An interview with guitarist and songwriter Stuart Smith by Steven Reid.
You don’t have to ‘Dig’ deep to hear why the Hard Rock world has been falling over itself to heap praise on the comeback album from the Stuart Smith led Heaven & Earth; the band’s classic 70s and 80s grooves and moves hitting home with a power, force and authenticity most acts could only dream of matching. Excited at the prospect of seeing Stuart and his band up close in Glasgow in just under a couple of weeks time (one of eleven UK headline shows the band undertake in late June and early to mid July), Rocktopia’s Steven Reid quizzed Stuart about all things H&E and a little bit more…
The list of past singers in Heaven & Earth reads like a who’s who of Rock greats – Kelly Hansen, Glenn Hughes, Joe Lynn Turner, Kelly Keeling. However your excellent new album ‘Dig’ features the relatively unknown Joe Retta on vocals. Amazingly, this album seems to have gained more recognition than anything Heaven & Earth have done before. You must be delighted?
I’m thrilled. It’s taken a long time to get to this point. I feel this album got more support from the record company than any of the others – and it was more of a band collaboration.
It would be fair to suggest that H&E are a band steeped in Rock tradition, evoking a classic, yet varied 70s and 80s sound. What is it, do you think, about the music from that era that still touches so many people, young and old, to this very day?
I think it’s down to a number of things. The music from that era had variety, dynamics and was played by musicians that didn’t need computers to do the job for them.
However ‘Dig’ isn’t an album afraid to mix things up. How easy is it to achieve that variation in approach, yet still come up with an amazingly cohesive album?
I’ve never found it to be a problem. I was influenced by the bands of the 70s, which did the same thing, so it came naturally.
And as ever for H&E, there’s certainly some “star-power” involved on this album, with Chuck Wright in the band and Howard Leese, as he has throughout the history of Heaven & Earth, contributing, alongside Joe, Richie Onori, and Arlan Schierbaum. How did this line-up of the band come together?
I had worked with everybody before. Joe I’d been working with in Sweet for a number of years along with Richie Onori, who was my long time music partner. Arlan was on all the previous Heaven & Earth albums and Chuck was involved with the first and I needed someone who could really contribute to the writing, which I knew Chuck was good at. When I start off a riff he seems to instinctively come up with the perfect part to follow it. With Howard Leese it’s sort of a tradition we have that when I record an acoustic guitar part, Howard comes down and plays the 12 string along with me…then we always ask him to do some more, like play strings or spoons on something else.
And as if that wasn’t enough, both Richie Sambora and David Paich also guest on a few songs. How much fun was it working with a pair rightly considered Rock legends?
It’s always fun and an honour working with those guys. Both of them bring amazing talents to the table.
In the past few days you have however announced some line-up reshuffles ahead of your UK tour. If you don’t mind me asking, what led to the departures of Chuck Wright and Richie Onori?
Chuck’s main gig is with Quiet Riot so he couldn’t commit to a full touring schedule and Richie has a lot of other things going on so it was difficult for him as well.
So tell us a bit about the background of the newest members of the band and what makes them perfect for Heaven & Earth….
Lynn Sorensen I’ve known for quite a number of years through his work with Howard Leese and Paul Rodgers in both Paul’s solo band and Bad Company… He’s not only an amazing bass player but an incredible singer as well. Jackie Barnes is the son of Australian singer Jimmy Barnes and he came to us through Arlan Schierbaum as he’d worked with him before. He’s an absolutely monster drummer and like Lynn, is also a great singer so the two of them bring a whole new vocal dynamic to Heaven & Earth. It’s an interesting story how Ty Bailie and I met. Every Monday and Wednesday I go to my martial arts class, as I’m in training for my second degree black belt, and on the way home I stop at this Italian sandwich shop on Topanga Canyon called Cricca’s. When we were looking for a keyboard player to replace Arlan Schierbaum a while ago, as he was going out on the road with Joe Bonamassa, I stopped in the sandwich shop and there was a notice on the wall with these little tear off phone number strips saying “Hammond B3 Lessons”. I thought, what are the odds, and gave him a call. When he came down to audition he blew us away and Joe and I started working with him in our blues, rock cover band called Pandora’s Box. He’s such an amazing player and great guy we asked him to join us in Heaven & Earth.
Now, looking back if we can, the first two Heaven & Earth albums hit the shelves in the early 2000s. What were the reasons that you decided at that stage to “shelve” the band after ‘A Taste Of Heaven’?
Heaven & Earth was getting out playing live with Kelly Hansen on vocals and started to get some traction but then he got the offer from Foreigner and it turned out to be very hard to find the right singer to replace him. Shortly afterwards Steve Priest called me and asked if I’d like to try putting Sweet back together again, so I gave it a try and it took off. When Steve contacted me I brought in Richie Onori and Joe Retta and through Joe we found Stevie Stewart on keyboards. We got the band into rehearsals and then started looking for bookings and the response was incredible because the whole nostalgia thing was going on in the States. Anyone with a name from the past was guaranteed work and as we were the only version of Sweet in the States it took off. We were playing festivals to 20,000 people and even toured South America with Journey.
Now, that sounds like a dream gig. However would it be fair to suggest that eventually you and Joe found it to be a frustrating situation?
Yes, after a while. It gets boring playing the same old stuff night after night and I got the deal with Quarto Valley Records to do another Sweet album but Steve Priest didn’t want to, so I quit the band and started recording another Heaven & Earth album.
The executive producer for ‘Dig’, Bruce Quarto, of Quarto Valley Records, has been a real believer in the band, backing you guys in the studio and allowing you the time and freedom to make the best album possible. How did he become such a big part of the resurgence of Heaven & Earth?
Bruce is a huge fan of the 70s and early 80s music and genuinely wants to see this type of music make a comeback. When we met we became instant friends and when he initially offered to back Sweet for another album, and that didn’t happen, he was the one who suggested I record another Heaven & Earth album. He’s the most genuine person I’ve ever met in this business and one of the main reasons he’s doing this is that he wants to see us all as successful as he is.
It must be great to have a person like that in your corner?
It means the world to us. Without him and his support none of this would be possible.
I think one of the most interesting sides of ‘Dig’ is the really authentic vibe that surrounds the whole “project”. Great music, cracking musicians, proper tours to support everything, and great looking CD and vinyl releases of the album. Was delivering the full package always your vision for ‘Dig’?
To be honest that’s been my vision for every Heaven & Earth album but I’ve never had a record company show the kind of support that makes it all possible, till now.
And you must be delighted with the art work of Glen Wexler that adorns the cover of the album…which has, in its own right, received a lot of recognition.
Yes, Glen’s a monster photographer and artist and we were very lucky to have him involved with the project. He should have won a Grammy for the creation that he came up with for our CD cover but some piece of crap that looked like a child drew it beat him out.
Which brings us to your upcoming UK tour, which begins in Birmingham on June 26th and runs through Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool and, finally, London, before returning in mid-July to play Birmingham, Southampton, York and Wakefield. How much are you looking forward to these shows?
Words cannot describe how excited we are to be coming over to Europe. We’ve always felt that with the style of music we play, that is where we belong. What started off as a few O2 dates has now turned into a full on European tour. We’re really looking forward to coming out and putting on a show.
Have the band performed in The UK before?
Yes, once at the Gods Festival in Wigan in 1999 but nothing like this.
And just to add even more value to the package, you have M.ILL.ION opening these shows. That’s a cracking line-up that fans should be really excited about.
I quite agree!
And then you jet off to the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival before hitting the UK again in mid-July for the Steelhouse Festival. You must be delighted to have been asked to play at both of these high profile events?
Very much so. I always love playing at outdoor festivals as I can turn my amps up till they’re screaming for mercy.
The amps may be screaming for mercy but audiences will be shouting for more. Don’t miss Heaven & Earth as they tear up the UK – and Europe, full details of dates and all ticket information is available at… http://heavenandearthband.com/tour/ …you’re gonna ‘Dig’ this band big time!