When I met Steve Smith in 1980, I must admit that I knew little about him, as I was contacted about the interview only one day prior to our scheduled meeting. Of course, there wasn't that much to know either. The band he was in, Journey, had only had one top 20 hit two years earlier with Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'. Yet, they were due to play on of L.A.'s largest venues, the Forum, that night. Soon after that, however, there was no mistaking the band's success. Departure sold 1.6 million records in 1980. Captured, Journey's live album, sold 1.4 million, and in that same year, 1981, Escape sold 6 million, making it obvious that, for this group, the sky would be the limit. It was also obvious that the new chemistry accounted for this success. With the addition of vocalist Steve Perry in 1977, Smith in 1978, and Jonathan Cain in 1980, the elements were just right.
What I suspected, but didn't know during our first interview, was that Journey was the odd gig of Smith's career. I knew that his background included working with Jean-Luc Ponty, and that he was asked to play with Freddie Hubbard (although he chose to with Montrose instead), but he seemed tailor-made for Journey. I learned that Steve can play anything, but he is a jazz musician at heart.
In 1983, that was made clear when he regrouped some musicians with whom he had played during his days as a student at the Berklee College of Music. They released their first, self-titled LP, Vital Information, followed a year later by Orion. Currently in release is their first effort to date, Global Beat, of which Steve is very proud. What he is most excited about, however, is that now that he is no longer a member of Journey, he will be able to put all his energy into playing the music he most loves with his own band, as well as with Steps Ahead, of which he has recently become a member. It is obvious that, while the last several months have been a period of intense change and growth for Steve, he is finally enjoying the opportunity to blossom into the musician and artist he truly is.
Robin Flans: Tell me about the infamous practice sessions you are known for.
Steve Smith: There have been all different kinds. The first kind took place from the time I was in eight grade through my high school years. My practice sessions then didn't take place on the drumset. I used to practice on a practice pad all the time - just practicing to record. Half of it would be trying to understand the different drum parts and copying them, and the other part would be improvising using the record for tempo. I think that not practicing on a drumset then was a mistake. It would have been better if I had, because I would have developed faster as a drumset player. Practicing on the pad was very good for my hands, but I didn't really get much of a workout for my feet, or for being agile on the kit and developing a touch for the drums and cymbals. But the teacher I had back then, bill Flanagan, really insisted that I practice on the pad. He was an old-school guy who grew up learning very rudimentally. He was a big band drummer who did get into drumset, but he was very insistent that I practice sight reading and that my hands get a lot of chops. That's what I concentrated on in those practice sessions, and they would be hours and hours long. When I had days off from school and during summer vacation, I would just practice all day.
Then through college, I didn't really practice a lot. When I was going to Berklee, I played a lot. I'd play for hours every day. Each day in school, we had sessions or ensembles, so I got a lot of chances to play. At night, if there wasn't a gig, it was a session that a bunch of people would put together so we could play. I really learned how to play music just through the experience of playing. That's different from learning how to play the drums. I just kind of relied on the chops I had developed before I got there. And I thought it was the cool thing not to practice, but just to play a lot. Again, in retrospect, a balance would have been the right thing to do.
RF: Why did you think it was cool?
SS: It was just what was going on there at the time. It seemed like the thing to do. Certain things become hip in your environment, and that was one of the things that was hip. It was like, "Well, I bet Elvin Jones doesn't practice." It was coming from there.
Then when I was on the road with Ponty and Montrose, again, there was not much practicing - just playing. There was just enough practicing to keep in shape and to keep from getting rusty. When I joined Journey, I had the time and a real need to practice, because I really needed to get a lot of new chops together. Those chops were not what I used to think chops were, which was playing fast and hard. At this point, the chops I needed were playing very slow and steady. Those weren't things that I had a good background in.
RF: So they were chops primarily for the Journey gig?
SS: Right. I started practicing for the gig. That's a good point, because before, I used to practice just to play the drums, and it almost didn't relate to what I was doing every night. I would practice my weekly lesson, which would be this very complex thing, like all these polyrhythms. I would practice them enough to do my lesson each week, but it didn't relate at all to the gig. I was playing at night or even the jam session I was doing in the evening. But the practice sessions when I joined Journey related very much to what I needed to learn to make it happen for that gig.
RF: How did you learn to play slow?
SS: By practicing with a drum machine. That was really the best thing for me. I just got a cheap Roland drum machine, and turned it up real loud through a guitar or bass amplifier. I would spend hours practicing to it. I could play the things I wanted to play, and I could tell if they were coming out right by what they sounded like and how my playing felt if I taped it. I'd listen to the tape and say, "Okay, that sounds right. Now what did it feel like when I did that?" And I'd try to remember the feeling of what it was like for all the notes to land just in the right places. Even though it was real slow and there was a lot of room for error between those notes, it did have a certain feel. Then I would really try to tune into what it felt like, so I didn't have to rely on the drum machine. I could take it away, remember that same feeling, and try to recreate it every time I played. Eventually, it started sinking in. I developed a practice technique. I found that what really helped me to nail down those slow tempos was to play a samba pattern very slowly, to keep my feet going very steady, and not even play my hands. I was trained from the hands down, and found out that music is built the opposite way. It's really built from the bottom up, so I had to practice a lot with my feet and get them under control without their following my hands. I would practice with my feet and then add the hands, just playing very simple things, like quarter notes or 8th notes. At those slow tempos, it's very easy to put the beats in the wrong place, just a little bit ahead or a little bit behind, because there is so much space in between the notes. Finally, I started getting the feel of that, building it from the bottom up, and eventually, it started feeling more and more comfortable to the point where I could go in the studio, play live, and have it feel really great all the time. It took a long time, I would practice for four or five hours every day, and if I didn't practice that many hours in a day, at least I would practice something every day. I really noticed that, if I practiced every day, it made a difference.
RF: Were there other considerations for the Journey situation coming from your background?
SS: I practiced double bass drums, which I had never practiced before. I started working on that quite a bit.
RF: How did you work on that?
SS: At first, I just got the other bass drum, stuck it on there, and played it with the left foot leading, because that was what my hi-hat was used to doing. Eventually, I started thinking about it and working things out a little. I found out that I wanted to lead with my right foot. That way, when I did fills with my feet and with my hands, it would come out on the downbeat with the foot and the hands together. I got this book called Bass Drum Control by Colin Bailey. It's written for one bas drum, and it's a series of exercises using your hands and one bass drum. I just disregarded his concept of having it be for one bas drum and used it for two bass drums. I played everything with a right-left, right-left, right-left approach. I would just practice what was written in the book and try to get the dexterity, so I wasn't locked into a bunch of licks. I could have the freedom to hear something and be able to play it, which is basically how I've played all my life. I practice so that I can improvise and not just to learn a series of licks to pull off. I try to get a command over a conception and develop the conception so I can improvise with it. So I did the same thing with the two bass drums.
Another thing I had to practice, believe it or not, was dynamics. In Journey, we played a lot softer than I had ever played with other bands - keeping the tempo really steady, but still playing soft and then playing very loud.
RF: Is there a way to learn that?
SS: It's the same thing. When you practice, practice with dynamics. Don't practice everything at the same volume level. It's very easy to do. Try to practice musically and not practice a separate thing from when you perform. You have to be thinking that it's very similar.
For my first three years in Journey, I did that intense practicing as much as I could. I practiced not only the slow tempos, but all different tempos. I practiced a lot with the drum machine to make myself very aware of my time, my tempo, and the spacing of the notes - the subdivision of the beats. Those were things that were brought to my attention especially by Steve Perry, who is a good drummer himself and has great time as a musician. He made me very aware of those things, because he needs them in order to do what he has to do. He really demanded that of me. Then he helped me find out how to develop that, too. After three years, I started feeling very secure and very comfortable with the Journey music and the drumming I had to do conceptually to play the music. So I started spending more of my practice time practicing jazz, applying those ideas to things I had learned n jazz, practicing my swing time with the drum machine again, and making it very accurate. I started practicing jazz, jazz-rock, and all of those things I had played before, but now I started seriously practicing them and trying to get them a lot more under control than they ever were before. I was finally learning how to practice as a complete thing, not just with the hands on a practice pad and not just practicing enough to get by. I learned how to make that practice session really mean something and come out with a good end result that I could apply. I started feeling "Okay, this feels good. I can put this aside and deal with it n a day-to-day basis." I had the space in my mind and in my playing to be seriously interested in the jazz again. So I started practicing that with the same approach.
I found that it was really starting to develop to the point where the next step I needed was an outlet to actually play it. I was playing it a little bit, off and on, but I didn't get the chance to really do it until I met Tom Coster and started playing with him. That kept developing, and then I was playing with the White Boys, which has now become Vital Information. We've been together for a long time. That started happening more often until it got to the point where we decided that we'd go into the studio and record. We did a record, Columbia put it out, and we went on tour for two months. I didn't practice during that time, because I didn't really have time, but my playing really progressed to the best it's ever been, because I was getting a chance to play the music that really demanded the most of me. It demanded that I had the rock chops, the jazz chops, and the fusion chops. I two-and-a-half months, we played about 50 gigs, so I really played a lot every night. That brought it all together and made a complete circle.
RF: Like you said, you brought it all together - the rock chops and the jazz chops. Can you be specific about the difference between them?
SS: One thing about rock playing is that, first of all, it has to be very supportive. That's basically the role. In jazz music, the role is to be supportive too, but also to be very much of a participant in what's going on with the entire group and to interact, on the spur of the moment, with the improvisation that's going on. With rock 'n' roll drumming, there's very little of that interaction. It's mostly supportive in the sense that you're being a composer. The most creative part of the gig is when the song has been written, it's been brought to you, and you have to come up with a drum part. There's where you have to do the work to come up with the right thing to play to make the some come alive. Once that's done, it's basically part of the composition, so even when you play the song live, you have that as the center. You almost have to stick to what you did on the record, because people become so familiar with that. It's part of the song - even the drum fills. I don't play it exactly like the record all the time, but I really stick close to it.
In jazz music, there's the interaction, but most of the time, when I play on a jazz record - my own record or Tom Coster's record, and even when I played on Ponty's record - it doesn't really have to be exactly the same live. It is close - the same kind of feel or something - but there is a lot more room to change it, and there's a demand to change it. If you played it the same every time, it would cease to be jazz.
There's a generalization that rock drumming is strong all the time, usually loud, very deliberate, holding the time down, and real solid. Jazz time, on the other hand - say swing time - is very light with a lot of forward motion, and the whole feel of swing is a completely different feel - that triplet feel of swing versus the 16th - note or 8th - note feel of rock 'n' roll. The time has to be strong. It can't be nebulous, but lots of times, it's implied as much as it is stated, so it's a very different approach.
RF: How do you fuse the two?
SS: I put them together just for my own music, which is part of who I am as a person, and what personal experiences I've had as a rock musician and a jazz musician. I'll try to do exactly what I've described, but all in the course of maybe one record or one song sometimes, in order to have that kind of lightness and implied time together with something that's very strong and forceful. Another way of blending the two together is to improvise using jazz phrasing and jazz ideas, but playing them with a rock sound - very strong and powerful. So I'm actually playing what a jazz drummer would traditionally play very light and very sensitively, but playing it very strong with two bass drums and with the toms. Sometimes, I even change things I would play in a triplet context in the jazz playing into 16th-note concepts and play them in the rock feel with the rock sound. That's why if someone saw me playing a drum solo in a Journey concert, even thought it was rock energy in intensity and it had the rock beat, the information I was playing was coming very much from a jazz school. It was the combination of the phrasing and drums I used, and the way I was approaching the drumset was very much from a jazz approach. An approach I developed on the drums, which is a jazz idea, is to see the drumset without a road map, in order to avoid the typical high tom to low tom, one-way street type of approach. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, watching great jazz drummers like Eric Gravatt and Tony Williams - two people who really approach the drumset from that manner - and also studying with Gary Chaffee. You try to think of all the different motions that are available on the drumset, and then you try them out. Some of them are just going to sound dumb, but some of them are going to sound great and very different.
RF: Were these the things you were practicing during the first three years of practice sessions with Journey?
SS: No. I wasn't really concentrating on that. I was just practicing the basics of being able to get the timing, the feel, and those things right. That's what I talked about a lot during the last interview, and that's what I was really consumed with then. Once I thought that I had a good command over the time and feel, then I was open to explore the creativity part of it. I felt that I had been presented with the information backwards. First, I learned how to approach the drums in these different ways when I was at Berklee, but nobody had ever spent any time trying to help me develop my time. They were giving me other things before the basics, so I went back and sort of relearned everything with the right perspective - knowing that I had to get the time together before the other thing could happen.
RF: Have you found that reading has been necessary?
SS: I'm really glad that I can read, and I've found it necessary to develop all the different chops I have and the different styles of playing, because I've relied heavily on reading the material out of a bunch of different books. A lot of times, it made the difference of getting a certain gig. For example, I needed to read on Jean-Luc Ponty's gig, because I only had four days to learn his music. There have been many other situations where reading has been necessary.
RF: We touched on where your education fell short a little bit. What did your education do for you? What did it prepare you for, and what didn't it prepare you for?
SS: There are some definite problems and disadvantages when it's all education and not a whole lot o practical learning. The first problem is that teachers are probably teachers because they are not very good players. That's something I ran up against. I had teachers who were great for expanding my mind and filling it with credible information, but when it came down to practical playing, they didn't have the right information. If they did, they probably wouldn't be teaching, or teaching as much. That's a real problem. You can pick up your teacher's bad habits, which I experienced, and I had to go through unlearning and relearning.
On the positive side, though, it helped me learn the discipline of being a practicing musician, instead of a musician who just learned a particular song. This is very general, but I find it to be pretty true: The difference between a lot of jazz musicians and a lot of rock musicians is that the rock musicians basically learn to play their instruments good enough to play just certain songs, whether they are the songs they're learning off of a record to play in a rock band, or the ones they write themselves. There's nothing wrong with that, because that's all they're going to be required to play, but jazz musicians learn more about their instruments and understand the theory of music. I took that approach. It kept me from being limited just to playing my songs, but on the other side of that, I had to learn how to play songs. A lot of times, if drummers have Ringo Starr for a hero and they grow up listening to that and just playing songs, then they're tuned into what took me ten years to find out. Neither one is better than the other. They're just very different ways of doing it.
RF: Can you be specific about the art of improvisation? How do you learn that?
SS: First of all, I feel that you have to have a great command over your instrument. Then, you have to do a lot of homework. You have to do a lot of listening to the history of drummers who have been there before you. You have to listen to what they did and try to imitate it, so you can conceptually understand how they were approaching it and you can develop a vocabulary. You need to develop a vocabulary. The ultimate in improvisation is to be able to play differently every time. That's impossible, but how you express that each time has got to be different. Then, you have to develop your own style, which just comes from playing. Tape yourself as much as you can, listen to it, and analyze it. If you listen back and hear what you played, you have to think, "Did I really want to play that, or is that just what came out? Why did that actually come out that way?" If it isn't what you wanted, you're going to have to spend time learning how to hear in your head what you wanted to play, and then try to find that on your instrument. If you can hear in your head what it is you want to hear on the drums and get the chops to pull it off consistently, then you're on your way to developing your own vocabulary and your own individual voice, and to improvising.
RF: I think that people sometimes had trouble seeing you in both worlds - the Vital Information and the Journey worlds. How did you feel about that?
SS: I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it.
RF: You weren't worried about the acceptance and didn't feel that you had to prove something when you first started Vital Information?
SS: My main concern was the direction of music. I wanted it to be serious, and I wanted my participation as a drummer to be very musical. I took a very supportive role in what I played, and I felt as though that was the most musically mature role I could have taken. All I wanted to prove was that I could make a good musical record.
RF: Tell me about Global Beat.
SS: The band that tracked for the new album is Tim Landers, bass; Dean Brown, guitar; Tom Coster, keyboards; Dave Wilczewski, sax; and Mike Fischer, percussion. We also feature a lot of percussion with African percussionists Kwaku Dadey and Prince Joni Haastrup, Latin percussionist Armando Peraza, and steel drums with Andy Narell. We also have Mike Stern, Barry Finnerty, Ray Gomez, and Jeff Richman on guitars, and Brad Dutz on percussion. Tim, Dave, and I wrote the music, and it is influenced by many different types of music from all over the world - the jazz and blues from the U.S., the classical influence from Europe, and the rhythmic influence from South America, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba and Africa. I'm very happy and exited with how the record turned out.
RF: What are some of the Journey tunes you've played on that you think are the best?
SS: I really like what I played on "After the Fall" from Frontiers. What I played on "Frontiers" is what actually started that tune. I came up with this drum feel, and we wrote the tune from that. That's about it. That's not to say I don't like the other tunes, I do, but I think those tunes are very special. On the Escape record, I like what I played on "Mother, Father", "Don't Stop Believin'", and "Dead or Alive". Those are my favorite performances. I can't remember very much before then. "Walks Like A Lady" on Departure was something I really liked. I played brushes on that one tune, and that was pretty neat. I like a lot of the stuff on the live record Captured, and there's a Japanese album called Dream After Dream, on which there are some really great performances. It's an import, and they only made 50,000 for the States.
RF: What was the recording process like with Journey?
SS: First of all, we rehearsed a lot before we went into the studio, so we were really prepared before we actually started recording. Up until this last album, during the writing/rehearsal process, somebody had an idea for a song, and then that idea was presented to everyone. Everyone contributed ideas to that, and we created a song out of it. There was only one time that a complete song had been brought to us, and that was "Faithfully." Jonathan Cain had really finished the whole thing with words and melody. Other than that, all the tunes were finished by the band. We spent hours every day practicing and taping, going home and listening to the cassettes, coming back in and changing things around, until finally we felt that we were ready to go in and record without spending a lot of time experimenting in the studio. We usually worked from 11:00 in the morning until about 7:00 at night - very sane hours. Those tunes that we worked out in rehearsal always ended up changing a lot. The process was that basic tracks were played by everybody - not just bass and drums, or just drums. Steve sang, and we usually saved everything. So if we didn't end up using a guitar solo or a lot of the lead vocal, it was left there as reference to do one with. Then, we went back and overdubbed for a couple of weeks - guitar parts, keyboard parts, lead vocals, and harmonies. Not everybody was there for that. Usually, the producer and the one person who was working were there. The rest of us came in and out, listened, and added a little bit. However, we noticed that, if somebody was working all day and another guy bopped in off the street and said, "Hey, that stinks," it was like, "If you want to say that, you should have been here all day." Everybody trusted the other person to have enough maturity to do what was going to be right.. Then when it came to mixing, we let the producer or the engineer work all day to get a tune ready and make a mix of the tune at night when they were done. For Frontiers, Steve Perry and I went in a lot and listened to the mix. If we liked it, we left it. If we didn't, we'd suggest changes, they'd make them, and we'd finish the mix right there. We'd leave, and they'd go on to the next tune. We'd come in in the morning with a fresh perspective, and that's how we finished the mixes.
RF: Compare and contrast the equipment you used for both situations.
SS: With Journey, I was using the big Sonor drumset with two 24" bass drums and three rack toms. I used the standard drum sizes, and had three rack toms, tow floor toms, and the A Zildjian cymbals. I used that same drumset when I did the first Vital Information record. The only difference was that I had a lot of K Zildjian cymbals - lighter cymbals - which really made a big difference in how I approached the drums. It had a much lighter, softer sound. I tuned the drums up a little higher. Then on the first side of Orion, I used the big set, and on a couple of the songs I used some Simmons toms. On the second side, I used a real small drumset with a 20" bass drum, two rack toms, and one floor tom. I found that it worked even better. I used the same lighter cymbal setup and one bass drum. On the newest record, Global Beat, I just used the small set for the whole record and the K Zildjian cymbals. It's getting an even more personal sound for Vital Information, because I'm finding that, even though I changed the cymbals, it made me play much lighter and more sensitively. Now that I've gotten rid of the two bass drums and five tom-toms, it also changes things. It changes the approach, and the tuning of the drums is very different. I also went back to using the white heads instead of the clear heads, and it gives the drums a warmer sound.
RF: When you were spending so much time with a set format with Journey, wasn't it difficult then to turn around and gear your head toward a more improvisational approach with Vital Information?
SS: It took a while to feel real comfortable at it and to start understanding it completely again. Most of the conceptual understanding was there already, and I could slip from one to the other pretty easily, but it did take a little while. What took time in the jazz thing was getting the facility and sensitivity back to do the subtler things, and getting that control back.
RF: What about tips for playing a power ballad, as you are known for having done in Journey?
SS: I think the arrangement is very important. We tried to develop a real nice arrangement of the song. Sometimes the arrangement was that the drums wouldn't play through half of it, or they came in and went out. You have to be very aware of when it's right not to play. That was everybody's contribution - not just my own ideas. First off, I like to look for a really nice feel. When you play those slow tempos, that's when you really have to dig into the beat. A lot of times, I pull it way back, not to the point where it's slowing down, but just enough so it really feels majestic. When you play the big tom fills, there has to be a lot of air in between the notes, so the drums have a chance to really ring out. You have to have a great sound first off, and let that sound ring out so you hear the toms, and you're not hurrying through the fills. A lot of times, I composed those drum fills. It wasn't that we would be in the studio, and all of a sudden, I would have to fill to lead up to this thing. I'd try a lot of different ones and settle on one. So even if we did ten takes of the song, I'd usually play the same fills every time because I would have tried enough possibilities so that I would know it was right, the other guys in the band would know it was right, and we would have settled into it. Then it was just a matter of really pulling it off so it worked. Sometimes, I'd change them at the last minute, and that change would be the magic that we were looking for, but most of the time, I would have already worked them out in that rehearsal time. Then they became part of the song, and I'd play the same ones in the live performance. I wasn't afraid to do that. Sometimes for a jazz musician, that's a bad thing to do. It's predictable or contrived. Maybe it is, but is also works best for the song, and it was the best way for me to do it.
RF: The ballads were really lush and dynamic.
SS: We had really become known for those, and in a way, I've become known for doing that. Bryan Adams had me play drums on some ballads, for just that reason. I played "Heaven" on Reckless, which was a number-one hit single. I like doing sessions. Since leaving Journey, I've played on some cuts of Glen Burtnick's album, and I've done an entire album with Tony MacAlpine. He's a young, black, rock guitar player and classical pianist who just recorded his debut album. Billy Sheehan plays bass, and it was produced by Mike Varney. The album is instrumental, and it's absolutely smoking. It has my best rock playing on it to date.
RF: In our last interview, we touched on the difference between playing in an instrumental situation. In the first interview, you mentioned giving the notes their full value. Aren't there other considerations?
SS: That was when I was first experiencing being in a group with a singer, and that was what I was being presented with by Steve: "Don't hurry your fills and don't come out of the fill a little bit early, because I'm holding the note and I know when it's supposed to end. Don't get there before I do." I was very conscious of everything's proper length and time. That concept works with everything now. I've applied that to the jazz music as well, because good time is good time. He just made me aware of how to make it even better by being aware that sometimes, at the end of fills, I got there a little too soon. I got all excited about it and hurried my way through it.
I guess the main thing is that, before I played with Journey, I was always interacting with what was going on, and I stopped doing that. I don't do that when I play rock. I do it to a slight degree - enough to add to the composition - but not enough to take away from the foundation. Never leave that foundation. I don't think of it so much in terms of a vocalist anymore. I guess I take it for granted that, when I'm playing in rock, I'm playing with a singer. That was a new thing for me back then.
RF: Yet, I would think that, in a rock context, it might be hard to be forceful and not overbearing.
SS: I focused all my energy through Steve when we were playing. It wasn't like I just listened to the bass player. When we played instrumentally, I could dish out a lot more stuff and it was ok. Neal could pick up on it, and I could really cut loose. When Steve was singing, I was focusing everything through him to make him feel comfortable, to stay out of his way, and to support what he was doing. I was listening very closely to what he was singing and to his phrasing. I made sure that what I was giving him felt good for him. I could usually tell how he was singing and if the tempo was right. One of the more important things in working with a singer is that the tempo has to be right, so you can hear the words. With an instrumental thing, a lot of times you can play tunes a little faster than the record, and it will still be okay. But with lyrics, the words can get squashed together, and you have to make sure the tempos don't get too fast.
RF: So what happened with you and Journey?
SS: This is very hard to explain, because it's very emotional and I also have a lot of confusion about it. It's not very clear to me. I would have to say that it started with Perry's solo record, and how that experience really changed his approach as a musician/songwriter. In my opinion, he became more interested in being a solo artist and enjoyed the feeling of writing songs with maybe one or two other people, rather than a whole group situation. He quit the band, and to get him to do another record, we agreed to his producing the record and that he could bring in anyone he wanted to play on it. Most of the material for this new record was written by Jonathan and Steve together or Neal, Jonathan and Steve together. The band ceased being a band. They did very extensive demos of the songs at Jonathan's studio, complete with drum machine beats and bass parts that they specifically wanted. So I felt a lot less involved, and there was much less leeway in what I could contribute. They felt very specific about what they wanted in the drums and the bass. They also felt that the parts they had come up with were integral to the tunes. First they said, "Let's record the whole album with the drum machine and have you maybe put some parts on later." They felt that the drum machine itself was part of the compositions. I started feeling that it wasn't a band, and it certainly didn't have the same band approach as when we wrote collectively.
RF: How did you feel about their wanting to put a drum machine on the album?
SS: I felt terrible about that.
RF: Was that because you honestly, in your heart, believed that the tuned could have been great with you on the album?
SS: I really felt that they could have been better with me playing, rather than the drum machine playing. To me, it goes back to the feeling of a band. I feel like each member of a band is an important contributor. If I were a fan of a band's sound, I'd feel bad if I bought an album by that band, and the bass player and the drummer didn't play on it. It really bothered me that those decisions were being made, and I didn't really have a lot to say about it. As much as I tried to change hat, I wasn't effective. There was a lot of friction to start with, simply because of my resentment of their using a drum machine. I have a whole set of feelings about drum machines, which I really sorted out through this whole thing.
I believe that there are four parts to making an experience complete; a physical part, and emotional part, and intellectual part and a spiritual part. The engineer and the guys in the band would ask me to make the drum machine parts a little more believable by changing the programming a bit. They said that, if I was thinking of the stuff, why couldn't I let the machine play it for me? They couldn't understand why that didn't satisfy me. So I had to think about it. I realized that it took away the physical pleasure of playing the drums, it took away the spiritual pleasure of playing music, and it took away the emotional feeling. The only thing that was left was the intellectual part of programming the machine. That's not enough for a complete experience for me. I've had too many years invested in actually playing the instrument to feel good about being a programmer.
RF: And yet, on the last couple of Journey albums, the drum sound was explosive. Why would they do away with that?
SS: I think it comes from a paranoia of thinking that we have to keep up with the trends and the times, and that what we've done in the past is lousy. On a scale from one to ten, maybe what we did on the last record was an eight in comparison to our potential, but I think that some people in the band looked at it as if it had been a zero. It was totally irrational and unrealistic.
RF: So what happened after you rehearsed?
SS: We went into the studio to record those tunes. The whole time, I had a very pessimistic attitude that it wouldn't work out. We started the first week with the whole band. By the second week, Ross wasn't playing and Bob Glaub was playing bass. I felt very bad that Ross wasn't going to play. I also felt very threatened by it, because I thought that a can of worms was being opened. I felt very insecure about my position, so I expressed my fears and I was assured that it would all be okay. We tracked for about two weeks, and then Randy Jackson cam in on bass. We tracked for another couple of weeks, doing some of the same songs over again. We spent two months tracking. At that point, it was decided that they would bring in another drummer to re-do four of the songs. Steve just felt that what had been recorded didn't live up to the demos. On one hand, I wasn't completely surprised, because it wasn't fun going to work every day. There was so much tension. I felt a bit relieved to be out of that pressured situation. But they had no intention of just doing four songs. When they got Larrie [Londin], they wanted him to play everything again. When I heard that Larrie was there for two weeks tracking, it was a terrible time for me. Nobody called me to talk to me about what was going on. It became very impersonal. I ended up calling the other members.
RF: People don't know how to deal with hurting other people.
SS: That's what happened. It got so uncomfortable that my attorney was informed that they wanted me to retire from the band. I felt like I didn't know how I could work with them again because I felt so bad about the situation, and I'm sure they felt the same way. That's one aspect of the split up. Another aspect is that you taste what it feels like to hire different people for different tracks. There are definitely specialists, and Larrie can do certain things better than I can do them. But I can play other things better than somebody else, and in a band, you have to be everything. But when you taste what it's like when you don't have to accept what another band member offers, I'm sure there's an intoxicating feeling. In addition, you figure that you only have to pay someone for a day's work and not share the royalties with that person. All that added up to my being asked to leave the band.
RF: How did you feel, Steve?
SS: I felt really hurt, personally betrayed, and really unappreciated. During the whole thing, it was, "You're not happening." I was constantly made to feel that I wasn't a good musician, and that hit me where I live. That is something that is so important in my life. It's left an impact on me and made me a little insecure, but only a little, because I felt there were so many other reasons besides musical ones.
RF: How did you build up your confidence after you had been shot down?
SS: At first, I really withdrew a lot and stayed at home. I was very upset and went to therapy. Susan and I had a new baby, Elizabeth Ann, on July 1, 1985. That was very uplifting. Then I made a 100% commitment to my solo career, and I made a lot of creative decisions about what I want to do with myself as a musician in the future. I started finishing a solo record that I had recorded the basic tracks for in July of 1984. I had put it on the shelf, because every time I had planned to work on it, management would call me up and say, "We're going to start Journey rehearsals next week," but they would inevitably get postponed. I started working on Global Beat full time, finishing the overdubs, starting to think about album covers, and all these things that I had put on the back burner. The positive effect was that I was happy not to be in a situation where I was not appreciated.
RF: How long did it take you to get to that point?
SS: Some of it was there from the beginning. Along with the grief, there's also relief that happens simultaneously. That didn't start to become a bigger part of it for maybe a month or more. Then I started looking at it differently , because I started seeing it as: Now is the time to be a captain of my own ship, rather than a passenger on somebody else's Now is the time for me to really develop as an artist, rather than just a good musician.
RF: Although, you're also doing some varied work as a player.
SS: Yes, and I've really enjoyed it. I did a European tour with a guitarist by the name of Torsten deWinkle. That was with Tom Coster and Ernie Watts. The bass player was Kai Ekhart-Karpeh, and he was great. That was more in the vein of Vital Information or Steps Ahead. I also did records with T Lavitz, Jeff Richman, and Jeff Berlin, and a live recording with Players, which is a group with T Lavitz, Jeff Berlin, and Scott Henderson.
RF: How did the gig with Steps Ahead come about?
SS: I was doing a Sonor drum clinic tour and one of the clinics was with Lenny White. After the clinic, Lenny and I started talking about what we were both doing, and I told him that I was looking to do some jazz gigs. That's when he told me that Steps Ahead had just called him, but he couldn't do it because he had his own band together with Marcus Miller. So he was going to call and recommend me, which he did. That led to my being asked to join Steps Ahead. It was more than I ever dreamed of, as far as playing with good player goes. The band is Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Mike Stern, and Victor Bailey, although Victor is going to be playing with Weather Update, so Daryl Jones will be the bass player for the summer. I went to New York, rehearsed for three days, and then went out and did four gigs. It feels great, and it's opening up all kinds of doors for me as far as my growing as a player is concerned. It's giving me the opportunity to develop to the highest degree of my potential. To play with musicians who are that good makes it an open-ended situation. I don't feel any restrictions; what is required of me is to play as much as I can possibly play. There is a rock influence in their music and, at the same time, the requirements of the gig are to be really strong, real sensitive, and to be able to improvise with the band. I've done all of those things before in jazz, but the level of musicianship is the highest I've ever experienced.
RF: How will this affect your work with Vital Information?
SS: I think it will give Vital Information more credibility, because I was fighting against the stigma of being the Journey drummer. It will also give me a lot more input as far as writing and direction, and also develop my musicality to a higher degree.
RF: Since practicing has always been important in your gigs, what things did you start practicing when you got this gig?
SS: I'm practicing just to develop an incredible amount of facility, because I need a lot more facility and vocabulary to deal with the gig.
RF: How does one practice facility?
SS: The same way I've always practiced: focusing on what the gig requires, and then practicing jazz chops, funk, fusion, and all that stuff. The level of musicianship is so high that I'm just going to have to keep pushing myself. For example, I have a couple of places in the set where I just play with Brecker. One of them is a real fast jazz tempo, and the other one is a real fast rock fusion tempo. I can deal out everything I'm capable of playing and he just eats it up like it's nothing. So I have to work on surpassing everything I've ever done before in order to play with a musician of that caliber. Everyone in the group is at that level. It's challenging for me to push myself beyond my limits. I've always pushed myself to get into situations that are challenging, but this one is more than I ever imagined.
RF: What are your immediate plans for the future?
SS: Of course the Steps Ahead gig, and then to promote the Global Beat album, first with the clinics and then with band touring. I'm studying piano so I can write more, and I'm spending a lot of time practicing. For the first time, I'm meeting a lot of the local jazz musicians in San Francisco, and I'm getting involved in the local jazz scene. I have the opportunity to get out and play now. It feels good to me not to be cloistered in a band and to be an active, working musician again.
RF: Being in a band of that nature can almost become a star syndrome, and it sets you apart from people.
SS: Yes, it does. It removed me from the musical community. Just the other day, I did a Charlie Brown TV show soundtrack. I was called at the last minute, and it felt great to do something like that. I met all these studio players in San Francisco. I didn't even know there was a studio scene here. I had a great time. I had never done anything like that - watching the screen and playing along.
RF: Were you nervous?
SS: Yes, I was. I didn't know what to expect. The whole thing was jazz brushes. There are a lot of things I'm thinking of doing now. I want to write a book, do a video, and develop the educational aspect more.
RF: Is it hard when you've been cloistered in a band to become "one of the people"?
SS: I experienced the feeling of being a so-called rock star for maybe the height of the success of Journey. Some of it probably came from me, but I think most of it came from how people treated me, more than how I treated other people. I was on the road for most of ten years, but for the last two years, I've been home. I have a wife and two kids now. I started feeling very grounded and normal. Plus, living in a neighborhood where I see the neighbors every day made me feel very normal. Taking Ian to school and being one of the parents at school was good, and I lost that whole feeling of the rock'n'roll world. I don't miss that kind of touring and the intense life-style. I'm looking forward to touring with my own band and Steps Ahead, and doing as many other creative projects as I can fit into my schedule. Music feels very fresh to me right now, and the future seems very exciting.
© Modern Drummer, August 1986 - Transcribed by Noël