Up Close: Chad Smith, Growing Up in the Band

Mike Lawson • Features • November 11, 2015

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Chad Smith photos courtesy Brad Smith, Laura Glass and Little Kids Rock.Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith comes from a solid middle-class, Midwest background, and like thousands reading this story this month, his story began in school music programs, where he learned to read music, learned to play the drums, and how to be a responsible performer.

This prepared him for a career that took him around the world, making multi-platinum records, playing stadium after stadium and even becoming immortalized on The Simpsons. How does somebody go from a mundane suburban, seemingly typical and normal existence as a school kid, to recording with and touring with one of the top bands in the world? SBO sits down with Chad Smith to talk about growing up in the band.

You’ve got a great story to tell about your positive experience in music education growing up.

It’s interesting, because teachers and people that are in that position, when you are at a young age, whether it’s school or private instruction, whatever, can be so impressionable on a young person in so many different ways. I mean, lots of times you’re 12, 13 years old, sometimes younger, and what they say can make or break your self-confidence and self-esteem. My guy, in junior high, was a rather gruff, a little rough around the edges — Mr. Tilton. Wayne Tilton. But they don’t really understand the power and the position that they’re in, and they can make such a difference in a young person’s life.

How old were you, Chad, when you decided you wanted to be a musician?

Well, it kind of chose me. I don’t know that I really decided, but you know my older brother Brad, he was a budding guitarist, and he’s two years older than me. So he was a big influence over me as a youngster, in many ways. But musically, he just loved music and loved rock and roll. So, when I was seven, I started to hit things and stuff around the house. So I think, at that young age, it kind of chooses you. It’s not, like, “Oh, you need to play an instrument in school.” I have some natural rhythm, I guess. I like hitting things and making noise, and I wanted to join in with my brother. Actually my eldest sibling, Pam, she played piano. Music was in our household, and my parents were very musically inclined. My mother played guitar a little bit, but my dad loved music. So music was in our house. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, and all that kind of stuff. But I gravitated immediately towards my brother’s taste in English hard rock blues of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Zeppelins and the Creams and the Sabbaths, and The Who, and Humble Pie, and Mott The Hoople, and Jimi Hendrix, and Queen. All those bands. So that’s when I really got the bug. So I’d say in fifth grade I started to take band classes. I took the drums, and that’s where I started to learn to read music. We had a teacher and he taught a little bit of all the instruments, and I remember reading out of a Haskell W. Harr Drum Method book. He said it was really important to learn the 26 rudiments. This is the alphabet to be able to speak the language of the drums.

I was, like, “Wow. You’ve gotta speak the language of the drums.”

He’s, like, “It’s rhythm, but you have to know that there are things that are specific to drummers. Not just quarter notes, half notes and eighth notes, but flams and five stroke rolls, and rudiment cues.”

Paradiddles and…

And the flamadiddles. I bashed along with records, but I figured, “Well, if I’m really serious about this, I better learn the language.” So that’s when I started.

Do you know it to this day? Are you able to read a drum chart?

It is like a language. You have to use it all of the time to be really proficient at it. I’m not a session guy, and people call me just to play stuff. Actually, I’m on my way to a session right now. But it’s more for me to just do my thing. I could read a very simple chart. You know, eight bars and then two bar re-intro, and four… That kind of stuff. A very simple chart. But if you’re asking me to read fancy drum fills, or stuff on a drum set, that’s not my thing. I can boom, da, boom-boom, da.

You can probably decipher it if you sat down and looked at it long enough, but it’s not a skill you need to exercise anymore.

No, no, exactly. Not at all. Again, I’m not called for that. In our band, we just do our thing.

But you talk about the importance of having learned that.

Absolutely. Totally.

You learned it starting at fifth grade, and I assume that went for the next, what, seven years with you, right?

Yep. Exactly. All through high school. The coolest thing is that, and this is growing up outside of Detroit, Michigan in the ‘70s, in the mid ‘70s and late ‘70s… I had band class, and in junior high school they had two bands. My middle school had three grades, seven, eight, nine. The main thing you really wanted to aspire to was to get into the higher band, which was called the Lancer Band, because we were the middle school Lancers. But there were two levels, and you had to really — To be in the better band, you had to obviously be more accomplished. It was mostly, obviously, the eighth and ninth graders were in it. I really wanted to be in the Lancer Band.

Our teacher, Mr. Tilton, was a real taskmaster. He taught both bands, the lower band and the upper band, but I have memories that stick with me to this day of him handing out music, and I was playing a snare drum. If you would hand out a new piece of music, and everyone would try to play it, and often the new piece of music, everybody struggles. The band sounds a little loose. But the important thing for him was, he wanted the drummers to keep good time to hold the band together. When we were unsure of our parts, our time, we’d get a little wonky. He would walk to the back where the drummers were playing, and he’d used to have his baton that he would use for conducting, and he would tap us on the shoulder lightly to remind us [where] the time is. I remember, if our time were fluctuating a little bit, the tap would get a little stronger and a little stronger. Then he would poke you. We’re talking mid ‘70s, which was fine. It wasn’t any kind of abuse or anything, but you didn’t want that to happen. It was embarrassing, one thing. Then he would walk to the front, and he had a big metal music stand that had his score on it. Back in those days, in Detroit, at the baseball games, the Tiger games, they would have bat day. They would hand out small, miniature versions of baseball bats, wooden baseball bats. Can you imagine this today? So he had one of these bats, and at the game, when the time was not very… Wasn’t happening, he would discard the baton and pick up one of those bats, and start banging on that big metal music stand.

Man, they were dancing that day. It was really nerve wracking. I just have a memory to that day of him just, bam, bam, bam! We’re trying to play some piece of classical music, or whatever it was. It shouldn’t be too difficult. But for an eighth or ninth grader that didn’t have the grasp of what he was doing… And that’s what Mr. Tilton did. I remember that, man, like it was yesterday. It was great.

It sounds like he was a big influence on you.

Well, he was, as far as… Back then, obviously I was playing in my little rock bands. But it was still a band, and the drummer’s job, one of the main jobs, is to be able to keep the band together by keeping good time, and that the band follows the drummers often, and whatever the timing. That’s with me to this day.

Chad Smith photos courtesy Brad Smith, Laura Glass and Little Kids Rock.

Did you ever get into the Lancer Band?

I did. I got into the Lancer Band. I did. In the ninth grade I got into the Lancer Band. I was very proud. My mother was very proud. We would have these concerts and do our thing. It was something that I aspired to. I wanted to really be at the top of my percussion game when I was 13 years old. So that was really good. Then the other thing too was, in high school we had marching band, which I played in. We had a symphonic band class. We had a concert band. We had music theory class. We had a jazz band.

 I wasn’t too interested in the biology and algebra, and those… Math, and those. Not that they’re not important. But, to me, I knew what I needed to do by the time I was in tenth grade. I was gonna be a professional musician. Luckily, I had those classes. I probably would have never graduated from high school. I got good grades from those classes, and it balanced out my not so good grades in the other ones.

 Nowadays those music classes are the first things that go. They are electives. There are not even music classes in public school in some places. The arts are out the window, and it’s a real shame. It’s a real shame. I work with Turnaround Arts program out of Washington, D.C., and it’s something that we’re really passionate about, making sure to try to at least let kids have the exposure.

 I think every kid should have the exposure to music and art. It makes them do well in all of their other subjects, but to be able to have… That’s the fun part of school, and that’s the creative part of school. To not be able to be exposed to that, to me, it’s horrible.

You knew in the tenth grade that you wanted to be a musician, a professional. Were your teachers at that point encouraging of that, or trying to steer you elsewhere?

They were encouraging. I think they saw how passionate I was about it, and I think that may have had something to do with it. I would live in the band room. I would play with anybody and everybody, and I think that they saw that. I was a bit of a troublemaker, though. I got into extra curricular activities that were not necessarily conducive to straight, clean living. They saw me out in the parking lot before school, during lunch, after school. They were, like, “Oh, yeah. He’s the rock and roll kid,” but I was pretty good.

They sensed that there was something exceptional there.

Yeah, exactly. They still were teachers, so they had to do their teaching thing. But I think they appreciated, again, that was just diehard. I was so into it. That was great to have that. If I didn’t, I don’t know. Again, like I say, as far as school goes, I would have never graduated from high school without music classes. There’s no way.

Did they ever threaten to take anything away from you musically for not performing well in other subject areas?

They did not. I think that’s a really — It sounds like a really good thing to do. That probably would have forced my hand to be, “Okay, I can do the stuff that I like. I gotta do the other stuff.” I probably would have done it. I don’t know. I was pretty stubborn back then, man. I mean, I was not your model rational thinking student at all. I could sit here and try to tell the younger Chad, the 15-year-old Chad, ‘you’ve gotta do this, man.’ I might have dropped out. I don’t know. But I think that would be a good tool to be an incentive. 

They had held your feet to the academic fire, and in turn you could just as easily have said, “Forget it. I’m gonna just play music.”

Yeah. I might have. I could have. I wasn’t given that opportunity. So who knows. But that sounds like a good thing. It’s important to be well rounded. It shows, also, that sometimes you’ve gotta do stuff you don’t like.

Right, and as a pro musician, play stuff you don’t like.

And play stuff you don’t like. That’s the other thing, too. I would have preferred to play to Rush albums in my garage all day long. To be exposed to this other kind of music — You want to play the shit that you like, the music that you like. But to be exposed to other kinds of music at a young age is really helpful for that drumming and music vocabulary. It all sinks in, as you know. It’s all in there somewhere, and to know different kinds of music and try to figure out, what’s good about this? Why do people like Bob Marley, I don’t know — Or, why do people like Johnny Cash or Miles, or Coltrane? I don’t really like jazz, but what’s good about it? Try to figure it out, or at least be open to figuring it out. That’s really helpful for a young player. I wish I had more of that when I was younger. 

When you were in high school you did three years of band and music theory programs. Were you in every band that you just named? Concert, jazz, marching, symphony?

Yeah. Well, I think the concert band was the lower band, and the symphonic band, as they called it, was more advanced. So I didn’t play in both of them at once. But in 10th grade I played in the concert band, and then I got, in 11th and 12th, I played in the symphonic band. But, yeah. I played in marching band. I played in the jazz band [after] school. It wasn’t really jazz. We were doing “Eleanor Rigby” and “In The Mood,” and songs like that. It was a smaller ensemble with inner horns, and it was really fun and something different. But, yeah. I played in all those bands. Like I said, and thank God I did, or I would have never graduated.

Parental support is critical to the success of students in music programs. Were your folks involved at all in things like the Band Boosters? Were they band mom and dad who showed up at the events?

My parents were always very supportive, whatever we did. We played sports. They’d go to all the baseball games and the swimming meets, and drive us everywhere, and carpool. Even when I got into high school and I wasn’t doing so good with the grades, my mother and father never used the — You know, “You can’t play the drums,” as a punishment. They never did. I always got to play the music and play the drums. They weren’t really part of the band booster mom and dad stuff, but they always came to all of our performances, and all mine, everything I ever did. Anything to do with it, they were always really, really supportive, both my mom and dad. Yeah. They were great, and I have to thank them to this day. That was my lifeline then. That was the thing that I just, no matter what was going on in my life, I always had the drums and always had music. It was so important to me. I think they realized that and always nurtured that and supported that.

You were blessed with a house that had a place to rehearse and practice.

Yeah. How many parents are, like, “Hey, little Johnny, do you want to take up the drums? Here, let me buy you a big ol’ loud drum set.” My mom was funny. I would be at home, and she’s, like, “Well, I’m gonna go shopping.” She had to go out and run some errands, or do something. “Now would be a good time to practice.” I’d go, “Oh, okay!” So I’d go down in the basement, and then when she would come home, she would flash the light on and off like that. Like, “Okay, I’m home. So knock it off.” So it was like a cue. But she was great, man. Believe me, I was loud. Woo! I was always loud.

Chad Smith photos courtesy Brad Smith, Laura Glass and Little Kids Rock.

What should a student do who has a home situation where he just doesn’t have that support, but he’s got your passion?

Boy… It’s tough. Even in big cities, I never realized, growing up in Michigan… Everybody doesn’t have a basement to play and do whatever in. You go to New York or whatever, different places out here in California, obviously… It’s not as easy, and it was easy for me to do that. I was, again, like you say, fortunate that I had a place to do it and I had a supportive family. That’s probably more rare than it is for people to have places to play. Man, that’s a good question, Mike. I think I’d say to find other like-minded kids that want to play, and get to school, grab a room and say, “Hey, we want to do something.” A good supportive school will find a way to make that happen.

You’ve been involved with advocacy for how many years now? How many years have you been doing… You’ve done stuff with Little Kids Rock. You’ve gone to Washington. You met the president.

Yeah. Well, the Little Kids Rock thing I have been supporting for a long time. Over ten years now. I think they are great, and I love what they do. The president’s Turnaround Arts program, that has been two years now, going on three. They just help really — Schools that are really underperforming in really tough places, and it’s just implementing arts and music into schools, and make that the focus, and to see how well these programs turn these schools around when it’s mainly focused on music and arts. It has been a really successful program, which is rare these days, to have something that the government starts that works. It started with eight schools for two years. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, is the one that really champions it. We get to go to Washington every year. It’s great. Other artists are involved, from painters to architects to, obviously, musicians. It’s wonderful to just give these kids hope, just some hope that someone cares about them. Through music and art, they can do well in school and feel like they are part of something.

Music can really can be a huge impetus to get out of bed in the worst of situations, and into school every day.

Yeah, and then if you don’t have it? The other thing too is, then it gets the community involved. The parents come out and they are seeing the kids come home happy. It’s a great thing. It just really kicks off everything else. Sure, kids are gonna be compassionate about what they love. There are kids that want to be scientists and kids who want to be great mathematicians. But the art, the creative aspect of art and music, especially as a young person is, I think, just so important to have that in your life. When it’s not treated as a core subject like math, like spelling, like writing and science and everything else… It should be, I think, a core subject. Art and music. Every kid should be exposed to that. It shouldn’t be an elective. The schools, they will buy new shoulder pads for the football team, but they will cut the art and music program. It’s crazy.

Are you finding this to be at all regional in the work you’ve done? Are you seeing there’s more need regionally? Are there more areas that you think support..? LA Unified School District has pretty good music programs, from what I understand.

Yeah. Pretty good. Not great. Flea, my band mate, has this nonprofit school, going on 14 years now, called Silverlake Music Conservatory. It’s full. He just moved to a bigger building, luckily. We’ve already helped him raise funds and make that happen. There’s such a demand for people that want to play, but they don’t have it in their schools. We’re in Los Angeles. This is Hollywood, Los Angeles. The entertainment Mecca, or whatever you want to call it. But I’m just talking about, in the school, I think it’s across the board, man. In general, it’s kind of a thing of, like, “Eh. Yeah. Let’s get all of the computers and the Macs, because that’s the future of business and how to learn, traditional learning. But music?” I don’t get it, man. Everybody loves music. Some kind of music. Everybody, right? It’s just, like, come on. It’s such an important part of our culture. How can you ignore young people having the opportunity? Where are the next Bob Dylan and the Springsteen, and whoevers, if you don’t have music in schools and students are not exposed to it? To me, I don’t think just because, oh, I’m a musician, I think it’s really important. I just think the average Joe… It just seems a little not right that, in this day and age, everybody loves music.

You recently had a great appearance in support of Little Kids Rock on The Tonight Show. How did that happen with Will Ferrell? I’m told that moments before you hit the couch, he said, “I’m gonna pretend to really be you.”

Yeah. He turned to me and he said… And I’m kind of nervous. I’m on the couch in the tonight show. I’m, like, “I don’t do this shit. I play the drums. I’m good with that.” I’ve done those TV shows, but not talking and whatever.

We didn’t know what the hell we were gonna do. The only thing was that I was supposedly mad because Will Ferrell said he was literally me. So I’m, like, “No you’re not,” and I supposedly mad about that. We were gonna have our drum off, and I’m gonna prove that I’m the real Chad Smith, blah, blah, blah. But he was kind following it, man. He’s so… That’s his world, I guess, is just improv. So we’re standing there literally getting ready to go on the thing, and the curtain is about to open, and he says, “Hey, I got it. Why don’t we go out there, and I’ll be you and you be me?” I’m, like, “Wow. What?”

 [Chad hums The Tonight Show intro music]

 And we’re out! I’m, like, “Wow!”

Mike, it worked out great. I just had to try to be the straight man, and he was doing all of the jokes and being funny. I was just trying not to laugh. If it was the other way around, then maybe I would have had to do more, whatever, acting. He’s the professional comedian. I’m the drummer.

So that all worked out great, and we raised a lot of money, I guess, for his charity, Cancer For College. But mine was Little Kids Rock. Just from that show alone and the t-shirts and the cowbells, I think it was over half a million dollars.

I was told your mom had a hard time figuring out which one was Chad sitting on which side for a minute.

The whole dressing in exactly the same thing, I’m looking at him, I’m, like, “He kind of looks like me a little bit. Yeah.” But then when he put the clothes on and the whole thing, I was, like, “Oh shit. This is creepy. He does kind of look like me.”

His ad lib, “our charity takes instruments away from kids…”

I know. I’m, like, “You can’t do that.” I’m, like, “What?” He’s all “We take them over there and we… What did you say? We burn them, or we something. I’m, like, “You can’t do that.” He’s, like, “Hey, Chad Smith. My charity. I do what I want.”

Little Kids Rock. How did you first hook up with David Wish and that organization?

They want to get instruments in the hands of kids that want to play. It’s a very simple concept, and to me, obviously, if it was that easy then everybody would do it. But Bonnie Raitt was there supporting them, and I’m thinking, “Bonnie Raitt is cool, man.” She’s supporting it, and David was so passionate about it. Obviously, my brother Brad (from Hal Leonard) was there. We just started talking. He’s like, “Man, you’re in a band that people like, and you could really… They listen to what you have to say.”

 I’m, like, “Really?”

 He’s, like, “Yeah!”

 I’m, like, “Okay.”

That was a long time ago, over ten years ago. But I just thought anybody that wants to raise money to buy instruments, to put them in schools, I’m all for it. Again, that’s my story, man. That’s where I learned how to play. If they didn’t have musical instruments in school, I wouldn’t be here. I would probably be dead or in jail, or something.

Chad Smith photos courtesy Brad Smith, Laura Glass and Little Kids Rock.Do you see that as being an important element in the future, alongside the traditional programs? How do you feel about modern band being taught next to concert and symphony, and other programs?

I think it’s great. I think anything to get kids excited about music, to get them in there exposed to it, and what better way than, like, “Hey, you want to play the songs that you like now, that are the bands and the artists that you want to emulate,” like I did. To be able to play that music and have it be part of a curriculum, that’s a good way to hook them in. I mean, come on.

Would you have forsaken, do you think, the traditional programs in lieu of them, to go with the modern band as a kid, if it was offered? Or would you have just taken on everything, like you did?

Yeah. I probably would have taken on everything. That was just me. But I know as a 14-year-old kid who loves whatever, Bruno Mars or whoever, or Foo Fighters, or whoever you like — I would have jumped at that. That would have been my favorite class. I would have taken the other ones, but that one would have been my favorite class. I know.

So you don’t see it as a real threat to traditional programs?

No. I don’t. But I think, maybe like you’re saying, it’s, like, “Okay. If you take this one, you gotta take some of this one.” You know what I mean? These are all things that all make you a well rounded musician. I think that’s important. The culture today is, everybody wants to take a shortcut. I learn my one fill and I’m ready for freakin’ Madison Square Garden. Well, that’s not the way it works, man. You’ve gotta put the work into it. That’s the other thing. The kids that I see, a lot of kids, I think it’s just now with all of the other distractions, with video games and all kind of other shit, and social media and everything that kids are into now at that age… You have to actually put the hours in. You gotta work at it. To be good at anything, you gotta put in those hours. 

Could we talk a little bit about your path to a career from graduation of high school to the time you joined the Chili Peppers?

Yeah. Well, right out of high school I was fortunate and started working right away, joined a band in Detroit, an established rock band called Tilt. They were older guys, and luckily they took me under their wing and I started playing clubs and bars in the Detroit area, and continued to do that six nights a week, three sets a night. That was my apprenticeship. That was where I really learned how to… What it took to be a professional musician, to be in a band, to show up on time, to be responsible and entertain, and whatever. Just being a musician. I loved it. I thought it was the greatest. I’m, like, “This is it, man! I made it! I’m making $165 bucks a week and I’m playing every night, and girls. This is awesome!” I loved it. 18 year old kid. Of course I wanted to be in Led Zeppelin or whatever, but at the time it was, like, “This is awesome!” So I did that. I just played in any kind of band. I went from band to band, and then in 1984 I joined another band, and we got a record deal, called Toby Redd. We got a record deal with RCA records. We obviously made our record. Being in the recording studio, that a whole other thing. Our record came out and didn’t really do much. We had big expectations. We were hoping we were gonna be huge, and all that. Of course, like any band. But it came and went. After about six or eight months we were back to playing in the same clubs again. So this is 1988. I was, like, “I’m getting a little frustrated.” Again, I was playing with older guys. I’m, like, “I don’t know if I want to be playing these bars when I’m 32 years old, or something.” I was 24 at the time. I was, like, “Man, I don’t know. I think I gotta go where it’s happening and give it a shot.” It was either move to New York or LA. At the time, LA had the whole — Not that I was a metal guy or a hard rock guy, but it was Sunset Strip and Guns N’ Roses, and all those bands and stuff. They were really happening on MTV. I was, like, “I think I’ll go to California.” I had a couple of friends that lived there. I packed up the car with my brother. We drove together out to the west coast, and I was very fortunate, lucky. A friend of a friend kind of thing happened, somebody knew the Chili Peppers were looking for a drummer. Put my name in the hat, and I went down. They weren’t that popular at the time. They were more of a college alternative band. Made a couple of records. I went down and played with them, and three months later I was taking pictures for Spin magazine with a sock on my…

What parting words of advice can you give to that kid who is in school and wants to rock, and play the drums for a living?

Yeah. Well, if he’s in high school and he’s loving the drums, he has hopefully found his passion, and that’s a really great thing, and not a thing to take lightly. I would just say, do it because you love it, and play from your heart. Work hard at it, though, and play with as many people as you can, and take everything that comes your way.

 Always be humble. Show up.

Just have fun. When you’re a young kid, have fun with it. I know, obviously, people get caught up in trying to make it and all of that. I would say work hard, have fun, play from your heart and never forget where you come from.

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