By Jeb Wright
Heaven & Earth is a band that has the true spirit of real rock and roll running through their hearts and souls. Truth be told, I have eagerly been awaiting a new release from Heaven & Earth, as band leader/Songwriter/Lead Guitarist Stuart Smith is a hero of mine. I have always respected his abilities on his instrument and the way he champions music that matters.
With Heaven & Earth, Smith has made a lifetime commitment to keeping classic hard rock new and exciting. The band’s latest offering, Dig, hits the streets on April 23, 2013 and will have fans of guitar driven hard rock wetting their pants with excitement upon first listen.
In a way, I am thrilled it took Stuart so long to create another Heaven & Earth CD, as it means that enough time has passed that I am, once again, allowed by the courts to speak with him. You see, there was a time…well, it’s a long story…but there was a supposed stalking incident that took place. It was really blown out of proportion…but to make Stuart happy I copped a plea and only had to serve a few hundred hours of community service to clear things up. That and I could not be within so many feet of him or contact him in any way for a few years.
Same thing happened years ago with Ritchie Blackmore when he was in Rainbow. Rock stars...they can be so picky and get so easily bent out of shape. It’s not like I was going to sell those soiled stage clothes on eBay or anything. They acted like I was going to rush back to my hotel room, pull the shades, put on their sweat stained clothing and parade around in front of the mirror, playing air guitar to their music. I mean, come on, who in their right mind would do that? I mean, sure…it sounds FUN and all…but really…I mean come on…I’m not a male groupie…really…I’m just saying.
Truth be told, I was simply going to have the soiled dungarees laundered and put back in the dressing room. I was trying to be nice. In both cases the guys smelled terrible and I was just trying to do them a favor. I didn’t want to tell them about the stink…I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Frickin’ rock stars! Fans and esteemed rock journalists, even Internet ones, seems to always pay the price for their egos. But, damn they can sure play guitar…and they just look so cool doing it…I wish I look like that…maybe I do…or I could. If only I had the right clothing…
I digress. Back to the story…
Having been able to put this unfortunate misunderstanding behind us, Mr. Smith and I were able to finally do another interview. In the chat that follows, we go in-depth behind the making of the last album, but we don’t stop there. We, also, discuss many of the individual songs on Dig, as well as watching videos and getting woody’s and even singing Christmas Carols with the Man in Black, himself…and people having sex on Ping-Pong tables…can’t forget that.
Hmm, look over there…I wonder what Stuart is going to do with those used towels that he wiped his sweat off himself when he came off stage…I wonder if anyone would miss them…oh its just a few towels…where’s my gym bag?
Jeb: Heaven & Earth is back! Stuart, what the hell took so long?
Stuart: Jeb? Jeb Wright? What the hell? Don’t I still have some kind of restraining order against you, or are the three years up already? Oh well, I guess they must be as you’ve started harassing my publicist, so I suppose I’ll have to answer all of this.
It took so long because after we lost Kelly Hansen to Foreigner I couldn’t really find the right person to replace him and then Steve Priest called me and asked if I wanted to get Sweet back together with him. That was in 2008 and when it became obvious that the band, although good, was not going to move forward with new music and Steve Priest turned down the initial deal with Quarto Valley Records, I started concentrating on writing with Joe Retta for Heaven & Earth. That was in June 2011 and now here we are. And that Jeb, is “what the hell took so long”.
Jeb: Dig is an album I am, pardon the pun, digging. With your former vocalist now singing for Foreigner, how did you find his replacement?
Stuart: No, you’re not pardoned, that was absolutely terrible. I thought you could do much better.
I had known Joe Retta for a few years from the various jam sessions around LA and when Steve Priest and I were putting Sweet back together, I took Steve along to see Joe perform one night. We both thought he was absolutely incredible, so we asked him to join the band. During that time with Sweet, Joe and I discovered that we both wanted to write new material. After hearing him on the recordings we did with Sweet of cover songs for Cleopatra Records, I realized his voice would be totally perfect for Heaven & Earth.
Jeb: Before even getting into the tunes, you seem to be influenced by all things classic Deep Purple. Now, you do MORE than that but explain how Purple became part of your musical DNA.
Stuart: I was originally classically trained on guitar and really had no interest in rock music but some RAF, [Royal Air Force], friends of my parents dragged me to a show in which Deep Purple were headlining and when they came on stage I was literally blown away. That concert turned me on to rock and roll and I don’t think you ever forget, or stop loving, the first band that moved you. It wasn’t just the guitar either, I loved the Hammond and the way it’s sound blends with the guitar. I have a lot more to my musical DNA than Purple, especially these days, but I guess Deep Purple will always be my favorite.
Jeb: You became FRIENDS with the Man in Black? But the legend is that Ritchie only likes Ritchie. What did he see in Stuart Smith? How did you get behind the Wall of Blackmore?
Stuart: I was walking past him backstage at a show and he said, “Hey, do you know Jeb Wright?” and I said “Yes, but I can’t stand him” then he smiled and said, “Same here mate, put it there, let me buy you a drink” and that was it!
Seriously, I think it’s very hard to work out why two people connect and become good friends, especially with someone who is a major star. Apart from the obvious things we had in common like our love of classical music, playing guitars, Monty Python’s, playing sports, psychic research, drinking and womanizing, I think it’s down to both your state of mind at the time and the circumstances when you meet. For us, they were just right. What he saw in me? I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. For myself, I saw a side of Ritchie that most people never do. I found him to be one of the funniest, intelligent, caring and entertaining personalities I have ever met and I genuinely enjoyed his company and friendship.
Jeb: Do you still stay in touch with him?
Stuart: Sadly we haven’t spoke for quite a while but I have plans to make a concerted effort this year to re-connect.
Jeb: Back to Dig. You had a famous guy at the board. How did you meet Dave Jenkins?
Stuart: We sort of inherited Dave with the Wine Cellar Studios. Richie Onori had built a studio at his house and had already known Dave, so when we all got together to record “A Taste of Heaven” Dave was already there at the studio and had learned the set up very well, so there was no other choice. After working with him on that project he became our “official go to guy” from then on.
Jeb: You have three very special guests. Please tell me how you got them to do this, how you know them and what they did on the album. Let’s start with Howard Leese.
Stuart: We hadn’t really planned to have any guests on this album except Howard. He’s a great guy and a superb musician. I’ve known Howard since the early ‘90’s and it’s sort of a longstanding tradition with us that whenever we do an acoustic song, Howard and I play it together. He generally plays the 12-string guitar and I play the 6-string, so we had him come in and join me on a couple of songs. He’s also a phenomenal string player/arranger, so we had him play strings on a track as well.
Jeb: David Paich…
Stuart: David Paich has been a great friend of mine for many years and I always try to attend his Christmas Eve parties, at which David and I play Christmas Carols together. Generally, we never have anyone to sing them, so in 2011 I took Joe Retta with me. After the party, Joe and I went into David’s studio with him and we played the rough track to “I Don’t Know What Love Is” and he absolutely loved it. He thought it was a definite hit and said he’d like to play some strings on it… so we brought it over and he did his thing. His pieces are amazing and obviously added depth and warmth to an already great song.
Jeb: Richie Sambora…
Stuart: Richie is the nicest guy in the business. He’s my ex-brother in law and when he was recording his latest solo album, Aftermath of a Lowdown, in East West Studios, I went down to have a listen and borrow a Gibson SG off him, as I didn’t have one at the time and we needed that particular guitar sound for one of our songs.
While I was down there, we both signed a guitar to be auctioned off at a charity event and his producer, Luke Ebins, took a photo of us both with the guitar. The picture soon got out on the Internet and I had hundreds of requests from fans who asked if we were going to do something together again, as they loved “When a Blind Man Cries” which we did together on the first album.
One day, I asked Richie what he thought about the idea and he said, “Yes, let’s do it.” We set a day to come down to East West, but on that particular day, there were some technical issues there, so we couldn’t do it. Then Richie got extremely busy, as his solo album was just released and he was flying all over the country promoting it. He, then, began playing with Bon Jovi and also started touring to support his solo album. On his first, and only, day off in three months, he came into a local studio with us and spent six hours adding all sorts of guitars and even his signature talk box on “Man & Machine”… so he has my undying love and respect for that.
Jeb: You have taken a long, long time between H&E albums, so I have to ask, how old are these songs?
Stuart: Nearly all new. Most of the songs on Dig were written by the band as a whole. We’d go into the studio and I’d start a riff and everyone would join in and the song would develop like that. We’d record it and take it home and Joe would work on the vocals and, then we’d refine it, as a band, until we thought it was ready.
During the writing process, the touring season started and we could never seem to get everyone together. About that time, Bruce Quarto, the head of our record company, was getting concerned because nothing was happening, so I told Joe Retta that we needed to get back on track and start writing again. Subsequently, we wrote about three songs on our own in the living room of my house. We pretty much did it the same way we had with the band, I’d throw him the music, the title and I would explain what I felt the song should be about and then he’d come up with these amazing lyrics.
The exceptions were “A Day Like Today” which was written by me, along with Kelly Keeling, Howard Leese and Richie Onori years ago. At Howard’s suggestion, we resurrected it for this album. “Good Times” was a tune which had a bare bones riff that Howard, Richie and I had worked on in the past, so we re-worked it with the rest of the band to make into a complete song. The final song “Live as One” is a song Joe Retta had from way back in the past that Alan Schierbaum and I re-worked with Joe to bring it up to date.
Jeb: Talk cover art. Glen Wexler is pretty big. Did you work with him or did he come up with this on his own...also, who has he done covers for and why did you all call this Dig?
Stuart: Glen is an amazing photographer and I’ve always admired his work, but had never met him. Chuck, [Wright] and Glen had been friends for ages and so he introduced us to him. The idea for the cover of Dig was solely Glen’s idea. It was one he’d had for a long while, but never quite had a client with the budget to do it until we came along. After hearing our music and saying “This feels like an album that has been locked away in a vault for many years and is just now being rediscovered” Glen said he had the “perfect image” in his head to go along with that idea, but it was going to be huge in time, effort and money. Bruce Quarto, the head of our record label, insists on doing everything first class, so when he heard about this amazing idea, he said “Hell… Let’s do it!”
Glen has photographed and created covers for Van Halen, Michael Jackson, Black Sabbath and many, many others. Check out www.glenwexler.com
The title “Dig” was again Glen’s brainchild, as the giant guitar being lifted out of the ground, signifies rock and roll being rediscovered, and then dug up, as we all feel it’s been buried for far too long.
Jeb: Everyone knows you can play the shit out the guitar and solo all day, but on Dig I am impressed with your rhythm playing. This is more complex than earlier efforts. Who and what inspired the upgrade in rhythmic tension?
Stuart: No idea really. I haven’t thought about it so it’s not a conscious thing. A lot of it probably came from playing the Sweet songs for 5 years, which are more rhythm based than lead guitar oriented.
Jeb: Let’s talk the songs. What was the inspiration, both songwriting and the solo for the album opener “Victorious.”
Stuart: This was one of the first songs we wrote. This started with a riff I’d come up with a few years back, but couldn’t quite find the right parts to go with it. I thought it was a very interesting riff, so I didn’t want to waste it on any old drivel. When we went into the studio, I played it to the guys and everybody joined in and started throwing ideas at it. Chuck came up with a lot of the changes in this song. We are extremely happy with the way this song turned out in the end.
As usual, we’d record it and Joe would take it home and start writing lyrical parts. He originally came up with the title “Arabia” but we felt that people couldn’t really relate to it. I mean the country of Arabia doesn’t even exist anymore and, as you probably know, I’ve complained in the press often enough about bands in the melodic rock genre writing songs about dragons, wizards and rivers of destiny. They are just not the sort of thing people run into in everyday life when they’re busy shopping at the supermarket, or trying to pay their bills and survive. To get this type of music back to the forefront, we need to start writing songs that the average person on the street can relate to. “Victorious” is about fighting which everybody goes through either within a relationship, on the street or just fighting to survive.
As for the solo’s, they are brilliant aren’t they [laughter]? I remember very well doing the intro solo at the top of the song. To get that sound, we had to have the guitar on the verge of feedback. I was playing through my Marshall Major 200 watt and a supped up “Lee Jackson” modified Marshall 50 watt linked up together… so it was incredibly loud. The speakers were in the studio and I was recording in the control room and there was no way I was going to go in the studio and stand there next to those monsters so Dave, [Jenkins], put a small speaker in the corridor leading to the control room and I stood by that and played the intro. I remember feeling sorry for Richie, [Onori] as it was very late and he’d gone to bed and the control room is part of the house, which was shaking violently.
Believe it or not, the main solo in the song was my first take. Dave, [Jenkins] hit record and I just blazed over it and when I’d finished he said, “OK, that’s the one”. I thought no way and tried it about six other times but couldn’t top it. Sometimes the first thing out of your head is the best as you’re not over thinking it.
Jeb: “No Money, No Love” rocks and the video gave me a woody!
Stuart: That’s because you’re a very sick puppy, Jeb. That video is good, clean, family entertainment and just look what you’re reading into it. No… you’re right! Those women are absolutely stunning and were so great to work with. I think the entire crew left the shoot with a woody! [laughter]
“NMNL” is definitely one of my favorite songs on the album. It was inspired by my ex-girlfriend. This was one that Joe and I started off at home and then threw at the band and it sort of came together that way. This was also the only song that we did all the guitars in Ocean Studios. I remember it well because we were recording the guitar solo on my birthday.
Jeb: Who is “Back in Anger” about?
Stuart: This was the very first song we wrote on the album and it’s not about anybody in particular. This was originally going to be the title of the album. A while ago I was asked by a journalist, “Don’t you think rock and roll is an angry young man’s game?” And I replied, “I’m still angry.”
It’s more aimed at these politicians we have over here that get caught with their hand in the cookie jar and get a proverbial slap on the wrist and then voting themselves a pay rise. It’s about the greed of the banking community that has brought this country to its knees without any penalties. If you read the articles in Rolling Stone about crooks like Romney and his Bain Corporation that devastated entire townships and didn’t look back yet the guy has the audacity to run for president. It’s about the false reasons we’re sending our troops to die overseas so big business can turn a profit. It’s about lawyers, lobbyists, oil, insurance and pharmaceutical companies running our government and the people suffering because of it. It’s about these money grubbing evangelists screwing insecure people out of their life savings and not having to pay any taxes. It’s about the Catholic Church letting their priests molest children and trying to cover it up. It’s about soldiers returning home and being gunned down in a “drive by” while attending their homecoming party.
Fuck yes, I’m still angry. We ought to adopt the way that China does to deal with politicians who act in such a way that’s against the public well being to line their own pockets. In China, if they get caught, there’s no lengthy trial. They just take them out back, let them choose their own bullet, pay for it and then they’re shot. I don’t have a problem with this. See how quickly Washington would shape up then. Lobbying should be made illegal when it concerns greed vs. public good. All religions should have to pay taxes. I’m a great supporter of the “Occupy” movement. It’s about time that the light was shone on these criminals who have made the government of this country just as corrupt as any third world country.
Jeb: “Sexual Insanity” is one of the best rock tunes on the album. What’s her name and what did she do to inspire this tune?
Stuart: I’ve no idea. You’d have to ask Joe. It’s the one song I threw at him and said, “I don’t have a title, so you think of one”. That is what he came up with. But I have a feeling this song is going to be a “50 Shades” fan favorite!
Jeb: “Live as One” is a great way to close the album and a great tune. Talk about this one and its creative birth.
Stuart: This is one of my favorite songs on the album and we used the Agape Gospel Choir on it. This was a song that Joe had played me that he had written years ago. It was just him and a keyboard but I thought the chorus had major potential so Joe and I got together with Arlan, [Schierbaum] and we worked for a night putting it in order. Apart from “A Day Like Today” this was the only song I had to actually work out what I was going to play as a solo. Arlan had done these passing chords in the solo break so I just worked out what he played and followed him. I think it turned out well.
Jeb: From the video for “No Money No Love” I can tell you’ve been to some Ritchie Blackmore parties. So, we will close the interview with this question: What is the craziest things you have seen at one of Blackmore’s parties and what is the wildest thing that has happened at one of Stuart Smith’s parties?
Stuart: That’s classified. I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you. To be honest nothing too crazy happens at our parties. We reserve that sort of destructive behavior for other people’s houses or on the road! I do remember there was a time at one of Ritchie’s Christmas parties where we were all upstairs singing Christmas Carols, I think we were in the middle of “Silent Night”, and there was this huge crash that came from downstairs. We all ran down to see what had happened and it turns out his assistant Ian Broad was banging some chick on top of Ritchie’s ping pong table and it collapsed in the middle trapping them both in between the leaves and they couldn’t get out. It was hilarious; we couldn’t stop laughing for hours.
Jeb: Okay, Last one: What is your hope for Dig? Can you get what you deserve in the wacky music business of 2013?
Stuart: Well, I feel that with the unwavering support Bruce Quarto has given the band, with his vision and the financial strength of Quarto Valley Records, we now have a real chance of getting this kind of great music back to the forefront again. He’s given us the financial resources that a major label would give to a modern day multi-selling platinum act. I think Bruce is a bigger fan of Heaven & Earth than we are. He’s certainly not doing it for the money. He said to me a while ago, “Stuart, I just want to see good music come back and I want you guys to have the success you deserve. If it makes millions of dollars for the band, then great… but I don’t need it. What am I going to do? Buy another Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini? I can’t… I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it”.
A lot of it is down to the fans, your readers and all the people that are into the classic rock sound. Everyone is always saying how they’re sick of the music out there but don’t do anything about it. Well here’s your chance. If you want this music back on the radio and television then buy our CD, pay for the downloads, share the videos we have out with everyone you can, turn up to our concerts because if the major labels out there, that are putting their money into rubbish like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj, realize that there is a lot of money to be made from the classic rock sound, then they’re going to start signing every good band that has that 70’s sound. As I recall, they’re not exactly known for their original thinking.
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