The Stuart Smith Interview
By Shawn Perry
Stuart Smith did not come up through the typical rock ‘n roll ranks of his contemporaries. The British-born guitarist was initially compelled to follow his father into the Royal Air Force as a jet pilot. But then someone gave him guitar and someone else took him to a Deep Purple concert, and his plans were significantly altered. In an unprecedented manner, Smith was not restricted to simply being a “fan” of Deep Purple; he actually befriended them and was soon being personally mentored by the one and only Ritchie Blackmore.
During the 70s, Smith bent strings with numerous groups before forming Sidewinder, who toured extensively throughout Europe. That was as far as it went. Then in 1983, at the urging of Blackmore, Smith relocated to New York for riper opportunities. After three years gigging around Long Island, the guitarist headed west to Los Angeles where he aligned himself with a fraternity of local and British musicians, including Keith Emerson and Sweet. It was when Smith was with Sweet that the seeds for Heaven & Earth were planted.
In 1999, Smith recruited friends like guitarist Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), singer Joe Lynn Turner (Rainbow), bassist and singer Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple), drummer Camine Appice (Vanilla Fudge), guitarist Howard Leese (Heart), singer Kelly Hansen (Foreigner), bassist Chuck Wright and drummer Richie Onari (Sweet) to record the critically acclaimed Stuart Smith’s Heaven & Earth. Subsequent Heaven & Earth releases Windows to the World, featuring former Blue Murder vocalist Kelly Keeling, and an EP A Taste of Heaven, helped to advance Smith’s musical vision. Now, with Dig in the can, the guitarist says Heaven & Earth is a true band, an energized collective of like-minded musicians, excited at bringing its unique, celestial brand of classic rock to audiences all over the world in 2013. In the following interview, Smith elaborates on Dig, how it was made and what’s on tap for the next year.
Hi Stuart. How’s it going?
I’m good. We’ve been in rehearsals every single day so this is really the first day off I’ve had in a week. It’s nice. You just don’t know know what to do with yourself…been sort of just busy. But hey, I’m not complaining. It’s like I was saying to Joe [Retta] when we were driving to rehearsal the other day — it was a beautiful day and we had the top down on the car, we’re just driving along toward the studio and there were these pretty girls going to work, looking at us and smiling — “You know, here we are, living in California, in March, it’s a beautiful day, the sun’s shining, we’re driving the car with the top down. the girls are smiling at us. We’re on our way to a great studio to rehearse songs that we wrote and we’re getting paid for it. Life does not get any better than this.”
Let’s talk about the new album, Dig. Could of take me briefly through the genesis of how it all came together.
Well, I was playing with Sweet and my friend Bruce Quarto said, “Why doesn’t Sweet do a new album.” I said, “Well, the record companies just aren’t prepared to give a decent enough advance for bands to take enough time to really go in and craft the songs and record a first class album.” So, he said, “Well, what would it take to do it?” And I give him a figure and he says, “Look, I’d back that.” He’s a multimillionaire anyway, it’s like me giving you a dollar. So we have a meeting with Steve Priest. Everyone was fine, except I said to him at the end of the meeting, “You have to commit to coming over to , Richie Onori’s where the studio is at least four times a week. He says, “Yeah, yeah , yeah,” and of course by the time we got home he’d had the managers call us saying, “Steve doesn’t want to do a new album, doesn’t think anyone will buy it, there’s no point.”
Part of that thing was really just laziness. He couldn’t be bothered to drive over to Richie’s. So, I told Bruce and he says, “But why don’t you do a Heaven & Earth album? I’d much prefer that anyway.” I said, “Well, I’d love to.” So he gave me the deal for the Heaven & Earth album. At the time Joe Ratta, our singer, he was singing with Sweet but he’d sold his house in Ventura and I said, “Why don’t you come and stay with me? I’ve got this house on my own now.” So he moved in with me and we started writing. That was sort of how it all began.
During the process of this, after we’d begun the first weekend of demos for the first three songs, Bruce was just loving the thing. He said, “Why do you need a record company?” I said, “Well, you know, basically, you’ve got to have a record company to license the album.” He said, “So what’s the point of them?” “Well they’ve got the infrastructure — they’ve got the publicist, the marketing team, the radio promoters and everything else. What some people do is they hire these people independently.” He said, “Well, let’s do that.” And I said, “Well, it can cost a lot of money.” And he said, “Let’s do it”. So basically we’ve got got MSO (Mitch Schneider Organization), Jim Baron and Mitch Schneider, and Total Assault on the media side. So that’s sort of how it all began. And during the course of that, I mean, I was playing with Sweet and it was just becoming too much. I mean, having to sort of go out and tour with them and put a lot of effort into playing the same old songs every night. It just wasn’t moving forward for me.
When Bruce decided he wanted you to do a Heaven & Earth album, did you decide right then and there that it was going to be a band as opposed to previous Heaven & Earth records, which were more or less solo records with a lot of guests on them.
Well, the first one was. The first one, when I did it … I mean I didn’t have a band, Shawn. I was playing with Keith Emerson in the Aliens of Extraordinary Ability and Samsung offered us the deal. We couldn’t do it because at the time because Sweet was going to reunite. But then, back in 1994, before Brian (Connolly, the original singer for Sweet) died, Keith was going to go off with Emerson, Lake & Palmer for the reunion tour, which they did with Jethro Tull. Then Samsung, who’d offered us the deal, saw me jamming with the Screaming Cocktail Hour at the Baked Potato, you know, Teddy and those guys from Guns ‘N’ Roses. They came back to my house and heard my songs and said, “Look, we’ll offer you a solo deal.” I didn’t have a band, I didn’t have anybody really. So, I mean I just called everybody I knew. And then it went on from there.
The second album was a bit more of a band situation. There was just myself, Kelly Keeling, Richie Onori, Arlan Schierbaum and Marvin Sperling was playing some bass there. But it really didn’t go too much further than that. And then I kept on trying to get this thing going — it’s quite hard, especially when you’re trying to survive and keep musicians interested because you need good musicians. And if they’re good, they generally will clear off with somebody who’s going to pay them a living wage.
We got it together and we opened up our own record label, Richie and I, Black Star Records, as an investment. And we have Kelly Hansen and we just started to get the ball rolling with that one. And then he got the offer from Foreigner. And everything happens for a reason, so he sort of went off and did that — he had to do it, it was his dream gig — so he went off and did Foreigner. And I couldn’t find anyone to replace him at the time. That’s when Steve Priest called me and said, “Do you want to get Sweet back together?” And so we did. That brought Joe into the fold as well.
It was more of a matter of circumstances then, I guess.
Well, you’re right in saying that. I prefer a band situation. I don’t like to have everything on my shoulders. Maybe if I was a singer as well, then it’d be different. But I prefer a band situation. That’s why I took my name off of it after the first one. I always wanted to get a band established. I think with this album, it’s proved we’ve done it. We’ve actually established a real band here.
So this lineup feels a little more solid than previous incarnations, in other words.
Oh yeah. I mean, at the moment we don’t have Arlan with us because of the live shows and he’s touring with Joe Bonamassa. But we’ve got a new keyboard player in. I mean the nucleus of the band, just myself, Richie, Chuck and Joe, is there, is intact and really all of us working towards making this happen. We all believe this is going to pan out.
So who’s replacing Arlan?
Ed Roth. Great keyboard player.
I was going to touch on the fact that a big part of the sound of this record is the interaction between you and Arlan. I mean, there’s just some incredible Hammond B3 stuff going on here.
Yeah, I’ve always loved that. And I missed it. I grew up obviously with Deep Purple and that kind of thing, but I love the Hammond organ and that very church-like, powerful gospel sound that it brought to rock. Bands like Kansas, I always loved it when I’d hear a Hammond in there. It’s so funny because Ed Roth is often turning around to me saying, “I can’t believe you’re a guitarist.” Because I’m saying, “I want you to do something here.” You know, I’m not trying to take every second of silence with a guitar fill. But I love the Hammond and I love the interaction between the guitar and the Hammond. I always have.
So you will be able to expand on that a little bit when you’re playing live?
Oh yeah, that’s going to come. We’re in rehearsals at the moment, for the last three and a half weeks. The first was actually just auditioning keyboard players. We tried a few, and really good guys, but Ed got the gig hands down. He’s a great player, has the experience and he’s a B3 player. We tried a lot of keyboard players and we’d say, “Oh, can you play B3?” and they go, “Oh yeah.” “Do you have one?” “No.” (Laughs). And that’s why I bought my own. I actually bought my own B3.
You bought your own B3? I assume you’re running it through a Leslie.
Oh yeah, what else is there? And a Marshall at the same time.
There you go. Do you play your guitar through a Leslie as well?
No, but we’ve got a spare Leslie riding around through the studio so I might try it one day. I mean, I love that vintage sound of the Hammond. So I call these keyboard players and I say to them, throughout the years of Heaven & Earth, “Do you play B3?” They say, “Oh yeah.” I say, “Do you got one?” “No, but I’ve got a synth that sounds like it.” “No, you don’t, and you have no idea how to play a B3. Trust me, if you feel that way.” So I bought my own. That way, whoever we did get in, at least we’d have some approximation of the sound. But Arlan is a complete master of it and I’ve played with some good keyboard players, Emerson and that. To me, Arlan is one of the finest Hammond players in the world. I mean, Hammond keyboard full stop, but Hammond I’m putting sort of the emphasis on it because I feel it is something that is a total lost art. When he plays, he becomes part of that thing. On nearly every chord — I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen him play. Have you?
Well, I saw him play in your video, but I’ve never seen him play live.
Oh it’s an experience. We’ve played a few times together, but he’s constantly moving those draw bars. He becomes part of that thing. And Ed’s very good as well. He’s got the Hammond feel where he’s not just hitting a chord and gets one tone for the entire thing. He’s swapping his tones and everything else.
You were saying how Bruce Quarto, the man behind your record label, is really supporting you and obviously for the video you shot, he’s given you a lot of support. I mean, this is a high production video. It just doesn’t seem like you held anything back for the “No Money, No Love” video. How did you come up with that? That was obviously done with Glen Wexler, right?
Yes, Glen Wexler was directing it, and Meiert Avis and Jeremy Alter, who did the Evanescence and Paramore videos, they sort of did the line production on that. But yeah, we did three videos at the same time, two of them completed. We’re waiting for the CGI effects on the second one, which is for the record, “I Don’t Know What Love Is.” And this was our single, it was our first one. The other one probably had a bit more of a story, but we’ve got the same two, an actor and actress — they’re a very young Hollywood couple — Derek Duchesne and Angelina Vital; we’ve got the same couple throughout every video. So every video there’s going to be this couple sort of never connecting.
Sure, sort of a running concept going.
Yeah, it really takes off. We have footage for the third. Everything Bruce has done has really been first class. When we first started this album, he said, “I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t want this album to be just good; I want it to be phenomenal. I don’t care how much it costs or how long it takes. When you come out of the studio at the end of day, and think it can be better the next day, go back in the studio and do it again.” That’s a dangerous thing to say musicians like me. I’m a perfectionist and so is everyone else. “Doesn’t matter what it costs?” “OK…” So we did it and I think it’s paid off. Personally, I think there’s a weak song on the album.
There’s this big buzz behind Dig regarding the old-school approach you kind of took with the songs, with the playing, even the recording. Why was that important to you?
To be honest, it wasn’t until our producer Dave Jenkins sort of brought it up. He said, “Look, we need to get a big sound.” Rather than record everything at our own studio, Richie’s studio — a wine cellar where we’ve done everything else — we needed to get that big sound. And he said, “Also the good thing there is they have a tape machine and there’s this technology now which is called the CLASP. We should try it.” So we went in there — I mean, it’s funny because everyone’s saying, “You’ve got this whole 70s vibe, you’ve really managed it.” And we didn’t really set out to do that. We set out to just make an album. All of us come from that era and love that sort of music, so that naturally came out. When we got to Ocean Studios and we heard this going back to tape; I mean, I’ve always loved that but you can’t drop a band in on the fly with tape. But going through the CLASP you can because you’re utilizing all the good things about Pro Tools but you’re utilizing the great things about tape because you forget how warm tape is. We’ve been recording with Pro Tools and digital now for so long, everyone’s just forgotten. The minute I heard the tracks back, I went, “Holy crap, this is incredible.” I mean, it was just bigger, it was warmer. So we did the whole album, all the backing tracks there, and then we bought the CLASP system and we bought a Studer (console) for our own studio, so everything in the overdubs was done that way. So it wasn’t like we intended from the word to go out and do this 70s-style album, it just happened and I’m glad it did.
The songs were pretty much written by you and Joe. You’re covering a lot of ground — you’ve got epic rockers, tender ballads and pretty much everything in between. A lot of this stuff is from personal experience. Can you describe that chemistry that you and Joe have when you put a song together.
Well, it’s not just me and Joe. There’s actually two songs on there really, maybe three, that were written by Joe and I, and there’s a reason for that. Most of the songs were written by the band. I generally come up with the guitar riff and I say to Joe, “Here’s the main thing and the title.” I was always good at the title. And then we’d go to the band and one of the first ones we did was the first track, “Victorious.” I just played the riff and we went into the approximation I had of the verse and then Chuck (Wright) was very instrumental about it. He came up the chorus and the pre-chorus, but everyone was throwing in their ideas. Most of the songs sort of generated themselves about it that way.
When Joe moved in with me, I’d just gone through a horrendous breakup, which is very involved, you know, a child involved and the mother had her in Santiago, in Chile, and poor Joe, he moved in and I’m pissed off, I’m angry, I’m depressed. And he’s sort of like this free-spirit, hippie-type guy and so the first track, I gave him the riff and said, “Here’s the first song, it’s called ‘Back in Anger.’” And he goes, “Well, I’m not really an angry person.” I said, “Yeah you are, just look at the news. All these politicians, their hands in the cookie jar, and it’s like a third-world country with corruption. It should be like China, where they catch them and they shoot them in the back of the head. Aren’t you angry about this? And all these banks just screwing the country over again.” He says, “Yeah, I am.” When I gave him this, he retired to his room and I didn’t see him for a couple of days. And he came back with these lyrics — he sent them to a girlfriend of his and she says, “Geez Joe, these are really dark for you.” But that was the sort of tone of the album.
I got asked by a journalist once, “Don’t you think that rock and roll is an angry young man’s game?” And I said, “What are you talking about? I’m still angry. I am.” All this bullshit…you take something just as simple as everyday life. I’m sort of a supporter of the Occupy movement. People need to wake up a bit. So you know, when Joe moved in, I said, “Here’s the first song, it’s called ‘Back in Anger.’ Here’s the second one, it’s called ‘House of Blues.’ That one’s, ‘No Money, No Love,’ that one is ‘I Don’t Know What Love is Anymore.’” You see the way this is going? It’s like, “Jesus, it’s going to be like a really depressing album.” But you know, time goes by and playing music heals you. It does, it’s a catharsis, you know. So I got healed, part of it — I have plenty of anger left — but I wasn’t so depressed and everything else. So I was talking to Joe one morning — because we do hikes every morning we’re both pretty athletic; I do martial arts and swim and things and we like to do a morning hike together — it’s just like our business meeting because we can actually talk on the hike without being interrupted on the phone or anything. So we were just talking about Ronnie James Dio, he’s one of the nicest guys in rock and roll; I love Ronnie, he’s a good friend, and when we lost him, I offered to play at the memorial and I brought Joe along with me on that and we got a load of other people as well.
So, I was just saying, we need a song like Rainbow had with “Long Live Rock ‘n Roll,” sort of send that kind of message, message being that society hasn’t saved me, religion hasn’t, school hasn’t, but rock ‘n roll did. I came up with this riff and Joe took it away. I came up with this title “Rock and Roll Does.” And that was a turning point for the album, because at that stage, all the rest of them are sort of lighthearted. There’s “A Day Like Today,” “Good Times,” “Live As One,” “Man & Machine” — when you listen to the album in its entirety, which I hope people do nowadays and just don’t put it on their iPod and hit shuffle. Howard Leese, he actually sequenced the album for us, put the songs in order; he’s very good at that, he’s done that on every album I’ve ever done, he said it’s a very uplifting album when you listen to it this way. And he put “Live as One” with that big choir at the end and everything else. I hope everyone hears it and it’s going to be the same way.
You mentioned Howard Leese and you’ve got him, and you’ve got Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi and David Paich from Toto on there. Howard sequenced the record, but he played on it as well, correct?
Howard and I have been friends for years; he’s one of my best friends out here. We’ve sort of had a thing where every time I have a Heaven & Earth album and there’s an acoustic track — I like the sound of a 12-string and a 6-string together, I could do them both — but it’s kind of fun to get together with Howard and we both play at the same time, the 6-string and the 12-string and the kind of resonance that comes off them. Of course, I asked Howard to come and play some acoustic guitar with me. He’s a great synth player; he can play all those parts in half, like “Magic Man” and everything. He’s a great string arranger as well so we had him arrange the strings in “Live as One,” the final track.
Howard’s just great to have around. He’s got a great vibe, and is a great musician, obviously. So that’s how he got involved. He’s a bit of a leach, can’t get rid of him. (Laughs). He’s just sort of there … but Howard’s great. But then we got David Paich. David has been a friend of mine for years and every year I’ve been in the habit of going over to his Christmas Eve party. I get the acoustic out — we used to do this with Ritchie Blackmore back in Long Island when I used to live down there and I used to go out every Christmas — we just play Christmas carols together and everyone would sing. Well David and I have been doing this throughout the years, the last few years, but no one really makes an effort to sing. So I said, “David, I’m going to bring our singer Joe down.” So we brought Joe and, of course, he’s great so at the end of the party we went over to David’s studio and we played him our song, “I Don’t Know What Love Is,” and he heard it and said, “My God, you’ve got a hit. This is a real hit.” And the guy should know, he did “Africa” and “Rosanna” and everything else he’s had success with. He said, “Are you going to let me play some strings on it?” So a couple weeks later, we went along and he played the strings on it — and we weren’t going to have any guests on the album, but no one could do strings like David Paich, he’s just phenomenal at that sort of thing.
And Richie Sambora, he used to be my brother-in-law and we’ve always remained good friends since I was married to a Locklear sister, Colleen, back at the time he was married to Heather. I needed a Gibson SG, I don’t have one, and I called Ritchie and said, “Hey, can I borrow an SG?” He said, “Yeah, I’m down at EastWest recording my solo album, come on down.” So I went down there and at the same time I had a guitar in the back of my car that they wanted me to sign for a charity auction and they said, “Oh, you’re about to see Richie Sambora, will you have him sign it as well?” I said, “Sure.” So I went down and hung out for a few hours, listened to the album and when we signed this guitar together his producer took a photo of it for us to show it was signed by both of us and it went out on the Internet. All the fans were saying, “Hey why don’t you and Ritchie do something together again? We thought that was amazing what you did on the first album,” because he sang “When A Grown Man Cries” on the first Heaven & Earth album. They said, “Why don’t you do something together,” and I thought that was great. I called Richie and said, “All the fans want us to do something together. Would you be willing to sort of come in and play some guitar or something on the track or sing or something?” And he said, “Yeah, sure, why not? I get more attention for playing on your albums than I do on my own.” (Laughs). So then we were due to go in about a week later into his studio to take our stuff down and go and record there and had just a day of real technical difficulties. Everything went wrong in the studio so we couldn’t do it. And then he was really busy. He started doing a promotional tour — he was playing with Bon Jovi at the same time. One day, he was on Good Morning America or something in New York, gets a plane, a G5 or whatever right over to Vegas. Lands in Vegas, takes a helicopter over to the MGM Grand, straight down into the dressing room, went on stage at the I Heart Radio Festival and then showed up again the next day. I mean, this was his life. It was pretty intense and then he started touring. So on his first day off in like three months, I mean literally, I said, “Oh man, we’d love to have you on it but it’s your first day off.” He said, “Nah, I’m coming in.” So he came in on his only day off in three months and spent six hours doing his signature talk box sound and everything else. Really good, great — he’s a super nice guy, one of the nicest guys in the business.
Which track is he on?
“Man & Machine.”
Can you give me a rundown for what you have planned for the stage. Do you have any shows lined up? Any tours?
There’s been some talk of some tours and they’re looking into this right now. I mean, we’ve been over to South America — well it was Sweet to open up in South America opening for Journey — because my friend Carlos over there is one of the top promoters in South America and he’s looking right now for a band to fit us with. In the meantime, of course, the summer festival season is starting up so what we’re doing is we’re rehearsing for April the 10th. Quarto Valley Records has hired the Music Box, you know the Henry Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, on the 10th of April and it’s invite only, it’s not open to the public. It’s really for all the agents in the middle of the week; we’re going to play at 9:00. It’s for the agents, the press, the managers and this kind of thing, for people to come see the band and see what kind of show we put on and what sort of first-class production it’s going to be.
That’s sound great. Stuart, I’ve just got one more question for you tonight: we’re in a crazy musical landscape right now, dominated by Justin Bieber, Facebook, MP3s. It’s different than it was 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. Where do you see Heaven & Earth fitting in?
I’d like it to be the band that brings rock back. I think that’s probably everyone’s dream anyway. But I think we’ve got a fighting chance just because of the amount that’s sort of been put behind this. I mean, the publicist and the advertising that’s going to happen and the videos and this…but I mean, we’re trying to treat this as a major label would do for Justin Bieber or Beyonce or someone. And that sort of money is being spent on this band. A lot of it will be down to the fans. I mean, we’re putting it out there; it’s down to how interested people are. So far the comments coming back have been great — we’re missing this sort of music for so long so they need to do something about it, which is buy it, share it, especially in this day and age, the digital age. They’ve got to share it, make the effort to send it to their friends, make the videos go viral so that record companies…because if they want rock back, there are good bands out there. There’s one in England called Snakecharmer, who are great, and I’m hearing one or two others. There’s one, Mother Road, I just heard them today, another one out of Europe. But they’re playing this sort of music, but you know, they’re going to get a deal of about $30 or $40 grand to do an album and really not much is going to happen to it. So it’s just if one of us can break through this sort of ceiling that there is and get the sort of attention on something like the videos that Jeremy Alter has done before and get up to 10 million hits because the videos are amazing.
Now if this could happen with Heaven & Earth, the record companies, the big companies are going to go, “Oh, there’s still money in this.” And they’re going to wake up and go, “Oh wait a minute, there’s a lot of new bands out there that are playing this kind of stuff.” And all of a sudden you’ll get to hear the guitar come back into popular music again because it’s sadly missing at the moment. So, I’m hoping this is what happens, but as I say, it’s down to your readers, everyone that sees it on Facebook and says, “This is good.” If they share it, and it creates this sort of buzz and that tension, then you’re going to see a lot more record companies, not just Quarto Valley Records, turning around and putting money into it. Because at the end of the day, that’s what it takes to get it in front of people now. It always has been. It’s a very pragmatic way of looking at it, but it is what it is. But if they can see that there’s getting the traction … everyone says that they want to hear it, it’s a matter of if they do something about it. And like I said, it’s buying the albums, it’s sharing it with friends and going and posting and reposting the video and writing into radio stations — taking the time and trouble. It’s tough the older you get, but there’s a huge generation of younger kids out there that are fed up and bored with the crap that’s out there at the moment.