In 2010, back when Real Gone was in its embryonic stages, we received an email from a musician in the US asking if we’d review the then new album by his band The Great Affairs. That man was Denny Smith, singer-songwriter and previously a member of rock band fORMER. When he contacted us again approximately five months later, he had the distinction of being the very first artist to approach Real Gone for repeat coverage. Almost ten years on from that first contact, Denny dropped by to tell us all about the new album, his extra-curricular projects and more besides. The Great Affairs’ current album, ‘Ten & 2’ could be their best yet…
Hey Denny… Thanks for coming out and talking to us today. It’s something that’s long overdue.
Thanks for making it possible, Lee. Real Gone has always been kind to us. It’s great to finally talk.
We’ve covered a lot of your work over the past few years, so it’s great to catch up properly.
You’re coming up for the tenth anniversary for your band The Great Affairs. Did you ever consider the band a long-term project?
Truthfully, I didn’t really have any idea where this was gonna go when we initially launched the thing. I was just looking to create an outlet for a bunch of songs that didn’t really fit what we did in fORMER, which had been my going concern for the past few years at that point. I needed a crew who were comfortable taking the volume down a few notches, and okay with me swapping my Les Paul for an acoustic. I mean, yeah, we could still get loud once in a while, but I’d amassed this huge stockpile of stuff that was more about dynamics and subtlety than riffs and big singalong choruses.
So fORMER kind of reached a natural end?
I don’t think I had any idea that one band would eventually consume the other, or The Great Affairs would last this long. Don’t get me wrong, I love both sides, but I could tell when some of my previous bandmates weren’t so enthused with an offering. It was like they were waiting for meat kebabs and I showed up to the party with a fruit plate. [laughs]. I thought I might be able to put together a little something that could run concurrently with my “day gig” with fORMER, and allow me to get a few things off my chest without forcing an issue.
The new album, ‘Ten & 2’ seems to flow better than a couple of the band’s previous works. Was that a conscious thing?
Absolutely. It was 100% deliberate. When we finally got down to the business of actually making this one, We made a decision that it was going to be cut from a very specific cloth. We had a template in mind…or at least a certain frame of mind that we wanted to employ and that included streamlining it down to just ten songs and keeping things mostly uptempo. Limiting the ballads…and favouring the more riff-heavy, hooky material. We did our best to trim anything that didn’t measure up. Seeing as we had probably fifty tunes to choose from, it got a little tense when making some of those cuts.
Fifty? Bloody hell…
These things mount up [laughs]. Patrick [Miller – guitar] had some stuff and Kenny [Wright – drums] had been writing as well. In fact, Kenny’s been working on a solo EP that includes one of the leftover tracks from the new album sessions called ‘Break It On Down‘ that we co-wrote. I’d been demoing stuff from more or less the minute we finished up the ‘Dream In Stereo’ LP in 2014. Some of that turned into my solo record [2016’s ‘Overnight Low’] but those were mainly tunes I didn’t think were right for us as a band. They had too much piano, strings, ridiculous harmonies or whatever. They were things we’d never have a prayer of reproducing live. I’m always sending out emails of these demos to the guys, but at some point, when we really got into the thick of sussing out our direction for this, I pared it down to twenty five or so songs and made a playlist that we’d flip through and debate in the van while we were on the road. I had a few in mind for another solo record that I’ll hopefully get around to eventually, so those got removed from the running…or so I thought.
So how did you whittle it down to just ten?
We just did it the old-fashioned way. After extensive haggling, and stumping for our respective candidates, we simply voted. There were one or two where we all were in universal agreement, but we were split on quite a few…Democracy doesn’t always please everyone, but we went with majority rule to keep the peace, so some of us took a few lumps and suffered a little disappointment along the way. A couple of things that got picked, I’d actually set aside for another solo record, but I’m glad I acquiesced because ‘Hands Off The Wheel’ in particular has already become a live staple.
With CDs holding 80 minutes of music and digital formats being limitless, were you not tempted to put more music out?
Hey, when you’re sitting on volume, you wanna move volume, so yeah, we were….and if Kenny had his druthers, we would’ve filled that disc to the brim! I was the one pulling the other direction on this. Your average 21st century listener just doesn’t have the attention span for a sprawling pop/rock album. They might give the first few songs their full attention, if you’re lucky, and then their mind leads them astray. The investment, by and large, is just not the same these days as it was when we were kids poring over liner notes and falling in love with song three on side two while we memorized the second engineer’s name.
I just wanted a no-nonsense, down to business, forty minute slab of ear candy. Our template was ‘Rock N’ Roll Over’ from KISS….about as no-bones-about-it a platter as you’re likely to drop a needle on.
‘Rock N’ Roll Over’ is our go-to KISS record here at Real Gone these days.
It’s the quintessential KISS record. It has all the elements that made me fall in love with the 70s era of the band…the tunes, great old school rock n’ roll riffage, the killer cover art. …And then there’s Peter getting the ballad with ‘Hard Luck Woman’ and Paul’s lyrics being ridiculous but delivering hooks so good you didn’t care… ‘Put your hand in my pocket, grab on to my rocket…‘ Come on?!? Who can’t get behind poetry like that? [laughs] I’ve never been able to wear that album out.
I wanted to make a record that mimicked that flow, right down to changing things up for us and having the drummer sing the lone ballad. We even did KISS-style trade-off lead vocals on ‘The Day I Let You Go’ to mimic the old Paul and Gene dynamic, with Kenny singing the verses and me handling the choruses. Whether we hit the mark may be in question, but we definitely shot for it!
‘Ten & 2’ features a re-recording of an old song from [the second Great Affairs record] ‘Ricky Took The Wheels…’. Why did you decide to do that…and are there plans to revisit other old works?
As I said, we chose ten songs for the album and the idea of re-recording that just sort of wandered in later. It was a time buyer, more than anything, but I’m glad we got the chance to take another swing at it. The recording of the album was well under way by then, but we knew it was going to be a while before we could deliver it and we wanted something out by year’s end, to show people that we were actually making progress, but not give too much away as to just what we were cooking up. Since we were coming up on ten years as a band, and there was no remaining physical inventory on hand of our first couple releases, we decided to press a short run of a ’Best Of’ CD called ‘The GreatEST Affairs 2009-2017’, and include a remix of the song ‘California’ from our ‘Dream In Stereo’ album. Matt added a new bass line, and we tweaked a few other things…the kind of stuff you didn’t realize bugged you when you first mixed something, but comes to plague you over time. We were going to make “California (2017)” available as standalone digital track too, so the folks that already had those early albums wouldn’t feel like we were squeezing them to buy a compilation with one new song it, but it seemed weird to release a single of a track that was three years old by then.
That inspired us to do a fresh take of ‘Last Good Memory’ while we were in the studio tracking the new LP, and we stuck the two songs together as a double A-sided single, to give some bang for the buck. Besides, I’d always thought “Last Good Memory” got lost in the shuffle, being tucked away at the tail end of the ‘Ricky Took The Wheels’ record, and since we’d worked it up with this line-up for the live set, it had become a mainstay, something that crowds would really gravitate to. I wanted to give it a better shot without just recycling the old track, hence the different sonic approach to the arrangement and vocal this time around. I tried to put a more Cheap Trick-esque spin on it…early 80’s Cheap Trick that is.
I’m rambling now… [laughs]. I’m not sure if we’ll tackle any other material from the back catalogue… but you never know. We’ve been reviving stuff along the way from pretty much every record, just to keep our live show interesting, so that’s always a possibility. That said, there are no plans at the moment to cut anything else that way. We’re focused on forging ahead and promoting ‘Ten & 2’ for the foreseeable future.
Has the reaction to the new material been good in general?
Without a doubt. People have really embraced the album since its release. It’s been pretty humbling, after plugging away at this for so long, to hear so many people say this is the best thing we’re ever done. I’ll take that. Gladly. We had planned on self-releasing the album, as usual, before Kivel Records came into the picture, so the street date got delayed by a few months, but that gave us the opportunity to get out and play some of these songs live, drop a couple of singles and videos and gauge the audience a bit. I think we knew we had a few winners in the stable, so we were optimistic about the eventual response, but it’s been better than even we’d expected.
In addition to The Great Affairs, you’ve been involved with other projects. Where do you find the time?
I’ve always written more material than we could realistically use in this band and I’ve gotten used to filing the surplus away for consideration at a later date. Every now & then an opportunity to collaborate with or write for another artist will come along, or I get a batch together that I just can’t bear to sit on any more, so I go off and do a solo album like ‘An Overnight Low’. That was born out of frustration with our inability to get to work on a new Great Affairs release due to our live schedule…and life, I suppose. I just lined up a few players to cover the instruments that I didn’t feel competent enough to do myself, hunkered down, and banged it out from studio downbeat #1 to release in just a few months.
That sounds very off the cuff…
Actually, it was the easiest studio experience I’ve ever had, in spite of the fact that I played and sang more on that record than any other release I’ve been a part of. I enlisted a crack rhythm section in Criss Cheatham [August Christopher] on drums and Dave Webb, who also played on The Die Youngs LP on bass. We went in for a single weekend and they absolutely blew my mind with the degree of preparation they put into the material. I had cut full-production demos of the entire album, and they showed up with charts and played to those while I basically sat behind the board with my engineer Michael Saint-Leon and directed traffic. I barely even picked up a guitar during those sessions, and if I did, it was just to explain something to Dave that I couldn’t articulate in actual “player” terms, since I can’t read or write music. Hell, Dave gave me his charts to take to the piano session, which expedited those takes, and certainly spared me some embarrassment in trying to explain all the weird chords I play in my own broken, mangled version of musician-speak.
Did you enjoy working that way?
I loved it. I got to bring sessions home with me and do all my guitars, synths, loops, and whatnot here in my home studio, before heading back in to cut vocals and mix. It was a lot of extra work, engineering my own performances and running back and forth to amplifiers to A/B tones without an extra set of hands & ears to assist, but I learned so much that I was then able to apply all of that to the ‘Ten & 2’ sessions when we employed the same methods. It was totally worth it. I’m also painfully impatient, and when I get my teeth into something, I have a hard time putting it down until it’s complete, so being able to essentially work at my own pace once the basic tracks were in place was a freedom I really appreciated. I can’t wait to do it again.
Going back to what you said about time, though, I’m very fortunate to be self-employed too and that allows me to make my own schedule, plus the flexibility to spend days on end labouring over these projects. Having a home studio to work in on a lot of the tracking doesn’t hurt either!
How do you differentiate between songs you’ve written for The Great Affairs and ones that end up released elsewhere?
Well, sometimes it’s just obvious, I guess. One of the great things about this band now is, having two lead singers, if I write something that requires a more throaty, rock n’ roll vocal…something maybe out of my range…it goes over to Kenny. He has the upper register and grit to knock it out of the park. Prior to him coming along, anything like that would be demoed up the best I could manage and chucked on the another time/another place pile. We forfeit far fewer songs now, thanks to him. Other times it’s just a matter of there being no need for new material because we’re between projects or whatever and the stuff just gets relegated to a back burner until we do need it for a new album, or somebody else asks me what I’ve got lying around gathering dust. Unless it’s something I’m intent on holding back for myself for personal reasons, the vault is pretty much fair game for looting.
Do you think some of it will see release as another Die Youngs record? ‘Nothing’s Broken’ is one of the best things you’ve ever written.
I remember you including that on a Real Gone year-end sampler once. Thanks again for that!
You’re welcome. We thought everyone should hear it!
Thanks… I don’t know if we’ll get around to another one of those projects any time soon, but Kenny makes sure to periodically remind me that we need to at least do an EP or something and we’ve come across a few tunes that might make fine contenders, should the right time present itself. I’d be open to it, for sure.
Earlier this year, The Great Affairs put out a covers EP. It must’ve been tough to decide on what to record for that…
That was Kenny’s baby. He loves doing stuff like that, so most of those selections were his call. We’d had Tom Petty’s ‘A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)’ in the live set for a while and Bob Seger’s ‘Rosalie’ had also been added some time after that. It was getting a great response, so that seemed like a no-brainer, and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well gave Patrick his first swing at a lead vocal on record, so that was a cool twist. We did it quick and cheap. It was actually really easy. I love the Don Henley tune [‘Heart of The Matter’] on there too, and Kenny sang the hell out of it.
Obviously, some of the tracks are obvious Great Affairs fodder – Bob Seger, Tom Petty – but how did you arrive at Enuff Z’Nuff? In their early years, especially, Chip & Donnie were fantastic songwriters.
Hands down, they’re one of my top ten bands of all time. I grew up just a couple of hours south of Chicago, so we’d see them all the time throughout the Midwest and I’ve shared the stage with them in several different bands over the years. In fact, we just played a show with them in Memphis in May. I always felt ‘Right By Your Side’ didn’t get the fair shake it deserved when it came out and I’d done acoustic versions of it on occasion at shows, just off-the-cuff stabs…never really properly learning it… For the EP, I worked up a more subdued arrangement, since I knew we couldn’t even begin to match the massive Richie Zito production of the original anyway and it came out pretty cool. I really love the pedal steel bits that Tony Paoletta added. They brought a little Nashville charm to the proceedings, I think.
Speaking of Enuff Z’Nuff, did you ever hear the covers recorded by Norwegian girl band The Tuesdays?
I have, yeah. I really liked their album they put out on Arista. The single ‘It’s Up To You’ was a total ear worm. I’m a sucker for hooks like those. I’m gonna have to dig that out today! My old band Best Of Seven actually did a studio cut of Baby Loves You with Donnie Vie for an Enuff Z’Nuff tribute record, back around 2003, I believe. I had just left the band and moved to Nashville, so I wasn’t actually involved, but it’s really cool version of the tune if you can find it. I’m sure it’s on YouTube somewhere. I was considering hitting Chip up to play on a track or two that I’ve been working on. They’ve got an ELO-type vibe and I love his approach to that kind of material. If I don’t have to sell a guitar to make it happen, I might solicit his services.
Ask him! What’s the worst that could happen?
I’ll probably reach out to him as the writing on this batch of songs progresses. I’ve been pretty prolific lately, with the weight of getting this album done and out off my back, so I wanna see where the muse leads me for a stretch. There’s no shortage of great, available bass players for hire in Nashville, but he’s got this thing that he does – kinda like Tom Petersson meets Paul McCartney – that really works for me. Fingers crossed. He’s a busy guy, but I’ll keep his number handy…
Although your main concern right now is promoting ‘Ten & 2’, what else can we expect from you in the near future?
I’m co-writing a record now for another artist where a buddy and I started from the ground up. We had a mission to capture the vibe of a certain era and marry it to some modern production values, with the guy’s voice and history in mind. That kinda thing is always a challenge but some very cool material has come from the work, so hopefully it’s been worth it.
That sounds interesting. Do you think it’ll be hugely different from your musical day job?
You’re a little more restricted usually, in terms of how far the artist wants to push certain boundaries. It’s not like an architect showing up for work and being told he has to pilot a 747 that day instead, but sometimes it can feel like it, depending on the genre you’re expected to traffic in. Co-writing is a tricky thing to manoeuvre, but actually crafting a song – or a batch of songs – to an artist’s specs can be daunting, especially when it’s a little outside your own wheelhouse. This current project is a little like time travel for me and I’m having to revisit approaches and writing techniques that I’ve gotten away from for a few years. That’s been equal parts frustrating and fun. It’s still pop/rock, for the most part, but with some 80s Hard Rock aesthetic applied…and even a little bit of the more Country-fied Bon Jovi element in the mix. That’s before cuts are made, though. Any of these tunes could get designated bound for the wood-chipper by the powers that be. That can be drag, because sometimes the “rejects” are your favorite tracks. If nothing else, it’s good exercise for the writing chops….or at least that’s what I tell myself…
The Great Affairs album ‘Ten & 2’ is out now.