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Steve Smith: The Journey Never Ends

Pinned down, unable to jump ship, he did the honorable thing.

“I got involved with a Journey reunion project,” says longtime Journey skinsman and prodigious rhythmic collaborator Steve Smith. “After we hadn’t played together for 11 years, we did the album Trial By Fire, and I signed a contract that I would do a tour as well.”

For Smith, this experience was a career game-changer. “It turned into a two-year deal [1996—’97]. And it became a turning point for me, because I was so frustrated that I contracted myself to this one band. I had a clinic tour I couldn’t take, and wasn’t able to play with my band Vital Information because of this obligation. My life was being controlled by some outside energy – in this case, by Journey.”

In all fairness, Smith notes that this Journey experience “was musically and personally quite rewarding.” But – and this was a big “But” – Smith had to decline other jobs in the meantime. “I realized when you turn down offers, they stop coming. So I wasn’t touring; I was out of the loop. And that’s when I started to record the albums I did for the Tone Center label.” Those albums, it turns out, were expressions of Smith’s then current “large storehouse of creative ideas.” You might say the Journey experience also helped to jumpstart the Tone Center years, from 1998 through 2005. And those years turned out to be some of his most productive yet.

Smith found the call of the open road trumping his desires to nestle in and stay put in a recording studio. Only this time, he wasn’t pinned down with contractual obligations. He’d discovered he could live in the best of both worlds, with the freedom to record whenever he wanted to, but also free to enjoy the touring circuit at almost a moment’s notice in any number of creative settings. That increased demand to take his various groups on the road was another clear sign, that from Journey was born an ever-expanding and more fruitful set of career opportunities. The choices Smith has made in his career beginning with his fateful break as the drummer for everyone’s favorite ’80s rock powerhouse, have been, for drummers off all stripes and styles, a professional model worthy of serious consideration.

No “I” In Team

Smith’s life-long journey of musical collaboration began, as it always does, with a single step. “When I first started studying drumming in ’63,” says 55-year-old Smith, “I had the good fortune to have a teacher from the Boston area, named Billy Flanagan, who gave me a good technical foundation. I started simple: a pair of sticks and a practice pad. For the first two years I focused on rudiments and reading. In my third year I got a snare drum and spent a year playing only the snare drum. Eventually I got a kit and learned about coordination, independence, and how to play the instrument in a swing context. My high school years were a combination of big band playing and every other kind of gig I could find – from weddings to circus bands to local garage bands. When I was studying at Berklee back in the early ’70s, I kept up the big band playing but also developed as a small group player.

“When I left Berklee and went on tour with Jean-Luc Ponty, in ’76, that was a real change for me. I heard the fusion style because that’s what most of the younger jazz drummers were doing back then. Players like Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Mike Clarke, Tony Williams – they were jazz drummers who were playing the music of the time; but that was quite natural because that’s what was in the air. I hadn’t played much in that style before but I developed that fusion playing naturally, on the job, with Jean-Luc. Basically, it was playing with a jazz concept but with a strong rock/funk approach. Whereas, when playing with Journey, I learned to make my playing sound even bigger and deeper in the groove.”

Any Way You Want It

Journey’s interest in hiring a jazz drummer wasn’t as much of a surprise as you might think. The band actually got its start in the early ’70s as an offshoot of Santana during a particularly jazzy, progressive period in the guitar maestro’s music. Two of his most significant collaborators at the time were guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Gregg Rolie, both of whom would eventually leave the band and together form Journey in 1973.

In Smith’s words, Journey was “a progressive jazz-rock band, their first three albums containing much instrumental music in a Mahavishnu Orchestra fusion-music vein. When I showed up, they were still playing more of the fusion material as well as the pop stuff, and were looking for a drummer who could play that way.” Smith was still playing with Ponty, and later toured with Ronnie Montrose, who was opening for Journey at that time. “So they saw me play every night,” he remembers of lead singer Smith Perry and company. When Smith got the call in 1978 to join, he says he “hadn’t really played much rock. But they trusted me to be able to play their kind of music.”

Needless to say, it was a huge learning experience. “There was a transition where I was being asked to be more of a drum-part composer. Having played with more of a jazz-fusion interactive time feel, I realized that that didn’t work with rock music. I had to come up with exact parts, to become compositional with my drumming. I also learned more about the business, and how to make music, produce albums. And I learned about the art of collaboration.”

Planting seeds, Smith’s experiences with Journey led to ways of music-making that have stayed with the drummer ever since. “With Journey,” he says, “the way we wrote music was always collaborative. No one ever came in with a finished song – everything came from nothing. The five of us came up with the music. With Ponty, it was, Here’s our new album. He’d put it front of the band and have us play it. With Journey there was teamwork.”

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