Steve Smyth "The EssenEss Project" - 20/04/2008

Steve Smyth became widely known after joining the metalband Nevermore, among others. Steve's career started back in 1996 when he joined the Bay Area powermetal band Vicious Rumors. Steve stayed with V.R. until 1999 and participated on the albums 'Something Burning' and 'Cyberchrist'. Steve then moved on to play with Testament as a tour guitarist and he worked with Eric Peterson on his black metal project Dragonlord. Steve contributed on both the Dragonlord albums 'Rapture' (2001) and 'Black Wings of Destiny' (2005).
 

In 2004 Steve joined progressive metallers Nevermore on their European tour in support of their 'Enemies of Reality' album. Soon after this tour had come to an end, Nevermore commenced the writing of their next album entitled 'This Godless Endeavor'. By this time, Steve had become a permanent member of Nevermore and so he took part in the writing process. The future was looking bright, the album was received well by fans and the press and an extensive tour followed. However, in 2006 fate struck as Steve was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure. Unfortunately, these health problems forced Steve to put his work with Nevermore on hold. Today, Steve has recovered of a kidney transplant. Due to personal and professional reasons he decided to leave Nevermore in August 2007.

 

In the past years Steve has been working on and off on this first solo album which was released on November 5 2007 via Two Louder Music. This effort was named 'The EssenEss Project', it is a collaboration between guitarist Steve Smyth, bass player Steve Hoffman and drummer Atma Anur (Cacophony, Jason Becker, Greg Howe, Ritchie Kotzen, Tony MacAlpine). To start with, I can tell you this: this instrumental album is a seventy-minute journey by three extremely talented musicians. Their sound can be described as a mix of rock, jazz, fusion and metal, but above all this it is progressive and laden with experimental breaks, blending all elements into a solid opus.
 


So enough questions for Steve to answer, so here we go!

 

Your first solo album was released some months ago, so of course we’d like to ask you a couple of questions about it!

 

Ok, first of all, how is your health?

“I am doing great! I am now 1 year and 3 months post kidney transplant, and everything has been going very well, according to the doctors! I am back to being busy again as well, and exercise and diet changes have been very helpful towards getting towards new goals I have in life, both musically, and personally. It’s great man! We are now under way with promoting The EssenEss Project album,  getting some shows in the US together for it, doing a few clinics and demo opportunities throughout the year in support of it, and also writing for another album meantime. On another front, which readers here might be happy to hear about, I am at work on writing metal music now, and putting together a vocal project I hope to turn into a full band in the coming year. There’s a lot I am striving for again, and enjoying again, in music and life, and I have that one awesome person out there to thank for the second chance I’ve been given at living a “normal” life, if you can call anyone’s life normal anyway! Ha ha”

 

Let’s go back in history for a bit. After the album ‘This Godless Endeavor’ you were diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. You completed Nevermore’s 2006 US tour but soon you were unable to play for Nevermore anymore. Soon after that Chris Broderick stepped in and Nevermore did go on without you, how did all this make you feel and how do you look back on that situation now?

It was a tough time, as you can imagine, but the show must go on, and I was the first person who understood, and encouraged that. You can ask the band that, and they would tell you the same thing. Chris is an excellent guitarist who has had experience with the band before, so they went with who would naturally fit, and knew the songs as well. I thought he did pretty good overall. As far as how I felt, well, it had more to do with my health, than anything. Put yourself in my situation, and ask yourself, how would you feel if what you did for a living, was taken away from you, due to something that was certainly beyond your control(being born with a congenital birth defect)? Now, to make this clear, I’m not saying I was a saint my entire life, no one in life is. But, even if I had cut every bad thing out of my life that I had ever done, even going to childhood,  this would have happened. It was meant to be, and that was what I had to face. I had to face death for the first time in life, as a real possibility, and sooner than most know I did either. When I went into failure, if I hadn’t gone into the hospital when I did, I would have died within 2 days. The docs told me that I was a walking heart attack, in the condition I was in! Fuck! I had no idea! We had been monitoring this since the top of 2006 through blood tests, and  things had changed so drastically within April to May, that failure came a lot sooner than anyone had thought it might. So, again, once faced with that situation, I called the guys, told them what was going on, and to get someone to fill in until I could come back. I had no idea when that would be, but was confident I could find a kidney donor fast enough, and come back and finish the tour! Ha ha I had no idea how involved this was going to be, what I was up against. I guess if you look at it now, it’s some kind of miracle I was able to get a list of people together, and find a donor within the time I did, which was about 6 months time. The doctors were amazed I was able to put this together from nothing into something as fast as I did, with no real help from any of the then fledgling organizations that are now in effect, such as www.unos.org and their Donate Life America campaign, which is now a world-wide campaign, or www.matchingdonors.com another fine and now world-wide established organization. Those organizations I have to give a shout out to, as what they’re doing  is so awesome for the plight of kidney disease sufferers everywhere!

 

Back to Nevermore, looking back on it, what happened, happened, they had to move on, I had to rebuild my life. That’s the way it goes, what other way can I look at it? I wish this happened, or I wish that happened? Nah, don’t have time for that, sorry! Life moves on, and though I did leave the band for matters of a personal and business nature, I can tell you a lot of it had nothing to do with my health, at least from my viewpoint. ‘Turn out the lights’…..you know the rest.”

 

 

How did you got involved with the other members on your album, can you give us a short introduction of who they are and how they got involved with you and your project?

What were the difficulties that you had to deal with in the first place to come up with your first solo album?

“It did take year to for us to finally complete The EssenEss Project debut, and ironically enough, it wasn’t until I fell ill, that I actually found the time to complete it! The main issue always in our face was time. My buddy Steve Hoffman and I had The EssenEss Project in an earlier incarnation, back in the mid 90’s, but then I got the gig with Vicious Rumors, and we kind of put a lid on the idea. We had written 15 or so songs for an album back then, and prior to that, had worked with Atma Anur on a 4 song demo we shopped around, but never had done anything else with the project. The end of 2001 rolled around, and Steve and I talked about this, and decided to give it a shot again, write for another album, record it, and get it out there. A few of those early songs made it on this album, but with years of experience behind them at that point, from my end, and Steve’s as well, now that he had taken a different turn in music, and become more full time with double bass/classical and theater gigs, and jazz gigs as well. I had touring with Testament, Dragonlord, and Nevermore, all happening at or around the same time, during the next  3-4 years, so with the time I had, I wrote for the album, as did Steve, and we passed our files back and forth to each other. When we finally got them done in 2004, we contacted Atma, he said yes he would do it, and through his own crazy schedule, we  recorded this album from April 2004- April 2005. From there, Steve and I  made plans to record the rest of the album during 2005, as we could. I had 6 months of touring coming up with Nevermore, so Steve recorded by himself while I was gone, and when I came back, I would listen to what he had, and add my thing to it. 2006 rolled around, I had relocated to London, diagnosed with kidney failure, and returned to California for treatment and recovery. It was during this time, when nothing else in my crazy life was going on, that I was able to finish this. I had the time and the focus, and determination, and I really wanted people to hear what we had to offer the world of instrumental music!”

 

Can one call “The Esseness Project” a solo project or is it really a band thing?

“This is more of a collective effort on my and Steve’s part as well, as we are the ones who wrote the songs for it. I can’t really call it an actual solo album, no. We are considering it to be a “band thing”, in as far as Steve and I are the ones behind the band. Once we stop doing this together, The EssenEss Project will cease to be.”

 

How did you launch into writing the material for ‘The Esseness Project’, did ideas come easily so that you just had to write them down or was it more of a careful composing thing?

“Well, as I said, it’s something we had a history with before, so some songs were already there in skeletal form, and others were fresh from our heads. The songs took form in many ways; as a melody, as a riff or a progression, or as a full skeleton of a song, just needing development. As for physically writing the parts out, we did a bit of chart writing, especially for Atma, so he could wrap his head around the arrangements! Ha ha Some of it was crazy! Steve and I had our ideas in the demos, but when it came time to record the album, those tracks became guidelines, and inspiration took over from there, especially playing with someone as spontaneous as Atma. When we got the tracks back from him, there were so many nuances in his playing we didn’t realize he was doing while tracking, that we took inspiration from his concept of playing, into our own instruments, and tried to play the tracks with as much live feeling as we could! Definitely a challenge, but I’m pretty confident we got that feeling across on the album.”

 

What were the goals you had in mind when you started this, what inspired you and did you have a certain idea of what you wanted to do on this album, any elements you definitely wanted to include? Was it a conscious decision to do it this way?

 “Our goal was always to bring mood, melody, and musical diversity, on our terms, to instrumental music. I for one have felt that this has been lacking in guitar oriented instrumental music for some time. The music always has a catchy riff to bring you in,  then a ton of shredding over a very plain background. Steve and I have more influence from 70’s prog rock, Yes, Genesis, Kansas, Frank Zappa, to Steve Morse Band in the 80’s and 90’s, and Liquid Tension Experiement. So, naturally, we took from our influences, and had a goal of making cohesive songs first, and adding in elements from other styles of music, and lastly shredding, and from EVERYBODY, not just guitar. I for one always love hearing players that can play, rather than just a guitar itself doing all the soloing.  We have Atma Anur drumming, how can you not let the man get crazy?! Ha ha And Steve of course, making his debut, brought out a little bit of what he’s capable of. You’ll hear more on the next album, that’s for sure!”

 

 

What about the song writing – how can we imagine you work on new songs? Is it like you sit down and write a new song because you need more material now or do you wait until you get an idea?

 “Oh no, it’s all natural! I never force anything to come out. It happens naturally, or it doesn’t happen with me! If I forced myself to write something, it would sound like it, at least it would to me. It would sound sterile, and undoubtedly lack feeling, and that’s the last thing I want to do with my music, at any time. The fresher we can get it, the more inspirational  I find it to be.”

 

This album is something totally different than your previous work. How hard was it to create this album and what might this solo album “add” that you couldn’t express in your music you recorded with Nevermore, Dragonlord and Vicious Rumors?

“Well, we'd had some of the music for quite a while, so it was just a matter of finding the time to finish it all. It wasn’t hard at all to come up with, this was something I had wanted to do for a long time, and I wanted to finish this with Steve, as we both started it together. And, yes, it is different, it’s a different style, and not something you would find as a reference to my previous works at all. It’s in the progressive music area, not just rock/metal, cause there is that, but other styles of music as well. A lot of this was key inspiration in getting this out, as the other styles of music you wouldn’t find me able to do under the “banners” of Nevermore, Vicious Rumors, or Dragonlord. Those bands were locked in certain styles, and we had to stay “inside the lines”, so to speak.” Nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to expand our boundaries with this project, and do things outside of  that realm. And, I’ll tell you, it’s fed my mind to write even heavier music now as well! I’m at work on putting together a new band, but more on that later….”

 

You had help from drummer Atma Anur and bass player Steve Hoffman, but each of you guys is from a different musical background, how did you manage to come to one musical agreement when you worked on the songs for the album?

“Well, it’s true that we are all from a different musical background, but that’s the biggest reason why the chemistry works so well; we’re all venturing into each other’s backgrounds, trying to pull something out that hasn’t been done before, and  it resulted in what you hear on the album. But, this music came from myself and Steve Hoffman only, and we had Atma playing to what we wrote on our demos, in regards to the drums, though we did take inspiration from what he played, and that pushed us a lot further as well. Steve and I went back and forth a little bit throughout the demo process, but when it came time to produce, I knew how to get what Steve wanted out of himself, and also what to get for the album as well. I had to do the same for myself, which wasn’t as easy to do. But I did bounce stuff off Steve in the end, to see what his thoughts were on where we went, so to have that re-enforcement helped out.”

 

Can you give us a little background info on the songs on the album, are there any stories behind them?

“The Afterlife" is kind of a musical speculation on the journey one takes after death. I wanted to present a soundscape of what it might sound and feel like, when we go.


“Sphere” is one of Steve Hoffman’s songs. I went for as much of a 3D type of idea here, as I could give the song. I knew what the layout of the song was, and had the name, and just worked on it from there.


“Only Time Will Tell“ is a song I wrote when I was 17, and Steve and I jammed this with our very first band together. Total neo-classical shred song all the way! The title, I think I foreshadowed my future with this a little bit, and I tried for a feeling of speculation in the entire song.

 

“Illuminate”, is a song that Steve brought to me pretty much towards the end of our writing sessions, and we tried to reflect the song’s title here. Through all the twists and turns of the song, we tried to keep it upbeat, and this brought out more of a happier mood here.

“Reflection,Redemption,Rebirth” is a song in which I was reflecting on my past, present, and future. The title came last here, after I realized that the song had a  series of  questioning type phrasing in it, from the rhythms in the song, to the melodies.

“Strands Of Fascia”, another of Steve Hoffman’s songs, and a little more varied of the songs on the album as well. Steve has a recurring bass theme throughout the song, that you don’t really catch until the second listen, and we built themes to reflect the title here. Fascia is that tissue which connects muscle fiber and tendons together. That’s the bassline here. The strands are each piece of music sitting with, and over, the pulsing bassline throughout.


“It’s All In Your Mind”. On this song, our attempt here was to take the listener through several journeys, in one song. We start out with what sounds like a hiphop beat, which segues into this Led Zeppelin acoustic type of jam, with a slide solo, and Steve H playing a Marcus Miller like bassline, that intertwines in a call and response with the slide solo. Then we come at you with a nightmare of heavy guitars, and melodies, and take you on to a Yes type of jam for a bass solo, then a jazz section, before coming back to a reprise of the beginning of the song. Music truly is All In Your Mind! Ha ha


“Learning To Swim” This is another of Steve’s songs here. Growing up in Wiconsin, he never really learned how to swim. The title reflects a dream he had, where he found himself swimming, at the bottom of an ocean, and his experience there. There’s a lot of cool call and response type stuff going on between bass and guitar lines, and in the bridge of the song, the idea there was, we got the person above the water, learning to swim above the water, rather than below it. 


“Just When You Think”. The idea behind this song was just when you think this song is going to stay on one idea, and develop on that, we go into another area. It does have recurring themes, but each time we play those sections, they’re different again! To me, this song is a direct relfection of life, how it changes, and you can go back to familiar things anytime you want, but it might not be the same, like it or not. Life moves, and so does this song.
 

“XIV”, another of Steve H’s songs. It’s a tribute to his kids, one of whom is now 14. More of an uplifiting kind of song, with more than a few mood changes, we just kept developing this one to where we got it. Kind of like when we all found ourselves at that age, we thought we knew it all, and realizing oh man, there’s so much more to learn, isn’t there?
 

“In God’s Hands” closes the album. I originally wrote this song in 1993, and dedicated it to a cousin I lost back then. I now dedicate it to my father, who I lost in 2005, and also to my mother in law, who we lost in 2006. This song is also dedicated to anyone who has lost a family member, or anyone close to them who is dealing with the effects of kidney disease. Very moody song, with a lot of  changes in it, a kind of reflection on struggle, and who’s hands do you put your life in when you’re up against it? I put God in the title, but that to me only means the one you look to in this time. And we all do, even if that “god” is your own conscience you’re talking to…

 

 

How did the recording process proceed and how much time did you spend in the studio?

We tracked Atma over the course of 1 year, from April 2004- April 2005, in between everyone’s crazy schedules! It took a while, but we finally got Atma on all 12 tracks we intended to record. From there, Steve and I decided to record on our own, and send the files back to me, where I would put it in the song. I had 6 months of straight touring in 2005, and more in 2006, so there turned out to not be a lot of time for me to get this done. Steve did what he could, and then we finished the rest in mid 2006, after my illness had struck. As far as how much time for this, I would say we wrapped tracking over the next 6 months. I was on dialysis, and to be honest, it affects everyone differently. For me, it just sapped my energy to the point where I didn’t feel like doing anything on those days sometimes. Other days, I would go right out and work from midday until 2 or 3 in the morning, pretty much straight. We tracked Steve when his schedule permitted, and really took our time developing the songs as we went along, making sure we didn’t miss anything we wanted to have on there.

 

What is the utmost important ingredient for a song, according to Steve Smyth?

Melody. All music has it somewhere. It can be in a riff, it will be in a bassline, and obviously in any guitar line that you come up with. And, if they’re tuned right, you can even have a melody on a drum kit as well!

 

With such a big fusion of styles in your music, are there any particular bands who’ve been a big influence in your song writing, metal or otherwise?

I would say for myself, it would be  Greg Howe, Jason Becker and Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert, the Steve Morse band, and Liquid Tension Experiement, from a rock guitar perspective. Bach was a big influence in the classical sense of things, and the contrapuntal ideas found in our music. Plenty of jazz players, Al Dimeola, Chick Corea, and John Coltrane are a few that come to mind immediately. There’s elements of each of those guys I really find influence in, on a compositional level. As far as metal influence goes, I guess I was looking to myself to come up with inspiration from that area! Ha ha

 

So tell us a little bit about yourself and the kinds of things that motivate you in your writing. What are you personally into?

Man, I really don’t have much time for most things I would like to enjoy, but I guess I would say movies, sci-fi, mob, and documentary are the big ones for me. There’s always something infuential to be found there! TV I don’t watch as much, but being over here in London now, I find I enjoy British TV a lot more than I did US TV, at least where US TV is lately. Everyone is so damn obsessed with reality tv, and I personally think it sucks! I’ll take comedy any day, The Sopranos, and any good documentary on a political or world issue that has my interest. If I have time to watch, that is! Exercise is a big thing with me again, and also learning how to cook more in a healthy way, and adjusting my diet for the road as well, are big things I’m into lately. I suppose with cooking, I am finding influence there, with the option of so many textures, you get ideas for music that way as well.

 

You produced this album yourself,  did you run into any problems you hadn't expected or was it an easy job?

The biggest problem I ran into was basically time! And figuring out where it all went! Ha ha it was hard to do this, and I welcome the challenge of doing it again, for the next album as well. It’s hard to be objective about yourself; you’re your own worst critic, as I came to find out. That’s a tough one to get over, but you have to take yourself out of what you worked on, and listen to it fresh.

 

Your album was mixed by Kent Matcke, (who already worked with Metallica, Joe Satriani and Sammy Hagar) are you satisfied with the result?

We are satisfied with this album. We did this ourselves, with little to no budget, no label behind it, and all for the love of what Steve and I do together. Kent came in and really taught me a lot about what I was doing, and corrected me in some areas as well, so it was better to have him there. He knows his stuff, and I look forward to seeing what we can do on the next one, schedule permitting. He’s a busy guy lately, back working with Metallica again, on their new album.

 

Have you received any feedback on the new album yet? How do you feel about this album – are you satisfied with the outcome or would you have liked to have changed anything in retrospective? How are fans responding to it?

I would say overall, the more musician friends out there I talk to, they were not expecting this from me, and that’s one shock factor I was figuring on! Most are positive about it, and actually like the music. Some you just can’t win over, and that’s cool, I don’t mind. Fan reaction has been great! I have released this album on my own label, Two Louder Music, and the whole thing has been a learning experience, I can tell you that much! Sales are great, but we’re out shopping this around right now, to reach a larger market than we can do on our own. As it is, I barely have enough time to play anymore, with all I am doing to get this album out there! In retrospect, I guess the things you learn after the fact are always the thing you might regret, looking back on an album. Those are the things I take with me to the next album though!

 

Which element of the CD are you most proud of? do you have any favorites on this album, songs that you think are somehow above the others?

Hard question to answer! Ha ha I am proud of every record I’ve ever done, and have always done each one to the best of my ability at the time. Favorite song would be Cyberchrist and Kill The Day, from Vicious Rumors Cyberchrist album, Judgment Failed, from Dragonlord’s Rapture album, Fallen and Sins of Allegiance, from the Black Wings of Destiny album, and A Future Uncertain from This Godless Endeavor, from Nevermore.

 

Where does The Esseness Project go from here, can we expect any live shows, for instance?

You can expect that we will do another album, and we are at work on putting together some live shows as well. With everyone split all over the globe, it will not be easy, but we’re trying to get on festival dates anywhere we can, and are putting together a California mini-tour called Shredstock 2008, with The EssenEss Project, Favored Nations Recording Artist Doug Doppler, and Adrian Galysh. This is being planned for late July 2008. Google it, and stay tuned for more updates!

 

Finally, where do you see Steve Smyth  going in the coming months / years, or do you not think about the future too much?

I will continue with this instrumental quest, as this is something I have always wanted to branch out into, and now is the time. I am also putting together a new band over here in Europe, a metal band, and am now on the hunt for some great players to get behind this. I know a lot of people over here, and have been talking to some of them about this, and getting thing going. That is my focus for this year, in addition to securing a deal for The EssenEss Project, touring on that record for a while, writing for another one, and doing clinics, and expanding my online teaching business, and going into new areas of teaching this year as well.


I just got back from LA last week as well, where I did some return voice over work for the cartoon show, Metalocalypse. What a great time, as Brendon and Tommy (the show’s creators) are two of the most hilarious dudes I know, and Brendon is one serious shredder as well! Some may know this already, but I did a character on the show in 2006, called Snizzy Snazz Bullets, from the drummer’s old band, Snakes and Barrels. I had a great time with that, and was more than happy to be asked back!

 

 

Ok, now some questions to enable our readers to get to know you a little better:

 

How did you get involved in the music business, what are your influences and how difficult is it these days to sound original ?

Well, I started playing when I was 10, played my first club by 17, and had 2 labels interested in my first band by the time I was 19. From there, I submitted material to Mike Varney, and was featured in his Home town Heroes column in Guitar World in 1993, had an early incarnation of The EssenEss Project with Steve Hoffman, and in 1995, got the lead guitar gig with Vicious Rumors. Wrote 2 albums with the band ‘Something Burning’ and ‘Cyberchrist’, and toured the world with the band from 1995-1999. I left VR in 1999, joined Testament as touring lead guitarist in 1999, and toured with the band until 2004, when I decided, after touring with Nevermore on and off from 2002 (in between Chuck Billy’s cancer battle), to join them, after being asked since 2002. I must also say that during my time with Testament, I helped form Dragonlord with Eric Peterson, and we did 2 albums together, ‘Rapture’, and ‘Black Wings of Destiny’, and toured as much as we could on both albums. Back to Nevermore. We made the ‘This Godless Endeavor’ album together, and toured incessantly in support of this album, until 2006, when I was diagnosed with CKD, and went into kidney failure in mid 2006. During this time, I was dealing with my health issues, and focused on finishing an instrumental album for The EssenEss Project, since revived in late 2001.  We have now finished the album, and are currently promoting it. Check us out here: www.theessenessproject.com

 

What songs and bands do you listen to these days?

Lately, I am not really listening to much. The new Death Angel, latest Arch Enemy, Paul Gilbert’s new one, and Joe Satriani’s new one, I am about to check out both.

 

Is there anything you like to do besides your music?

Sleep! Ha ha

 

I assume you are not yet capable of making a living out of this; what is a common day like for you?

As far as music, this is what I do. I teach online guitar lessons, and more info can be found at www.stevesmyth.com Between this, and doing guest solos for select bands, and writing my own music, these are the things I am up to lately.

 

What is your opinion on the metal scene these days, is there anything missing?

 

ME! That’s about it! Ha ha

 

Which album has been your biggest musical influence, one that made you think “this is what I want to do!”?

Well, hearing AC/DC and Angus Young  playing “Back In Black” really put me over the top. Randy Rhoads got me influenced in more directions in music than just metal, and Yngwie  and Akira Takasaki made me want to shred every head I could when I first heard those guys! That’s just a few though….

 

Every band seems to have had some sort of Spinal Tap moment during their career when touring or whatever. Do you have any disasters or funny stories from the road?

Disasters yes, funny stories, too many to mention! But what happens on the road, as they say……

 

Okay, if you could choose three bands to get on stage with, who would they be?

If you mean bands I could get on stage and jam with, then it would have to be Dio, the next one would be Arch Enemy. I remember touring with those guys in 2003, with Nevermore, and soundchecking for Chris one day. We played ‘Rapture’, and it was awesome! Good chemistry in that band for sure.  The best for last; Halford. The band is tight, and Rob Halford is the METAL GOD! The most amazing voice and presence as well. He really draws an audience in with what he does, and I find that amazing, and rare.

 

Any last statement or anything you'd like to add...

METAL!!! I’m working on a new band right now, so stay tuned at www.stevesmyth.com and my forum on Ultimate Metal for more on this as it develops.

 

Okay, thanks for the interview, take care and stay healthy!

Thanks guys, and thank you to all readers! Check out The EssenEss Project! www.theessenessproject.com

 



Members :

Steve Smyth – Guitar
Steve Hoffman – Bass
Atma Anur – Drums

                   

Albums:

The EssenEss Project (2007)