The first time I saw Smithwick Machine was at the 1999 Atlantis Music Conference. Photo-god Frank Mullen and I were hanging out at the Echo Lounge. He said, “prepare to be rocked,” in the way that only Frank can say it. I knew he meant business. Standing in front of the stage waiting for the impending earthquake, I was completely unprepared for the breakneck attack on the senses that was about to occur. Smithwick comes to get you like a rock monster. You don’t know whether to run, scream like a girl, or fall to your knees in worship. And the thing is, you don’t have the option of action, because you’re paralyzed with awe.
A Smithwick Machine show is like the best sex you ever had, wanted, or needed more of. A kiss that was so hard your lips bled, and you liked it. Their music is cleverly constructed, with the best of head-bobbing punk rhythms, trippy guitar riffs, and vocals that make blood surge through your veins like a shot of morphine after a car crash. Lead singer Sam Smithwick’s vocals are as startling and unsettling as anything Bowie or Iggy ever dared to shock us with 20 years ago. His presence on stage oozes with oddity and snarling savvy. The only thing more unsettling is the exceptional interplay between the band as a whole. These guys are perfectly matched and completely facilitating, giving just the right amount of crank to a perfect blend of crushing ’80s power punk and ’70s classic psychedelic rock. So, when the opportunity arose to sit down and talk with these guys I jumped on it.
I guess I’ll start with the mandatory “how long have you guys been together and where’d you come up with the name Smithwick Machine?” question…
Sam : It’s hard to answer that question. It was ’92 for me and John [Fuller, lead guitarist], but this lineup has been together since August. As far as the name goes, John and I decided that we wanted to do something together. We started working on songs, some of the songs we still have in the set list now. A friend of mine from the Quadrajets called me down to Auburn to do an impromptu gig. As a pun, we called [it] the Smithwick Blues Machine, and it was like John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis, basic stuff. Over the next couple weeks, when John and I were hanging out talking and trying to decide, we decided the easiest thing to do namewise was just to call it Smithwick Machine.
Being together for such a long time, is it easy to get frustrated after all these years of playing small clubs, loading your own gear, and going through all that entails?
Sam : Playing the small clubs is probably the rewarding part about it. It’s everything in between the gigs that gets frustrating: playing the waiting game, trying to figure out how to pay the bills. It’s easy to play, performing is what it’s all about. And everything else you can imagine in life becomes secondary.
And the best part about it?
Tom [Bagby, drums] : The best part for me is the traveling. Sitting around, not doing anything, and watching other bands sound check. Oh yeah, and playing drums is fun.
Jason [Fondren, bass] : I hate Tom. That’s my favorite part, I get to be around this guy Tom that I genuinely hate, and get to express that on a daily basis. That’s all a lie, we’re actually lovers. Seriously, the best for me is in Smithwick, because I can’t imagine a group of guys I respect more musically. I love the music they’ve been doing for as long as they’ve been together. I’ve always admired them and [have] always been a big fan. When I got the chance to be in the band, it was genuinely a great thing. I couldn’t imagine a band I’d rather have been in.
John : Aww, group hug. He’s so sensitive.
Jason : But I still hate Tom.
John : My favorite, it’s the 45 minutes to an hour on stage. Well, that and Sam’s hairy armpits.
Sam : I like being on stage, turning the guitar up very loud, and I like driving.
If there’s one statement that you feel like your music is trying to make, what would it be?
Sam : No statement, nothing political. Loud, hard, and heavy is good enough.
Speaking of loud, hard and heavy, how do you guys feel about the comeback rock and roll seems to be making right now?
Tom : Rock and roll will always be there. You may have to hunt it out from time to time, but kids are always going to want to rock and roll. I mean, it’s stupid what’s going on in the music industry right now. I don’t care what people think is important about what Lenny Kravitz or Bono or any of those people have to say, because you’ve got to remember, they got into a rock band first. They wanted to get on stage and play rock and roll. Nobody ever sat around and said, “hey, my political beliefs would sound really great if I set it to this beat.” It’s rock and roll. It’s one of the dumbest things ever invented. We’re not Yes, we don’t have intellectuals coming to the shows, we have rock and roll fans, those are the best people in the world.
I have to be honest, the difference between your stage persona and talking to you now is like the difference between a cat and a dog. How do you balance the image with the real stuff?
Sam : The most important thing right now is the connection the four of us have going, and it almost happens without having any control over it. There’s everything from the way the volume explodes in the air to the way we interact with each other onstage. I don’t feel like I have control over it. What you see is what you get. We don’t have any complaints right now about being misread. Before we started playing the way that we play right now, we had a problem with the image being more important than the music. Now everything is one solid package. I think if you come to show, you know what you’re going to get. There’s going to be a lot of sweat involved, and that’s the way it’s going to happen.
Let’s say in a horrible alternate reality there were no such thing as music — what do you think you’d be in that state?
Sam : In the alternate reality, I’m the evil Spock.
John : If I was in an alternate universe I’d probably be a girl.
Jason : Probably the same thing, actually.
Tom : In an alternate reality, I’d clean fish 65 hours a week and I’d be living in my car in San Diego.
Do you guys want to be a band that plays music, or do you want to be rock stars?
Sam: I think we’d be 100 percent satisfied if the van always had a full tank of gas, there was always a free meal waiting on us, and the sound guys never said “turn your instruments down.” Anything else that happens is icing on the cake. I think that’s the bottom line for us. Whatever happens is wonderful as long as we get to keep doing it.
You guys are based out of Birmingham and seem to play in Atlanta a lot. Is that because of the proximity or the city?
Sam: Close proximity and the fact that there’s more than one club that you can play, so we can play here more often without burning out a crowd. It’s sort of cool to be able to pull into a town and play a different place every month. That helps a lot; it being close and it’s always been a good town for support. Atlanta’s always a blast to play. The fans always seem to dig it and the people are always nice to work with. Plus, we always have to drive through Atlanta when we play, so the more times you can stop and avoid rush hour, the better off you are.
We’ve already established the fact that you guys are my heroes musically. Who are yours?
Sam: The Hellacopters and Nebula are the hottest bands on my list, because they’re real, they’re strong, and they play with soul.
John: The same two, for the same reasons.
Jason: I like black music, old black music, old blues. I like me some Otis Redding, Booker T. I also like Black Sabbath, because it has black in it. That’s probably why I like it. And that’s why I’m wearing black.
Tom: I like 70’s rock. It reminds me of being a kid, not giving a shit about anything, riding in the back seat of my dad’s car and hearing Skynyrd, Seals and Croft, Led Zeppelin. Shit from the 70’s was real. It was before you had anything alternative, metal, punk, this or that. People just got on the stage and played music and it got on the radio. It was all real and it was all wonderful. Anything that conjures up a positive memory or a positive emotion, that’s fantastic.
Smithwick is conjuring up some memories for me right now. All of them good, real, and wonderful.