Steve Smith's Drum Talk:
Rhythm Magazine Interview

After seven years and platinum success with American rockers Journey, Steve Smith resumed his jazz-fusion career with the legendary Steps Ahead and formed his own group Vital Information. Ten albums later the band is headlining their first sold-out week at Ronnie Scott's. Smith is playing better than ever and, as Rhythm discovers, boldly journeying into uncharted poly-rhythmic territory...

Dressed in black with his head shaven Steve Smith resembles a Zen master. His head remains immobile as his arms dart and curve around him. The film Crouching Tiger comes to mind as Steve launches flurry after flurry of powerful yet balletically graceful moves. Watching Steve, like the film, the thought continually crosses your mind... that's just not possible.

Smith sets up sideways so the audience can better see him work and he can communicate more easily with his band. He smiles appreciatively at each member in turn and then laughs outright, revelling in his own virtuosity. Vital Information take a sixties funky organ groove -- the sort of cheesy pop jazz that you might hear on the soundtrack of Austin Powers -- and then they play the heck out of it. At the back of the audience one punter starts to go-go like a movie extra while Smith pounds out a brazenly funky Latin-rock beat. The band and the drumming are supremely accessible while the standard of musicianship is sensational. This is jazz by the post-sixties rock generation -- and who says it can't be fun?

During a long chat earlier in the dressing room Smith reveals he's working on a DVD/video entitled "Legends of Rock." He's hungry for information about the early British scene and has obviously had a ball interviewing the pioneering American drummers like D J Fontana and Jerry Allison. It all adds to his already encyclopaedic knowledge of the swinging roots of rock and jazz. He also expounds in some detail on the new poly-rhythmic techniques he's grappling with -- ever hungry to advance the art and the music he so clearly loves...

Rhythm: Hi, Steve, what's the latest?

Steve Smith: "We just released the new Vital Information album, 'Show 'Em Where You Live' in June. We're continuing with the concept of show 'em where we come from: Tom (Coster) is back to the Hammond B3 and the accordion, his original instruments. And Frank (Gambale) plays his hollow body George Benson style guitar. So we changed the sound from rock fusion to a more earthy Booker T and the MGs and the Meters meets Bitches Brew.

"One thing I'm contributing music wise is that I come up with the grooves first and then we write the tune from that. We complete it as a group so everyone gets equal writing credit on the majority of the tunes."

Rhythm: Is that an advantage of being the leader?

SS: "Well, we do the same on other records, like 'Vital Techtones.' I come in with eight or ten drum grooves and we find it a very easy way to write. Soon as I play a groove these bass players are very creative and then the guitar players come up with some kind of harmony and that suggests a melody. Within a day we have a completed song on tape so within ten days we've completed a record.

"Conceptually I'm very interested these days in poly-rhythmic playing. I'm making a real effort at developing the ability to play what your local guy Gavin Harrison calls 'rhythmic Illusions', which is a pretty good description. I relate it to the most basic African poly-rhythm -- three over two or two over three. They're identical, depending on which way you hear it.

I've been spending time recently with Efrain Toro -- he's an uncredited wise man with a very organic approach to poly-rhythms. He thinks in 'harmonic' rather than in typical Western sub-division terms. If you picture a sound wave slowed way down and within it is a frequency in which these rhythmic events happen, 'harmonically', building rhythm on top of rhythm... (Steve demos playing two against three with his feet and taps five over the top.) So I'm playing five over two, but I'm also playing five over three. You see I would have had to work out five over three and over two before had I not thought about it this new way. That's cutting things into bits as opposed to layering rhythm on top of rhythm. So then I'm coming up with ways of applying this in the music.

"On the new record 'Sideways Blues' has this rhythmic illusion that the tempo starts slow and gets fast. But what's really happening is we're playing a twelve bar blues and interestingly if you play a dotted quarter note all the way through it comes out perfectly even. It wouldn't if you played eight bars, but it does in twelve. To me it's no coincidence that this Afro-American song form developed and most naturally fell into twelve bars since it's so African derived. I play a pulse over that dotted quarter note that sounds like a 'sideways shuffle' and then we wrote a melody around that so you think we're in this slow tempo but the actual tempo of the tune is one third faster than it sounds. It's pretty interesting to the ear."

Rhythm: It certainly is and I'm just about with you still. The concept of harmonic layers of rhythm seems very organic whereas Gavin's illusions are pretty mathematical.

SS: "Well in fairness I had to apply the math to my stuff in order to understand how to do it -- to understand the resolution. To start and finish and be coherent, you definitely have to do the math, but Efrain's concept is new."

Rhythm: There's another beautifully baffling rhythmic example at the start of your recent double live album which sounds to me like metric modulation.

SS: "OK, that's close to that what I do. Metric modulation is when you start one tempo and then you use a rhythm within the original rhythm to set up a new tempo. And what I'm doing I'd call 'implied' metric modulation because I imply a new tempo but I never go there. I stay in the base tempo -- you can hear the pulse because I play a typical rock four beat ching-ring on the hi hat. But then I'm changing the rate from say eighth notes to fives and sevens and sixes. It sounds like I sped up and slowed down -- but the pulse is still the same. Whereas, on one of the songs, 'Cranial Jam,' first we do some implied metric modulations and then we do it as an actual metric modulation and go to a new tempo."

Rhythm: What I like is the listener's vaguely aware weird and wonderful things are happening rhythmically yet the music's still exciting and groove-oriented.

SS: "It's fun because what I've noticed is people have spent ages in jazz exploring harmony and melody and basic rhythmic concepts but to consciously inject these kinda ideas is relatively unique. Don Ellis, Dave Brubeck, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa tapped into it, but it's mostly an untouched area."

Rhythm: And it's nice when you do rock covers rather than jazz standards -- like Zeppelin's 'Moby Dick' at double tempo. I couldn't hear any Bonzo licks in your solo though.

SS: "No, I got a couple of bad emails about that! I wasn't in any way thinking about Bonham-- we just used the tune because it's a great melody. And people of my age know those tunes."

Rhythm: Later on though you do quote Bonzo's famous 'Good Times, Bad Times' groove. And I've seen you play Max Roach's 'The Drum Also Waltzes' and Cobham's 'Quadrant Four'. It's like a classical musician re-interpreting Beethoven.

SS: "It's absolutely that, yes -- learning the repertoire, getting familiar with the background of all those innovations of the last hundred years and seeing where it takes me. And it gets harder and harder for younger drummers to do it. Max Roach had forty years of music to listen to and we have a hundred, so it's more difficult and most of the good stuff is not a part of the culture, you have to go after it. Back in the 40s and 50s the good music was popular. Now you have to search it out."

Rhythm: You mean there's been a 'dumbing down'?

SS: "The record companies have figured out formulas to recreate the success of certain groups. Then there's the much overlooked but serious influence of the de-evolution of the music -- another American invention perfected by you guys! Iggy Pop and the Ramones, perfected by the Sex Pistols! (laughs) My take on that is that there was musical excellence, even in rock, from the Beatles, Hendrix to Zeppelin -- but then there was a sub culture that said screw musicianship, you don't have to be able to play, to have musical ability, to be a pop star -- and the punks proved that, so eventually that sub-culture became the culture. And record companies go for it because people buy it. People are really confused, they can't tell the difference between what's good and what isn't and if you don't KNOW the difference... what IS the difference?"

Rhythm: Over here we've gone back to pop svengalis and manufactured bands which the business can control.

SS: "The Monkees..."

Rhythm: Is it as bad in the USA?

SS: "Yeah, it's horrible. It's hard for my band to find work and the same with Dave Weckl -- sometimes we work together which helps. In some ways I see myself as the last of the Jedi (laughs) trying to keep this information and ability alive and growing. What else are we going to do?"

Rhythm: At least they love you here at Ronnie's.

SS: "Oh this is a career highlight. This is a better music scene than we encounter in the USA. We play a week in LA every year -- a beautiful club called Catalina's where all the great bands play and Simon Phillips came down and there were ten people in the audience. He came with John Tempesta and he'd been producing Virgil that day and it was embarrassing. Yet we come here and fill the place every single night -- that tells me there's a healthier jazz scene here at least than in LA."

Rhythm: I suppose most people just want easy pop.

SS: "What we're doing is... well I'll tell you what it isn't -- it's not 'pop product'. So I guess in some ways our approach is more as artists, pushing our abilities to their extreme and we pay the price for that. There was a time -- 1971-4 -- where there was an incredible openness between the record buyers, concert goers, record companies and musicians, where you still had the tail end of Cream and Hendrix and Mahavishnu and Herbie Hancock and also Miles Davis and all that followed and they were selling 500,000, even a million records. But shortly after the record company figures out there's a market -- now we'll make more music using the same name but a commercialised version, but now we're gonna add vocals 'cause it'll sell more and simple up the drum and bass part... and the musicians went along with it."

Rhythm: You might blame Herbie Hancock for that...

SS: "There you go -- he was one of the prime offenders. They almost all did it and the same thing happened in rock and in RnB."

Rhythm: There's always a golden period and then a bandwagon...

SS: "Interestingly I took part in another commercialisation when I played with Journey. Those late 70s and 80s bands: Queen, Foreigner, Boston, REO Speedwagon, in many ways we were a synthesis of those ideas that made the sixties and seventies bands successful. In Journey we had a soul singer, Steve Perry, straight out of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and a guitar player, Neal Schon, who grew up on Hendrix, Page and Santana; keyboard players right out of Elton John and Billy Joel. Then me and the bass player who could play anything those guys could write."

Rhythm: So was it a shock to find yourself in Journey?

SS: "My first intention was to be a jazz drummer, not even a fusion drummer -- I started playing in 1963 before fusion existed. So when the Beatles became popular I was anti-rock. It wasn't until I heard Ginger and Mitch and Bonham that I started to enjoy rock. I could relate to them as jazz drummers -- I could hear the jazz in them. Then in the early 70s when I went to college an opportunity happened with Jean-Luc Ponty and I auditioned and I just sort of could do it -- I could play the music of my culture, the rock and the jazz, without studying it. It was just 'in the air', so I put it together and it was fusion. So then I realised I could use a little more rock in my playing and that led me to touring with Montrose opening for Journey. I see it now as a heavy apprenticeship so when Journey asked me to join I said yes. I'd never played songs where I had to think this is the beat I'm gonna play in the chorus and now these fills are on the record I'm gonna have to play them exactly the same. But I did it."

Rhythm: You understood it intuitively.

SS: "I did listen to a lot more rock at that point than I had. I actually transcribed what Charlie Watts played. But for me to play rock drums was really no different to Mitchell and Bonham -- they came from jazz type backgrounds themselves. Same as Carmine Appice and Dino Danelli and Hal Blaine -- a lot of the early rock drummers had jazz backgrounds. It was natural and actually quite easy -- my peers Gregg Bissonette and Vinnie Colaiuta also did it. Those players who grew up with jazz fundamentals can more easily play rock because -- no. 1 -- they have the ability to play the instrument, and then it's a concept problem. If you can play jazz and you grow up in the 60s and 70s it shouldn't be difficult to play rock.

But since I left Journey I never looked back so far as the rock thing: been there, done that. I still enjoy doing the occasional sessions -- I'm on the new Savage Garden record and Gavin Harrison and I are both on Claudio Baglioni's new album, this Italian pop star. I do enough sessions -- but I don't aspire to do sessions -- I aspire to play with my group and play jazz and do clinics and hopefully now educate and write."

Copyright © Geoff Nicholls (author: The Drum Book -- A history of the rock drum kit)

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Click the links, below, to read "Drum Talk" articles written by Steve Smith:

Drummer Magazine, 2007 (PDF)
Modern Drummer (three parts)
Choosing the Right Equipment
The Art of Practice (an excerpt)
Interview with Rhythm Magazine
Drums du jour: Dealing with Rental Drums
Vital Reading: My Favorite Music Books
Learning from Mentors
My Setup and Equipment: The Early Years
My Setup and Equipment: My Setup Today