Journey drummer Steve Smith talks Rock Hall, Steve Perry and upcoming Vegas run

Smith, second from left, and his Journey mates play nine shows in Vegas this month.
Matt Wardlaw

Timing’s extra important for a drummer, and Steve Smith couldn’t have been better. After 30 years away from touring with Journey, he returned to the lineup in 2015, filling a hole left by the departure of Deen Castronovo, who had been behind the kit since the late ’90s. Nearly two years later, Smith found himself onstage with his bandmates—including former vocalist Steve Perry—for last month’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Smith’s return to Journey brought things “full circle,” he told us during a recent phone conversation on the eve of a residency at the Joint, where the band also did an extended run in 2015, just before Smith rejoined. This time, Journey is throwing down a bonus: full album performances of classic records Escape and Frontiers for all Wednesday shows. (Weekend concerts are being touted more as “greatest hits” nights.)

Congrats on the Rock Hall induction. What was that night like for you? A once-in-a-lifetime experience. The show itself was pretty amazing. We sat in the audience until it was time for us to go onstage, [so] I got to see Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, Joan Baez and the Tupac tribute with Alicia Keys. Then we did our thing—gave our speeches and played—and then we went backstage and had to do a lot of interviews, so unfortunately, I missed the rest of the evening’s performance. But it was a thrill, a really fun evening.

It was a bit nerve-racking to give a speech in front of all of those people, but once I got behind the drums, I could relax. I was looking out, and I saw [Rush’s] Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee in the front row. Joan Baez was there. It was a pretty interesting audience to play for. And we had so many fans there.

The important takeaway with this is that it’s been very important to Journey fans that we’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As far as me personally, I haven’t really been thinking about rock ’n’ roll all of that much since 1985. I had been focused on my own band, Vital Information, which is a jazz-fusion group. I’ve been a sideman and session musician. So the timing is nice that I happened to be touring with the band now. That really worked out. But really, the most important thing is the fans. It’s their dedication to us that has kept the band alive and relevant after all of these years.

It was obviously a moment, for both the band and the fans, seeing Steve Perry onstage with you guys again, as you all went up to accept your awards. What sort of interactions did you have with Steve that day and that night? Whatever you saw on stage was it! (Laughs.) I think some of the guys saw him backstage for a little bit, but I just saw him onstage. It was great to see him. It had been since 2005, when we got a star in Hollywood—that was the last time I saw him. So it was good to see him, and he was very gracious. I thought he gave a beautiful speech, thanking the band and the management and the fans. And also, he acknowledged [current vocalist] Arnel Pineda, which that was really a beautiful moment. It really makes it clear that he’s passing the torch to Arnel—he’s the lead singer in Journey, and he’s doing an amazing job. He’s a tremendous singer and a really compelling frontman.

With Perry, there were so many questions leading up to the inductions, as far as whether he would even show up for the ceremonies. What sort of discussions were there about having him sing with the group that night, and how far did those talks get? There’s really not much of a story there. We asked him if he wanted to sing, and he declined. He said no, but that he would be there.

What has it been like preparing to perform Escape and Frontiers in full? It’s been a lot of work to learn all of those songs. We play a lot of songs from Escape and quite a few from Frontiers, but there are songs we don’t play, and, in fact, there are songs that we never performed live—“Troubled Child” and the title track, “Frontiers.” I don’t remember that we ever played that. I don’t remember ever playing “Lay It Down” from Escape. Relearning those tunes took some time for me individually and then for us as a band. I just play along with the records at home in that sequence, so I get used to the tempo changes and the feel changes. We actually played one show in Tokyo at the Budokan, where we did [both albums]. It was a big success, and we had a blast, so we decided to bring it to Vegas.

What comes to mind for you when you look back at these albums? Start with Escape, obviously that’s a huge mile marker in the band’s discography. That was really a turning point. The band was successful before that. Before I was in the band, when Aynsley Dunbar was the drummer, they did three albums and then Steve Perry came on board and they did Infinity. I was there for Evolution, Departure and Captured. And then Gregg Rolie left the band, and Jonathan Cain joined. There was a writing chemistry that I think took the music to another level [with the arrival of Cain], and that’s when the Escape record came out. I think it sold 5 million copies within the first year, and it’s kept going. At this point, I think it’s 10 million or very close to that.

So that was a game-changer for us, because we went from playing 10,000-seat places to playing 60,000-seat stadium shows where we’d tour the whole summer, [doing] even two and three nights in some of the cities. Then we came up with Frontiers, which continued that success. Those were exciting times. They were a lot to deal with as a young person. I was in my mid-20s. I left the band when I was 30 years old, and that was over 30 years ago.

During the Escape era, Journey got its own arcade game. Did you ever have one of those in your house? Yes! In fact, we had one on tour with us. We put it in a road case, and we’d have it in the dressing room. And then I ended up with it! I kept it for a lot of years, but I finally met somebody who owned an arcade and really wanted the game. So I sold it to them. It went to a good home, because they knew how to repair it and keep it in good shape. So they’ve been having a blast with it for the last few years.

What do you recall about hearing “Don’t Stop Believin’” for the first time? You have to remember, those songs came together piece by piece and bit by bit in the rehearsal studio. One of them may start with a guitar riff, another with a keyboard part. And then there’s a bass line and a drum part. Steve Perry would come up with a melody over what we were doing. So those tunes came together very slowly over the course of a month. When the songs were done, we rehearsed them a lot and then we’d go in and record them quickly. We didn’t want to spend too long, because it’s expensive for studio time, so we recorded all of the songs, probably in a couple of weeks. We did some overdubs, and within a month, that record was done. When I first heard it, it’s a great tune, but I felt like there was a lot of great songs on that [Escape] record.

Of course, that tune became a hit at that time, as did “Open Arms,” “Who’s Crying Now” … we had quite a few hits off that record. But what’s happened in the last few years is that the tune has really taken on a life of its own. That’s kind of inexplicable, but wonderful, and we’re really happy about it. Due to The Sopranos using the song, Glee using the song and various movies and TV shows, it’s come into the consciousness of a lot of people, and they respond to it. It has this whole new life at this point where it’s more popular now than it was originally in 1981.

Frontiers is such a big record, two songs that are now much-loved in the Journey catalog, “Ask the Lonely” and “Only the Young,” don’t even make it on. We had a lot of very good songs to choose, and we did leave off two very good songs, as you said. But it was due to sequencing. There’s no hits on Side 2 of Frontiers, but it’s a strong statement musically, and that was important to us in those years. And now [those two songs] are on the Greatest Hits record. We do play them—not every night, but we alternate some of those songs in and out of the set. We might use one or two of those as an encore, but they’re not on the record, so they’re not going to be part of that Frontiers and Escape night. But you know, we very well could play them on the weekend.

When you came back to Journey, you said you would be in the band for two years and that by 2018, you’d be resuming your “career full-time as a touring and recording jazz musician” with your group Vital Information and the other things that you do. Is the clock still ticking on your time with Journey, or do you see things going longer than that at this point? Things are going along pretty well, so it could work out that I extend my stay (laughs). We haven’t really discussed it in any kind of concrete way, but things are going really well, so it may work out that I stick around for another year.

What sort of plans are there for Journey to do a new record? We’ve been discussing that. In fact, we might do some writing while we’re in Las Vegas, because we’ll [all] be there for an extended stay. So yeah, that could happen.

In 1978, you were on tour drumming for Montrose, a bill that included Journey headlining and also Van Halen, which was the opening band. That must have been a pretty interesting experience. That was quite a year! The year before that, I was touring with Jean-Luc Ponty. I had just left the Berklee College of Music and auditioned for Jean-Luc, got that gig and was touring with him. Ronnie Montrose did an album called Open Fire that’s an instrumental rock album. It wasn’t the group Montrose as much as it was his solo project, like a Jeff Beck kind of instrumental-rock group. I auditioned for that gig and got it. It was Journey’s first headline tour and Steve Perry’s first tour with the band, and Van Halen was the opening act. Ronnie Montrose was in the middle, and Journey was headlining.

That was the first time I ever heard Journey, and I just thought the music was great and the players were all monster players. Neal Schon’s an incredible guitarist, and at that time I was watching Aynsley Dunbar play the drums every night. And it was Gregg Rolie and Ross Valory, and they put on a great show. Steve Perry sounded pretty amazing to me. Of course, Van Halen was full of energy, and Eddie Van Halen was remarkable. He really blew my mind. That was quite an interesting tour.

JOURNEY May 3, 5-6, 10, 12-13, 17, 19-20, 8 pm, $60-$300. The Joint, 702-693-5222.

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