WOLF TO THE MOON
- by J. Nepper
- Posted on 13-03-2017
If you ask me, bassist Greg Smith is one of the most inspiring and interesting musicians out there today and has been so for years and years. Why? Well, for one thing his resume is extremely impressive; the list of bands and artists that he has toured and/or recorded with is not only long, but also utterly amazing. Everything from the epic "Stranger in Us All" album by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow to "Dragontown" by Alice Cooper and further on to "Motor City Mayhem" by Ted Nugent and "Holy Man" by Joe Lynn Turner. These are just a few examples. Greg has also toured and performed with Billy Joel, Over the Rainbow, Vinnie Moore, Dokken, Blue Oyster Cult, Wendy O. Williams, and other notable acts. Check out his website and you will see what I mean. Before I forget, you should also check out the self-titled Tokyo Motor Fist album that was recently released by Frontiers Records. Greg is handling the bass on that one. Excellent stuff! But let us get down to business and hear what the great man had to tell us about his musical career as well as Ritchie Blackmore’s pranks, Alice Cooper’s poker playing skills, and the "Wayne’s World" movie. Enjoy this one, ladies and gentlemen.
Greetings Greg, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions of mine. I really appreciate that. First of all, how are you doing?
Doing great and staying busy! Thanks!
What initially turned you on to the bass? Could you tell us a bit about your musical upbringing? Did your parents play any instruments?
Nobody in my family is musical. As kids, my friends and I were getting into music. We used to steal my friend Albert’s brothers’ records and listen to them in my basement. Deep Purple, Cactus, Santana, Ten Years After etc. I loved this music and was thirsty for more. My sister’s birthday is in April, mine is in May. She got a guitar for her birthday and said, "Hey…Why don’t we start a band? You can play bass." I said "OK." A month later, I got a bass for my birthday! We both started taking lessons at a local music school. My sister quit right away but by some strange quirk of fate, I picked it up easily and was playing my first gig after 3 months.
What bands were you into when you were a teenager? Is there one band in particular that inspired you to become a musician yourself?
As a teenager, I was heavily into Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rainbow, and Uriah Heep. I’d say ALL those bands inspired me to become a musician. I enjoyed the music so much that listening turned into wanting to be able to play it.
Growing up in the New York area, I was wondering what the music scene in your area was like when you started playing gigs. Was there a thriving club scene in Nassau County, for instance?
Yes, very much so. The drinking age was 18 at the time so there were many clubs and all of them were crowded nearly 7 nights a week. I started playing clubs when I was about 14. I was playing with musicians who were older than me. There were many gigs I had to take the train to because I didn’t drive yet. Bands like Twisted Sister and Zebra were still playing the local clubs and had steady nights. I’d use a fake ID and go see them. I was lucky enough to play with some popular bands on Long Island myself and open up for them and we became good friends.
Were there any specific rock records that changed either your perspective on music or perhaps how to approach the bass?
I can’t say there are any specific records but as I got more experience playing different styles of music THAT changed my approach to the bass. Playing in cover bands on Long Island, you get to play many different styles of music. For instance, I got really into MOTOWN and saw how James Jamerson influenced some of my favorite ROCK bassists like John Paul Jones.
"Stranger in Us All" by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow happens to be one of my all-time favorite albums. How do you feel about that album nowadays? Do you think it has stood the test of time well?
Thanks. I’m glad it’s one of your favorites! I certainly do think it’s stood the test of time. I think back fondly of the time doing pre-production and of the actual recording. It was the last time I did an album "old school", meaning everyone together in the studio hashing out the tunes from beginning to end then recording it. I was in the studio from January 1995 to April 1995. Ritchie was mostly a pleasure to be around as were the rest of the band. We had many laughs, drank much wine and beer, and became very close. Doogie recently gave me some audio tapes of some of the jamming we did at the studio as well as a recording of the first time I came down to play with the band in September1994. Priceless stuff!
I am curious as to how the songs on that album were composed and arranged. I know that Ritchie and Doogie (and to some extent Paul Morris) were credited with music and lyrics, but were the songs conceived and whipped into shape organically at rehearsals, or was it a case of Ritchie and Doogie bringing more or less finished ideas to rehearsals for the others to learn?
Mostly Ritchie would have a riff or come up with a riff while noodling around. We as a band would jam on it and come up with our respective parts. If Ritchie had suggestions for us, he would let us know. Doogie would sing ad lib to come up with a melody and write the lyrics in his room later. But yes, the songs for that album were mostly whipped into shape as a band.
Do you have fond memories of your time as a member of Rainbow? How do you look back on your time with that band? I have always felt that the line-up that you were part of was underrated. The album was strong and you were a great live act as evidenced by the "Black Masquerade" live release.
Thanks again. I have nothing but the fondest of memories as a member of Rainbow. Rainbow was one of my favorite bands growing up so it was kind of surreal to end up playing in the band. I agree we were underrated but as time goes by I think we’re getting a little more appreciation from the die-hard Rainbow fans as the 1994 – 1997 Rainbow was a heavier version and paid homage to the original Rainbow.
The 90s were tough on hard rock and heavy metal in general. How was the reception to "Stranger in Us All" back then and what were the tours like? Were the shows well received and well-attended in general, or did you ever feel that the band was struggling to gain a foothold, so to say?
The reception in Europe, Japan, and South America was incredible. In the USA, not so much. The tours in those countries were very well attended and we had quite a few sell-out shows. Only in the USA did I feel we were struggling. By that time Chuck Burgi had left as well.
There are so many legendary tales and stories involving pranks and jokes played by Ritchie floating around. I was wondering if you were ever a victim of one of those or if you outsmarted him or simply steered clear of him? J
By the time I joined Rainbow, I had already played with Alice Cooper, so Ritchie thought of me as a professional. I never let him know I was a fan. I had already toured and recorded with his ex-bandmates Joe Lynn Turner, Dave Rosenthal, and Chuck Burgi. I’d heard all their stories, so I was prepared for his potential pranks! He tried pranking me once when I first started with the band in pre-production. He rented a mansion in the Hudson Valley that we rehearsed at. He put his dirty soccer clothes in my pillowcase. I just thought it was a bumpy pillow. I didn’t smell any body odor or sweat. He asked me the next morning how I slept. I told him I slept great. Another time he put this huge industrial vacuum cleaner in my room. I thought the cleaners had left it or something. Turns out he had it on a remote control. About 4:30 AM he clicks it on from his room. He’d thought he’d be able to play that prank on me all night. I just unplugged it from the wall. His remote no longer worked. Again, he asked me how I’d slept. I again told him great! He wasn’t getting a rise out of me so he then moved on to easier prey!
Did you by any chance catch Rainbow live in the US back in the 70s or early 80s? Any memories that you would like to share with us?
I saw Rainbow in 1980 in Long Island at Calderone Concert Hall. The Scorpions opened. I remember going to the Record World store in the afternoon to get my album signed by Graham Bonnet, Don Airey, and Roger Glover. I played with Graham in 2010 and told him I was one of the "little punks" standing in line for a signature that day. He asked, "Was I nice?" I told him indeed he was and still is a very nice man.
When I interviewed Joe Lynn Turner last year, I told him that the Over the Rainbow gig that took place in Malmoe (Sweden), October 2009, was one of the most entertaining and memorable shows I have ever attended. You did not by any chance record any of those European shows for a potential live album, did you?
Unfortunately, nothing was recorded for a live album although it probably should have. I have many recordings from those shows but unfortunately nothing that is professional enough to be released.
To many of us, that was the closest thing to a proper Rainbow gig we would ever get, and you were a huge success in Europe. You truly were a great live act. Did you ever discuss writing new material for an Over the Rainbow album?
Yes, it was discussed and that was always our intention. In fact, there were a couple songs written that were great and in my opinion a proper continuation of the Rainbow sound. Unfortunately, Joe felt he’d rather do his solo projects than continue Over The Rainbow. I was disappointed but of course wish him nothing but the best.
Speaking of Joe Lynn Turner, the "Holy Man" album had some great songs on it. You laid down the bass tracks on five or six songs, is that correct? You also performed on a handful of Joe Lynn Turner albums in the latter half of the 90s. Did you tour those albums with Joe or were you "merely" helping him out in the studio? Do you guys go way back?
"Holy Man" is indeed a great album! I’m very proud of all the work I’ve done with Joe on his albums. The process was nothing but friends getting together making kick-ass music and laughing our asses off! Joe and I go back to the early 90’s. We were introduced by mutual friend and amazing guitarist Al Pitrelli. We did a small tour in the Midwest and East Coast but mainly it was handfuls of gigs here and there on the East Coast.
The "Live in Germany" album is excellent as well. How do you feel about live albums in general?
Deep Purple "Made in Japan", "Uriah Heep Live", MSG "One Night at Budokan"…say no more!!!! If it’s a band of great musicians at the top of their game, I LOVE live albums!
Another album that I love and cherish is "Dragontown" by Alice Cooper. How did you become involved in the recording of that album? If I remember correctly, both you and Bob Marlette are credited with bass, but I have never been able to figure out exactly what songs you laid down the bass tracks for. What are some of your thoughts on and memories of this album? I thought that it was really fresh and sharp yet dark and moody. Great stuff!
I’d been with Alice for a long time. I’d recorded "Last Temptation" with him and Alice himself told Bob Marlette (who was producing the album) that he wanted me to play bass. I don’t think Bob was happy as he played on "Brutal Planet" as well as producing. I think he wanted to play on the whole of "Dragontown". To be honest with you, unless I look at the credits I don’t know what I played on either. Bob had me play in a manner inconsistent with my style and more like his. I was very happy Alice wanted me to play so rather than make waves I did what the producer wanted.
What was it like to work with Alice? He always comes across as a genuinely nice guy with a great sense of humor whenever he is interviewed.
He is exactly that. He’s a great guy with an amazing sense of humor. He was extremely easy to work with and allowed everyone to be who they are. Alice always hires professionals, so the band was always top notch and had great instincts. When I first joined the band in 1991, it was me, Vinnie Moore, Eric Singer, Derek Sherinian, and Stef Burns. Hell, I’d PAY to see THAT band! We’d record the show every night and listen to it in the bus. Anyone who made a mistake got ridiculed! It made the band VERY good after a while as nobody wanted the finger pointed at them!
Rumor has it that touring with Alice often involves playing cards (poker, perhaps?) on the bus, but I cannot recall where I heard or read that. Any truth to that?
You are correct, sir! There was a nightly card game in the back of the bus. Alice is a VERY good poker player! I’m a decent poker player. Any new guys in the band pretty much got crushed. One year someone (who will remain nameless) lost a guitar to Alice. It was always good fun and great to be sitting, hanging out, laughing, and playing cards with Alice listening to his stories.
A truly underrated gem by Alice Cooper is "The Last Temptation". That was actually the very first Cooper album I got my hands on. I love the drama and theatricality of that album. Did the album’s storyline appeal to you? Was that your first time in the studio with Alice?
That was the first time in the studio recording with Alice. We’d recorded a live album on the "Hey Stoopid" tour in Europe 1991 but it’s never been released. As far as the storyline, to be honest I didn’t know there WAS a storyline till I met Neil Gaiman during the recording. I’m usually sent rough demos of the tunes, and I listen to the music and melody to create a bass line. I didn’t spend too much time listening to the lyrics, as I was concerned with creating a solid melodic bass line for these songs and didn’t have time to delve too deeply into lyrics or a possible connection between the tunes. It was interesting working with 3 separate producers for certain batches of tunes. You can really hear the difference.
You appeared in the "Wayne’s World" movie with Alice as well, right? I have not seen that one for ages. What were Mike Myers and Dana Carvey like?
Mike Myers was pretty quiet. Dana Carvey was doing his George Bush Sr. impressions on the chow line. Pretty funny stuff! It was pretty cool to be less than 5 feet away from them when the iconic line "we’re not worthy" was filmed. None of us thought the movie would do much as most Saturday Night Live spinoffs at that time didn’t do well. We were very happy when the movie was the #1 movie in the US for 4 or 5 weeks.
Ted Nugent’s "Motor City Mayhem" and "Ultralive Ballisticrock" are definitely a couple of energetic live albums. In a way, I feel that those two records really sum up what Ted Nugent’s music is all about. His songs are simply begging to be played live! In addition, there is a sense of danger and unpredictability to your shows that I find appealing. When you guys perform live, do many things develop intuitively and on the spur of the moment?
Absolutely! You never really know what Ted will do next. This will be my 11th year with him and I’m sure it will be just as spontaneous as my first. Although there is a set list we go by, he may bust into some Motown, James Brown, Stones, Bo Diddley, Hendrix, or something completely left field. I love the spontaneity. There was a lot of that with Ritchie Blackmore as well. He may bust into a Hendrix tune or a medieval pub tune at any moment. I think between Nugent and Blackmore, I’ve played more Hendrix with THEM than I ever did with Long Island cover bands!
I love the rendition of "Need You Bad" on "Ultralive Ballisticrock". Your vocals suit that song perfectly. It also adds a bit of variety to the live set, if that makes sense. When Ted asked you to join the band, did he ever mention that he wanted you to sing and provide vocals and so on, or was this something that just kind of evolved organically after you had joined the band? I recall listening to Rainbow doing a version of Deep Purple’s "Burn" somewhere with you handling back-up vocals and harmonies. That was awesome. Was singing something that came naturally to you, or was it a case of you having to convince yourself that you could sing and then build up the confidence to do so in front of an audience?
I’ve been singing for quite a while. It started with background vocals for many years then graduated to lead when a singer didn’t show up for a cover gig in Long Island. I was set up and certainly didn’t want to cancel, so I sang lead. It went pretty well, so over time I gained more confidence and did it more. I also realized if I sang that was one less person to be paid at a club gig where you weren’t making much anyway. When I was asked to join Ted’s band in March of 2007, drummer Wild Mick Brown who I knew from playing with Dokken in 2003 called me and the conversation went something like this…
Mick: Hey man, I’ve been playing with Ted Nugent the last few years and it’s been great. He really kicks ass and treats the band well. We need a bass player, are you interested?
Me: Hell yea! I love Nugent and with you playing drums the band will be great and it’s gonna be nothing but fun on the road!
Mick: Yeah man…Hey….Do you sing lead?
Me: Yeah of course.
Mick: Good… Because I already told Ted ya did!
How involved were you in the composing and arranging of "Shutup and Jam!"? What were the recording sessions like? I have this image of Ted being quite disciplined and structured in the studio, but perhaps you could tell me more about what it is like to work with him in that particular environment?
Ted came in with the tunes written. I of course had freedom to create my bass lines and we changed some arrangement stuff here and there while recording. The sessions were really just us jamming in a room. We’d go through the tune a couple times then they’d record a couple takes and that was it! I wouldn’t call it disciplined and structured; I’d call it concentrating on the groove above all. THAT’s what Ted wanted more than anything. We were able to get that going fairly quickly. Most tunes were done within a couple takes. I remember one tune, can’t remember which, that we ran through a couple times before tracking. The pre-chorus was supposed to be on the up beat but when we recorded it, it wasn’t. We were listening back to the take and Ted LOVED it. He was saying, "Yeah, THIS is the ONE!" I said to him, "Hey Ted, isn’t the pre-chorus supposed to be pushed?" He listened a minute, turned to me and said, "You’re exactly right…But THIS is the way it is now." The track had vibe and above all GROOVE. That was more important than an upbeat on a pre-chorus.
Are there any Ted Nugent stories that we do not know, or is he exactly like the guy we see on TV and hear on radio interviews and so on? He always seems to enthusiastic and I love that about him!
There is no other Ted Nugent other than the one you see on TV and hear in interviews. Always very enthusiastic and passionate about the things he loves and believes in. He’s a great guy, very much a family man and treats my family like his own. I’m proud to have him as a boss and friend.
Has he taken you out hunting yet?
Ha! He’s threatened to take us hog hunting. It hasn’t happened yet, but we do a lot of shooting at the ranch in between rehearsals.
The "Movin’ Out" musical by Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp on Broadway must have been quite an experience. I would have loved to watch that. What was it like to be involved in that kind of production? As to the music, it must have been quite structured and disciplined in that everything had to correspond to the acting and the storyline and so on. Would you consider participating in something musical-related again, or is it a case of "been there, done that"?
It was a very different experience for me. I was there from the inception and we worked up the music and different arrangements of Billy’s songs together at SIR in NYC starting in April of 2001. It was a 10-piece band of top NY musicians. None of us were Broadway players. That’s the way Billy wanted it. I did Alice Coopers "Dragontown" tour in 2001 then had to leave the band because the "Movin’ Out" show started in June of 2002. It was a very tough decision as I’d been with Alice for a long time and loved playing with the band. None of us knew how long it would last. It lasted 3 ½ years on Broadway and then I did another year on the road. The show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards winning 2, and a Grammy for best Cast Album. The cast album was recorded live. It was considered the first "Jukebox" musical of which at this point there have been many. It’s nice to have contributed to a bit of Broadway history even though I don’t consider myself a Broadway player. It was very structured in the way that if one of the players "subbed out", the dancers would complain because it sounded different. As far as doing something on Broadway again…We were onstage and the band was featured in "Movin’ Out". It would have to be a similar scenario. I mean, we as a band broke ALL the rules on Broadway! Broadway is very structured and most musicians would be immediately fired for the stuff we were doing. Billy Joel had our backs though. We were a damn rock band and we acted like it! Some of the subs on "Movin’ Out" still play Broadway shows. They tell me when other Broadway musicians find out they subbed on "Movin’ Out" they ask, "Are the rumors true?" I guess we made a name for ourselves and we certainly pissed off the establishment. A job well done I’d say!
The picture of the tequila boxes was the band dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway during "Movin‘ Out". Drinking backstage at the show was A BIG No No on Broadway.. We didn’t give a shit! – Greg Smith
Could you briefly tell us where you met your fellow musicians in Off the Road? I love the fact that Chuck Burgi is a member. I really like the "Bent Out of Shape" album by Rainbow that he was on and of course the "Black Masquerade" live offering that you were both part of. What about Phil and John? Are they from the Long Island area? I checked out some clips on YouTube and ReverbNation; you guys rule! You should come over and tour Europe J
Ha! Off The Road! Well, as the name suggests, it’s something I do when I’m…off the road! Usually a trio, we mainly play old fun tunes at clubs near my house in the Northeast of Pennsylvania. 60’s – 70’s rock. The newest song we do is Gary Moore’s "Still Got The Blues". These days Chuck is very busy with Billy Joel, so he doesn’t play with us as much. John Cannavo is a local guitarist who in my opinion deserves to be famous. This guy gives me at least 3 "Holy Shit" moments every time I play with him. And you know I’ve played with some great guitarists so I don’t say that lightly. On drums, we usually have Kevin Soffera, an amazing drummer with great groove and pocket and chops for miles. He’s played with Breaking Benjamin and Seether. I sing most of the material and John sings as well. We’d love to come and tour Europe but I don’t think any promoters would hire a cover band to tour! Ha! Let me know if you find one and we’ll be there for sure!
Given that your discography/resume is extremely impressive and vast, I can imagine that it must be quite challenging to compile a set list whenever you are about to play a gig with Off the Road. There are so many classic tunes to choose from. I mean, you have recorded and/or performed with Billy Joel, Joe Lynn Turner, Alice Cooper, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult, Dokken, Graham Bonnett, Over the Rainbow, Mitch Ryder, Vinnie Moore, Alan Parsons Project, and Wendy O. Williams over the years, just to name a few. That is a lot of song material J
We usually write a set list and then ignore it! Although John and grew up in different places, we have a huge repertoire of the same era of music between us. Sometimes he’ll just yell out "Key of A." I’ll hear him playing and it’s something old I’ve heard a million times. Once I know the key, I’ll know where the changes are going…mostly…Ha! That to me is the fun of doing a band like Off the Road; the spontaneity. We have lots of fun and the audience enjoys it too.
You have been recording and performing music for quite a few years now, so I was wondering; is it ever not fun to be a working musician? Where do you find the inspiration to keep going?
The inspiration for me is I still love it as much as I did when I was a teenager. I always tell people that when I’m on tour, I get paid for the long days of travel and for being away from my family. The playing is free! The only time it was ever "not fun" was the very, very short amount of time I played in a wedding band. It was depressing. You’d be treated like crap by waiters and kitchen staff. Not at all fun. That felt like work and I never want playing to FEEL like work.
The music industry has changed radically since the turn of the millennium. Piracy and illegal downloading and so on, but what do you think about the way in which fans and listeners «consume» music these days i.e. digital platforms? It bugs me that nobody gives a shit about the album format anymore. Nobody seems to listen to an album from beginning to end nowadays. What are your thoughts on all of this?
It certainly bugs me too. They’ll never know the joy of getting a new album, checking out the pictures and the lyrics on the jacket. I’m glad I grew up in a time when I could experience that.
Considering just how impressive and mind-blowingly awesome your discography is and how many great artists you have performed and played with, you ought to write a book/a biography at some point. I am just thinking aloud here, of course. But seriously, I think a Greg Smith biography would be both fascinating and compelling. Have you ever considered writing one?
I did tell my story from the beginning to someone who is an up-and-coming author. A person I’d known for nearly 30 years and trusted. Someone I’d played in a band with. He approached me and was very excited about doing it. We had a verbal agreement as to what the terms would be. We spoke of it many times. After many months of telling him the whole story, when I was finally finished, he sent me a contract so we could make it official. The terms in the contract did not reflect the terms we spoke of many times. He refused to change the terms and I refused to let him basically own my story.
It seems that you are as active as ever in terms of touring and recording music. Correct me if I am wrong, but in recent years, you have been touring and/or recording with Ted Nugent, Classic Rock All Stars, Ted Poley, Off The Road, and probably others that have slipped my mind. It is extremely inspiring to us fans that you are still out there giving it your all. Do you still feel as passionate and as committed to music as you did when you started out as a professional musician?
As I mentioned before, I love it as much as I did when I was a teenager. That’s why I put together a band like Off The Road. Because I love playing and can continue to play, sing, and keep my chops up between tours. It also allows me to play with other musicians I greatly respect and enjoy playing with.
When looking back on your career and all the different people and bands that you have worked with, do you harbor any regrets?
Only one…I wish I would have stayed in closer contact with Wendy O Williams. She was a great person. I miss her and I feel terrible I didn’t do more to remain close to her.
Thank you so much for this interview, Greg. Any final words to the readers of Eternal Terror Live?
Thanks readers for being fans of good old Rock-n-Roll! Hope to see you all soon!