Chad Smith | Chili Pepper Uses Drums To Channel His Passion Onto Canvas

For 33 years and counting, Chad Smith has played drums in the high profile Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band who has been enshrined in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and sold more than 80 million albums to date. Yet, there are times where it seems like that is merely his part-time job.

Smith has played in side projects, done extensive session work for other artists, and is heavily involved in charitable causes, including his longtime advocacy of music instruction being made available to public school students. In this conversation we discuss, among other things, his band and his notorious band mates, his exciting first meeting with Sammy Hagar, and his entry into the Guinness Book of World Records.

We discuss his artwork as well, colorful and vibrant abstract pieces created by Smith using, what else? Drumming.

(Editor’s note: Smith’s work can be seen at the Oculus at the Westfield World Trade Center in New York City, May 29-30, and his work will be shown at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor, NJ from May 28 to May 31, with in person appearances on May 29 and May 30)

Robert Ferraro: I’m acquainted with a member of a successful rock band, and one day he cracked me up by looking at his socials and saying, “Our band has 10 times as many followers as I do…I mean, people know I’m in the band, right?” [Chad laughs] With the big personalities of Anthony [Keidis] and Flea dominating the public perception of your band for decades, I feel like that may have been you for a while. Were you a late bloomer in terms of wanting to be all the way ‘out there’ in the public eye, or were you always willing to be, and it took awhile to be fully noticed?

Chad Smith: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, the social media thing is not really me. I’m not posting stuff every other day and I don’t get my validation from how many followers or likes I have. But as far as the Chili Peppers go, I’ve always done stuff, but have also always wanted to do more, and yes, I think once the media kind of caught up to everything I was doing, people started to notice a little bit more. I’ve always supported arts in school and the turnaround program was something I was really into because that’s the only way that I got through high school, you know? And junior high for that matter. Yet, music is the first thing that gets taken away from kids now in schools, so I’ve been happy to be part of that. But what really put me on the map in a big way was that frickin’ ‘Tonight Show’ appearance with Will Ferrell, which was another charity thing. That was a long time ago now…maybe 2014? But after we appeared together people would approach me everywhere I went to tell me how funny they thought it was, and to your point, I just never really expected anything like that. But I don’t get caught up in it. I’m just gonna keep doing my thing. I like to keep changing as an artist and as a musician and play with people that want to play with me and stay in a position where I will be able to help people. I think it’s an important thing to do.

Robert: Before the general public started learning more about you, in part because of the Tonight Show, did it ever bother you that Anthony and Flea were usually the ones being featured?

Chad: I remember in either ‘89 or ‘90, we were going to be on the cover of Spin magazine, which at the time was like, wow, a really big deal. “We’re going to be on the cover of Spin! Oh my God!” you know? And all of us did a photo shoot together and the (reporter) came out on tour and talked with all of us. It was all good, until the issue came out and they ended up just using a picture of Flea. We were like maybe 26, 27 years old at the time, and I was like… [frustrated noise]! So there was that kind of stuff, for sure. But they’re both really good at it, you know what I mean? Outside of the Beatles and maybe a few others, it’s hard for the media to focus on three or four strong personalities in the same band all at once. Usually it’s one or two people out front that represent a group and those guys tend to also be the ones out front when they’re on stage. I’m in the back, banging away on my drums. Even though I’m not moving around, I’m very confident and comfortable with what I do and how I do it. You don’t build a house from the 10th story up, you build it from the ground up…and…you know…I feel like I’m just sticking up for drummers right now. [laughs]

Robert: You should!

Chad: I should, right?

Robert: Do it!

Chad: [raising his voice] Yeah, man! I love drummers! And I love the drums! I’ve been playing for 50 years, and I love it now more than ever.

Robert: Your drumming plays a monster part in RHCP’s success, but a cool characteristic of your band is that a guitar enthusiast might also think you are a guitar band, and a bassist could see you as a bass driven band. You’re all standout players, who maintain a lot of individuality. With that in mind, when you all jam, write and record, is there some friction there because of all the strong elements and personalities?

Chad: Definitely, and I think the friction is really important. If everything goes too smoothly, it’s going to sound too smooth. Rock and roll has to have attitude and it has to have risk and it has to be on the edge a little bit. That’s the way I like it anyway. I enjoy bands that sound like that. I wouldn’t say we’re unique in this way, but we are a band where not only one or two guys have all the ideas and they bring in their finished song and their drum machine or whatever they used at home, and that becomes the record. We all get in a room where everyone’s creative and musical input is encouraged and wanted. We work together and improvise. That’s why I really believe we have the unique sound that we do, and I’m proud to be a big part of it.

Robert: From a distance, it has always appeared that you have a deep and genuine care and concern for each other. Is that naive on my part?

Chad: No, we do! We have a lot of love and respect for each other. It’s been how many years now? And there are still long stretches where I spend more time with these guys – between writing, rehearsing, travelling and playing concerts – than I do with my family. We all have strong ideas about things but when you’re in a group you have to compromise. We keep our strong ideas but put our egos aside, so that we can work together and make the music we want to make.

Robert: [accidentally interrupts]

Chad: I just want to go back to what you said a minute ago. It’s really nice of you to recognize that and say that, because it’s authentic – and I think that realness comes across in our music. Our music is who we are. We have flaws and we’re not perfect. Same as our music. Some songs are really good, some songs not so good, or however you want to feel about them. But we do it because we love it, and we do it for real, from our hearts. We don’t set out doing it because we’re trying to make money or be on a TV show or blah, blah, blah. We do it for the right reasons and I think that’s what people connect with.

Robert: On that note, John (Frusciante, guitarist) is back in the band, which many people are very excited about. This is his third trip around the moon with you guys. Your music comes from a deep connection throughout the band, but from a practical or business standpoint, did at least one of you have to have a conversation with him regarding how committed he truly is?

Chad: Yes, definitely. With this being his 3rd time around, that was the first thing I asked him. I said, “Why do you want to come back?” And he said, “I want to play in a band again. I want to play guitar in a band and the only band I want to be in is the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” So that was enough for me, because we have a special chemistry, the four of us. Not to discount the other great musicians that have been in our band, but John and Flea and Anthony and Chad…as I speak about myself in the third person for a moment [laughs]…we just have a thing. We want to explore that thing again, and it’s really exciting for us.

Back in the day: Flea, Anthony Keidis, & Smith in the 90’s

Robert: So, an album is coming soon and…

Chad: Yeah, we’re making a record that is almost done and we’ll put it out once it is and we’ll play some concerts next year. We’re super excited for all of it.

Robert: Brian Johnson of AC/DC recently said that if he could go back and change anything about his career, it would be to not sing the way he does because it’s so difficult to sing that way now. He was half joking, but his overall point is well taken in the industry. You are a man of a certain age. Do you feel any physical effects from being such an aggressive player over the years?

Chad: Well, thanks for the “man of a certain age” because my kids would simply tell you that I’m old as dirt. [both laugh] But, I’ve been playing a long, long time and I do play very physically, you know? I love it. That’s just the way I feel when I’m back there. I’ve always banged the crap out of the drums, but I especially like to play with power when I’m with the Chili Peppers. It’s how I feel the best expressing myself. I’ve been really fortunate and I’m knocking on, whatever this desk is made out of…Porcelain? Plastic? I don’t know what this is made out of, but I’m knocking on it because when you’re younger, you think you’re bulletproof and you party hard and stay up all night and then go play 25 shows in a row. Obviously that’s changed for us, a lot, and we do get rest and eat well but I also ice my wrists after I play to prevent inflammation and I do other things I need to do to be able to perform at the level I want to. That’s the thing. I want to be able to play as long as I can, but also play the way that I want to. Outside of a couple of little things, I’ve been really fortunate. Nothing nagging.

Robert: That puts you in rare air. I’m not sure if I can think of another drummer that has played as long as you have, who has so few physical complaints.

Chad: I think it’s a use it or lose it kind of thing. I’ve talked to some other players as they get older and they stop playing in between tours or whatever, and they try to crank it back up again. I think that’s difficult, so I play all the time. Not for hours and hours, but I think it’s important to keep the grease in your joints. And I love playing anyway. It doesn’t feel like a job.

Smith playing with the RHCP in Mexico City (photo by Laura Glass)

Robert: In the 80’s, as an edgy and cranky teenager, the thing I liked least about Sammy Hagar was that he seemed to be friends with everybody. Now, as a middle aged man, the thing I like most about Sammy Hagar is that he seems to be friends with everybody. 

Chad: [laughs loudly] And we mean everybody.

Robert: You are one of the everybodys. You met him in a really spontaneous way, right?

Chad: It was 2003 maybe, and I went down to Mexico on vacation. I really liked it and ended up purchasing a place down there. Later on I was flying down to close on the house and Jerry Cantrell and all the Alice in Chains guys were on the plane. I asked Jerry what he was doing and he said, “I’m going to Cabo to play Sammy Hagar’s birthday party.” I obviously knew that Sammy was like the Mayor down there, but I didn’t know him personally. Jerry said, “Come down, man. Hang with us. It’s going to be fun.”

Robert: Sounds uncomplicated enough.

Chad: Right? I showed up that night and the area was surprisingly dead, but then I turned a corner, and it looked like Bourbon street in New Orleans, packed with people drinking and yelling and going crazy. I walked past a huge line to get to the front of the club and a big intimidating dude says, “Who are you?!” I said [politely], “Hi, my friend Jerry asked me to come down. I’m the drummer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and …”  The guy just yelled, “Let me see your license!” and then walked away with it. But when he came back he said “Sammy wants to see you.” And that was the start of a great night. I remember Tommy Lee and some other people being there, and Hagar came up to me and said [loud excited voice] , “Hey, Chad! I can’t believe you’re here man! I love the Chili Peppers man! We gotta jam! Have a shot!” [both laugh] He was exactly like anyone would expect him to be – the nicest, most excited person in the room. And that night ended up with me on stage, unexpectedly drumming in Cabo for an hour and a half behind Sammy Hagar, a guy I met for 10 minutes.

Robert: You eventually formed a band, of course. Did you enjoy your time in Chickenfoot?

Chad: It was a lot of fun. I grew up on Van Halen in the 70’s and was a big fan, so playing with Mike (Michael Anthony, original Van Halen bassist) was just unbelievable. He and Sam and I would jam, but Sammy said, “You guys are too good. We need a great guitar player. I’m going to call Joe!” And I was like, “Joe? Um, who’s Joe? Ok, you do that.”  Then ‘Joe’ turns out to be Joe Satriani, who was, like, Sammy’s neighbor near San Francisco. [both laugh] And that was it. We were off to the races. It was really fun. 

Chickenfoot: Smith, Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony (photo Ross Halfin)

Robert: I know you have a great sense of humor, so when I looked at one of your bios and it referred to you as a Guinness World Record holder, I honestly thought it was a put on.

Chad: Right, like it was going to say that I ate the most hot dogs or something.

Robert: Right. Or most belly flops in 24 hours. But sure enough, you went in the record books for playing the largest drum kit ever.

Chad: Am I still in it?

Robert: I feel like you may not be, because of the funny way they phrase it. They’re always saying that you ‘entered’ the book on such and such a date, or ‘went in’. They never say you ‘hold’ the record.

Chad: Yeah, it probably has to have been beat by now. {The record appears to have been broken by Mark Temperato, in 2012]

Robert: In regard to seeking the record…I think it’s awesome, but is it fair of me to ask, “Why?”

Chad: [laughs] I grew up in Michigan, and a friend of mine I went to high school with owns a music store in Pontiac, Michigan. I was back there for something and we were hanging out and he said, “Chad, I want to put together the world’s largest drum set. If I do, will you come in and play it?” I was like, “Yeah, sure man. No problem at all.” thinking, “Well, this is never going to happen.” Sure enough, he got the drums together and cymbals and snares and toms and every kind of drum imaginable and arranged them in a big circle. It was 308 pieces or something. I was a man of my word and I came in and, you know those flaming hats that we used to wear back in Lollapalooza times? Well, I put on my flaming helmet and I went around and just hit everything. The Guinness guy was there and I had to hit every one, so I did. It was actually kind of fun.

Robert: Your artwork is fun, both to take in as an observer and to apparently create, from the looks of the blast you seem to be having while you make it. I could tell everybody how interesting your work looks, but I couldn’t possibly describe the craft that goes into making it.

Chad: About five years ago, a company called C4 in Los Angeles approached me and said, “We have this new medium, where we want to put you in a completely darkened room with special fluorescent light up drumsticks, and photograph you at different angles with different shutter speeds while you play. Then afterwards you’ll have all these different ways to manipulate the art, with canvases, colors, shapes and sizes.” I was thinking that sounded cool because it was a natural progression for me, connected to my drumming, and through photography I’m basically using the sticks as brushes. 

Robert: When you see the finished product, with a few exceptions, you would never imagine that process is the origin of the image. Or that drumming was involved at all.

Chad: Right. With a lot of them what you’re seeing is just fluidity and emotion and they’re super colorful and pretty abstract. In some of them you can see a shadow of me or maybe a little bit of a cymbal or part of a drum, but for the most part, it’s the movement generated by the sticks and not the sticks. And that fluidity, powered by the emotion and passion of me trying to get all of that onto a flat surface, is the challenge. I did one collection a couple of years ago, and I really wanted to change it up this time by adding to it, by really conveying the power of how I play and the energy and excitement of it, onto the canvas. So I added some paint and some other things to try to accentuate that after the fact. That’s what’s happening on the collection that’s out right now. People can see it at the Oculous this weekend at the World Trade Center in New York, shown on these giant digital screens that are like two football fields long. It’s really cool.

Smith’s piece “Purple Stain”

Robert: Something that jumps out at me about your collections is the glaring lack of pretension. [Chad laughs] You name a lot of your pieces after nouns: Ocean. Playground. Robot. Tower. And sometimes verbs! Are you having a laugh, or is that a conscious decision to be minimalist?

Chad: No, you know, it’s funny you say that. I do a lot of these works and then, in post-production, I see a lot of them all at once. And so they come to me and say, “Chad, we need names for these.” And they literally line them up. Sometimes 50 at once. And I stand in front of them and I look at them and I just say what comes immediately to mind: “Um…..Little green man!!” [both laugh loudly] And so on. You nailed it. There’s no pretension. It’s very off the cuff, and I don’t try to overthink it too much.

Robert: Unlike some classic artist working out of their basement a century ago, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that people are going to A) see your work and B) contemplate purchasing it. When you’re creating, do those things ever enter your mind?

Chad: No, because people always seem to ask me about the abstract parts, like, “Were you playing a specific song at the time?” or “What is that?” In reality, I’m just improvising like a jazz player for five straight minutes and then little spurts here and there after that. I will say that this is the second collection, so I did know this time around that certain motions would be captured a certain way and how they would look. Sometimes I would move faster or slower or higher or lower to get a result, but not that often. For the most part, it was just me jamming, and what comes out of that. And it is just like a musical performance, in that I either like it, and say, “Wow, that was good. I didn’t know I could do that.” or “That was shit. Let’s throw that one away.” But if you don’t take a risk or push yourself, you’re going to throw a lot of them away. So, I’ve never thought, “Oh, this one is going to sell. Oh boy, I can’t wait.”

Robert: Have you ever hung a Chad Smith original in your own home? 

Chad: I actually have. My wife liked one from my first collection called ‘Satan’s Butterfly’. It’s a bit of a mirror image and she really likes it. I’m not a big “look at me” kinda guy. I don’t hang up my gold albums and all that stuff, but you know, happy wife, happy life. Generally, for me, they’re like songs. Once they leave the garage or the studio or wherever, they’re for everybody. I’m not too precious about them, as you said earlier.

Smith’s wifes favorite piece – “Satans Butterfly”

Robert: A question to play us out.

Chad: Ok.

Robert: You have six Grammy awards.

Chad: I do.

Robert: You also have six children.

Chad: Ah, yes. I do.

Robert: If you could be granted a seventh of one or the other, but not both, which would you choose?

Chad: [mock screams] I can’t have another kid Robert! Are you kidding me man?! But I’ll take all the Grammys you can throw at me .

Info for Chad’s show at The Oculus, World Trade Center Hub, NYC: Oculus

Info for Chad’s showing and appearance at Ocean Galleries, Safe Harbor, NJ: Ocean Galleries

See Chad’s Art Work:  Chad Smith’s Art

Visit the Roadshow Company: Roadshow Company

Follow Chad on Twitter: @RHCPChad

Follow Chad on Instagram: @ChadSmithOfficial

Follow Chad on Facebook: RHCPChad

Red Hot Chili Peppers Website: RHCP

Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Belinda Carlisle, and Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC.

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