(Hear the record for yourself, on us: Popdose has an autographed vinyl copy of Truth & Salvage Co. to give away. Just send your name and mailing address to me in an email with the subject line “Gimme Some Truth.” One random entry will be selected, and the album shipped to the winner shortly thereafter. Deadline is 5:00PM ET Friday, August 13, 2010. Since we’d rather die a horrible, fiery death than share your information with others, I will personally delete all received emails after the winner is selected. Okay, back to the introduction.)
I spoke with Smith back in July, to talk about his questions, his band, and their album, which was produced by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, with whom Truth & Salvage toured for the bulk of 2009. I caught one show (in Lancaster, PA) and was smitted by the band’s interplay and harmonies, as well as its ability to kick ass when ass-kicking was required.
Smith spoke to me from his home in Los Angeles, while suffering from a post-tour head cold.
Congratulations on the record. I really love it; I think it’ll wind up my album of the year, and it’s only July.
[Laughs] Well thanks, man. That’s really kind. We’re really proud of it and the way it came out.
Did it turn out the way you’d envisioned it turning out?
Well I didn’t really have any expectations; I was just excited that Chris [Robinson] was going to produce it and I think it surpassed any expectations that I could have had. You go into a situation like that and you try not to have any preconceptions. The band is good; you just hope that the producer and the engineers capture that. I think they did.
I saw you guys open for the Black Crowes last year, and I really enjoyed your set. How did you get Chris Robinson in the producer’s chair?
We share managers—Pete Angelus has been managing the Black Crowes since 1990. He heard about us and came out to see us. He liked what we were doing and Chris liked it, too. They’d been talking about starting a record label and finding a band to put on their label. So Pete’s been managing us for two years now. Having Pete on our side is great. He does so much for us, so much behind the scenes. We get a lot of publicity about Chris’ producing us, but having Pete Angelus—a guy who was a part of the Van Halen camp for years and who’s been managing the Black Crowes for years—it’s a real honor to have him on our team.
It puts some power behind your band.
So what were the recording sessions like? I can imagine a loose, fun vibe; was that actually the case?
You know, it was fun, but it was pretty strict. We had a lot to get done in a short amount of time. This band has a really good work ethic. Before we even started touring, we rehearsed four or five nights a week, for a year. We woodshedded for a good year before we went out on the road. We got this opportunity to record with Chris, and we had a week of pre-production, a week of live tracking, and a week of overdubbing, mainly vocals and guitar and keyboard solos. That’s not a lot of time to do 12 songs. We actually did 15 songs and chose 12 of them for the album. That one week of recording live, we got 15 tracks, and Chris showed up ready to work hard. He had his hand in choosing guitar tones, and he had a room full of drums and a room full of guitars and other instruments that we could pick from. For example, we’d be playing a song and he’d say, “Smitty, why don’t you try this snare drum instead of that one?” So it was a lot of fun, but we did it in 10- or 12-hour days.
That is a really short amount of time to get something like that done.
It was a great atmosphere, but we had to keep our noses clean and stick to working. Couldn’t get too loose, if you know what I mean [laughs]
Right, absolutely. A couple questions about the songs. I need to know what questions you have about the planets out in space and how we got here in the first place.
[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t know why Scotty wrote that line. That might be a question for him.
What was your reaction to getting name-checked in your own band’s song?
Me and Scotty and Walker have known each other for 12 or 13 years now. We’ve moved from town to town together and played in bands together. When we got to Hollywood, we all worked in carpentry and then in an art department, working on TV shows together. We’ve lived together, so we know each other really well. So when he wrote that song, it was a cool thing. I never thought much about it; I thought it was a great song.
It is a great song.
And I did question the planets in outer space. I’ve always been a searcher, I guess. He knows that about me.
In “Welcome to LA,” was the grandmother your grandmother, or a composite of the coolest grandmothers in the world?
[Laughs] It’s whatever the listener wants.
My grandmother definitely inspired me. She’s one of the hardest-working women I’ve known—a West Virginia dairy farmer. I come from three or four generations of dairy farmers, and I grew up in that atmosphere of just working hard, believing in good, believing if you want it to happen, it will happen. Luckily, I have a family that’s taught me that and brought me up with that. When I moved out to LA, everybody was like, “Why the hell do you want to move out to LA?” You know, it’s full of fake-this and fake-that. “You should move somewhere with a little less of that. “But LA’s been a great city for all of us. It’s whatever you make of it. But, yeah, grandma got a shout-out in the song. She’s 98 years old and still doing it, still kickin’.
You have four singers in the band, and you all write. How did you decide what got recorded, and even what gets played at a given show?
Between the producer, our manager, and what we vibed with, we picked the songs that best represented us on this album. After we first recorded, we went back into the studio for one week with this guy Paul Stacey just to re-record some stuff. There were a couple songs we’d been playing live that we hadn’t recorded for the album, and we thought we should definitely get them on the album—they would help shape the album. There was some trial and error, you know. In the beginning, we threw a bunch of songs into the pot and we all decided what would be on the record. Chris chose the original 12. The album was kind of—nothing happened with it for almost a year and we went on the road with the Crowes and after being on the road and playing 80 shows, we said, “We play these songs a lot, but they’re not on the album; let’s make sure they get on the album.” So we added those songs.
How receptive were the Black Crowes crowds to your music?
Very receptive. It’s funny because so far the middle-age population between 35 and 45, if you will, has seemed to really dig our music, because we’re just a good old American rock and roll band. They were very receptive. We played Philadelphia and we had a bunch of folks from Lancaster, who had seen us there with the Crowes, drive a couple hours to our Philadelphia show. So the Crowes’ crowd was a good crowd for us to be in front of.
You’ve done a good bit of opening shows. How does an opening set—probably 40 or 45 minutes—differ from a headlining set, as far as what you play, how you structure the show, and so forth?
When we open a set and only get 45 minutes or an hour, we just focus on our record; we play songs off our new album. It’s just a compact punch. It’s like, “Here are our new songs, here’s the album we just released.” When we have an hour and a half to play, like most bands, we can stretch out a little more, play more of the jammy songs. We can throw a couple covers in there, too. It’s fun to play a longer set and stretch out a little bit. But those compact sets, those 45-minute sets, are a good way for us to give the crowd a nice punch. You’re in, you’re out.
I enjoyed that punch when I saw you guys.
[Laughs] Well that’s good! That’s perfect.
You guys also did some shows in Iraq. How’d you land that gig?
Our friend Franky Perez asked us to go to Iraq with him and be his backup band. We were like, “Okay, let’s do it.” So we went over. We did our own set and then we did a set with him as his band, so we’d play for about two and a half hours whenever we played for the troops. We were there maybe 12 days and did seven or eight shows. We were supposed to do some more shows, but we got grounded—there were a few sandstorms while we were over there. We got stuck on the bases for a few days in a row instead of hopping from base to base. But that was amazing. A great experience. It really opened our eyes.
A lot of different ways. You know, you’re over here and you have your opinions of what the war is and whether you think we should or shouldn’t be there; are we fighting for oil or are we fighting for their government; are we fighting just to fight—all of that. To be over there and talk with the troops— They didn’t really understand why they were over there, and they just really wanted to come home. But in the same breath, they’d retract that statement, by saying “I saw a lot of horrible things that a ruler like Saddam had done to his country.” When we were over there, I saw firsthand how we improved that a little bit, helping to solidify the government. But a lot of the troops I met just want to come home.
Were you scared or nervous at all over there?
I didn’t feel scared at all. We felt very safe, man. They always had guards with us. The parts of Iraq they took us into were pretty peaceful; they made sure there wasn’t a whole lot of activity going on. We were going to go to the southwest border at one point to put on our show, but it got canceled because there was some hostility going on in that area. But I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. I was so excited just to be over there and be a part of it and see what it was all about. We didn’t go to any of the towns or cities; we went from base to base.
We got to stay at one of Saddam’s palaces. Saddam had this huge palace in the middle of Baghdad that the US government has taken over. That was pretty wild, to stay there in this mansion. You heard stories about what used to go on there, and the idea we were staying there was just pretty intense. It was amazing.
We performed on big stages, like little amphitheaters; we performed on this small satellite base on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of the night, when a sandstorm had kicked up. That was probably the most powerful experience for me, being over there, performing on this flatbed truck. It was the middle of the night and this sandstorm kicked up and this convoy was coming in from a mission and there were just, like ten trucks shining their lights on us with probably 30 soldiers marching in front of them. They came right up to the stage, right in front of us, and turned their ignitions off, then got out of their trucks and just started jammin’. A lot of them had their fists pumping in the air. I think we were doing a cover of “Highway to Hell” at that moment, as the trucks were coming in. That was a pretty powerful experience.
That sounds like a scene out of Apocalypse Now—
It was crazy. I had tears rolling down my cheeks, it was so powerful.
In thinking about what each of you guys brings to the band, what are your influences as a songwriter, a singer, and a drummer? What do you bring to the table in the band?
I grew up singing a lot of gospel; I come from a six-person family, so the Smith family would go to church and sing a lot of harmonies. My mother played piano in the church and we’d crowd around the piano as kids and sing harmonies all the time. That’s where I learned to harmonize, from singing with her and my brothers and my sister. And I grew up with a very gospel and country influence. Then I got out into the real world and moved around, and I got to be a huge Levon Helm fan. How can I not be? I’m a huge Levon Helm fan and a huge John Bonham fan, as far as my drumming goes. I love Johnny Cash, too.
So the Southern end of things.
Definitely the more country southern end of things. But with more drumming. I went to school and got a jazz degree in drums, so I have that whole other aspect to my drumming—I can list a whole bunch of jazz drummers that I listen to a lot, as well.
What do you want people to know about your band, right now?
That’s a great question. I think our band is just a nice, solid, American, blue-collar rock and roll band. We’re not glitter and we’re not full of shit. We like to write good songs about our life experiences, and that connects with a common person. And as far as knowing about our band, I just want people to come out and listen to us, and once they do, they’ll know what our band is. I think what you see is what you get, and that’s the cool thing about this group—we’ve been working hard, playing music all our lives. It’s nice to see an ensemble like this gaining a little bit of recognition.