Back in January, local rock drummer Sam Smith, who kept the beat for Lifeboy and The Comfies, scored a lucrative gig touring Europe with Nashville's own piano-pop wonder Ben Folds. A two-week European tour turned into an eight-week summer stint opening for John Mayer, and tonight, Smith is back on Nashville turf playing the tour's conclusion at Sommet Center. Baby's come a long way from bashing the kit at The End, and he took a few minutes to answer some questions about touring with Folds for the Cream via e-mail.
Scene: First, tell me about your musical background here in Nashville—how long you've been playing and who you've played with.
Sam Smith: I got my first kit on my 11th birthday. Around 16, I started playing in a band that became Soul Surgeon and then Lifeboy. We played through high school and a bit after, until I went to college in 2001. On breaks from school I would sit in with Character on a second drum set. After graduating, I toured colleges with my friend Syd, and eventually settled back in Nashville in 2005 where I was recruited for Harper, which became The Comfies, who I played with until this past January. Throughout I did various other projects, including Hail to the Keith.
Scene: Nashville musicians typically have a tougher time finding rock gigs than, say, country session work. How did you manage to score the Folds' gig?
Smith: I kinda knew Jared, the bass player. He had actually caught the secret Lifeboy reunion set that we did at an 8 off 8th show, and I think that helped out a little. But it's funny that after working really hard, particularly these past couple of years with The Comfies, it ended up being about who I knew. Folds liked the way I played tambourine on the second verse of "Close to Me," so I guess it was somewhat merit-based. Folds' former drummer had a back injury and they were a week away from a European tour, so I went in and played with them a couple of times and it worked out. I hardly slept the night before in my effort to absorb every drum part and harmony in the catalog. It was the most nauseous, nerve-racking weekend of my life.
Scene: What previous touring experience did you have, and how did that compare with touring with Ben Folds?
Smith: During the past couple of years with The Comfies, I really went back to square one and got down and dirty touring. We saw our friends' bands like The Pink Spiders and Bang Bang Bang getting out of Nashville and playing as much as possible, and that was what both we and our label wanted for our band. So that meant being out there in a van, on floors, broke, hungry, on the phone booking shows, and working around the clock for what can often seem like discouraging results...you all know the drill. I don't know how long one is supposed to pay their dues in this sense, but I do know that I am very fortunate. It was a big change to suddenly pack my bags and tour Europe with Folds, and I felt an enormous amount of stress lifted away. It feels really good just to play drums and not manage, book and finance my band, but at the same time I know very well how fortunate I am and that in this industry I could be back to doing that at any moment. It's funny; we stopped late one night to fuel up and get some snacks from the gas station, and I found myself really missing being in a van and stopping for gummy worms or Subway.
Scene: Are you just playing drums live with him or are you also doing some recording?
Smith: I'll be around, so if he calls on me for some recording I'll be more than honored to help out.
Scene: There must be some pretty big differences between touring with an indie band on an indie label vs. a full-blown touring rock band. What surprised you the most about the differences?
Smith: Probably just the overall stage attitude that we have in this band, which is hardly any different from if we were playing some dive bar. Just because it's a bigger crowd and bigger venues doesn't mean we take things way more seriously. Ben encourages as much play as possible. That really took off a lot of the pressure for me making this kind of a transition. And of course the whole being-able-to-eat-and-pay-my-bills thing.
Scene: Any hazing stories?
Smith: It's a really good group of people and we have a great time. I've been picked on a lot, especially at first, but definitely in a little-brother sort of way. The second day of the first tour in Europe, I woke up to a phone call that everyone was waiting for me and I was 30 minutes late. I assumed this was part of my hazing rites, and that I'd run down and no one would be there. Turns out I had actually overslept and they were all waiting for me in the airport shuttle. So hopefully I got my first big f*ck-up out of the way early.
Scene: Did the shows become monotonous after a while or did you vary up the sets?
Smith: I learned about 30 songs, which we've varied throughout the tours, but for this tour as Mayer's opening act, we've pretty much stuck to the same dozen-or-so songs, which has actually really helped us tighten up as a band. We also know that we're playing for basically a new audience and we want to keep the show relatively consistent and accessible.
Scene: What were your accommodations like on the road (tour bus, riders, catering)?
Smith: We have eight people in one bus—three band members and five crew. Our rider is nicely stocked with the basics—water, beer, wine, Clif bars, Emergen-C, cereal. On Mayer's tour we've been completely spoiled in the catering department and we're eating really, really well. I'll miss it, especially the juicer. There's also a makeshift ping-pong table that folds up with all the gear, so we've been getting our pong on. I also got to ride a Segway, which was pretty sweet.
Scene: Did you learn anything invaluable from Ben Folds?
Smith: As a musician, I've learned so much. Rather, I've really unlearned a lot of what I knew as a drummer. In every band you play in, you're somewhat of a different musician. These guys have helped me discover a lot of music I never had before, and thus a whole new approach to drumming. It's very humbling and very rewarding, each and every night. Also, I learned that Idiocracy is a great movie.
Scene: What was the best city you played and why?
Smith: Playing Red Rocks was pretty overwhelming. The whole time I was thinking about how Keith Lowen and I waited all day on those stone walkways to see Phish 10 years ago, and now here I was onstage (Coincidentally, Keith is playing there this year too.) It was just one of those cliche, full-circle moments. Not to mention that The Beatles had played there as well. My family was there and it's just a beautiful place, onstage or off.
Scene: What were the crowds like?
Smith: I thought more Ben Folds fans would be at these shows, but it turns out a lot of them probably don't want to pay the high ticket price, especially since a lot of Ben Folds fans probably don't like John Mayer. So it's been an interesting challenge. We cover Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" and it gets some interesting reactions, sometimes some boos. But over the course of the tour, especially moving towards the East Coast, the crowds are getting more into it. They're still sitting down, and they're still there to see John, but it seems to be going over their heads less and less. It will be nice to play for a packed house of our own fans again.
Scene: Can I have Ben Folds' cell number?
Smith: No, but I'll swipe Jared's iPhone for you when he's in the bathroom tonight.
Scene: This has to be the first time you've played the GEC. What was your biggest venue you'd played up until now? After eight weeks on the road, you think you can bring the heat for Nashville crowds?
Smith: I have no idea what the biggest venue I'd played before this would be. But I'm sure it was nowhere even close. Most of these summer shows have been in the 15-18,000 range. I don't know if the Nashville show will have more fans or a better crowd than other places in the country, but for me I know that there will naturally be a special energy there. I'm excited.