Erik Smith, born 1965 in Hønefoss, a small town near Oslo in Norway, is one of Europe’s most respected and versatile drummers. Inspired by his trumpet player father and pianist mother, he started playing piano and drums at the age of 3 and built his own first drum set from boxes, cans and toy cymbals. His inherent interest in music led him to start taking classical piano lessons along with playing drums at very young age. At the age of 12 he became the regular drummer with his father’s band, and a local big band playing everything from Norwegian folk music to jazz.
Having received the highest honor in Norwegian music, the Spellemann award, Norway’s “Grammy” as part of the legendary big band “Oslo Groove Company”, Erik Smith has built a career that has now spawned many recordings in Norway and abroad, studio sessions, TV shows, tours, shows and musicals.
In his almost 30-year-long professional career, Smith has worked with many artists and singers on the Scandinavian scene as well as many well known international artists such as Michael Bolton, Art Garfunkel, Neil Sedaka, Josh Groban, Donna Summer, Engelbert Humperdinck, John Miles, Boney M, Johnny Logan, Wenche Myhre, Lisa Nilsson, Samantha Fox, Carlene Carter, Al Jearrau, Randy Crawford, Frank Gambale, Bobby Shew, Andy Sheppard, Eddie Daniels, Niels Landgren, Bart Van Lier, Bill Champlin, Phil Woods, Putte Wickman, Ed Palermo, Django Bates, Bob Mintzer, Hector Bingert, DeeDee Bridgewater and Gerald Wilson.
I met Smith on a rainy day at a coffee shop near Akerbrygge in Oslo. He is one of those positive and humble people who always has a smile on his face, and he was nice enough to grant me an interview and talk about his musical beginnings, his latest projects, and offer tips to help others on the road to being a successful musician.
What was it that made you want to become a drummer? Was it a deliberative lobby of your parents?
They never tried to convince me overtly. It was a natural process. It is a coincidence to play drum as my father was a trumpet player but still music was the only thing I wanted to do in my entire life. I really chose this path by heart. My father gave me a lot of good advice but not in a pushy manner. They helped me in a very positive way.
Do you think you would like to have different profession, if you were not born into a musician family?
Even if my family were not musicians, I had a lot of friends who have musician families. So, I was somehow doomed to be exposed to music. Music was my only passion, but I was also interested in airplanes, specifically building model airplanes. I subscribed to magazines featuring aviation news. So if it wasnt music, I might have been a pilot.
Which artists you worked with have affected your career path?
For me I always tried to learn from the people with whom I worked. When I was in my early 20s, I was working in studios and shows with Norwegian musicians and international artists who were coming to Norway. So, I got the chance to work in different genres. Even if you initially do not like their music, they usually end up providing positive contributions to you. If I need to name someone, I can say meeting Michael Bolton was a special memory for me.
In late 80s, I was playing for a TV show at Norwegian State Television NRK for a fund raising campaign of Red Cross. They used to invite big names to this program. In the first year, we got the chance to work with Michael Bolton. At that time, he was in the beginning of his career. They had told me that he was a difficult person to work with. When he came to the rehearsal, he was just a nice person. He came up to me with very supportive and nice words. He was very professional. I have many similar good memories with other big musicians whom I worked with.
Is there any project you regretted being involved in?
I have never been in a troubled situation and somehow managed to prepare myself to tackle all kinds of challenges. But once, a famous artist had come to a concert in Norway. This artist was kind of impossible to work with. Because the presenter of the program pronounced his name wrongly, he had left the rehearsal. When people behave in this way, it somehow affects the color of the whole production. We sometimes have these kinds of situations but I have to say these cases are rare.
Do you have a favorite genre?
My dad played all kinds of music. So, I was listening to all kinds of music at our home. We’ve played every genre from Norwegian folk to pop music in the productions I have been involved. In my first years, I personally liked jazz music better as I could be little freer. But as I worked with other artists from different genres, I have ended up loving it all. Now, I always love changing my styles. So, there is not one favorite for me. This attitude helps me in my work as I can go into any setting wholeheartedly and do a better job.
As a journalist, I sometimes cannot stop focusing on the technical dimension of a news article, and I am sure you are having the same experience while listening to music as a musician?
I went through the same stage actually. In the early years, I payed more attention to how the drummers played but pretty quickly I got more focused on the challenge to fit into the different musical situations and to be sure my drumming fit the musical setting, the song and the artist. Drums are a very technically advanced instrument and it is easy to be caught in the trap of thinking of it only this way. In time, you start to see the bigger picture. It is obvious, if you look at the famous bands. For example, Rolling Stones. You look at how skilled the members of the band are alone: Charlie Watts was an average drummer. But, in the group, he did amazing work. It was the same thing with Beatles’ drummer. The enthusiasm and energy they contribute to their bands completed the picture. This is the case for many artists and musicians. Technically some artists may not be perfect but how they communicate their enthusiasm and emotion is more important.
How did the cultures of the countries where you worked influence your music?
I get inspiration from everything. I think being on abroad is necessary for musicians. You cannot grasp the real American music until you get to the US. My first trip to this country was in 1991. I went to Los Angeles. I immediately sensed why the music comes from west coast of the US, how the drummers play there. The musicians in LA played more smoothly than in New York, where there are more jazz clubs. I have been to many other countries such as Turkey and China. It is impossible not to be influenced when you listen to great musicians playing their own, traditional music.
Is Norway different from other countries in terms of musical scene?
Norway has a great music scene with amazing musicians. However, I sometimes miss the enthusiasm and commitment that you see in other cultures. I guess it is a cultural thing. We are more laid back in Norway than for instance in Turkey or in USA where the thirst for knowledge and the enthusiasm for good music are so evident everywhere you go.
You are also teaching at the same time. What is teaching like for an active musician?
I have been teaching drums since the age of 15. I have done clinics, master classes and workshops in Scandinavia, Germany, Turkey, USA, China and South Africa since the early 90s. I also teach drum set at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. I was really happy when we started clinics and master classes in Norway together with Yamaha. It is just perfect to share your experience and I learn a lot because students may have very interesting questions and ask all kind of things, which pushes you to develop yourself all the time.
Where do you see yourself after 10 years?
I don’t make big future plans. My future goal is to develop myself as a musician and continue to reach an audience that appreciates what I am doing.
Here’s my final question, Erik – Do you have any words of wisdom for drummers trying to make it today?
It is never the technical skills which makes your music great, but the emotion you put into it.
More About Erik Smith
Erik Smith started out banging on pots and pans at
age 3. From his base in Oslo, Norway he works in all imaginable genres of music
from jazz via big band to fusion, pop and rock.
In the jazz idiom Erik has provided the groove for among
others Frank Gambale, Bobby Shew, Andy Sheppard, Eddie Daniels, Niels Landgren,
Bart Van Lier, Phil Woods, Putte Wickman, Ed Palermo, Django Bates, Bob
Mintzer, Hector Bingert, DeeDee Bridgewater and Gerald Wilson.
Erik is a pioneer doing clinics and is known for his
powerful and virtuosic style of soloing. He is the first Norwegian drummer to
tour extensively in support of his endorsing companies to inspire and teach. He
is a long time endorser of Yamaha Drums, Evans Drumheads, Istanbul Mehmet Cymbals
and most recently Vic Firth.
Erik has got his own Signature Drumstick,
manufactured by Vic Firth. Yamaha has launched the Erik Smith Signature Snare
drum in the spring of 2009 and Istanbul Mehmet cooperated with Erik on two
signature cymbal models; the 22” Erik Smith Swish Ride and the 15” Erik Smith
In 2003 he appeared at the NAMM Yamaha Groove Night
and also held a clinic at the prestigious PASIC convention in Nashville in
2004. His clinic was so well received that he was invited back for PASIC 2008
in Austin TX sharing the bill with among others Roy Haynes, Ed Soph, Dafnis
Prieto, Chad Wackerman and Steve Ferrone. 2008 also saw him perform at the
Yamaha Groove All Stars concert in Frankfurt. Erik has done duo clinic tours
with Yamaha colleagues John “JR” Robinson and Akira Jimbo.
“A Clinic with Erik Smith is worth its weight
in gold” – Tunes Magazine / Norway
Erik leads his own bands; the “Erik Smith
Trio” and a 9 piece Funk/R&B band “Smiths Venner” (meaning:
Smith’s Friends) featuring first call session players of Norway. He has also
made appearances with his own big band paying tribute to Buddy Rich.
Erik teaches drum set at the Norwegian State Academy
of Music (Norges Musikkhøyskole) and privately in Oslo when his schedule
permits. Concepts for big bands, drumming masterclasses and lectures for
schools, universities and private firms are also available.
He is a recipient of the Spellemanns prize (Norway’s
“Grammy”) and has his own regular column on drumming in Norway’s
leading music magazine, Musikkpraksis.