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Stuart Smith and Heaven & Hell Devise a New Brand of Classic Rock

November 7, 2013
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THE MUSIC BUSINESS ISN’T SUPPOSED TO WORK THIS WAY ANYMORE—ESPECIALLY IF AN artist is far north of the Disney Kid demographic, and not playing sappy pappy pop ditties. But a multi-millionaire angel by the name of Bruce Quarto descended upon former Sweet guitarist Stuart Smith, and funded his band Heaven & Earth’s latest album, Dig [Quarto Valley Records], at mid-’70s record industry levels of largesse and support. It’s kind of a miracle. Smith and his bandmates—singer Joe Retta, bassist Chuck Wright, drummer Richie Onori, and keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum—are mature players of “a certain age,” and Heaven & Earth is committed to reigniting ’70s classic guitar rock at a time when loud and proud guitars aren’t exactly screaming all over iTunes top downloads charts. In other words, it would seem that, in 2013, Quarto is betting on a long shot.

“Listen,” Says Smith. “I know that classic rock has become sort of a dirty word, because it implies all these old bands that are getting back together, but not really having any new hits. They’re not spending any time in the studio crafting good songs. They’re just playing the same old tunes again. We’re writing new material in a style we all love. We just played what we felt. This is a very honest album.”

Whatever the pop culture reaction to Dig, it is obvious that the album is not only a labor of love, but a product of serious woodshedding, extremely earnest songwriting, top-drawer recording and production values, and burning performances from musicians striving to deliver nothing but the best. It may seem weird to say, but Dig can stand right up to a number of classic albums by ’70s guitar bands. You can hear the quality and passion in the grooves.

So, it appears if you put a good band together with someone willing to nurture guitar-oriented rock music, you can do wonders. How did you meet Bruce Quarto, and what made him take such a chance on what is basically a “new” classic rock band?

We were introduced by a mutual friend while I was playing with Sweet, and I gave Bruce a copy of my first Heaven & Earth CD. He loved it, and asked why nothing happened with it. I said, “It was a victim of circumstance. The big labels were not putting money behind that sort of classic rock sound.” Then, Bruce just said, ”Well, what do you need to do it? He was originally thinking of backing a new Sweet album, but [Sweet founder and bassist] Steve Priest decided he didn’t want to do it. So then Bruce asked me about Heaven & Earth, and when I told him it would cost at least a million dollars to do the record right and promote it effectively, he just went, “So?” [Laughs.] I mean, Bruce is a bigger fan of the band than we are. He really believes in the music, and he wants to see this sound brought back. He basically said at the beginning, “Look, I don’t care how long it takes or how much it costs. If you’re in the studio, and you think you can do something better, then do it again.” That’s a real dangerous thing to say to musicians like us, because we’re perfectionists.

You obviously spent time getting the songs just right. What was the typical writing process?

Generally, I’d walk in and say, “Here’s a riff.” Then, everyone would join in, and, if we were lucky, we’d take it to the next level. A lot of the songs came into being through jamming. But then we worked them over and over until we were sure we had the right riffs, the most compelling hooks, and the most engaging melodies. We were obsessed. And I knew straight away that it doesn’t matter how fast or how clever you are with the guitar. If you want to be successful in the music business, it comes down to the singer and song. Most musicians don’t get that. They’re trying to be too clever. But if you write a song that people can walk away humming, that’s half the battle.

How do you approach writing in a rock style that was originated by 20-somethings back in the 1970s? Was it difficult for you, as an “older and wiser” musician, to get into the mindset of your ’70s or ’80s self?

A journalist once asked me, “Don’t you think rock and roll is an angry young man’s game?” I looked at him, and I said, “I’m still angry. I’m still pissed. For example, I’m furious that we’ve got a government with politicians putting their hands in our pockets and there’s no penalty.” Anger isn’t restricted to the young, you know. You can rock ferociously at any age. You simply have to want to. That’s my take, at least.

Your guitar playing on Dig is pretty inspired—great tones, cool textures, and all the solos are simultaneously aggressive and melodic.

I really felt my chops were up on this album—which wasn’t the case for other projects, because I had to do something besides playing music in order to survive. This time, with the record company’s support and few outside concerns, I could practice and be inspired, and just concentrate on playing my best.

What was your practice regimen for the album? Did you rely on specific exercises?

What I find most useful for me is to sit with the television on, and play along with it. I could do scales, but after ten minutes, I get bored. Whereas, with the TV on, you’re creating your own soundtrack. If a commercial comes on, you have to find the key to play along within a few seconds. I find that’s a great way to develop your ear and improvisational skills.

How were your solos constructed and performed during the album sessions?

It used to be that I’d do about six solos, and then comp a “master” solo together piece-by-piece from the best bits. But on this album, I just played them right through. This was an epiphany for me, because I realized that you’re not going to get much better by overthinking and doing take after take. I had to get comfortable with the fact that the first thing I do off the top of my head is going to be the best. I generally can’t beat it—although, that didn’t stop me from spending a whole day trying [laughs]. For example, the solo on “I Don’t Know What Love Is” is the most emotional solo I’ve ever played in my life, and it was a first take. But then, I realized I hadn’t put the pickup selector where I wanted it. I was looking for a creamier sound using the neck pickup, but I had played the solo using the bridge pickup. Everyone told me it was great, but I said, “I like the design of the solo, but I really want to cut it on the bass pickup.” I tried about six times, and I just couldn’t get the feel back that I had on the first take. That was a huge revelation for me. I stopped wasting everyone’s time after that. If I pulled off a solo, and Dave [Jenkins, album producer] said, “That’s it,” I would just move on.

What is your definition of a compelling solo?

For me, a great solo tells a few stories— not just one. There’s a tonal story, where perhaps you’re working the pickup selector and/or the tone control on your guitar to produce varied sounds. Then, there’s the interesting part, where you’re doing something risky and unique and tough—something you have to work at. It doesn’t come easy. And the most important part of the story, of course, is the melody. You have to play something that fits the song. Ritchie Blackmore taught me that. He’d play something that was so melodic it was almost singing, and towards the end of the solo he’d unleash a blazing piece of speed just to show he could do it. But that was tasteful. Today, I hear too many guitarists playing a song about being alone and broken hearted, and when the solo comes, they just blast out all of these fast runs and totally destroy the mood of the song. I don’t get that. Perhaps that’s why I do like a lot of classic rock, hard rock, and blues—it’s because those guitarists usually played solos that enhanced the song, and always moved it forward.

Do you think any other guitar-heavy, classic rock bands can look forward to the same opportunities as Heaven & Earth in the current pop-music climate?

I really hope so. I would like to get enough traction with Heaven & Earth to get the major labels—who are not known for their original thinking—to go, “Oh, people want this sound again,” and put money into other bands that are guitar driven. It takes serious funding to give musicians the time to really craft songs and make great-sounding albums. Then, of course, the bands need to be promoted and marketed. I want to see guitar music invested in once again, and I want it out there for the public to hear and hopefully embrace. It would be amazing if Dig was one of the first salvos towards making that all happen.

SMITH’S DIGGING GEAR

GUITARS: Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, Breedlove acoustic, Babicz Spider acoustic, Taylor Leo Kottke Signature 12-string.

AMPS: Marshall Major, Lee Jackson modded 50-watt Marshall, Vox AC30, Kasha RM50 and RM100, Albion heads and combos.

PEDALS Boss OC-3 Super Octave, Chandler Digital Echo, MXR Micro Flanger, MXR Analog Chorus, Lehle P-Split II, Morley Bad Horsie wah, Seymour Duncan Twin Tube, Maxon Overdrive, Peterson StroboStomp tuner.,

STRINGS & THINGS: Dean Markley Blue Steel, .010 set; Pickboy Home Plate picks.

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