Interview: Tuk Smith

The last four or five years have been anything but easy on Tuk Smith; record label issues forced the dissolution of his former band Biters; a few years later he formed Tuk Smith & The Restless Hearts, and the opening slot on the Def Leppard/Mötley Crüe US stadium tour beckoned. And then Covid hit and the world came crashing in. A new record deal came and went and Tuk had a full album shelved, and when the stadium tour finally got underway it was without Tuk Smith & The Restless Hearts. Lesser mortals would have thrown the towel in, but Tuk Smith is a survivor. He wrote more songs, for himself, and you could say that he went back to the beginning, where it all started. The end result is ‘Ballad Of A Misspent Youth’ – the rip-roaring debut album from Tuk Smith & The Restless Hearts. Guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll of the highest order, it really is a testament to Tuk’s tenacity and his indomitable spirit, and Tuk was on the other end of a Zoom call – live from his home studio in Nashville – to talk about the album, and some of the obstacles musicians face today in getting their art out there.

With the release of ‘Ballad Of A Misspent Youth’ just around the corner, you must be relieved that it is finally out there?

Yeah man, hopefully, a nuclear bomb doesn’t drop on us before the album comes out…and it waits until the album is actually out! It’s been a long time coming; lots and lots and lots and lots of setbacks! More than I could have imagined, so to me, just to get the record out there is a victory in itself. It’s essentially been three and a half years in coming.

At eight tracks in length, it really is all killer no filler, was it always your intention to keep it so lean?

When my last debut album was shelved and I left that record label, I didn’t know what to do. We were shopping the shelved album because we had the option for someone to buy it back…and nobody was biting. Nobody wanted to buy the record back. I had already been writing and demoing so I called my manager and said that I was going to make a six-song EP and that I was going to self-release it. I just wanted to write a ripping rock ‘n’ roll record…just for the love of it. There was no fucking committee making decisions. And once there was an option for a record deal then we went back in and recorded ‘Ain’t For The Faint’ and ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’ because some of those old Alice Cooper albums are just eight songs long. The golden era of Alice Cooper. Such a fucking badass legacy that they left. So that was the goal.

Even with only eight tracks, there is still a lot of variety within ‘Ballad Of A Misspent Youth’, was this the result of an organic writing process?

Except for one song, I wrote all these songs in solitude during lockdown when I couldn’t do shit. And there are bands like AC/DC that just do this one thing…and it works really well for them. But for me, I want to do so much; I want to do a fast song, I want to do a glammy song, I want to do a power-pop song…and I feel like the lyrics and the melodies tie it all together. I do like variety and it’s fun live to have different things going on.

Could anything other than the title track itself have opened the album?

No. I wanted something to come out ripping, and pretty raw, So, yeah, that one is a fun one, it’s immediate, and to me, it embodies everything that is rock ‘n’ roll. It’s got the riffs, the energy, the attitude…and you know, a lot of bands aren’t doing this kind of rock ‘n’ roll right now.

‘Girls on The East Side of Town’ has a massive Thin Lizzy feel to it, and obviously, Phil Lynott was a major influence on you, apart from him being one of the coolest humans to ever walk the earth; what was it about Phil that made him such a hero to you?

I think the thing that set him apart from some of the other rock heroes that I could have gravitated toward is that, with my upbringing, I can relate to his lyrics more than other lyricists. He would talk about depression and addiction, and poverty, in his songs. And that resonated with my life because my upbringing wasn’t glamorous, I know that he was a black guy in Ireland so I’m not comparing myself to that in any way, but I was a punk rocker in a small town and I got into fights, fucked with, and bullied, so, with me, his poetry resonated more than from anyone in any other 80s band. He was an amazing songwriter, and once I realized that Phil was into Van Morrison, and early Bruce Springsteen, then I got into those artists even more, which is awesome because I’m pulling from all that stuff now. And growing up in the punk scene, Thin Lizzy were accepted; it was Motorhead, AC/DC, and Thin Lizzy – they were totally acceptable for punk rockers…and Hanoi Rocks. So those bands were what took me away from punk and got me into rock ‘n’ roll.

‘Ain’t For The Faint’ is almost autobiographical, but it’s also quite a cautionary tale for anyone starting out in the music business…

100%. If you are going to be a musician or an artist, or just anyone that wants to do something that is against the norm of society, then it ain’t for the faint of heart because there’s no money, and there is no book, or roadmap or degree for this. You don’t go to college and say “I’m going to be a rock ‘n’ roller”…you cannot be scared going into this.

It is a fun album, but there is some hard-hitting subject matter, like ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’ for instance, that one touches a few raw nerves…

Around the same time that my Uncle died of a drug overdose, my best friend killed himself, and I was dealing with those heavy losses. There are a lot of people that commit suicide who are reaching out for help, and nobody is really there for them…but when they die, of course, everybody loves them, and they were best friends. You see that when celebrities die, and you also see that in real life. And the song was my way of being cathartic in the only way that I could; by writing about it.

Earlier you mentioned a record deal, you are now on the new label MRG, founded by industry veterans Marti Frederiksen (Aerosmith songwriter and co-producer),and John Greenberg, how did you get involved with Marti especially?

So Marti and my manager are really good friends and they decided to start this subsidiary label to put out the music that they like. Let’s be honest, a lot of rock is active rock now, it’s very heavy, and a lot of what is considered rock today is pop. There’s not a lot of guitar rock going on and I couldn’t find a fucking label to put it out, so they decided to start this label and I would be the first release. Going back further, I had written with Marti for the Biters, we had written a couple of tunes together, and one for my shelved record, and Marti is such a good guy with an enormous talent and has an incredible songwriting legacy. He just said, “You’ve got a good ear, so just go into the studio and do your thing”.

In a sense, that’s all an artist wants to hear…

Yes, it’s great, but it’s also scary too because if people don’t like it, or it’s fucked up, then it’s completely on you!

The buck…and the blame…stops with you…

It does, and I think that I secretly wanted that. To be fair though, my band is great and I love them dearly. And Marti’s son Evan was engineering the album, and he was great, so I was set up to win because I did have a great team.

Who is in the band with you?

My drummer’s name is Nigel, he’s from Atlanta and he moved to Nashville a little bit before me, Ricky Dover Jr. is playing guitar, he actually played bass in Biters the last year before we put it down, and then I met a guy here in Nashville called Shane who is just a perfect fit, and he plays bass. There are a lot of obstacles to putting a band together these days, and then if it’s the band that I want – then that’s even harder. So, I’m very blessed to get a group of guys who are not only talented but like-minded, so, yeah, it’s awesome.

How are you finding Nashville? It has a mixed reputation for being both the place to be to make music, as well as being over-saturated in a conveyor belt way on Music Row when it comes to songwriting…

You know, I’ve been here almost a year, and there are definitely both sides like you said. Let’s start with the pros; Nashville has a really great standard of living, it’s beautiful and it embraces the arts, everybody is a musician and dresses cool. There are so many music venues and so many talented people in one place. The cons are a lot of what you said. There are a lot of wealthy people moving here with a lot of money and they are like “I want to be the biggest star that there is”…and you can pay for anything now, so, that is an obstacle. And, I don’t fuck with Music Row or any of the mainstream Country stuff. But you know, in Atlanta the music scene really took a dive and the city was really changing for the worse, and I just wanted to be around more creative, inspiring people and it’s here in Nashville. But writing songs is so hard that I respect anyone writing songs, and anyone writing top 40 songs…more fucking power to them…I would love to do that. If I could write a song for Taylor Swift and still put my own records out…then that’s the goal! That’s the dream!

It’s hard to imagine you doing anything other than music, but during the darkest days over the last few years, were there ever any thoughts of just walking away from it all?

Oh yes, all the time. Look, I’m not the only one saying this, but to be a musician these days is harder than ever. 100,000 songs a day are uploaded to Spotify, and breaking through that noise is so fucking hard. And nowadays you are really paying to play. If you have money then you can break through, but if you are like me and come from humble beginnings then there are a lot of obstacles. Now, it shouldn’t be easy but I do think that after Biters broke up and I had to start over, and then I lost everything…it took a lot out of me to just get the fucking fuel and the fire, and the drive to do this again. And I’m glad that I did. But yeah I was like…”I have no life skills so I don’t know where I would work?”…I’ve washed dishes, worked construction, sold drugs…made pizzas, so I don’t know what else I would do.

I can’t imagine you working in a call center!

No! I also don’t have an education, but I do have a lot of life experience! I’ve met people that work in the music industry that also have jobs because they have degrees…but they know absolutely fuck all about music or rock ‘n’ roll. And any day of the week I would rather work with someone who knew the history or had passion.

It’s difficult times for musicians; ticket sales are down, tours are being canceled, venues are having to close, and coming straight after the lockdown, these are scary times…

I think that there is more money in music than people realize. Streaming makes a shit tonne of money, and venues take a big chunk, and they take a cut of merch sales, so I feel that if people were not as quite as greedy then you could chisel out a little more for musicians. When I last toured Europe a lot of venues took a percentage of the merch sales, and I just don’t know what is going to happen because a lot of the artists that you and I both love were developed as artists and they had to put four or five records out before they blew up…and that’s not an option anymore for most artists. Labels will say “Well we can’t risk anything so we are going to send you to these songwriters and you are going to do this, say this, and dress, like this…”, and people will do it. I just feel like there used to be more different personalities in music than there are now, and it’s probably due to the fact that most people can’t fucking do it because they have to work. Labels are giving advances out so that people can just live. It’s affecting the art side of things, I think.

And an advance is just that – an advance, it will need to be paid back…

And how do you pay it back if no one is fucking buying records anymore? A million streams is $1,400 or something shit like that. How many streams would you have to get just to pay your advance back? It’s the Wild West, dude! It’s the Wild West!

Will the album get a physical UK release?

I hope so. I’m trying to find a UK partner or a label who can help me get over there and have an infrastructure because, to be honest, the UK and Europe are better markets than the States for what I’m doing. So yes, I’m working on all those options.

 

‘Ballad Of A Misspent Youth’ is available November 4th on MRG, through Virgin Music. More information – here.

Interview – Dave

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