DARREN JAMES SMITH (RED DRAGON CARTEL) INTERVIEW:
February 19, 2014
You can call him ‘Mr. Jack of all Trades’, or better yet, ‘Mr. Musician of all Trades’. Drummer, guitarist, and lead vocalist — Darren James Smith has held one of these positions for many well-known hard rock and heavy metal bands including Harem Scarem, Helix and now Jake E. Lee’s Red Dragon Cartel. As the singer for the former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist’s new band, Smith made international headlines in the rock world almost instantly after the group’s debut show at the Whisky A Go Go. Sleaze Roxx caught up with the singer to discuss everything relating to Red Dragon Cartel including his thoughts, two months later, on his performance at the band’s live debut and the aftermath from it.
Sleaze Roxx: You have to be the envy of a lot of lead vocalists out there since you landed the gig in Jake E. Lee’s Red Dragon Cartel. What was the audition process like for you?
Darren James Smith: It was a long one actually. I mean they asked me basically to help write some stuff and they were sending me stuff. I did that for like seven months not ever once thinking this was my gig. I like to write and I like to write with people who know how to write, so it was a long experience. I never really thought I — or knew I — had the gig until I actually went to Vegas and rehearsed for a week. During that week of rehearsal, we basically just had some drinks together. We jammed with all kinds of other rock stars that would show up and hang out with us from all over Vegas. I was leaving to come home and I just said, “Jake. Do I get the gig?”, and he took his sweet time answering and then he goes, “Awww, you always had the gig.”
Envy? Yeah, I guess it would explain all the haters on the internet. I have been doing this a long time. I have been making records since I was 15 years old — playing drums with a punk band to where I am now which is 48. So it has been a long ride and I have made a lot of records with a lot of bands. I am really happy that I have got this opportunity to play with one of the greats — but at the end of the day, I wish I was 20 years younger.
Sleaze Roxx: I think you were part of two bands, Heaven’s Fire and War Machine, when you got the gig?
Darren James Smith: See, that is how little people know. Heaven’s Fire — I was asked by a good friend of mine to write lyrics and melodies to ten songs that he wrote over a period of ten years and I said, “Okay. Well how long do I got?” and he said, “Two weeks”. So I basically wrote the whole record in a week and it was never even supposed to be a band — it was never even supposed to see the flirtation of an album cover. This was sort of a favor to a friend of mine. Another friend who happens to be in the band, Andy Narsingh, just took that horse and rode it all the way to the record printing company kind of thing.
War Machine — they were friends of mine. I sang on a record for them long before I even knew them years and years and years ago. And they just basically asked me to drum for them for about four years straight. I had to do a Harem Scarem reunion tour and I had not played drums in a while so I thought I could stand to play. So I just joined them for a short time. But as for being a member, I don’t know. I guess for argument’s sake, you could say I was. I mean I love the guys. They are some of my dearest friends, but I don’t think you are really in a band until you play with them for 10 or 15 years.
Sleaze Roxx: When you got the gig for Red Dragon Cartel did you tell the guys in those other bands, “Hey, I can’t play with you anymore — I am not in the band anymore?” How did that work?
Darren James Smith: I don’t recall ever saying I was in a band, you know what I mean? I was in Harem Scarem for many, many, many, years. But once again, like I told you, I did not really think, “Oh I am in Jake E. Lee’s band” the minute he called me. It was a seven to eight month process of me recording vocals and sending them to Vegas — them sending me more and talking on the phone. It was a long process and it was not until I went down to Vegas that they said yes, you got the gig kind of thing.
Sleaze Roxx: Now, obviously we are going to talk a little bit about Red Dragon Cartel’s first show. You had a tough first outing doing at the Whisky A Go Go. What struck me the most was that Jake E. Lee really went to bat for you publicly and tried to shoulder the blame for whatever happened. What are your thoughts, two months later, on that performance and the aftermath from it?
Darren James Smith: Well, I think the aftermath was really blown out of proportion. Everybody was basically judging me from iPhone recordings. Yeah, I had a few drinks. I mean, I am playing the Whisky with four nights’ rehearsal with Jake E. Lee — and me and him were drinking, you know? I mean, worst case scenario — a guy in a rock and roll band got drunk on stage — OHHHHHH! That’s heavy! You know? Give me a break! I just thought everybody should really — I don’t know. To me, it was just ridiculous, you know? I mean, it was not as bad as everybody says. All these couch critics, critiquing me with all their expertise — I just found it really humorous. I was at that show. There was nobody giving me the finger. There was nobody yelling, “You suck!” It was a complete audience getting into the show and rocking it. Afterwards, there were no weird vibes. I know it was not an ace show. I mean we had four nights’ rehearsal before we did that show.
The reason why Jake decided to take the blame upon himself — which also shocked me by the way — was he said he should never have put our first show with such a stigma as the Whisky with four days’ rehearsal. We should have been playing a tour that ended up there, but that was our first show. I mean we still are figuring out each other, you know? He had not played in so long that he just forgot all the details it takes to put a band out there — a brand new band out there. And that is kind of the reason why he took the blame. There was no weird feeling at the Whisky that night. There was nobody going, “OHHHH. You guys sucked.” There was none of that so to wake up in the morning and see all these haters — I mean to me, it is just like, really? That is like me going on the internet and critiquing some operation a guy had that I know nothing about, you know? I am not a doctor so I think a lot of the people just talk out of their asses most of the time. But at the end of the day, that is what the internet has given us — freedom of speech that probably should be shut down!
Sleaze Roxx: I was listening to one of your prior interviews and it seems that you are really hoping to make your mark, or go to the next level, as the lead singer of Red Dragon Cartel. Would you agree?
Darren James Smith: Well, yeah. I mean anything I do in music, I hope to strive to achieve a longer more fulfilling career. All that I am concerned with is the band that I am with, that we are happy and content as a unit, as a band — that we like to play together and the songs we write make us happy. Because I have been in the business long enough to know that you cannot please everybody. There are people that go, “OHHH. I hate this!” and the very next line is, “This is the best song ever!” So, how do you stop that? You don’t. You just basically make a record that you are proud of as an individual and be proud that your band likes it too — just put out product that you enjoy. I mean, at the end of the day, the audience is not even there. When you are writing this stuff, we are not sitting there going, “I wonder if the audience will like this?” They are not even there. We are writing this going, “Yeah, I like this. You like this? Awesome! What about you? What about you?” –and that includes a producer. You are writing the record for yourself and when people like it, that is just a bonus! But at the end of the day, we already did the record. It is done, you know what I mean?
Sleaze Roxx: How did you guys come up with the songs for your live set?
Darren James Smith: Well, in all honesty, Jake is the big kahuna so he tells us what he is willing to do and what he is not willing to do. I am sure the set will change over time but we are a new band so we are sticking to the one we have right now. I had no idea that we would be doing Ozzy Osbourne and Badlands songs. I really never even thought about it because it did not really matter to me. I would like to play more of our stuff but I love singing the Badlands and Ozzy stuff — I have been doing that for years. So like I said, at the end of the day, if Jake does not want to do a song, we are not doing it (laughs).
Sleaze Roxx: Fair enough (laughs). Obviously, Ozzy Osbourne and Ray Gillen have very different vocal styles. Which ones are the harder songs for you to sing?
Darren James Smith: Well, Ray Gillen is — it is way up there, it is a much cleaner voice. Ozzy, it is a much milder, more monotone melodic structure. Not always, but more so than a Ray Gillen. I think playing in cover bands and stuff like I did around my home when I was not touring with the original recording guys kind of prepared me for the diversity of what I would have to do. It feels weird to be singing full out, pretty much yelling, and then pull it back and sing the other soulful blues rock — but I love the challenge. And ever since the first show, I do not drink at all anymore because it is not second nature right now. It is still a new band. I hope to drink a whole lot later in the show (laughs). I mean, don’t forget that for that first show, I did not even have time to be nervous because I was so distracted by the paparazzi, the fans, all that and the socializing. But let’s not talk about that shit anymore.
Sleaze Roxx: Interestingly, you have played in different positions in different bands. You were the drummer for Harem Scarem, the guitarist for Helix, and now you are the lead vocalist. Which one do you prefer?
Darren James Smith: People ask me that — I don’t really prefer anything. I prefer to do a good job at what I am doing. I am not the best at anything and I never aspired to be. I really do not think that is what it takes to be good. I think you have got to be honest. You have to be convincing and I think you have got to be passionate. I have that no matter what I am holding or what I am doing. I love to play the drums and I love to play guitar, they almost feel like children to me. I would hate to pick one over the other. I might disappoint the other, but I have always sang as a backup singer and stuff like that. I think in all honesty, every drummer is a starving frontman anyways.
Sleaze Roxx: How do you feel about all the different guest vocalists on the new CD?
Darren James Smith: They did not even think of having a singer when they started this project. They just thought, “We are going to need one. We got to get one.” And then they thought, “Well, we should incorporate him into the record.” So, half the record was done before I even showed up. How do I feel about it? Are you kidding me? I am on a record with Robin Zander! That is beautiful! They asked me if I wanted to sing that song and I was like, “No, no! I want Robin Zander to be on this record with me.”
Sleaze Roxx: (Laughs) The new Red Dragon Cartel CD does not have the same sound as Ozzy or Badlands, aside from perhaps the “Deceived” song which has the same vibe as “Bark At The Moon”. The new album has a real modern metal sound to it. Was that a conscious decision from the band?
Darren James Smith: No, it might have been a conscious decision from Kevin Churko but he did not let on with anyone. I mean, Jake has not made a record in I don’t know how many years — 15 years or something? So for me, I am constantly making modern stuff and dated stuff, you know? I mean, that is not a conscious effort. You are just kind of making music and I think Jake just did what he wanted to do. He had a plethora of riffs sitting around for years. I do not know, I just did the record. There are people complaining it does not sound like Badlands and it does not sound like whomever — and I am like, “What do you want from me guys? Do you want us to just not evolve?”
Sleaze Roxx: What are your favorite songs off the new CD?
Darren James Smith: That is a tough one. I am not sick of any of them yet, I like them all. I think “Deceived” was an excellent first choice. I mean, that riff was picked because Jake never got credit from Ozzy for writing “Bark At The Moon”. He wrote that song and he had to sign off on it so it is a bit of a sad story there. But anyway, I thought it was a great first single because it kind of bridges the old Jake E. Lee to the new Jake E. Lee. He has evolved over these years and this is what he has come up with. Like Jake says, “If it is good enough for him, it should be good enough for his fans.”
Sleaze Roxx: Absolutely. You have played all over the world. What are your favorite places to play?
Darren James Smith: I love Japan — I really do. I have a lot of friends there. When I go there, it feels like I am going home — it really does. And we will be there for a week. I am hoping to take all my kids with me this time. When I mean all my kids, I don’t have 15 — I have three (laughs). I really love Portugal. I discovered a place I had never been before on the last Harem Scarem tour. I went to a place called Trieste in Italy and it is truly the most beautiful place I have ever seen right on the Mediterranean, right on the sea there. It has beautiful hills. It is just a gorgeous place!
Sleaze Roxx: Sounds cool. Now, what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2014?
Darren James Smith: We are working ourselves ridiculously hard. We are doing five to six shows a week with maybe one day off up until July I know of right now. I think we are in Japan in July. I should not say we are working ourselves, our manager is working us. I don’t know, we shall see. We are going to go out there and we are going to tighten this band up. There will be some breaking news but I can’t lay that on to you right now. But when you hear it, you’ll go, “Ahhh, that is what he could not tell me.” But it is good news and it is just a little weird that it is so in the beginning of this band, but it is neat. It is pretty cool and you will dig it. I have not been given the okay yet. You can call me back and go, ‘you prick — you should have told me!’
Sleaze Roxx: (Laughs) Fair enough. Last question, what are your top three albums of all time and why?
Darren James Smith: Now this would be difficult for anyone who loves music, but because these little questionnaires pop up on FaceBook I sort of know. To pick three albums, that is insane because I would pick such diverse — it depends on what mood I am in right? But one of my favorite records of all time is a band called Jellyfish and the album is ‘Spilt Milk’. Have you ever heard it?
Sleaze Roxx: No.
Darren James Smith: It is the most diverse rock and roll record you will ever hear and from a songwriter’s point of view, it is probably the best. It is the best of The Beatles, the best of The Beach Boys, and Soundgarden to Queen to Crowded House. As a songwriter and as a production album too — it is all analog — it is just the best sounding record. Every time you listen to it, you will hear something new. It is my Pink Floyd. It is just brilliant but it is not dark and gloomy. It can be but it is not. I am really into this band Foxy Shazam all of a sudden because they are one of the freshest innovative young new bands, that actually come out and write songs, that I have heard in a while. And three, that is really tough — I don’t know.
Sleaze Roxx: You have the most eclectic top two that I have heard so far.
Darren James Smith: Yeah, well that is the thing because as far as I am concerned, radio kills music and it is perfectly legal, you know. They will take a good song that anyone who has any knowledge of song writing would go, “Yeah. That is a great song.” But don’t beat it into your head to the point where if you hear it, you might just kill a family member, you know? And I think that is a shame. They rotate the same 30 to 40 songs throughout the day. I do not listen to the radio for that reason except satellite radio which I will put on. But there are so many songs in this world. I am a huge Clash fan — I love the Sex Pistols and the Ramones but then I also like, from that same genre, XTC and X and lots of clubber punk as opposed to emotional punk. And then I like metal, you know. I love the ‘Mob Rules’ album to the Alcatrazz album. And then I like all the hair metal. There is a lot of that I like too, I have a massive record collection — It would make you sick it is so huge. When I got a divorce — my first divorce — that was the only thing I took with me. It was a van full of albums.
Sleaze Roxx: (Laughs) Wow! So if you had to pick one more, which one are you going to pick?
Darren James Smith: One more? I would probably pick ‘Red Dragon Cartel’. Can I do that? Pick my own CD?
Sleaze Roxx: Absolutely.
Darren James Smith: That is my favorite record right now. But the Jellyfish one is the one that always come to me because it is the most diverse rock and roll record of all time. It is more complicated than a Pink Floyd record — it is deeper. Well, I was never a Pink Floyd guy, I found that stuff a little depressing. I actually think they were a great band but it is just too low key for me, you know? I put rock and roll music on to lift me, not depress me. Life is tough enough, you know?