Greg Smith & Jason Hartless – If Ya Wanna Know the Truth… Ask the Band!

By Jeb Wright
Photos by James Rozell

I had just finished a phone interview with Ted Nugent.  Ted, and his assistant Linda Peterson were telling me to head down to Enid, Oklahoma to see the next to last date on the Sonic Baptizm! Tour.  They both promised I would be impressed.  Curious, I made the drive.  Linda and Ted also told me to spend some time chatting with bassist Greg Smith and newcomer 21 year old drummer Jason Hartless about the current three-piece lineup of the band.

When we arrived and sauntered backstage we ran into assistant tour manager, production manager and FOH engineer Frank Trzaskowski.  While waiting to meet with Greg and Jason I decided to ask Frank if Ted was really playing as well as Linda and Ted were trying to convince me.  Frank smiled, raised an eyebrow and stated very matter of factly, “Right now he is at the top of his game.  He decided going out as a power trio.  I know that Ted likes Jimi Hendrix and Cream.  We love Derek St. Holmes as he is an amazing singer.  There is also another side of the Ted Nugent band and that is when they can do a bit of jamming without worrying about a singer waiting to come back in.”

I asked Frank if part of the energy of the show was due to the youthfulness and sheer talent of the new drummer Hartless.  Frank replied, “Jason came in and he is a young kid.  He is so powerful.  When you watch him he is so influenced by Keith Moon and Ginger Baker.  There is something happening there.  Greg Smith is a super solid bass player who keeps it all together.  I like it when it is unpredictable.”

It seemed impossible to me that the band could still be full of piss and vinegar rock and roll at the end of a grueling tour.  Frank laughed out loud and shook his head back and forth before commenting, “We did 56 shows in 66 days and that is brutal.  There is nothing more brutal than when a guy does the same show every night.  It gets boring for the crew.  With Ted we switch around the set list.  Sometimes we have a set list and he does not stick to it.  It keeps it exciting.”

Again, I went back to the power of the show.  A power trio Nugent without Derek St. Holmes in tow.  Was it really THAT good, I asked?  Can Nugent really expend the energy needed to keep up with men less than half his age?

“I record pretty much every show.  We do a thing called Virtual Sound check where you can use last night’s show to set up the sound systems the next time he plays.  Ted comes in an hour before the show.  In 11 years I think I’ve had 10 sound checks with him.  He is just not that kind of artist.  I can listen to how he was playing.  I hear the concerts and I hear the magic that happens.  He changes arrangements and it is challenging for his musicians to follow.  That is why he needs world class musicians following him.  A power trio is more of a freedom for him as an artist.

“We struggle to keep up with Ted.  We are all kinds of age groups but we have a tough time keeping up with him.  He is 68 and we did 18 shows in 19 days.  That is brutal.  We traveled 800 miles from Kalamazoo to Kansas overnight.” 

Jeb: Gentlemen… I am here to experience the Sonic Baptizm!  I want to hit you guys up about a couple of things.  I know about you, Greg but I don’t know much about you, Jason.  You may be the youngest guy I’ve ever interviewed.

Greg:  I’m older than his parents.

Jeb: Holy shit [Laughter]!  Jason, I heard you played your first pro gig at age five.

Jason:  I started playing drums probably about when I was six months old.  My dad was a drummer.  The drums were around the house and I just started banging away.  By the time I was about four I would jam with some of my dad’s friends.  When I was five I was playing live cover gigs around town.

Jeb:  How does one go from being five and playing cover gigs to playing with Ted Nugent at age 21?

Jason:  It was due to a lot of domino effect happening. When I got a little older, about eight or nine years old, Corky Lang from Mountain took me under his wing and he was a big mentor of mine.  We did my first solo record when I was about ten.  When I was 12 I started touring with the ex-guitar player for Uncle Kracker.  I toured with him for many years.  I toured with Motley Cure with him in 2009.  I started touring with a band called Pistol Day Parade in 2012.  By 2014, we toured on the Shutup & Jam! Ted Nugent tour.  We opened up for them for two months or so.  I got my foot in the door a little bit and here we are. 

Jeb: Ted has had a ton of great drummers.  Cliff Davies, Carmine Appice, Tommy Aldridge, Tommy Clufetos…

Jason:   Tommy Clufetos was one of my old teachers.  He’s from Detroit as well. It was about the time he was ending his career with Ted and right when he got the Alice Cooper gig when I was taking lessons from him. 

Jeb:  Greg, we have met before but never done an interview.  I recently found out you played with Wendy O. Williams.

Greg: I was his age then!  That was my first tour.  I was 21.  That was a lot of fun.  We toured the country in 1984 in an LTD wagon.  It was new in 1984.  We had a brand new station wagon.  It was my first experience out on the road and it was great.  I loved it.  I had never even been on a tour bus before, so for me it was fine.

Jeb:  I had a period growing up where I was a punker and I had spiked hair.  What was she like? Also, was Wendy opening a lot for Motorhead then?

Greg: She was unlike her stage persona.  She was really sweet.  We used to play a lot with Motorhead.  We did their 10th anniversary show at the Hammersmith Oden in London, opening up for them.  That was the first time I met Lemmy.  I remember I met him in his dressing room and he gave me a beer called a Carlsberg Special Export.   I still have that can at my house. 

Jeb:  Greg, I am a Ritchie Blackmore nut and you were in Rainbow.  To keep this in the Nugent realm, compare and contrast these two guitar players.

Greg: They couldn’t be more polar opposites both personality and playing-wise.  I got along really well with Ritchie, but I saw him mistreat other guys.  What Ritchie didn’t know about me, that I’ve only recently started to put out there to journalists, is that I was a huge fan of his.  I grew up on Deep Purple and Rainbow.  I borrowed Machine Head from my buddy’s older brother and we burned it out.  I then went to the record store and got every Deep Purple album that was out and then I got the Rainbow records. 

By the time I played in Rainbow, I had already played with Alice Cooper and a bunch of other bands.  Ritchie thought I was this professional guy coming into the band who would do his job.  I let him think that.  I let him think I was unimpressed by him and all that stuff like I was just there to do a job.  Meanwhile, inside, I was like “I’m playing with FUCKING RITCHIE BLACKMORE!” 

Jeb:  Nice! Let’s talk Nugent.  Is what everyone is saying true?  Is this the best Nugent concert in years, or not?

Greg: Ted wanted things a little more up on top of the beat.  He wanted it more in your face.  That’s what Jason is giving.  Ted had been looking for that for a few years now.  Wild Mick Brown is one of my favorite drummers in the world, and he is one of my favorite people in the world, but he is a ‘meat and potatoes John Bonham behind the beat’ guy.  Ted was looking for something different.

Jeb:  I am not a drummer.  Are you talking like a Keith Moon thing?

Jason:  In a way.  I tend to say my drumming is more of a jazz controlled Keith Moon type thing… at least with Ted Nugent.

Greg:  It is Keith without the drugs [laughter].

Jason:  With Ted it is a very intricate show, drumming-wise.  I play off where he is going.  It is something that, every single night, it is going to be different.  We are all improvising on the spot and jamming and that is what this classic rock music is all about.  It is not a pristine live show that is the same thing every night.  Every night a person will see something different, every night.

Greg: Being a trio again makes it a little more manic. I get to bring out my Jack Bruce a little more than normal.  Jason gets to show his chops off.  Jason is only 21, but he has a musical ability and knowledge far beyond his years.  This band eats up musicians as it is not an easy thing to do.  You have to have one eye on Ted at all times as you don’t know what’s going to happen. 

Jeb: You guys probably have to communicate visually.  It would seem to be important to always pay attention.  How do you keep it together?

Greg: I have the drums really fucking loud in my monitors.  I have the guitar really fucking loud.  I have the bass loud.  My monitor guy is always giving me crap because I am blowing up in-ear monitors left and right.  It is an intense rock show in my head.  I am not getting it from the stage, but it is really an intense show going on in my head.

Jeb: Do you lead?  Do you follow?

Greg: You follow Ted.

Jason: Yeah.

Greg: Even if, let’ say he has a night where he can’t hear and he comes in maybe a beat after… we’ve got to follow him. 

Jeb: That seems impossible.

Greg: That is what impresses me about Jason.  He finds it and we get back and the crowd is none the wiser.  It is very subtle.  It happens in any band… people can make mistakes but Jason is right on it.

Jeb:  As a lay-person, it would seem odd to me that you would have a jazzy drummer…

Greg: So was Cliff Davies.  He was a jazz sort of player.  It really fits this music more than any other drummer that has ever been there for a long, long time.  Cliff had that kind of vibe going on.

Jeb: Nugent has got to be different for you, Jason.

Jason: Of course.  He is a rock icon, a music icon for that matter.  I think the best moments are when we play “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Stranglehold” as they are the most iconic rock songs of all time.  To top it off he is using the same guitar that recorded those fucking songs.  It is a very humbling experience playing with Ted every night.

Jeb:  Everyone is selling this three-piece as the Nugent band you have to get off your butt and go see.  Comments?

Greg: You know what?  Yeah, why not?  It is a bad-ass fricking trio.  Like Ted always says… I’d pay to see this.  Hell yeah, I’d pay to see this band.  I pretty much hate everything and I would love to see this. I’m old and jaded!

Jason: I try as hard as I can every night.  I like to look at myself as ‘play-dough’. Whatever drummer you need, I will be.

Greg: Oh, I thought you were talking about the philosopher [laughter].

Jason: Yeah, that too.  Any drummer that someone wants me to be, I will be that drummer.  It has been successful so far. 

Jeb: Did you ever go, “Hey… Cluefetos… is he hard to work with?”

Jason:  I’m also close with Tommy’s dad.  I played a gig with him maybe a month before I was leaving with Mitch Ryder.  He told me some stories about junior when he was out there.  I knew what to expect.  On top of it, it helped that I knew Greg coming into this and I knew most of the crew having done the last tour as the opening act.  It was a very easy transition for me and for everybody else as well.

Jeb:  You’re going to do great things after this gig.  You may not be here in a few years.  Are you thinking about the future?

Jason: The music industry is not something you can predict.  You have to live in the now and you can’t predict what is going to happen.  You just be the best you can be at that moment and strive for one thousand percent perfection.

Jeb:  There are people who claim Ted just plays fast and that his music is simple.  I am like, “Fuck you.” 

Greg: I think those people don’t like something else about Ted and what he stands for, whether it be hunting or his political views and they just throw that onto the music.  I don’t know any musicians -and I know a crapload of musicians- professional and otherwise… I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Ted’s playing.  I remember one of the best guitar players I have ever played with was a guy named Dennis who played in Billy Joel’s band for a while.  He is very versatile.  We were playing in New York City once and somebody said, “Can you do that?”  We were watching Ted.  He said, “Yeah, I can do that, but that is Ted fucking Nugent.”  He could do it, but he could not do it like that.  There is a special thing going on, do you know what I mean?

Jeb:  Jason—there is a simplicity in the music.  You’re Mr. Berklee College of Music.  Ted’s music is not Mozart, but I find it very clever. 

Jason: It is very clever.  Ted has the best right hand in the business.  There is no doubt his groove is unlike anyone else.  Groove is something that doesn’t tend to be associated with a guitar player.  It is usually associated with a bass player or a drummer. There will never be anyone quite like Ted Nugent.

Greg: What always impresses me is that Ted is always creating.  We will be talking and he will be playing and then he will catch onto something and I will go, “Remember that.  That is cool.”  I get chills watching his blues playing.  I always tell him that I have the best seat in the house.  I am standing right next to him every night.

Jeb:  Jason, what Nugent album was your favorite?

Jason: Being totally honest, I wasn’t raised on Nugent.  I was brought up on British music and it was not until I got older that I started getting into American music.  I had Great Gonzo’s that was his greatest hits.  That is what got me into Nugent.  Being from Detroit I always heard it, as it was played on the radio constantly.  He is a folk hero in Detroit.  Looking back now, my favorite album is Ted Nugent.  You can’t go wrong with that.  Most of our set is from that record, anyways.  It just shows you how powerful it is after all of these years. 

Greg: I remember being 14 when “Cat Scratch Fever” came out.  That was the commercial song that was on the radio.  In high school everyone was talking about it.  That was the first thing I heard by him.  I still have that album at home.  I should get him to sign it one of these days. 

Jeb:  You think?  How long have you been with Nuge?

Greg:  This is my tenth year. 

Jeb: Will there be an album?

Greg: I played on the last album Shutup & Jam! album.  Ted has the music together.  He’s in Texas and I’m in Pennsylvania.  It is not like he is down the block and we can jam every night.  He has a wealth of ideas, so if he asks I would jump at the chance.

Jeb: Shutup was like old-school Nugent. 

Greg: I really enjoyed the recording process with him.  We’d get in there and we’d blow through it a few times and stuff like that.  We would take it and we would discuss changing this or changing that or pushing this or bring this on the beat or whatever.  I remember there was this section in a song where we were going to do a push in the bridge section and afterwards Ted goes, “That sounded fucking great.”  We said, “Ted, we were supposed to push that more in the middle section.”  Ted goes, “You’re one hundred percent right but this is the way it is now.” 

Jeb: Is there a favorite tune in the set, Jason?

Jason: “Gonzo” is one of my favorites.  From a drumming standpoint, I like playing “Yank Me Crank Me.”  I am influenced by Jeff Porcaro from Toto and I try to bring out a little bit of his shuffle in that song.

Greg: I hear that, man.  That has been an influence to me in the middle section.  I am doing a little bit of Rocco Prestia to your Jeff Porcaro. 

Jeb:  I am now going to try to get you fired.  What is the biggest misconception about Ted Nugent?

Jason: [laughter] Ted is probably one of the most generous human beings I have ever met.  What he means he means one thousand percent.  He puts his entire heart and soul into what he does. 

Greg: He puts his heart and soul into everything he does.  How many years after writing “Stranglehold” and I am standing next to him and I see him getting chills when he plays that riff.  To have that much passion for songs he wrote so long ago… it makes me want to do that much better.  Another misconception to his detractors is that he is one of the nicest fricking guys.  He is a pleasure to be around.  He is a family man.  He treats my family like his own family.  He is just an all-around great guy.