Stuart Smith is riding high these days. The main driver behind the melodic rock band Heaven & Earth, the guitarist is enjoying the success of the band’s acclaimed new CD, Dig (see our review here)—the first album Heaven & Earth has made with its new, permanent band lineup.
The British-born and now L.A.-based Smith has an impeccable rock and roll pedigree, having been mentored by legendary Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, followed by a stint with iconic ELP keyboardist Keith Emerson, and, more recently, a tenure as guitarist with an American version of 1970s glam-rock hitmakers, The Sweet, best known for hits like “Ballroom Blitz.”
Now fully focused on Heaven & Earth, Smith recently spoke with EntertainmentTell.com, in an exclusive interview that included … a break for breakfast? Check it out.
EntertainmentTell: Stuart, I’m really enjoying the new Heaven & Earth album, Dig. So I was wondering how this lineup came together, because I know you had some changes. You had (ex-Rainbow/Deep Purple vocalist) Joe Lynn Turner in there before?
Stuart Smith: Yeah, well, the first Heaven & Earth album … I just didn’t have a band at the time. I was in band with Keith Emerson with our drummer Richie Onori, and it was a band called Aliens of Extraordinary Abilities, and we were offered the deal, but Keith was going on tour again with ELP, that was reforming. So Samsung the Korean electronics giant, they saw me play at a club, they came back to my place, heard my stuff, and they offered me a solo deal. But I didn’t have a band, so I just called up everybody I knew. The second one was sort of a bit more cohesive but … everyone just came in and did their part. This was really a band album, we formed a band around it. (Singer) Joe Retta and I have been playing together for years with Sweet, same with (drummer) Richie Onori, so the three of us have been playing, so we tried various people we got Chuck Wright on bass, who’s a great writer and bass player, and sort of took it from there. Then there’s Arlan Schierbaum, who’s our keyboard player, who has been on the last two Heaven & Earth albums and performed on various songs, but now we had him for the whole album. But we have a new (keyboardist) now, called Ed Roth. It’s definitely a band situation, but now we have heavy rehearsal and we’re getting ready to have this thing on tour. So that’s your history.
EntertainmentTell: So you are going to do shows with Heaven & Earth?
Smith: Yes. There’s been some interest already, but we’ve been rehearsing for the last few weeks. We’re doing a showcase on April the 10th in Los Angeles at the Henry Fonda Theater, our record company’s hired it for the night, and we’ll do a showcase for the agents and see what up and coming tours there are out there.
EntertainmentTell: What are you thinking … clubs, or theaters? What’s the idea there?
Smith: No, not clubs nor theaters. Basically we want to try and get out with a major band on tour. And we have the support of our record company. We’ve also got connections with The Sweet, in South America from opening up with the Journey—that was a good set-up for us, and I know the promoter, so I talked to him about it and he’s looking for the right band to put us on with. When we do get going, we’ll probably go to South America first. Then we’ll be coming here and joining one of the summer tours.
EntertainmentTell: Do you have a following in South America? Is that a good place for you?
Smith: Oh yeah, they love rock anyway. They’ll see anything. It’s very different from here—they’ll put on bands that you wouldn’t expect to be together. Someone will go to an Eric Clapton show to see Oingo Boingo. They are just music-crazy down there.
EntertainmentTell: They like a lot of rock music there?
Smith: Yes, they love it.
EntertainmentTell: I could definitely see a double bill with Journey then; they would be a good companion band for you guys.
Smith: We went out with Sweet to Sweden and toured with Journey. Yeah, they would be a good fit. The thing about having us is, it’s a lot more versatile as far as who we can go out with. Sweet has only three or four bands that would be a match.
EntertainmentTell: Right, because it’s kind of that classic rock thing, the Sweet legacy.
Smith: Yeah. For all intended purposes, we are a new band; even though we’re doing the 70s-type sounds, it really is a new band. … You’ll have to excuse us a second, we’re just pulling up to Del Taco to get our breakfast on the way. (To Del Taco drive-through box) I’ll have two sausage and cheese biscuits please … just sausage and cheese. No egg. Two egg, bean, and cheese burritos, extra cheese, extra green sauce. … You should see, Howard, we have fun like this every morning. Usually we start at 2 o’clock, but there are certain days we start at 11. The other day, we were at the drive-through and the guy goes, “Is that for here or to go?” (laughs)
EntertainmentTell: Yeah—and it’s a drive through! (laughs)
Smith: Obviously smoking his morning joint. If I worked at a place like this, I guess I’d be doing the same thing.
EntertainmentTell: I’ve done a lot of interviews and I can’t say I’ve ever ordered food with anyone before … that was cool. I like it.
Smith: There you go.
EntertainmentTell: It seemed like you were having trouble getting that green sauce.
Smith: Yesterday we pulled up, and Joe was driving and he said, “Can you repeat that?” and (the Del Taco employee) goes, “Maybe.”
EntertainmentTell: I’m always skeptical of the drive-through because they give you the wrong stuff.
Smith: Oh you got that scene in Lethal Weapon when you got that guy—what’s his name—Joe Pesci in the back, and he gets the food with the wrong stuff …
EntertainmentTell: I’m in a couple of bands myself on the side, when I’m not doing this—I can relate. You’re constantly on the road and you do these drive-throughs and you’re moving fast.
Smith: Yeah. It’s not the ideal situation, but certainly when we’re in rehearsal we’ve got the “roach coach” that comes by at 1:30. What do you play?
EntertainmentTell: I’m a bass player. I’m in a cover band that does dance music, pop stuff, and I’m also in an original band that does progressive rock—in a Yes, Dream Theater kind of vein.
Smith: I like that stuff. When I was playing with Keith Emerson, we did some versions of some cool songs—we did the “In the Midnight Hour” I remember. It was totally this prog-rock version that Keith came up with; it was really good.
EntertainmentTell: That’s good company that you’ve been keeping.
Smith: Yeah, you know how you find a bass player, don’t you?
EntertainmentTell: How do you find a bass player?
Smith: You pick up a chair and hit a guitarist over the head—but don’t hit him too hard or you’ll get a drummer. (laughs)
EntertainmentTell: (laughs) That’s pretty good! Pretty much we’re guitarists who didn’t make it, so we became bass players.
Smith: I have a new appreciation with the bass lately—if it’s played properly, it really holds the stuff together.
EntertainmentTell: Yeah, absolutely—it’s crucial. … So, Heaven & Earth is a really solid band lineup now?
Smith: Yes, I mean, a lot of this is down to the support of the record company with Quarto Valley Records. Bruce Quarto owns it, and first of all he said, “Now, I don’t want just a good album—I want a phenomenal album, and when you go into the studio and finish recording, I don’t care how much it costs or how long it takes. And if you come out and think you could’ve done better, go back and do it again.” And so we spent a lot of time drafting the songs, and having his support is essential to keep the band together—especially in somewhere like L.A., where everyone is moving from job to job, trying to survive. To have a record company go like what they did in the old days, “Right, we’re going to put you on a wage, you’re going to be working all the time” and all this kind of stuff. It’s a great position to be in.
EntertainmentTell: That’s great that you have a good label with that kind of support. Now, I see you have some interesting guest stars on the record.
Smith: Oh yeah, I mean have you heard the first album?
EntertainmentTell: I haven’t heard the first one (I have since—HW). I’m looking at the lineup of talent you had there.
Smith: Just to give you the history of it—we’re considering this our first album. This is the band to take it out and sell it. The first album had all these guests on it because we didn’t have a band. So for this one we weren’t going to have any, but then (former Heart and current Paul Rodgers/Bad Company guitarist) Howard Leese, who’s a great friend of ours, came down. We’ve got a tradition when I play acoustic on the album—we’ll always play it together because he plays my 12-string and I play six, and we get a resonance between the two. It’s kind of cool, two people playing it, and then he put some strings on one of the tracks. He’s a great string player and arranger—he did all that stuff with Heart—so he did that. (Toto keyboardist) David Paich, who’s been a great friend for years, also played on the album. I used to go to his Christmas Eve parties every year, and we’d play Christmas carols. I’d play guitar and he’d play piano and we never had anyone to sing them. So I said, “Look, I’ll bring Joe with me this time.” Joe came along, so we had good vocals there, and then after the party we went to David’s studio and we played this track “I Don’t Know What Love Is” and he said, “ Oh my God, you have a hit here. Don’t play strings on it.” So we went up and he added the strings to it. And (Bon Jovi guitarist) Richie Sambora, he’s my ex-brother in-law—I was married to Helene Locklear, Heather Locklear’s sister at the same time he was married to Heather. And we remained good friends ever since. So I went down to his studio to borrow a Gibson SG for the sound on a certain song and a picture got taken of us together signing a guitar for a charity thing. It went out on the Internet and Richie said that he got all these e-mails from fans saying, “You two gotta work together again” because he was on the first album. So I said, “What do you think? You want to do something together?” He said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So we planned to do this and it just got crazy because he got really busy. He finished his solo album, and the day we had plans to go down and record him, there were technical difficulties in the studio. So that didn’t happen. And then he got really busy playing with Bon Jovi and promoting his solo album. So on his one day off in three months, he came into our studio and recorded on the album. Super-nice guy and really good of him to do that, because I wouldn’t said, “No, I’m sorry. It’s my one day off.”
EntertainmentTell: Did you do a lot of this live in the studio or was it multi-tracking?
Smith: A lot of it we did live. To record the album we went into Ocean Sound in Burbank. We used something called a CLASP (Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor)—I don’t think you’re familiar with it. It’s this technology where you record to tape but you record off the sync head, so you take the signal from the board into the CLASP unit and then onto the tape, and you get a tape saturation sound. We actually bought the CLASP system and bought a four-track Studer machine for our own studio. We did all the overdubs like the guitar solos and the vocals at our own studio using the CLASP. So we still kept that old vintage technology. It shows. It’s funny, Howard—when you go in there and start cutting to tape you realize how brittle everything sounds on Pro Tools. You forget how warm tape is, but no one ever uses tape because you can’t drop in like you do with Pro Tools. You can sort of copy and paste it, but you still have that tape saturation sound, so it was done live.
EntertainmentTell: So did you use Pro Tools or any kind of digital tech for this project?
Smith: Yeah, because what it does is, it takes the signal from the board into the Clasp unit and then it records off the sync head on the Studer, and then back into Pro Tools. So you’re actually recording to Pro Tools, but you’re getting that tape saturation sound—you know, the warmth of tape. Also, the advantage of that is that you can drop in on the fly, a whole band, which you can’t do with tape.
EntertainmentTell: So you still have the editing capabilities of digital but with the warmer sound with analogue.
EntertainmentTell: I’ve heard other people talk about that too you know you miss that when you record straight digital, that it gets a little glassy.
Smith: Yeah, you definitely hear the difference there.
EntertainmentTell: The music sounds great; it has a nice warm sound. Job well done, sir.
Smith: Thank you. I’m glad you like the album.
EntertainmentTell: Very much so, you know I’ve heard a lot of influences in there. What would you say are some of the influences on your band and on your songs?
Smith: Well, for me it’s always been Deep Purple. They are my favorite band. I love the Hammond organ in there and that kind of thing. It’s funny, because … we’ve got the video now. Have you seen the video?
EntertainmentTell: I did watch it, yes.
Smith: Yeah it’s the one song on there that’s very Deep Purple-ish so you’ve got a lot of people going , “Well, it’s very Deep Purple-ish.” So you’ve heard the whole album, you’ve got the songs in there—there’s a ballad and there’s the one that sounds like a bit like Aerosmith. It’s more of that era that’s our influences—from the 70s, which we all agree was the best music. Not to date ourselves too much, but that’s where we bring our influences from.
EntertainmentTell: I definitely heard the Purple vibe, I heard some Foreigner and Bad Company influence as well. Joe’s voice reminds me of Paul Rodgers at times.
Smith: Yeah, Bad Company was a huge influence on me as well and Free, the early Free, I love that as well. And Joe has just an amazing voice. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well you play the guitar—it’s down to the singer and the song, that’s going to make you successful or not.
EntertainmentTell: Joe sings with The Sweet as well.
Smith: This deal with originally offered for the new Sweet album, that was the original plan and then (founding Sweet bassist) Steve Priest didn’t want to do a new album. So we started writing for this and then I just had to leave (Sweet) because it was too much—doing this and The Sweet as well. There’s really not too much happening there—the other two (Retta and Onori) will probably be clearing out from that pretty soon.
EntertainmentTell: Pretty much your focus now is on Heaven & Earth?
Smith: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s a full-time job, the organization of the thing. That’s why I had to leave Sweet, because I’m more concerned with the business than the other guys.
EntertainmentTell: Looking forward, what are your future plans for Heaven & Earth? What do you see happening in years to come?
Smith: Well, the first thing is to just get it out on the road. We’ve been in the studio forever, so I want to get out and start touring. Then do a new album. We always started messing around at sound checks during rehearsal, so new ideas will come in and we’ll start writing again. You know, do another album, more tours, and get this band working permanently.
EntertainmentTell: That’s a good plan.
Smith: Whereabouts do you live?
EntertainmentTell: I’m in Philadelphia.
Smith: Oh, OK. So, nice cold weather at the moment?
EntertainmentTell: Yeah, a little bit.
Smith: We’d certainly like to get out there soon. Philly is the home of rock.
EntertainmentTell: It’s a music town and we’ll certainly be looking for you. Now you’re based in L.A., correct?
Smith: Yes, the whole band is out here.
EntertainmentTell: Is there anything more you want to say?
Smith: We’re just getting ready to get out there. We’re still in rehearsals at the moment. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and I hope to see you on the road sometime.
EntertainmentTell: Best of luck with the album. We’ll be looking for you!
Special thanks to Susanna Nesses for her help with this interview.
Check out Heaven & Earth’s video for “No Money, No Love” here (warning: NSFW).
For further information on Heaven & Earth, go to: