Chad Smith tells Drummer all about the rejuvenated Red Hot Chili Peppers, his many side projects, and his own precious metal.
There are many drummers that we all know, love and respect for their incredible ability and skill. But then there is a select group of drummers that transcend the drums themselves. They are the gods of our instrument. Outside of the drumming arena, they’re the characters that represent drummers the world over. They’re the names that non-drummers will recount time and time again… Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Phil Collins, Keith Moon… and you can bet your bottom dollar that, to rock fans at least, Chad Smith’s name will come up. And it’s easy to see why; Chad’s wild, crazy humorous and larger-than-life personality sees him hold court with a crowd wherever he goes. And then there’s his powerful stage presence; he’s not one for quietly keeping the time at the back. Drummer was privileged to talk with Chad at the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ London )2 shows late in 2011.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers released I’m With You, their tenth studio album, in late summer 2011, some five years after the multi-platinum Stadium Arcadium. The album was welcomed by fans after a period of hiatus for the band. The RHCP’s had worked tirelessly since Californication and decided to take a break. The surprise announcement came in 2009 that guitarist John Frusciante had officially left the band, or the second time, to be replaced by backup and touring guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. That the guitarist had been replaced offered fans relief that at least the RHCP’s were set to continue. Without delay, the band ended their hiatus and went into the studio to create I’m With You.
So you have a new album out… How does it feel to be back out on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
It feels great! It feels like a new band… We have Josh Klinghoffer [guitar] so we’re very re-energised by not only the break that we took but also having a new member in our group. It’s really great for us to be back doing what we love to do, and we’re very pleased with our new record. I mean, to me, you’re not really a band unless you play live, and so we prided ourselves on playing all over the world as much as we can do for 27 years… It’s just a real blessing to be able to do what you love to do, and people still want to come out and see us. I can’t believe we’re playing three nights in this beautiful arena [the O2]. The English people have always been so supportive of our band for many years; they’re very loyal and we really appreciate that.
Has the chemistry changed a bit with Josh coming in? Did it take time to adapt, to work together?
Yeah! I mean, the cool thing about getting Josh in our group s that we knew him before he joined officially. He played on tour, he played some shows, we did some festivals on the last tour. We’ve known him for 13 years. He’s played with John [Frusciante] quite a bit; they did a lot of John’s records. So we know him, he knows us, so that getting-to-know-him-personally stage thing that can sometimes be awkward when you get a new member, we didn’t really have to deal with that; it was just really, can we write songs together? We were in no hurry, we wanted it really to be an organic experience. We wrote songs for 12 months, and wrote 50 or 60 songs! It just feels new again, which is great. After you’ve been in a band for a long time, you have to find things to inspire you, and we always do that, but it really helps when you have a new member bringing in new ideas. And in our time off, I played with other people. Flea did, he went to school, and we all had children, and all of our life experiences as well went into the music.
In that time that the RHCP’s were on hiatus, Chad busied himself with supergroup Chickenfoot and his own project, Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats. With his main band on long-term holiday; we couldn’t help but wonder whether Chad felt the need to occupy himself. What’s more, when RHCP duty called, Chad relied on Kenny Aronoff and Matt Sorum to fill in duties behind the kit with his side projects. Putting down ‘your’ baby and leaving it in the care of another drummer can’t be easy, and Drummer was keen to find out how Chad had picked his dep.
Projects like the Meatbats and Chickenfoot, did that come out of the need to write more music? You were ready to play more drums but the Chilis as a band weren’t ready to go again yet?
I’ve always played with other people, but we said. “Hey, we’re taking a break… no being a Chili Pepper for two years.” So I knew that there would be a good block of time where I could go and do other things. And yeah, the Meatbats was one of them, and Chickenfoot was another, and these are just people I’m friends with, people I’ve known, and often when you play together with someone- ypu know, jam or whatever- you say, “Hey, it would be great to do something sometimes”… In this case I was like, “Yeah. I have at least a year off, I can do something”… certainly with Sam [Hagar] and the Chickenfoot thing.
It’s like being in a marriage; you’re married to someone for a long time, you know each other so well, and then [laughs], not that I would know, if you had a mistress on the side… if that was the scenario, it’s kinda like how it would be! It’s fun to do that, and play with other people. It’s just healthy as a musician. I mean, I’m a musician, it’s what I do… I have to play whether it’s a little club, my friends, or here [the O2]. I’m just happy to play.
This year you had the new Chickenfoot album come out and the new Chilis album came out as well. Is there a sense of “Ah, I want to do both” and you have to make a choice?
It wasn’t really a choice, they always knew… I always thought that that would be it, a one-off thing that was fun to do, and it was! But everybody loved it and we sold lots of records in the States and abroad, and everybody wanted to continue to do it. I enjoyed the process and hanging out with those guys… but the Chili Peppers were starting up again. And everybody was like, “Oh yeah, I forgot you’re in that other band!” I would love to do both, but you know, it’s impossible.
Was Kenny always your first choice as stand in?
Always… He’s such a strong player and he’s pro. He’s so awesome and he’s a hard hitter, a great guy, and he gets along with people well. He’s actually filled in for me on some of the Meatbats gigs, in Japan and also L.A. … I don’t know that e have similar styles, he just really brings a certain thing that’s important for the music. And I just knew that with those guys they’d do a great job! I just immediately thought, when we were looking for a drummer, I thought of Kenny , that’s he’d be great!
2011 saw the launch of Chad’s signature Sabian cymbals, his Vault Holy Chinas. If there was ever an opportune moment to pick Chad’s brains on the concept and creation of these incredibly loud cymbals, it was while Drummer kept his company, in a backstage dressing room at London’s O2.
We did a review of the Holy Chinas back a few issues ago. Loved them, especially the 21”…
Me too! That’s the one I use [onstage], that’s the big loud one!
It was almost a lawsuit for my hearing loss…! They’re loud, man!
Yeah, sorry about that [laughs] … Well, that was the idea behind it. Sabian came to me and said, “We’d like to do another cymbal with you. We’ve thought about hi-hats or a ride or something…” I was using the regular AA chinas, and at the end of last tour using big crashes, like big rock 21s and 22s, and the china. I just loved the sound! The sound of traditional china, volume-wise it would always be like ‘BASH BASH’. I use them a lot of the time for accents, and I kinda never thought that they were equal sonically [in volume]. I was like, “I just need a really f**king loud china!” I’ve been to Meductic [home to Sabian] before- lovely! For about two months out of the year when it’s not freezing cold or the black flies are after you! Sabian asked me, “Come up and we’ll work on them,” and I was like, “Aah, I can’t, man, I just can’t do it.” But I mean, they were really nice and they were really helpful and they made these cymbals. There was nothing [in the concept] about the holes, and they were like, “Well, this is what we’re trying to make, a cymbal that you’re happy with.” [The cymbals were sent] a couple of times back and forth [to be perfected], and I was very pleased with them. I don’t like to endorse stuff that I don’t use. They turned out really well … That’s what I love about the company, they’re always trying to come up with new stuff. And stuff that not only artists want, but that the public want, changing with music, drummers needs and musical needs.
And of course, Sabian have created some cymbals with the RHCP logo for this tour. We’re told by Sabian that they’re not painted on… “We can’t tell you how,” they said!
I don’t know how they do it, it’s kinda a part of the process. I saw Neil’s [Peart] cymbals and he had some custom things on his cymbals and I was like, “AH, man, it would be cool to have that.” Sabian agreed, it makes perfect sense…. And they look cool! And we have this overhead camera thing; it looks [down on the kit] and it’s all for looks, it’s not for sound… for drummers, it’s how cool your s**t looks! [laughs]
The I’m With You Tour Kit
For the I’m With You tour, Chad is using an all-new acrylic kid. This is a one-off special, created by Chad for Pearl. Drummer asked him about the concept behind the kit.
“I’m always looking for something new… We have these fancy stage lights that come up from the bottom. And I thought, you know, I bet a clear drum set would be cool, I never played one of those before. So I called Pearl and of course they don’t make those shells… they were put together especially for me.”
There’s nothing like putting a man on the spot! We asked Chad which albums in the last 100 years he’d like to have been in the drummer seat for.
“That’s a tough one! I certainly would have liked to have been around ay the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and to me that’s people like Chuck Berry and like Fats Domino and Little Richard, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley! That seems like it would have been a very exciting time for music.”
“It would probably be a Zeppelin album…
The first two are pretty good. I got a chance to work with Andy Johns [Led Zep engineer] when we did the first Chickenfoot album… he engineered on that. And he engineered on Zeppelin’s 3 and 4! It was always like, “Uncle Andy, what was it like at Headley Grange when you got to turn on “When The Levee Breaks”? And he’d tell us stories about Exile On Main Street [Rolling Stones]… But you can’t put yourself in the same sentence as John Bonham. But Led Zeppelin… it was perfect for him. It was perfect for his sound, with Jimmy Page producing the whole thing, it was just magical. But I think because I listened to drummers like Ian Paice, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, Bill Ward… they had more of a jazzy feel, that wasn’t just bashing. And people think of Bonham because his sound was so big and that the Led Zeppelin riffs were so huge that he was a basher, but he used a lot of subtlety and technique… I really wanted to play like those guys because they could do s**t that I couldn’t do. I play a lot of ghost notes on the snare drum, and that’s influenced by those guys. That and funk music that I listen to; being in Michigan and Detroit you get exposed to a lot of Motown and that kind of stuff. And that’s in my personality, and if you’re a good artist that will come out.
Drummer grabbed a few words with the man that keeps Chad’s tour kit in order, Chris Warren. This man is no mere tech! Read on…
Did we see you up onstage playing keys tonight?
I like to surprise people with that one! I like people to go, “Wait… that’s the drum tech, he’s playing keys!” It’s pretty cool. I feel very fortunate to be welcomed into the Chili Peppers family. It started out a couple of years ago: I was playing the vocoder on one song, and John [Frusciante] said, ‘Hey, Chris, you can probably work out the chords to “Snow” from the last record. I figured that out, then it just kind of snowballed.”
What happens if something goes wrong on Chad’s kit but you’re playing keys?
[Laughs] That’s the most popular question! It kind of hasn’t happened. Well, it did happen once and I gotta say, I was such a badass, I managed to do it between the verse that I didn’t play on, I think the cymbal tilter had come down. Without missing a beat I ran over, tightened it up, ran back for the chorus… It hasn’t happened too much and I hope it doesn’t, but I guess I’ll have to take it all in when it does!”
Is Chad a demanding master?
“He couldn’t be a sweeter, nicer guy to work for. From day one, it’s always been so casual between us. It’s a real cool, unspoken thing. I like to think that drum-wise I keep him happy. After 12 years of teching for him, I’d like to think that if something was seriously wrong he’d tell me about it! I’ve seen some guys really panic or freak out on their tech when things do go wrong, but Chad’s like, ‘Hey, Chris, can ya fix this thing when you get a chance?’ He’s so cool.”
How do you tune the kit for stadium shows like this?
“It’s all tuned in a pretty standard fashion; the reso heads are usually tuned a pitch up from whatever the batter side is. His snares are cranked, that’s probably the most unique thing I would say… It’s got a ring and it’s got a crack.”