AL: I remember checking out the interview you did some time ago with Bill Milkowski where you talked about drum machines. Do you have any general opinion about how the trend in having a musician actually play drums to emulate a machine has taken music, or where you feel it might be going?
Steve Smith: For thousands of years music was created by musicians playing without the technology of computers or drum machines. The idea of drummers keeping time, without a click track, and coming up with interesting drum parts was one of the main reasons why you got hired as a drummer, whether it was Ringo playing with the Beatles, Gene Krupa playing with Benny Goodman or Hal Blaine getting called for countless sessions. Especially in the ‘60’s and 70’s studio drummers were hired because of their creativity and time keeping ability. Then as it became popular to use click tracks in the mid to late ‘80’s, right around when the drum machine came in, things started changing where it became crucial not only to have good time but to be able to play in perfect sync with a click track and to be able replace the drum machine part. Generally what happened in the studio, starting in the late ‘80’s to the present, was an artist would record a song with a drum machine or computerized drums and then have the drummer replace that with live drums. With this scenario there is less creativity asked of the drummer because the drum part has already been composed. The drummer learns the parts, maybe embellishes them a bit, and cuts the tracks. Performance accuracy becomes very important because there’s no room for the time to move around naturally the way it has for the past 20,000 or 30,000 years, or however long you want to look back, in music making. I think one of the musical ideas that has changed over time is, composers can tend to find what I consider, “awkward tempos” because they program a drum beat and write a tune that is composed at a particular exact tempo. A real band might never actually play that tempo and feel, or care to play it, because it’s some uncomfortable tempo crack. That’s something that I’ve noticed that’s different from the earlier days, whether it’s Buddy Holly, The Beatles, James Brown or Led Zeppelin. The tempos that different groups play are quite natural whether they are easily danced to or whatever it is. Tempos are so finite with machines that they’re not that natural to play. With the exact steadiness of tempo, it’s an unnatural way to approach music. Music naturally has more breath, tempo moves up and down. Imagine “Stairway to Heaven” with a click track, it wouldn’t have worked. There are thousands of examples of music like that; “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” for instance, that’s a tune where the tempo changes a couple times. In some ways I think clicks can keep people from having a freer approach. A good musician, an evolved musician hopefully, can go beyond that, but “perfect time” has its pluses and minuses. One way you can see it a plus is that people can overdub parts and more easily create music that way. But another way of looking at it is that it’s an artificial way of making music. Overdubbed records can tend to sound that way, especially if they are jazz oriented records. They don’t sound like people playing music together — just my thoughts on the subject.
AL: You said in an interview a long time ago you practiced every day. Do you still get a chance to get in the hours and if so, what are you practicing?
SS: I still do like to practice every day but I don’t practice as religiously as I used to because it’s difficult these days. I live in New York City a portion of the year and I can’t practice in my apartment. It’s not practical, it’s just too small. Actually I go to the Drummers Collective to practice, which is a drum school in New York. For me to go to the Drummer’s Collective I have to get on a schedule and go in for two or three hour increments, so it all has to be planned in advance. At least three or four days a week I go to The Collective. When I don’t go to The Collective I practice on a practice pad here in the apartment just to try to stay in shape. When I’m at my house in Oregon I have a drum room there, so I can practice every day. But one of the other things, since that interview in 1997, is that my life as a band leader and the person organizing the details of tours has become even bigger and more time consuming. There’s a lot of administrative work with having a band on the road and sometimes my life gets taken up with all of those details. I don’t like it, but that’s the problem with being a bandleader and musician. I still like to practice but unfortunately I don’t feel like I get to do it quite enough.
Lately what I’m working on is developing the konnokol and incorporating the Indian rhythms on the drumset and different ways of orchestrating the Indian rhythms on the drum kit. Lately, because of the “Raga Bop” tour, I’m working on memorizing the songs and coming up with a lot of vocabulary for each song. My practice tends to be on exactly what it is I’m doing, not practicing chops for their own sake, but I keep it focused work on the music that I’m playing.
AL: I remember reading the liner notes to the second “Vital Tech Tones” record where you said “With Vital Information I’m not so concerned with virtuosic playing. We have more of an overall sound that we’re putting across so we’re focusing more on the vibe of the tunes. We have solos but virtuosity is not an over-riding concern. It is with this band. Is it ever a concern that taking an approach like that the music can become too clinical, for lack of a better word?
SS: No [laughter]. No, because I think that with the all the musicians that I work with there’s a certain aesthetic of earthiness and blues and rock that comes across. Some of those quotes were addressing the vibe of the times. When Mike Varney (the president / owner of Tone Center Records) came up with the idea to make records for Tone Center there was a lot of smooth jazz in the air. People were simplifying their music. Mike and I had talked and felt there were a large segment of record buyers that were being ignored. The people who were fans of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever or Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House and Weather Report were not being addressed. The musicians that played on those recordings were no longer making music in that style, or the some of the artists who were making music were not address their fan base. A lot of the concept of Tone Center was to push beyond that. I feel like the Tone Center records that I produced and played on had a very good musical concept. Whether it was Henderson / Wooten, Gambale / Hamm, or Howard Levy / Jerry Goodman, or the other strong lineups, there was always a very musical aesthetic along with the virtuosity.
For example, in the 90’s, if you made a record for Columbia they’d ask, “Who’s going to buy this record? Who will this appeal to?” So they’d try to go for, what they thought was, the biggest market and that can lead a big record company to try to make the music a little more “listener friendly” which means catchier melodies, simpler grooves and all the stuff that everyone knows about. Mike Varney was saying the opposite. He said let’s appeal to those people who don’t want to buy the smooth jazz records. They have all the classic fusion records but they want to buy a new fusion record. Imagine that person going into the store looking for some new music, that’s a wonderful idea! That’s a great idea! And I miss that about the current market. To be fair to Columbia, back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Columbia was on the cutting edge of having great fusion music. They signed Miles Davis, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and The New Tony Williams Lifetime. There was a time when all the major labels had fantastic jazz and fusion. Without those labels pushing those musicians to make those records we would not have a lot of those amazing records. It’s much more difficult in today’s world, as far as I’m concerned, because you have to finance the recordings yourself. In the days where Atlantic was saying to John Coltrane, “Maybe you should make an album with Johnny Hartman,” that was genius! In today’s world we might not have a record like that because we’re left totally to the ideas, and more importantly the BUDGETS, of the artists. Musicians might not think of a particular collaboration or might not want to finance it themselves, or be able to finance it. As much as some people are saying there is great liberation with people making their own music, I think there’s a lot that’s lost in the process in the well. You can look back at whether it’s Blue Note, Columbia or Atlantic, there’s a lot of great of jazz and fusion records that came about as a result of a record company wanting to put out an album that people would buy, so they came up with music that we now have and can listen to forever. Without Mike Varney we wouldn’t have those great Tone Center albums. We had a fusion renaissance for about 10 years and now Mike’s not making new albums. Now the future is Abstract Logix where Souvik Dutta is really taking the lead in putting out adventurous music. This is great, I’m really pleased to be associated with Souvik and I hope he continues to make albums for a long time. But the sad part is that it’s unfortunate that we’re in a world where there are so few labels putting out adventurous music.
AL:When you interpreted the music for your recent DVD Drum Legacy: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants you took on the compositions of some of the legendary jazz drummers, was your focus on recreating the music exactly or interpreting the music as yourself?
SS:The first thing I did was research the approach and vocabulary that great drummers used. I transcribed and learned vocabulary from Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams and Elvin etc. I’ve always done that since I was a teenager but I readdressed it to get deeper into that jazz vocabulary. Each one of those drummers had unique approaches as far as how they developed their concepts. Each developed into the next sequentially. You needed one innovation before the next idea emerged — there’s logic to how that vocabulary evolved. It’s interesting to get inside that, and then to internalize it so that I’m comfortable in that approach. When I play the tune I do my best to get inside that approach but not in a re-creationist way. My drums are tuned the way I like to have them tuned in today’s world. I play with an energy and an attitude that is current but I pay respects to the vocabulary and direction of the drummers who originally played that music. Even though I’ve done the homework and learned the licks and phrases, at a certain point I let my creativity take over and flow with the discipline that each tune takes to make it work. It’s hard to describe, and it’s more organic than it may sound in an interview. In the end I increase my vocabulary and it can be used in a variety of ways. In general, as different projects come up, and I complete them, there’s a sense of finality and integration that occurs and that tends to open up possibilities for new ideas to come.
AL:What are you currently listening to?
SS:I’m very eclectic in what I listen to. From the new Roots album, How I Got Over and their new collaboration with John Legend to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’m always a fan of Prince, I buy whatever he puts out. I also listen to the records that my friends make. For example I like Walt Weiskopf’s new album See The Pyramid. Anthony Wilson, Diana Krall’s guitar player, has a very good album out Jack Of Hearts. Mark Soskin’s got a new one out with Ravi Coltrane called Man Behind the Curtain with Bill Stewart on drums. I enjoy all of Bill Stewart’s records too like his latest Incandecence. Ari Hoenig is another young drummer who is really innovative. There are a lot of great young jazz drummers and I’m always amazed at how they developed such evolved concepts at such a young age in this society and culture. There seems to be no shortage of them, that’s for sure.
It’s the music, man.
It’s the music, but it takes a very discerning young person to be drawn to jazz. It has to be quite a different person than the average teenager or young adult who doesn’t see beyond rap or heavy metal. Of course there are certain rock things there that I like. Porcupine Tree is an incredible band. If I had to name a favorite band it would be that one. They’re really singular, they’re that unique.
AN URGENT PLEA FROM JOHN McLAUGHLIN: Guitar icon releases exclusive video to raise awareness and funds for COVID relief in