Perhaps, not so obvious to the public eye as it was 35 years ago, but SMOKIE still go from strength to strength and are able to convert even metal heads to their tuneful cause. Just ask the band’s leader, Terry Uttley, and, in his unmistakable Northern accent, the bassist will tell you all.
Well, “all” can be a long story involving not only the band members but also such diverse artists as Donovan, THE HEAVY METAL KIDS and Agnetha Fältskog, so let’s focus on the present day.
– Terry, to bring things up to the date. What’s happening in your world and with the band?
The band’s still doing what the band does best and that’s touring. We’re halfway through a new album – we can only fit recording time when we’re not working (laughing) because we’re off all the time. In the last for years we’ve been doing – oh God! – around 95-100 shows a year, and not less than 160 airplane flights. The air miles are great but we don’t get the chance to use the darn thing, ’cause we’re up there anyway!
– So it’s like back in the ’70s?
No, it’s more vibrant now than it was in the ’70s, I’ve got to say. We didn’t work that much in the ’70s, and we were younger, [we were] always in the back of a transit van. But in the ’70s, we were sort of mollycoddled a little bit more to keep you off the road for a while, to keep people’s minds fresh, but it doesn’t work that way when you’re a little older. (Laughs.) We’re working more now than we ever did, and that goes to show that the music is still in people’s heads.
– I spoke to John Lawton recently, and the first piece of news he broke to me was about his new grandson. You too have a bigger family now than way back and you must miss them even more.
Yeah, absolutely. The family – your wife, your kids, your grand-kids – they grew up with what you do, and the true musicians will stay true musicians. If you sing your heart, you can’t get rid of it, and if a family was to try and take you away from that, that would also tear a family apart, because you would never be happy yourself by just sitting alone on your backside. But my family is so cool with absolutely everything I do, very supportive in very each way. And the band is really cool. We’re all doing different things. Our year tends to start off pretty slow, I had to take a vacation in January to recharge the batteries, and then we kick off around mid-March time, but in the last few weeks it really really starts. We’re looking forward to coming down to Israel, I go to Denmark tomorrow, I was in Estonia last week, the next week we’re in Turkey, and then it just goes on: South Africa, Australia, Tasmania, Russia…
– So what about the new album?
We’re six tracks into it right now. Like I said, we can only do that because of the extensive touring that we’re doing, and plus you need a little bit of family life as well in between, so we’re picking and choosing when we go into the studio. And we use a local studio again in Castleford, “The Chairworks”, which we’ve used a few times [before]. It’s a cool studio, and it takes me only an hour to drive there.
– Are they all new songs?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. All new songs, yeah. “Take A Minute” [album] in 2010 was all new, too. You know we get ’round to do whatever we’re doing at the time: what people suggest to us, people send us songs, we write stuff ourselves when we get the moment. It’s just continuing motion.
– That record had only a couple of tracks written by the band, and the rest by some Scandinavian guys. And what now?
For this one, Mick [McConnell] has written a couple [of songs], and for the other half we’re just going to do stuff by ourselves. We’ve finished taking in others’ songs now – you’ve all got your ideas and everything is going on with you. We have to record them and then we’ve got to arrange them and do the whole thing: it’s just getting them down. I’m old-school, I suppose, where you write a song and you do it with acoustic guitar and what have you, but now you’re in competition with all these guys with a Pro-Tools sort of production. But with acoustic guitar and the voice you can hear the song, and we keep writing. Mick’s got a bit between his teeth, he writes with all sorts of different people like John Parr, and he goes to America to write with people through Warner Bros. and stuff in Nashville. But SMOKIE just truck on and truck on and truck on. We’re cooking away nicely again.
– When you’re going to release this new album?
Oh, we don’t know yet. I mean we’ve got to finish the darn thing. There’s no big pressure on us to do anything like that.
– Are you going to play any new songs, then?
There might be a couple in the show, yeah. If people are not aware of things, it’s very difficult for them to comprehend, as they want to hear what they know of us, but we’ll probably throw in a couple [of songs] in there that the folks didn’t really know.
– Not easy to find the balance between the greatest hits package and give the people something fresh?
That’s right. Over the last few years, we’ve been doing a two-set situation. It’s 35-40 minutes of acoustically playing some of the old stuff – last time we were in Australia, it was like “An Evening With SMOKIE” – then we take a 20-minute break and then fly out and do all the hits again. That was extremely successful in a few places that we did it. In Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, we played with a 60-piece orchestra, and it was fantastic as well. We’re trying to be a little bit different from what people expect.
– Did the work with orchestra take a lot of arrangement?
No, we’ve done it before – on a smaller scale – so all the arrangements were there. And these guys just looked at it and went, “OK, I can play that”. (Laughs.) Then, of course, we rehearse, and of course, our endings may be different, and we may have changed things. It’s like a ballbreaker: when you rehearse, you do the show before you do the show, so it’s two shows a day, and the next day there’s a soundcheck with another couple of pieces. But after you’ve done one big soundcheck, these guys have nailed it, they’re just brilliant.
– So you play acoustic bass?
Yeah, acoustic bass, yeah.
– Do you like it?
I love it. And it’s not a stand-up acoustic bass, it’s a four-string guitar.
– But it takes more dexterity from your fingers.
Um, not really. You fight more to keep the feedback down. (Laughs.)
– Trevor Bolder once told me it was harder to play the acoustic because it’s thicker and wider.
And the positioning of it! It can be terrible, because of the size of its body. It’s like trying to balance it sometimes when you sing, ’cause we’re sat down while we’re doing this, and trying to get the stools that fit your feet. (Laughs.) It can be really really awful.
– Especially with your size!
Absolutely! Short-arsed as we say! (Laughs.)
– And you still kick the audience asses!
All the time! We’ve got two shows in two different countries [in one day] coming up in a few weeks, but we’re used to do that – we did three shows in three countries in 24 hours a few years back: I slept very well after that. One of them was – would you believe it! – with METALLICA, at Kiev’s football stadium. So we only saw a little bit of those boys, it was like a tandem stage with a section down the middle. All to the left, there were METALLICA fans, and to the right the fans of all the other bands, but slowly but surely METALLICA fans turned their heads to our stage. We won quite a few of them, and by the end of [our set] they were jumping up and down with SMOKIE, which I thought was really cool. The way that we attack our songs is not the way they’ve been recorded; it’s a real live stuff with different attitude. A lot of people don’t know what they’re coming for the first time – they expect this “la-la” pop band, and that’s not what they get. They go away happier than they came in.