Interview:A Conversation with Steve Smith
Steve Smith's brilliant career parallels the evolution of pop music in America. He has played with ensembles ranging from jazz to rock to fusion and explored the music of other cultures. Steve has recorded and toured the planet with Journey, Jean-Luc Ponty, Steps Ahead, the all-star Buddy Rich alumnus band called Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies, and many others. In addition to his busy schedule as one of drumming's elite, he is a passionate educator as well, taking part in numerous clinics around the world every year, as well as frequently appearing in Modern Drummer's Festivals and recently has turned out some award-winning drum DVDs. We recently sat down with Steve during a rare moment of down time and talked about his musical past, present, and future, as well as his drum equipment of choice.
MF: What have you been up to lately?
SS: I've been touring with Vital Information for 20 years now, and every couple of years we put out a new record. Every year we tour the U.S. and Europe, and occasionally the Far East. We spent a week in Beijing, China a couple of years ago, and have played in Istanbul, Turkey. It has been an ongoing labor of love, something we all enjoy doing. We have a certain level of popularity where we survive through the years. I'm also touring extensively this year with a group called Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies. That band is a Buddy Rich alumni quintet, and we took a lot of the music made popular by Buddy Rich and had it arranged for a quintet. Steve Marcus is on tenor sax, he played with Buddy Rich for over 12 years, the longest-lasting sideman Buddy ever had. Andy Fusco is on alto, and he played lead alto with Buddy for many years. Mark Soskin is the piano player. Mark has toured with a lot of jazz greats like Herbie Mann, Gato Barbieri, and Sonny Rollins. Baron Browne is the bass player. Baron is also in my group Vital Information. He's toured with everyone from Jean-Luc Ponty and Billy Cobham to Steps Ahead, he's got a huge list of great gigs.
MF: I was reading where you saw Buddy Rich as a youth and he was a major inspiration for you're playing drums.
SS: He was one of the greatest drummers that ever lived, and if you were lucky enough to see him, it was a mind-blowing experience, each and every time.
MF: You also have upcoming performances with a group called the George Brooks Summit?
SS: Yeah, the George Brooks Summit is a very interesting mix of jazz and Indian music. George Brooks is a sax player who's been to India to study music and composition. He's also a very good jazz player, and writes music that combines those two styles. Zakir Hussain, the tabla player, is the greatest tabla player alive in the world today. Kai Eckhardt is the bass player, he also knows a lot about Indian music, and toured for many years with John McLaughlin and Trilok Gurtu. Fareed Haque is the guitar player. He's a great jazz player plus he has studied the music of the Middle East and the music of India quite extensively. I'm very into studying the Indian music myself, so we put it all together in this band and it's pretty incredible.
Summit is on a new CD that just came out, it's called Modern Drummer presents Drum Nation Volume One. There are tracks by Terry Bozzio, Bill Bruford, Rod Morgenstein, Simon Phillips, Tim Alexander, Brain, a big list of guys, and Zakir and I have a duet track, but it's with this entire group Summit. George Brooks and I got together and wrote a tune that's specifically for this record. It features the entire lineup of Summit and an extensive duet with Zakir and myself. That's the place to hear this group. Also check out my website (www.vitalinformation.com) for live dates and come see us live.
MF: Your educational DVD, Steve Smith Drumset Technique - History of the U.S Beat, was last year voted #1 Educational DVD of 2003 in Modern Drummer. What led you to make this DVD?
SS: I've always been into studying and passing that knowledge on. The Hudson DVD that you're mentioning is a double DVD. The first DVD, "Drumset Technique", is specifically about an overall concept on how to approach the drumset as a U.S percussion instrument plus a lot of hand and foot technique ideas. I also have quite an interest in history, and then more specifically the history of music and drumming. So I've incorporated that on the second disk,"History of the U.S. Beat", which tells the story of the history of the drumset, presenting it as a U.S. percussion instrument. We're so used to the drumset, especially in the USA, that we take it for granted, almost like it always existed, and you don't really think about it being an innovation of the U.S. and the U.S. culture. By being involved in the music of other cultures, I've seen what drums other cultures use, and then I realized how the drumset is specifically a U.S. cultural instrument. It's now been accepted all over the world so completely that the fact that it started in the U.S. is almost obscured.
MF: And I understand you have another drum history video in progress.
SS: Hudson music and myself are working on a history of rock drumming DVD, which is a huge undertaking and it will be years in the making. We've probably already been working on it for about three years. And at this point what we're doing is collecting interviews. I wrote an outline and overview, a sort of brief history, about three years ago that addressed the transitional years that go from the mid '40s to the mid to late '50s, because that's a period that's not very well addressed in the history of rock drumming. In fact that's when rock drumming developed, yet there's not much information about what happened, or who the key players were. Because at that time, nobody knew what was going to happen, so nobody was keeping track of it. And with popular records only the lead artists, like the singer, was credited. All the sidemen were almost unknown and unrecognized. For the most part they were session musicians. So we've been digging into that, trying to solve those mysteries and find out who the people were and, if some of them are alive, track them down for an interview. So it's been pretty interesting.
MF: You had brought up some names I'd never heard of, there was a guy named Sandy...
SS: Sandy Nelson actually was very popular in his day, which was from about '59 to '62. From '59 to the mid '60s he made about 40 albums, so he was the biggest drum star in rock and roll, and probably, to this day, the only true drum star solo artist ever in rock and roll. He was never in a band, and his records were drum solo oriented; yet he had big hits. I don't know if you've ever heard of Let There be Drums, or Teen Beat. In 1958 there was a huge radio hit called "Topsy Part 2" by Cozy Cole. He was an old swing drummer that played with Benny Goodman and had a school with Gene Krupa. Later in 1959 Sandy Nelson had a hit with almost the same kind of drumming but with a rock sound. Anyway Sandy Nelson is still around, he lives in Vegas, and we went to his house and interviewed him. He was incredibly interesting. So that's one guy. And then there's guys like J.M. Van Eaton, who was the house drummer at Sun Records. He played on all the Jerry Lee Lewis, the early Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash singles, and all kinds of records, and he was a 17-year old high school kid.
MF: So this is when rock style was evolving? Weren't most of the drummers on records jazz drummers during this time?
SS: Yeah, for the most part, when you go back and track down these drummers, the guys who were playing on the records 99% of the time were jazz drummers, simply called into the studio to do a session. And then they just adapted themselves to the situation. For instance, Connie Kay, who was the drummer with the Modern Jazz Quartet, a great jazz drummer, is on quite a few hits, including "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Big Joe Turner, that was then covered by Bill Haley and His Comets, and became a big hit. Billy Gussak played drums on the Bill Haley version, who was also a New York session player, essentially a jazz drummer. And of all the research that I've done and people that I've interviewed that played on the hits, I've only found a couple of drummers who identified themselves as rock drummers.
MF: What music and/or drummers are you listening to for inspiration these days?
SS: I listen to a lot of the different Indian drummers. From Zakir Hussain to Selva Ganesh and his father Vikku. These are names not many U.S. drummers have heard of. I still love to listen to all the classics from Max Roach to Buddy Rich to Tony Williams to Elvin. As far as young drummers that I'm listening to are Bill Stewart and Brian Blade. And as for as rock drummers, I think Danny Carey is very unique, I like his playing. Carter Beauford. I've always liked Tim Alexander from Primus.
MF: A few technical questions on your drum setup. I know you have endorsed Sonor Drums for years and have been playing the Sonor Jungle kit lately.
SS: I started with Sonor in January 1977. I bought my first kit after I saw Bernard Purdie playing Sonor drums and I loved the sound. I was playing with Jean-Luc Ponty at the time and he wanted me to get a new kit, he didn't like the small jazz set that I was playing. Jean-Luc asked me to get a big kit like Billy Cobham was playing, and Billy had this huge kit. So I got this huge kit with 2 - 24" bass drums, three rack toms, two floor toms, snare, and an array of cymbals. But I just love the sound of the drums, the quality of the construction and hardware. The set feels solid when I play it, and the sound has always been great. Currently the top of the line is the Designer Series, which is a beautiful sounding drum set. I also occasionally use the Delite, which is also a pro line, a little less costly than the Designer. In clinics I occasionally use the "S" class, which are drums made in Germany that sound great. Then they have a whole line of drums made in China which also sound great. These include the Jungle set, which has a 16" bass drum, which is actually a converted floor tom, a 10" rack tom and 13" floor tom. And then I usually have a 12" snare drum. I use that on quite a few gigs, when I play an acoustic jazz gig with acoustic bass and acoustic piano I'll use that. When I play with Zakir Hussain and Summit, I use the jungle kit, because it sounds great and it's not too loud, it doesn't drown out the other instruments. I've been happy with the entire Sonor line.
MF: I understand you're using Zildjian cymbals these days? Have you always used Zildjians?
SS: I've been endorsing Zildjian cymbals almost as long as Sonor drums. I actually grew up in Massachusetts in a town that's literally 10 miles from the Zildjian factory, Whitman, MA. I had been to the factory when I was pretty young because my drum teacher was friends with Armand Zildjian. So he brought me into the factory pretty early on and I met a lot of the people that worked there. All the great drummers in the world played Zildjian cymbals then. All us kids in the early '60s had the Zildjian catalog and we all dreamed of being in the Zildjian catalog and playing Zildjian cymbals, so I naturally gravitated that way and saved up my money and bought Zildjian cymbals when I was about 12 years old. So to finally endorse them was great. I've been happy with all the new lines that they come up with. Currently I'm using the A Customs, the K Customs, the Constantinople line, the K Custom Special Dry ride, and I'm using a lot of different K and specialty A cymbals.
MF: And you endorse DW pedals?
SS: I use the DW9002 double pedal, and I have one of their limited edition Titanium 9000s. Both of those pedals are fantastic. Again, first I was playing the DW5000, and then they came out with the 9000, and I like that even better. So I've been using those DW pedals probably since 1980, it's hard to remember exactly when I started with them; it was in the early days of playing with Journey. I was playing double bass drum so I had 2 single pedals, and then eventually in 1986 I had left Journey and I was touring with a group called Steps Ahead, a fantastic jazz group, and that's when I started playing the double pedal, because I used a smaller set without the double bass drum. Now I'm more comfortable with the double pedal than the double bass drum.
MF: And you use Remo drum heads?
SS: I endorse Remo drum heads. I've always played them since I was a young kid. When I was playing with Jean-Luc Ponty in 1977 I went to see Remo Belli to talk to him about an endorsement. In those days things were different in that the companies didn't give away a lot of endorsements. He was glad to see that I came to talk to him, but he said "Yeah, it's a great gig you've got now, but let's see if you're still around in 5 years." And that was realistic feedback. Back then, Remo was the only show in town so they were pretty selective. But then I came back in five years, I was still around (laughs) and I got my endorsement.
MF: Vic Firth sticks?
SS: I had heard about the Vic Firth sticks very early on, growing up in Boston, going to Berklee, just knowing about Vic being in the Boston Symphony, and then slowly starting to see his sticks around. They weren't drumset sticks at first — his first pair of sticks, as far as I remember — were the SD-1, a big pair of sticks mainly for symphonic snare drum. Eventually I'd see the 5A, 7As and then the Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason signature sticks. And then for a long time, when I was in Journey, I was using Vic's 2B sticks — a pretty big stick. With Steps Ahead, I was using the Harvey Mason Signature Model. Gradually, I moved down to the 5A, because I found that as my technique got better, I started using lighter sticks, because the heavier sticks were unwieldy, and I couldn't get the finesse and variation of dynamic range that I could get with a lighter stick. So by the time I got down to the 5A, Vic asked me about designing a signature stick, so I went to work with him. Over the course of about 6 months we finally settled on the design of my signature stick that incorporated a different bead than he had ever used before. A lot of his sticks had the little ball on the end, and some had the more typical acorn. He calls this a barrel tip, it's kind of an elongated tip. I saw Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette use sticks like that, and I had some sticks of theirs I really liked. It's similar to those sticks. It's been over 10 years since we came up with those signature sticks and I'm still really pleased with them.
MF: Any other equipment you care to mention?
SS: I've been using Shure mics for many years. Again, I don't remember exactly when I started with them, but I've stayed up with the developments that they've had, say in the last ten years with all the clip-on mics. The ones I really like are called Beta 98/S and they sound really great on the toms. I use them live and in the studio, they're that good. The SM-57 I've used ever since recording my first album. I used that on all the Journey records and everything else. And the Beta 52 is an incredibly great bass drum mic, and I have that mounted inside all of my bass drums with the May mounting system. And then I use their different condenser mics for my overheads and hi-hat. I've been very pleased with their mics. One last product I'd like to mention is the fantastic snare drum my drum tech Jeff Ocheltree makes that he calls the Phantom Steel. I have three different versions in the size 5" x 14." I use that along with my Sonor Artist Series snare drums. The Sonor Artist Series I prefer is made of wood, and it has an antique look to it.
MF: What's ahead on your artistic roadmap?
SS: More touring with the various groups that we've already discussed, Vital Information, Summit, Buddy's Buddies, plus Vital Information will have a new CD out later in 2004. This summer I'm going to be touring with "Soul Bop" and all-star band with Randy Brecker, Bill Evans, Hiram Bullock, Dave Kikowski and Victor Bailey. My life is very busy!
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