Chad Smith interview: Chili Pepper uses drums to channel his passion onto canvas

chad smith interview

Drummer, artist and activist Chad Smith.

For 33 years and counting, Chad Smith has played drums in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide. Yet there are times when it seems that that is merely his part-time job.

Smith has played in side projects, done extensive session work for other artists, and is heavily involved in charitable causes, including his longtime advocacy for music instruction for public school students. In this interview, we discuss his band and his continuing passion for music, and also his artwork — colorful and vibrant abstract pieces created by Smith through the use of what else? His drumming.

(Smith will show his artwork at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor from May 28 to May 31, and be on hand to meet fans there, May 29 from 7 to 10 p.m., and May 30 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Visit oceangalleries.com.)

Q: I’m acquainted with someone who is a member of a very successful rock band, and one day he cracked me up by looking at his socials and saying, “The band has 10 times as many followers as I do … they know I’m in the band, right?” With big personalities like Anthony (Kiedis) and Flea sort of dominating the public perception of your band for decades, I feel like that may have been you for a while. Were you a late bloomer in terms of wanting to be “out there” fully in the public eye, or were you always wanting to be, and it was hard to be fully noticed?

A: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, the social media thing is not really me. I’m not posting stuff every other day and I don’t get my validation from how many followers or likes I have. But yes, as far as the Chili Peppers go, I’ve always done stuff, but also always wanted to do more, and I think once the media kind of caught up to everything I was doing, people started to notice a little bit more. I’ve always supported arts in school and the Turnaround program was something I was really into because that’s the only way that I got through high school, you know? And junior high for that matter. Yet music is the first thing that gets taken away from kids now in schools, so I’ve been happy to be part of that. But what really put me on the map in a big way was that frickin’ “Tonight Show” with Will Ferrell, which was another charity thing. That was a long time ago now … maybe 2014? After we appeared together, people would approach me everywhere I went to tell me how funny they thought it was. And to your point, I just never really expected anything like that. But you don’t get caught up in it. I’m just gonna keep doing my thing. I like to keep changing as an artist and as a musician and play with people that want to play with me and stay in a position where I will be able to help people. I think it’s an important thing to do.

LAURA GLASS

CHAD SMITH

Q: In the past, before we started to learn so much about you and these things you do — like the art, the philanthropy, the presidential appointment you received in 2014, etc. — did it ever bother you that Anthony and Flea were usually the ones who were in demand, media-wise?

A: I remember in either ’89 or ’90, we were going to be on the cover of Spin magazine, which at the time was like, wow, a really big deal. “We’re going to be on the cover of Spin! Oh my God!,” you know? And all of us did a photo shoot together and the (reporter) came out on tour and talked with us. It was all good, then the issue came out and they ended up just using a picture of Flea. And we were like, maybe, 26, 27 years old. It was like … (frustrated noise)! So there was that kind of stuff, for sure. But they’re both really good at it, you know what I mean? Outside of the Beatles and maybe a few others, it’s hard for the media to grasp four strong personalities in the same band all at once. Usually it’s one or two people out front that represent a band, and those guys tend to be the ones out front when they’re onstage. I’m in the back, banging away on my drums. Even though I’m not moving around, I’m very confident and comfortable with what I do and how I do it. You don’t build a house from the 10th story up, you build it from the ground up … I feel like I’m just sticking up for drummers right now. (laughs)

Q: You should!

A: I should, right?

Q: Do it!

A: (raising his voice) Yeah, man! I love drummers! And I love the drums. I’ve been playing for 50 years, and I love it now more than ever.

Q: Your drumming plays a monster part in RHCP’s success, but what is cool about your band is that you can easily see how a guitarist might think you are a guitar band, and a bassist might think you are a bass-driven band. You’re all standout players, with a lot of individuality. With that in mind, when you guys jam, write and record, is there some friction there because of all the strong personalities and elements?

A: Definitely, and I think the friction is really important. If everything goes too smoothly, it’s going to sound too smooth. Rock ‘n’ roll has to have attitude and it has to have risk and it has to be on the edge a little bit. That’s the way I like it, anyway. I enjoy bands that sound like that. I wouldn’t say we’re unique in this way, but we are a band where not only one or two guys have all the ideas and they bring in their finished song and their drum machine or whatever they used at home, and that becomes the record. We all get in a room where everyone’s creative and musical input is encouraged and wanted. We work together and improvise. That’s why I really believe we have the unique sound that we do, and I’m proud to be a big part of it.

Q: From a distance, it has always appeared that you guys have a deep and genuine care and connection for each other. Am I naive?

A: No, we do! We have a lot of love and respect for each other. It’s been how many years now? And there are still long stretches where I spend more time with these guys, between writing, rehearsing, traveling and playing concerts, than I do with my family. We all have strong ideas about things, but when you’re in a group you have to compromise. We keep our strong ideas but put our egos aside so that we can work together and make the music we want to make.

I just want to go back to what you said a minute ago. It’s really nice of you to see that and say that, because that’s the authenticity, the realness that I think comes across in our music. Our music is who we are. We have flaws and we’re not perfect. Some songs are really good, some songs not so good, or however you want to feel about it. But we do it because we love it, and we do it for real, from our hearts. We don’t set out doing it because we’re trying to make money or be on a TV show or blah, blah, blah. We love it, and we do it for the right reasons and I think that’s what people connect with.

From left, Flea, Anthony Kiedis and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Q: On that note, (guitarist) John (Frusciante) is back in the band, which many people are very excited about. This is his third time around the moon with you guys however. The music is something that comes from your heart and soul and a deep connection amongst the band. But from a practical or business standpoint, did at least one of you have to have a conversation with him regarding how committed he is or isn’t to staying on board?

A: Yes, definitely. With this being his third time around, that was the first thing I asked him. I said, “Why do you want to come back?” And he said, “I want to play in a band again. I want to play guitar in a band and the only band I want to be in is the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” So that was enough for me, because we have a special chemistry, the four of us. Not to discount the other great musicians that have been in our band, but John and Flea and Anthony and Chad … as I speak about myself in the third person for a moment (laughs) … we just have a thing. We want to explore that thing again, and it’s really exciting for us.

Q: So an album is coming soon and …

A: Yeah, we’re making a record that is almost done and we’ll put it out once it is, and go play some concerts next year. We’re all super excited for all of it.

Q: Brian Johnson of AC/DC recently said that if he could go back and change anything about his career, it would be to not sing the way he does because it’s difficult to sing that way now. He was half joking, but point taken. You are certainly not old, but you are a man of a certain age. Do you feel any physical effects from being such an aggressive player over the years?

A: Well, thanks for the “man of a certain age,” because my kids would simply tell you that I’m old as dirt. (both laugh) But I’ve been playing a long, long time and I do play very physically, you know? I love it. That’s just the way I feel when I’m back there. I’ve always banged the crap out of the drums, but I especially like to play with power with the Chili Peppers. It’s how I feel the best expressing myself. I’ve been really fortunate and I’m knocking on, whatever this desk is made out of, porcelain? Plastic? I don’t know what this is made out of, but I’m knocking on it because when you’re younger, you think you’re bulletproof and you party hard and stay up all night and then go play 25 shows in a row. Obviously that’s changed for us, a lot, and we do get rest and eat well but I also ice my wrists after playing for inflammation and do the other things I need to do to be able to perform at the level I want to. That’s the thing. I want to be able to play as long as I can, the way that I want to. Outside of a couple of little things, I’ve been really fortunate. Nothing nagging.

Q: That puts you in very rare air. I’m not sure if I can think of another drummer that has played as long as you have, who has so few physical complaints.

A: I think it’s a use it or lose it kind of thing. I’ve talked to some other players as they get older and they stop playing in between tours or whatever, and they try to crank it back up again. I think that’s difficult, so I play all the time. Not for hours and hours, but I think it’s important to keep the grease in your joints. And I love playing anyway. It doesn’t feel like a job.

DAVID MUSHEGAIN

CHAD SMITH

Q: In the ’80s, as an edgy and cranky teenager, the thing that I liked least about Sammy Hagar was that he seemed to be friends with everybody. Now, as a middle-aged man, the thing I like most about Sammy Hagar is that he seems to be friends with everybody.

A: (laughs loudly) And we mean everybody.

Q: You are one of the everybodys. You met him in a really spontaneous way, right?

A: It was 2003, maybe, and I went down to Mexico on vacation. I really liked it and ended up purchasing a place down there. Later on I was flying down to close on the house and Jerry Cantrell and all the Alice in Chains guys were on the plane. I asked Jerry what he was doing and he said, “I’m going to Cabo to play Sammy Hagar’s birthday party.” I obviously knew that Sammy was like the mayor down there, but I didn’t know him personally. But Jerry said, “Come down, man. Hang with us. It’s going to be fun.”

Q: Sounds uncomplicated enough.

A: Right? I showed up that night and the area was surprisingly dead, but then I turned a corner and it looked like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, packed with people drinking and yelling and going crazy. I walked past a huge line to get to the front of the club and a big intimidating dude says, “Who are you?!” I said (politely), “Hi, my friend Jerry asked me to come down. I’m the drummer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and …” The guy just yelled, “Let me see your license!,” and then walked away with it. But when he came back, he said, “Sammy wants to see you.” And that was the start of a great night. I remember Tommy Lee and some other people being there, and Hagar came up to me and said (loud, excited voice), “Hey, Chad! I can’t believe you’re here, man! I love the Chili Peppers, man! We gotta jam! Have a shot!” He was exactly like anyone would expect him to be — the nicest, most excited person in the room. And that night ended up with me onstage, unexpectedly drumming in Cabo for an hour and a half behind Sammy Hagar, a guy I met for 10 minutes.

Q: You eventually formed a band, of course. Did you enjoy your time in Chickenfoot?

A: It was a lot of fun. I grew up on Van Halen in the ’70s and was a big fan, so playing with Mike (original Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony) was just unbelievable. He and Sam and I would jam, but Sammy said, “You guys are too good. We need a great guitar player. I’m going to call Joe!” And I was like, “Joe? Um, who’s Joe? Okay, you do that.” “Joe” turns out to be Joe Satriani, who was, like, Sammy’s neighbor near San Francisco. And that was it. We were off to the races. It was really fun.

Chickenfoot (from left, Chad Smith, Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony).

Q: I know you have a great sense of humor, so when I looked at one of your bios and it referred to you as a Guinness World Record holder, I honestly thought it was a put on.

A: Right, like it was going to say that I ate the most hot dogs or something

Q: Right. Or most bellyflops in 24 hours. But sure enough, you went in the record books for playing the largest drum kit ever.

A: Am I still in it?

Q: I feel like you may not be, because of the funny way they phrase it. They’re always saying that you “entered” the book on such and such a date, or “went in.” They don’t say you hold the record.

A: Yeah, it probably has to have been beat by now. (Note: The record appears to have been broken by Mark Temperato, in 2012)

Q: In regard to seeking the record, I think it’s awesome, but is it fair of me to ask why?

A: (laughs) I grew up in Michigan, and a friend of mine I went to high school with owns a music store in Pontiac, Mich. I was back there for something and we were hanging out and he said, “Chad, I want to put together the world’s largest drum set. If I do, will you come in and play it?” I was like, “Yeah, sure man. No problem at all.” Thinking, “Well, this is never going to happen.” Sure enough, he got the drums together and cymbals and snares and toms and every kind of drum imaginable in a big circle. It was 308 pieces or something. I was a man of my word and I came in and, you know those flaming hats that we used to wear back in Lollapalooza times? Well, I put on my flaming helmet and I went around and just hit everything. The Guinness guy was there and I had to hit every one, and I did. It was kind of fun.

Q: Your artwork is also fun, both to take in as an observer and to create, from the looks of the blast you seem to be having when you make it. I could tell everybody how vibrant and interesting your work looks, but I couldn’t possibly describe the craft that goes into making it.

A: About five years ago, a company called C4 in Los Angeles approached me and said, “We have this new medium, where we want to put you in a completely darkened room with special fluorescent light-up drumsticks, and photograph you at different angles with shutter speeds while you play. Then afterwards you’ll have all these different ways to manipulate the art, with canvases, colors, shapes and sizes.” I was thinking that sounded cool because it was a natural progression for me, connected to my drumming, and through photography I’m basically using the sticks as brushes.

Q: When you see the finished product, with a few exceptions you would never imagine that process is the origin of the image. Or that drumming was involved at all.

A: Right. With a lot of them what you’re seeing is just fluidity and emotion and they’re super colorful and pretty abstract. In some of them you can see a shadow of me or maybe a little bit of a cymbal or part of a drum, but for the most part, it’s the movement generated by the sticks and not the sticks. And that fluidity, powered by the emotion and passion of me trying to get all of that onto a flat surface, is the challenge. I did one collection a couple of years ago, and I really wanted to change it up this time by adding to it, to really convey the power of how I play and the energy and excitement of it, onto the canvas. So I added some paint and some other things to try to accentuate that after the fact. That’s what’s happening on the collection that’s out right now.

“Purple Stain,” by Chad Smith.

Q: Something that jumps out at me about your collections is the glaring lack of pretension. (Smith laughs) You name a lot of your pieces after nouns: Ocean. Playground. Robot. Tower. And sometimes verbs! Are you having a laugh, or is that a conscious decision to be minimalist?

A: No, you know, it’s funny you say that. I do a lot of these works and then, in post-production, I see a lot of them all at once. And so they come to me and say, “Chad, we need names for these.” And they literally line them up. Sometimes 50 at once. And I stand in front of them and I look at them and I just say what comes immediately to mind: “Um … Little green man!” And so on. You nailed it. There’s no pretension. It’s very off the cuff, and I don’t try to overthink it too much.

Q: Unlike some classic artist working out of their basement a century ago, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that people are going to A) see your work and B) contemplate purchasing it. When you’re creating, do those things ever enter your consciousness?

A: No, because people always ask me about the abstract parts, like, “Were you playing a specific song at the time?” or “What is that?” In reality, I’m just improvising like a jazz player for five straight minutes and then little spurts here and there after that. I will say that this is the second collection, so I did know this time around that certain motions would be captured a certain way and how they would look. Sometimes I would move faster or slower or higher or lower to get a result, but not that often. For the most part, it was just me jamming, and what comes out of that. And it is just like a musical performance, in that I either like it and say, “Wow, that was good, I didn’t know I could do that,” or “That was shit. Let’s throw that one away.” But if you don’t take a risk or push yourself, you’re going to throw a lot of them away. So, I’ve never, never thought, “Oh, this one is going to sell. Oh boy, I can’t wait.”

“Satan’s Butterfly,” by Chad Smith.

Q: Have you ever hung a Chad Smith original in your own home?

A: I actually did. My wife liked one from my first collection called “Satan’s Butterfly.” It’s a bit of a mirror image and she really likes it. I’m not a real big “look at me” kinda guy. I don’t hang up my gold albums and all that stuff, but you know, happy wife, happy life. But generally, for me, they’re like songs. Once they leave the garage or the studio or wherever, they’re for everybody. I’m not too precious about them, as you said earlier.

Q: A question to play us out.

A: Okay.

Q: You have six Grammy awards.

A: I do.

Q: You also have six children.

A: Ah yes. I do.

Q: If you could be granted a seventh of one or the other, but not both, which would you choose?

A: (mock screams) I can’t have another kid, Robert! Are you kidding me? I’ll take all the Grammys you can throw at me, though.

Smith will show his art at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor, May 28-31, and be there in person on May 29-30. His art will also be shown at Oculus at Westfield World Trade Center in New York, May 29-30.

For more on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, visit redhotchilipeppers.com.

Follow Smith on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Robert Ferraro interviews pop culture figures for OfPersonalinterest.com and publicizes their charitable causes at TheGivingArts.com. He is a contributor to NJArts.net.

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