Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith can not only bring da funk but he can rock with the best of him. He beats the hell out of his Pearl kit with crushing snare grooves and throaty bass drum figures and always manages to bring a sense of musicality to whatever song he is playing. Recently Smith released Chad Smiths' "Bombastic Meatbats: Live Meat And Potatoes", a live double CD recorded at the Baked Potato in Los Angeles. The Bombastic Meatbats are an instrumental side project Chad has been working with for several years now and have released two previous records: "Meet The Meatbats" and "More Meat" in 2009 and 2010 respectively. It's a chance for the gangly stickman to - in his own words - "appropriately overplay," which is simply a nice way of saying he can get his drum ya ya's out in a way he can't with either the Chili Peppers of Chickenfoot.
He's funny and doesn't take himself too seriously. Here he sizes up his work with the Meatbats, talks about his heroes, and why he loves playing drums so much.
UG: You first started playing with Jeff Kollman and Ed Roth from the band that would become the Bombastic Meatbats when you were the backing band for Glenn Hughes?
Yeah, myself, Ed and Jeff were kind of Glenn's band when he would do some shows once in a while. For some reason singers they don't always show up on time. It's like I don't know maybe 'cause they got no equipment to bring.
Singers don't show up on time? Oh, my God.
Shocking, I know. So we'd be just like jamming waiting for him to show up and it was kind of like, "This is fun, man. This is cool. Let's make some songs." Really that's how it came about. I don't remember whose great idea it was so that's what we did. We just got together. Ed, Jeff and I had played together in different things but mainly in Glenn's situation. And yeah, that's how it happened. Sh-t, it was fun-music should be fun. We like to have fun and that was it. Now we're making songs and making records and yeah, why not?
The stuff you were originally jamming on when you were waiting for Glenn to show up had the essence of what the "Meatbats" music would sound like?
Yeah, that funk kind of thing. Exactly, yeah, pretty much. It's easy for us to go there; that's a lot of our influences and that's the kind of music we gravitate towards. It's very natural. We're not trying to be retro or anything. It's just kind of our vibe and stuff we grew up on and there's no singing of course. It's an instrumental band so there's a lot of room for improvising and stretching out and having conversations and taking risks. We just jam, man, and it's fun. But you have to have trust and be a good listener. The live album has all of that.
How did you choose Kevin Chown to play bass?
We didn't have a bass player so we were just gonna like try to get somebody in just to do the record. The day we were doing the first record, Ed was friends with Phil Chen.
Amazing bass player.
Yeah, amazing right? He was down in Mexico with like the Doors or something and he couldn't come back and something happened and he got detained. He didn't show up or I don't know. So we were literally in there and all ready to go and we were kinda warmed up and it's like, "Where's Phil? I don't know he says he's coming." So Jeff calls Kevin and he's making a sandwich at home and he's like, "Hey dude can you come over. We need you to play on this thing we're doing." So I'm in there like getting ready to play and he walks in. We start playing and right away we played like two songs. We recorded two songs before I even like actually physically met him. We just kind of looked at each other and it was, "Hey, what's up man?" I had headphones on and he plugs in and we start playing.
There was an instant connection with Kevin?
Yeah, he's from Michigan as well; he's a Detroiter as I am. We have that Midwestern thing going on so he's a wonderful musician and a funny guy and he just fit right in so it was perfect.
How different is it playing with Kevin Chown as opposed to Flea?
They're just two completely different guys and they're both great musicians. For me I would say other than the differences musically of the actual music we're playing, Flea and I have been playing together for like 24 years. We have this unspoken kind of musical telepathy thing and it only happens from playing a lot of notes together. We've given ourselves up to the freedom to express yourself and trust another person many, many times. That's a bond that two people can have that's unspoken that you maybe don't have with anybody else. It's really wild when I think about it. It's like, "This is crazy-it's half of my life I've spent looking at this guy playing f---ing music." He is an incredible musician and not just a bass player.
Do you actually talk with Flea about the kind of groove you want to play on a song?
We don't really have much conversation verbally. We just play and we know each other so well. We try to surprise each other and come up with new sh-t and that's when you get the look like, "Whoa, oh really? You're gonna do that?"
What's it like to play with Kevin Chown?
Kevin's great and he's really solid. There's bass players that play the bass instrument and they're not playing the bass guitar. Lots of guys can play it more like a guitar and I mean it in a six-string guitar kind of way. He plays the bass so the bass is where it's supposed to be in this particular musical situation. He just holds it down and he's very musical and he's got big ears. He's great and he's f---in' solid and it's fun to play with him. Everyone that has their own personality on their instrument is gonna be so different from everybody else as it should be and that's great. It's like making out with different people.
How different is it playing the instrumental music of the Bombastic Meatbats versus the vocal music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
I'm not a different person but I approach it like any musical situation so it hopefully benefits the music. Obviously the biggest difference between those two groups is that the "Meatbats" are instrumental and there is no singing. Therein lies where you get to sort of stretch out a bit on your instrument and maybe I'm still supporting the other melodic instruments in the band. My role is to play rhythm but since there is no singing you try to make things really interesting for the listener. Not that I don't do that in the Chili Peppers. Not that I want to step on Anthony when he's singing and/or the other guys when they're doing their thing. So you just have to be aware and be listening in any situation. I guess in the "Meatbats" the main difference is there's a little more room to stretch out and I guess that equates into playing a little bit more. So hopefully I'm appropriately overplaying if possible.
What was it like recording the first album "Meet the Meatbats?"
On the first one we had rehearsed not too much; three times maybe. It's good and it sounds like that a little bit. I like it and I like the songs and I like the playing but I think the second record as often happens with bands was, "Oh, alright. Now we're getting it." Or it can be the other way around and the first one is just the greatest. "That's all we got. What you want another one? Oh sh-t. I've been writing this first record my whole life and you want another one in f---in' eight months?
On the second album "More Meat" you had the experience of doing the first album and finding out who you were musically.
Obviously Kevin was a part of the writing of the next record so that to me sounds like a natural progression. I think we played better and the songs were recorded better. We had those two and I think I was going off to play with Chickenfoot. We had been playing a lot and we had these two nights at the Baked Potato and I said, "Why don't we just record 'em? If something happens great and if not that's fine too." We did two nights and I think most of it is from the first night. I think we kind of got lucky because in live recordings you never know. People sometimes get, "Ooh, we're recording. Oh boy." But we kinda just said, "F--k it" and just played. And I think it captures a pretty good performance.
"Everyone that has their own personality on their instrument is gonna be so different from everybody else as it should be and that's great."
You've been recording drums for a long time-what do you want your drums to sound like in the studio?
Obviously you want to work with the producer and the engineer and you want them to be happy. Also they want you to be happy hopefully if they're good. I've been fortunate to work with really great people and they just want me to be me. Like "Bring your drums - I want it to sound like you." Sometimes it's a challenge because of the environment and the music you're playing. I don't go in with any preconceived ideas where "I've got to use this drum or these cymbals." I just go in and whatever the project is it's all about the music. I want to serve the music and that's not only playing -wise but sound- wise.
So your kit will sound different depending on whether you're playing with the Bombastic "Meatbats" or the Chili Peppers?
The drums sounds different. My drums are different on Peppers records and Chickenfoot records and "Meatbat" records. It sounds like me playing but sonically I want it to sit with the music.
What was it like getting drum sounds on the "More Meat" album?
On the second record we worked with Ryan Hewitt who'd worked with the Chili Peppers. I kind of brought him in and he really likes the band and he mixed the live record as well. I've worked with Ryan on lots of projects and lots of different records. He's a really talented guy and we did it at his house. We just set up and he had to move out. He lived in Venice in like a duplex and he has a mixing room downstairs, which is fine but we like took over the upstairs. I think he got in trouble for that. He wanted to kinda leave anyway and he was looking to move and we kinda helped him.
You gave him an incentive to move.
Yeah, I remember the neighbors weren't too pleased. We were only there like two days - we cut the drums and the band in two days. I just wanted it to sound right and I think anybody wants to make the drums sound like a drumset.
You reinforce the idea of a drumset.
I don't like it when the drums are real separate sounding. I like it when it sounds like a kit. A drum kit means there's more than one piece. I want it to sound real natural and I work with people who are likeminded.
You've been playing Pearl for over 20 years now.
Yeah, I used Pearl for this stuff. Actually that was part of the deal: Ryan would record it and I paid him x amount of dollars but I also gave him a drumset and then he stayed at my house in Cabo for a week and that's what he got paid [laughs.] It's a pretty good deal. A f---in' free drumset that we've used now on Avett Brothers records and stuff. I'm like, "Bring my drumset" and he's like, "Yeah, OK." So I still get to use it but it's his.
Why did you choose Pearl drums back in the day?
I first became aware of Pearl because I was a Kiss freak when I was a small lad. When I was 13, 14 years old, I had a little Kiss phase like early on, man. The music was OK but I was all about the breathing fire and the blood and the smoke bombs and the show. You know there were like kids at school who were really into Kiss and the other ones who were like Kiss sucks. I was the one that was really into it. On the back of those Kiss records it would say, "Kiss plays Pearl drums and Gibson guitars 'cause they want the best." And I was like, "Wow, good enough for Peter Criss good enough for me."
Was your first set Pearl?
I was playing on sh-t drums for a long time and I don't even think they had a name. One of those kits.
One of those unnamed Japanese kits.
If the back of the Kiss record had said, "Kiss plays Ludwig drums" it might have been a different story?
Conceivably. I think what happened was my grandmother passed away and left a small amount of money for her grandchildren and enough for me to buy a Pearl drumset. So my grandmother, I think she would be very pleased about that. She really would 'cause she was always a real supporter. I was a bit of a troublemaker back when I was a youngster. I know you probably find that hard to believe?
Chad Smith causing trouble? Impossible.
I know [laughs.] She was always very supportive of music and all that stuff I wanted to do. That was it, man. Then I joined up with the Chili Peppers and started to do well pretty quickly fortunately. This woman who was a photographer friend of mine knew the guys at Pearl. I already had a kit but I was like, "Oh, I can get a new drumset and they're gonna give it to me? For nothing? Are you kidding me?" I couldn't believe it; I was in shock. Then you start like doing pretty well and making money at this music thing and they want to give you sh-t. But when I didn't have any money, I could have really used a cymbal that wasn't broken or a f---in' snare drum or a drumhead. That's crazy.
You have your own Pearl signature set and signature snare.
Yeah, drums and cymbals and sticks and sh-t.
That must feel pretty cool.
Crazy. I would never in a million years have thought it. Custom drums with logos on it. Anything. I tell 'em to f---in' draw a dick on there and they go, "OK, I'll etch that in there for you. No problem, Chad. Whatever you want, man." It makes no sense. I shouldn't say it makes no sense but it is a wacky dichotomy of life.
"Flea and I have been playing together for like 24 years. We have this unspoken kind of musical telepathy thing and it only happens from playing a lot of notes together."
The new double-CD live album, Chad Smith's "Bombastic Meatbats: Live Meat and Potatoes", is made up of songs from the first two records. Did you push yourself to come up with grooves and patterns that really challenged you as a player?
Umm, I suppose so. You're always trying to challenge yourself to come up with new and interesting ways to express yourself and grow on the instrument. Yeah, a lot of things just come out of jams. Like a song called "Pig Feet," I just played my own sort of bastardized version of a New Orleans second line beat. I thought, "It would be fun to do this. I don't really do this very much." That's a challenge.
What other tracks pushed the boundaries?
There's the almost straight ahead jazz thing and has a real freakout on the second album called "Dr. Blotter & Miss Purple (Ride In the Echoplex)." It's not on the live record. It's more swingy and stuff that I really normally don't play.
You don't play a lot of swing stuff with the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
I don't pretend to be like some great jazz drummer. Those f---in' guys plays circles around me. It's my interpretation of it and my interpretation while I'm reacting and being proactive to the other musicians and music around me. So it's fun to stretch out in that way. There are things like that I probably haven't done certainly in Chickenfoot. In the Chili Peppers we can do anything we want. We played a lot of songs over the years and we can kinda do anything.
Working with the "Bombastic Meatbats" does allow you to get into styles that you don't normally play.
It goes back to that whole instrumental thing and that lends itself to being able to kinda express yourself in a little different way. And I think in my case it's hopefully appropriately overplaying.
Is it possible?
It is possible. "Mountain of Meat" has that great guitar lick in there.
Yep. Sometimes the tunes are named after the vibe. Like "Into the Floyd" and "Mountain of Meat." Yeah, that sort of reminded me of a Mountain riff.
Yeah, the band Mountain. Exactly. We have all this food connotation thing going on. I don't know what's up with the food thing.
"Mountain of Meat" segues from a rock groove into that more subdued rhythm. Again you were just trying to stretch out and cover stuff you wanted to play that maybe you hadn't really played before?
Yeah, trying to make it interesting and musical and playing with dynamics. Whoever kind of has the idea usually or the melodic idea we kind of run with it. I think Jeff had that riff and then Ed Roth kind of plays what we call those sex chords. "Do some of those sex chords." It's funny, man, they just come quick. People are just on their toes and they come up with sh-t. "How 'bout this change? How 'bout that? How about a drum break there? How we gonna transition into the blah blah blah?" The guys are good players, man. There's not a lot of laboring over stuff and it just stays fresh that way. Usually one of those two guys comes in with some sort of kernel of an idea and then we run with it.
On the intro to "I Need Strange" are you playing that little hi-hat figure that Ian Paice plays on the beginning of "Woman From Tokyo"?
Wow, yeah, maybe. You're right. Ian Paice is a huge influence on me. You're right with the hi-hat? It's more like with a Billy Preston intro or something. The clav and the drums certainly on the live record is a good combo. Ed's big influence certainly on the clavinet is Billy Preston and then me on the drums it's Ian Paice. So there's your combo right there.
Ian Paice was someone you listened to a lot?
Oh, he was one of my first drum heroes for sure.
Ian Paice was always underrated.
Deep Purple is still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's probably underrated; you're probably right.
Or under appreciated.
Under appreciated. Deep Purple back in the '70s were huge. I'm an old band and they were a big rock band. They were an important band and he's a fantastic musician and a wonderful drummer.
What about some of the other classic rock drummers like Mitch Mitchell?
Jimi Hendrix was one of the greatest musicians of all time and the greatest guitar player. Jimi said it himself that Mitch who was a constant because they played with Buddy Miles for a brief time but Mitch was his guy. Mitch pushed Jimi and a lot of those records and their playing would have definitely been a different thing if it was a different drummer in The Experience. No doubt about it.
"The Meatbats are instrumental and there is no singing. My role is to play rhythm but since there is no singing you try to make things really interesting for the listener."
What about B.J. Wilson from Procol Harum?
You know he was gonna look into the Led Zeppelin slot. A very underrated drummer. He did a lot of sessions too and I think Jimmy knew him more from the session thing and I think they probably played together. He had a real good sound and was real musical. That was his first choice before Robert Plant said, "Hey, I've got this friend of mine." And how different would the world be if that had happened? But yeah, he's a wonderful drummer for sure.
So you really did listen a lot to these drummers from back in the '60s?
I mean those were the guys for me growing up. My brother was two years older than me so when I was playing and getting OK when I was 10 or 11-and I mean OK barelyall those English bands in the late '60s and early '70s were The Who and Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Humble Pie with Jerry Shirley. All those kind of heavy blues and hard rock bands. My brother had all those records like Black Sabbath and that was the sh-t, man.
Through your brother you soaked up all that music?
Soaking it in loud. I'd come home from school and put those records on. First I knew that playing "Black Sabbath Vol. 4" would really piss my parents off. And it was f---in' awesome. So you know I got lucky because that was a very important and wonderful time for music.
And you paid particular attention to the drummers in all those bands?
Those drummers, man. Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, Ian [Paice] and John Bonham. Roger Taylor and those bands had great drummers to this day.
The Meatbats do a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick" but you don't do a drum solo in it.
No, f--k no man. I can't do no drum solo to that. You can't. Somehow I think we just ended up jamming on it. It was a slowed down version. I don't think Ed's a real Led Zeppelin fan and he probably never even heard that. And so he does that slow funky clav version. You can hear me actually on the record I'm going, "Moby Dick." And he's like looking at me like, "What?" and I'm saying, "The Led Zeppelin thing." And he's, "Oh, OK." No, I'm not gonna f---in' play with my hands and sh-t like that. No no no no no.
You've talked about the rock drummers you listened to-who were the funk guys that caught your attention?
This is really hard, man, because there were so many guys that influenced me. David Garibaldi with Tower of Power hit me at a time when I was really ready to soak that up. For me in 1981 I was just getting OK and his drumming in that band took me to another level for sure. You can't deny the James Brown drummers Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefied. Greg Errico with Sly & the Family Stone was really badass and I loved him and I loved those records. He was a big influence on me. Those Motown guys were so funky. Funk encompasses so much. I mean John Bonham was funky as sh-t.
He really was.
So I listened to him a lot. It's just swing, man, and where you place it. Earl Palmer, the guy who played on all those New Orleans records and Fats Domino. He played on Little Richard's records and that sh-t is great. Zigaboo Modeliste who plays with The Meters? I mean, c'mon.
You mentioned before about giving titles to songs because they were inspired by some band. Was "Into the Floyd' your nod to Pink Floyd?
Pink Floyd and of course Black Sabbath has "Into the Void." But I think it's more the Floyd than Sabbath. Yeah, it's just that kind of slowing thing and then that one stretches out. We take it everywhere.
"Into the Floyd" is a 14-minute song with a slow groove. How do you keep it interesting?
It's a beautiful guitar melody that he has but it's a journey that one and it's always fun to play. Because you just never kind of know what's gonna happen and we just really play off each other and it changes every night. That's important to take risks and that's the way that you grow. Sometimes it turns out great and other times you're, "Oh, I don't know." But I wanna see people that do that and that's exciting to me. I don't wanna see people go up and just play the record and stand there. I'll stay home and listen to it if I wanted that. You should be in the moment playing for those people and playing for yourself and the other musicians in that room at that moment. To me that's the real essence of live performance. That's what turns me on and what I want to see and what I want to do. So that's what we do.
The Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in April. How did that feel?
That was kinda crazy you know. It's different because a lot of groups that go in are kinda done. They're either not playing anymore or their career is no longer relevant. For us we're still moving forward and making new music and our guitar player's a relatively new guy and we're looking forward to making records with him. So we feel real energized and fresh and ready to go. And then there's this, "Stop in your tour and look back at your 25 years" so it was kind of odd but we were very honored. I think it's really cool and it's not like one thing. Not to say that the Grammys and other awards aren't great but those are for that one year or that one thing that you did. Which is cool but to me this had more weight and certainly seeing these older guys up there - not that we're spring chickens - like the guys from The Comets and The Crickets and The Miracles. They're in their 70s and their 80s and like, "This is the greatest night of my life. It means so much to me." It's really heavy, man. It was really moving. We were the last ones to go and the thing was six hours long so it was a long night. It was nice to have all our friends and our families celebrate with us and it was great.
"I don't like it when the drums are real separate sounding. I like it when it sounds like a kit. A drum kit means there's more than one piece. I want it to sound real natural and I work with people who are likeminded."
Who were you inducted with?
It was cool we got to go in with the Beastie Boys and Guns N' Roses. Our bands all started relatively around the same time in the '80s. I loved The Faces but that's not from our era. It was cool to see those guys and just be part of history. We walked around the Hall of Fame at night when it closed and we played and we got to go walk around. The curator who's a friend of mine from Michigan actually and he gave us like a little private tour and it was really kind of cool. You go up on the top level where the names are engraved of everybody in the Hall of Fame and there's this darkish mood lighting and it's kind of quiet because the place is loud in general. You're walking down the hall and you're looking at all the names and they're in alphabetical order. You walk up and there's the R's and I look up and there's my name next to The Rolling Stones and below the Ramones. And I'm like, "Get the f--k outta here." It was unbelievable. I was like, "God, you're kidding? This is insane."
That is remarkable.
It really is. So I told my mom who was there that I was a bit of a troublemaker and I'm sure you find that hard to believe.
You a troublemaker? Noooo.
She's into it and I said, "Mom, you must have done something right. Your son is in an OK institution. It's better than a prison - that's a different kind of institution." Which could very well be where I ended up if it wasn't for music.
Does your mom have a sense of how big the Chili Peppers really are?
I think so. She's into it and she comes to the gigs and she's pretty sharp. She's like, "It's not my kind of music. But there seems to be a lot of young people that really enjoy what my son does."
The Chili Peppers did the "Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Covers" EP. You did songs by Dion & The Belmonts, the Beach Boys, the Ramones, the Stooges and others. Were those bands important to you?
Of course. We've done lots of covers over the years by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone. All these musicians and bands and artists that really mean a lot to us over the years and who we really respect. We pay homage to them and do those covers and it's important. That music is important and those are important artists. Those guys wanted us just to do stuff that was in the Hall of Fame. We could have put on a bunch of other bands - we didn't put on any Hendrix or Stevie Wonder and of course George Clinton. There's a lot of music that is just a huge part of the Chili Peppers. James Brown and Led Zeppelin and I could go on and on with the stuff we've done. But yeah that was a little snippet of some of our favorite bands and artists.
Last year you did the 2011 Live EP that contained five performances, which you personally handpicked. What made these gigs so special?
I can't remember what it was for? Were we coming over to the States? Was it a download? You can buy all of our shows, right? I think that's what it was and I think it was just like, "Here's a free one for ya. Check it out." I think I just tried to pick some funk and a new one and an old one and I don't know if it was based on the performances that would super stand out. I just wanted to give a little taste of what we were doing. I think they were cool.
You recently played on Flea's solo album "Helen Burns".
Only on one track. I don't know the name of it but me and Jack Irons, the first drummer in the Chili Peppers, played on a track. I can't remember if I played the snare or the bass drum. It's kind of a dirgey waltz that has a bunch of little kids singing on it. I did that and it was fun to play with Jack. I heard one song that Patti Smith sang on but I haven't heard the whole thing.
What you do as a drummer is bring a rock chops to a funk groove. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I think so. I think any true artist is a real reflection of where they come from and what their influences are and their personality. I like the tight funky drummers but I also like the big bombastic ones too. I like to hit hard and I like to really drive the band and play with real conviction. But I like it to be real clean and some space between the notes and not a lot of clutter. I like to keep it kind of simple for the most part. But I'm just trying to be musical.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"Ive been fortunate to work with really great people and they just want me to be me."