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
"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
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
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
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
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.
"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.
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
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
Rhythm: Over here we've
gone back to pop svengalis and manufactured
bands which the business can control.
Rhythm: Is it as bad in
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?"
least they love you here at Ronnie's.
"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.
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
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
Rhythm: You understood it
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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