——— Was bass your first instrument? Years back my brother had a guitar laying around the house that I would pick up and mess around on. I’d actually watch RHCP’s “Live at Slane Castle” on my computer and try to learn certain licks by ear and play along. Later that year I asked my parents if I could rent a bass, to which they replied “they’d think about it”. At Christmas there was a bass starter kit under the tree, and my mind was blown.
How would you describe the inner-band dynamics of The Lil Smokies? Does it work the similarly off stage as on or do roles change some between the two? I’ve always firmly believed that one plays his instrument like he lives his life. This is certainly true for our band. That said, as much as it is a collaborative effort on stage, it is off of the stage, as well. Between interviews, conference calls, long drives, and loading up the van, we all try to do our share. I would like to tip my hat to our bass player, Scott Parker, and our banjo player, Matt Cornette, for being the primary drivers. Thank you, gents.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you guys this year? I think there are some secrets better left on the road. Talk to me after the show, in the alley in hushed tones.
How do you think being from Montana inform your music and vibe? Indicative of Montana is space and serenity; my favorite of the vast catalogue of its great attributes. I think we’re able to appreciate that space and let that permeate into our music. Bluegrass, at times, can be incredibly fast and frantic. I think incorporating space can slow the song or set down and be quite effective.
How do songs come about for you and The Lil Smokies? It definitely varies song to song. For myself, it’s the constant battle between perspiration and inspiration. Usually, I tend to think there needs to be inspiration before the perspiration, but lately I’m trying to find the inspiration inside the perspiration. Once a song is ready to bring to the band, it can take a couple rehearsals to arrange it or months of coming back to. It really varies from tune to tune.
Did you grow up with music in your family? Yeah, my father is a musician for a living. He’s a singer-songwriter, guitar player, and multi-instrumentalist. I definitely grew up inundated with the music of James Taylor, Paul Simon, Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs and the Beatles. Over time, even as much as I rebelled against it, there was no escaping the power of osmosis.
Was there a live concert experience that impacted you early on? In high school, I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and was completely floored by the enormity of the festival. I think seeing Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ set that year (2005) was a really monumental moment in my musical career.
What was your first personal public performance? My first public performance was playing guitar with a jazz pianist at a fancy restaurant, my freshman year in college in 2006. It was all simple instrumental jazz standards. My jazz knowledge is incredibly poor. We got through it somehow. I was, personally, yelled at for playing my stratocaster too loud though. Victory.
How do you feel about playing covers? any personal fail-safe campfire goto’s? I love playing covers. We try to do at least one cover a night. I think it’s important to have a thread of familiarity with audience members that aren’t versed in your own original material. I think as long as the cover is special and authentic, you can make it your own. The Punch Brothers are an incredible example of embracing cover tunes, even with an extensive archive of their own originals.
What singers / songwriters are on your Mt. Rushmore? In no particular order: Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Taylor Goldsmith, Chris Thile.
What advice do you give to a young musicians & artists seeking their path? Play because you want to play and because it’s fun. That is the golden rule, which can be applied to writing and performing and touring and all the other subsections of the music industry. Also, be authentic and humble. People will really resonate with humility and authenticity.
The Lil Smokies are granted a wish by a NASA Genie in which you can time travel back to open for any show / band / concert in history — what are your coordinates? I’m not a Deadhead at all. Neither is the rest of this band, but I would think opening for The Grateful Dead in Egypt in 1978 would be one hell of a night. Plus, it’s on my bucket list to see the pyramids.
What’s your favorite thing about the recordings you guys have done for THE LOST MILLIONS debut ‘101’ now available on iTunes? They are all really good songs on this album and they don’t sound like anything else out there to me. We are proud of it and can’t wait to see how they go over. For all I know there’s a whole genre built around bands that sound like us, who knows. We’re nobody but represent millions. We’re just four more dudes playing rock in a band. Everytime we get together it seems like someone in the group says quietly in passing “the ‘lost millions’ are kind of a big deal” LOL..
How does the writing process work for you guys? The bulk of material on this album was written by Matt Westfield and Heath McBurnett in what has become a prolific partnership. Generally, the songs begin with a riff or progression in a jam situation and develop from there.
Did you go in to the recording process with a vision for the sound over all or is it more of a sum-of-the-parts / songs-as-they-happen dynamic? There wasn’t any preconceived overall sound we were shooting for on this one. We just started building on the framework with the gear we had and what we thought the song dictated.
What is your go-to set up? In the studio, I mainly used a Fender Blues Jr., although an Orange and a BF Bandmaster were used as well. Effects-wise I used a Ibanez ts808, MXR phase 90, and a Big Muff. For guitars I used a Strat, Les Paul, and an Angers 12 string. I played the Wurlitzer through a SF Champ. There wasn’t much food involved.
What was the first record you ever bought and how do you feel about it today? The first record I ever bought was Elton John “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player”. It still stands up. Great melodies, great lyrics and a killer band.
Can you recommend any guitar solos young guitarists should sink their teeth into? That is a tough question. There are so many different approaches and tones that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Usually what inspired you to pick up a guitar in the first place will lead you on your own journey. Some of my favorites for sure were played by Mike Campbell, Johnny Marr, Brian May, Billy Gibbons, David Gilmore, George Harrison, Joe Walsh and of course ‘Ace’ & ‘Pagey’.
Do you still listen to LP / CD’s or are have you embraced music via the computer and phone with platforms like Spotify? I still prefer listening to LPs. It is a ritual. Dropping the needle, checking out the cover and credits, flipping it over, it’s an interactive experience. Plus, I just think it sounds better. That said, I do listen on the phone and computer. I’m a music junkie but can’t always be near a turntable.
Outside of the SXSW bonanza, what can you tell us about the scene in Austin for bands looking to make in-roads in town or visitors looking to go pro for a night? Austin is struggling to find itself musically as the tech sector takes over. The cost of living has forced venues to close and musicians to move. We are just beginning to navigate the inroads of the new landscape and we will keep you posted on how that goes. For those from out of town looking to play for a night and make some money …good luck.
If you had to make a list, has your favorite music come from England or here in the US of A? My top ten is probably dominated by English bands but American bands would make up most of my top 100.
Through a series of unforeseen events you wind up at the Pearly Gates with a guitar and, as folks settle in, Saint Peter nods your direction and mouths “do something good!!” …. What do you go with? I imagine it would be a large and diverse crowd there so I would keep it instrumental. Perhaps “Bron-y-aur” or a Nick Drake inspired tune I’ve been working on. Chill, non-offensive, and hopefully impressive to the powers that be. Maybe they’d let me play with some of my heroes if I pass the audition?
What got you hooked on rock & roll as a kid? Listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those powerful vocals of Ronnie Van Zant drew me in.
What was the first concert you ever attended and what strikes you about it today? Jakyl opening for ZZ Top! I was 17 years old and the energy of that show was overwhelming!
What was your first public performance? how did it go? Well my dad (Oliver Smith) was a southern gospel bluegrass singer and performed in different churches so I would say my first performance was more than likely with him at one of those churches. As far as the first real performance that I remember; I was in the 5th grade and performed Lee Greenwoods “God Bless the USA” for a school program. There is a video of that out there somewhere …lol
Musicians are funny about their instruments, sometimes even superstitious — tell us about your relationship with guitars over the years; what is your stand by go-to 6-string today? I’ve never really considered myself a guitar player. I’m more of a vocalist but a good guitar is key in having a good performance. I played a Taylor guitar for a while and I beat it to hell playing the honky tonks in Nashville. When it was time for a new one I went with the Seagull that I currently play. It is a great sounding guitar without the hefty price tag.
How does the song-writing process work for you? has it evolved over time or do you have a tried & true formula you try to stick with? I haven’t really been writing that much the last few years. Just a line or two here and there but when I was writing consistently it was just a matter of what I was feeling mostly. Occasionally someone would say something that would spark an Idea and I would use my corny sense of humor to write something like “Nothing but your snuggie on”
Do you have any advice (cheap tricks) for your artists looking to connect more with the audience when playing live? Be true to who you are as a musician and you are going to connect with someone or a group of people. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you to sing something that just doesn’t fit you and if you can bare to sing it then sing it and get right back to what you love. They will appreciate you for it.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows? The craziest thing that ever happened at one of my shows other than having the drummer bring a dancing Zombie Doll on stage would have to be being interrupted by Jermaine Jackson while playing at Legends Corner in Nashville so he could promote a tv show that he was filming.
Given your experience as a finalist on CMT’s Can You Duet in 2008 , what advice would you give to a young artists looking to take a shot on a similar live contest like American Idol or The Voice? I would say if you’re gonna go for one of shows just be prepared to take some criticism and don’t let a “no” answer stop you from moving forward with your career. Sometimes being true to who you are isn’t always what they are looking for so you just have to keep on keeping on.
Some artists hate the question but who do folks liken you too most and how do you feel about it? You know it’s been a while since someone has compared me to another artist but I use to get Billy Dean a lot when I was in Nashville. I’ll take that as a compliment.
What are you working on and what’s your view of 2018 from here? Right now I’m just working on being a better performer and trying to gig as much as possible. I’m working with a group of great players and we call ourselves the Douglas Fine Line. I would like to play more with these guys this year and get into some bigger venues and festivals. Right now I’m just working on being a better performer and trying to gig as much as possible.
What’s Four Lost Souls all about to you as you look at it now? It was about my relationship with America and more specifically, the South. So much of what I love about this place came out of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Nashville, and New Orleans – yet the history and legacy of the South looms over everything since Trump’s election.
It’s a good ride from Wales: how was your Alabama Shoals experience and what are a few of your favorite things? We worked with Norbert Putnam, the great ‘60-‘70s Muscle Shoals/Nashville producer, and David Hood, who’s been on so many great records. We had a lovely time in Alabama – very efficient, very creative and very different. The music community down there is very fluid and open to ideas.
Did you hold any tunes or recordings back or is the full salvo from the heady proceedings? I think everything we did is on the record. We only had four days to record and the songs were specifically written for the record. They all told a little story that I wanted to be included and everything worked out great, so it seems no point leaving anything out.
What did you learn this time out and will you ever recover? I like to change things up with every recording situation. Working with a real producer was definitely an education. And I didn’t play guitar on the record and I really like that.
What was the first concert you ever attended and what strikes you about it today? I want to see Procol Harum in the Bristol Colston Hall in 1973, when Grand Hotel came out and I love that show and I still love the band. It was a really different time and we were very young and the crowd was full of hippies. I kind of thought of it as someone else’s music, but I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t until punk came along that I felt THAT was my music.
What was your first public performance? Singing Gilbert and Sullivan in the school pantomime.
Musicians are funny about their instruments, sometimes even superstitious — tell us about your relationship with guitars over the years; what is your standby go-to 6-string today? Mostly I’m playing acoustic on the gig supporting this album; as I said, I didn’t play any guitar on the album. I find guitars need constant stroking and attention, much like people. The guitar I play in the “Snake Behind Glass” video is a really old Martin that belonged to Marty Stuart and was once played by Porter Wagoner in his “Parkview” video. It’s a prized possession. When I play electric with the Waco Brothers I use a couple of customized strays.
Do you have any advice (cheap tricks) for your artists looking to connect more with the audience when playing live? Lots of stupid banter between the songs.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows? I really don’t know where to start. Possibly the entire band attacking the soundman half way thru a Sally Timms gig at the Khyber Pass in Philadelphia many years ago. Don’t diss the Timms. That really stands out because there’s been so little violence over the last 40 years and that was one of the quietest gigs we ever played.
You are to take a 4 hour dune buggy through the desert with anyone on earth, who do you choose and how do you strike up the conversation? My wife Helen because she drives the buggy while I looked out the window – do they have windows?
What are you working on right now and why are you excited about it? I’m very blessed to be working on a few different projects that satisfy my multi-genre fancies: The Kai Lovelace jazz trio. The Sibylline is a folk duo with my ethereal composer of a sister Alice Quinn-Makwaia. VibeMosaic is an electronic neo-soul project with the magical Brad Morrison. Finally, Smoke and Sugar which is how we met at The Bitter End! We’re really excited to be putting out our first EP of neo-soul / alt-rock music called “Mindings” on Friday, October 6th. For any fans or explorers in the NYC area come join the celebration at Downtown Art in the East Village.
Did you grow up with music in your family? Yes, my Dad’s a musician and composer as well as a voice teacher. My Mom is an actress and acting teacher. Actually most of our family friends are artists of one form or another. My sister and I grew up singing together. Sometimes my family would go on a walk and realize we’d been lost in some daydream and all four of us had been humming different tunes at the same time.
Was there a live concert experience that impacted you early on? I went to a concert of my Dad’s friend Paul Silber when I was about nine. He was singing jazz and blues standards with piano accompaniment. It was such a simple arrangement but he made me fall in love with those songs, with the call to improvise that exists in jazz and with that beautiful porous boundary between performer and audience.
What was your first public performance? My first public performance was in preschool. I played a fly in an adaptation of The Itsy Bitsy Spider. I made it to the front of the stage and then burst into tears. I went through a very intense shy phase in my youth.
How do songs come about for SMOKE & SUGAR? I love this project because everyone involved is a composer and a musician. We tend to start with a seedling from one of us, and then allow it to fill out as we bring it to the rest of the band. First with melody and mood or lyrical theme. Then add counterparts maybe break up sections or embellish parts and lay out the lyrics.
Do you have any day-of-show (or pre-show) rituals that help you get in the right mindset to perform live? I tend to channel all of my nerves or excitement into my hair and the set-list. The first lets me fuss over minute details in an internal headspace until it’s time to get onstage and the second lets me fuss over the flow of the evening with everyone in the band.
Who is on your musical Mount Rushmore? Lianne La Havas, Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone. The Beatles, Stevie Wonder is a prophet.
What’s your favorite thing about the music scene in New York right now? I love how many New York musicians want to build community rather than compete. It can be so hard being an artist in a world that finds creative thought dangerous. Of course we’re all stronger when we uplift each other.
Last minute, you are asked to perform on a new version of Soul Train but they want you to do a 70’s cover — what tune do you chose for the band? Oooh we already do a cover of “Master Blaster” by Stevie Wonder! But since that’s a 1980s single I’d go for “Ebony Eyes”. My favorite secret tune from Songs in the Key of Life.
You are granted special access to a time machine called ‘The Day Tripper’ in which you can go backstage and hang at any concert in history: what are your coordinates and what happened? This may not be very original but I’d give a lot to be able witness what happened in Woodstock in 1969.
How did you get hooked on Rock & Roll? It’s interesting to be asked that, as people seem to have pretty much forgotten about Rock & Roll, but I still describe myself as a “rock keyboardist,” in regard to music. As a synthesizer enthusiast, these days, the assumption is that I’m all about various electronic genres… and while I do enjoy a few, that’s not what I do. I think initially, I liked pop. But my brother was inclined towards heavier music, and played a lot more Rock-oriented music. I think I connected with it intuitively, but it was that exposure that made it happen.
Do you have a favorite go-to album of all-time and how have your feelings about it changed at all over the years? My favorite albums are too numerous to name, but I do have two albums that I would say are my favorite albums of all time… truly my “go-to” albums.
Out of the Blue– Electric Light Orchestra. When I first heard this album in 1978, it was everything I wanted music to be. It had a great Beatlesque vibe, but also explored a lot of different genres, production styles, instrumentation, and technology. It was where I first saw the name “Moog.” My perception of it has changed primarily in that as I have gotten older, had more education, more experience, etc., I’ve been better able to hear the instrumentation, recognize the production techniques, and understand everything “underneath the hood.” My love of it has not wavered at all.
The Beatles– The Beatles. I probably don’t need to say anything about this, but I will say that the weird combination of exquisite production and raw messy production along with the combination of amazing songcraft and unique musical exploration basically made me who I am today. I think I love it more every time I hear it.
What was your first public live performance and how did it go? If I exclude piano recitals, my first musical performance was in high school… in a band where we dressed up in punk clothes and performed Country music. I was just plunking out chords on a piano, but it was incredibly exciting, and it pretty much set everything in motion. My first “public” performance was probably this one time in a bar that I was too young to be in (but there were provisions for under-age musicians). I felt confused and out-of-place, but very excited to be playing in public. And in a bar.
What you gives you the biggest high as a musician? I have been obsessed with creating music since I was nine years old (the age I started writing music at). I have been intent on learning to express myself and create compelling music. So, I guess I’d say that… but I also enjoy performance, and have often chosen performance over writing.
How does the song writing process happen for you ? (Is there a Marc Doty riff graveyard?) Initially, it was me sort of imitating the music of my idols. Then, I went to college and got a degree in composition. During that process, writing music became essentially an opening of the floodgate in my brain, and a desire to make every idea into something interesting.
It depends largely on what the intent is… what I’m writing for. But in general, most of my music starts with either messing around on a piano, or having an intense emotion that I vent by spontaneously creating lyrics and melodies.
I do a lot of synthesizer demonstrations on YouTube, and when I’m writing the themes for these demonstrations, I often let the unique strengths of the synthesizer I’m writing with inspire me to create theme music.
And yes, if I never wrote anything new ever again for the rest of my life, I have enough ideas lying around to probably carry through the rest of my life!
What’s your philosophy on drums and getting the right drum take? The most inspirational song for me in regard to drums was “Louie Louie,” if you can believe that. Louie Louie had a drum sound that really reached me on an emotional level, and I realized early-on that it was because it is natural and expressive, and because the vibration of the drums in the room lead to the timbral aspect of the drums. That is to say that drums sound best and most expressive as a person who is experiencing them there, and experiencing them there is an aural experience of how the vibration of the drums interact with the room they are in.
Recognizing this led me to recreate the drum production of some in the past… and I found that a great way to record drums was with a single mic sensing the vibration of the room. I LOVE the sound of single-mic recorded drums. And most of my songs feature acoustic drums captured with a single mic in a room.
I’ll admit that I do often boost the bass drum, or record it separately with a different mic arrangement simply because placement of a mic in order to capture snare, toms, and cymbals often results in a baseless bass drum… but still.
I loved drum machines when I was young, but I got tired of them. Even when I do electronic stuff, I tend to sample live drums and create loops.
Will rock & roll continue to boast bands whose careers span decades or have folks attention spans shrunk too much for a new band to sustain such success? It’s hard to imagine Rock surviving what is happening in music right now. It has become a business first and foremost, and the music has been reduced to its most selling aspects. It’s no longer about expressing what you personally feel and having another person identify with it, it’s about pandering directly to musical aspects and lyrics that invoke immediate feeling in the listener. It’s not so much communication as it is manipulation at this point. I wonder what the future will hold.
Your speaking at KnobCon here in Chicago this week, what sort of stuff do you plan to get in to? Well, I have somehow generated a world-wide following in regard to my synthesizer demonstrations and education, and I look forward to any opportunity to teach people about how vast, deep, and long the history of synthesizers is. At Knobcon, I’ll be doing a presentation on a synthesizer inventor that most people haven’t heard of… which is sad, because he created many of the aspects of synthesis we attribute to others! It’s an awareness campaign. It will also be fantastic to interact with synthesizer pioneer Tom Oberheim, and my friend Michael Boddicker, who, in addition to being an amazing keyboard player and synthesist, was responsible for SO many of the session keyboard parts for musicians like Michael Jackson.
Synths almost killed rock in the 70’s with prog, tried again with new wave in 80’s and today seems to have found a new host in EDM: Is this just another occupational hazard or will it have longer legs the ‘keyboardist’ as it were? Ha ha, yeah… it’s hard to beat keyboards back, sometimes. But the fact is, there is a balance that can be had with the synthesizer and Rock… it’s just that it’s easy to go too far.
What advice would you give to a talented young artist wondering how the fuck to get from A to B and make a real go of it? Well, I spent 12 years desperately trying to get a record contract back in the 80s and 90s. I worked my ass off trying to do what was expected. I tried to write songs that would appeal to audiences and A&R people. I tried to get that stuff heard. I had a manager in L.A., and interest from labels like Geffen and Interscope… but it all failed. And I think largely, that was because I was shooting for an idea as opposed to doing what I loved.
Conversely, I started demonstrating synths on YouTube, and suddenly, my work was spread all over the world, synthesizer companies started asking me to demonstrate their products, I got hired at a historical synthesizer foundation, met all of my idols, and have tens of thousands of people hearing my music every month.
I really think the key isn’t to try to be something you want to be, but to try to show people what you are. Don’t make your art some sort of bartering for something that has nothing to do with art, delve deeper into your art and live it, and opportunities will come to you.