Some of you may recognize the name Stuart Smith from his band Heaven And Earth, who released 2 great albums, and a third mini-disc before taking a break. Last year Stuart hooked up with friend and fellow British rock-star who relocated to LA - Steve Priest, founding member, songwriter and sometime vocalist in British rockers The Sweet.
In The Sweet's heyday they featured Priest on bass, guitarist Andy Scott, drummer Mick Tucker and singer Brian Connolly. While Scott's lead his version of The Sweet for years in the UK and Europe and Connolly and Tucker have since passed away - Priest has finally stepped up to bring the Sweet name and Sweet classics back to North America, with his own version of the band, that frankly kicks ass! No Bubble-gum sound here as Priest assembled a band featuring Heaven And Earth drummer Richie Onori, keyboardist Stevie Stewart, singer Joe Retta, and guitarist Stuart Smith. The band has just released "Live In America" [through Amazon.com] - and if you thought the Sweet was simply a pop-rock / glam band with hits like Ballroom Blitz and Little Willie -- you'd better listen to this one and re-think it.
Here Stuart Smith gives the details on how the band came about in the US, the new album, the tour, and their future plans.
When did the whole idea to revise Sweet come up and how did you get involved?
SS- when I first moved out to Los Angeles in 1986, the first person I met out here was Steve Priest. we actually tried to form a version of Sweet then; it was just at the wrong time, it was all the hair-band thing, so nothing really sort of went down with it. so we tried again, I think in about '94. we tried to reform Sweet, and that was with Mick Tucker and Brian Connolly; the other 3 didn't want to play with Andy Scott, so Steve and I had been friends and we'd got together a few times at various jams and charity events and all enjoyed playing with each other, and he came and played on the Heaven And Earth album and then Brian died, I did the Heaven And Earth album and we kept in touch. A few years ago I lost Kelly Hansen to Foreigner, which sort of took the winds right out of the sails of it [Heaven & Earth], we were starting to get Heaven And Earth going, then that happened. I couldn't really find the right singer to replace him; then in January of last year Steve Priest gave me a call and said 'hey do you feel like having another shot at getting Sweet together?' and I said 'sure'. So we did, and it was just the right time, the right 5 people, everything, it just took off like a rocket! in in the coarse of a year we ended up playing to over 300 000 people. It was a great year. the first guys we picked -- Richie Onori, as you know I've worked with for years, so brought Richie in to the whole thing, and I knew Joe Retta and he knew Stevie Stewart. The first rehearsal we had - we just knew right away that it was right.
I looked up Joe, he's done some tribute band stuff!?
SS- Yeah, he's done a Queen one, a Zeppelin one, and that's sort of where I've known him from.
And what did Stevie do in the past?
SS- He was with a band called The World Class Rockers. Great player!
That's one thing I noticed, he plays some of the keyboard intros and especially the mid-section in "Love Is Like Oxygen" - he plays that to a tee...
SS- Yeah, he's bang on. Everyone in the band is really good. It's so hard when you're recording a live album because it's hard to give your best every night, I mean sometimes you can - but to get all 5 guys on form on the same night, and to have the luck to have the mobile recording un it there was incredible.
You guys have done some big shows, festival gigs and that!?
SS- We just got back from this weekend where we were playing to 7000.
It's been over a year now, what have been some of the biggest shows?
SS- Well the Moondance Festival, the week we played it last year I think there was 30 00 people there. we had Great White and Sabastien Bach opening for us and then we went on just before Poison. That was a really good night. I think the biggest one that we headlined was in Canada to about 16 000 people.
I find it interesting that Sweet was one of those bands that really wasn't huge in America, but they had the hits, and for you guys to come back and be able to book shows and the big shows that you have in the last year is quite something.
SS- Yes, it really is. It's great that it's sort of happened this way. It just really took off and blew us all away how quickly it came about.
Are you guys sticking mainly to the hits in the set-list or do you change it up a bit?
SS- Well it's pretty much what you've got on the album.
When I listen to the album, it's obviously more harder edged rock n roll than most people would remember Sweet as.
SS- Yeah, well that's what Steve wanted and that's sort of how it worked out with all of us.
I don't think the band got enough credit in the early 70s, and even after they split from Chinn and Chapman, there was a lot more progressive, more hard rock songs - like songs like "Set Me Free" are great.
SS- Oh yeah, there's a huge amount of songs...it's funny because when they first come out I was never really a fan of the band, they had all this sort of Glam stuff on The Top of The Pops and that's sort of how I saw them. Then I went around to a friend's house and he said 'listen to this!' and he played me this B-side and it was "Set Me Free", and I went "Wow - who's this?" and he said "you're not going to believe this - it's Sweet", and I went "This is incredible!"
I listen to that song and it's very much a cross between Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, between the guitar - and you have a bit of Blackmore sound and then the harmonies. You'd be hard-pressed to put that alongside some of the early more bubble-gum type stuff.
SS- Even the stronger bubble-gum stuff like "Little Willy" we're really 'heavying' up a bit.
In the future do you guys plan on introducing more of the catalogue in to the show?
SS- Oh yeah, as soon as we get some time, we're going to go and do that. we really haven't had the time, it's been crazy, but we do hope to get out there and do that soon.
Do you have any memories of the band from throughout the 70s - like did you ever go to see them or how much of the catalogue you were familiar with?
SS- I never actually went and saw them at all. As I say I was never a fan of them until a friend of mine played me Set Me Free. Steve Woodward was his name and we were both 17 and we were in a band together, my first band. He played it and that's what turned me on to them. And then they split from Chinn and Chapman and started doing more of their own thing, which I really liked. I much more enjoyed their own stuff, "Love Is Like Oxygen" and everything.
What's your take on Joe as far as how he does the Brian Connolly stuff, because Brian was a big 70s frontman and had a unique voice.
SS- Yeah Brian was an incredible frontman, and he did have a very unique voice, and Joe - he's got his own style. He's a great singer and showman.. A bit more bluesy, a bit more soulful, but there was no one like Brian, and no one's trying to be. It's like I don't do solos the way Andy Scott does them. He has his own sort of way of doing it and I don't copy it note for note, I go for my own style.
Andy's had his own version of the band for so many years, did you guys want to make sure you had a different sound to it or different approach?
SS- Well, we don't really think of it as 'Andy does it this way - we're going to do it this way', we just do it the way we want to do it.
Do you guys foresee yourselves going outside of North America?
SS- Yeah we do. we're working on that right now. we'll be out in Europe eventually, we're working on other places as well. It just takes time.
As far as any recordings, do you foresee doing any new stuff, studio recordings - down the road?
SS- Yeah, actually, after we did the last show and arrived in town we actually sat there and talked about it, and we said 'we really should get in and start recording some stuff.' Tomorrow is actually the official release of the live album; we've signed a 90 day exclusive with amazon.com. And we're really pleased about that. And once that's out we'll be talking to labels; there's a lot of labels interested. We've got our own studio, so we'll be getting in and doing some recording of stuff for a new album. We've got a lot of ideas, again it's a matter of time. we've been so busy out and touring and then there was the actual mixing of the live album, and that took a while, we wanted to make sure it was exactly right, and then just everything - like dealing with a new agent and stuff.
What can you tell me about the press reaction and the industry reaction from your point of view?
SS- Well, it's been great! What'a amazing is the fans, we're playing to 16000 people sometimes, as i said and half the fans are between 12 and 20 and they're down in the front and they know all the words. It just blows me away; even to songs that weren't big hits like "The Six Teens", that was never a huge hit for Sweet, but I'm just amazed that all these kids out there know all the words. So that's been great and the industry response has been great. As i said , we've had a lot of offers on record deals and we decided to go with Amazon, that certainly seemed the best route for us right now. And then we'll be moving towards Europe and everywhere else. The press has been incredible itself; every review we've had on this album has been amazing!
Do you get any of the 'die-hards' that may have seen the original version of the band, and then Andy's version of the band and give you any kind of feedback?
SS- Yeah, they say that we blow them off the stage.
As far as the catalogue goes what is some of the stuff that you enjoy playing the most?
SS- I love all of it. It's so funny, because like I said I hated the time when I listened to "Wig Wam Bam" and "Little Willie", but now I enjoy it. I think Sweet were probably responsible for teaching me that you don't have to be massively technical; in fact the simpler you make a song - the bigger the hit is, generally. They also taught me a lot about showmanship as well. It was a bit of a laugh for them during the time when they were doing The Top Of The Pops -- them and T-Rex and Bowie, everyone was trying to out-do each other, to see who could be the most outrageous. But when I look back on it, I think that taught me a lot - that you can't just stand there and play, you've got to do something interesting as well.
What can you tell me about where the CD was recorded and how many nights you aimed at recording?
SS- It was recorded at a place called the Marango Casino. there's the Westwood One mobile unit, they brought that down. we made a deal with them that they get to broadcast it 3 times and we get the rights to the master. So we played 2 sets [2 shows] that night. We did the first show, and said 'oh this song was great, but some of this next stuff like Sweet FA - let's do that again'. We had an hour long set, so we had to split them up. But going back to your question about which songs I enjoy playing - as I said I enjoy playing them all, like "Little Willie" - just the response you get from the crowd is incredible, so that's one thing. But, I guess my favorite would have to be "Windy City" - which is a great one for me, because I get to solo for as long as I want, and "Set Me Free".
I love both of those. Those are 2 rarities in the catalogue that you can put aside from the 'bubble-gum' stuff and here you have a hard rock band, you know!?
SS- Yeah, and I love playing "Love Is Like Oxygen" as well. they're all great songs! It's such a different vibe from the Heaven And Earth band. Heaven And Earth was a very serious sounding band, where as here - I don't think we have a serious song in the set. It's all just real good party stuff, which goes down great at festivals, you know when you get 10,000 people jumping up and down. We end with "Ballroom Blitz", which always gets them going.
As far as touring, do you guys have a firm schedule that's not posted yet?
SS- There's more dates coming in; we're talking to a new agent now. Before we were doing most of the work on that, but we've got a manager - John Malta, who manages Pat Benatar, dealing with us. And i think i told you, we've talked to Martin [Darvell] about possibly teaming up with Uriah Heep and Sweet -- which would great, we just need to get the buyers to go for it.
Did you see the email I sent you from the Heeplist [reference to a fan review of the new Sweet CD posted on the Uriah Heep list] ?
SS- Yeah, that was great! I've always been a huge Uriah Heep fan. I've known Mick Box in the old days, but there was a rehearsal room and I can't remember the name of it, but it was by one of the railroad tracks. They used to rehearse there and I met Mick a few times. I was a huge fan of Uriah Heep's, and I think the 2 bands would do really well touring together.
Obviously and with festival shows and stuff, it's kind of hard to sell one band at a time throughout North America especially, do you think you have to more 'package' deals and pairing up!?
SS- Yeah, especially with this economy, you have to have these package deals to play some decent size places.
Steve is the original guy of the group, I was wondering what you can tell me about what he [as the guy behind it all] brings to the band as a player and a personality?
SS- Oh - Steve's great! He's always been one of the funniest guys I know, he's hilarious! And he's an amazing bass player - he's a bit like Jeff Beck, he doesn't practice [ha ha ha], which really annoys me because I have to practice or at least try and put in a couple of hours a day to keep my chops there, and he just pulls it off every night. He just has this most amazing sound, and Richie loves playing with him because they lock in together so well.
And he does a good bit of the harmonies?
SS- Yes, he does; he also sings a lot of the lines on his own, and sometimes it's just him and Joe singing lines together. And some of the new songs we're talking about have that sort of twin-lead line.
Steve also did a book a few years ago?
SS- Yeah, "Are You Ready Steve?". In fact he's updating that at the moment and then we're going to have it available from the web-page pretty soon.
Outside of Sweet are you working on anything else or anything else going?
SS- Well, really right now we're just concentrating on this Amazon release. And we did a track for a Cleopatra record, a Beatles' Tribute. we did "Ticket To Ride", and they liked that one so much, that they asked us to do a track on this Christmas album coming up. So we're going to record that, and we want to record some new material and also learn some of the older catalogue, stuff like "She Gimme Loving", "Fever Of Love", "No You Don't" - stuff like that, to add to the set, so it doesn't get too stale.
And some of the later 70s stuff, Even after Brian left they did some great stuff, like "California Nights" ...
SS- California Nights -- we do do that live, but for some reason we didn't do it that night that we recorded the live album, otherwise it would've been on there. Also, the time constraint - with that album it runs 76 minutes and you can't get another second on it, a CD.
Interview: © Kevin J. Julie (Universal Wheels) August '09