This year, MusiCares Person of the Year event honored Neil Young. Proceeds from the annual Person of the Year tribute — now in its 20th year — provide essential support for MusiCares, which ensures that music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal need.
During the event, I had the great privilege of going backstage and meeting several of the performers. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith was kind enough let me ask him some questions for Grammy.com. I'm an aspiring drummer myself, and Chad is one of my heroes, so it was a big thrill. He is known not only for his superior drum skills, but his wild sense of humor, which made for a great interview.
Nick Arnold: I'm here with the world-famous Chad Smith.
Chad Smith: World famous, world famous!
Nick Arnold: Known everywhere!
Chad Smith: I'm an international rock superstar!
NA: Exactly! So, Chad, while the Chili Peppers were taking a break, you recently finished work on a "side project" that turned out to be rather successful, a little band with a self-titled album called "Chickenfoot". [A so-called Super Group consisting of Chad, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony of Van Halen, and guitar great Joe Satriani]. Could you give us kind of an overview of what that was like for you?
CS: Oh, Nick, it was a blast! It's the best reason to do music or start a band. We were just friends who ended up having a great time, and really the music was almost secondary to us just hanging out! We were just having a good time playing music that we loved and grew up playing. I've known Sam for, gosh (pauses to think), you know, six years, going on seven years now. We always talked about playing music together. Then we got a chance to do it, and you know, Mike is great. Through Sam I met Mike. It just built and built, and then we got Joe, and it started to be a real band. And we had such a fun time, you know.
NA: Who better to play with than your friends?
CS: Yeah! And it started out as a fun thing, and then it stayed a fun thing. Sometimes, you know, it starts out as fun, and then it gets kinda serious, and you make a record, then other elements come into play, you gotta travel, this and that. We just enjoyed making music, and we traveled around and had a great time.
NA: That's great! You're no stranger to playing on successful records. You've had a couple big ones back at your day job (with the Red Hot Chili Peppers), but this record was not with a group you'd played with before, so were you surprised when it did so well?
CS: Well, you try not to have expectations, because lots of times you can be let down, you know? But I thought that it'd be special. After the songs, and the recording of it, and hearing how good it sounded and turned out, I thought, "You know, someone is gonna dig this. There's people who are really gonna like it because it's real, and it's honest." It wasn't just some "super group" put together for a certain reason. It was really something very organic, and I hope people really picked up on that. I thought it would do well, but I didn't think it was gonna be as successful as it was [the album entered the charts at #4 nationally for its first week in release] and become a gold album. It was great seeing people coming out and enjoying themselves as much as they did at the concerts. So I was actually pleasantly surprised.
NA: At the end, you kinda hit a fork in the road and you guys had to go your separate ways for a while. Was it kind of a sad moment when you had to return to the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers?
CS: *Sigh*, it was. It was kinda bittersweet, you know, because we knew we were gonna stop playing, mainly because I had to go write and rehearse with the Chili Peppers again. I was excited about that, but I was a little bit sad because whenever anything is fun you wanna keep doin' it, ya know? But to know that we're gonna have something in the future to do, and more stuff to make, more music to do, made me think, "oh, well it's not over. " We're just taking a break, so that's good.
NA: During the tour you got to cover some of your favorite classic songs, like "My Generation," and you played a little bit of "Immigrant Song."
CS: Yeah, and we also did a song by Deep Purple.
NA: Yeah, and I know you were no stranger to doing covers with the Chili Peppers, because you've covered some Ramones songs, and "They're Red Hot," which is actually a rather old tune. So what was it like to put your own spin on your favorite songs?
CS: Well, it's fun to pay homage to your musical heroes, and you know, we did a little snippet of "Purple Haze," a snippet of "Immigrant Song," and we did "Rock & Roll," and even to play "Highway Star," by Deep Purple, and we played one of Sam's old songs from Montrose,
NA: "Bad Motor Scooter!"
CS: Yeah, "Bad Motor Scooter," and I'm just a huge fan of that music and those songs. It was a lot of fun; you don't want cover them exactly, you wanna try and do it your own way, and I that we achieved that. It was in the right spirit, and that's always important, so you know, if you do "My Generation," you get inspired, and you channel Keith Moon. And sometimes the drums would actually somehow fall off the riser, it was kinda weird how that happened.
NA: Yeah, that was pretty crazy.
CS: I don't know how that would happen, but it usually just did!
NA: That's pretty strange, because you're usually such a gentle drummer [said jokingly, as Chad is known as one of the hardest hitters in the business].
CS: (Laughs), Yes I am!
NA: You recently participated in a Drum Channel event at the NAMM show, but you've actually been one of their most popular, recurring guests. Could you tell me a little bit about the Drum Channel and what it is?
CS: The Drum Channel is a website that was set up by Don Lombardi, who is the owner of DW Drums up in Oxnard.
NA: I am very familiar with their products (laughs).
CS: Yeah, and he has always been very passionate about education, and he's just really embracing the whole "internet" thing. So he set up a site called the "Drum Channel". http://www.drumchannel.com/! I knew him a little bit because I used to play their pedals, but I met him, and we just hit it off. So I really liked what he was doing, and he asked me to be a part of it. It's kinda me, and Terry Bozzio, and a couple of other guys, and we're kinda like part of the furniture of the Drum Channel. So Don gave me my own show, and he said "do whatever you want," so I get to talk to other drummers, we play, we jam, and it's really loose because on the internet you can do anything. I think it's a cool place for musicians to share ideas, and they just keep going, and keep doing more interesting stuff. I'm totally supportive of it and anything that will get people to play the drums or find out about music or start a band, I'm all for it.
NA: That's great! And while we're still talking about Drum Channel, you mentioned Terry Bozzio, and I'm sure you know he has a rather large kit, which makes Chad Smith's kit look fairly minimal. Would you ever consider expanding to such a large set?
CS: (Laughs) Terry's is like a small orchestra -- actually more like a LARGE orchestra
CS: And you know what, he's taken the drum set into such an incredible place, I'm so in awe of him and what he's done for the instrument. He's just a great guy, and he's so smart and he's just classy. He's just a fantastic musician, composer, drummer, and everything else. I just wouldn't know what to do with all those drums!
CS: I wouldn't know what to do with 'em! Ya know, I've got five right now, and if I get any better maybe I can add one or two, but right now it works for what I'm doing. (laughter)
NA: You can get better?
CS: Yes, I can get a lot better! So I gotta keep practicing!
NA: You gotta keep up those chops!
CS: Can't slow down, can't let my chops slip.
NA: One last question before I let you go: With this new Chili Peppers record, are you guys taking a new direction, or will you be sticking with your more recent sound?
CS: It is a new direction because we've got a new guitar player, Josh Klinghoffer, and he's an amazing musician, so it's obviously gonna change. But it's also gonna change because we've got a new guy in the group, and he's very talented, very musical. It's fresh, it's fun, everyone is in a good mood, everyone is coming up with lots of good ideas, and I just look forward to what the future is gonna bring. I know it's gonna be different and exciting. It just makes me really happy to get up everyday and go to rehearsals, because I know something new and cool is gonna happen, and so I'm looking for it; it's awesome.
NA: Sounds very cool! And I think that since we're here, I should ask you about tonight. What does the song you’re playing tonight mean to you? Would you say you've been influenced by Neil Young?
CS: Yeah, of course! We're huge Neil Young fans, all of us. We've played his show he puts on every year in San Francisco, called the "Bridge School Benefit," we've done that a couple times. He's fantastic! We love him, and we were just honored to be part of this. We're playing a song called "A Man Needs A Maid," and we're doing our own take on it, and I hope he likes it.
CS: So it's the first time we've played out with Josh, just the four of us, so it'll be an exciting night for him.
NA: It's almost like a reunion, or a re-debut for you guys, because you've been on a break for a while.
CS: Yep, so we're taking it slow. One song at a time.
NA: Riding your way up the charts and airwaves like a new group.
CS: (Laughs) Yeah, that's right, that's what we are.
NA: Thank you very much, world-famous, Chad Smith.
CS: No problem, brother!