Taking up from where iconic bands like Deep Purple and Bad Company have left off, Heaven & Earth is on a mission to resurrect the sanctity of classic rock to its purist, most accessible form. Heaven & Earth fuses elements of hard rock, blues, even bits of classical, to create a potent blend of high-powered anthems, melodic rockers and introspective ballads that evoke the spirit of a magical era. Tapping into the methodology and madness of old-school rock with a new-school attitude, Heaven & Earth are shaking their classic rock roots down to the very core on their newest effort, ‘Dig’ (Quarto Valley Records). The album, produced by Dave Jenkins — who’s turned the knobs for everyone from Metallica to Tower of Power — has just been unleashed! This musical powerhouse features guitarist Stuart Smith, singer Joe Retta, bassist Chuck Wright, drummer Richie Onori and keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum, along with special guests Howard Leese (Heart, Paul Rodgers) and David Paich (Toto). ‘Dig ‘is very much a collaborative effort. Quarto Valley Records has been integral in allowing the band to develop and nurture the album without pressure. A good portion of the music on ‘Dig’ was brought to the band by Smith. He came up with riffs and the band worked up songs as Retta wrote vocal melodies and lyrics. On one occasion, Smith and Retta went on a hike and discussed the idea of putting together a song in the vein of a Rainbow classic co-written by their friend Ronnie James Dio. The future has never looked brighter for Heaven & Earth. After years of stopping and starting, adjusting and shifting, Smith feels his time has come. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Stuart Smith to discuss his musical influences, the origins of this amazing band and the challenges involved involved in creating their musical masterpiece, ‘Dig.’
Thank you so much for taking time out to answer our questions. We are very much looking forward to help spread the word on this incredible music!
My pleasure Jason, glad you like our music.
I wanted to go back to the beginning and have you tell us a little about your first memories of music and how it came into your life?
My first involvement with playing music came when I was around seven and a half years old. My father was a jet fighter pilot in the RAF and some friends of his had a Spanish guitar, which they offered to me as they were being transferred overseas. I picked it up pretty quickly so my father got me into classical lessons.
What was it about music that made pursue it as a career?
I never thought of being a guitarist but I’d always enjoyed playing it. My hero was my father so all I wanted to do was fly fighter jets but during college I found out I was red/green colour blind so I couldn’t fly. Then I worked for Texas Instruments learning how to build and design computers but after three months, when I’d passed my probationary period, they gave me a company medical and told me I was colour blind so couldn’t do that work by law because of the colour coding on resistors, etc. I informed them that I’d put that on my application but they’d missed it. The next day they put me on an assembly line wiring semi conductors under microscopes, which I hated so I quit the next day. I drifted around different jobs for a few months then decided I was going to be a guitarist. That was it.
Who do you cite as your biggest influences as an up and coming musician and even today?
Deep Purple was the band that was responsible for turning me on to Rock & Roll but after that I fell in love with most of the hard rock bands of that era such as Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Free, Jeff Beck etc. There’s not too much out there that I hear today that blows me away.
One of your major influences is Ritchie Blackmore. You’re also good friends with him. How did that relationship develop?
I originally met Ritchie at a party after a Deep Purple show and we had a lot in common such as classical music, sports and psychic research so we became friends. He was the one who suggested I move to America to pursue my career in music.
As one of the many kids who discovered you in my youth, my first question is did you have any idea that following your love of music would have lead you to the heights that it has?
Yes, I just thought it would happen earlier in life! [laughs]
You experienced plenty of ups and downs on your journey. What has kept you inspired throughout the years as an artist and fueled your creative fire?
Sheer stubbornness I expect. I’ve always been very driven in whatever I do. To survive in this business you have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot, such as a steady income, a stable relationship and the like. You also have to be able to take rejection and have an unwavering belief in yourself. Without that you won’t last five minutes.
How did the band initially form and what can you tell us about the players involved who have helped shape the sound?
Richie Onori and I have been musical partners for years. Joe Retta I’d worked with in Sweet for the last few years and I’ve known and worked with both Chuck Wright and Arlan Schierbaum over the years. When I got the deal with Quarto Valley Records for a new Heaven & Earth album I knew these guys would be the right choice.
The album is called “Dig”. How did you arrive at choosing that title and what does it mean to you personally?
Glen Wexler came up with the title. My original idea was to call it “Back in Anger”. He had the idea of the giant guitar being dug out of the ground, which we thought was great. For us it signifies rock and roll being dug up and brought back to life as it’s been buried for far too long. There’s too much crap out there right now.
What were the major influences for this album?
All the good music from the 70’s.
For the fans who haven’t had a chance to grab the release yet, What can we expect from this record sonically?
We recorded it using something called the Clasp system, which allowed us to cut to the old analog tape machine. I feel that gives “Dig” a much fatter and warmer sound.
What you were first starting out to make this record, what were your expectations?
I’m not sure we consciously had any real expectations or concept. We just played what we liked but we all sort of knew it would be something special once we started recording.
Can you tell us a little about the songwriting process for this record and how you brought it to life?
Generally I’d come up with the main riff and the title, then I’d play it to the band and everyone would put in their contributions. As the touring season started and everyone got busy we didn’t get to go into the studio to write together as much so Joe Retta and I put our heads together and wrote about three of the songs on our own.
A lot of time went into the crafting of the songs. Before we started Bruce Quarto, the head of our record company, said, “I don’t want a great album, I want a phenomenal one. I don’t care how long it takes or how much it costs but if you feel you could do better then go back and do it again”. Having that kind of support allowed us to get the best out of the writing and recording process.
Are you doing anything differently these days in regard to writing? Maybe something different than your previous works?
This is more of a cohesive band effort.
How would you compare the new album to the band’s earlier records?
There are no filler tracks on “Dig”. The first album was very well produced but only had about six good songs on it. The second one was an interesting album and the playing was great but it was the first album that we’d recorded at our own studio and we didn’t really know what we were doing so the production is not that great. On “Dig” the production is first class and I don’t feel there’s a weak song on the album.
You had some incredibly talented guests perform on the new album (Howard Leese, Richie Sambora, David Paich). Any favorite/memorable moments working with these incredible musicians in the studio?
It was great working with all of them. We didn’t plan to have any guests on this album but it worked out great having Howard, David and Richie participate.
You recently released a video for “No Money, No Love”. The video was directed by acclaimed photographer Glen Wexler, who also did your cover art. What was it like working with him and what does he bring to the table for a project like this?
Glen is an amazing talent and has a great eye for detail. He’s very exact and is our artistic director for the whole project. If you think the video for “No Money, No Love” is incredible just wait till you see the next one that he directed that we bring out in a couple of weeks time.
What are your plans for taking Heaven and Earth on the road? It seems like an amazing opportunity to see some great players in action!
We’re looking forward to it. We just spent five intensive weeks in rehearsals and played a show at the Fonda Theater so booking agents could see us, which went great. We want to get out on the road as soon as possible.
What guitar gear do you take out on the road with you?
My Strat’s and Taylor and Babicz acoustic guitars. For amplifiers I’m using Marshall and Engl.
It seems like almost everybody has one. Have you ever had a “Spinal Tap Moment” on stage where something totally unexpected has happened?
Many years ago we used dry ice to open the show, which makes the stage wet. The venue we were playing at had curtains, which were closed before we came on. The effects guy filled it up so high the fog was above the tops of the amplifiers. When they opened them I ran onstage from behind my stacks and slipped right off the front of the stage into the orchestra pit. Thankfully it wasn’t too high so I didn’t break anything but it must have looked funny as hell.
How do you feel you have evolved as a musician through the years?
I don’t particularly think I have. I’m not really one for following musical fashions so I’ve always tended to play what I want. Other people may hear a progression in my playing but I don’t.
Your journey with Heaven and Earth is continuing to grow. What are your thoughts on your journey so far?
I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, even through the tough times. If I could go back in time and be able to fly, I would still have chosen to become a guitarist. Through being one I’ve travelled the world, met some amazing people, seen some incredible things, been with some of the most beautiful women on the planet, had some intense moments onstage, recorded or shared the stage with artists who are legends, have great friends all over the globe, live in a beautiful house in California have a killer new album out and have a daughter that I am completely in love with. I’m completely enjoying life right now.
Do you ever take time out to reflect on the success you have achieved?
Not really, I just get on with enjoying it. I’ll reflect on my deathbed.
What is the best piece of advice that you can pass along to someone who wants to pursue a career in music?
The first thing is what my father told me when I told him I was going to be a musician. He said “Do it well”. I think that applies to anything in life. Don’t get involved with drugs or drinking too much, they will destroy your creativity. Don’t waste your time with people who are constantly negative, they will bring you down to their level and dishearten you. Play your chosen instrument every chance you get but don’t be afraid to put it down and walk away from it for a while if you feel that you’re not progressing. Learn to play as many styles as possible. Practice! Always try to work with people who are better than you. Exercise and stay in shape, look like you’re meant to be on that stage, not like you’re no stranger to the buffet. Exercising will keep the mind clear as well. Try writing songs with as many people as possible. Believe in yourself and be prepared for a lot of rejection. Never give up and never, ever let anyone tell you that you can’t succeed. Enjoy the journey, it generally takes longer and is more interesting than the destination.
The fans have waited a while for this new album. Anything you would like to say to them on the eve of it’s release?
Thanks for being so patient and keeping the faith. Hope to see you all out on the road soon!
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Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.