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Steve Smith Drums Up Some Vital Information
Interview by Jason Gianni
Photos by Timothy Ellis

It is 11:00am on a Tuesday morning at New York City’s famed Drummer’s Collective school of music (a.k.a The Collective).  Fortunately, the school is on a week hiatus between semesters, which makes it a perfect locale for a private interview with New York City’s newest resident drum legend, Steve Smith.  Slated for perhaps an hour-long interview, Steve informs us that he has practice time scheduled upstairs following our talk, allowing us a little flexibility with the time (Editor in Chief, Scott Kahn, didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to chat with Steve, either).  Perfect!

Over two hours later, we were wrapping up a marathon filled with emotions ranging from serious banter to hearty laughter as well as amazing revelations about the music business and the more private life of this drumming superstar.  After thirty years in the public eye, it is safe to say that Steve Smith is a household name in the drumming industry.  Most drummers know him to be the versatile, remarkably-skilled master of many domains, while few others may still naively define him as “that drummer from Journey.” 

Regardless of the circumstances, Steve is an icon in this industry who is loved and recognized by scores of musicians and drummers around the world.  However, what enthusiasts may not know about Steve Smith is the unbelievable work ethic and arduous schedule he maintains just to keep his career moving along.  Most drummers have witnessed his often-indescribable performances behind the set of drums.  However, “behind the scenes” is a different story perhaps not known by many. 

Revelations of self-management tasks like hotel reservations, flight bookings, gig advancements, and constant travel, not to mention personal practice time and familial obligations, are enough to fill up any musician’s daily schedule from top to bottom. And with all of that, he still somehow finds the energy to deliver that jaw-dropping performance each moment he hits the stage.  Amazing.

Amongst many topics, Steve speaks about recent and upcoming projects, specific details of the new Vital Information CD, Vitalization, and his thoughts on the ever-changing music business, as well as an entertaining retrospective of essential Steve Smith recordings & performances.  If you thought you had a great amount of respect for him before, perhaps you’ll find an entirely new undiscovered level of respect for him now.

Part 1: Movin' and Groovin'
Part 2: Living in the Past
Part 3: A Vital Step Forward
Part 4: A Look Ahead

Part 1: Movin' and Groovin'

"Get out of the way of that rebound and let the stick
come back off the head or off the cymbal."

MPc:  A lot of people didn’t know that you moved from the Bay Area and aren’t a California guy anymore!  How has New York City been for you now that you are working and living here?

SS:  Well, the main reason that I moved is basically a life-style change.  I had been in the Bay Area for, I think, 27 years.  My kids had grown up and are in college, and they didn’t really need to be there.  We changed our lifestyle by buying a house in Southern Oregon and a condo in Manhattan (laughs)!  So, now, we commute between the two. 

It sometimes depends on my work and other times depends on if we want to be here just to hang out.  So, it’s work related to a degree but it’s more of a lifestyle change.  Now that I’m here, I don’t do a lot of local gigs. At some point I may do some of that, but mainly I’m here enjoying New York.

I just went to see Billy Hart and his band at The Vanguard the other day and then Bobby Hutcherson and Al Foster at The Blue Note.  This week, I’ll see Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and Larry Goldings at The Blue Note.  So I like to go out and see music.  That’s a big advantage of being here!

And the other work part that’s really developed is working with Hudson Music because they are based in New York.  So because of that, I’m doing more with Hudson as a result of being able to get together with the guys more frequently.  We have meetings to come up with project ideas like the brush DVD I have coming out soon.  That part of my work has really taken a step forward as well as this new Vital information CD being on Hudson Music as part of that process.  They wanted me to keep all of my projects “in house,” so to speak.  So it’s been a great move.

MPc: When we were both living in the Bay Area, I used to see you a lot and we would hang out a little bit at Jazz at Pearls.  I talked to you a couple of times about vintage equipment. We talked at one point about your really nice K Istanbul Zildjian ride that you have, and if I remember correctly, you have an old Ludwig Black Beauty snare, right?

SS:  Yes, though I’m not a real collector of vintage gear just for the sake of having vintage gear.  I like to have “playable” gear.  So I really try to play everything I have under the “vintage” category.  But I do have, I think, a 1928 Black Beauty.

MPc:  Ahhh, that is so nice!

SS:  It’s a really beautiful sounding drum that I’ve used on a lot of recordings, and I’ve used it on live gigs.  I also have a second one, other than the one that you saw, which is not engraved.  So it’s pretty rare in that it is a Black Beauty but it doesn’t have any engraving on the drum.

MPc:  Wow!  That’s really rare.

SS:  And I have some beautiful, old K Zildjian cymbals.  One of them I got when I was a Berklee student living in Boston in 1973, and even then it was old!  Then, on one of my trips to Istanbul, I found an old K Zildjian there in perfect shape.  It’s real dark and very aged.  It sounds great and I’ve used that on a lot of records.  And recently I was in Salt Lake City (Utah) and I saw a young drummer using an old, beautiful set of 14” A Zildjian Hi Hats that must have been from the early Sixties or something like that.  As it turned out, he was borrowing them from somebody that saw that I really liked them.  He said, “For $150, you can have them!”  So I bought them on the spot (laughs)!  They are real nice.  Actually, that set goes together really nice.  Those A Hi-Hats with those K ride cymbals is a nice set up.

MPc:  That’s amazing! And if I remember correctly, your K Istanbul Rides are beautifully hand-hammered and in great condition.

SS:  Well, all of those old K’s are hand-hammered, but they vary widely in how good they really are.  Most of them are probably not that great, but once in a while, they made a really great one. 

MPc: I agree.  Moving on to another topic, is there any way you can summarize what (teacher) Freddie Gruber did for your development as far as technique is concerned, and opening up doors in your mind?

SS:  Sure!  The easiest way to describe what Freddie did is that he helped me to make my playing much easier and to make everything I did easier to execute.  In one way, you can say he helped me align with the natural physics that occur when you play the drums.   It is comparable to, say, dropping a basketball and how you want to get out of the way and let that basketball bounce.  And it wants to bounce!  It’s the natural reaction of dropping the ball.  It is the same thing that happens when you let a stick fall and it hits the drum.  It wants to bounce back.  A lot of times, you get in the way of that.  You hit the drum and then you stop the stick from rebounding.  I learned through my studies with Freddie to get out of the way of that rebound and let the stick come back off the head or off the cymbal.  So, that’s the easiest way to describe it. 

MPc:  So, basically, what you’re saying is that it’s never to late to unlearn bad habits as a player.

SS:  Well, yeah.  This development all happened in ’90 or ’91 when I studied with Freddie.  So, I obviously played a long time already up until that point.  When I first started playing, my technique was much better than it was around 1990.  I look back at pictures and remember studying in my early years (mid Sixties), and I had a grip and technique closer to what I use now.  As I started playing professionally, and then especially when I was playing with Journey, I changed my grip to try to play louder.  So, the first thing I did was move my grip further back on the sticks.  That gave me a longer throw and more volume but less control, touch, nuance, and rebound.  All of that went out the window for just volume. 

After I left Journey in ’86 and I started playing with Steps Ahead, that’s when I really noticed the problems that I was having with a wide dynamic range.  That band had, and still has, a wide dynamic range.  Regarding holding the sticks and stick movement, there’s a difference between just hitting and then just letting it drop.  With letting it drop, you get the control and the touch to play very softly, effortlessly.  That’s when I knew I needed some help as far as getting more technique.  That was the first thing – that wider range of dynamics that I needed.  And then beyond that, you can play a lot faster, a lot more relaxed, and all of that goes with it as well. 

MPc: It truly is an amazing developmental process, working with Freddie, because your playing was, indeed, better after you saw him.  Or, at least, different after you saw him. 

SS:  No, it was definitely better!

MPc:  Just like Weckl and even Neil Peart.  Neil looks better, plays more relaxed, sits up higher.  So, it’s amazing what this guy does to open up these doors for drummers.

SS:  Yeah, and everything he talks about is part of the big picture because he’s very much in tune with how to be a good musician.  It’s not like some teachers who may be technical but not musical.  It also is different depending on who you are, where you’re at, and what you need.  So it’s not like a “set program” that everyone goes through.  It’s very personal. 

For instance, if you went to therapy, the therapist isn’t going to tell everyone the same stuff.  It depends on what that person is dealing with.  Freddie is gifted in that he can watch you play and can see what you need to take the next step in your development.  He’s not really a player, so to speak.  He’s more of a coach.  Since he’s not really locked into any one playing technique, he can see and is aware of all the different techniques that are available. 

Usually the first step is that he notices the techniques that you are using and helps you do that better. Then, what he did with me is that he exposed me to other choices, other techniques, other ways of playing that I wasn’t utilizing. There are a lot of different ways of playing the drums, even within just playing matched grip and traditional grip.  There are a number of ways of playing matched grip and there are a number of ways of playing traditional grip.  So, now, I’ve been exposed to most of the possibilities, as far as I see, which are available.  But I’ve also expanded my repertoire a lot since 1990.

Part 2: Living in the Past

“When I did the first tour with [Jean-Luc] Ponty, I ended up going from
playing a small Gretsch jazz kit to a double-bass Sonor kit. 
He asked me to get a bigger drum set.”

MPc:  Let’s travel back now and talk about some recordings that inspired me growing up.  The first one I want to mention is Edge of Insanity by Tony MacAlpine, most especially one of my favorite tracks called “Empire In The Sky.”

SS:  Right!  I remember the record but I can’t tell you that I know which tune that is.  That was around 1986 and it was actually his first solo record.  I have to mention Mike Varney because he was the record producer and owner of Shrapnel Records.  If you know his history, he had a column in Guitar Player and all the young kids would send in demo tapes.  Then he finally had the idea of, “What if I put out a record on this kid?  Somebody will buy it!”  So it turned into a very successful record company. 

He and I had known each other, although I don’t think we had done any work up until that time.  He knew I had some time off, I wasn’t playing in Journey anymore at that point, and I had some free time to do some sessions.  He asked me to play on this Tony MacAlpine record.  What he brought me was a demo of what Tony had made of all those tunes where Tony played all of those instruments.  He played the drums, he played the bass, piano, and the guitar.  It was incredible!  I had never played anything like that before, but it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.  Drumming-wise, it didn’t seem that far away from the stuff that I was doing with Journey.  Also, I was playing with the Tom Coster band, which was a hard-hitting fusion band, so I had played a lot of drums like that, but not in that neo-classical rock guitar environment.  So, it wasn’t really difficult for me to do it.  It was pretty easy, but a lot of fun! 

Basically, I got together with Tony and we rehearsed for two days and, I think, I probably wrote charts for myself.  I don’t remember particularly, but almost every record that I do as a session musician, I’ll write charts for myself because I can’t really memorize ten tunes in a couple of days.  And I can get into a lot more detail if I have a chart, so I most likely wrote charts out and got together to rehearse with him.  Then, we went into the studio for basically a day and a half to do all of the drum tracks.  It was just Tony and I at the time, so Billy Sheehan wasn’t in the studio when we did the tracks. 

I don’t even think we used a click track in those days.  We just played it down.  I don’t know if he kept his guitar tracks or re-did everything or what.  Ya’ know, probably, he kept a lot of it because they made the record so fast.  The total budget for the record was around $5,000 for everything, so it was like, “Let’s make this record quick!”  I think Billy probably did all his stuff in one day.  So, it was in the early days or the beginnings of Shrapnel. 

MPc: It’s interesting because as a listener, you hear these records and say, “Man, there must have been so much magic put into those recordings!”  And at the time, you listen to it and the playing and production is great, but now, it’s a bit outdated and doesn’t sound as good.  But it’s interesting to hear the stories about those records and how some of them had such a small budget and were recorded so fast.

SS:  You know, I played on one of Tony’s latest records….

MPc:  Yes, Chromaticity… I have that one, too.  It’s great!

SS:  Yeah, that’s a good one.  But that one is really different because everything was done in a computer and I just overdubbed my drums.  Now, some of those tunes are really hard.  What I have to say about Tony is that he’s grown a lot as a musician.  I mean, he was always great and I loved his guitar playing even back in the mid-Eighties, but now he’s really taken in the fusion-type of music he’s been performing.  I feel his writing is so unique in a way because it still has some element of what I call the “Dungeons and Dragons rock” (laughs!), but it also has a lot of a fusion elements as well as odd-time stuff and the influence of Planet X material.  And, doesn’t he play with Dennis Chambers in some band?

MPc:  Isn’t it CAB?

SS:  Yeah, CAB.   So I hear all those influences in his new music, which is nice to hear.

MPc:  Yes, he’s terrific! Moving on, the next recording I want to talk about arguably put you “on the map.”  How about Enigmatic Ocean by Jean-Luc Ponty?

SS:  That was my first full-length recording.  I was twenty-two years old and I had been a student at Berklee College of Music in 1976.  I heard about an audition with Jean-Luc Ponty, came to New York, did the audition and got the gig.  It happened real fast.  I was in my seventh semester at college and this audition happened in, I think, late October.  So, I had only been in my seventh semester for a month.  Then, I ended up getting the gig and convincing my parents that it was a really good thing for me to do (laughs!). 

Four days later, I was in Los Angeles rehearsing with Jean-Luc Ponty and the band.  That was sort of a mind-blowing experience because I had never been too far out of the East coast outside of Chicago, Pennsylvania, and had done some touring with a big band around the East coast and a bit of the mid-west.  Then, when I did the first tour with Ponty, I ended up going from playing a small Gretsch jazz kit to a double bass Sonor kit.  He asked me to get a bigger drum set. 

One of the things that was great about Ponty is that he always used his road band on the records, which a lot of guys didn’t do.  They’d have one band for touring and one band for recording.  So, I had a great opportunity to go into the studio and play with him.  He wrote all the charts and he was very detailed in his writing, though he wouldn’t write a “drum chart,” per se.  He’d write a very good lead sheet for everyone to follow.  We didn’t rehearse very much, really.  I don’t remember exactly, but it must have been just a couple of days.  Then, we just went in and recorded.  That was probably the one and only record I’ve ever done that was recorded exactly in the same order that it is presented.  He had it all figured out ahead of time, which never happens (laughs)!  Usually, you go, “OK, which tune do you want to start with?”  Then, you pick an easy one to get going in the studio, and then, in the end, you figure out a sequence of how to put all the songs together.  But he had the whole thing planned out like one piece of music, and we recorded it in that order in which you hear it.  Tracks were recorded in just one or two takes.  It was only a couple of days, again.  And everything was live – the  whole recording, including Allan Holdsworth and Jean-Luc’s solos.  I don’t really know that there was much fixing and doublings and such.  It was a fusion record, but it was more in the style of a jazz record. 

Even though we were young, everyone was a good player and a high-level musician. So, I just stepped up and did it (laughs!).  I really didn’t know what I was getting into.  Of course, I didn’t have much to say about anything like the sound or the performances.  He would just listen to it and say, “OK, that was good” or “let’s do it again.”  In later years, I’ve gotten much more involved in if I think it was a good take or not, or if I think I can do it better and I’ll now say, “Let’s go in and try it again.”  Then, I just really didn’t have a clue (laughs!).  I was just a player following direction.

MPc:  A live performance that I want to point out, one of my favorites that I’ve watched over and over again, was your performance on the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Concert on songs like “Nutville” and “Straight No Chaser.”  I was actually at that show, which is ironic!  There was such an amazing preciseness to your playing on those live performances.  What did you think about playing that show?

SS:  That was a Buddy Rich tribute from 1990.  I was really happy to be involved in the Buddy Rich tributes, and as it turned out I got very involved with the whole Buddy Rich Estate and becoming a part of Buddy’s Buddies, the group that started out of the big band.  Big Band was something that I was very comfortable with since I grew up playing big band and seeing big bands, so it wasn’t a stretch for me whatsoever.  I just went about learning those particular tunes, and I had heard them when I was coming up and had seen Buddy play some of those tunes.  It is one thing to hear them and play along to the record than to actually play with the band.  The band is a powerhouse big band, really strong!  I was nervous.  I have to say that because it was being filmed, which is a bit unnerving anyway.  In addition, it was in front of a big audience and there were a bunch of other drummers playing there.

MPc:  But in 1990, you had already played through your Journey years in front of mostly larger audiences.

SS:  Yeah, but the experiences are all different.  When you’re playing with Journey in front of a big audience, the focus is on the song and the focus is a lot on [vocalist] Steve Perry.  I’m playing as an accompanist and there’s not a lot of focus on how well I’m doing as a drummer.  The other situation is a “Buddy Rich” thing!  The focus is on you and everyone is there to see the drummers.  It’s completely different.  The intensity is much higher.  I though I did a fairly good job, though the more I did it, the better I got at it. Plus, I hadn’t started studying with Freddie at that point yet either, so I was tighter and not as relaxed of a player as I became after a couple of years of study with Freddie.  There is a DVD of me playing with Buddy’s Buddies in a concert called A Salute to Buddy Rich with Phil Collins and Dennis [Chambers].  Even though it’s not the big band, I feel it is a better documentation of me playing that type of music.

MPc: OK, here’s a real rare one: It’s actually a live performance of a tune that I caught at Jazz at Pearls about four or five years ago.  It’s saxophonist Michael Zilber’s version of Manteca in 7/8 and 11/8.  Do you remember that one?  That’s a great arrangement!

SS:  Sure!  We did a record.  Did you hear the record that we did?

MPc:  I have heard it, but I do not have it. 

SS:  It’s actually a pretty nice record.

MPc:  And is that version on it?

SS:  Yeah!  The record is called Reimagined, Volume 1: Jazz Standards, Steve Smith/Michael Zilber.  So, the question is in reference to the comment on the one particular tune?

MPc:  Yeah, the one arrangement of that tune is just great with putting in all the odd-time figures!

SS:  Basically, the arrangement is in “7”…

MPc:  …but then a grouping of “11” after that.

SS:  Right.  [taps out an 11/8 bar on his legs]  Three sets of “3s” and a “2.”  It’s a real clever re-imagining of that tune.  You should get this record, though.  I am going to be selling all of my CDs on my website soon, but we’re just in the process of opening a web store. It will be available there soon.

MPc: I was so moved by that arrangement.

SS:  That record is a nice recording of that particular working quartet.  Mike and I had a quartet when I lived in San Francisco that did play a lot of gigs at Pearls and all around the Bay Area.  We went in my studio and made a completely acoustic record: acoustic bass, acoustic piano.  I used the old K Zildjian cymbals and a vintage kit with an 18” bass drum, one rack and one floor.  So it’s a nice documentation of me playing in a style that is a real straight-ahead jazz or jazz-Latin approach.   

MPc:  Let’s talk about a recent live performance.  I was backstage at the most recent Modern Drummer Festival show, and your performance with this current straight-ahead group was great, especially that “uptempo” tune you performed. 

SS:  So, you haven’t seen the DVD yet?

MPc:  No, I haven’t seen the DVD, and a lot of our readers probably haven’t either.  Can you talk about that a little bit?

SS:  The group is called Jazz Legacy.  They are extension, in a way, of Buddy’s Buddies.  We began with Steve Marcus, who was a key member of Buddy’s Buddies, but he unfortunately died two years ago.  With him, our main connection to Buddy Rich really ended, even though Andy Fusco played with Buddy for many years.  However, I think people really identified with Steve Marcus a lot because he is in all of those Buddy Rich Memorial concerts and the tapes you see with Buddy. 

Walt Weiskopf (tenor) came into the band in his place and things started to change and evolve.  We decided to change the name of the band and the direction, so we still do some of the Buddy Rich stuff when we want to, but we’ve opened it up to pay tribute to any of the great jazz drummers.  That was my idea because I wanted to do some Art Blakey-type arrangements or tunes associated with Philly Jo Jones or Elvin Jones, as well as a couple of Tony Williams tunes.  Walt and Mark Soskin (piano) are great writers, so they started contributing original tunes as well.  So, the direction is both original tunes and tributes to great jazz drummers. 

The real up-tempo tune you’re talking about is a tune called “Insubordination,” which is actually a Walt Weiskopf original, and that is the first tune that is on the DVD.   I haven’t seen it yet either (laughs!), but it is out now since it just got released last week.  That band is really fun to play with.  I think they included about six out of eight tunes we performed that day, but next year, Hudson will put out the full-length set as a concert. 

I’m going to talk in detail about the different drummers that the tunes are associated with, like the Tony Williams tunes, the Art Blakey, Philly Jo and Elvin Jones tunes.  We also have a live album in the can, too, which was recorded at Catalina’s Jazz Club in Los Angeles.  That will be part of the package, like a live album at Catalina’s and a Modern Drummer Complete Concert performance together.  It’ll be a whole other Hudson project that we’re looking to put out which will be released next year. 

Part 3: A Vital Step Forward
MPc: You’ve obviously been really busy lately doing the Vital Information touring, the clinic touring, and now the Steps Ahead touring. How crazy has the scheduling been on you?

SS:  My schedule is very crazy.  I have a lot of gigs, and in between times, in the middle of the gigs, I’m busy almost all day long with so many details of the touring.  When it’s my own band, whether it’s Vital Information or Jazz Legacy, I seem to be constantly making flight arrangements, hotel arrangements, advancing the gigs and all those type of things.  I end up doing all of that myself.

MPc:  So, you do a lot of self-management then? 

SS:  Yeah, we can’t afford a manager.  There’s not enough money in it for there to be a manager to take fifteen percent, so I have to do all that.  I have an agent that books all the gigs, so that’s great and we work that into the budget.  But everything else, I have to do.  Then, when it comes to these projects with Hudson, I’m really busy as well.  When we’re editing something like this new brushes DVD as we’re doing recently, Phil Fallo edits and sends out a disc which I need to watch and take detailed notes with the time code.  That program is seven and a half hours long!  So not only does it take seven and a half hours to watch it, but you have to rewind it and make sure you didn’t miss anything and write your notes.  That takes days and days!  And I’ve been recently involved in doing the Steps Ahead gigs and rehearsals with that band.  So, yes, my schedule is pretty crazy and I don’t have any down time, unfortunately.  It’s just one thing after another.  Ya’ know, it’s great to work a lot, but one of the things I’m dealing with is figuring out how to book a little down-time for myself.  

MPc:  Let’s talk about your drumming clinics.  When I’ve done my master classes and clinics, I try to make use of the white board, use transcriptions, and use tactics that are going to really benefit the people.  When they walk out of that door, I want them to really learn something.

Obviously, people come to see you not only for your playing and your teaching, but for also for the fact that you’re a well-known personality in the industry.  So how do you balance that?  Do you try to present something that they can take home and really practice, or just sort of play for them? 

SS:  I definitely want my clinics to be informative, and have them leave with some ideas.  When I do clinics that are big clinics, let’s say like 150 to 300 people, I don’t usually use written music because probably most of them can’t read music anyway (laughs!).  So, I’ve got to be realistic and give them some ideas and maybe exercises or concepts that, in general, they can walk away with afterwards.  I do a fair amount of playing, but I want the playing to be representative of possibilities and ideas, and I talk about that.  It’s not just “I can do this, and I can do that, on top of that” (laughs!).  I mean, I definitely do some of that stuff because people enjoy seeing and hearing that, and it keeps them interested.  But, if there is any message that I get across in general in the clinics, it’s the pulse of U.S. music and the foundational swing pulse. 

It is similar to what is in my Hudson DVD, Steve Smith Drumset Technique – History of the U.S. Beat.  So, that’s a message: to be grounded in the swing pulse and how to feel the quarter note.  Feeling the quarter note in a certain way is a universal ticket to connect with other musicians.  Then, I usually touch on the history of the drum set to a degree because it gives people a perspective of the instrument in that it is fundamentally a jazz instrument in the way that it got its development.  To study any instrument, it seems to be necessary to know the history of that instrument, and you’ll then have the ability to play whatever it is you want to play if you have an awareness of the history. 

Jazz music, in general is what helped to evolve the drum set to what it is.  The jazz approach is what was used in the beginnings of Rock n’ Roll and R & B and Funk.  All of those pulses and grooves are all offshoots of the jazz concept.  So I try just to give people an overview of that and maybe some of them will go home and dig a little deeper.  To me, that kind of bigger perspective is what I try to get across.  You’re limited in a big clinic as to how much detail you can get into, whereas if you’re teaching here at The Collective in a classroom, you know the kids are more serious to begin with because they are here at the school studying.  You can get into the details and you’re supposed to be able to read music (laughs!).  Maybe you have a more focused subject matter in this setting, while I can’t get that focused when it comes to the clinics.  It’s more like getting a message across.    

MPc:  Now let’s talk about the new Vital Information CD, Vitalization.  The most obvious change is that guitarist Frank Gambale left the band and was replaced by Vinny Valentino.

SS: The line up with Baron Browne, Tom Coster, Frank Gambale and I had been together since ‘99 when Baron joined us, while Frank had been in the band since something like ’88, I believe.  Over the last couple of years, Frank has been extremely busy with his own projects.  The main conflict that we were having was a scheduling conflict, and it just seemed that it was time for Frank to be a bandleader as a full-time occupation.  Much like what I do, I’m a full-time bandleader and then I’m a side-man with Steps Ahead sometimes.  And like with him, he’s a full-time bandleader and a side-man with Chick Corea sometimes, as well as possibly other groups.  It was time for him to focus on that and go to make that work. 

That just happens with jazz groups, most especially jazz groups.  It’s not like we are trying to keep this thing together like the Rolling Stones.  With jazz groups, people will change and move on to become bandleaders, and that’s the ideal situation as far as I’m concerned.  If you look at all jazz groups, they evolved that way.  So, we had our eye on Vinny Valentino because he had filled in for Frank in 2005 on a tour to Europe that Frank couldn’t make.  Vinny played the tour and did a great job, so he was the first person we thought of, naturally.  We knew he played the music well and I had heard and liked some of his tunes.  For me as a drummer who is not a writer, I work with people and co-write songs. 

I’m not really a composer, though I used to write complete tunes for Vital Information, but it was so hard for me not having a great ability on the keyboards and not really enjoying working with the computer so much.  I just got into more of a co-writing situation.  And that, to me, works great.  But I need some of the musicians in the band to contribute tunes, not unlike Buddy Rich or Art Blakey who had a similar situation with their bands.  So Vinny fits the bill in that respect, being a really good writer as well as a good player.  We had him come into the group, we played a few gigs and as soon as we all did play a few gigs, we said, “Alright, let’s get into it, start writing some music and come up with a new record.” 

It had a been a couple of years so we needed a new record to keep the “process” going of putting out a record, doing the tour, doing the publicity, doing some interviews and so forth.  Your whole touring cycle is dependent on putting out a record every couple of years.  We began playing in the Bay Area starting at Yoshi’s, with Vinny on the first couple of gigs and then just booked some rehearsal time around there.  We started writing by jamming in which I had already had some of these drum ideas, and we wrote our first tune in the first couple of days.  Then, if you’ve read the liner notes (to the CD), we booked a ten-day extended writing session in the Adirondacks where Vinny’s family has quite a vacation getaway.  We just got ourselves way out of the mainstream, hung out up there and just spent every day all day long writing, rehearsing, jamming, recording and fine tuning the music.

MPc:  What was interesting in reading the liner notes about Vitalization, it talks about how you guys jammed on these tunes, then you went and road-tested the songs and then you finally recorded.  It seems like that was a very different approach as opposed to working all things out in advance. 

SS:  Yeah, what’s typical of most of the records I’ve made involves learning the music in the studio or using a couple of days rehearsal ahead of time.  Then, when you go out to play the music, it starts to develop and evolve.  We just worked it out because we wanted to go through this process of development while playing the music live.  So, we did the writing and instead of going right into the studio, we booked some gigs, which was a great way to do it.  And it is continuing to evolve even more, now that we are playing the songs a lot more!  But at least we got it to a point where it felt real familiar to us and we had an idea of where we were going with every tune. 

MPc:  Did that ultimately expedite the recording process compared to previous records?

SS:   Yes, in a way it did.  But the recording process, in the way we did it, was still very slow.  We took about nine days to make the record, which in a jazz-type of record is a long time.  That is roughly a tune a day.  For the most part, we used the first or second take on a lot of these tunes, but sometimes we do a whole lot more.  It is hard being a drummer and a producer because sometimes I would lose the perspective and think, “Well, I was not really happy with that; let’s try that again.”  We would spend four hours tracking the tune, only to come back and listen to six or eight takes just to decide maybe the first one was really the best one after all. 

What we also ended up doing in a lot of cases is to say, “Well, let’s use this section or this much of the first take, and then we’ll attach it to this part of the third take.”  My engineer used Nuendo, like a Pro-Tools type of a digital program, so you can edit the different takes together which would allow us to come up with a master tape.  Even though it is a jazz record, in a way, I don’t have any kind of aesthetic problem with using pop-type production or ideas to come up with a good end result.  It doesn’t happen on every tune, but if we need to, we’ll do it. 

MPc:  Of course, the key difference here is that no one is going to question the outstanding musicianship of the players in your band, as opposed to a pop record where they may question a lot of performance authenticity.

SS:  ….and we sound even better live (laughs)!  We can do it live and then some!  Oh, and we don’t play along to tapes or sequences or anything (laughs!).  We don’t need any props.

MPc:  No vocal dubbing or anything!

SS:  No!

MPc:  Speaking of vocals, I want to talk about that.  This CD allowed you to utilize a lot of the Indian vocal techniques of Konnakol.  Did you have to teach the guys anything about what you have learned, and did they fight you at all as far as adding it into the music?

SS:  Well, on the Come On In record (previous CD), I wasn’t yet developed at that time to perform Konnakol, but I did have some experience and knowledge of Indian rhythms.  The one tune that is really based on Indian rhythms is called “Baton Rouge,” which is based on a concept called reduction.  We did it in 5/4 and it also had an extended rhythmic ending which is something that I learned from a great Ghatam player named T.H. Vikku Vanayakram.

I had done some gigs with him and he taught me this long rhythmic piece that we used for an ending.  So, I did teach that to the guys, and it was challenging for them to get it.  But, they did get into it and basically wrote notes to go along with the rhythms.  Then the piece developed, like our other pieces develop, just through jamming.  It did start with just Baron and I jamming, and Baron can pick up this stuff very quickly.  He is very advanced rhythmically and has no problem with any time signature or anything like that.  He was really the first to learn it and sort of “decode” the whole thing, and then was very helpful to Tom and, at the time, Frank in learning it.  Then the other guys would get it through a lot of rehearsal because it is a bit unnatural for them, as it was for me when I was first learning it. 

It’s not real easy rhythmic information to get.  It is a little easier being a drummer and I’m only dealing with rhythm, while they are dealing with rhythm, pitch and chords, which takes them a little longer to put the pieces together.  I think that was the main one on that record.  Then, I wanted to take it all a step further on this new record, so there’s really three more Indian-influenced pieces: the two Konnakol pieces and the tune called “Seven and a Half.” 

MPc:  That is one of my favorite tracks on the record.

SS:  Yeah, that one takes in some Indian influence.  There are tihais in there and basically the time signature itself is, what I would call it, a “South Indian version” of 15/8 even though 15/8 can be done a lot of different ways.  When I first said to the guys I want to do something in 15/8, they just looked at me cross-eyed (laughs!).  When I played with the band Summit, everyone in that band is real comfortable with odd-time signatures and it doesn’t throw them at all.  They don’t even question it at all.  It’s no big deal to them, almost like it is just another “key signature.”  That’s the way that I see it.  For an instrumentalist, you wouldn’t want to always play every tune in the same key, while a drummer doesn’t want to play every tune in the same time signature!  But, the guys in Vital Information, except for Baron, are a little less comfortable with odd-time signatures.  Though, as soon as I played the beat and then counted, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, seven-and-a-half-1,” it made it easier for them to hear it. 

And it is pretty natural when you count it like that.  It is much easier than counting all the way up to “15.”  So as soon as I counted that way, Baron came up with a groove, and then Vinny went, “Seven-and-a-half” which turned into a little guitar comp.  He did that originally to help keep his place but then we were like, “Let’s keep that” (laughs!).  Then Tom came up with a nice comp, and then Vinny played that melody pretty much as-is almost on improvisation.  What we do is improvise, tape it, then listen back and keep certain parts and not keep other parts.

MPc:  When we were talking with Ian Mosely, the drummer for the English progressive rock band, Marillion, he was talking about how they obviously play a lot of songs in various time signatures outside of 4/4.  He was talking about how he never counts it ­– he just wants to feel the music.

SS:   I find that it depends on what the time signature is in what situation.  For this tune, “Seven and a Half,” it is very natural and I don’t have to count that while we are playing it.  But, there are some tunes that I play where it isn’t that easy.  The difference usually is if the tune has a strong bass line or a strong vamp, then I don’t usually have to count it.  But if you’re talking about being just in the time signature and it is not necessarily a vamp, then it is very difficult. 

For instance, in the tune “Baton Rouge,” when it comes to the drum solo, it is just purely in “5” and there is really no vamp.  It is more of a South Indian soloing concept where there is no vamp, you’re playing in “5” and you just have to stay in “5.”  So, you do have to be aware of the map because you are just listening to a bass line.  If you are playing “Take 5,” that is easy because you are just listening to a vamp and you can play anything you want, as long as you come out at the end on “1” (laughs)!  So it all depends.  It is a debatable situation and depends on how difficult the time signature is or even if it is some sort of “compound time signature” when there are two at once, for instance, having a bar of “8” followed by a bar of “7,” and that repeats all the time. 

Most of the time I can hear it, but there are situations where I definitely have to count.  Now that I’ve developed using the South Indian concepts, there are rhythmic devices I use that are math-based phrases that I literally have to be aware of what I’m doing and keep track of it so it comes out right.  All the tihais in the 15/8 go way over the bar, so I have to be real precise in both the notes that I’m playing and the spaces that I’m leaving.  But what is more significant for me on this record is that I do the Konnakol vocal on two of the tunes.  That is really different because I’ve never done anything like that before. 

MPc:  And in a live situation, you are singing that while drumming!

SS:  Yes, at first I had to work out the coordination to that, and that was just another coordination “thing” that I worked on by myself: just wanting to be able to do the Konnakol while playing the drums at the same time.  As it worked out, we were able to work that into a couple of the tunes.  Then, I doubled it because that has a great sound after you double it.  In fact, I brought in a specialist on Indian drumming and Konnakol named Pete Lockett.  On the first track, he is doubling the vocals as well, and on the second Konnakol track that we recorded, he is trading with me.  So, my vocal line is doubled and his is a single vocal part improvising. 

MPc:  It’s funny because I was listening to it again this morning thinking, “Ya’ know, I need to go home and listen to this in headphones!”  It has to sound really cool in a headphone mix.

SS:  Yes it does!  Well, we also have other guests on the record.  Bill Evans is on four tracks and is one of my favorite saxophone players.  He has toured with Vital Information before although he has never recorded with us.  When Vital Information performed on the 2003 Modern Drummer Festival show, he was in that with us but he had never been on a record with us.  Then, there are a total of three percussionists contributing on this CD.  Gilad is from Israel but lives here in New York and plays in Vinny Valentino’s band.  That is when I first saw him.  Then there is Juan Carlos Melian who is from Madrid (Spain) and one of the top-call session players there.  I ended up meeting him at a drum camp in Germany and we played a bunch over there.  He sat in and played with Vital Information when we played in Spain and did a great job, so we asked him to play on the record.  And, as mentioned, Pete Lockett is on a few of the tunes as well, including the “Seven and a Half.” 

He plays the kanjira on “Seven and a Half” and, if you notice, all the drum rhythms I play that are more like drum melodies are doubled by the kanjira.  If you listen real close, you’ll hear that.  He also plays tabla on the first tune so he is a pretty incredible guy.  He has a great website ( which is a terrific resource for learning Indian rhythms. 

Part 4: A Look Ahead

MPc:  Moving forward, maybe you’d like to talk about some of the more recent projects you have done, as well as stuff that is in the works that you want people to know about such as History of the U.S. Beat, your new brushes DVD that is forthcoming, and the drum duet CD you recorded with John Wackerman.

SS:  Well, as far as my DVD, Steve Smith Drumset Technique - History of the U.S. Beat, it continues to sell well around the world.  One thing we want to do with that is to come out with a book that will get into the transcriptions of a lot of the examples along with what I’m talking about or saying on the DVD.  It will help develop this material a step further because some of those exercises and concepts that I talked about are a good starting point, but you can develop those more.  But the next one is actually going to be a book on Vitalization.  We mixed all the tunes without the drums and it will be a play-along, which will include charts for each tune.  We even want to go a step further and have lead sheets for each tune in case you have a band and you want to play some of the tunes.  And I’ll have a written explanation or a concept for each tune.

MPc: Let’s talk about your new brushes DVD.

SS:  The brushes project will hopefully come out in October.  Adam Nussbaum is the person who came up with the original concept.  He brought that to me, then I presented it to Rob and Paul (at Hudson) and the four of us produced it.  The idea is that we wanted to compare how seven different drummers play the same pieces of music.  The method of how people play brushes is so individual, and we wanted to make that direct comparison.  So, we had tracks recorded of acoustic bass and guitar and all the drummers played along to the same tracks in order to get an exact comparison.  It is a great project! 

We used some of the great jazz drummers like Charlie Persip, Ben Riley, Billy Hart, Joe Morello and Eddie Locke.  All these guys have great track records and played with a lot of the jazz greats.  They all did a fantastic job of playing to the tracks and then describing what they did. Then, there is also a whole section in there called “Words of Wisdom” or something to that effect.  It is just basically interview footage of them talking about some of their experiences and telling stories.  It’s fantastic!  I think it is something that is a timeless project because it is not just describing what they played on their last record.  These are timeless concepts that will be useful for generations to come. 

"The more you develop your talent,
the more options are going to open up to you."

MPc:  Coming up as a player years ago, you’ve seen the music and recording industry go through significant changes. How do you suggest players today approach making a career out of this industry? Would you have done anything differently for yourself had you known then what you know now about the business?

SS:  Well, the time and place that I grew up, I’m sure, had everything to do with how my career developed.  Everyone’s situation as far as “when” and “where” they grow up has everything to do with their background.  One thing I can say is that I grew up and started playing, around 1963, in an interestingly particular time because the United States had still not heard of the Beatles! 

Rock n’ Roll wasn’t huge.  Rock existed, of course, but it wasn’t this huge influence that it is now or even that it was just a couple of years later.  Jazz was still pretty popular.  Big bands were still around even though they weren’t the most popular thing around, but you could still see the Count Basie Band, the Maynard Ferguson Band, and, of course later, the Buddy Rich Band.  So, there was something to the fact that I started playing, and was impressionable, at a time before Rock n’ Roll.  That is a very unique period.  Then, Rock n’ Roll did come in but I already had more of a jazz mentality.  By the time I had heard Jimi Hendrix, I could recognize that someone like Mitch Mitchell was a jazz drummer playing with this guy!  Then I got interested in it. 

It is this unique career trajectory that happened to me which set me up to really be comfortable to play just about anything, but it was mainly because of this jazz foundation.  There are very few guys that have that, unless you go to guys that are a bit older than me, say, like Steve Gadd.  He would have grown up with a similar idea because he came from a generation before rock was the industry favorite.  But most of the drummers who came after me, unless they are extremely focused on jazz, may have a wide scope but still lean a little more toward the rock side because it was in the culture.  What is in the culture is hugely influential to what you grow up with. 

Also, the fact that I grew up in Boston verses, say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was important although I did go to college there for one semester.  I do know that there is a big difference growing up in a town on the East coast where I can go to the Jazz Workshop or I can go to Paul’s Mall and I could see all these different people play.  I could see Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Dizzy Gillespie or whoever.  All these great musicians would play at any given week, whereas if you grow up in another part of the country, you are not going to see that.  That all contributed to developing a certain kind of musicianship and open mindedness.  It was also during a time of, maybe, the height of good years of the record industry before things started to devolve with the ease of stealing music.  Ya’ know, back then, we were worried about cassettes (laughs!).  But that was a problem, yet nowhere near the problem we have today with the Internet and MP3 ripping and all of that. 

MPc:  I wonder if you are a little bit more isolated from the piracy being a professional jazz musician.  You are catering to a different crowd.

SS:  Yes and no.  Here’s the thing:  Yes, because if you are Christina Aguilera, you have a lot of fans who buy the record but even more that copy the record.  But we are dealing with such small numbers.  We have these record budgets that are like $15,000 or $20,000 and that is really difficult to make a good record for that amount of money.  It is not technically hard because you get a home studio, you can do it.  But not when you want to hire some real good guys to record and rehearse.  And then when you sell less because of the copying, even those budgets are going to sound high because we are selling less and less of these records.  A good selling jazz record now is like 5,000 or 6,000 copies! 

MPc:  Oh wow!  I guess if you want to make a good living in jazz, you really want to be on your own label.

SS:  Well, you want to sell records.  You don’t want to give them away, and you don’t want people to steal them.  That is the main problem: the stealing.  As far as the question “would I do anything differently,” the only thing I would do different is I would have studied composition as a student at Berklee.  I would have been more focused on composing.  It’s not like I couldn’t do it now if I really set my mind to it, but I have too many other things I am interested in and right now that is not a huge priority. 

Tony Williams, for example, was frustrated by the fact that he wasn’t writing more tunes on his records so he took a five-year hiatus from touring and studied composition.  When he came back and started his group, the Tony Williams Quintet and made his later Blue Note recordings, he wrote almost every tune on his record – and they were great tunes!  Right now, I have varied interests in studying Indian Music and working with Hudson Music to produce all these projects and co-writing with my band members or delegating someone to write a chart for Jazz Legacy.  So I am OK with all of that right now.

MPc:  You can only do so much!

SS:  Right, exactly! But let’s address what you are talking about: like what do you do now?  How do you make a living now?  How do you function in the music business today?  You do it by teaching, writing, playing – it is a big package and you need to be diversified in order to make it all happen.

MPc:  But, it is still so different for someone who is established verses someone who is not established yet. The problem in the industry today is, much like artist development at record labels, nobody wants to do it anymore.  Nobody wants to take the time to watch an artist develop and no one wants to put any money in. Even bandleaders want you to be primed and ready to fire on all cylinders once you get the gig. You don’t just have to be a good player anymore – you now have to read the minds of the people who are controlling a situation and figure out “what is it exactly that they want to hear?”  There is a little bit of discrepancy between how it all works currently verses how it used to work. As a result, it’s hard to give advice to players who are coming up and say, “This is what to do…”

SS:  Well, there are some basic things to do, starting with really learning how to play your instrument well.  That seems like a ridiculous thing to say but it has to be said because I do see people who think they can have just a little bit of ability and still be a musician.  They still think that something good is going to happen, like they are just going to get lucky or something and end up in a band.  Their focus isn’t that serious about their playing and they tend to even look down on guys who are that serious about their playing. 

It is true that some people with a minimum ability have been successful, but I am not going to take an example or guidance from that.  I think that it does make sense to study music, study your instrument and learn as much as you can about your instrument including playing music, reading music and being aware of, or comfortable with, as many styles you can be.  Those things are necessary to do if you have any concept or idea of you wanting to be in the music industry. 

The more you develop your talent, the more options are going to open up to you.  Opportunities will come along, but you have to be able to rise to the occasion of those opportunities.  Once you get your foot in the door of anything, then you develop that situation to the highest degree that you can before you are ready to move on to the next thing.  When I got into Jean-Luc Ponty’s group, I didn’t walk in and do a great job the first week or month I was in the band.  He saw that I had the potential to do a good job, so he had me join the band.  But then I worked real hard to develop my playing ability to rise to the occasion, to fill the shoes he wanted filled and to play his music to the ability in which he needed it played.  And then, I was ready to move to another situation. 

The same goes with Steps Ahead.  When I first started playing with them in ’86, that was a heavy gig: Michael Brecker, Mike Stern, Darryl Jones and Mike Mainieri. I got my foot in the door, but I practiced and worked really hard to fill Peter Erskine’s shoes.  And still, that group has a lot of potential because the players are all so strong.  But I worked my way up as my potential developed in that environment. 

I can go back to Journey and say the same thing.  When you get into a group, it is like being a freshman in college but you want to become a post-graduate student (laughs!).  The opportunity is there and whether or not you take advantage of it is a whole other thing, or do you just go “punch the card” and stay at that freshman/sophomore level.  You should take full-advantage of playing that gig so well that you are too good for the band eventually.  Then, you are ready to move to another situation.  It is not a matter of just luck at that point because you now have the ability to go along with it.  You might get a lucky break, but you can take advantage of that lucky break and be ready for it.  But then the learning process starts all over again and each gig has something to offer like that.  And I have done all of this.  Maybe not consciously at first, but it is like survival. 

MPc:  So, let’s wrap up with one last question.  A lot of the readers who may not know your set up as well are always curious about equipment situations.  So can you talk about the drum set configuration you are using in support of the Vitalization tour, and are you playing with the same set up live as you did when you recorded the CD?

SS:  No, I’m not playing the exact same kit.  I have three working kits: two of them are in New York and one is on the West coast.  They are very similar kits.  The one that I used on the record is a Sonor Designer kit with a 20” bass drum with 8”, 10”, 12” rack toms and 14” and 16” in floor toms.  I used the same Zildjian cymbal selection live as what I used on the record.  I also have a Sonor SQ2 drum set that is a brand new drum set series, which I used on the newest Modern Drummer Festival performance.  My other Sonor Designer kit is in Salt Lake City right now because I have a gig coming up with Soul Bop and then I’m shipping the one in New York to Rochester this weekend, so they are always going all over the place. 

MPc:  Well, at least you don’t have too much “behind the scenes” work to do (laughs!).

SS:  Yes, it never ends (laughs!).

[For complete details on the drums used in recording Vitalization, click here to read an extremely in-depth account of the drum gear used, written by Steve Smith.]


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