Thursday, October 2, 2008

Strongarm Interview #2 Smeff

(2020 Update. This is an old post. The Myspace links don't still work for some odd reason.)

 Our second Strongarm Interview features the musician Smeff. Some on Myspace are already familiar with this multi-talented bard, but not nearly enough. 2008 marked the release of his solo album Letters From Oblivion.


**Without revealing your real name, unless you want to, why did you adopt a singular, monosyllabic nomenclature? In Letters From Oblivion, Smeff is a secret agent. Is Smeff more than a nickname? Has Smeff grown into an outlet for you, or is Smeff a fun device in your creative process?**

My real name is Jeff, but "Smeff" has been a nickname for years. I think it was Dez Tillman, my old bass player, who called me that first. Dez is an interesting character--long dread-locked hair, skateboarder, excellent guitar player--not someone I would presume to question about such labels; he just started calling me that, and it was so. Most of my musician friends have called me Smeff ever since, so when I went solo, it just seemed the natural choice for a "stage" name.

The "Secret Agent" thing was a fluke. This artist named "Etchi" and I got to talking about a graphic novel he was working on. He needed some male models for characters and he asked if I would be interested. We wrote back and forth on it for a few weeks, we came up with this "Agent Smeff" character, and he did some preliminary drawings which had my physical features mixed with crazy weapons (like a "smoke gun") and a fast sports car, etc. But as soon as I mentioned anything about profit sharing on the project, he split--no more contact, no acknowledgment, nothing.

A few weeks later, he started producing finished works in my likeness under a different name ("Agent 69" or something). There's nothing I can do to prove I had anything to do with the character, so I just dropped the whole thing. (Interestingly enough though, if you look at the early pictures of "Agent Smeff," he has a gold tie clip with "SL" on it for "Smeffland Incorporated." That's gone now in the final drawings since he changed the name.)


However, we had talked about turning the thing into a movie, and on a whim, I did the "Agent Smeff" theme song (this all before he bailed on me). I still had the dumb song, so I put it on the album. The "Maltese Midget" bit was just an extended (8 minute) joke based on the "Agent Smeff of Smeffland Incorporated" bit that we came up with. "If Everyone Was Nice" was just a final variation on that theme. The only other thing I did with the agent motif was the original video ad for the album, the one where I'm tied to the chair in the underground lair getting beaten-up by thugs. After that I just circular filed the whole thing.

Smeff is just my name, period. No hidden meanings or future plans for it. It's just like any band choosing a name for itself. It's something to call me and something that identifies my music. No mystery here. The only mystery is why the first album was so weird! And the answer is, because I've got a weird side--too many B-movies as a child.


**How many instruments can you play and what is your musical background? Formal training? Self taught? Both?**

I play drums, keyboards, and guitars, plus I do all my own recording, mixing, and mastering. I think of myself as an accomplished drummer and sound engineer and a so-so guitar and keyboard player. Of course, you never stop learning, but I am definitely not Steve Vai. In fact, there are old ladies teaching Sunday school who are better guitarists than me, but I do what I can to get by.

My parents set me up with piano lessons when I was about nine years old. When I was eleven, I said I wanted to play drums because my older cousin was a professional jazz drummer. They found a fantastic drum teacher, Kurt Ritchie, and he taught me everything I know about percussion. After studying with him for a few years, he forced me (really forced me!) to play drums in a country-rock band with a bunch of forty-somethings (I was barely old enough to drive!) and I did it. It was a sink or swim situation, but it taught me loads about music and live performance, and loads about life in general (fifteen years old and playing in biker bars and honky-tonks; your eyes are WIDE open...)

**It's time consuming to learn a single instrument and you've tackled many. My hat's off to you. Was your family musically inclined and were you following in their footsteps? Speaking of parents, what did they make of your honky-tonk gigs? Any memorable stories the world should know about?**

Oooh, good questions...

My parents were both in marching band in high school--Dad on trombone (or some kind of horn) and mom on the clarinet. Mom played piano for as long as I can remember. But the real influential thing was the stereo. My dad always had a killer stereo system, like the best you could buy back in the sixties. And he had this fantastic record collection--Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, all kinds of Big Band stuff, Jonathan Winters comedy albums, tons of old Bill Cosby records, and on and on. It was mostly great music and great comedians.

The one album he had that really blew my mind as a kid was the original stage performance recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar." I would listen to that album over and over--the overture still gives me chills, it's so fucking cool--the best rock opera ever written. When I heard that, it warped my reality.

The earliest picture of me (besides newborn baby pictures) is one where I'm like one year old with these huge headphones on. The look on my face is "what the hell is going through my ears right now?!?!" It's pretty much the emblem of my childhood; I spent the whole thing sitting on the carpet in front of my dad's stereo late at night with headphones on listening to geniuses.

After that, it was my drum teacher, Kurt Ritchie, who introduced me to "Farewell To Kings" by Rush. That album affected me in my teens like "Jesus Christ Superstar" blew away my childhood. I haven't been the same since...

My parents were very supportive of my playing in the bars at a tender age. People just weren't as uptight about things like that back then like they are today. It did get weird sometimes though, and if they knew what was going on, they probably would have yanked me out of it pronto.

I once had a twenty-three year old woman proposition me by whispering what she'd do to me if I took her home; I was fifteen at the time. When our guitar player told her how old I was, she just about spit her beer.

I made the mistake of leaving the original band when I got hoodwinked by the new keyboard player we'd hired. He convinced me that we could form a better band with just him and me, that he knew people, and that I should leave these guys and help him form his new super group. I was gullible. It turned out that he was just a burnt out drunk and nobody wanted him around. I'm sure he drank himself to death a long time ago, but it taught me a esson about fast talkers and my own ego; both could lead me astray.


**Let’s talk marketing and the internet. You had a Myspace page before you had your own site, Smeffland. Was this by design or out of convenience? And what, for you, are the strengths and weaknesses of each for a musician?**

I guess it was by design. Before I went solo, every other band I was in always had a Myspace site; it's easy to set-up and free to run, so why not. Plus, I just like Myspace. Some of the best friends I have today I met on Myspace years ago, so I just like it for personal reasons (and just for the record, Facebook is LAME! I hate it. Why anybody paid millions for that crap I'll never understand...)

Smeffland. com is more for marketing the c.d., and it's undergoing a major overhaul this month. We're streamlining it down to the essentials and getting rid of the cumbersome animation that makes it load slowly. I really think it's going to be much cooler and I can't wait till it's done. Hopefully it will be finished in October.

Websites are essential if you're serious. They can be a lot of work, depending on how elaborate you want to be, but they are as common in the business world as morning coffee. If you don't have a website, no one thinks you're serious, whether that's right or wrong. I mean, people have websites for their pets!

It's like websites today are what the Yellow Pages were decades ago, only they're cheaper, much more effective, and a lot more fun. The only weakness is in those same facts; everybody and their mother has one, so even though it's important to get one, just because you have one doesn't mean you're diddly-squat.

Even if you get five-hundred hits a day, it doesn't mean they're going to shell out money for your c.d. I always think of that Simpson's episode where Homer makes a website as the "Internet King," and he thinks that just because he's online now, people will start throwing money at him. It doesn't work that way. It's a battle of marketing, name recognition, timing, luck, and talent, probably in that order. And there's a million other bands and musicians fighting that same battle.

**Myspace is how I discovered your music. Since I purchased Letters, I am a slash in the win column for using Myspace as a marketing tool. But you said it yourself, there are a million other bands trying for that sale. What are you doing to separate yourself from the sea of competition? And is it easier or harder to survive in music as a primarily one-person operation?**

First off, I'm trying to make better music. I know my work is different from most of what's out there already, which is good and bad. Being different and unique is a big plus if you catch on, because then you're leading the new wave, whatever that wave may turn into, instead of chasing the bus by just doing what everybody else is doing. But you've got to catch on and get a following or you're just a guy (or band) doing something different that nobody likes.

But deliberately trying to be different is a dead-end too. You just have to do what you feel and throw caution to the wind; it's the only honest way to make any art. But the key is to do what you feel and do it well. And I'm not there yet, but every album is bringing me closer to that ideal marriage of creative honesty and skillful execution.

But bottom line, you start with good music. Sure, there's plenty of "successful" bozos making "bad" music, but it won't be around in five years. An honest musician will deal with the real question; do I love making music, or am I just in love with the idea of being a "successful" musician, i.e., a rich one with a famous face? If the answer to the first part is no, and the second is yes, then quit music and go to business school--you'll have a much better chance at riches there than in music. But if the answers are reversed, then start by doing your best to make good music. Then the rest is all marketing, and for that, call your ex-guitarist who quit the band and went to business school, or read some books on the subject.

But in spite of all the bullshit about name recognition, promotions, distribution, etc., if people like what you do because it's good and it moves them, you've won most of the battle. Look at Vincent Van Gogh. His paintings sell for millions. Of course, he never saw a dime of that money during his life, and he sure could have used it. But his art was sincere and from an honest source of creativity, so it ultimately succeeded. Thus, it really boils down to what's really important to you. Art or money? You CAN (maybe, if you’re lucky) have both if you truly love the first, but you CAN'T have the first if you only love the second.

I think it's easier as a solo artist than as a band. Bands are like a really rough marriage; they're hard to keep together. When you're solo, you hold all the cards, and if things bomb, you've got nobody to blame but yourself. But to be honest, playing music with friends--when it works--is more fun. At least the creative process is, because you have someone to share the moment with. Solo music is like being a painter; long lonely hours in a dark studio. It lends itself better to recluses rather than socialites.


**If you could evolve any creature on the planet to self-conscious, existential intelligence what would it be?**

How did we go from internet marketing to this question? But okay, that's an easy one: mankind. Because we are obviously not self-conscious, existentially intelligent beings yet or we wouldn't be destroying ourselves and the planet just so we can have a lot of "stuff" that we don't need. What a bummer note to end an interview on...

**Bummer note? Perhaps. But only if we stop listening to artists as the early warning system for society. Music about political and social reform has made a real impact on our world, or so the folk singers tell us. Do you agree or disagree?**

Music does change people, I have no doubt about that. Look at hip-hop. Millions of teenagers changed the way they dressed and spoke in only a few years largely because of it. It's had a huge impact, for good or for ill, on our society in a very short time. But whether music can (or has) really made "positive" social change, I can't say.

I see music as personal psycho-sexual communication between the musician(s) and the listener. Musical notes are vibratory energy at a primordial level that strikes a sympathetic vibration in all hearing human beings. It transcends language. Music is pure communication on a mystical level with words being optional. You can be deeply moved by a piece of music that has no lyric. How do you explain that? I defy anyone to explain it outside of emotional terms; it's impossible, other than to conclude something like, "I don't know--I just like it! It makes me feel..."--fill in the blank.

Music, like sex, has an impact on the world, but what it is and whether it's "good" or not, I cannot say. I just know that I love it.

Thanks, Smeff

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