“One of my first memories was being in my father’s studio – music playing – him working on a large canvas.” Bruce Smith has fond memories of his childhood, underscored by the experience of being the son of widely celebrated abstract painter Hassell Smith who, himself, was quoted as saying “I am concerned I’m bringing the painting into much closer relation with music…”
It was music, notably percussion, that captured Smith’s interest, from using his mother’s knitting needles to tap out rhythms to volunteering to play the snare drum in an early school band. When drum lessons were offered, he tried to fit into the discipline of playing along with known performers. “I hated it,” he quickly offers. “Years later, I knew I had to re-engage with the rudiments of modern drumming, but I needed to find my own way.”
That way led him, as a teenager to ride the British wave of “punk rock” and to create The Pop Group – a post-punk band that played in England until 1981, reforming in 2010. The inclusion of strongly political and ideological themes into their songs set The Pop Group apart from earlier punk bands. One of their performances was presented to 500,000 fans in London’s Trafalgar Square as part of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament concert.
An admixture of reggae
“We’d go to London to play and to go to The Roxy where DJ Don Letts would play reggae songs between sets of punk rock bands.” The blend may have seemed odd at first blush, but the raw energy, the rebellion and the sheer political force between the two genres resonated with Smith. “Reggae has had an incredible influence on my playing,” he admits, a factor noted by critics over the years of his appearance as the drummer with “Public image, Ltd” (PiL) the band fronted by John Lydon … famously “Johnny Rotten” from the seminal punk rock group The Sex Pistols.
Smith was a member of PiL from 1986 to 1990, when the band suspended recording and touring. “John Lydon called me up out of the blue in early 2009 and told me he wanted to get the band together, again. 19 years is an eternity in music, but the opportunity was exciting.” Having appeared on countless recording sessions for other acts, Bruce Smith was back in a world famous group, and the performing, recording and touring began, again.
This is Not a Love Song, one of PiL’s most recognized songs, grew out of an early suggestion by a record company executive that Lydon and the band come up with a “nice love song.” The satire anthem was the response and its popularity (it hit #5 on the UK song charts) has made it a staple of Pil’s performances.
The world changes
“COVID-19 changed concert performances – completely killing them for two years,” Smith laments. “I have a feeling that what’s going to happen in 2022 and 2023 is going to be legendary. Promoters have already filled the concert agendas for these upcoming years. Finding open dates is going to be a challenge.” As for PiL, they have two major festival appearances already selling (and selling out) in their future. One of the two May, 2022 dates at Pasadena, California’s Cruel World festival has sold out and the second date finds tickets hard to find.
“Festivals have become a great way for fans to hear multiple groups over a few days, for one price. A single performance ticket can be very expensive,” offers Smith. The May date on the West Coast will be closely followed by an appearance in Limburg, Belgium at the Sinners Day Special festival.
The greying of the audience
With roots dating back to the punk rock days of the 70s and 80s, audiences for PiL concerts has evolved. “In the UK, our audiences tend to be older – folks who were fans early on who come back to reminisce. In the rest of the world, the number of younger fans seems much greater – people who knew us from recordings but never saw us in person who now get the chance.”
While PiL gets ready to reassemble for rehearsals and performances (John Lydon lives in California, guitarist Lu Edmonds and bassist Scott Firth live in the UK) the process is intriguing. “We don’t look at the music as static. It’s very fluid. We’ve never played songs twice the same … they emerge … they reflect where we are. We’re not locked in time.”
Ashes and diamonds
Musicians have loyalties, and they have the opportunity to form new connections, new interests. When a group books a tour, then loyalties return and the chemistry bonds the performers together. When one group is on hiatus, other connections emerge.
“I’ve been working for almost three years on a group of songs with Paul Dentman who has been bassist for Sade for years and guitarist Daniel Ash who has been part of Bauhaus for years. I wouldn’t call it an album … that’s no longer a commodity in these days of instant downloads and streaming services. It’s group of really well produced pieces that we will begin to release in the next year.”
In an age of digital streaming, file sharing and editing, the songs by Ashes and Diamonds, as the new group is called, have been individually recorded long distance, then shared between the band members. Each of them adds tracks and sends the files back to the other two. “I’m intrigued with the production aspect,” affirms Smith, “because we can add vocal support when needed, change a phrase or a few bars of instrumentation to keep building the sound.”
The evolution of performance will have an impact on Ashes and Diamonds just as it has on other groups emerging from lockdowns and cancellations. A February 2022 release of the first new track could signal a new chapter.
With three recognized and celebrated musicians coming together to create a new group, the notion of booking dates for performance, then considering a tour are all on the horizon. “There are great theaters all around this country that have 750- 1000 seats, great production facilities and form a terrific backdrop for performers,” offers Smith with an eye to his next chapter. The Bardavon in Poughkeepsie, NY, the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, MA, and the Warner in Torrington, CT, come instantly to mind.
This really is a love song
Bruce Smith and his partner, Chelsea Miller, live in bucolic Falls Village, CT, far from the grind and hustle of club scenes in London, New York, and Tokyo. The music of PiL, of The Pop Group or other bands that have been supported by Bruce’s incredible drumming may be mixed by DJ’s in those far flung venues, but the future for Smith is creation and performance of new work. “My father taught me an important lesson with his painting: He could work hours on a piece, then wipe it out with a sweep of a brush. He taught me that what you’ve done is not important if another, stronger idea has emerged. The past is fine … but the future is exciting.”
Bruce Smith appears on tracks from, among others, The Pop Group and The Slits through The New Age Steppers and Public image Ltd. They can be found on streaming services and as both singles and full concert recordings on YouTube.
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