Steve Smith: Journey Revisited

Modern Drummer
April 1997
By: Robyn Flans
Photos by Jay Blakesberg
Transcribed by: Jeff Hacker & Steven Lake

NOTE: This is not the complete magazine article. Most of the article included technical drum references, plus it was a very, very long article.

For Journey lovers, 1997 is a landmark year, as one of the best-selling rock bands in history reunites to please audiences with their classic material-- as well as songs from their first studio record in ten years, Trial By Fire. Reprising his role as Journey drummer is Steve Smith, who joined the band in 1978 and was "let go" in 1985, largely because of musical differences regarding the making of the band's last studio album, Raised on Radio. It was no secret that musical and personal dissension had infiltrated the group. Journey disbanded two years later.

The past ten years have been well spent by Steve. He's been incredibly productive, taking part in many outstanding projects: seven albums and road work with Vital Information; a seven-year relationship with Steps Ahead; albums with the Storm, Shaw/Blades, Y&T, and Italian artists Zucchero and Franchesco de Gregori; a couple of tracks on Mariah Carey's Emotion; Jonathan Cain's and Neal Schon's solo albums; the Burning For Buddy project; and tours with Stanley Clarke, Allan Holdsworth, and Randy Brecker. When he's at home in Northern California, Steve enjoys working with local bands, covering a variety of styles such as fusion with Marc Russo, straight-ahead jazz with Mel Graves and Mike Zelber, hip-hop with Alphabet Soup, and blues with a trio called the Russell Brothers.

Despite the fact that all of the members of Journey were busy with projects early in 1995, when Sony proposed that the band reunite, it seemed to make sense to everyone involved. To date, Journey has sold more than forty-five million albums with Escape and Frontiers remaining on Sony's Top-10 list of best-selling albums to this day. Journey's multi-platinum Greatest Hits, released in 1989, continues to sell more than 500,000 copies per year, making it obvious to group members that there is still an enthusiastic audience out there ready for more.

To Steve, whose larger body of work has been in the jazz field, the reunion is an opportunity to make a good wage replaying a role that he can now infuse with ten more years' worth of musical experience and wisdom. "I do some things that make a lot of money," he candidly explains. "I do some things that make a fair amount of money. I do some things that make me very little money and I do some things that lose money. But all in all, it's a balanced portfolio...and it feels good."

RF: Are you still practicing like a mad-man?

SS: Yes. I really enjoy the practicing process, so part of my day is allocated for that. It's one of the first things I do every morning after I get up and have breakfast. I'm more focused if I do it, say, around 9:00 in the morning.

RF: Until?

SS: Maybe noon. I have a lot of great rational reasons for doing it, but the overriding reason is that it feels great; I enjoy it. I see it as part of my job, just like an athlete must stay in training. I don't understand why it's so surprising that I do this. I'm fascinated by the instrument and the music and want to make it easier to play and access more ideas. Also, I feel it is a way for me to help respect, enhance, and develop the potential of the musical gift I was born with.

RF: There was a ten-year absence of playing in that group [Journey]. You're ten years older, more musically mature, more studied, more experienced, and now you're going back in a situation from your past. Did you need to redevelop certain techniques you used back then because that's what worked, or can you truly apply your maturity to a situation you were in ten years ago?

SS: When I realized this reunion was inevitable, I decided to really do my home work on rock 'n' roll. When I first joined the band in '78, I was coming from more of a jazz background, with pretty limited rock 'n' roll knowledge. I knew of the groups of the '60s, like Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, but I had never done any major research on rock 'n' roll history. I had done that with jazz.

In the last few years, I really traced the roots of the instrument, the music, and the different players. When I first joined Journey, I played the music intuitively I was sort of a toned-down fusion drummer at the time. But for this reunion, I decided to approach the music from a completely different perspective, more from the roots of rock'n' roll.

In my researching the history of the drumset I decided to go back and try to find the point where the music began to diverge from jazz. The instrument itself was basically designed to play jazz. If you were a drummer before a certain time, you were petty much a jazz drummer. Eventually they used the drumset to play the blues. I tried to find the point where the blues started to evolve into the early rock 'n' roll feels. I read books, bought videos and a lot of biographies and histories of rock 'n' roll, and then went out and tried to find the recordings to accompany all of that. I enjoyed it. This is my work. If you talk to somebody who writes a book, they do research before they start writing, so this was no different.

I did personal examinations of the different musicians I knew who were influential to Steve Perry, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain. I know Steve's major influence is Sam Cooke, so I read his biography and I had a sense of where he came from with his gospel roots. I bought many of his recordings, which encompassed all of his different periods. Jackie Wilson is also a big influence on Steve, as well as many of the great soul singers of the '60s. I bought Motown collections--Wilson Pickett. Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding, to name a few.

I wanted it to be that when I walked into the rehearsal hall with Journey, it would be different from before. Like when Steve would talk about this Sam Cooke tune or the feel of this Motown hit--back then, if he gave me a hint of what it was about I could fake it; I could come up with a good approximation and something intuitively that worked. But now I was coming at it more from having firsthand knowledge of what it was he was listening to. It was easier for us to connect musically.

It was always easier for me to connect with Neal, with his heavy background in blues and then Eric Clapton and Hendrix and the whole '60s guitar thing, because I was pretty familiar with it. But I went back even further to check out Neal's blues roots. It was an interesting period of months where I was listening and reading I'd then try to play along with the records and try to cop the feel, getting right back to how I practiced when I was a kid. I also went out and played gigs with some of the local San Francisco players. This way I could embody it, feel it, and develop it so I could play it whenever it was appropriate. It gave me the feeling that I could enjoy this Journey reunion and get something out of it in a musical way.

RF: How do you see your evolution of the last ten years, and what do you see that you're bringing to the music, aside from the studying?

SS: I've had a lot of studio experience in the last ten years, so I have a lot of newly developed skills in "song drumming" I have a lot of technical awareness of the studio environment and playing with click tracks, sequencers, loops, and all of the modern technology, which I didn't have any knowledge of when I had originally joined the band. That was a lot of experience for me to bring to the situation.

Something new I brought to the reunion was a sense of detachment from the "band experience." Before, the band was incredibly important to me and the outlet was really crucial in that I wanted to demonstrate everything I knew, my ability and knowledge--and I was trying to squeeze everything in, which can cause a lot of tension. In some ways it can create some great music, and there's something to be said for that. But behind that, there was also somewhat of a lack of awareness of what might he the most appropriate thing to play. Now I just cut to the chase without taking some unnecessary, circuitous route. Having a lot of experience as a hired hand now, I do what the people who hire me want, and there are boundaries to be creative within, which is the challenge so I take the challenge and if they like it, great, and if they don't, I'm not attached to it; I'm just there to do my job. I've learned something through the experience, but I'm not attached to it. I approached this situation with that sense of professionalism and objectivity.

RF: Having done a lot of session projects, you probably came back to this situation with more confidence.

SS: Yes. I had the confidence to know I could do a good job and to know I have worked with very demanding people who have been very satisfied with my work. I went into this situation with that attitude.

RF: In the early days the creation of the music was a band process. When Journey recorded Raised on Radio in 1985 it was much less that way. How was the new material put together?

SS: It was a combination of approaches. A normal working day would be 11:00 to 5:00, five days a week, like a regular day gig. We would jam and come up with song ideas and nurture them to completion. We pretty consistently created one song a day for a couple of months. That would result in a pretty good song form--verse, chorus, bridge, with an arrangement and some melody, although no lyrics. Then we would make a rough demo with a couple of mic's in the room.

The other approach taken was that Jon, Neal, and Steve, or just a couple of them, would go to Jon's house and sketch out some song ideas. What they did differently from the Raised on Radio project, except for two tunes, was they didn't use a drum computer or synth bass, which was really nice. They just left it open, so when Ross [Valory] and I came in, we could take their ideas and put ourselves into it. They had the knowledge that there was something of value in that spark of chemistry and creativity that happens with the five of us in the room. That felt great.

After a few months of this, we had around thirty songs in various stages of completion. Then we tried to hone down the best of those because the lyric and final melody writing was rather painstaking for Jon and Steve, and they didn't want to do it if it was unnecessary. We got it down to eighteen songs, and they completed them. We ended up choosing sixteen to record.

By the time producer Kevin Shirley showed up, we were ready to record--or so we thought. He took a different approach and wanted us to rehearse. All of us had done a lot of studio work while we were apart, and everyone was comfortable with the idea of going into the studio with a pretty good idea of what the song was and focusing on that one song and cutting it. If we had to play through the sixteen songs, we really didn't know them. We knew them that one day, but without listening to the demo, we had completely forgotten them. I would write out a sketch of a chart as it went by, so I had my music to refer to, but I didn't have it memorized. He wanted us to rehearse the stuff like we were a young band and get the music to the point where we had it just about memorized and could perform all the songs like a set. That is something we used to do way back when, but we didn't want to do it this time. So there was a lot of grumbling, but we did it. We spent three weeks rehearsing the songs that had already been written.

RF: Was there value in that?

SS: Yes, it turned out to be good. We got to the point where we honed the songs even more than they were, and we got very comfortable with them. So by the time we went into the studio, we were going for magical takes, rather than trying to learn the song and then trying to get the magical take. We only had to do maybe three takes per song, so there was a lot of energy and spontaneity in the performance.

We did play everything as a band. We used a click track on everything, which was almost more at my insistence than anybody else's. I feel very comfortable with a click track, and it makes it easier for me; I think of it as a ruler with which I'm trying to draw a straight line across a page. We cut everything live with vocals and guitar solos, and I'd say a lot of the guitar solos ended up being live. We kept almost everything. Occasionally we would splice a verse from one take or a chorus from another take, but that felt better to us than doing it with a computer. Kevin Shirley was trying to capture what he felt was the essence of the band--sometimes against what we wanted to do. But he got his way, and he did a great job producing us.

RF: What things did you resist?

SS: The title track, "Trial By Fire," was written to a drum loop, and the guys were saying, "Let's just cut it to the drum loop and then Steve can over dub the drums to it." I was fine with that because I've done that hundreds of times. Kevin said no. so we learned the song, rehearsed it, and I imitated the drum loop, but did my thing to it, and it came out better. He really pushed the band toward the live performance thing.

Kevin is a very strong personality, and we needed that. Also, he's a musician, and it's the first time we had a producer who wasn't just an engineer/producer. He has musical knowledge, and he's a great engineer, so he got into suggesting different chords and different arrangements, but from a more musical perspective than in the past.

RF: it was probably good to have one ring leader to whom you had to defer.

SS: Right. It took the pressure off of us to always have to fight it out amongst the five of us. He earned his money. One of the things he did that I was really happy about was insist on there not being fade outs on the record. Most of the songs really didn't have endings, and we were just going to fade. When it came time to cut the track, we'd goof around a little at the end and have some fun. Thankfully, we created some endings very spontaneously. Some of the endings were kinda wild and nuts, and he ended up leaving everything.

RF: How did the group get back together, and what was it like playing together for the first time?

SS: As far as I can tell, how we got back together started with Columbia first working towards reuniting Steve with Jonathan and Neal, and then including Ross and me in the mix. It was difficult to get it off the ground initially. Steve was happy doing a solo project, as were the other guys.

Eventually Steve got interested, and he really was the crucial piece. The rest of us had had some dialog about whether we'd be interested in doing something like this if the opportunity arose. The other members were into it. When he consented to get together with everybody, we went into a rehearsal hall in L.A. and just played.

Actually, the story there was that we were supposed to play on a particular day in September of '95, though we were going to get into town the night before and set up the instruments on the rehearsal Stage. But you can't get people to just set up their stuff and not start playing. So it ended up that the four of us set up and started jamming right away. We had a list of some of the old Journey tunes we were going to play, which none of us had played for all those years. We were having a lot of fun, and then Steve Perry called to find out what was going on, and we said, "Come on over." So it actually started a day early. He came over, we ran through a bunch of the songs, and it felt really good. The next day we got together again and played, and the chemistry was instantaneous.

It was interesting to me that it still felt good after all those years; it didn't feel like we had been apart for so long. During the next few months we worked out the legal matters, and then we worked on some of the personal issues that had been unresolved in the ten years.

RF: It's no secret that when Journey ended there were some problems. Ten years later you came back into this feeling...

SS: ...a bit apprehensive about getting involved again. As far as having moved on from the pain I went through when I first left the band in '85, I felt resolved about that. I didn't harbor any resentment about being kicked out of the band, because dealing with those pains turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. It helped me to move on as far as being a musician and developing as a person, and having to make my way in life without the protective, cocoon of a successful rock band.

From the point of view of needing a resolution, it didn't matter to me if this reunion happened. What I was apprehensive about was getting involved in this type of lifestyle again, and opening the whole can of worms that goes with it. I enjoyed my life and really liked what was going on with Vital Information, the clinics, the sessions, and family life. But with the success of all the other reunion bands, it seemed like a great opportunity to further heal some of the wounds that happened when the band broke up.

RF: When the journey with Journey is completed, what will you do?

SS: I think I'll just continue to do what I was doing before Journey came along, which is record and tour with Vital Information, do session recordings, clinics solo performances--be a working musician, and spend time with my family and loved ones.