The longtime Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer is enjoying a wave of great reviews for his work on the new, critically acclaimed Ozzy Osbourne album, Ordinary Man. The takeaway? If there’s one contemporary drummer on the planet who wholly embodies the heart and soul of classic-rock drumming, it must surely be him.
Strange times these are, indeed. On Tuesday, May 12, I received a request to conduct an interview with Chad Smith for an MD cover story. Of course, my first instinct was to say, “Yes!” But in an era when second-guessing everything is the new normal, my immediate next thought was, “But what are we going to talk about?”
It’s true that the Red Hot Chili Peppers had made headlines at the tail end of 2019 when they welcomed back guitarist John Frusciante, who initially joined the band around the same time Chad did back in 1988. But with all the current uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, what did the future look like for the reunion? Chad should have been on tour somewhere in Spain when we spoke in June, but instead he was at home with some free time before he had to pick up his kids from their last day of school, and then do the kind of drive-by goodbye celebration that’s become commonplace in most neighborhoods.
While coronavirus may have delayed Chili Peppers activities, it didn’t come in time to derail the release of Ozzy Osbourne’s critically acclaimed new release, Ordinary Man, which Chad, along with guitarist/producer Andrew Watt and Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, had written and recorded all the material for in just four days. Listening to Chad tear through the album’s eleven tracks, it’s immediately apparent that he’s completely in his element driving the music of one of classic rock’s most iconic voices. The drummer might be known as the ultimate punk-funkster of the Woodstock II generation, but Ordinary Man is perhaps the purest example to date of his ability to tap right into the music that formed his playing aesthetic from day one: the brawny, boiling heavy rock of the ’70s, when the only thing bigger than the riffs were the personalities of the players laying them down. Clearly Chad Smith can hang with rock giants from that or any generation.
MD: I’d like to start this interview talking about your recent Instagram posts, where you posted a different iconic drum groove each day. Those videos put the nail in the casket of the idea that the sound of a drummer comes from a drum. You definitely were not playing the Blood Sugar Sex Magik snare drum that everybody knows, it was cell-phone audio with no mics on the kit, and I didn’t get the impression you painstakingly mixed anything in post. Yet you weren’t holding back hitting the drums in this big open space, and no matter what groove you played, the sound was so identifiably you. It proved that it always has been, and always will be, about the drummer, not the drum.
Chad: Wow, I never thought of it like that, but yeah. That kit is an old mid-’60s Slingerland. When I was a kid, the first kit I had was a gold sparkle Slingerland that I’d subsequently sold for a bag of weed in high school. So I bought a similar kit for nostalgia that I keep set up in my living room. That room has high ceilings and wood floors, and it sounds really loud but beautiful. The compression on the phone audio does help things pop, but I wasn’t thinking about anything other than going back to when I was in high school and playing grooves I used to play along to, like the Beatles, Stones, Sabbath, and Zeppelin. I grew up on those songs, and it was just fun to do.
But David, you’re right, if you have the same drumset, the same song, and seven different drummers playing, it will always sound different. It’s all in the touch, it’s all in your hands and your feet and your coordination, how you feel the music, and how your limbs are placed, and that’s why everybody sounds different. That’s a beautiful thing!
MD: I attended the Bonzo Bash back in 2013 while at NAMM, and that served as the perfect case study in what you’re talking about. The kit remained the same with a revolving door of drummers playing Zeppelin tunes, and it was very clear who spent their time playing in bands or with other musicians as opposed to those who approached the drums as a solo instrument. There’s certainly value in both, but from an audience’s perspective, it was obvious who grooved with the band, because heads were bobbing or they weren’t. Knowing your history, you are definitely in the former camp, so do you feel there would be a Chad Smith if you spent a greater majority or your time woodshedding rather than playing with other musicians?
Chad: That’s a great question, and I think that’s a really important thing. You do need to practice to develop your technique and have your chops so you can play with other people. When I think back to when I was growing up, drumming along to all my records in a basement in Detroit, I approached it so that I tried to feel like I was in the band. Sure, I was playing by myself, but that was my version of playing with other people until I actually started playing with other people. It’s the human interaction that I feel is missing in our youth culture today, because everything is so insular. It’s great to play in a room and record yourself. But as a musician, especially a drummer playing rock ’n’ roll music…drums really aren’t used as a melodic instrument. You’re part of the rhythm section, and you’re the timekeeper—you need to play with other people! To me, to truly be playing music you have to be playing with other people. That’s the fun part, the human connection, being in a band with other people. That’s the give and take, and where you learn to listen. To me, that’s making music. Playing by myself was always a means to be able to play with other people. That’s what I love to do.
MD: Being in a band where the human connection is so obvious, and groove is something that is more about a feel in the moment rather than gridded precision, what are your thoughts on how recording technology has impacted the concept of what it means to be a good timekeeper?
Chad: It’s natural for music to live and breathe. It’s natural for tempos to pick up going into the chorus and settle back down into the verse. That’s a normal human thing that happens when you’re playing with other people, and there’s no substitute for that. Now, yes, there’s a lot of recorded music being done to some form of click track or beat map, and that’s become the norm, and that works for certain kinds of music. But call me old-fashioned, but the Chili Peppers, we just play! And the reality is that now, a lot of people just can’t do it. People have become so reliant on editing and the modern conveniences of recording technology, but I always ask, “What about the performance of the song?” And that’s what’s missing. It may sound “perfect,” but it’s missing the emotion, and that emotion is what connects with people. Sometimes the pursuit of trying to make something sound perfect by taking out all the little mistakes, or little pushes and pulls, maybe they don’t realize that those imperfections are the thing that make a song great. I saw somebody on YouTube quantizing Bonham’s drumming to demonstrate this point.
Chad’s Live Setup
Drums: DW Collector’s series stainless steel kit
• 6.5×14 Collector’s series heavy gauge steel snare with die-cast hoops
• 6.5×13 stainless steel auxiliary snare
• 9×12 tom
• 12×14 floor tom
• 14×16 floor tom
• 16×24 bass drum
• 6″ Rata Toms (cluster of 4)
• 10″ Remo Rototom
• 29″ vintage Rogers timpani
Cymbals: Sabian (all in brilliant finish)
• 20″ Sprymbal (spiral cymbal)
• 11″ AAX X-Plosion splash
• 15″ AAX X-Celerator hi-hats
• 19″ AA Rock crash
• 21″ AA Rock ride
• 20″ AA Rock crash
• 21″ AA Medium crash
• 21″ AA Holy China
• 10″ stack: AA Mini Holy China/AAX Aero splash
Percussion: LP Chad Smith Ridge Rider cowbell and medium Jam Block
Hardware: DW 9000 series stands and 5000 series bass drum pedal
Sticks: Vater Chad Smith’s Funk Blaster stick, T1 Ultra Staccato timpani mallet
Heads: Remo Controlled Sound X Coated snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Controlled Sound Clear aux snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Smooth White Emperor tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants, Powerstroke P4 Clear bass drum batter and Ambassador front, Controlled Sound Clear Rata Tom batters
Sticks: Vater Chad Smith’s Funk Blaster stick, T1 Ultra Staccato timpani mallet
Accessories: Vater stick bag, JH Audio JH/16v2 Pro in-ear monitors
MD: That was Rick Beato. That video is a great example of what you’re talking about.
Chad: Yeah, a perfect example! I way prefer the human element, and that’s not to say being able to have control over the click and accurately play ahead of or behind it isn’t a great skill to have. But if you have a band that can play, f’in play!
MD: Those editing tricks may make the mixing easier, but certainly haven’t afforded us the next wave of great rock bands.
Chad: It doesn’t make better music. It’s actually detrimental. Because as a musician you had to commit to what you were playing when you were recording to tape.
MD: So that commitment has waned with the luxury of being able to comp ad nauseum.
Chad: Most new engineers don’t have a clue how to cut tape or have ever recorded with a tape machine. We’ve done all our records to tape, up until The Getaway.
MD: How hard is it to find studios now that still do offer the option to record to tape?
Chad: I mean, you’re going to have to ask for it. Some people swear by the sound of analog, the saturation, the little bit of distortion in the low end. But in all honesty, with how far the technology has come and all the plug-ins and different stuff that I don’t really know about, it’s sonically really close. I think back when we recorded Stadium Arcadium, we recorded both to tape and Pro Tools and then did the Pepsi challenge: “Which one do you think is tape; which one do you think is digital?” And it was really hard to tell—we were just guessing. Most importantly, a good song needs to be the primary source. Follow that with other good source materials like a nice-sounding room, good instruments, good mics, good musicians, good outboard gear, and the difference between analog and digital can be really difficult to discern.
I did a track on Halsey’s latest record that was produced by Greg Kurstin, and he recorded my drums to tape—just the drums—and then dumped that into Pro Tools. That was the first time I had recorded to tape in a long time.
MD: You’ve appeared on a good number of records from artists other than your main bands. Have you continued doing that in recent times?
Chad: I’ve played on other people’s stuff in the past, not tons of stuff, and mostly it was through [Chili Peppers producer] Rick Rubin, who I’ve obviously had a long history with. Back in the early ’90s I got to play on a Johnny Cash record, Dixie Chicks, and some others that were uncredited. Usually it was artists that didn’t have bands.
In the last couple years I’ve been working a lot with Andrew Watt, who produced Ozzy’s record. I’ve done tracks for Post Malone, Sam Smith, Jake Bugg, Dua Lipa, Charlie Puth, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey, all with Andrew. He’s a hot pop producer, but he’s a rock dude. The pop world is pretty small, and once he had a hit with that Camila Cabello song “Havana,” he was in demand. We’re good buddies, so any time he needed a drummer, he’d give me a call, and that’s how this Ozzy thing started. It was a song for Post’s record. Post mentioned how much he loved Ozzy, and Andrew knew Kelly Osbourne, who was familiar with Post’s music. Of course, Ozzy had no clue at first of who Post was, but it was great working on that song.
Ozzy was amazing to be around—so funny and so sweet, and he did not disappoint. He was peeing in the planters and telling fart jokes; it was just so awesome. There’s only one Prince of Darkness, and I was just trying not to be a dork around him. But he was really frail because, unbeknownst to us, he had fallen and hurt his neck a year ago and was doing rehab and just not getting better. The bulletproof Ozzy wasn’t getting better, so he had been pretty bummed. After we were done and Ozzy left, Kelly was almost in tears saying how she hadn’t seen him that happy in six months, and how being creative and making music is what he really loves to do. So we were like, shit, let’s write songs for Ozzy! We needed a great bass player, because Andrew is a great guitarist. I’d played with Duff McKagan a week earlier at a charity event in Montana, so I called him up. He was in town and he was saying that the band wasn’t doing anything at the moment, and I said, “Wanna write and record some songs for Ozzy?” Of course he said yes. Nobody says no to Ozzy! Everyone showed up for this: Elton John, Tom Morello, Slash, Post Malone. It was a perfect storm of everybody’s schedule being aligned and timing working out.
Andrew, Duff, and I went to Andrew’s studio in the basement of his house and thought, well, what’s our favorite Ozzy and Sabbath stuff? What would a modern cool Ozzy album sound like? We all collaborated and wrote and recorded twelve songs in four afternoons, banging out three songs a day from scratch. We’d finish a tune and cut it right away, tracking the performance all the way through. We didn’t chop it up in post or anything, like we were talking about earlier. We were so energized by the idea of writing a great record for Ozzy, because with everything that he’d experienced, who knew if it would be his last. A lot of Ozzy’s lyrics on this album were reflective about life and death. It’s heavy, but it was so much fun and it turned out great, and Ozzy loved it. No one sounds like him. That instrument, the voice, is the most beautiful instrument because it’s so unique. The emotion in a voice is something that Pro Tools can’t do for you. Fourteen-year-old Chad was pinching himself through that whole experience!
MD: I remember watching an interview with Ozzy years ago where he said that he still hasn’t put out his White Album. This album definitely felt like it could be that album.
Chad: Ozzy loves the Beatles! He was really pleased with the way it came out, and people seem to like it. And this wasn’t even a labor of love for me, it was really an honor to be able to write music and play with Ozzy.
MD: Listening to the record, there are noticeable shifts in drum tone, especially the snare drum from song to song. Were specific tones discussed before you tracked?
Chad: No, that would all be in the mix. There’s no samples or sound replacements, and I didn’t swap out drums. It’s all on the same kit. Maybe [we used] a different snare or intentionally deeper tuning on the ballad “Ordinary Man” with Elton John. In all honesty, the tone probably did change slightly because we were tracking three songs a day and I was beating the crap out of the snare, and then I would change the snare head, so you are probably hearing a slight change from song to song.
MD: Going back to what we were talking about earlier and the importance of playing with other people, now with the quarantine, when was the last time you jammed with anybody?
Chad: Well, I’m not going to be a namedropper [laughs], but some of my neighbors are in bands that everybody knows, and we jammed in the backyard of one of our neighbors that is a very well-known actor. But the Chili Peppers are back to writing a few days a week. It’s just the four of us in a room with nobody else around.
MD: And John’s back in the band.
Chad: Yep, John’s back in the band. We were supposed to be on tour in Spain right now, but since touring looks to be postponed until next year, we started writing and are hoping to make a record.
MD: You all live close enough where jamming in person is a reality?
Chad: Yeah, we’re not rehearsing virtually.
MD: Is there a noticeable shift in tone that’s organically coming out because this is being written in such an interesting time?
Chad: It’s all in there, everything you’re experiencing as a person—we’re all products of our surroundings. It’s impossible for it not to affect the music, but it’s not doom-and-gloom or music for the end of the world. If anything, we’re writing uplifting, positive songs. There’s nothing that’s ever been preconceived; we’re always writing about what we feel. But what’s currently going on is heavy! Last night I was driving home at 10 o’clock. I was in the Beverly Hills area, and until I got to the freeway, which was like five or six miles, I saw like five cars—in L.A.! It was weird.
MD: Is there a more positive charge or enhanced appreciation of being able to connect with your musical brethren right now?
Chad: Yes, and having John come back into our group is a new shot of energy. We’ve been in and out of each other’s lives since 1988, and it’s been ten years since we played with John, but during that time we all continued to grow as people and as musicians. So it’s new but it’s still familiar. He’s changed as a person and as a musician, too, and it’s going to be different, but at the same time, for whatever reason, we do have this thing when we play together that we sound like us. No matter how fast, slow, or hard we play, that’s still there, which is pretty cool! It’s exciting to wake up knowing we don’t have anything, but that probably by 3 o’clock we’re going to have something that we didn’t have before. That’s the greatest feeling as a creative person, and I’m grateful for having the ability with these three other people that I love to make music with. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s not so great, but there will be something new that didn’t exist before, and I love that. That, and a little bit of coffee, is what gets me up in the morning.
MD: Do you know who’s going to produce the new record?
Chad: We’ve been talking to Rick Rubin, and he’s excited about us recording and we have a real history with him, so that would be the obvious choice, but we’re still early on in this process, so no formal decisions have been made.
MD: You mentioned how when the four of you play, for whatever reason, you sound the way you sound, and it’s a sound that is immediately identifiable. The drummers we all seem to care the most about are the ones with this certain intangible quality that we call “their sound.” You fall into that category, but for you, what do you love about the drummers that have influenced you?
Chad: That’s what makes the drummer unique. The person behind the sound. What does this drummer have that sets them apart? I was always taken with guys who had identifiable sounds, like Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland, Bonham, Ringo, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, and Neil Peart. You hear them and you know it’s them. Take Neil Peart. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and spend some time with him, and you get to know a little about his personality and the way he thought, how meticulous and detail oriented he was, how smart he was, his dry sense of humor—you hear all of that in his drumming. For all the drummers we love, their drumming is truly an extension of their personality.
I like to play loud, and it’s just the way I choose to express myself. I like the power, but I also know when it’s time not to be loud. That’s real, and that’s what people connect with—authenticity. So for me, reading about other drummers, once in a while I’d be curious to know how they got a certain sound or whatever, but mostly I wanted to know why they played the way they played. I wanted insight into their personality and experiences and influences that informed how they approached the drums and how they think about music. I think Ian Paice said this about Ringo. People sometimes like to poo-poo Ringo, but Ian said the one thing you can say about every Beatles song is that they all feel great; that’s what you want, and that’s why Ringo is a legend. And that goes into the whole discussion about “What is feel?” and “What is pocket?”
MD: The feel of a band and what makes a song feel good are often more about a connection between the musicians playing together than the actual drum part that’s “fueling” the groove.
Chad: Andrew and I were listening to an isolated drum part by an iconic drummer recently. There are a bunch of these isolated tracks available now to listen to on YouTube, and we were listening to this track and were taken aback at how unimpressive it was in isolation. If someone posted it as their own playing, it would be torn apart, but when you put it back into the mix and give it context, all of a sudden it was magic! Where you are in the pocket really depends on the other people you’re playing with—that creates the pocket!
But everyone’s different, and there’s a real difference between a drummer or musician in a band that has a unique sound and their own definition of a pocket compared to a session drummer or musician that has to know how to identify the perfect feel for that given song.
MD: From the videos I’ve seen of you in a clinic setting, it seems that when you’re playing solo, you’re accompanying some music or beat in your head, which helps you find the pocket.
Chad: The therapist in you is coming out! “Tell me more about the sounds in your head, Chad!” [laughs] Well, those things are weird for me, because I am in a band and that’s really my thing more than playing solos. I can do it, but it’s not my thing. Other guys are masters at the clinic and educational side of drumming. I play in a band. I have some technique and I can showcase it, but going back to what we started talking about, I prefer playing with other people, even if they’re in my head! [laughs] But everything to me should be musical, so when it’s just the drums and a rhythmic thing and I’m not a jazz drummer playing melodies on the toms—though I wish I was that good—it’s more about thinking about the feel I’m trying to convey. So if I’m playing a James Brown type of groove or a Bonham-style groove, I’ll often think about an exit strategy of where I can go from here that gives me sign posts to follow when playing in a solo environment.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I went to a clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by one of my favorite drummers at the time. He walked onstage, didn’t acknowledge the audience, and proceeded to play a mind-blowing twenty-minute solo. Then he came to the front of the stage, grabbed a mic, and said, “Any questions?” Clearly he didn’t seem to be in a good mood, and it was so intimidating and polarizing—you either wanted to quit playing or it inspired you to practice twenty-five hours a day. I had rock star ambitions at that age, and I remember thinking, if I ever do a clinic, I’m going to be nice and open and engaging. What I love about the drumming community is how sharing they are with each other. So when I do clinics, I’ll play along to some Chili Peppers tunes and do a little solo, but then I’ll talk to the audience and let them know I’m human and I’m glad to share anything. I’m an open book! If you want to talk about drums and music, I’ll tell you whatever my experience has been. If it can help you or even help you reconsider some things, the important thing is to learn from your experiences.
People like Dom Famularo and Terry Bozzio are made for the clinic scene; that’s a whole other level. But for me, if I can inspire a kid to play the drums, then it’s a success. I try to put myself in the shoes of having the opportunity to see Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham at a clinic up close and personal when I was a kid and being able to ask them a question; I am 100 percent there for that.
MD: That speaks volumes about the age-old argument of who is the best drummer. For me, the best drummers have always been the ones that inspired people to pick up the sticks, and that’s incredibly personal and subjective.
Chad: Right on! By no means do you have to be in a famous band, but that helps only because of the number of people that are exposed to your music. If someone watches the Chili Peppers play, sees me, and thinks, “That guy looks like he’s having a blast. I want to do that,” that’s the best! When Ringo was on Ed Sullivan and exposed to millions of viewers, that inspired a generation of drummers. Then after that, it’s up to you to do something with that inspiration.
MD: I think we’re all waiting for that next rock band to inspire future generations. Because that’s the thing about the great bands—it wasn’t just a great drummer. For every Chili Peppers fan that picked up a pair of sticks for the first time because of you, there were an equal number of people that picked up a bass or guitar because of Flea and John.
Chad: One silver lining of this quarantine is that people are starting to play instruments again. There are all different levels of playing an instrument and pursuing your identity as a musician, but you have to be okay with whatever path you choose. If it’s recreational or a hobby, great! If it’s to pursue a career, is it to be in a band, or to be a studio musician, or be in a pit band on Broadway? Whatever it is, you have to commit to it. If you’re going to pursue it as a career, be sure you have the drive to see it through.
MD: It seems that it’s especially important for kids to understand how much work it is, that the glamorous aspects are just the tip of the iceberg. The two hours onstage in front of an audience are supported by hours in cramped quarters traveling between venues, being away from home for 200-plus days a year, press junkets answering the same questions day after day, and the stress of having to write and record an album that resonates with your audience.
Chad: And that’s if you’re ever lucky enough to get to that point and gain a following. But that’s really what weeds out the people that are more interested in the perceived lifestyle than the livelihood. Because it truly is hard work. There are no shortcuts to this career.
Story by David Ciauro
Photos by David Mushegain