Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith makes ‘rhythm on canvas’ art works by drumming with sticks, not brushes
The veteran musician is sticking to drumming to create visual art pieces. He’ll be in Solana Beach this weekend for his latest gallery show
Drumming, at its best, can be an art form. Even so, Chad Smith still needed some persuasion before agreeing to create framed, gallery-ready “rhythm on canvas” art works with his drums and sticks, rather than with paint and brushes.
“I did have to be convinced,” acknowledged Smith, who has been the drummer in Red Hot Chili Peppers since 1988 and counts Ozzy Osbourne, Brandi Carlile and Wu-Tang Clan among his many other musical collaborators.
To be convinced, Smith reached out in 2015 to several other drummers, specifically, Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, Journey’s Steve Smith and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart. All three were already creating “rhythm on canvas” art works for the Los Angeles-based company SceneFour, whose roster also includes such notable drummers as Cindy Blackman Santana, Terry Bozzio and Billy Cobham, along with vibraphonist Roy Ayers and guitar star Joe Satriani.
“At first, I was like: ‘How was your experience?’ when I talked to the other drummers,” said Smith, 58, whose drumming-fueled art works will be on display from today through Sunday at Solana Beach’s 3,500-square-foot Exclusive Collections Gallery.
“Then, I met with these people from SceneFour and it seemed cool,” he continued. “For me, as an artist and musician, it’s another avenue, another way to have a creative outlet.”
The process to create these works begins when Smith drums using special pairs of illuminated sticks in a largely darkened studio. As he plays various rhythms, tempos, accents and fills, his drumming is captured with open-shutter photography. The images are then fed into a computer program that enables the colors and textures in each motion-driven image to be isolated and manipulated.
These are then printed onto canvas, acrylic or metal and then framed, but not before Smith can embellish the images in various ways, including adding dabs of paint, if he is so inclined.
“The shutter speed of the cameras lends itself to the fluidity you see in the strokes of the rhythms,” he said. “It’s a really rhythm-based medium, so I thought it was really cool to combine what I love — drumming and music — with making art on a canvas. In this collection, I really wanted the power of how I play the drums to be communicated, so there’s a lot of the bright lights and colors that I see when I’m playing the drums with the florescent sticks.”
Smith discussed his drum-fueled art work, music and more in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Q: Are the images improved if you drum at a faster or slower speed, or if you play using matched grip or traditional grip, or with greater velocity?
A: I do know how certain things look when they are captured from whatever angle, so I will exaggerate sometimes what I’m trying to achieve and the look of it. But, yeah, anything and all things would change how it looks — matched grip, intensity or the speed; all that contributes to how it looks. In some pieces, you see me behind the (drum) kit, silhouetted, and in some you’d never know it was me.
Q: Do you change your drumming for visual effect when being photographed for these pieces?
A: Sometimes I’m just playing how I would normally play. Other times, I’m purposely thinking of how it would translate to canvas.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: (laughs) Like, really exaggerated! I mean, sometimes when I perform, there’s an element of: ‘I’m an entertainer!’ And there’s a twirl (of the sticks) or the movement of your body.
Q: Years ago, I played on a kit that had a light inside each drum. The lights would illuminate each time you struck one of the drums.
A: I had a kit like that in 2006, where there were sensors on the drums and striking the outside the drums illuminated them. So, every time I hit bass drum or tom-tom, they would light up. That technology has been around and it’s OK when it’s dark. But, when you’re on stage and there are lots of lights, it wasn’t that efficient. I don’t know if I’d incorporate (illuminated drums) into what I’m doing with SceneFour. Because it’s not about the equipment, but the fluidity and power of the stick movement. It’s in the eye of the beholder. When you look at a (finished) piece, it’s not: ‘Oh, that’s a guy playing the drums.’ It’s about how it makes you feel. I’m just trying to get the energy, power, fluidity and motion of the drumming to transfer to canvas.
Q: Can you use mallets or brushes, rather than illuminated sticks?
A: You can use anything, whatever is your tool. Why not? No rules. Sticks are what most drummers use and what I use 90 percent of the time. But, yeah, that would be cool to use illuminated sticks or mallets.
Q: When I was 14, I got two albums that turned my head around — Art Blakey’s “Orgy in Rhythm, Vol. 1" and Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa’s “The Great Drum Battle.” What was your drum epiphany?
A: I started playing when I was 7 and had an older brother who played guitar and was 10 years older than me. I mean, l always loved music, but in the late 1960s and early ‘70s he was into hard-rock and blues-rock — Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Humble Pie, Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience — so I just went to his record collection. So the drummers in those bands were the ones I listened to when I was growing up who were the big influence on me. And a lot of those drummers, like Ian Paice, Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker, come from more of a jazz background. The swing of those English drummers is something I’m really happy that I got into. Not to say the American drummers didn’t have it, like the Buddy Richs and Art Blakeys you were talking about, but in rock music, that swing was really important to me. And I tried to emulate the John Bonhams, Ian Paices and Mitch Mitchells, who had a real swing to their playing. That was the basis of how I started and was the most important part of my early efforts to play.
Q: Young drummers often tend to show off and overplay. As they get older, they learn to support the music and play what’s best for the song at hand. What has remained constant in your drumming over the years, and what has changed?
A: All the things you just said are true. When you’re young, you want to be flashy and impress the girls. I had my Neil Peart (of Rush) phase in high school when I wanted to play all those fast rolls and stuff. You just learn (through) life experiences. Nothing can replicate that, other than growing and changing. (laughs) There’s no denying that, when I was 17, drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll — I wanted that! That looked good to me.
Q: One of the great rock drummers in Detroit, from the 1960s on, was Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, who played with Mitch Ryder and a lot of other people. Was he an influence on you?
A: Yeah. He was also in a band called the Rockets and I’d watch him any time I could. He played at a Monday or Tuesday jam in (the Detroit suburb) Royal Oak and he was really cool. He intimidated me with the shades and bandannas he wore, but I’d go up to him, and say: ‘Hi, I’m a drummer.’ He was cool and he was a really good time keeper. He had a certain feel, a greasy feel, and I was more attracted then to the Motown Records’ style of drumming. But he had his own thing, which — for a drummer in a rock setting — is not melodic. You’re keeping time and it’s the feel of it and the sound of the drums that matters. He had something great; you’d close your eyes and you’d know: ‘That’s Johnny Bee.’ He’s the drummer on the Edgar Winter Group’s ‘Free Ride.’ I learned a lot from Johnny’s consistency and intent. He’s a great drummer and he still plays.
Q: You turned pro early on.
A: After high school, I started playing professionally and thought it was amazing. I was so happy playing six nights a week, three sets a night, in clubs around Detroit. I did that for eight years. It was important to put in that time, the 10,000 hours. When I exhausted the musical possibilities in Detroit and moved to California (in 1988), I was ready when opportunity came knocking. I put in a lot of time, but no one held a gun to my head. I loved it and I’d play with anyone, anywhere. You find people who are like-minded, but with different influences. You get lucky and find those people, and — with me — it was the (Red Hot Chili) Peppers. ... I need other people to interact with. That turns me on and that’s more important than how fast can I play a triplet press roll.
Q: Are you recording now with the Peppers?
A: We’re not recording; we’re just in a writing mode. We’ve got some concerts coming up in May and June, here and abroad. (Guitarist) John (Frusciante) re-joined our band about a month ago, so we’re just jamming and coming up with ideas.
Q: What was your first drum set you had as a kid?
A: My first real drum set was a used, gold sparkle Slingerland set. It cost me $160. My parents said: ‘If you get $80, we’ll put up the other half.’ So I shoveled snow in Detroit, for $5 per driveway — if I was lucky.
Q: Do you still have that drum set?
A: No. I sold it for a bag of weed in high school.
The Art of Chad Smith
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today through Sunday. Smith will attend Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., for which attendees are encouraged to RVSP at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the phone number listed below.
Where: Exclusive Collections Gallery, 212 South Cedros Ave., Suite 104, Solana Beach
Phone: (800) 599-7111
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.