Steve Smith: A Different Drummer

Berklee Today, Spring 1997 (pg. 14-18) + Cover
Author: Mark Small
Transcribed by: Steven Lake

For Steve Smith '76, rocking a statium or playing a quiet jazz club, it's all the same--part of the American drumming tradition.

Steve Smith is a different drummer. His spectacular career, spanning the past two decades, has at times found him pounding out high-decibel rock tunes in 50,000-seat arenas with Journey or supplying sophisticated stick-work with Steps Ahead or his own jazz group Vital Information in the hushed ambiance of clubs like New York's Bottom Line.

Unlike many 40-something musicians, Steve wasn't a rocker who matured into jazz; it was the other way around. Growing up in the sixties, the music of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple had a big impact on him, but drummers like Tony Wllliams, Elvin Jones, and Eric Gravatt were his musical heroes. His first break in the business came in 1976 with Jean Luc Ponty's band in the midst of both the fusion era and Steve's seventh semester at Berklee. Opting to continue his education on the road ultimately led to gigs with platinum rockers Journey and numerous top jazz artists.

For Steve, knowing the history and tradition of American music is as crucial as knowing where one is. He considers it part of his job to understand the history of drumming in America and to examine the paths down which popular music and jazz have traveled since the birth of the blues. At his home in Marin County, California, he has book shelves lined with histories of the early blues and jazz legends and CD cases stuffed with remastered historical recordings. Testifying of his own place in American popular music are 31 gold and platinum records hanging on his wall. Most mark his achievements with Journey, others reflect his contributions to top albums by artists like Mariah Carey and Bryan Adams.

The hallway with the platinum records leads to Neverland, Steve's state-of-the-art studio where he recently recorded Ray of Hope, the seventh CD by Vital Information. With the much touted reunion of Journey and the tremendous reception of their Trial By Fire disc received, odds are Steve could have platinum record number 32 on his wall by year's end.

Steve shrugs off questions about his moving so easily between the rock and the jazz worlds, saying, "If you follow the history, it takes all of the mystery out of how I play with Journey or Steps Ahead-they are both branches on the same tree."

Who were some of your most influential teachers at Berklee?

Drum instructor Gary Chaffee made a big impact. He helped me develop my musical voice. I thought his ideas were very radical and I really took to them. To this day I still work on the information he gave me and stay in touch with him.

Alan Dawson was also a very strong teacher in a different way. He stressed basic coordination and traditional techniques and the jazz tradition. Every week I had to learn a standard tune well enough to sing the melody while playing his drum exercises. Unlike many drum teachers, he integrated music and drumming so that you learned the form, and could improvise on it. He helped me build a vocabulary on the instrument.

Were any fellow students important to your development?

At Berklee, I connected with bassist Neil Stubenhaus ['75] and pianist Orville Wright ['74]. We worked in a nightclub band called Ecstasy. Even though Neil is the same age as me, he had this maturity, and helped to mold me. He helped me develop a concept of groove playing and time keeping that I didn't have before.

I later played with bassists Jeff Berlin ['75] and Kermit Driscoll ['78] and guitarists Mike Stern ['75] and Bill Frisell ['77]. Jeff got me an audition with Jean Luc Ponty. Playing Ponty's music was a reach for me. It was fusion with more emphasis on rock than jazz, and I hadn't played a lot of rock. The audition was a lot of reading and my reading chops for odd time signatures were really up. Ponty and I played a lot of duets, and with the freedom I felt as an improvisor, I got the gig. Working with him really piqued my interest in rock. He got me to check out drummers like Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden, and convinced me to get a big set with double bass drums.

Upon leaving Ponty, what shaped your decision to go with Montrose when you were offered a gig with Freddie Hubbard that same week?

After a year with Ponty, I had a lot of interest in following through with rock. I felt I had a weakness there. When I moved to L.A., I got an audition with Montrose, and it seemed the logical path for me to follow. Why not play with real rock and roll players and get the full experience? Their music was closer to the Jeff Beck Group's sound then--all instrumental rock. The offer to join Freddie Hubbard's band seemed like one I could probably get again. Montrose represented a doorway into another world.

I guess it really was the doorway into the rock world for you.

Yeah, it was. Things worked out with musical experience and success in a way I'd never dreamt of, but my decision was strictly musical. I played with Montrose for eight months. On our first tour, the opening act was Van Halen. They had just put out their first record and no one knew them yet. Montrose would play second, and Journey was the headliner. Steve Perry had just joined Journey and was just getting introduced to the audience. It was an interesting point for Journey, because they had been primarily a four-piece instrumental rock band-only about half the songs had vocals. Aynsley Dunbar, Neal Schon, and Greg Rolie had come to hear me playing with Ponty in Cleveland and really liked what I was doing. They asked me to join in September of 1978. For me the hook to Journey was their musicianship.

The new Journey record has a dramatic production concept and a big rock and roll sound. Your drumming really orchestrates ideas in the lyrics on several songs.

I used what is called a China. Trash cymbal for the ride cymbal on "One More." People love that sound at every session where I've taken that cymbal out. On "The Rain" I used a flat ride with rivets and it got a rain kind of sound.

I've developed a concept that custom fits the band. I don't know that I would have come up with that if I had not joined Journey. Bassist Ross Valory and I work on the rhythms a lot. We tape everything at rehearsal. At the beginning, we are just trying ideas and improvising, but as we listen to how a phrase worked, we'll learn it and fine tune other parts. By the time we get to the studio, we have rehearsed a lot. That is different for me. I am used to learning a song the same day I record it. In Journey, we are thinking more about the composition. The most creative process is in writing and rehearsing the song. When we take it on the road, we have to be true to the performance on the record. Listeners identify the guitar solo as a melody and will air drum along with my fills; those things become part of the composition. This idea was really hard for me coming from a jazz background, but I realize a compositional approach is part of the role drums play in rock.

Not too many members of major rock acts later become sidemen for top jazz artists. Do you have to alter, your technique-matched grip versus traditional grip-for such different musical settings?

I use traditional grip about 90 percent of the time in either style. I don't change to matched grip for power; it is for the feel I am after. I don't think volume is much of an issue in rock drumming; it is more the sound. I let the mikes do the work. I don't play really soft or anything, but I am not excessively loud. It is the same with singers. They don't have to sing really loud; they need to get the right sound and let the mike pick it up. I want a good sound out of my snare, bass drum, toms, and cymbals, so drum size can be a factor, but you don't have to be excruciatingly loud.

How did the Journey reunion come about?

We had always thought about it. I had discussions with various band members over the years, and they seemed pretty open to it. There were a lot of unresolved feelings after the breakup. John Kalodner, an A&R man for Sony, really pushed to get it to happen. He brought us together and helped us work through any hesitancy we had. Once we played together again, it felt good and the chemistry was right. We were inspired to make a go of it. We decided it was best not to do an unplugged version of our greatest hits, but to write material for a new record.

Did the band write many tunes or just the 15 which appear on the disc?

Steve, Jonathan, and Neal got together and came up with ideas for some songs. They didn't do a lot with computers or drum machines. When Ross and I got into the rehearsal studio, we could develop our own parts. One of the problems that led to the breakup was that they wrote everything with drum machines and synth bass for the Raised on Radio record. They created our parts for us, which diminished the creativity for us. So they came in with 15-20 very rough song ideas. We rehearsed for a few months fooling around with different chorus or verse ideas. We were working from 10-5 five days each week, and developed about 30 songs. We then focused on 20, and got those to completion. The music for a song might take a day to finish, but the lyric writing can take Jonathan and Steve a lot longer.

Kevin Shirley, the producer, picked 16 out of the 20 figuring we would use 12 on the record. We recorded them all, and then no one could figure which ones to leave off. The Japanese version of the CD has all 16 songs, the American version has 15.

Shirley and the record company were listening hard and giving us very critical feedback. In the old days, we never heard anything from the record company. We made the records and they put them out without heavy involvement from the A&R department. Now record making has developed into a big, high-risk business with the majority of the product being unsuccessful. The companies are cautious with their investment dollars, and want to make sure they are going to get a good return. They are more involved now and less trusting that a band will objectively create a successful record.

After all of the hits Journey has had, this must add a new twist to doing your job.

Now the heads of the companies are younger than us and have grown up in a different era, and maybe don't understand as well as we do what we are doing. That was difficult, but we had to deal with it. They put us to the test, but the record debuted on Billboard at number three, the single became number one on the adult contemporary chart, and went up on the top 100 chart.

When you shifted gears to go back into jazz after leaving Journey, was it a big adjustment?

In 1985, Ross Valory and I got fired from Journey. It's a long story, and it never should have happened. There were lots of regrets. So I made a decision not to try to form or join another rock band. I focused on jazz playing. The whole time I was in Journey, I played gigs around San Francisco and recorded with keyboardist Tom Coster. I would also go back to Boston to play with bassist Tim Landers ['80] guitarists Barry Finnerty and Dean Brown ['77], and saxophonist Dave Wiltchesky. That evolved into Vital Information. I made the first three records with that band while I was still in Journey. So I had laid the ground work for what I would be doing next.

I had a mountain to climb to get some credibility in the jazz world though. Festival promoters still saw me as Journey's drummer. Even touring with Vital Information wasn't bringing me the credibility needed to get hired. That came when I started playing with Steps Ahead. At a drum clinic in Philadelphia with Peter Erskine and Lennie White, Peter said he had just quit Steps Ahead, and Lennie told me he had just turned down the gig and would recommend me. The next day I got calls from Brecker and Mike Manieri both. They told me I didn't need to audition, just to come to New York and start rehearsing.

That was a transforming and healing experience after getting fired from a successful rock band. The players in Steps Ahead were heroes to me. For them to hire me and be really happy with what I was doing was what I needed. I learned a lot about music playing with musicians of their level.

We did a lot of touring especially in Europe. I began winning the Modern Drummer magazine polls. I made connections and gained recognition for having made the move from Journey to Steps Ahead. I went out of my way to meet promoters, agents, club owners, and record company people. That is how I got connected with Intuition Records, which issued the latest Vital Information CD. Eventually it became time for me to pursue my own thing, so I left the band after seven years to play more dates with Vital Information.

What is your perspective on ''fusion music these days?

This is a good question. That term has a negative connotation, and it gets applied to a variety of artists. At the San Francisco Jazz Festival, they billed Dave Sanborn as a fusion artist. I love his playing, but I don't think of him as a fusion player. Fusion had its heyday with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report. Like so many other eras in jazz-New Orleans jazz, big band jazz, bebop-I feel fusion has had its beginning, middle, and end. There were identifiable fusion artists, but it was really a band thing ending with Chick Corea's Elektric Band.

There are other people playing great music in that vein-like John Scofield, Steve Coleman, or Mike Stern-but I feel the original concept has had its day. Smooth jazz is closer to instrumental r&b pop like Booker T. and the M.G.s or King Curtis. What Fourplay, Bob James, or Kirk Whalum do in no way resembles the musicianship or intensity of Mahavishnu, nor does it have the depth of Weather Report's music. The original fusion pioneers were primarily jazz musicians who grew up absorbing rock. Now players grow up imitating a sound without understanding its source, and their music is less potent. That is not to say they are not good players, but they don't come from as rich a background.

As an artist who mixes jazz and rock, do you think there is a future for this style?

I don't see a big future for the genre. I do feel that if you look at older music which has had its beginning, middle, and end, there will always be representatives of that sound who will continue to work. Louis Armstrong came out of the New Orleans tradition, though styles changed, he was a representative of that school of music for the rest of his life. Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie didn't alter their styles too much in later years. Maynard Ferguson and Sonny Rollins continue to work. Brilliant players in any style will always find a market for the era and music they are representing. Jazz festival organizers love to bring the living masters in to play.

What does one need to succeed in the business?

The playing is a major aspect of being successful, but another key element is to not get knocked down by disappointment. Some friends of mine who were great players didn't do well career-wise because they were hurt deeply by the business and never made a recovery from that. Those who persevered and processed what happened to them and used it to focus their resolve did better.

Whenever I lost a gig, got fired, or was told that I wasn't playing what the leader wanted, I would get hurt and angry. But ultimately I would try to see what I could learn from the situation.

You also have to know how to develop personal relationships-that's what the business is based on. You have to keep in touch with people be easy to get along with, and available.

When I was coming up, the concept of a getting a bio, a photo, and a demo tape wasn't important, it was all word of mouth. In a way it is still the same. Those breaking out today do it with ability and a good attitude. Networking is a big thing. For me the Berklee environment was key. The academics were helpful, but playing-inside and outside of the school with other students was really important. I developed from these relationships. Networking got me into the business.

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Yes. I get asked about the difference between being a highly schooled and a self-taught musician. All of the great players are self-taught in a way. Teachers can guide you and teach you the mechanics of your instrument, but the ability to actually play can't be taught. Playing your instrument well is different from playing music well. Getting together with other players and making the music happen is a self-learned process. To me that is really clear.