Hunter Smith was raised in VA, and it was at the age of 14 or 15 that he decided to pick up a guitar. He already had a base in music as he played the piano from a very young age. After High School, Hunter wanted out of the country and into the big city. He attended Boston University as a Music Industry major. It was here that he attained the knowledge needed to enter as a musician and know the ins and outs of the industry, and use them to his advantage. He has teamed up with Riot Squad Records, worked with our friend Todd Price from Drive By, and his first album is slated to release in the fall of this year. His inspiration lies from musicians of different genres to English class and classic creative writers.
Hunter, you’ve been performing live since 2003, when did you get interested/started in music?
Well…I’d say like most people I was listening to music as a kid, but mostly secondhand, whatever my parents were listening to, which was primarily classic rock and Motown records. Then in my early teens I guess I started really getting into stuff on my own, primarily shit like Metallica and Slayer and releases off of Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph, but some singer/songwriter stuff too. I’d say when I was probably 14/15, that’s when I picked up the guitar, started play high school talent shows and things of that sort.
You were a music industry major at Northeastern University, tell me a bit about how that formed who you are today, what tricks you learned, and why you’ve stuck to the music industry?
Oh man, that was such a huge part of my life, so much of these songs have come out of that process. I’d say the most important part of that process had nothing to do with academia but the things I learned living on my own, 12 hours from my hometown and family, figuring shit out for myself in a big city. But to answer the question, I knew a decent amount going in, but certainly learned about specific things, things like legal issues, publishing, how a record label runs, etc. that definitely gave me a sense of comfort, knowing I wasn’t going to get dicked around. I’ve stuck to music because it’s what I love, I’m aware that it’s a ‘business,’ and that’s yet to scare me off.
I find it interesting that many artists start on the piano and then teach themselves guitar. What is it like to teach yourself and how does the basics on a piano help when you are picking up a guitar?
What’s funny is that the basic stuff I learned on the guitar was what was able to send me back to the piano. I taught myself the guitar, with some help with chords from my old man, simply because I’d gone the lessons route with the piano when I was a kid and it sucked ass. Practicing is important, and I know that now more than ever, but you show me a 10-year old kid that wants to play scales for an hour and a half a day and I’ll show you a fuckin’ anomaly. So I just figured it out, playing along with things I liked, looking for tabs online, the whole nine, just getting comfortable with melody in general. Any two instruments can teach you something about each other, but the piano is a bit more linear and obvious (to a degree,) so it certainly helped me make more sense out of the guitar. With some of the songs I just started to take the chords from the guitar to the piano, and man, it was just so much bigger. More dramatic.
On your MySpace page you claim some your influences are Billy Joel, R.E.M., Johnny Cash, Ben Folds along with J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway and English Class. Please expand on this a bit and tell us what all these influences mean to you and how they inspired you.
The first four I would assume were more obvious, but I could spend all day talking to you about what those guys do. Billy Joel, like Ben Folds, is one of the best storytellers the world over. But what both of those guys did for me was say look, here’s two guys that are piano players, not axe-wielding rock gods, but they do both rock, and have bitchin’ songs that move. They also both have an absolute command over pop composition, and that’s something that’s huge to me also. R.E.M is one of those bands that I’ve loved since I was a kid, like top 5 of all time, but I draw something more abstract from them. I find their stuff inspirational, that makes me want to write, but I’m not going to write stuff like theirs, per se, with nonsensical lyrics and what have you.
I love Michael Stipe’s voice. Cash is another one of those dudes I’ve listened to since I was younger, and growing up in Virginia, with family from Kentucky, country music wasn’t so much hard to find, but hard to escape. This is the guy that kind of told me two things, that one, a southern upbringing and that style of life could be cool and tough, not just about Nascar and Budweiser, and two, that if you say it the right way people will listen to melodic songs about gut-wrenching, unpleasant stuff. And also that you could sing about stuff like that, more personal, emotional things without losing your edge. The English class thing is all about writing to me. Salinger, Hemingway, Cummings, what these guys did I may never get the chance to, but coming up with novel concepts and ways to phrase things, in 2008, gets tough. You wonder at what point are you just reinventing the wheel, if not more poorly? But I sit down with their stuff and you realize it’s the human factor, that plight (and occasional success) of man stuff that always hits home, you dance around all the diction and syntax and you see that it’s all stories about life. Like the musicians, those guys just make me want to create, and make me think maybe I have something to say too.
When can we expect your debut album on Riot Squad Records, which is ranked #4 on absolutepunk.net for the Most Anticipated album of 2008 by Tom Good?
Hopefully before the sun burns out, haha. Realistically, probably by fall of this year, all things going to plan. As I’m sure you know and have been told by a million other dudes, there are so many things that go into making a record, half of the time it’s a crap shoot. But we’re slaving away on the songs and once those have all the right things going on we’ll put ‘em down and get them out.
Tell us a bit about what to expect on the album.
Well hopefully eleven or twelve songs that you like and sound a little fresh, a little newer. I don’t want to say structured, because that sounds mechanical, but some linear songs about more abstract things. I like to think that we can do a lot with a little, I’m of the less is more mentality when it comes to songs, and I like to usually just say what I mean. But I think there’s definitely a little more of an ‘edge,’ if you’d call it that, to my songwriting style, certainly more so than your adult contemporary guys. There will be some intimate, quieter songs, some full-on rock songs where we just get after it, and a few somewhere in between. And a little bit of creepiness here and there, if I can help it.
How did you get hooked up with Riot Squad?
Back when I was in high school, I was booking shitty shows at dumpy venues (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) but I was getting tired of spending all my time worrying about getting out there and not coming up with material. I sent an e-mail to my manager Brian, who was into what I was doing, and I went up to his place in Brooklyn to hash out a few arrangements and see what’s up. Things went well and we’ve been working together since.
Along with Riot Squad, whom else did you work with for this album to come together?
Todd Price, who is also on Riot Squad, lent a ridiculous amount of his personal time helping to make this happen, as I’m sure he will continue to. Best dude. Also Josh Jakubowski, who now runs his own studio in New Jersey, also put a lot of sweat into helping me arrange some of these things and get my head on straight during the pre-production stages. We’ve also had session help from guys like Jae from Drive By and Justin from A Life Once Lost. There have been a lot of irreplaceable faces and friends along the road to this record, for sure.
My Hidden Talent features Todd Price of Drive By give us some information on how this track came about?
Todd and I have been working together on all of these songs since day one, and it was one of those ‘studio magic’ things that just punches you in the business and sounds right. Todd has a rad voice and it fit the ending of that song perfectly, I think.
Describe for me a couple of your favorite tracks, what they mean and how they came about lyrically and musically.
Last One To Die is a personal standout for me, I distinctly remember writing it in a science class in Boston. I forget who I’d been listening to, probably something stranger like Nick Cave or something and I wanted to try my hand at a fictional, somewhat darker song, with a different musical style (it’s a waltz.) Other ones like Truck Stop Cafes and Cheap Trick are also huge to me, those are more personal songs that are about real things that have happened in my life, not all of them pretty, and the feeling you get when you take something that’s killing you and put it into something that makes you feel good, you can’t really get a better catharsis than that. I guess a lot of my songs are like that. And whatever my newest song is, that’s always my favorite. The ones you haven’t played too much yet are always exciting.
Why is it that musicians, for the most part, listen to one genre of music and play another?
I certainly can’t speak for musicians as a whole, but I know that personally, I write what makes sense to me, what just comes out of me. I don’t know a ton of piano players who listen to metal and hardcore, haha, but I do know that nobody listens exclusively to their own style, it grows weary on you. I don’t want to spend 8 hours at the piano writing personal things, and hashing out pretty or melancholy melodies or whatever and then drive to the bar or my friends house or wherever and listen to some other guy do the same thing. You can’t have a good grasp on what your place is musically if you don’t have a relative perspective. I’m sure someone like John Legend doesn’t listen exclusively to R&B any more than someone in Mastodon listens only to metal.
You have a gig on February 23, at Club Relevant with Kris Roe of The Ataris in Virginia Beach, VA, can we expect to see some more dates soon?
God I certainly hope so! We/I have been spending so much time practicing and writing, respectively, that playing out just hasn’t been a focus right now, but yes, totally, as things start to come together we’ll be playing as much as possible, that’s what it’s all about to me.
What else can we expect in the coming year for Hunter Smith?
Well hopefully the record, and after that a tour, some merch, a video, I mean the whole works. I have a feeling this is one of those things that just needs that initial push and it’ll be rolling for a long time.
What else do you want the world to know about you?
Hah, well I’ve certainly talked enough, but my one hope is that for people out there to not lump me in with the ‘college-dude-with-an-acoustic-guitar’ thing, that’s not how I see it, and that’s sort of my enemy right now, getting thrown in with the singer/songwriter crowd. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I’d much rather be the soft spot for the tough guy than the right spot for the soft guy. And also that I have a band, and there are four other dudes who put a lot of hard work into this bad boy.