We basically just did what we did and this is how it came out. We were actually surprised that it has this little commercial type of sound © and maybe that's bad word, but it's just more melodic than we thought it would be.' `But is it the ultimate expression of who we are? It's pretty close to it, yeah. And it's open enough in the sense that we do a lot of groove stuff and funky kind of stuff, but then it will go into swing and maybe come back again. There is very few bands that I have played in where the musicians are versatile enough to match the different areas that I can go.'
`That's one of the things about that band, and then especially about Jeff Andrews. He can groove and he can swing, and whatever I want to play, he's right there. Having Tom and Frank on top of that, we are just at home in all those different styles. It sounds as if it works, instead of just "jointed".'
`Most of the projects I get called for are focussed. They're rock, or they're jazz type of projects, or something. If it's my own thing I want it to be fluid enough to be able to go to all these different places. That feels good to me, rather than just living in one of the worlds.' `The more aware I get of the musical roots and directions, the more I want to bring that to the band. We have been talking about that recently. So on the NEXT record, we want to introduce this kind of soul and blues inflection much more consciously. I have been checking out different quartets with the same configuration as Vital Information, like Booker T and the MG's. That was an instrumental band that was real soulful, or The Meters, with the same kind of configuration, you know.
We'd like to bring some of that influence in the music. More of that R&B feeling, New Orleans rhythms, and that...'
`And in between I want to do a solo drum recording. The solo I recorded for Ray of Hope is kind of like a first step for me to get myself motivated to do a whole collection of the solo drum pieces I do in my clinics, and have them on a cd. I have been gathering information and inspiration that will maybe come around again in another cycle of ... new ideas. I feel pretty full of them, and now I'm trying to, I guess, express it, get it out in the musical world.'
The solo on Ray of Hope is something you debuted at the Drummer's Day at the Dutch Music Fair, some years ago.
`How it came about was that I was not even trying to create anything per se. I was just at home, playing my drums, fooling around. All of a sudden I started hearing little melodies, and then I just started experimenting with the idea of form, actually constructing a form, similar to what Max did with these pieces: he created a little melody and a form, and then a drum solo became like a piece of music... That's what I started experimenting with. This particular piece is called`
`I play this piece and some of my other solos at the clinics, maybe trying to refresh myself a couple of days before I go out. The more that I play them, the more inside them that I get © which is like what jazz musicians do with standards. The more they play them, the more free they get with them. They get comfortable with the form, the changes. I feel like that with these pieces, and as they grow, as I play them, they develop and I add new parts to them. I am also consciously working on writing new ones, in different forms. Maxed Out is basically an A melody and a B melody, having an AABA form, but then I have other ones that are based on just grooves, more like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. They're more like you can always write a song on top of them. It's more song drumming, groove drumming.'
`I am going further than I ever really have. Developing deeper roots, because I see a value in it that I never saw before, and I see a richness in it, that's just there for the taking. I think that it will have fruitful result, once I can absorb it © but it's such a lifetime of work. I feel like I'm just starting, and I already feel a lot of the benefits...'
`Another part of my inspiration is studying with Fred Gruber. He has opened, or rather, he has helped me opening the doors technically. As a result of helping me technically I don't have to pay so much attention to it. It frees my mind of it. Before I felt like I was technically limited, you know, having more problems just physically expressing my playing. The more I study with Freddie, the more I get fluid with that. It's almost like OK, now that's starting to take care of itself and starting to feel good, now what else can I do. It's helping my focus to be more in the music.'
`Maybe people heard me when I was playing fast, but they don't know what it felt like to do it. And sometimes to do it, it felt uncomfortable. Maybe it didn't sound uncomfortable, but it would feel like that. And I always asked myself why. I can do it... What Fred would say is: `well, you heard it, so you could make your body do it, in whichever way you could do it, but there is probably an easier way. Let's help you find that easier way, so it actually takes less effort. That's what really what the study of technique is. It's not so much like to play faster or cleaner... It's to play easier, so you don't fight you natural body motion. Finding a way that works most efficiently, and you align with that. Then it becomes easier and easier.'
`Freddie has suddenly become everyone's mentor: Neil Peart is studying with him, and Adam Nussbaum and Peter Erskine. You know, he's like a trainer. If you're a tennis pro there's always some guy that can just watch you and say: `if you move a little different, you 're gonna have a better return.' Freddie's like that © and I heard a little criticism on Fred because he's not a drummer. He's not a professional player and` Nobody will ever be surprised by the fact that each tennis pro has a trainer. Somehow people seem to be surprised when drummers have. I guess they expect us to have it together. And that's just not the case...