Steve Smyth is as Metal as Metal gets. He has played guitar in some of the most influential and highly regarded names of the scene: Vicious Rumors, Testament, Forbidden, Nevermore and others. One Machine, however, is his own baby and he has been putting his weight behind this band for the last 2 years. At the other end of the phone line, Steve gets candid about his career and his musical endeavors...almost 3 decades after he picked up his first guitar.
Seeing this interview published is quite a satisfaction for me – partly because of my admiration for Steve’s music and partly also for having surmounted a series of technical gremlins that
jeopardized the whole thing (including a temperamental phone recording equipment and later a breakdown of my PC’s operating system which resulted in a loss of data related to the interview.) Patience and obstinacy eventually prevailed.
Anyhow, with no further ado, I hope you enjoy reading it.
Steve, I believe you were brought up in the West coast of the States so how did you end up living in England?
Steve: I’ve been living here for 10 years now. I was looking for a change and it seemed like the right decision to come here. I’ve always wanted to work with musicians from this side of the Atlantic.
How different is the English scene from that of where you grew up?
Steve: There seems to more support between bands here in England. Things are more moody in the U.S.A….one moment there’s a large following for one genre with lots of festivals and media attention, the next moment that genre is dead.
Let’s speak of One Machine…can we consider this to be your project or is it more of a band entity?
Steve: One Machine is something I had been wanting to do for a while but the timing just wasn't right. When I settled here in England I invited some musicians I had met on tour in the past to join the band. For example I had met Jamie Hunt when his band opened for Nevermore, so I knew he was a fantastic guitar player but when he started playing with One Machine I found out he had got even better. Mikkel [Sandager – vocals] immediately got into the stride of things and contributed to some of the first songs of One Machine.
So is Mikkel still in the picture or is Chris Hawking now the official One Machine singer?
Steve: Oh no, unfortunately only a few weeks before One Machine had to play the AltFestival, Mikkel decided he couldn’t continue with the band. Mikkel had made an announcement, the band had made an announcement and these statements can both be found easily on the web.
Chris Hawkins agreed to help us out and as you know he’s already done a few gigs with the band. Not only that but he has also been busy writing some of the new One Machine songs.
It’s interesting to note that One Machine has 2 guitarists. Is this fact related to the sound you were looking for or were you simply interested in working with Jamie?
Steve: Yes, the choice was related to the sound I was looking for and the songs I had in mind. I never forgot seeing Jamie play and being impressed with his style and technique. And I always felt it would be great if we could play together one day.
Then, when I settled in England and was putting One Machine together, I found out that Jamie was living relatively close to me. Both of us were, and still are, teaching music and once met at a masterclass event. So I asked him if he’d be interested in joining what would become One Machine and found out that he was in fact both available and willing to join.
One Machine has a band member from Italy, another from Denmark, another is from U.S.A. but lives in England….won’t this be a problem when One Machine embarks on its first tours?
Steve: You have to remember that all the main songwriters live in England - myself, Jamie and now Chris too. Besides, I play with talented and dedicated musicians. So no, I don’t foresee it would be a problem when we start touring.
Earlier this year, One Machine debuted with the album “The Distortion of Lies & The Overdriven Truth”. What are you trying to say with that title?
Steve: Yes, I realise it’s a long title; many friends had told me it won’t work but I had a clear idea what I wanted with this band. The title is a statement about the condition of humanity in 2014. There is a lot of obvious corruption happening across all facets of life right now: institutional, educational, informational, financial, and things don't have to be the way they are. We try to bring awareness to these things so people can wake up and realize what is happening in their everyday lives.
One of the first serious bands you played with was Vicious Rumors. How much of an impact did your experience with that band have on the rest of your career?
Steve: For many years before joining I was a fan of the band. They had always had amazing guitarists, such as Mark McGee and Vinnie Moore (UFO, Red Zone Riders). Vicious Rumors were actually from my area and rehearsed close to where I lived so whenever the band was playing local shows, my band would open for them, or I always went to see them.
So yeah, we became good friends over the years and when Mark McGee had left and they asked me to join them, I suppose I fit in very easily. I went in knowing 20 songs after being told to learn 12. And Geoff Thorpe had produced the first demo of Ariah. [Ariah was one of Steve’s first bands, with whom he played from around 1988 to 1992.]
But to answer your question, yes I suppose my time with Vicious Rumors did have an enduring effect. I did my first tours with that band and had opportunities to master my songwriting skills. During my time with VR, I wrote or co-wrote a number of songs on the "Something Burning "and “Cyberchrist” albums [1996, 1998].
Was Carl Albert still alive when you joined the band?
Steve: Yes, in fact I had done 3 rehearsals with him in the band. Then, for the 4th rehearsal I did Carl didn’t turn up. Later, of course, we found out about the car accident. It was obviously a shock and for a time they were unsure how to go on.
We recorded “Something Burning”  with Geoff [Thorpe – guitar] singing but for “Cyberchrist”, 2 years later, we brought in Brian O’Connor as lead singer as Geoff was more comfortable with just playing guitar.
How did you come to play with Testament?
Steve: My guitar tech was out on tour with them, and James Murphy 's condition had worsened, so I got a call from Eric Peterson asking if I was available to join them for a European and Japan tour in support of The Gathering album. I first joined Testament to tour “The Gathering” album on that tour for about 3 weeks, but ended up touring with them for around 5 years! ha ha
It was a great time of my life. I never recorded anything with the band, but we did work on many of the songs that ended up becoming The Formation Of Damnation album. I helped form Dragonlord with Eric, Steve, Lyle, and Jon Allen (Sadus), and recorded the Rapture and Black Wings Of Destiny albums with the band. Dragonlord played a kind of Black Metal… something a bit different with the thrash influence a bit more evident, which was certainly something different from what I had done before, but it was a welcome challenge.
Did you enjoy playing with Dragonlord?
Steve: Yes, I did. I’m very open-minded, musically speaking and Dragonlord represented another of my musical interests.
You also played in “Omega Wave”, the last album of Forbidden. The band split up shortly after its release. What had happened?
Steve: Matt [Camacho – bass] decided to spend more time with his family and left. Immediately afterwards our vocalist, Russ Anderson, decided to step aside too - he wanted to spend some time away from the music business.
The rest of the band, we decided Forbidden wouldn’t be Forbidden without Russ there, so we agreed to put the band on a permanent hiatus.
Were you disappointed that personal circumstances cut short your tenure with Nevermore?
Steve: Yes, definitely. It was great fun working with those guys. We did accomplish a lot of huge goals for with the band that I don't know if they were possible if it happened any other way, or with anyone else in the band at the time I joined. There was a chemistry there it seemed. We did some great tours, did many big festivals…Wacken…Gigantour and others…all of which I have fond memories.
Sadly, as many are aware, in 2006 I went into kidney failure arising from a genetic defect. I was very lucky to receive a kidney transplant in December 2006. I did as much touring as I could with Nevermore before my health condition made it impossible for me to go on.
I had worked very hard with the guys on “This Godless Endeavor” album and am very proud of the result. So I was looking forward to record more material before my health issues prevented me from doing so.
“This Godless Endeavor” had a perfect mix of technique, aggression and melody. How much of that did you want to bring into One Machine?
Steve: With One Machine the music is more aggressive with a greater focus on the songs rather than atmosphere. It was around the time I stepped aside from Nevermore that the idea for what would become One Machine was formed in my head. So I understand when people compare us to Nevermore but I think, if there’s any connection, One Machine plays 7 string guitars, and the tuning is similar to what we used in the band as well, so that might be it. But One Machine is distinctly different from Nevermore in many other ways as well. We're more progressive, and far more Thrashy, and there are blends of different voices in our music than Nevermore
I think your EssenEss Project is also very interesting. How did the idea come about?
Steve: In 2007 I released an album with The EssenEss Project with Steve Hoffman – bass and Atma Anur [drums]. I had known Steve from my days playing with Ariah. Yes, my interest in instrumental guitar albums actually goes a long way back and it was something I had wanted to do for quite a while. Over the years I wrote several songs in this vein of music and in fact I have some which have never been heard yet.
So from what you’re saying, you’re already working on new compositions for that project?
Steve: Yes. we have written an album’s worth of material already and we're recording them towards the end of the year.
Atma Anur is a drummer synonymous with instrumental guitar albums. What was it like working with him?
Steve: He’s an awesome drummer – he had played in some of the finest guitar albums…[by] Jason Becker….Tony Macalpine…Greg Howe…Atma had also played with Vicious Rumors for a while but I had already left by then.
It seems you’ve been very busy this year. Besides the One Machine album, you also recorded an album with Paul Bostaph for the band From Hell……
Steve: The album was “Ascent From Hell”. It was recorded toward the end of last year  and produced by George Anderson, the band’s vocalist. I’ve been good friends with George for a number of years and was more than happy to accept his invitation to play guitar on that album. To be honest the songs were already written and I just went to a recording studio in Berkeley, California, to record my guitar parts. And it was a great excuse to get to play on an album with Paul finally! ha ha
Earlier on you mentioned that you’re writing new songs for One Machine…..can you tell me more about them? What are your impressions on the path the new album is taking?
Steve: Well, all the members are contributing in one way or another and there’s a lot of positive vibes going around. As I mentioned, the emphasis will be on the songwriting aspect of the music. We hope to get the songs ready by the end of the year, after which we will be recording them.
Would a tour of One Machine and Vicious Rumors or Testament interest you?
Steve: I’m not too sure how it would work out with Testament as I know they’re preparing a new album right now. But yes, in principle a tour of One Machine and Vicious Rumors or Testament would definitely be an interesting prospect for sure.
As mentioned earlier, you work as a guitar tutor here in England. In your style of teaching what importance do you give to music theory as compared to interpretation and creativity?
Steve: I believe music theory can play an invaluable role in the shaping of ideas as an "afterthought", but not using it while creating. To me, creating music is a result of what you put in when you're learning music. What you put into your head, comes out in the creative side of things. I've been very lucky to have learned music theory and lots of technical stuff back when I was first learning guitar, and this has carried over into my performance and recording career throughout as well.
Playing with the people I've played with in my career to date has been a great learning experience, lots of insight into how other people create those songs we all get to know and love, and these types of experiences I can share with others through teaching.
The three approaches of music you've asked about, to me, are intertwined. They don't operate well without each of those elements present. Even if a person doesn't know actual music theory, if they're thinking about how they're playing something, they are utilizing the basics of music theory.
Could you recommend 5 instrumental guitar albums (not featuring yourself) for our readers?
Steve: These are my all-time favorites:
Yngwie J Malmsteen's Rising Force
Tony MacAlpine “Maximum Security”
Racer X “Second Heat”
Cacophony “Speed Metal Symphony”
Jason Becker “Perpetual Burn”
Greg Howe debut album