Gaining Joe Lynn Turner, Richie Sambora, Glenn Hughes, Kelly Hansen, Steve Priest and Carmine Appice, among many others, on the one album being released in the days not so good for hard rock scene - the end of the 90's? Joining forces with Steve Priest himself to reform the legendary glam rock band The Sweet? Putting a band together with Keith Emerson of E.L.P.? Impossible?! Not for Stuart Smith. Extremely talented English guitarist, the heart and the soul of critically acclaimed Heaven & Earth project and a current Sweet axeman, stopped by for a while however, to answer a few questions for Hard Rock Service.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Let's begin from a very start. Looking back, what were your beginnings with music? It's a well-known fact that you were classically trained from 7 years old. What then was a moment of discovering rock & blues?
STUART SMITH: It was when I was about 14. Some friends of my parents invited me to go to a rock concert, which I really had no interest in doing but got dragged along anyway. I sat there bored for most of the day until they announced the last act which was Deep Purple and suddenly this guy dressed in black came running up to the front of the stage playing these classical runs with so much feeling and emotion at incredible volume and that’s the first time I saw Ritchie Blackmore who was responsible for turning me on to Rock & Roll. It was a few years later that I started to discover the blues.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: What prompted you to become a musician and what was the definitive moment of picking up the guitar?
STUART SMITH: My father was a jet fighter pilot in the RAF so we lived on RAF bases most of the time. When I was 7 years old my best friend, funnily enough was called Ronald Blackmore and his parents were being transferred overseas and had an old Spanish guitar they’d bought in Spain and asked me if I’d like it. When I picked it up I could instantly pick out melodies on it so my father thought it would be a good idea for me to have classical lessons which I did for a couple of years.
The moment I decided to be a guitarist was when I’d had one of those weeks you hear about in blues songs. I never really wanted to be a guitarist. I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot like my father but when the RAF were about to take me on as one it was discovered I was colour blind so I could never fly. I knew a bit about electronics, as the guitar was an electric instrument so I started working with Texas Instruments learning how to build and design computers. After I’d passed my probationary period of three months they sent me for a company medical where they said, “Oh, you’re colour blind. You can’t do this work” so they put me building microchips under a microscope. I couldn’t stand that production line stuff so I quit the next day. I then went through a really rough period where I crashed my car, my girlfriend at the time had cleared off with a friend of mine and I was constantly arguing with my father as he was as confused as I was about what I was going to do in life plus I had no job.
I had a rock band on the side and one night I went to the local club/bar where they had bands on and there was a band on that night that I knew that was playing jazz fusion which was fashionable at the time As I walked in, not in the best of moods, I saw my ex-girlfriend with my ex-friend and the band which had just finished a song said over the microphone, “Oh, here comes our three chord heavy riff merchant”. Something inside me at that point snapped and I stormed through the crowd, got on stage and said to the guitarist, “Give me your guitar”, which like an idiot, he did. I turned round to the band and said, “Good Golly Miss Molly” which we started to play and I was so angry at life in general that I just let it all out. When it came to the solo I went absolutely crazy just tearing up and down the neck and playing over the top of it. I’ve probably never played with such fire even to this day and at the end of the song I stopped the band, played on my own for about 30 seconds and then pointed to the drummer to give an ending roll and as he did I threw the guitar up in the air and caught it on the last beat, (A move I developed that night which I still do to this day). I handed the guitar back to the dumbfounded guitarist and said, “Follow that”. The crowd which before had been sat down listening to the music was up on their feet screaming for more but I just stormed to the back of the bar and sat down. Within five minutes there was a girl sat on either side of me, my ex-girlfriend, who I ignored, came up and started to try to talk to me and everyone was buying me drinks and saying, “Why don’t you turn professional?” Later on I drove up into the hills overlooking the city and thought about it and went home and woke my father up at 3.00am and told him I was going to be a guitarist at which point he said, “Do it well”. That was the day I decided to be a musician.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Being taught by Ritchie Blackmore and being a friend of him, you still claim to be his die-hard fan. Hence to that, your music has very heavy Purple/Rainbow influence. What were your other inspirations? Who were the other musicians that inspired you through the years of playing? What are your favourite albums and why those and not the others are this precious to you?
STUART SMITH: There’s so much other music from that era I love such as Free, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, Robin Trower, Jeff Beck, Cream, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Queen, The Small Faces, Cat Stevens, early Rod Stewart and some later stuff like Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Toto, Heart, AC/DC, Bad Company, The Eagles, Don Henley, Gary Moore, Montrose. There’s also a very few newer bands I like such as HIM, Hinder, Joe Bonamasa and Theory of a Dead Man. I like all of this music because I feel it’s well performed as well as having good songs or just because of the incredible emotion they convey.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Moving a bit forward from the beginnings, how and in what circumstances your career has began? From all I know, there were bands called Sidewinder and Midnight, that included some great musicians in fact, and Aliens Of Extraordinary Ability with Keith Emerson and Richie Onori, prior directly to Heaven & Earth project... Tell us a bit about those days, especially about the "Aliens..." era in your career and co-working with a famous ELP keyboard player.
STUART SMITH: There are quite a few bands I’ve been in throughout my career but the Aliens of Extraordinary Ability was certainly one of the most fun. I’d met Keith Emerson quite a few years ago in London. He was out one night with Cozy Powell who was a good friend of mine. Cozy had just joined ELP and we ended up having a few drinks together. Back in 1994 I ran into Keith again in the Foundation Room at The House of Blues in Los Angeles and when it closed we went back to my place for a drink. When I picked up the acoustic and played some classical Keith suggested we put a sort of jam band together to go out and have some fun. At the time Keith was getting the ELP reunion together to go on tour with Jethro Tull and John Coletta, Deep Purple’s old manager, was trying to get the Sweet back together with Steve Priest, Brian Connolly, Mick Tucker and myself on guitar as the others didn’t want to play with Andy Scott.
One thing led to another and we formed a band that had some amazing players in it. We had Richie Onori on drums, Marvin Sperling on bass and an amazing singer caller Robbie Wykoff on vocals. We called the band the Aliens of Extraordinary Ability which is a category with U.S. immigration and both Keith and I had our visas under that category. The Aliens played a few dates around Los Angeles and was even offered a tour of Japan but Keith had his ELP commitments and I had the Sweet reunion coming up. The band was so good that when we’d finished a show and the crowd was screaming for more and we didn’t know any more songs we’d all just look at each other and someone would suggest a song and we’d go “What key?” and then go out and play it. It was an incredible experience to play with Keith.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Wasn't that about the end of "Aliens..." activity, when you met the producer Pat Regan and soon faced getting the record deal with Samsung?
STUART SMITH: Not really. As I said, Keith was heading out on the ELP reunion tour and I was getting ready to work with the guys in Sweet then sadly Brian Connolly died and the whole thing fell to bits. I guess we could have carried on after Keith’s tour but it was during that time while he was away I got offered the deal by Samsung for a solo album so I got on with that which in the end turned out great for my personal career.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: I've heard there is a funny story about getting a better deal with manipulating in Photoshop involved.
STUART SMITH: Kind of. Even though Samsung offered me the deal they took about three months to actually get the contract to me. I’d lined up all the players but felt they were stalling so I approached some other companies with the project. I had gotten a rejection letter from JVC and as Samsung were still trying to make up their mind I took the rejection letter from JVC and in Photoshop turned it into an acceptance letter for quite a bit of money. When I showed this to Samsung they signed me the next day [laughs]. The whole story is on the Making of Heaven & Earth DVD.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: That was actually the moment of birth for Heaven & Earth (called Stuart Smith's Heaven & Earth yet then). In 1999, it came a time for a first release under Samsung label. It was a self-titled album many amazing guests had made their apperance on, a true bluesy rock gem, produced by Pat Regan and Howard Leese known mainly from Heart. It's the list of those guests that blows a mind away; how did everyone meet, how did it become possible to gather in studio Joe Lynn Turner, Glenn Hughes, Richie Sambora, Carmine Appice, Kelly Hansen, Steve Priest among the others?
STUART SMITH: It was reasonably easy as I knew a lot of the players already. My first call was to my old friend Joe Lynn Turner who, when I asked to sing on it for me, he said yes right away. My next call was to Richie Sambora as he was my brother in law at the time (I was married to Heather Locklear's sister Colleen). I’d always loved Richie’s voice and I said to him that I didn’t want him to sing on it because he was my brother in law but because I really loved his voice and he said, “Great, no one ever asks me to sing” so he was in. After that it was kind of like the domino effect. I had Richie and Joe committed so everybody wanted to be involved.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Is there any story worth to be shared about working with the biggest names, known widely also in Poland, like Turner, Hughes, Sambora? Anything their fans, including myself as well since many years, could be interested in - any backstage stories?
STUART SMITH: It’s difficult to answer this question as everyday something new would be going on and you’d never know who was going to show up. We’d have our recording sessions starting around 2.00pm but as it got later there’d always be various musicians who’d either finished a gig or just came by after the clubs had closed because they’d know we would always have a fully stocked bar at the studio [laughs] so we got them to participate in some way even if it was doing handclaps or back up vocals.
I remember one night when we were recording It’s Got to Be Love we had Joe Lynn Turner, Kelly Hansen, Robby Wykoff and Teddy Andreas from Guns N' Roses show up so we got them all in the studio doing the back up vocals but everyone was so drunk it was almost impossible to organize because no-one could remember the words for more than two minutes [laughs]. We got through it in the end by taping the lyrics to Kelly Hansen’s chest [laughs].
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Among the amazing guests gathered in the studio, the real base of Heaven & Earth itself, except you, is Richie Onori - a great drummer, your friend and a business partner in a record label you've both formed later, Black Star Records. Tell us more about him and his involvement.
STUART SMITH: Richie was one of the first people I met when I first came to Los Angeles in 1986. He was in a band with a singer called Larry Greene and they auditioned me as a guitarist for that band and it didn’t work out but I kept on running into Richie at various clubs and jam sessions around town. At some point, and I can’t exactly remember when, I was going to do a show at The China Club in Chicago with a band called Midnight I’d put together with Joe Lynn Turner on vocals, Scott Warren on keyboards, Sean McNabb who’s now with Dokken on bass and a guy called Jimmy Land on drums but Jimmy couldn’t make that date so I brought Richie in to take over. We had a great time and the show was a huge success. Richie and I formed a lasting friendship from that experience and have worked together ever since. He’s an incredible drummer and great businessman, which is why we formed the record label together.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Continuing the Heaven & Earth topic, on the debut album a few cover versions were included. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, sung by Glenn Hughes, is in fact a Blind Lemon Jefferson's song, known wider thanks to Bob Dylan early 60's versions. Everyone knows an original version of When A Blind Man Cries, on your album amazingly performed by Richie Sambora. One of the bonus tracks on another album's release was a version of Gary Moore's Still Got The Blues with vocals by Joe Lynn Turner as well. What were the choices behind those covers? Were they your favourite songs, or just the ones fitting in general to the rest of the material?
STUART SMITH: They were definitely songs I loved. See That My Grave is Kept Clean is a song I’d first heard when I was watching a movie about the blues guitarist Leadbelly. At some point in the movie he teams up with Blind Lemon Jefferson and as they’re driving along Blind Lemon starts singing this song on his own with an acoustic guitar. I thought it was an incredible song and although I was not aware at the time that Bob Dylan had covered it, I was amazed that someone like Cream or Led Zeppelin hadn’t. I wanted to start it off in the original format, which is how Richie Sambora and myself play it, but then heavy it up which is what we did. Originally I was going to have Paul Rodgers sing the song but he was on tour at the time. I’d ran into Glenn Hughes and asked him if he’d sing a track on the album and when he heard See That My Grave is Kept Clean he said right away that that was the song for him which he pulled off incredibly. Carmine Appice does an amazing job on this song as well.
When a Blind man Cries was a not very well known Deep Purple song which I fell in love with the first time I’d heard it. It was recorded during the Machine Head sessions but was never used on the album and was only heard on the B Side of Never Before which was released as a single. In fact Deep Purple never played it live until Ritchie Blackmore quit and Joe Satriani stood in for him. As it’s an incredibly bluesy song I thought Richie Sambora would be perfect for it as he has such a soulful voice.
Still Got The Blues, again a great blues song I’ve always loved and used to jam on it all the time. When Joe Lynn and I did that show in Chicago with Midnight, which was bootlegged and got passed around, we had Still Got The Blues in the set and so many fans wrote to us asking if we were ever going to record a version of it so that’s how that came to be on the CD.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: In See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, there is an intro played by Richie Sambora on Dobro. Were there any other specific instruments used on the album, or further Heaven & Earth releases?
STUART SMITH: Nothing too strange on the first album. At the beginning of See That My Grave is Kept Clean I’m playing the acoustic and Richie is playing slide guitar on a dobro. Apart from that we had Richard Hardy play some flute on Shadow of the Tyburn Tree. On the next album, Windows to the World we had some Ulian pipes and some other traditional Irish instruments used.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: If we're about the instruments used on the record, a typical technical question interesting to all the readers who are guitarists themselves - what kind of equipment do you use onstage and in the studio?
STUART SMITH: I always use late 70’s Stratocasters as my main electric guitar. I have them changed a bit by adding Sperzel tuning pegs, Eavana nuts, Graphtech saddles, Dean Markley Blue Steel Strings and special pick-ups built for me by Seymour Duncan. For cables I use Monster Cables and my pedal board has a strobotuner by Peterson, a Dunlop MXR 90 phase pedal, as well as a Dunlop Carbon Copy echo unit and a Morley “Bad Horsey” wah wah. In my rack I have a Gemini power conditioner, a Korg tuner and a Chandler Echo unit. For my acoustic guitars I use a Babicz Spyder and a Taylor, “Leo Kotke” 12 string.
For the recording on Heaven & Earth’s material I used two different amplifiers. One being an old souped up 200 Watt Marshall Major and the other a 50 Watt Lee Jackson mod Marshall that was given to me by Howard Leese. Now I use Kasha amps both for recording and onstage. On the Making of Heaven & Earth DVD I go into a full breakdown of my equipment.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Coming back to the general matter of releasing a debut - what was the reception the album got? Let's not forget the state of a music scene in the late 90's, what was maybe even worse than it is now. All Heaven & Earth material is simply based on hard rock with a blues note in, a classic sound that isn't this much popular nowadays as it was before. Speaking shortly, obviously we can't talk of gaining the massive airplay and a huge commercial success, as playing such music...
STUART SMITH: The reception, considering the times, was incredible. The CD got nothing but great reviews but as you say it wasn’t really a good time for the Classic Rock sound. Originally when I signed to Samsung they had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers but halfway through the recording the Asian economy collapsed so they lost their deal and only released it in Korea. As this was not in the terms of my contract I got the master rights back and licensed to Frontiers for Europe and Pony Canyon for Japan and they didn’t do a bad job but they didn’t have the kind of power that Warner had so the CD just got released in those two territories but it did sort of become a cult classic.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: The debut wasn't the last released under Heaven & Earth name. With the second album some major changes happened, however. You dropped your name from the band's name, and what's more important - you decided for having a full band this time, opposed to the guest artists formula. Is that better, more efficient than a formula of guests apperances?
STUART SMITH: I always feel more comfortable in a “band” situation than going out as a solo artist as I don’t sing well enough to go out as such and pull it off. One of the reasons I like the idea of a band is because everyone gets to contribute which keeps the music fresh. Also, when we did try to book the band for tours promoters were thinking I was going to turn up with all these famous people with me which would have been impossible.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: What's also an interesting fact to melodic rock fans, on the second album - entitled Windows To The World and released in 2001 - there is Baton Rouge/Blue Murder vocalist Kelly Keeling behind the microphone. Was the full-time work with him satisfying?
STUART SMITH: Kelly is a great singer and very creative but he had a lot of personal problems at the time and I feel that he hasn’t really found himself as a singer. He’d been trying to sound like other people for so long that I don’t think he knew which direction he really wanted to go himself.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: What about the last 'till today release from Heaven & Earth? I'm talking about the 2004 EP, Taste Of Heaven, that included four new songs beyond those known from a debut. There, Paul Shortino, known from Rough Cutt and Quiet Riot, sang. Why only those four songs, not the full album have been released?
STUART SMITH: We’d got together with Paul Shortino as I always thought he was one of the best rock singers around. The reason we recorded A Taste of Heaven was because we were going to be playing a festival to 30,000 people on July 4th so we wanted something new to sell at the show and also give everyone, that wasn’t familiar with the band, a feel for what we were about. We printed up about 2,000 copies and thought we were going to sell them all on that day but that didn’t happen. We did a few more shows with Paul but he was managed by his wife who was an absolute nightmare to work with, so in the end we parted ways. It was shame really because I think we could have gone far with that line up if it wasn’t for all the personal bullshit.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: A true gem to anyone interested in your music and making of your debut album is a DVD being released back in 2007. This Making of Heaven & Earth DVD includes interviews, previously unseen live and studio footage, both acoustic and electric and features all the performers being involved in creative process of the first classic album. Needless to say, it's enjoyable for every music fan in fact, including so much of rare and previously unseen footage and many interesting facts. What was the idea of releasing such material?
STUART SMITH: At the time we did this “Making of” DVD’s were very popular. I’d just seen The Making of Machine Head and Making of Dark Side of the Moon DVD’s and thought that we had some pretty interesting stories to tell even though Heaven & Earth was nowhere near as popular as those other bands. Although it was an incredible amount of work to put it all together it was certainly a lot of fun.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: If there's anything planned with Heaven & Earth in the future?
STUART SMITH: As you can never predict what’s going to happen in this business you never know. Although I’m having a great time with Sweet right now and we’re writing for a new studio album I’m sure there’s going to be some song ideas that I come up with that won’t be right for the band so if there’s ever any free time I’ll probably get together with a bunch of friends and record them.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Let's talk about your involvement in reformed The Sweet now. The Sweet are quite known here in Poland from their glory days, featuring the most famous line-up - Connolly, Tucker, Priest and Scott. How the idea of you and Richie Onori joining forces with Steve Priest and other musicians to reform the glam rock legend began? Wasn't that a long time ago, when Brian Conolly and Mick Tucker were still alive yet? Who's now in The Sweet line-up?
STUART SMITH: Steve Priest and I had tried to put a version a Sweet together a couple of times in the past but it was never the right time. In January, 2008 Heaven & Earth was really going nowhere as I’d lost Kelly Hansen to Foreigner and couldn’t find the right singer to replace him. Out of the blue Steve called me and asked if I’d like to give it another go at putting Sweet back together. It seemed to me to be the right time as all these Classic Rock bands were reforming and doing great on the festival circuit so we gave it a try and it took off like a rocket. In the band now is Steve Priest on bass and vocals, Joe Retta on vocals, Richie Onori on drums, Stevie Stewart on keyboards and vocals and myself on guitar and vocals.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: It makes me wonder, why two different groups named The Sweet exist now, every of them containing one surviving member from the original line-up - your version of Sweet with Steve Priest and Andy Scott's own, both active and touring...
STUART SMITH: When the band broke up Andy Scott carried on with various line ups which play mainly around Europe. We formed in 2008 and have so far been concentrating on Canada and the States but plan to expand that territory soon.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Through the years of their career, The Sweet were certainly a glam rock group, a bit further from your classic hard rock and blues inspirations. How do you feel in their repertoire?
STUART SMITH: I love playing the Sweet repertoire and you’re right, it is a bit different from Heaven & Earth’s material but I tend to put my own slant on it as can be heard on our new live CD, Live in America. It’s very different from what I’ve done before as Heaven & Earth was a very serious type band whereas Sweet is more of a get down, rock and have a good time band. It’s very enjoyable to come off stage where the audience is going crazy for an encore.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: The Sweet audience consist older and younger fans; many of them are rocking out on their concerts since the early 70's. You recently released a live CD, that excellently captures the energy and rockin' spirit of the band. What reception the new Sweet line-up gains?
STUART SMITH: The audience reaction to Sweet blows me away. Not only do you have people our age but half the audience are between 12 and 20 years old and they’re down the front singing along to songs that weren’t even major hits for the band. I’ve no idea where they got to hear them. The other guys in the band are so good musically that we move a lot of energy during our shows. Everyone give 110% and we’re always called back for more.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: The mentioned live album encourages to nothing but to attend some Sweet concert and simply rock out. Is there any tour planned for Europe, or - more concretely - are there any chances for you guys coming for a gig to Poland?
STUART SMITH: As I said earlier we’re planning to expand our touring area but that’s about all I can say for now. I know a lot of the European fans want to hear this line up after reading all the e-mails we get.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Any plans for Sweet's live DVD, or maybe - a studio album?
STUART SMITH: We plan to record a live DVD sometime this next year. We just have to decide on the right venue. We’re also writing for a new studio album, which we hope to get recorded and bring out soon.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Anything you'd like to add, maybe a word or two to our site's readers?
STUART SMITH: Thank you vey much for all the support you’ve given us over the last couple of years and we hope to get out to see you all very soon.
Please check out both our web pages www.thesweetband.com and www.myspace.com/thesweetband. You can get a copies of Heaven & Earth’s material on the bands main site at www.heavenandearthband.com and you can get a copy of the new live Sweet CD from the store on our main page.
HARD ROCK SERVICE: Thank you for the interview and for being involved in keeping rock'n'roll alive. All the best!
STUART SMITH: Thank you Alex.
Official Heaven & Earth website: www.heavenandearthband.com
Official the Sweet website: www.thesweetband.com
(All pictures are taken from the artist's official website and are used with his permission.)
Polish version / wersja polska