by Alexandra Mrozowska
– Sr. Columnist —
It’s almost two decades that passed since the guitarist Stuart Smith put together an all-star album Heaven & Earth featuring Stuart Smith. The project eventually evolved into a full-time band, this fact resulting in several more albums throughout the years. Fast forward to 2017 and one thing’s sure – the idea Stuart Smith had in the late ‘90s is hard to kill… literally. Hardrock Haven caught up with Smith and Heaven & Earth singer Joe Retta to discuss the new album Hard To Kill and more…
Hardrock Haven: Heaven & Earth Featuring Stuart Smith was released almost twenty years ago. Stuart, did you think back then that this project would eventually evolve into a regular band?
Stuart Smith: That was always my intention, yes. The only reason I recorded the first album with so many guests is that I didn’t have a permanent band at the time.
Hardrock Haven: When referring to the new Heaven & Earth’s album Hard To Kill, you often describe it as your “best work to date”. What do you think makes it a step further in band’s career, comparing to its 2013 predecessor?
Stuart Smith: After all the positive reviews we got for Dig we knew we had to step up our game. If you work hard at your craft, which we do, you never settle for second best so we spent a lot of time crafting the songs before we went into the studio to record the songs for real. I think any album we release in the future has got to be better than what we did before. Anyway, Bruce Quarto, the head of our record company, insisted that we had to beat Dig so that set the bar really high.
Hardrock Haven: One difference between Dig and Hard To Kill is that for the latter, you’ve started a campaign on PledgeMusic. What’s prompted such an idea?
Stuart Smith: It was the idea of our new management that we have now. You’ve got everyone from The Stones to Def Leppard doing it now so it helps raise awareness of the band. In fact, we were next to The Stones on the PledgeMusic site, so that was kind of cool.
Hardrock Haven: Alongside conventional PledgeMusic offerings (like CD+DVD bundles or T-shirts), Heaven & Earth members offered also one-of-a-kind experiences for the fans. Was there any interest in Skype music (and cooking!) lessons provided by band members?
Stuart Smith: I’ve no idea as I don’t think it’s over yet. I’ll probably have someone knocking on my door in a month or so demanding their guitar lesson that they bought.
Joe Retta: No takers yet for cooking lessons but I’m ready!
Hardrock Haven: What do you think about crowdfunding in general? Is it the future of making music as far as its financial aspects are concerned?
Stuart Smith: I don’t think it’s necessarily the future but it gives a lot of new bands a chance to get their music out and also a good way for more established bands to let their fans know what’s going on with them.
Hardrock Haven: Do you think Heaven & Earth will continue with such campaigns in the future?
Stuart Smith: I’ve no idea. That would be down to the record company and management.
Hardrock Haven: Similarly to the vast majority of records released today, both Dig and Hard To Kill are available also in vinyl format. Yet – just a few years ago the format appeared to be a relic of the past. Have you ever thought it will come back one day? Are you a vinyl collector yourself?
Stuart Smith: Yes, sales of vinyl have been going up considerably over the last few years especially with the audiophiles and the quality of the sound is amazing. Personally, I have quite a few vinyl records but haven’t got around to buying a record player yet.
Joe Retta: I dig LP’s. I miss their sheer size, big artwork and photos, and lyrics that are not microscopic. I don’t collect them, but I think it’s very cool.
Hardrock Haven: Are you a vinyl collector yourself?
Hardrock Haven: Heaven & Earth is also pretty active on social media. Are they more of a blessing or a curse for a band these days? And do you think it’s possible to make music without keeping your social media accounts engaging and interacting with the fans?
Stuart Smith: You have to be aware, and move with new technologies otherwise you get lost in the shuffle and you can reach a lot more potential fans than you could before. That being said the whole internet streaming and free downloading sites have made it incredibly difficult for bands to make a living. And in this day and age, you have to get your name out to as many people as possible.
Hardrock Haven: Now let’s focus on what’s the most important – Hard To Kill. Were modern-sounding tracks “Walk Away” or “Bleed Me Dry” a kind of attempt to modernize the otherwise vintage sound the band has?
Stuart Smith: Yes, we’re always looking for new ways to grow musically.
Joe Retta: I don’t think about any of that when I’m writing. The songs kind of germinate on their own.
Hardrock Haven: While most of the songs on Hard To Kill bring to mind an intimate atmosphere of a club gig, there’s also “Anthem” with its massive, almost Queen-esque Arena Rock feel to it. What did you have in mind while writing it?
Stuart Smith: Joe [Retta] came up with most of that song. He wrote it with a mind to get it to be a theme song for one of the major football or baseball teams.
Joe Retta: Yes. I wrote “Anthem” by singing the chant into my phone and then built the other parts around it. And yes, I was thinking of a stadium full of people all singing it.
Hardrock Haven: Another outstanding song is “LA Blues.” What’s the story behind it?
Stuart Smith: That was an idea I started in the early writing sessions and Joe came up with the lyrics. It’s just a realistic snapshot of life in Los Angeles saying that with all the negative things about living here we wouldn’t change it for the world.
Joe Retta: That song is about me making fun of myself. I basically caught myself complaining about Los Angeles’ shortcomings and then noticing that… it’s pretty great here. “I’ll take these LA Blues any day…”
Hardrock Haven: Have you ever been tempted to follow the bluesy path and perhaps record an entire album just like that?
Stuart Smith: Heaven & Earth keeps me very busy but I’d love to do a Blues album someday in the future.
Joe: I have a lot more bluesy ideas, but I get bored with the Blues. It’s more of an ingredient for me than a focused genre.
Hardrock Haven: Overall, Hard To Kill is not drastically far from the previous Heaven & Earth records in spite of an ever-changing line-up. How do you manage to keep the musical vision and style of the band intact when different people come and go? What kind of influence do new band members exert over the current style and sound of Heaven & Earth?
Stuart Smith: We have a sound that we’ve established over many years so when we change members we look for like-minded musicians. And when we write new songs, we all get in a room and play together and we listen to everyone’s contributions so whenever you have new musicians involved in the writing process the overall sound is definitely going to change.
Joe Retta: Majority of the songwriting is done by myself and Stuart. So there’s going to be consistency. However, all contributions are welcome. All ideas… except from drummers. Kidding! (laughs) I am a drummer (laughs) But the nucleus of the songs are always myself and Stuart.
Hardrock Haven: What was the songwriting process for Hard To Kill like?
Stuart Smith: When we started writing Hard to Kill, it was a group effort but then, just like the last album, some of the musicians went on various tours so Joe Retta and I would write a lot on our own.
Joe Retta: Every song was different. Sometimes they start with a riff, sometimes with a phrase. But after the idea starts rolling, I let my brain tell me where the next chord changes and melody need to be. Stuart and I are both open to each other’s ideas. The best part wins. But I have to tell you, anything can change. I’ve thrown away complete sections. Also, completely rewrote lyrics to some songs and started from scratch. It takes a long time for me sometimes to tweak each word. Sometimes they have to rhyme, sometimes they don’t – as long as the message gets through. I really enjoy the whole process. Many of the lyrics I wrote for this record I wrote hoping for the possibility of getting them into a film. “Bad Man,” Monster,” “Anthem,” “Hard To Kill” especially. Others were just fun and silly – “Walk Away,” “Till It’s Over” for instance.
Hardrock Haven: We’ve already mentioned the issue of line-up changes. Hard To Kill marks another one in Heaven & Earth’s history. Were the reasons for that personal, or artistic?
Stuart Smith: Most of them were personal decisions.
Joe Retta: Also, people get busy with other projects and it becomes a matter of availability. I like working with different people. It keeps it interesting.
Hardrock Haven: There’s also a big difference between the studio and the touring line-up of Heaven & Earth. What are the reasons for that?
Stuart Smith: When we’d finished the album we set out to get ready to get out on the road. Kenny Aronoff was contracted to John Fogarty so he wasn’t available to tour and Ty Bailie got offered the gig with Katy Perry which he couldn’t turn down financially as we had no tour planned at that time. We brought in Steve Wilson on drums who is an absolute powerhouse and Mike Mangan from The Big Organ Trio on keyboards who fits our sound perfectly.
Hardrock Haven: On Dig, there was a couple of special guests, including Howard Leese, David Paich, and Richie Sambora. What about Hard To Kill?
Stuart Smith: The only guest on this album was Howard Leese as it’s a tradition with us that when we record a song which requires acoustic guitar in it, Howard and I play it together. He plays the 12 string and I play the 6 string.
Hardrock Haven: So far, Hard To Kill is promoted by a lyric video to the song “The Game Has Changed”. Do you plan to release any more videos – perhaps as picturesque as “No Money, No Love” off Dig?
Stuart Smith: We recorded a video for each song and will be releasing them over a period of time. They are also on a DVD which comes with the album. This time we just went onto the recording studio and played along with the tracks to create the videos rather than spend huge amounts of money on elaborate productions.
Joe Retta: I think with this record we wanted to do a video for each song which we did. Doing “No Money No Love” was a pretty expensive undertaking the way we did it – this time we were able to do more with less.
Hardrock Haven: Do you think it still makes sense to make traditional videos, or perhaps that’s why the lyric videos became so popular?
Stuart Smith: Although I like traditional videos with storylines it’s not economically viable to put those together nowadays unless you’re a huge pop artist.
Hardrock Haven: Joe – apart from Heaven & Earth, you’re also one of the singers in Dio Disciples. Was Ronnie James Dio an important figure to you? Did he exert any influence over your singing style?
Joe Retta: I would say so. Yes, as well as many others. A lot of R&B singers also. Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and many more.
Hardrock Haven: 2017 is the year when the members of Dio Disciples hit the road. The Dio Returns Tour will certainly go down in history because of the usage of a hologram of Ronnie James Dio during the performances. What do you think of the entire idea?
Joe Retta: To be honest, it creeps me out a little bit. But I did not see it in person. I just saw a clip.
Hardrock Haven: As reflected on Hard To Kill, you’re a very versatile singer. What do you attribute this ability too?
Joe Retta: When I was growing up, one radio station would play multiple genres. There was Pop music alongside Progressive music alongside Hard Rock alongside everything else. So I was exposed to everything. It was wonderful. For example, Yes, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues, The Spinners, The Temptations… to Stevie Wonder and Al Green to name a few. All on one radio station. Billboard Top 100 was so much more diverse and not categorized as it is now. So as a result, I have many influences.
Hardrock Haven: When in concert with a current line-up, do you still play some of the songs from the first Heaven & Earth albums?
Stuart Smith: Yes, we have two sets which we rotate, featuring some new and old material.
Hardrock Haven: Speaking of concerts, there are only a few dates announced on Heaven & Earth website. What are the plans as far as touring is concerned? Can we expect more dates to be announced for other parts of the States, and perhaps, also other parts of the world?
Stuart Smith: Our management is working on it so yes, we intend to get out to as many places as possible.
Hardrock Haven: Is there anything else Heaven & Earth is up to these days?
Stuart Smith: Just in constant rehearsals and warm-up gigs at the moment until we find the right tour to get out on.
Joe Retta: I’m always writing new music. I have over 80 new ideas to play with.
Hardrock Haven: Thank you for the interview! Any last words?
Stuart Smith: Thank you and the fans for all your support. Hope to see you all out there soon.
Joe Retta: Thank you! I’m so lucky to be able to do what I do, and we have such an amazing record company to support us. Bruce Quarto and staff are amazing!