CD Review: 3 Song Demo

The latest three-song demo from Smit-Haus picks up from where its five-song debut began, but takes the listener to the band's next dimension. Its crafty use of melody stays present, but builds upon a more guitar-based sound.

The band tightens its composition structure, opening an opportunity for guitarist Martin Small to branch out instrumentally. Shorter, more to the point songs, make his axe stylings comprehendible as he shows off his abilities. Both demos are strong, but the band makes impressive adjustments between to the two to allow for experimentation.

The demo opens up with the vocal harmony-driven track, "She Always." It's sparse use of lyrics and clever timing changes tell a brilliant story of love's twists and turns. The song begins with its chorus, a device that grabs the listener's attention as the disc's instrumentalists keep it.

"Birds in the Bathroom" contains a chorus that is as catchy at it is thought-provoking. The song moves around and builds into a tremendous rock song.

Smit-Haus expands on the first demo's progressive feel without loosing focus in its songs. Small creates riffs that catch the ear but don't drift too far from the vocal melodies. Drummer Brian Griffin's beats tend to accomplish the same thing, while continuing to add to the band's signature sound. Bassist and vocalist Chris "Smitty" Smith's vocals have grown stronger, while his bass playing has gotten more melodic and even toned.

The effort shows the growth of a band that continues to challenge itself, creating powerful music. They have branched out while keeping an eye on the song, which many bands fail to do when taking the next step.

Take me through some of the writing of these songs? Were the songs written together or by single band members?

Christopher "Smitty" Smith: (bass, lead vocals): "She Always" was written by Martin [Small, lead guitar]. I think the original rhythmic feel of the song was altered a bit, but otherwise it was all there. I also made a few minor changes to the lyrics based on my interpretation of Martin's theme.

The writing of "Birds in the Bathroom" was more collaborative. The band had set aside some time to go to my parents' cabin in Maine to do a week of rehearsing and writing. While we were up there, I wrote the basic harmony, the chord progressions, the melodies, and the lyrics. Martin soon came up with the massive guitar parts, and it was Brian's [Griffin] idea to modulate the bridge part into the out-chorus. We all worked together on the final arrangement.

After we had tracked the song, our engineer and co-producer John Campos surprised us one day by playing us a version of the song with the acoustic breakdown after the bridge. He had done some digital editing of our original performance, and played the acoustic guitar parts that you hear on the recording. We liked his idea so much that we stuck with his arrangement.

"Moon Cycles" is a song I wrote a few years ago when I was down and out and decided to take a look at how the moon might be affecting me and others in the world. It was pretty easy to put together as a band since most of the pieces of the puzzle were already there. As always, we arranged it together and everyone has done their part to make it rock as much as it possibly can.

Brian Griffin (drums): Although the songs were lyrically and melodically written by Smitty, or Smitty and Martin, I know the feel and guitar-oriented rock textures of these songs were collectively molded after a few months of us listening and growing with our personalities as rock musicians.

Personally, I became very conscious about my drum sound before these tracks were recorded, and I began thinking about and changing my drum sound to help augment and support the more intense, crunch guitar-driven hooks.

Small: The evolution of these three songs really captures our writing style. Usually, Smitty or I will bring an idea to the table. Things really vary ... Smitty tends to bring the most thoroughly-composed ideas and I often bring riffs, progressions and general melodic ideas. The idea comes to the table for all to consider, we play it for each other and then everyone kind of takes off with their own orchestrations.

One thing I would note, however, is that we do try to make sure that one person or one theme keeps the integrity of the tune together. We're loyal to the song first: if that means cutting an idea someone added, changing a chord, simplifying a rhythmic figure or anything else, we do it.

Sometimes, I hear a good song idea, but there are five different parts that don't really compliment each other or work together. Sometimes when I hear a song that's co-written by people, it can wander; it can sound like two or more song ideas were pieced together. We like to avoid that. Although a song is often generated by one person ... I brought "She Always" and Smitty brought "Moon Cycles" and "Birds" ... the credit for the song writing really goes to the band, I think.

Brian's gift for rhythms, form and melodic experimentation and Smitty's gift for memorable, pensive melodies really push the song ideas that I create. I hope I do the same for those guys. I've never had a song idea that's the same after those two get a hold of it. And, I thankfully admit, they always make it cooler.

How does this one differ from your previous release?

Griffin: Although we all felt comfortable with our individual sounds at the time of the tracking of our first release, each of us symbiotically changed our sonic personalities in the band to match each other's shifts.

For example, after a few months of re-tooling, practicing, and a lot of listening, I opted for a deeper drum sound, and simpler but more supportive grooves to complement the edgier textures.

Smitty: The band's sound is more cohesive. At times, the integration of the saxophone or the keyboard felt forced on the first recording. I don't think we ever felt that way with the second guitar. It always helped our songs rock out a little more, which is what we were looking for.

As far as the writing, though, I don't think there was much difference. These songs are from the same era of writing. We just came closer to our vision on this recording. I also think that everyone's performances are better on this release.

Small: This recording was very different for me because I finally got to let loose sonically on the guitar. In prior recordings and incarnations of the band, I was playing more clean rhythm guitar parts influenced by funk, jazz and R&B.

Over the last two years, our writing has really come into focus and so has my conception of a guitar sound. With encouragement from Smitty and Brian, I let the overdriven guitars take over my sound and I am much happier. I think that accounts for this disc's sound ... it's really about raging, in-your face, full-throttled guitars.

Did I get exactly what I want tonally? No, but I got closer than I've ever been and I know what I'm looking for next time around.

What led to the adding of the other guitarists? What line-up changes have you made that will stay that way?

Small: I think it was originally panic that led us to add another guitarist. We had been a four-piece outfit for so long that it seemed impossible to us to do shows as a trio.

Since that time, we have been playing as a trio and loving every second of it. Mark Stanley, a phenomenal and gifted guitarist, joined us after our sax/keyboard player [Sam Albright] went to do The Monkees Reunion tour. Mark really got us through the initial transition, but when his commitment to other projects and his own music put him in a position where he couldn't do all the work we wanted him to do, we finally felt comfortable to go it on our own as a trio.

I feel totally comfortable this way and, inadvertently, I guess, we stumbled onto a line-up that has always been the heart of the Smit-Haus sound and also matches some of the line-ups from classic rock that we love. I don't preclude the addition of others ... I would love to work with another solid guitar or keyboard player, but I don't see it happening in the immediate future because it's so hard to get someone to commit to this level of touring, recording and rehearsal.

Smitty: Sam [saxophone/keyboards] parted ways with the band in the spring of 2002. We decided we wanted another fourth man, and thought a second guitar and a second strong vocalist would bring us closer to our vision for the direction of the band. More rock, more thickness.

Unfortunately, we lost the second guitarist somewhere over the course of the summer. We've been playing many shows as a trio. I think the three of us will always be the core of the band, but it remains to be seen what line-up changes are in store. We'd like to find another guitarist, but it's difficult to find someone to commit to the demanding schedule we hold down.

What roles did each of you play in the recording's production? What type of experience do you have in that area?

Smitty: Well, while we're tracking we cheer each other on, and tear each other's performance apart trying to get the best possible take. During mixing, we all chime in to help our engineer and co-producer, John Campos, achieve the balance and the effect we are looking for with each song, or each section of a song.

The only experience I have with recording is with Smit-Haus in the studio. We've done one full-length CD, and two demo-style recordings.

For the past two recordings, I've been present all along the way, from tracking to mixing.

Small: I think Smitty hits the nail right on the head. We're very involved in the production of our own material. We pull apart every note and we know each other's playing very well. I feel like I know when there's a better take in Smitty or Brian and they know the same thing about me.

My primary recording experience is with Smit-Haus ... the full-length funk album we did in 1998 and the more recent demo-style short recordings from 2002. I've also done a bunch of session recordings for TV and radio commercials. And, this guy's reggae album where I learned a bunch about recording and studio sounds.

How does your live work reflect in the studio?

Smitty: Hopefully, it reflects well. It's a double-edged sword though.

On the one hand, we have played a song so many times live that it should be easy to track in the studio. On the other hand, you never know exactly how a song will turn out in the studio. Things that you've been doing live may not sound so great once you hear them in the context of a studio recording.

Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board once you're in the studio to find another way to think about a song that you've already been playing a certain way for ages. Generally, though, I think the volume of live performances we've done has only strengthened our ability to perform and sound tight in the studio.

Griffin: There is a tendency among all musicians to push the boundaries with pre-arranged compositions once they become commonplace. I feel that a band sounds its best after playing the same set every night for a few months in a row.

For us, this boundary stretching comes in the form of experimenting with more edge in the textures within the arrangement of the song, whether they be vocally or rhythmically, rather than experimenting with the actual formal arrangement of the song.

What have you done with the CD since it's been recorded?

Smitty: We've been giving them away, selling them, sending them to record labels, and generally trying to get the music heard by as many people as possible.

You can purchase it for just $5 from CD Baby. The link is, if anyone is interested.

Small: This CD serves as our workhorse. It's our demo for gigs, we sell it at shows, we give it away at promotions and we try to make sure as many people as possible hear the songs.

What types of studio enhancements did you use and to what extent did you use them? What makes you decide how much to enhance each song?

Smitty: We didn't use many "studio enhancements." I think the major one is on "Birds in the Bathroom," where John edited out the drums, bass, and electric guitar after the bridge to provide for the acoustic breakdown.

The only other "trick" is the intro for "Moon Cycles," which is just the chorus guitar parts that Mark [recorded]. We cut and pasted them in front of the rest of the song.

Other than that, what you hear is what we played. Martin was able to get some real cooky sounds for the bridge of "Birds." Those may sound like tricks, but only if you consider Martin a magician. Zing!

Small: We are pretty wary of studio enhancements. To a certain extent, we are hesitant to include things that we can't replicate in a live setting. That being said, we like to walk the line and include parts that we don't use in a live setting ... the studio is a different creature and I think it's a waste not to use all of its resources to capture an amazing composition.

For example, I really tried to open up the bridge to "Birds," by doubling the lead guitar line, throwing in some call-and-answer wah-wah parts, making wacky noises with a slide and multiple delay pedals as well as some other stuff that I can't even remember right now.

I wanted to use the studio as a place where I could experiment with all of these sounds and make a sonic canvass that no band ... not even a band with three or four guitarists ... could pull-off in a live setting. The point is, that's how I hear that bridge section in that tune.

I think it's great when we do the paired-down version live, but I also love the big multi-tracked studio version.

So, there are no tricks as far as samples, reverse tape effects or anything like that. The guitar has a lot of sonic possibilities, especially when you think of it as a compositional tool and not just a guitar.

I'm trying to find more of that in my playing. To hear what I'm talking about, just check out The Edge in U2, Steve Vai's work with Zappa and his solo albums, John Scofield, Wayne Krantz, Tom Morello from Rage, and, most recently for me, Michael Lockwood's stunning guitar work on Aimee Mann's album "Lost in Space."

All of the noises you hear on the "Birds" bridge I played on the guitar. Mark also put down some really cool chords and John [Campos] did some kickin' acoustic, which lends the section an "All Along the Watchtower" kind of vibe.

One exception on the 'I played every note' comment: I couldn't play the note and turn the knob on my delay pedal as quickly as I wanted to for this one part, so I played the note and Brian turned the knob for me.

I don't really think that's a trick, it's good teamwork.

Griffin: Smit-Haus has had the extremely fortunate experience of recording with co-producer John Campos at Powerhouse Studios in New York. As a co-producer, he has guided, followed, and accompanied us throughout our never-ending sonic evolution.

As we tweak our drum, vocal or guitar sounds for tracking, he has also taken many artistic liberties with his tracking and recording techniques, to help us get inside the next sonic level we are trying to achieve. With the endless microphone, preamp, computer and editing possibilities at his fingertips, by trial and error, we have stumbled across many different arrangement possibilities for each song.

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Josh Davidson

Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.