Heaven & Earth Guitarist Stuart Smith Talks ‘Dig’ Album, Special Guests + Rock’s Revival
Heaven & Earth started as a solo project for guitarist Stuart Smith, but now three records in, the musician has fielded a full band and views Heaven & Earth as the entity he always wanted it to be. Smith, a veteran guitarist who was mentored by Ritchie Blackmore and played with ’70s rock legends Sweet before spinning off into Heaven & Earth, is excited to see where their new album ‘Dig’ takes them.
Loudwire spoke with Smith ahead of the band’s Los Angeles performance and their upcoming album release (due April 23) and he shared his excitement at filling out the band with new vocalist Joe Retta, the thrill of having pals Richie Sambora, Heart‘s Howard Leese and Toto’s David Paice guest on their record and the group’s determination to bring real rock and roll back to the masses. Our chat with Smith can be read below:
Stuart, I know this band started off more as your project but has evolved into a full group. Can you talk about how you feel about the current lineup and where this falls for you in your overall vision?
Yeah it’s much better. I’m more happier in a band situation. I wanted a band from the beginning but I just didn’t have one and I got offered a record deal and didn’t have a band, so I just called up all my friends to come up and play on the thing. But the second time, it was jut sort of a band, but it sort of isn’t. But this time it was really put together and I have to say I’m always happier in totally a band situation rather than just being a solo project. And I’m very happy with the way it’s going. We’ve just been doing rehearsals for the last three weeks and getting ready and we’re working on that now.
You’ve been in plenty of bands before, but what is it that’s special about this lineup that makes this the one that’s sticking for you?
One of the things is the songs. We spent a lot of time crafting the songs and when we started this, the head of our record company, Bruce Quarto, said, ‘I don’t want you to just put out a good album, I want it to be phenomenal and if you come out of the studio and you put on the tape and feel you could have done better, I don’t care how much it costs or how long it takes, go in and do it again.’ That’s a generous thing to us musicians who are all perfectionists, but that being said, we spent a lot of time crafting the songs and just making sure we were really happy. So it’s not just that the lineup is cohesive and we’ve got a real amazing find in Joe Retta as a singer, it’s also that we’ve got good songs.
For me, I’m very self-critical. I think on the first album there’s five or six good songs and the rest are fillers. On the second album, ehhh, there’s just a couple of good reasonable songs but it wasn’t that good. But this one, I think there’s a lot of good songs on the album and the production is sort of first rate, so I’m very happy with the way it turned out.
You mentioned Joe [Retta] in there and what a voice! It’s the perfect fit for what you’re laying down. How did you come across Joe?
I had seen him knocking around L.A. for a while in sessions and that kind of thing. He’s a great singer and when I was in Sweet with Steve Priest, we brought him into that. He’s just a great singer and one of these guys that just hasn’t popped around like hookers at a convention. It’s good. He’s got a fresh voice and a fresh face and what made my mind is he was the best singer out there.
I’ve always loved that sort of Paul Rodgers-bluesy gospel stuff in rock and Joe’s sort of right there. He was sort of just getting noticed when he was younger and then had two daughters and he left the business to raise them. And so he’s sort of undiscovered even though he’s been around for a while. But you’re right, he’s got an incredible voice.
Was there a moment once Joe entered the band where you were working on material and you knew you guys were onto something?
Well it really started with Sweet. When we were out with Sweet, I think Joe’s voice developed from there and we started doing some cover recordings for Cleopatra Records and also we started recording a couple of Sweet songs, some new ones, well one. But during that time, it became clear that Joe sort of wanted to do new material and move forward and Steve Priest didn’t really want to, so Joe and I started writing and we just knew a few songs into it that it was working — that we were making a good writing team.
Had a chance to check out ‘No Money, No Love’ a few weeks back. Can you talk a little bit about where the song came from?
At the time we started this album, Joe had sold his house in Ventura and was looking for a place around here and I said, ‘I’ve got a spare room in my house, why don’t you move in here?’ I’d just been through a breakup, a really bad one, so when he moved in I was still sort of pissed off and angry and I was throwing all these negative type songs at him and one of the first ones that we wrote was ‘No Money, No Love.’
I had this riff, which is the main motif, and Joe had sort of put some ideas on the guitar — the sort of chorus line. And we went from there to putting the record together with the band. I told him the title was about someone I’d been with before and he sort of subconsciously wrote and when we both looked at the song at the end, I was like, ‘Jeez, it’s her.’
Do you know if the person that inspired it heard it?
Oh yeah, she’s heard it and doesn’t like it. [laughs] I’m sure you saw that one coming.
Interesting video for that song as well, and I know it’s a carry over from having worked with Glen Wexler on the album cover. What’s the relationship with Glen and how much input did you have on the video?
I’d known of Glen’s work for years as a photographer, he’s an amazing photographer. I’d never met him before but Chuck Wright, our bass player, had known Glen since school days. So when it came time to say who can we get to do the artwork, Chuck said, ‘Hey, I know Glen Wexler. He may cut us a deal.’ So we went and saw Glen and he had this idea for the cover and we sort of took it from there. He sort of got involved and became our artistic director as well as taking photographs.
I’d seen the EPK and Chuck [Wright] talks about ‘Dig’ and tying with the album cover, it’s really about unearthing rock and roll. This is just a solid rock record and you just don’t get many people playing straight-up rock and roll these days. How great was it to put together this record and explore what you love musically?
It’s funny because while people are saying this is sort of a ’70s-type album, we didn’t say, ‘Let’s create a ’70s style album. No one’s doing it.’ It’s just really where we all come from. We all come from that era musically and for us it was the best music. It just sort of happened. We did use that cut to tape as well, which gave it that sort of analog sound. We’ve always loved that anyway. It’s better than Pro-Tools. Pro-Tools sounds very different than when you compare it to tape.
Well you’ve got the analog sound, but the other thing is how you recorded — all of the members in the room together jamming out at the same time instead of recording parts individually …
Yeah I think that’s very important … One of the things is you can see each other and if the groove is going and you’re in the room and you’re watching each other, you can see how everyone reacts and I think it just leads to a more cohesive sound. Dynamically as well, you can see when someone wants to take it down or raise it up by the body language.
I miss that. There are times when the drummer goes in and cuts the tracks to a scratch guitar that’s going into effects on the board and the bass player will basically be going directly into the board, so if you can do it this way and crank it up, it’s much better.
I know you’ve got a long-standing relationship with Howard Leese from Heart and I’m sure it’s probably a no-brainer to have him come play on several tracks on this record.
Howard’s been one of my best friends for years. I met him way back in the early ’90s. When we were doing the first album, there’s a track called ‘Heaven & Earth’ on there, and we said, ‘Let’s do the acoustics together.’ He was playing the 12-string and I was playing the six-string, so it was nice to have that resonance. You can double track it, but it’s nice to play together and work off each other and so it’s sort of like a tradition with us that every time we do an album we play the acoustics together. We sit down, we play, we finger pick the tracks. He plays 12-string, I play six and we do that. So Howard, we brought him in for that and then he’s also a great keyboard player and he plays the part in ‘Magic Man’ on the synths on that. He knows what he’s doing as well with the strings so we did the same with that, we brought him in on the final track, ‘We Live As One,’ and he created the strings for that part. And Howard’s just a tradition. Every time we do some acoustics, we have him. He’s also good at sequencing the album, so one of the days we’ll actually pay him to sequence the album and which songs are goes where and what ends and that kind of thing.
We weren’t going to have any guests on this album, just Howard, and then [Toto's] David Paice has been a friend of mine for years and I go to his Christmas Eve party every year and we usually play guitar and sing Christmas carols, but this year we didn’t have any singers, so this year I took Joe with me and then at the end of it, I took Joe into David’s studio and I played him ‘I Don’t Know What Love Is’ and he said, ‘Oh you’ve got a definite hit here.’ You’ve got to let me play some strings on it, so we let David play some strings on it and of course he did an amazing job.
And Richie Sambora, Richie used to be my brother-in-law. I was married to Colleen Locklear, Heather’s sister, at the same time Richie was. So we were brother-in-laws and we kept in touch over the years and I needed to borrow a guitar that I didn’t have and Richie had one, and it was while he was recording his solo album at East/West Studios in L.A., so I drove down there to borrow one and it was this guitar that needed signing for a charity auction, so we both signed it and a picture was taken with us both holding the guitar and it hit the Internet. Then all of a sudden people started asking, ‘Hey are you and Richie going to collaborate again, we hope so.’ So I asked him if he’d be able to do a track on the Heaven & Earth album and he said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’
We’d planned to go down to East/West to record it and the day we planned it was the last day of his recording session and the board went out or some technical difficulty and he just got really busy and he didn’t really have any time. But the one day he had off, his first day in three months, he spent six hours playing on ‘Man and Machine,’ using talk box, slide and some guitar. He’s one of the nicest guys in the business and I love him to death. That was just amazing.
‘Man and Machine’ is definitely one of the best songs on this record. Aside from Richie’s guest work, can you talk about how that track came together and what it was like hearing that back for the first time?
The head of our company, Bruce Quarto, he loves his cars and he’s collects them. He’s got a Lamborghini, three Ferraris, a Maserati, so I said to Joe, ‘We need a song about Bruce and his cars.’ So he came up with the title, ‘Man and Machine,’ and the guitar line really developed and we went to Joe and we just put that song together and gave it to the band.
It was interesting to hear, because Richie [Sambora] played on it. I didn’t really push it with the guitar solos or put anything on there because I knew Richie was going to play on it. And it’s funny because Joe plays slide, and he was like, ‘I can play it,’ and I said, ‘No, don’t worry about it, because Richie’ll play it.’ … And of course, Richie came in and did it and it really put the icing on the cake, especially with that talk box on there.
This seems like a natural record to play live. From your perspective, do you have songs you’re anxious to see how they translate live?
Yeah, all of them. I’m really getting anxious to play all of them live cause I don’t think there’s a weak track on the album. I mean, what we really want to try to do with it is to get rock back to the forefront. I mean it’s been sadly buried for too long and you’ve got things like, look at the Grammys. Grammys are being given out for performances, not music. You’ve got people with not much talent, but they go onstage with a hundred dancers and all these costume changes and it’s like, ‘Here’s a Grammy for that.’ And it has certainly nothing to do with music. And the guitar has been sadly missing from music and rock and roll has been sadly missing from the music scene lately as well.
It’s down to the financial backing of a major label that won’t sign a band like us. But with Quarto Valley Records, they’ve got the financial commitment that a major label would put to a million-selling artist, so hopefully if this works and we get a million downloads on YouTube and people see this, then maybe major labels will see that there is money to be made in it and made in good music again, and when that happens, they’ll start putting money into it and it’ll bring rock back. That the idea of the thing is why we’re calling it ‘Dig.’ We’re digging the damn stuff up.
Well we all love to see great rock music, but I’m going to turn it around on you and ask what you get out of a great rock audience?
Oh there’s a ton of things. Certainly the adrenaline rush — you’ve got to be some kind of adrenaline junkie to do this in the first place. The rush when you go in front of a crowd of 20-30,000 is intense. And there’s nothing better in the world than when you’re playing your songs and people are getting off on the words. I mean that’s a great experience and hopefully that’s what will happen this time.
And also, I love that by the sixth gig or so when you’ve been out on tour and that psychic thing that starts happening between the musicians. You can predict what each other’s going to do next and it all starts really falling into place. I was talking with our road manager yesterday and he was saying he’s been out with so many bands in his career, and he says, ‘You can rehearse until the cows come home, but what really makes a difference is going out live. About six shows in it will suddenly make sense.’
Our thanks to Heaven & Earth’s Stuart Smith for the interview. The band’s ‘Dig’ album arrives in stores April 23 and can be pre-ordered here. To learn more about Heaven & Earth, check out their EPK here. The group’s risqué video for ‘No Money, No Love’ can be seen by clicking the red button below.