Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Alex Solca
Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith takes a much-needed rest—for a minute—and fills MD in on the many cool side projects he’s involved in.
Among the projects closest to Chad Smith’s heart is a collaboration with his close friend Glenn Hughes, with whom he’s recorded two albums. As a matter of fact, on the day we spoke, Chad was flying to London to perform a show with the former Deep Purple bassist/vocalist, and to appear at the Drummer Live exhibition.
Chad has also formed a band called The Bombastic Meatbats—featuring guitarist Jeff Kollman, bassist Kevin Chown, and keyboardist Ed Roth—who will soon be releasing a CD. In addition, Chad’s been consulting (along with Travis Barker and others) on a new video game from the makers of Guitar Hero, and he’s been collaborating with his three-year-old-son’s schoolteacher on a children’s book. And he’s formed yet another band, featuring guitar god Joe Satriani and former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and singer Sammy Hagar. Chickenfoot, as they’re called, is currently working on a CD.
You can also get an up-close look at the drummer’s life and career on Chad’s latest DVD, Eastern Rim. The two-set disc features interviews, clinics, live performances, and some great bonus material.
Chad Smith has been on a ride to the top ever since he joined The Peppers in late 1988. And all these years later, he’s as busy as ever.
Being the huge Deep Purple fan that you are, it must be awesome playing and recording with Glenn.
He’s a great guy, and we enjoy each other’s company. But he tours hardcore, so I can’t tour with him all the time.
Who’s been playing live with him?
An English guy, Matt Goom.
What’s the story with The Bombastic Meatbats?
That’s kind of a Glenn Hughes offshoot band. The guitar player, Jeff, and the keyboard player, Ed, used to play with him. Glenn was late for rehearsal one time, and we were just jamming and all sort of realized that we have the same affinity for this kind of ’70s, funk-ish, Jeff Beck Blow By Blow–era kind of stuff. You know how when you jam with people and you sometimes go, “Hey, we should do something sometime,” and nothing ever happens? Well, Jeff grabbed the reins and said, “Hey, I know this guy, and he’s got this studio; let’s go into his place and see what happens.” It was just for the love of doing it, nothing was planned out. But it all came together really easily. We played a few times at my house and wrote some songs. It was really fun. And we played small clubs in Japan, and they loved it. The CD will be out soon.
Will the three tracks previewed on your myspace page be on the CD?
Yes. And I get to stretch out a little bit [on this music]. Some of it is funky, but some of it’s a little freer.
Are The Peppers on a break now?
Yeah, we’d been out for a year and a half, and we enjoy playing and being together, but it was time for a break. [laughs] And we were touring that heavy since John [Frusciante] re-joined in ’98…we just wrote, recorded, toured, wrote, record, toured…for three records in a row. And that was like eight or nine years. For every record, we tour for a year and a half, so it was time. Anthony was having a baby, John wanted to do electronic music, and Flea wanted to do his thing. We’ve seen each other, but we agreed to take a year off.
Tell us about the project with Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, and Michael Anthony.
I have a place in Cabo, Mexico, where Sammy is like the mayor, basically. [laughs]. So I’ve known him for about four, or five years. He was doing his thing with his own band, and he did the Van Halen reunion thing a while back, but we really enjoy playing with each other, and he’s a great guy and fun to hang out with. So that was another thing, like, “Hey, let’s get together and play sometime.” Then I met Mike through him, and we jammed a couple times down in Mexico and he said, “We should call ourselves Chickenfoot.” Then Sam was like, “We’ve got to get a guitar player!”
What does it sound like?
It’s like a jam-rock band, where it’s not just little pop songs—everybody gets to play off each other, and it’s all cut live. We don’t use click tracks. It’s everybody playing together in the same room. Sammy has a new studio up at his place, and we did eight or nine songs and kind of demoed them. They came out really good. We like the vibe, the playing was real nice and spontaneous, and everyone was listening. I don’t know if, sonically, the demos are going to hold up, so I think when Joe [Satriani] gets done touring, we’ll probably go back in and record them properly.
So that’s another cool project. Then I’ve got this children’s record called Rhythm Train, which is really fun. I did it with Leslie Bixler, who’s a teacher at my son Cole’s school. It’s kids’ songs that are rhythm-based and it teaches about different instruments. The funny thing is, she knows [legendary actor] Dick Van Dyke. So, next thing you know, I’m doing this rap song with Dick Van Dyke, who is hilarious. He’s eighty-one and he’s doing great—sharp, funny…. So I’d be playing grooves and showing him how to rap—like I have any idea! [laughs] But it was a blast. And there’s a book that goes along with it. I actually played guitar and sang on one of the songs. Dave Grohl I’m not, but for a kid’s song it’s okay. It was a labor of love and we had a good time doing it.
Talking about Dave Grohl, did you see he recently sat in with Paul McCartney?
Yeah, I know! I just sent a text to Taylor [Hawkins]. I love those guys. We toured with The Foo Fighters a lot. I know Dave and Taylor love all those classic rock dudes, like I do. And they worked with John Paul Jones as well…. I got to go to the Zep reunion show, by the way, which was awesome. Jason did a great job. I thought they pulled it off well. It’s so funny, because these people are, obviously, icons of music…. We did a Neil Young benefit in San Francisco one time, and Paul McCartney was the headliner, and you just can’t believe it when they come up to you and go, “I really like your music.” When you get guys like Jimmy Page coming out to see your band play, it’s like, “Wow!” You see him on the side of the stage standing there, and you just can’t help but think, “Jimmy Page is watching me play.” You’re supposed to be focused on the gig, but you can’t help it.
Is there anyone you would want to sit in with?
I would love to play with Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin is my favorite band, so that would be fantastic. I would have loved to have played with Jimi Hendrix, or hang out with him. I love The Who as well. All those English hard-rock kind of blues bands from the late ’60s, early ’70s, that’s what I grew up on. It was such a great time for music.
When did you get into funk music?
I was in a band with percussionist Larry Fratangello, who played with P-Funk for a long time. So he schooled me on all the funk—Tower Of Power, George Clinton. He really schooled me for like a year straight when I was twenty or twenty-one—but I’m really a rock drummer.
But you do incorporate funk concepts, which gives you your style. It’s a good combination.
Thanks. I don’t really think about it much; it works out pretty good for me.
Anything else you’re up to?
I just did a recording that Tom Morello’s producing with this new band called OuterNational. I was supposed to play on it a year ago, when they first started, but I was out and couldn’t do it. Jim Scott, who I worked with before, did it out at his place. I heard some of the stuff and it was really good.
I also consulted on a new video game with Activision. They have Guitar Hero, and they’re working on a game that’s coming out in the fall that’ll compete with Rock Band. Travis Barker and I went over there and consulted—we just told them what we thought. With Guitar Hero you’re not really playing guitar, you’re pushing buttons—though it’s still great; it gets kids interested in music. But what’s cool with the new drum game is that it’s got three pads, a kick drum pedal, and two cymbals, so when you play along with it, you’re actually doing what the drummer is doing. They have different levels, and it’ll really spark kids’ interest in playing the drums. They want it to be as realistic as possible: You could take what you do in the game and apply it to real drums. And it’s good, sturdy stuff. It still has to be kind of mom-friendly, where it can pack up really easy and stick it under the bed or whatever, but the pads are pretty good. They’re sensitive to dynamics, so you can play softer or louder. They did a good job. They did a lot of research on it. I was impressed. Any way to promote music and drumming and playing instruments and starting a band, I’m all for it, so I was happy to be part of it.
Back when you were a kid, who was the first drummer you saw that you really noticed?
Good question. I didn’t have that “Ed Sullivan” moment or anything like that. [Thousands of drummers were turned on to the instrument after watching The Beatles’ 1964 American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.] That was a little before my time. But the first guy I really noticed was Ian Paice, when Deep Purple played on Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert. My mother would never let me stay up, so my brother and I used to sneak downstairs to watch it. And I remember seeing the California Jam concert with Deep Purple, maybe in ’74. I was a real Deep Purple fan—I loved Made In Japan, the live album. So I would have to say Ian Paice—he was one of my first [drum heroes]. My brother Brad, it was his record collection that I would listen to. He was heavy into Zeppelin, The Who, Queen, Pink Floyd, and all those English bands—we were English junkies. And then also Jimi Hendrix, with Mitch Mitchell. I love Mitch and Bonham, and of course Ian. Those drumming styles seeped into my subconscious. I couldn’t play like them, but I loved it, and it inspired me. I’d see Ian Paice and say, “Wow, that looks so cool,” because he was left-handed. I remember he had two cymbals on one stand, like Ginger Baker used to do. Before all the fancy stands came out, he had a stand with the ride cymbal on the bottom and a crash on top. I saw that and said, “Oh, I’ve got to do that.”
Any tips for becoming a better drummer, the Chad Smith way?
[Laughs] Well…practice. I know it sounds boring, but so many kids that I run into don’t want to put the time into it. They’re busy playing their video games or whatever, but if you’re really passionate about it, there’s no shortcut. Kids see bands on TV and think, “I can do that!” and figure if they get a drumset, in two weeks they’ll be on MTV. You’ve got to put in the time, energy, and effort—and you have to want to do it. I was never forced to play the drums, I always wanted to because I loved it. My mom used to come home and I’d be in the basement all day playing, and she’d be flashing the light on and off to stop. [laughs] But if you love music—whatever it is, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards—you must put the work into it.
I was also fortunate because my brother was older and I got to play with people who were a bit older. When you’re a young musician, playing with people who are a little bit better helps you—if they’ll put up with you. [laughs] And take lessons from a good teacher. If you can find someone you really like and respect, and they take an interest in you, that would be a good thing. It’s easy when you’re young to just play what you like. And I did that for a while, just playing with all the same records. But with a teacher you’ll learn to play different styles, and you’ll progress faster.
When you play different styles, that’s how your arrive at your style.
Exactly, you find your own thing. At least check it out, so you’re exposed to it.